Pop/rock: Some of the oldest names in music delivered some of the best shows
“Twerk”-jerks and other no-talent narcissists nabbed the nation’s attention at the TMZ (i.e., low) level, but classic- and country-rockers ruled our big box offices here, while hot homegrown acts (Sean Rowe, Phantogram and more) climbed out of our club scene to go national.
True, we saw some first-class funk (George Clinton!), folk (Pete Seeger!), world-beat (Vieux Farka Toure!), blues (Duke Robillard!), Celtic (Solas!), hip-hop (Big Daddy Kane!) and jams (Gov’t Mule!) and hybrids of all kinds. Phish played three times, 31⁄2 counting Trey Anastasio’s solo gig. And many other top draws first emerged decades ago: John Fogerty, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, Little Feat, Eric Burdon, Dr. John, Rush, REO Speedwagon, Styx, Johnny Mathis, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Renaissance, Alice Cooper, and Bob Dylan.
For every Passion Pit, Over the Rhine or Silverstein, or every Kendrick Lamar or Lil Wayne, we saw parades of veteran acts. And we saw caravans of country including Jason Aldean, Zac Brown, Miranda Lambert, Dierks Bentley, Kenny Chesney and The Band Perry. That said, some of the oldest names in music/showbiz also played some of the finest shows, as Gazette reviewers Michael Hochanadel and Dave Singer list in their 10 concert picks. Hochanadel also picks his 10 top albums.
The Top 10 Pop, Rock and Blues Shows (Chronologically):
Marshall Crenshaw at the Van Dyck, Schenectady (Jan. 12). He had a cold, so he was afraid to try some songs. Nobody might have noticed, partly because he soldiered on without cracking or gasping, and partly because the songs are so cool. Crenshaw’s tunes didn’t do ironic distance despite 1950s-style guys-and-girls romanticism. He’s still a romantic, with both bruises and bravado. (Hochandel)
Trey Anastasio at Proctors, Schenectady (Jan. 26). Trey Anastasio’s solo goals are very different than with his main band Phish. This show offered excellent musicianship with a large band that cooked with energy. Horns brought a bright sound as Anastasio pulled off very contemporary, future-looking grooves that were sometimes straight and powerful, sometimes slanted a bit to Latin or reggae feels, but always cool and always sounding real good. No one else makes sounds like this band — because Anastasio has vision and the ability and status to take risks on the road. Hopefully, he continues this project when not playing with Phish. (Singer)
Cowboy Junkies at The Egg’s Hart Theater, Albany (March 2). They dream-rocked on a beautifully noisy night as Enter the Haggis rocked The Egg’s Swyer Theater with an Irish accent and Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley played country in the Times Union Center. Cowboy Junkies re-created their 1988 breakthrough album “The Trinity Sessions.” While the original relied far more on Margo Timmins’ voice then (when she had way less of it than now) the band has also developed different and stronger sounds over time. This super-subtle, supernaturally soft-spoken band also revved its rockers for powerful contrast. (Hochandel)
NRBQ at the Ale House, Troy (April 18). NRBQ gave the packed Ale House no choice: You had to dance. Fans front, back and both sides bounced, so you bounced, too. Then there was the beat. NRBQ’s patented power glide bop cooked rock, rockabilly, blues, zydeco, hard- or sweet-country and jazz. As always when NRBQ really nails it, they messed with space and time: You had no idea what hour it was, but you felt about 19. Pianist Terry Adams shaped the show song by song, starting a riff and everybody else instantly jumping aboard. (Hochandel)
Farm Aid on Sept. 21 at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (Sept. 21). Farm Aid takes place every year somewhere in America. The 28th edition attracted 25,000 people to SPAC and had all the energy and surprises you would expect from Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Jack Johnson, a surprise appearance by Pete Seeger to sing with all the above on stage, plus dozens of others. With powerful music and the politics mixed as one, the day felt special and etched into permanent memory for tens of thousands of people. (Singer)
Richard and Teddy Thompson at The Egg (Swyer), Albany (Sept. 28). Richard Thompson said: “That was nothing!” and “It’s all easy stuff” after dazzling guitar solos. He lied. Based in British and Celtic folk and rocking, but with no blues references at all, his hybrid picking style — down with thumb or finger pick, up with fingers — formed two or three lines at once. Sometimes overlooked on record where ears seek guitar solos, his voice packed hard-earned authority onstage. Putting son Teddy on as opener wasn’t nepotism at all. (Hochandel)
Syd Straw at WAMC’s The Linda, Albany (Oct. 5). She became every song she sang, in an oblique, totally transparent experience. “It only feels like there’s 17 minutes between songs,” she said in one free-association torrent, and she sometimes used humor as armor over the pain powering many of her songs. In emotionally deep late tunes — she didn’t leave, so it wasn’t an encore — Straw was a devastating ballad singer with great, completely accessible emotion powering an exceptional voice. She sometimes played guitar, sometimes not; but whenever she sang, it was always extraordinary. (Hochandel)
Brian Wilson/Jeff Beck at the Palace, Albany (Oct. 8). Classic rock’s odd couple hosted a hot double date. Wilson with fellow Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Marks and nine others sounded magnificent, an enormous, driving roar of massed instruments propelling equally massive voices. Beck blew away any doubts that this strange pairing could work with sheer, tremendous power — a towering display of guitar mastery and small-band dynamics, five pieces to Wilson’s 12. The actual songs seldom mattered: what Beck did with each invariably did. (Hochandel)
John Fogerty at the Times Union Center, Albany (Nov. 10). Revisiting long-neglected classic Creedence Clearwater Revival songs — most clocked in around three minutes — Fogerty created complete rock ’n’ roll worlds in each. Fogerty’s booming, swampy voice — he favored New Orleans inflections even in non-New Orleans songs — showed a few cracks, but his (even swampier!) guitar playing was seamless. It was strong, subtle and inventive. He worked every song hard, as if, at 68 and a member of every hall of fame possible, he still has something to prove. (Hochandel)
Los Lobos at The Egg (Hart), Albany (Dec. 3). They rocked like the rock stars they never really tried to be. Their tunes spanned the four decades of their career. And while they omitted “La Bamba,” the crowd was too fulfilled at the end of the show to notice. Not many bands can maintain their ethnic roots. But really, in the end, take away that Tex-Mex flavor and their unassuming stage presence, and you get a rocking East L.A. garage band. They had everyone on their feet bumping to their raw sounds. (Singer)
— Michael Hochanadel and David Singer
Michael Hochanadel’s albums of the year
Top 10 Albums (Listed alphabetically)
Arcade Fire “Reflektor” — Big, BIG sounds from this elastic band that has added funk to their wide-screen ambitions. They combine the proud oddity of Of Montreal (which hails from Georgia while Arcade Fire is from Montreal) with the ambition of the Polyphonic Spree, crafting songs full of muscle and meaning.
Robert Glasper Experiment “Black Radio Pt. 2” — One of the finest and most diverse albums this year, this street-smart and very New York music is tirelessly brilliant and kaleidoscopic. The variety comes as much from Glasper’s omnivorous musical reach (actualized by his compact core group) as from many guest voices. It’s jazz, it’s pop, it’s totally great.
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell “Old Yellow Moon” — They’ve sung together since the 1970s, and they really know how. Harris always sings at her best with a partner: It turns out that Crowell does, too, on these deep-country duets. Full disclosure: My brother Jim Hoke plays on this.
Jason Isbell “Southeastern” — The former Drive By Trucker drives his own truck now on solo albums. He cruises down Dixie dirt roads as country-rocking as his former bandmates do, but that’s just his sound. His words face down deeper, harder truths than most songwriters have the courage to try. His jeans-and-flannel voice carries you there.
Jose James “No Beginning No End” — James has a soft, sweet supple voice that stands up well to the beefy, muscular pop-jazz around him, anchored by Robert Glasper and the boys but also featuring light-stepping horns. Call it “world-jazz” — music with tasty international echoes from all over.
Laura Mvula “Sing to the Moon” — Nothing short of epic, this introduces a creative force as accomplished as she is inventive. The melodies, tuned-percussion-heavy arrangements and vocal beauty make the music feel familiar; but it’s full of surprises as when cozy riffs take majestic flight or vast structures glide through a needle’s eye.
Phoenix “Bankrupt!” — This Paris pop group knows how to cook up the beef under the synthesizer cheese for a fat cheeseburger with both sizzle and substance. The melodies make you listen, the beats boost you up off the couch and the words get you last, but they’ll get you.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band “That’s It” — New Orleans traditional jazz (called Dixieland everywhere else) was the first music I ever loved, and I fell in love with it again when I saw these guys play Bonnaroo. As players come and go — clarinetist/saxophonist Charlie Gabriel is past 80 but still playing strong — leader Ben Jaffe preserves the rumba, the riffs and the rollicking spirit of this ageless, joyful music.
Queens of the Stone Age “. . . Like Clockwork” — No, not mechanical at all. It’s bloody, muddy, messy and mighty — hard rock, old school. After sabbaticals with other bands, Josh Homme came home with fresh energy and fire. Riff-force trauma.
Vampire Weekend “Modern Vampires of the City” — Confident and cool, these four hyper-educated New York rockers reach further than ever and get there in every song, listening to and learning from every sound in their city. This is as New York as Glasper’s album and nearly as good.
— Michael Hochanadel