Better Late Than Never: Fuse Music Critic Noah Schaffer’s favorite live music moments from the past year.
By Noah Schaffer
January 5: Barnstar! at Club Passim: Local sideman supreme Zachariah Hickman leads an all-star, bluegrass-inspired aggregation whose irreverent approach is refreshingly creative. They’ll be celebrating the release of a new LP at Oberon in Cambridge, MA on Feb. 4.
January 17: Rebel Salute Night 1, Priory, Jamaica: By far the most prominent “cultural stage show” in Jamaica, Tony Rebel’s annual festival serves no meat or alcohol, just hours of pure roots reggae that goes on well past sunrise. Highlights included Fred Locks, Max Romeo, the Tamlins, the since-departed John Holt, and Bunny Wailer revisiting his ska roots. Luciano, who closed things out somewhere around 9 a.m., is coming to Kay’s Oasis Nightclub in Dorchester, MA on March 15.
March 8 and December 31: Lonnie Lester at Littlefield, Brooklyn: New York’s monthly Dig Deeper series finds ultra-obscure soul music veterans and brings them back to the stage, usually with a killer band and set-list. Lester’s moves and voice belied his 77 years – perhaps because he’s kept his chops up working the Indianapolis senior home circuit. Lester returned to the same venue on New Year’s Eve, sharing the bill with Ray Charles songwriter Joshie Jo Armstead. The fierce former Ikette had no trouble working the room even though she hadn’t performed her gospel-drenched material since 1981.
May 4: Skippy White’s Gospel Radio Anniversary at the Charles Street A.M.E. Church, Dorchester: Record store owner Skippy White also hosts a Sunday morning radio show on WRCA-AM. He celebrated with a traditional gospel program that included nonagenarian Randy Green and his Silver Leaf Gospel Singers and the Boston debut of an exciting Atlanta group, Walter Beasley and the Gospel Explosions. Beasley will be back on the bill when the anniversary comes around again on May 3.
May 10: Shirley Stewart and Lord Nelson with the Ghetto People Band at the Reggie Lewis Track Center: Bajan soul man Stewart sang both old and new hits in front of 85-year old Tobago-native Lord Nelson, resplendent in a pink suit and cap, who gyrated through his calypso classics. Special kudos to promoter David Martin for utilizing the fine Ghetto People Band rather than a backing tape.
May 18: Mal Barsamian at the Arts at the Armory Cafe: Multi-instrumentalist Barsamian can be found performing with ensembles almost every weekend at a local Greek, Armenian, or Middle Eastern function. This afternoon he got his own richly deserved spotlight via the Journeys in Sound series.
May 22: Debo Band at Lizard Lounge: Boston’s Ethio-Funk heroes did a series of incendiary small-club shows before they headed into the studio. The results should be out on vinyl sometime in mid-2015.
June 27: Lucinda Williams at Boarding House Park, Lowell: It was a bit surprising that the Lowell Summer Music Series took the risk of booking Williams again, given her on-stage meltdown at the event a few years ago. But on this night she was at her best, buoyed by relatively new guitarist Stuart Mathis and singing excellent material from her double-LP Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. The show included a poignant solo acoustic segment.
July 13: Dave and Phil Alvin and the Guilty Ones at the Green River Festival, Greenfield – Reunions can be depressing affairs when there’s no fresh material. The two long-feuding brothers behind the Blasters got back together to pay tribute to bluesman Big Bill Broonzy. The combination of Phil’s vocal power and Dave’s mastery of dynamics proved unbeatable. They’ll be coming back to the area March 20 at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River and March 21 at the Sinclair in Cambridge.
July 25-27: Lowell Folk Festival: It’s hard to imagine the free annual celebration of ethnic music and food not landing on this annual list. Highlights this time around included the DC go-go of EU featuring Sugar Bear, Moroccan gnawa master Hassan Hakmoun, and the affable bluegrass of Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers.
July 30: Noura Mint Seymali at Museum of Fine Arts Boston: There are a fair number of “desert blues” acts touring these days. Mauritanian Seymali and her guitarist husband Jeiche Ould Chighaly are especially adept at mixing the sounds of their homeland with psychedelic and blues overtones. The only thing wrong with this show was that there were so few people in the audience. Let’s hope that Seymali will not remain a secret when she comes to Johnny D’s for World Music on May 1.
July 31 – August 2: Newport Jazz Festival, Newport, R.I. – I didn’t see a single bad set in three days at Newport. And with all the noise being made about jazz’s aging and declining audience, it was great to see such large and noticeably younger crowds – largely thanks to a deep student discount. John Zorn brought nine different bands to perform his Masada pieces – compositions so concise that he managed to end his show ahead of schedule. Most Other People Do the Killing got a lot of flack for their note-for-note “Kind of Blue” remake album this year, but their Newport set was a delight, a warped-but-accessible dive into 1920’s and 1930’s jazz. It proved that jazz can be fun and challenging at the same time. Newport just announced its 2015 lineup.
August 8: The Campbell Brothers: A Love Supreme at Lincoln Center, New York: The Rochester-based Campbell Brothers come out of the Keith Dominion sect of churches, where gospel is played with steel guitars rather than with organs or pianos. They interpreted John Coltrane’s spiritual masterpiece with both reverence and virtuosity.
August 22-24: American Folk Festival, Bangor, ME: Lowell’s sister festival proved well worth the four-hour trek from Boston. Highlights included deep soul icon Otis Clay, bluegrass masters Blue Highway, and the deeply personal blues singer/songwriter Diunna Greenleaf.
August 29 – September 1: Detroit Jazz Festival – Some folks spent a lot of time on the Internet this year debating the merits of a few satiric pieces that poked fun at the city’s jazz community. The joke was on the scoffers and anyone else who missed the chance to see such stellar performers as Regina Carter’s Southern Comfort, Randy Weston (who did triple duty, playing with his African Rhythms group, performing with saxophonist Billy Harper, and serving as an inspirational raconteur) and Joshua Redman (who shined with his large scale “Jazz Speaks for Life – Music Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement” project). As at Newport, the audiences were large and of all ages and backgrounds. The 2015 edition of the free festival is Sept. 4-7 and another of the highlights, alto sax legend Phil Woods, will be Scullers in Boston tonight (January 16).
September 11: Youssou N’Dour at Somerville Theater: Senegal’s golden voiced musical icon brought his unstoppable Le Super Étoile band to this World Music presentation, which turned out to be a multi-lingual, politically-charged dance party.
October 8: Harold López-Nussa Torres at Scullers: He’s only 31, but this Cuban pianist is already demonstrating enormous chops and impressive sophistication.
November 1: Jon Dee Graham at Atwoods: In a solo setting the Austin singer/songwriter’s gruff and funny personality came through.
November 16: Vlada Tomova’s Bulgarian Voices Trio at the Arts at the Armory Café, Somerville, MA – Tomova came to the US to study jazz, but ended up finding plenty of singers interested in the etherial vocal traditions of her homeland. The Journeys in Sound clinic/concert gave Tomova and her cohorts Valentina Kvasova and Shelley Thomas a chance to both explain the music and perform it. They’ll be at Club Passim on Feb. 12.
January 18: Rebel Salute Night, Two St. Ann, Jamaica: The great vibes generated by the first night were ruined when Queen Ifrica engaged in what her fans call “hot talk” and what many others would call homophobic hate speech. A variety of other performers proceeded to echo her comments (which got her banned from a New York venue in May thanks to Caribbean-American protesters).
August 10: St. Paul and the Broken Bones at Lincoln Center, New York: This Alabama retro-soul outfit has, for some reason, generated huge buzz. Lead singer Paul Janeway exudes some nerd charisma, but his vocals lack any of the nuance that made his hero Otis Redding so special, and the band’s music is even more one-dimensional. It didn’t help that they were sharing the bill with far superior soul outfits led by Bobby Patterson and Charles Bradley.
August 28: Sturgill Simpson at Brighton Music Hall, Brighton, MA: Simpson put out my favorite record of the year, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. But on this night he was sluggish and sour: partly because his show was plagued by myriad sound problems that rendered his lyrics all but unintelligible. Clearly not everyone agreed, though, since his February 20 show at the Paradise Rock Club is already sold out. While I’m ranting about the Brighton Music Hall, the shows there featuring the Secret Chiefs 3 and Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 were terrific, but with the headliners going on past 11 p.m. on a Sunday evening the crowds dwindled considerably before the music was over.
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.