Fuse Music Critic Noah Schaffer’s favorite live music moments from the past year.
By Noah Schaffer
Dec. 31: Lee Fields and the Expressions at First Night Boston: Of all the bands that pair a veteran soul vocalist with a young hipster backing band, none can touch this one. It was the perfect way to start the year – and when I exited the venue I found that someone had thoughtfully placed a cold can of beer in my bicycle’s basket.
Jan. 3: Dennis Brennan Band at the Lizard Lounge: It’s astonishing that you can see a band featuring such masters as Duke Levine and Kevin Barry in a tiny club for five bucks. Besides Brennan’s keen, gritty originals, there were stellar covers of Willy DeVille’s “Mixed-Up, Shook-Up Girl” and Theophilus Beckford’s ska classic “Easy Snappin’.” They’ll be back most Wednesday nights this winter.
Jan. 17: Dirk Powell and Riley Baugus at Club Passim: These two multi-instrumentalists offered old-time, Cajun, bluegrass, and some great stories. They return to the same venue on Feb. 6.
Jan. 30 & Oct. 22: Lindi Ortega at Café 939: Prolific Canadian alt-country singer Ortega put on two charming performances at this Berklee café with little setlist overlap.
Feb. 17: Joe Val Bluegrass Festival at Sheraton Framingham: The Boston Bluegrass Union’s annual indoor bash finished with a strong day of blue-chip bluegrass, highlighted by the James King Band’s heartbreaking ballads.
Feb. 23: Sam Bush and Del McCoury Duo at Pinkerton Academy, Derry, NH: While Sam and Del may be known for leading the progressive and traditional branches of bluegrass respectively, their duo show proved that they have plenty in common musically.
March 23: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell with the Richard Thompson Electric Trio at the Orpheum: This roots-music fantasy bill did not disappoint, even if some of Crowell’s personality was lost in the mix.
April 5: Los Pleneros de 21 at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts: The veteran champions of the Puerto Rican folkloric plena and bomba traditions returned after a long hiatus.
April 6: Yusef Lateef’s 92nd Birthday at Roulette, Brooklyn: One of the originators of “world jazz” played a mesmerizing set of improvisations with his longtime collaborator Adam Rudolph and then enjoyed hearing others perform his compositions. Sadly, it would be Lateef’s final American performance.
April 14: Chris Thiele and Brad Mehldau Duo at Berklee Performance Center: The combination of a mandolin star bred in the bluegrass world and one of jazz piano’s biggest crossover stars had no right to work as easily it did.
May 1: Teetotalers at the Burren: There was a lot of hot Celtic music inside the Burren back room this year thanks to WGBH host Brian O’Donovan. This all-star combo of Kevin Crawford, Martin Hayes, and John Doyle was easily the sum of its parts, although I caught the first set and then heard multiple reports that the second show was – as usual – the far superior one.
May 3: Ken Boothe with Crazy Baldhead at Littlefield, Brooklyn: The monthly New York soul night ‘Dig Deeper’ routinely unearths neglected greats from the ’60s and ’70s and pairs them with a hot young band. They also do occasional ska/rocksteady shows like this one, which featured one of reggae’s all-time greatest singers. There’s been many a night when Boothe had to fend with tepid, hornless pick-up bands, so seeing him backed properly was an extra treat.
May 21: Porchfest in Somerville: Dozens of spirited musicians casually performing on their front-porches demolished the performer/audience barrier.
June 2: Blind Boys of Mississippi at the Russell Auditorium: Unlike their long-time rivals from Alabama, these Blind Boys still work the church circuit. Lead singer Sandy Foster may be a sighted man from Ohio, but he’s a first-class gospel shouter with a domineering presence.
June 13: Axivil Aljamía/ Abdallah al Makhtoubi and Mohammed Bajeddoub at the Fes Festival of Sacred Music, Fes, Morocco: The Fes Festival of Sacred Music is a music lover’s dream. Spain’s Axivil Aljamía perform centuries-old Moorish and Jewish melodies with a charismatic flamenco singer at the helm. It was one of the concerts held inside an ancient courtyard. It was a spectacular but costly setting; the logistics of importing such talent meant that ticket prices cost several weeks wages for the average local. Thankfully, the festival also has a series of late-evening free concerts, where local stars like Makhtoubi and Bajeddoub and their lush Arabic orchestras (with full string sections) played for thousands.
June 19: Harold Mabern/Eric Alexander Quintet at Scullers / Sam Amidon at TTs: The kind of double-header that makes you so glad to live in Boston. Legendary Memphis pianist Mabern and stellar saxophonist Alexander delivered as good a set of hard bop as you’ll find anywhere. Then I walked a few minutes and heard the quirky traditional folk of Amidon.
June 30: Roy Campbell/Garrison Fewell House concert in Somerville: The emergence of a house concert circuit for improvised music was a nice trend this year.
July 26-28: Lowell Folk Festival: This free celebration of music and food from around the world is always my favorite area event of the year, but the 2013 edition was one of the best in recent memory. The most impressive set: The “West Africa to the Caribbean” workshop, which was actually a one-time super-jam starring Belize’s Aurelio Martinez, Cape Verdean singer Lutchinha, the self-explanatory West African Highlife Band, and Dominican merengue accordionist Joaquin Diaz. Below is a clip of the action.
Aug. 4: Newport Jazz Festival: The small stages at Newport continue to host brilliantly creative improvisers in an intimate setting. The two best sets I heard were Gregory Porter, a soulful jazz tunesmith whose career is exploding (his upcoming Scullers shows are nearly sold out) and Iraqi trumpeter Amir El-Saffar who justly earned a standing ovation after the first movement of a piece he had written a few hours earlier about his experiences living in Egypt.
Aug. 5: Original Low Riders at Scituate Heritage Days: Thanks to a clueless judge, the four key members of latin-funk pioneers WAR (including harmonica genius Lee Oskar) are legally barred from using their old group’s name. But once they started playing there was no mistaking the authenticity of their sound.
Aug. 18: The Mavericks at Indian Ranch: Seeing the reunited Latin-country-lounge champions at Webster’s enduring country music park was my top show of the year. At times, lead singer Raul Malo seemed to be channeling Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Sept. 18: Bassekou Kouyaté at Johnny D’s: World Music presented a number of fantastic shows in the intimate confines of Johnny D’s. Ngoni master Kouyaté offered both a band of jaw-dropping virtuosos and a funky dance party.
Sept. 25: Robbie Fulks at Club Passim: No one can mix the sentimental and the snarky like Fulks. He’s long written tunes that were, at heart, bluegrass songs. On this tour he got to perform them with an actual string band.
Oct. 3-5: Ponderosa Stomp, New Orleans: This celebration of neglected ’50s and ’60s rockabilly, deep soul, and garage heroes never disappoints. Among this year’s highlights: reunited New Orleans garage stompers the Gaunga Dyns, the wild black rockabilly of Eddie Daniels, soul men Charles Brimmer, Richard Caiton, and Spencer Wiggins, and Chicano music pioneer Chris Montez playing his first all-rock set in decades.
Nov. 9: Jazz & Colors, Central Park, New York: This innovative free event arranged to have dozens of combos spread throughout Central Park – and they were all supplied with the same setlist, providing, at least theoretically, the chance to hear the same song started by a klezmer group and then finished up by a free jazz trio. Geographically speaking it might be the biggest festival around. It was a memorable 24 hours of music because I then proceeded to see ’50s R&B star Lloyd Price work an oldies show on Long Island and finished the trip with an all-night reggae sound system affair in Queens featuring the likes of Luciano, Yellowman, and Sister Nancy before taking the first Megabus home in the morning.
Dec. 23: The Fringe at the Lily Pad, Somerville: Now in their fifth decade of weekly improvising, George Garzone, John Lockwood, and Bob Gullotti dimmed the stage lights and pounded out a staggering set that ranged from quiet meditations to a punk-ish wordless singalong.
Least-favorite shows of the year:
Not “worst” – but these were some of my few disappointments:
April 13: Mike Nesmith, Somerville Theater: The former Monkee put out some sparkling early country-rock discs in the early ’70s. But it turns out he then spent the ensuing decades writing trite songs, and the electric Yamaha drum set made things seem even more dated. While the hardcore Nesmith fans who packed the venue appeared to be satisfied, there were more than a few bored spouses milling about the lobby and beer concession. Sideman Chris Scruggs also ended up in the backing band at one of the best shows I saw this year, Robbie Fulks at Club Passim.
May 17: Josh Ritter at the House of Blues: Despite an adept band and a sack of decent songs, Ritter’s performance seemed disconnected and uninspired.
June 24: Jan and Dean Show featuring Dean Torrence and the Surf City All-Stars at the Boston Common: There were some nice moments at the inaugural free Outside the Box Festival. But the remaining member of this ’60s surf duo was way off-key and most of the show was devoted to Beach Boys covers. Hopefully the festival will return next year with less head-scratching programming. (Boston got to enjoy the real thing when Brian Wilson played a stellar show with Jeff Back at the Citi Wang Center a few months later with a band that also included ex-Beach Boys David Marks, Al Jardine, and Blondie Chaplin.)
June 26: Berklee American Roots Music Series at Club Passim: Part of a three-night showcase of the faculty members at the Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp, the night began well with Jim “Texas Shorty” Chancellor and klezmer revivalist Yale Strom. But after Strom, the lights went up – legendary bluegrass fiddler Bobby Hicks was a no-show, and no explanation or partial refund was offered.
Aug. 16: Freedy Johnston at Johnny D’s: Pop purveyor Johnston played the area five times this year. I apparently picked the wrong show to go to. Things started well (albeit a bit late) with a fantastic solo set from Figg Pete Donnelly. But then Johnston killed the momentum by constantly tinkering with, and then complaining about, his guitars. 40 minutes later, when he was finally starting to establish a rapport with the audience, the plug got pulled. The $15 early show was cut short by the club so a scheduled free show could start on time.
Aug. 28: Roberta Flack at City Hall Plaza: Bashing a free concert by an R&B legend on a beautiful summer night seems ungrateful. But Flack was painfully out of tune and her generic backing band and tepid Beatles covers stripped her of the magic that her music once contained.
–Tickets for New Orleans sissy bounce queen Big Freedia’s twerkfest at the Brighton Music Hall included optional $5 booty-shaking lessons
–A well-intentioned promoter tried to import a legendary DC go-go band, Trouble Funk, into a Hartford nightclub. But go-go is the ultimately regional music, and only a few dozen folks showed up. But to their credit, Trouble Funk still turned the place out.
–The Jim Kweskin Jug Band put on a fun reunion at Club Passim. But Maria Muldaur freaked out whenever someone took a photo. She’s well within her right to plead for no disruptive flash photos to be snapped, but it was a bit disarming to have her hiss “I came 2000 miles to sing for you” to an audience which had paid $50 a head for the privilege of hearing her sing.
–While on a southern road trip, I happened upon a gospel program inside a sweltering high school gym in Rose Hill, NC. It was supposed to be headlined by quartet star Lee Williams and his Spiritual QCs. But instead of Williams’ tour bus and merchandise table, there was a county sheriff. It turns out the promoter had tried to low-ball Williams into singing for half of his guaranteed fee for two nights in a row. Williams’ tour manager made a grab for the cash box held by the promoter’s wife, the money went flying, the cops were called and Williams hurried back to his Tupelo, Miss. home. But the program was far from a total wash thanks to 88-year-old bass singer Tommy Spann and his (long relocated) Brooklyn All-Stars.
Barnstar! at Club Passim, Jan. 5
Eszter Balint at Arts at the Armory Café, Somerville, Jan. 10
Bettye LaVette @ Johnny D’s, Feb. 4
Taurus Riley at Wonderland Ballroom, Feb. 7
Joe Val Bluegrass Festival at the Framingham Sheraton, Feb. 14-16
Mighty Clouds of Joy at the United House of Prayer in Roxbury, Feb. 16
Masters of Tradition at Somerville Theater, March 28
Asif Ali Khan at Tsai Performing Arts Center, March 30
Martha Redbone Roots Project at Johnny D’s, May 2
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.