Thursday, December 31, 2015

The BESTY's 2015

Looking back on another fine year of live music in The Bay area and the greater Redwood Empire is always a fun task; this year I narrowed my list of favorite concerts down to a top 10. I also left a smidgen of room for another type of live entertainment. Live art is a weighty gift to give to the public. There are very few forms of expression that are consumed in a live setting. Rare is the open studio of a visual artist before they reveal their secrets to the world. The public only sees the marble sculptures of masters once they're place in the city fountains. The Sistine chapel wasn't witnessed by the commoner until finished. Music, on the other hand, has always warmed us with its organic interaction. This annual recollection of live music is a small token of my appreciation to those who have honed, and in turn, shared their craft. In chronological order, The BESTY's are...

Father John Misty at The Veterans Memorial Ballroom in Sonoma | January17th
Mr. Tillman was fearless and engaging as he unleashed his persona in Sonoma. In doing so he captured the audience with his art and his energy—Honeybear sprang to life inside the Memorial Ballroom. Father John and his Wilco-esque band quilted an elaborate sound around the showman's, or should I say shaman's, lyrical story telling. This intimate live setting allowed for those of us in attendance to hear the music of I Love You Honeybear before it had even released. Playing it safe doesn't seem to be the MO of this outfit. Highlights of the night were a three song bender that included, "Fun Times In Babylon," Now I'm Learning to Love the War," and "Holy Shit." This trio in the set list charted new territory on a night that was entirely captivating. For more details on one of the best shows of the year click here.

Elvis Perkins at The Chapel | May 16th
This show at The Chapel had a familial warmth to it, due to the combination of the venue and the artist. Elvis began with, "Good Friday," a heartfelt ode to his grandmother who had just passed that same day. Throughout the early stages of the set I could not help but be drawn in by the wizardry of the keys. Mitchell Robe was a scientist, adding the exact amount of whatever was needed in order to create an atmosphere that compliments the vocals. An early highpoint for me was a track from Dearland, "Hey." This offering was pretty rocking and showcased Mr. Perkins vocal prowess. The last song of the set was "Shampoo," a poetic reminder of how others may cause us pain. He would reemerge for an encore. "All Today," was the final song of the night; its words asking the grandest of questions, giving hope to the idea of unending love. For more on this concert click here

JP Harris and The Tough Choices at Cloverdale | June 19th
Real country that blisters the live concert-goer, while simultaneously reminding me of the sounds I would hear from my grandpa's old Ford truck, are almost too good to be true. Thank god for JP Harris and the organizers of Cloverdale's Friday night market. This weekly ritual makes for an amazing start to the weekend for those of us who live near enough. This gang of country ramblers is a modern-day throwback to when country sounded country—none of that fake-ass country-pop BS you find on the radio now-a-days. A night filled with dancing and yee-hawing is always a night worth being a part of. His timeless voice moves to the front, as pedal steel and subtle, yet spot on drumming, add texture to these country tales of life. When any age can listen to your music and find enjoyment, you've probably found something worth listening to. Rolling Stone named this act one of the tours not to miss. Free concerts are a good thing, this one was great. Twenty songs for the price of the beer you brought ain't bad. George Jones would be proud. And I walked away with a new LP.

Houndmouth at The Great American Music Hall | June 23rd
We partied like it was my birthday, because it was. A little band from Indiana called Houndmouth is ready to take over if only we give them a chance. The closest cocktail I can blend to give credence to their sound would be a mix of The Band with a good bit of Prince. Pretty high praise for a group that has released two albums. They play rock and roll, etched by skilled musicianship, sharing the vocal duties among all members. Early on in the set I was floored by "Palmyra" and "Casino (Bad Things)." They pretty much assaulted the audience with fiery guitar riffs and ample bass lines. The lead guitarist is on par with anyone, he makes it look effortless while sounding new. "Sedona" was a hit with the California crowd and a personal favorite of mine. The penultimate song of the night was a heater. "Say It" was an all out display of what guitar-driven rock can sound like when the lyrics are cared for and the music is fiery. The would encore with a few more, ending with the classic, "Runaround Sue." Not bad for a young and talented band that is sure to make more sweet music. For a more comprehensive review click here.

Sister Sparrow and The Dirty Birds at Cloverdale | July 3rd
When new artists not only win the audience over, but move the crowd, you know it was a good. This Blues-infused, rock and roll outfit has since garnered a fair amount of praise. I'd like to think I saw Sister Sparrow before they blew up. Two full sets of free music set amidst the friendly confines of Cloverdale became a summer habit. I highly recommend making your way there this next summer, their line-up was outstanding. The Dirty Bird harmonica player was a demon, he could have been the band leader and at times, he was. A Trumpet and sax add a soulful flavor to the sound—think of Motown horns with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, then add a female vocalist who can give it. "Sugar," from the album, The Weather Below, lead into a cover of, "Way You Make Me Feel," keeping the crowd moving and hungry for more. The first set ended with the high energy, "Too Much."

The Second set was a nonstop rug-cutter; everyone was dancing, stomping, hootin' and hollerin'. "Freight Train," stood out among the first block of songs. The barn burner of the night however was a roaring cover of Tom Petty's, "You Don't Know." They extended it with a searing exchange between the guitarist and the harmonica ace. This was one of the best free shows I've ever attended. We left that night with a buzz and a new piece of vinyl. You can't Clover if you don't Dale.

Shovels & Rope at Lagunitas | July 6th

These two know how to do it. I've been on their bandwagon for quite some time now. This wonderful duo is also a couple. They were expecting their first child at the time and this was their final gig before taking a leave for the little one. Sonoma county doesn't F around. Between Lagunitas and Cloverdale, there's not much of a need to leave the county for live music, at least during the summer months.

Shovels & Rope opened up on the organ and behind the kit, staggering the audience with the repeated lyrics, "I can see it comin'." (Title track to Swimmin' Time) Changing instruments often keeps their sound fresh, but make no mistake, they have their own sound. A six pack of songs in, they sounded like a stripped-down garage rock outfit. Raw, just drums and guitar, it felt fun to hear them rock. The next song marked the seventh of the evening and it was then that it hit me, they sing to each other. Their love for one another gleams from the stage.

Now she is seated at the organ for, "Devil is All Around," the first track from the previously mentioned album. Following each story, was the next story; Gators Boys and Half an Eyelid, these descriptors allow for cinematic images to pop into view. "Birmingham," kept us all suspended, baited for the next turn, the next lyrical path. They just give it and that feels good. Following the gospel was "Thresher," another timeless song that creaks in old time ways. Rounding out the mega set was the swampy reverb of, "Evil," a searing Chuck Berry number dedicated to his dad, and an all-time, "Bad Luck." My partner in crime was killing it on the dance floor. Brews and dusty shoes were in abundance.

Encores come in all shapes and sizes. Two songs was more than enough to assuage the beer-fed crowd. Swimmin' Time was the story book that many of these tales came from. Two people can do more. Their family is expanding and they ended the night with, "Who's Gonna Raise These Babies?" Sometimes wisdom knows no bounds. If you're wise at all, you'll get shoveled & roped.

St. Paul and The Broken Bones at Lagunitas | August 10th
California was lucky to have some Alabama in the house. The Broken Bones built a crescendo for St. Paul to walk out into. Collectively they raise the bar, moving between fast paced, to slow and soulful. Having snagged a set list I can tell you that they played an amazing rendition of Sam Cooke's, "Shake." They would sandwich in two of their own songs before dropping jaws on Wilson Picket's, "Ninety-Nine and A Half (Won't Do)." It was so hyped inside the mini-amphitheater. I was not the only one getting down. A few tracks later the front man clarified that, "One song per night I'm gonna take your ass to church." His sermon took form in, "It's Midnight." The main set came to a close with a Tom Waits cover, "Make it Rain." The diversity of the set was brought to life in new ways.

When unveiling an encore of three songs by three totally different artists, it can go one of two ways; super rad or super bad. The Broken Bones were not going to let us down as they navigated Bowie's, "Moonage Daydream," Otis Redding's, "I've Been Loving You," and The Beatles, "I want You (She's So Heavy)." Drop the mic! The Broken Bones are soaked in soul and the stained glass of St. Paul shines brightly. If only more preachers would hold a service like this. For a bit more on the performance click here.

Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats at The Chapel | September 9th
I was so damn hyped for this show. It was one of those times when I knew we were ahead of the curve. Now they're selling out multi-night runs at The Fillmore. They kicked things off with a rousing, "I Need Never," fulfilling my initial needs with some country-fried soul. The next couple of tracks took off with a sound that was more robust. This eight piece outfit was loosening up as the hum of the organ began to swell. "Howlin at Nothing" began with a slower, grimier feeling—growing later into a sonic beast that resembled New Orleans. This is my favorite song from their self-titled debut album. Next came a saloon-style party number by the name of, "I've Been Failing." The Night Sweats toned it down for a couple tunes, maybe so we could catch our breath. Neil Diamond would have been proud during "Thank You." The entire band picked it up on this number and never let off the gas. Nathaniel was giving it his all and sounding good while doing so. "S.O.B." came in like a missile we were all expecting, except how do you prepare for a missile? The crowd started chanting, the old Chapel seemed to quake, it was a rock and roll reckoning. The energy was palpable as they heaved bomb after bomb. The hook began to transform into another familiar song. Moments later we were all shell-shocked by the classic Band offering, "The Shape I'm In." The words were slicing into me, cutting away any inhibition that was still clinging to me. The Chapel had become church. Anytime you bust out The Band it best be fire, and this was an incinerator of flames. They would exit the stage, leaving the congregation in a sweaty upheaval. As the minutes passed you could sense the need for their return. Sure enough, they marched back out and blasted right into where they had left off. The "Shape" eventually morphed back into "Son of Bitch," eviscerating any doubt as to how hot the Night Sweats can get.  Click here for more.

My Morning Jacket at The Masonic | October 17th
They're at the top of the food chain and perhaps the best rock band in America. My Morning Jacket never fails to impress. When Jim James saunters onto the stage wearing a Darth Vader-like robe with a mini Moog dangling around his neck like Flavor Flave's clock, you know shit's gonna go off. 

Bass bombs and reverb lead the way on the opener, "Victory Dance." A heated "Compound Fracture" came before the first highlight of the night, "Evil Urges." Next, James began to goad us with his instrument-like vocals on "The Way That He Sings." The Jacket funked it up a bit on "I'm amazed," before exiting the stage, leaving Jim and Tom as a duo. They would go on to create a haunting "Hillside Song," aided by Blankenship's nifty pedal steel work. They maintained the stripped-down vibe with, "Where to Begin." This was the country western portion of the show and I loved it. 

There was a roller coaster feeling to the set. It was not built upon the idea of continued momentum, aiming for a final crescendo. The Jacket seemed willing to take us where they wanted to go. They were the captains of the ship, we were along for the ride. "Master Plan," took us on a guitar shredding bender before a ballad-like rendition of "Steam Engine." Jim would pace the Masonic stage, nomadic yet with purpose. He covered is lion's mane with the hood of his cape, a signal of something to come. "Lay Low," leapt from his voice like a roar across the plains. I had hoped to hear this gift and thankfully it showed itself on the only night we attended. Near the end of the set the band  welcomed out Eric Johnson of the Fruit Bats, who had opened the show and played quite well. With an additional vocalist onstage My Morning Jacket dug deep into their quiver of tricks, pulling out a golden arrow. We all marveled, and many of us roared, at the cover they chose, "Oh! Sweet Nuthin." It was unexpected and Lou Reed would have been proud. The Waterfall tour was primarily focused on their own material. Covers had been almost nonexistent throughout most of their shows. I guess the third night of a three night run in San Francisco tends to bring out the best. Bringing the set to rest was "Run Thru." The It Still Moves song was a gas guzzling rock opera that knew only one speed. 

The Jacket would return for a five song encore. "Wordless Chorus" got us going again and gave me new energy. The ensuing tracks were an unbroken version of, "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream part 1 & 2." Hearing those two songs bridged by a live jam was stellar. They kept the throw down going with a filthy "Cobra." Only one song remained and many of those who had attended multiple nights seemed to know what was coming. In a night that felt like I was in Gotham, the dark knight and his vigilantes granted us "One Big Holiday." Spectacular spectacular. For more on the Jacket click here.

War of the Worlds | Graton | October 30th
A more-than-honorable mention needs to go out to the Pegasus Theater Co. of Sonoma County. Their reenactment of War of the Worlds was phenomenal. They produced a two week run of shows at the Graton Community Center that was engaging and creative. They took inspiration from the original broadcast, as well as from some of the reported news from the era. We attended the opening night on the Friday before Halloween, which happened to be the exact anniversary (77 years) of the authentic radio broadcast. The small cast and live Foley artist were so good. Thanks for a truly magical night.

Ron Thompson and his Resistors at the Tomales Town Hall | October 31st
We may as well have been cast for the reboot of Back to the Future because this show was an all-out assault of 50's rock, set amongst the confines of a sleepy town in foggy west Marin. There were plenty of blues-steeped riffs cascading within the Town Hall. Built in 1874, this idyllic community post is one of the oldest, continuously used public spaces in California. We live just a hop, skip and a jump away.

Ron is a master keyboardist with an penchant for rhythm and blues guitar work. He cut his teeth back in the 70's playing East San Francisco bars. He is most well known for his long tenured touring with John Lee Hooker. Not only was he the band leader for Hooker, Thompson has played with the likes of Tina Turner, Booker T., Etta James and B.B. King.

On this magical Halloween night we met up with a dear friend and could not have been happier with our choice of fiendish festivities. Not only was this a costume party with a full bar and a spread of munchies, the likes of which I have never seen at a concert, it was a benefit for the building. Good causes and ghoulishly good times are too good to be true, or are they? We went as vampires, freshly turned to the dark side. I didn't know every song he played that night, which was refreshing, but they all felt familiar. The standards he was sharing are America. It is the realization that our Nation's historic and artistically rich music will always stand the test of time. It's honesty will be unflappable. That's what he and his Resistors gave us for Halloween, it was all treat, no trick.

Here are some of the facts I do remember as we danced our vampire asses off. During a lengthy first set he played an infectious "Hand Jive," sang the words to "Suzy Q" over the riffs of what sounded like, "Smokestack Lightning," and played a ripping song that resembled, "Who Do You Love." At the start of the second set Ron welcomed to the stage a local harp player, who had some chops, or should I say pipes? The high point of this set for me was another tune that had a riff similar to "Heartbreak Hotel." Set number three got under way with an awesome, "Boom Boom," a classic from John Lee Hooker. They rocked pretty hard for a bit and then went back to songs that were straight out of the greatest jukebox. Standards such as, "She's Some Kind of Wonderful," "Baby, Please Don't Go," and "Oh Well," were just blasting us with good old fashioned rock and roll. As the hits kept coming I hoped secretly that they would play all night, or at least until we dropped. Eventually the night did come to an end musically, as Ron and his Resistors wailed away at the timeless track, "Rumble." Link Wray first recorded this fuzzed out song in '58. Pulp Fiction helped to reintroduce this gem of reverb back into the world. Some say it's the first song cut to wax to use reverb. At the end of this personal motion picture we were fortunate enough to meet Ron as he needed help loading up his gear. I was more than willing to help out. Agent M. and I thanked him for coming to our sleepy little neck of the woods. He too seemed thankful. We had all been bitten. 

Mr. Salty's stomp of approval goes to Father John Misty, Houndmouth, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, My Morning Jacket, and Ron Thompson with his Resistors. The last two rocked and He loved rockin' out. The Roo ratings will always have a home on the BESTY's. Thanks to all the musicians, Agent M. and Pip, for filling this year with fun.

Happy New Year,



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