Thursday, January 1, 2015

Kurt's Favorite Music of 2014

As always, my year-end music post is not about what was "best." I don't really believe in the notion of "best." There's only what I like and what you like. So consider this simply my favorites from 2014.

Gary Clark Jr.
I saw more great live music this year then in any single year before, including a number of acts I've loved for years but have never seen live, people like up and coming bluesman Gary Clark Junior, who offered a soulful, sometimes blistering performance proving that he's worthy of all the hype (sample: When My Train Comes In). And the indie-folk rock act with Michigan roots, Lord Huron (sample: She Lit A Fire), presented a rousing show, focused around their brilliant 2012 album Lonesome Dreams. I also saw Ryan Adams for the first time this year with good friends Matt & Kelli Yates. I’ve been a huge fan of Adams since the 1997 Whiskeytown album, Strangers Almanac, Adam's first band. I worried that it might be a spotty show because of his legendary moodiness onstage, but he presented a broad cross-section of his solo career, managing to hit crowd favorites, his own pet favorites, and promote a new album all in one evening (sample: Kim)

On last year's list I noted that Jason Isbell’s album Southeastern was my favorite album of 2013. Music critics are now calling that album a songwriters primer, as good a lesson as any for aspiring young songwriters on the crafting of a wide variety of country-based music. I saw Isbell twice this year. First, in an hour-long set at the Forecastle festival in Louisville. It amounted to a quick, but enjoyable rundown of highlights from his career, starting with Drive-by Truckers material and including a quick list of every song an Isbell fan would demand from a best-of album. But I saw him two months later at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and that show was something different entirely - one of my favorite concert experiences of all time.

Paul Janeway holding forth!
The show was opened by St. Paul & the Broken Bones, an act I'd never heard. The band took the stage and played an instrumental blues strut that felt like a warm up. It was. When lead singer Paul Janeway came on stage at the start of the second song, about a third of the audience went crazy – the only proportion of the crowd that knew what we were in for. Janeway is white, short, chubby, balding, was wearing big black glasses, a black suit and sparkling gold slippers. Hardly the model of a blues frontman. But when he grabbed the mike and opened his mouth it was like a bomb went off! A bomb made of blues, soul and gospel. By the time St. Paul worked through a 40 minute set of original soul and R&B tunes, the church pews of the Ryman were empty because everyone was on their feet. That was perhaps the most unexpected pleasure of an unknown opening act I have ever experienced. I enjoyed it so much, friend John Norton and I scored some free street-corner tickets six days later to see them at the Vogue on Halloween. Another inspiring show. If you want to check them out, I suggest a live recording. I find their only studio album a pale shadow of their live show. Try this recording from a show at Indy's Radio Radio last May: (sample: Dixie Rothco)

A little spice was added to the evening when I found myself standing in the bar line between acts chatting with John Paul White of the Grammy Award-winning duo, The Civil Wars. We agreed that St. Paul kicked ass, that Tanqueray was our preferred gin and that Pyramid was an admireable IPA. He signed some autographs, but I didn't ask for one, because at that moment I didn't realize who he was. I like The Civil Wars, just never paid attention to what that male singer looked like. It was for the best. I’d have probably acted like a damn fool if I’d known.

Isbell did a two and a half hour show that reminded me why he’s my favorite Americana songwriter. He stretched out, presenting a deeper, more confident retelling of his career than during the Forecastle show, hitting emotional highlights, dedicating songs to his wife who was on stage backing him on violin, and various family members, including his parents and extended family, all of whom where in the audience that night. Touching highlights included CoverMe Up, the autobiographical “couple’s skate,” as Isbell put it, about the redemption found falling in love with his wife while he also battling his addition to alcohol, and Outfit, a song he wrote about his father.

In 2014 I also saw The Replacements, Band of Horses, Ray Lamontagne, Nickel Creek, The Avette Brothers, Boy & Bear, and Dwight Yoakam. The all out goofy-fun concert highlight of my year was Beck’s Sunday night headlining finale of Forecastle festival. With the city lights of Louisville behind us and the Ohio river and its bridges as a backdrop, Beck ran through a dazzling marathon of a show that would be perfect should he ever find himself a Vegas headliner. Pure joy!

My favorite album of the year was The War on Drug’s Lost In The Dream. My favorite albums aren’t necessarily filled with hits, but those that take you somewhere new, that feel like a specific aural location, a little musical vacation. It opens with mechanical clicking and scratching, backed by a floating guitar in Under The Pressure, suggesting a techno album, but an insistent, bouncing guitar line arrives and pulls you through a trippy groove. Though intensely atmospheric, it’s essentially a guitar album, with a Springsteen-meets-Echo And the Bunnymen number like, An Ocean Between The Waves, and the plaintive slow groove of the title track Lost In The Dream. If you didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand the lyrics, you’d still hear yearning, desire and longing in every track; some triumphant, some aching.

Running a close second for my favorite album of 2014 is Beck’s Morning Phase, a truly atmospheric, almost orchestral collection of songs that at times feels like a mash-up of Beck and Enya. But considering I like Enya, that’s fine with me. Spreading out my blanket to watch his show at Forecastle, I wondered how he would headline the festival's final party while still promoting this often somber new album. Wise man – he didn’t even try. Perhaps the only song he played from Morning Phase was the upbeat Blue Moon. While I've always enjoyed and often admired Beck in bits and pieces, I'd never been a huge fan. But I'm a huge fan now.

Songs of Honorable Mention:

Sturgill Simpson: Turtles All The Way Down 
This brilliant tune came to me recently from my son Jack. It's a quirky, spiritual manifesto set to '70s-era country, complete with strings. The psychedelic video, linked here, is a delight!

Hozier: From Eden  
This Irish blues singer/songwriter is perhaps the most brilliant newcomer to hit the music scene this year. I found the debut album spotty, but there are a handful of absolute gems there. This song is my favorite sinner's love song of all time. Lyrical genius!

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