Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Top Ten Live Performances of 2010

 photo by Jared Wafford

1. Old Crow Medicine Show, 9/10/2009-10 at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN. Technically this show began on January 31st, 2009, but I'm including it here because it was also technically the first show I attended in 2010.

A roadtrip to Nashville was our belated honeymoon vacation to ourselves, and we planned it around this show. It was our first time attending a concert at the historical, and beautiful  Ryman Auditorium, and boy did it deliver on it's promise more than I can say here. The performance by Old Crow was stellar, and I could not think of a better way than ringing in the New Year with good friends, and these guys as the house band. They're doing it again this year, and if they keep it up, I'm really hoping we can head down to Nashville again in 2014, and catch the boys on our 5th year anniversary.

2. Doc Watson, 7/31/2010 at the Newport Folk Festival, Fort Adams, Newport, RI.  Having been a fan of Doc's for some time, I have yet to make it down to Merlefest, or have had an opportunity to see him play before attending my first Newport Folk Festival. Doc's performance was one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to head to the festival this year, so my expectations were high.  Doc performed with David Holt, and the two men told stories, played songs, and entertained the tightly-squeezed in crowd under the tent-covered, smaller, second stage. I was shocked he was not scheduled for the main stage, but seeing Mr. Watson perform in a club-sized setting was equally surprising, as it was perfect. The true highlight for me was when Doc told a story about old fiddle tunes that he learned as a boy, and then launched into "Whiskey Before Breakfast". This tune was the first one I learned when I first picked up a mandolin and began learning how to play this year. Watching the legendary Doc Watson perform that song, of all of the traditional fiddle tunes he plays, was beyond inspiring to me. 

 photo courtesy of New West Records

3. Steve Earle/ Levon Helm, 11/26/10 at The Beacon Theatre, NYC. I passed my new father-in-law copies of Johnny Cash's Ain't No Grave and Helm's Dirt Farmer last spring, and a familial musical connection was born. So it was a no-brainer for me when I read that Levon Helm was going to be playing with none other than Mr. Steve Earle as his special guest, and that my wife and I just had to take her dad. I haven't seen Mr. Earle play since 2002, and I really did not know what to expect. His solo acoustic set spanned his career, and clearly represented why I am so drawn to his music, and still consider him one of my favorite songwriters. The Levon Helm band followed, and delivered a great revue-style show, running the gamit with tunes cultivating the blues, rock, jazz, and country. Mr. Helm and his band seemed to genuinely been having a ball, and judging from our seats in the bouncing and holler-filled balcony, so was everybody else.

photo by Shawn Brackbill

4. Bonnie Prince Billy & The Cairo Gang, 4/1/10 at the Monster Island Basement, Brooklyn, NY. Will Oldham (BPB) and Emmett Kelly (Cairo Gang) played three sold-out shows over the course of two nights at Monster Island Basement, which is nothing more than a dark basement of an industrial loft building by the waterfront in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Each performance was just the two men performing songs without microphones, amplifiers, or any of the usual staging you might expect at a live performance. The audience, about 200 people (200 tickets were sold for each show), sat cross-legged, and were squeezed in tightly on the filled floor. The crowd sat silently, and  watched and listened to only Oldham's voice matched with Kelly's acoustic guitar, as the two played a set filled largely of tunes from their album, Wonder Show Of  The World. The performance felt like a lesson in the traditions of oral history, as the two artists performed in the dark, cave-like space. It was one of the most intimate, rewarding, and intriguing performances I have ever seen, this year, or any other. 

 photo courtesy of death + taxes

5. Mark Lanegan & Isobel Campbell, 10/17/10 at Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY. Mr. Lanegan is quite a busy man. While he was a member of the Screaming Tress, as well as following the band's demise, Mr. Lanegan has released a prolific and excellent catalog of solo albums. He's also contributed to Josh Homme's Queens of The Stone Age, joined Greg Dulli as a Gutter Twin, worked on two albums by Soulsavers, and has found a partner in Ms. Campbell (x-Belle & Sebastian) for three albums of bluesy, gothic-americana. The duo delivered on the promise of their first US tour with this stop in Brooklyn. Mr. Lanegan stood in the shadows for the entire performance, conjuring his rich, mysterious baritone from the dark, while Ms. Campbell took the spotlight, and breathily exhaled her angelic whisper. The performance drew largely from their most recent album, Hawk, as well as some of the best tunes from the previous two albums they have cut together. It was a rare live performance from these two, and a gift that was not lost on anyone.

 photo courtesy of Pop Matters 

6. Dave Rawlings Machine, 6/3/10 at the Bowery Ballroom, NYC. I first saw The Dave Rawlings Machine, before A Friend Of A Friend was released, as part of The Big Surprise Show tour when it stopped at The Beacon Theatre last year. DMR joined Felice Brothers, Justin Townes Earle, and Old Crow Medicine Show for the tour. Although the smaller stage at Bowery Ballroom predominanty featured Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch this time around, they were joined by members of Old Crow and Punch Brothers, for a show that included many tracks from Friend Of A Friend. The evening's set also included some non-LP standouts such as the covers of "This Land Is Your Land" and "The Weight", as well as Gillian Welch's own "Look At Miss Ohio". Mr. Rawlings casully led the band throughout the night, even as many eyes were on Ms. Welch, seemingly awaiting her to take over lead vocals any minute. But this night belonged to the humble bandleader, who directed the performance effortlessly, which is no small feat standing beside the presence of Ms. Welch. With a wide grin and nimble fingers, Dave Rawlings delivered a memorable night of comfortable tunes that went down easy, and provoked many smiles too.

 photo by Eric Tsurumoto

7. Punch Brothers, 08/1/10 at the Newport Folk Festival, Fort Adams, Newport, RI. Chris Thile broke the top G string on his mandolin as the first few measures of the opening tune began. He didn't flinch, and remaining completely unfazed, led the other members of Punch Brothers through a masterful set of brilliant originals and surprisingly interpreted covers. The cover of "Reptilia" by The Strokes, got the place jumping and hollering, as did their own barreling composition, "Rye Whiskey". I have consistently have found myself listening to NPR's podcast of this performance from their coverage of the Newport Folk Festival since I got home from the show, and it makes a great companion piece to anyone who enjoys the band's brilliant Antifogmatic.

 photo by Lauren Goldberg

8. Magnetic Fields, 3/10/10 at Town Hall, NYC. Town Hall was silent. I mean SILENT for this show by The Magnetic Fields. I have never been to a live performance of any kind when the audience was this hushed and attentive to what was unfolding on stage. Stephen Merritt and Co. ran through the beautiful, funny, and sad songs from across the band's catalog. The group drew from their latest album, Realism, which translated much better live, as well as some favorites of mine from 69 Love Songs, among others. The last time I saw the Magnetic Fields, I was literally sitting in the very last row of the balcony in Town Hall, and it was amazing. So the chance to see another breathtaking show by the band, and to score some better seats this time around, did not take much contemplation. It was a beautiful evening of largely acoustic music, paired with the brilliant lyrics of Mr. Merritt, which was all respectively appreciated by the sold out hall of silent attendees.

 photo by Valerio Berdini

9. Pavement, 9/21/10 at Rumsey Field in Central Park, NYC. As far as all of the reunion shows of 90's bands that have been launched lately for big paychecks, or to see if anyone still remembers or cares, Pavement's return was the one I was most excited about. But it was also the show that scared me the most too. Having seen and enjoyed Pavement live back in the 90's, I've always treasured their albums and my coveted collection of b-sides that I scoured record stores for back in the day (which are now all included with the recent LP reissues). Classic albums and indie-slacker nostalgia aside, Pavement brought the goods for this performance at Central Park. They were tighter, more rehearsed, and clearly ready to meet expectations. The sloppiness of the 90's shows was replaced by a looseness and casual proficiency found on the classic albums, without coming across as merely a by-the-book re-enactment. It was a beautiful, clear night, and the band sounded great. I'm not going to fool myself  and think that this was anything but a cash-in for the band after years of rejecting ridiculously lucrative offers. I'm just glad that I got to see them one last time, before they disappeared for good.

 photo by evilive/M. Nunez

10. Danzig, 6/18/10 at the Nokia Theater, NYC. Guilty pleasures, reunion tours, and high school metalhead nostalgia aside, I have always, without apology or irony, stood by the first Danzig album. It is Glenn's finest hour, and thanks to Rick Rubin's brilliant production, it placed his distinctive vocals out in front, as opposed to burying them in some of the poor production found on the Misfits and Samhain albums. Not to take anything away from Danzig's glorious and historical past achievements, but with Danzig, Glenn arrived. So when tickets went on sale for Glenn's appearance in NYC, and after hearing some samples from Red Deth Sabaoth, and fondly remembering how I recently covered "Twist of Cain" as the drummer of an impromptu wedding band (called The Goomsmen no less) at my buddy's wedding, I knew it was time to check him out again live. Older, and thankfully wearing a shirt this time, along with his upside-down, cross-skull necklace, Glenn Danzig delivered his powerful Elvis-Morrison-Orbison- dark baritone over a set of bluesy-rock inspired metal. Totally worth the price of admission, for the music, the people watching, and to hear Glenn belt out classics such as "Thirteen", "Mother", and Twist of Cain".

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