Music makes an impression, creating space for silence within us. As a new decade looms on the horizon, revisiting the music that has touched that space inside me and still resonates is a trip. This year has been challenging, with the opportunity to complete a master’s degree at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC cutting into time at the writer’s desk.
Before the list begins, my background in arts and humanities ties some significant events together. John Schlesinger’s film Midnight Cowboy changed perceptions of sexuality, and Harry Nillson’s anthem “Everybody’s Talkin’” is inextricably linked to the film. The song served as a guidepost, defining generations trying to find themselves. I refuse to attempt to consider a rank for This is the Town (Vol. 2): A Tribute To Nilsson. This collection of covers showing the songwriter’s prolific genius is perfect. This deep dive into one of American music’s greatest catalogs is still available on limited edition orange vinyl via Royal Potato Family. It is worth a look for the holidays.
Moving forward, here are the artists and music that have kept me humming and contemplating the future of 2020. Thanks to my editor Stephen Carradini and all the readers of IC. Onward!
10. Liam Pitcher’s 2019 EP Sessions at Baxter Theatre in February led to the ten-album collection Improvisations. A daunting proposition to grasp, the South African pianist has made the entire work is available in Youtube playlists. “White”, from the first of ten volumes, resembles Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet The Nutcracker: delicate beauty airily drifting away with each note. Perfect holiday music. (Full disclosure: Lisa worked on the press campaign for Improvisations. -Ed.)
9. Instrumental geniuses The New Mastersounds shifted gears after years of being standouts in the funk-jazz space. I am a fan of taking risks in life for art’s sake, and the the jam-funk band’s addition of Lamar Williams, Jr. (son of Allman Brothers bassist Lamar Williams) as a soul singer provides a new depth and direction. Technically brilliant: Gibson-guitar-slinging Eddie Roberts, bassist Pete Shaud, and wannabe-comedian drummer Simon Allen had had a good thing going before this album, but the transformation occurred with Shake It! I call stellar.
8. How is it that A Poison Melody is so sweet? Curtis Eller’s American Circus throws down a full orchestration of his view of the world, complete with banjo and brass. Stunning seems trite when considering this politically charged statement set to music. Eller and his band create simply defiant artistry. Charged with an energy that is part of the chaos of our times, the music winds through generations of social and political struggle in a jazz-blues fusion.
7. Jacob Faurholt’s Shake Off the Fear was my first dip into the waters of this songwriter’s perspective. One of the greatest joys of writing for IC is being exposed to global music, and Jacob’s prolific musical projects are a perfect example. Authentic themes and raw emotions translate easily through the music despite the fact that Faurholt’s home is in Denmark. He is a vocalist whose stylistic choices mirror Mick Jagger with shadows of Kurt Cobain.
6. With My Finest Work Yet, Andrew Bird delivers lush textures linked to lyrical tone and direct messages wrapped in Greek tragedy. With imagery tied directly to the ills of today’s human condition, Bird’s art is a vehicle to call out the truth as he sees it. What a gift, as listeners are able to be live from SXSW in this video of my favorite cut, “Cracking Codes”. Great art is a reflection of the chaos of the time in which we live, for sure.
5. John Paul White’s The Hurting Kind, the troubadour follow up to his 2016 solo record Beulah, is nothing short of genius. Echos of Roy Orbison and a host of collaborations ooze through the crystalline vocals. Transformational, this album still haunts me at times, in the way memories of that one special sunset still linger, imprinted on my soul. Hear some of it at his Paste Session.
4. Uniquely creative, Charming Disaster’s Spells + Rituals carries the rock opera torch forward from The Decemberists’ 2009 release The Hazards of Love. Ellia Bisker (vocals, ukulele, piano, music box, glass jars, percussion) and Jeff Morris (vocals, guitar, piano, ratchet set, canned air, percussion) in eleven songs create a poetic rock opera set to a cacophony emerging from the gothic folk genre. The pair of Brooklyn musicians are involved in many great projects, most recently Bisker in Funkrust Brass Band’s Bones and Burning.
3. The Wood Brothers’ Live at the Fillmore changed my mind about live records. I always felt like I’d missed out on something when listening to a live record. However, this album brought the vibe of the historic venue into the resonance of each recorded note. The room’s warmth merged with the lush strings and blended with rich Wood Brothers harmonies like fine wine. Though I have never have been to the historic Fillmore in San Francisco, I will go there someday. Until then, I look forward to experiencing The Wood Brothers live at Phoenix’s Crescent Ballroom on March 4, 2020.
2. Okay, now we are closing the door in 2019. The possibilities of change are before us. Seth Walker said such simple truths that it should be easy to hear them. I had heard of his music but not been exposed to the blend of jazz and Cuban vibes thrown into a New Orleans jambalaya of sound. “Are You Open?” from his album of the same name, released through Royal Potato Family, eases us all into a new way of thinking about the meaning of opening up. Filmed at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis, Indiana, this authentic clip of film is a testament to truth.
1. Grover Anderson’s album The Frontman should remind us all of what life is like from the stage. What is that stage? Here it is a small-town view of bigger issues. Anderson crafts imagery through stunning lyricism like the town cryer. The words are a crafty thing, the elusive melodies wrapped around notes and measures. His beautiful, haunting melodies are rich with instrumentation.
Closing out 2019, here’s a list of the best live music I was blessed to catch in my wanderings throughout the year. All include links to the artist, some are for the shows being mentioned.
Some live video is from the rich Phoenix, Arizona music scene. A few are performances from my current favorite music festival: Quincy, California’s High Sierra Music Festival, which is celebrating its 30th year this summer season. Next year I hope to add the Tuscany Songwriters Festival, Italy’s newest retreat for musicians to encourage global collaborative artistry, to the list.
Blessings for peace, health, and prosperity for you and yours in the new year.
1. Midnight North was tapped by Rolling Stone as the Best New Act in 2018 and is my pick for the Best Live Act in 2019. Midnight North features Grahame Lesh and Elliot Peck equally sharing the spotlight. This clip includes guest Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz helping to create a moment only live performances and show finales create. (Grahame Lesh is son of Phil Lesh, best known as founding member of The Grateful Dead.)
2. Matt Lorenz, also known as The Suitcase Junket, has toured across the world with his one-man-band. I was exposed to his live performance while at High Sierra. This stripped-down performance from New York’s Cellar Sessions of my favorite song “Dreamless Life” is worth including here as a taste of the talented songwriter and musician’s work.
3. Decker. and his band are local staples and touring troubadours whose songwriting talents have led to being part of the Royal Potato Family. Their live performances are spiritual experiences, an invitation to embrace the energy exchange charging the air. “The Garden” is my personal favorite of the decker. music catalog, recorded at the Greetings All Ye Playful Prisoners of Spacetime release show at Last Exit Live.
4. Having experienced Nahko and Medicine for the People at festivals in the past, the vibe shift that occurred with the songs on his upcoming release Take Your Power Back profoundly struck a chord. Hitting a blend of hip-hop and reggae, the live video closing a show at The Van Buren in Phoenix explains why Nahko’s “Dear Brother” is on this list.
5. St. Paul and The Broken Bones blew my mind the first time I caught a video of “Live Without You” and “Broken Bones & Pocket Change” on YouTube. Needless to say, every chance I have to see this church of Alabama Soul live, I will be there! The resurgence of Sixties soul blended with jazz is an integral essence of the throwback groove.