Our Roots and World Music critic looks back at a year of live performances: here are the winners and a few losers.
By Noah Schaffer
Lee Fields and the Expressions at the Sinclair, Cambridge, Feb. 12: The soul world lost a number of giants this year, from Otis Clay to Sharon Jones. Thankfully we still have Lee Fields, who will take his pleading ways to the Royale on February 16.
Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, February 12-14: The Boston Bluegrass Union’s annual indoor bash has everything from intensive workshops to casual late-night hotel room jam sessions. As far as the MainStage entertainment went, no one was surprised by the mastery of the Del McCoury Band. But a sleeper set came from the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band, featuring the legendary songwriter Herb Pedersen. The Joe Val Fest returns in 2017 in its usual President’s Day Weekend slot. Headliners include Jerry Douglas’ Earls of Leicester and Blue Highway.
Lunasa and Tim O’Brien at the Center at Eagle Hill in Hardwick, MA, February 27: Urban venues may be vanishing, but roots music continues to thrive outside of the immediate Boston area. I hadn’t even heard of this Central Massachusetts venue, but it proved to be ideal — comfy and acoustically spot on — for a show in which Ireland’s Lunasa collaborated with folk/bluegrass mandolinist Tim O’Brien.
Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls at the Institute of Contemporary Arts for World Music/CRASHArts, March 9: Groundbreaking improvisers like Mahanthappa are a perfect (but all-too-infrequent) fit for the ICA’s waterfront theater. A nice bonus was the homecoming of Massachusetts-bred bassist Thomson Kneeland.
Lucinda Williams at the Paradise, Boston, MA, March 21: After some rocky years — and more than a few on-stage meltdowns — Williams seems far more at peace with herself. Her current band is surprisingly good considering that guitarist Stuart Mathis had previously been in the Wallflowers. My only regret was not going to both nights of her Paradise stand because the next evening saw a considerably different setlist.
Jose Gonzalez with yMusic at the Berklee Performance Center for World Music/CRASHArts, March 26: When he first began performing in Boston, Argentinian-Swedish songwriter Gonzalez found himself in smallish clubs where he had to play his quiet, more contemplative songs. Now he can command a sold-out audience at Berklee, which marveled at his collaboration with the yMusic string quartet.
Creative Music Convergences at Harvard University, Cambridge, April 7-8: It’s pretty nice to be a music fan in a college town — as anyone who attends the many annual free performances at Berklee and NEC throughout the year can attest. For this show, the Fromm Players at Harvard concerts enlisted a dream lineup of creative improvisers that included Wadada Leo Smith, Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Nicole Mitchell, and Tyshawn Sorey.
John Prine and Iris DeMent at the Shubert Theater, Boston, MA, April 9: The last show I attended at the Wang Center before it became the [Ernie] Boch Center. It was a double bill of artists who defined the genre of Americana before the term existed. Prine’s gracious and lengthy set was especially remarkable given that he has now survived two bouts of cancer.
Fanfare Ciocarlia at the Brighton Music Hall for World Music/CRASHArt, April 20: The members of this 12-piece Romany outfit are second and third generation heirs to the great gypsy music legacy — not to mention a great party band.
Bunny Wailer at the Paradise, Boston, MA, April 30: This may have been the best period for reggae in Boston since the ’80s heyday of the Channel. Everyone from politically charged Rasta upstart Kabaka Pyramid to beloved icons like Beres Hammond and Marcia Griffiths came through town. But no one could touch the last surviving Wailer, whose first area show in two decades included a full horn section, Roots Radics guitarist Dwight Pinkney, a cameo from Peter Tosh’s son Tosh-1 on “Legalize It” (which actually happened at the polls a few months later), and a blistering ska segment.
Debo Band at the Sinclair, Cambridge, MA, May 26: Given how often Boston’s ambassadors of Ethiopian-inspired sounds have appeared on this best list, it was time to give others a chance. But they earned their slot once again with this CD release party: there was crowd-surfing, a baile funk afterparty, and a sold-out audience for a band has has not always been properly appreciated in its hometown.
Skippy White’s Gospel Anniversary at Charles St. AME Church, May 15: Record store owner and radio host Skippy White’s annual gospel event is always an inspirational afternoon. This year’s celebration was no exception, thanks to Atlanta’s Walt Beasley and the Gospel Explosions and local greats like The Spiritual Encouragers, Testimony, and ArtsFuse interview subject Bishop Harold Branch. Fans of White and Branch should take note that — since the demise of WRCA — White is now on WZBR and Branch has moved to the online Boston Praise Radio.
Sonny Knight and the Lakers at Great Scott, July 6: Minneapolis soul vet Knight and his band almost outnumbered the members of the audience, which was a shame considering his powerful performance.
Lowell Folk Festival, July 29-31: For it’s 30th edition, Lowell’s celebration of traditional music and food pulled out all the stops, including Nigerian legend King Sunny Ade. This was the only place on the planet where you could hear 87-year-old gospel pioneer Spencer Taylor Jr. and the Highway QCs sing harmony with Portuguese fado singer Ana Lains.
Dr Lonnie Smith at the Shalin Liu Performing Arts Center, Rockport, Aug. 13: The ever-psychedelic Dr. Smith didn’t just wail on the Hammond B-3 organ. He also performed with his walking stick, which he has transformed into an an electric instrument. And he invited audience members to play it! One wag observed that a review of the show could be headlined “Dr. Smith raises cane in Rockport.”
Boubacar Traoré at the Villa Victoria for World Music/CRASHArts, Dec. 3: Rarely has the oft-cited connection between Malian music and the blues been as crystal clear as when 74-year old guitarist Traoré was joined by harmonica player Vincent Bucher and percussionist Babah Kone.
Steve Lantner Quintet at the Outpost 186, Cambridge, MA: As nice as it is to hear touring artists, it was fitting that my final night of live music in 2016 featured some unsurpassable interplay among homegrown improvisers Steve Lantner, Joe Morris, Allan Chase, and Luther Gray.
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at the Wilbur, May 10: One must credit the Dirt Band with a crucial role in developing country-rock in the mid-’60s, but the band’s music hasn’t aged well — especially their schlocky ’80s tunes, which were overrepresented in the Boston setlist. The fact that they opened with a Byrds tunes and ended with a Band cover served as a powerful reminder of how much more those two bands achieved artistically.
Morgan Heritage at Kay’s Oasis Function Hall, Dec. 14: It was bad enough when Dolly Parton used a canned drum track instead of a live musician at her show this summer. But at least Dolly brought along three live instrumentalists. This “promotional appearance” (which fetched $20 a pop) by the roots reggae band Morgan Heritage was even sparser: there were no live instruments, just singers Peetah and Gramps, while percussionist Mojo Morgan was relegated to playing the backing tracks, once the show started at 1 a.m. on a weeknight. Two other members of the quintet weren’t even in the building.