Fuse Feature: Best Live Music Shows of 2015 — As Well as Some Disappointments

The magazine’s Roots and World Music critic looks back at a year of live performances: here are the winners and a few losers.

By Noah Schaffer

FullSet. Photo: Tim Murray

The exciting young sextet FullSet. Photo: Tim Murray.

FullSet at the Burren, February 11: The Burren’s back room series hosted many nights with both established and rising Celtic luminaries, like this exciting young sextet.

Dr. John at The Wilbur, February 25: Expectations were low due because of the unlistenable Spirit of Satch Louis Armstrong tribute LP. But while the record was a jumbled mess of all-star guest spots, the live show rocked thanks to great charts played by a local horn section and Crescent City trumpet master Nicholas Payton.

Benny Golson at Wellesley College, March 14: Some audience members complained that the 86-year old saxophonist and composer talked too much, but I loved hearing both his stories and his tenor playing.

When Cultures Converge featuring the Milena Jancuric Trio and the Elinor Speirs Trio at the Arts at the Armory Cafe, March 15: The Journeys in Sound series continued to be one of the area’s most valuable showcases. Typical of its programming was this inspired pairing of combos led by the sublime Serbian flautist Jancuric and the brilliant violinist Speirs. The series kicks off 2016 with an improvisation-heavy evening featuring Sarah Hughes and the Anastasiya Dumma/Abigale Reisman duo on January 9.

Martin and Eliza Carthy at Johnny D’s, April 8: This father-and-daughter duo showed why they’re both among the most prominent British folk artists of their respective generations.

The Sonics and Barrence Whitfield and the Savages at the Columbus Theater, Providence, April 11: Tacoma’s Sonics put out This is the Sonics, probably the best comeback LP ever issued by a ’60s garage band, then blew off roofs coast to coast while touring with Boston’s own reunited Savages. At the end of the night Barrence came back to sing lead on “Psycho.”

Cambodian Rock & Roll Concert and Revue at Sompao Meas Function Hall, April 26: I saw a number of fine music documentaries this year but the most moving was Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten, which is about the Cambodian rock and pop greats who were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Some of the surviving Cambodian pop artists celebrated the film with a night at a Lowell Cambodian wedding hall, thanks to support from the scrappy Lowell Film Collaborative.

Alci Acosta at Wonderland Ballroom, May 23: The night started off in dance party mode with two major Salvadoran orchestras, Los Hermanos Flores and La Maquina. Then, at 1:30 a.m., the 76-year old Acosta belted out his saloon songs about heartbreak and jealousy, only backed by a piano and a small rhythm section, much to the delight of the many audience members who weren’t even a third his age.

Satoko Fujii and Kaze at the Lily Pad, May 25: The Japan-born, Berlin-based pianist is one of improvised music’s deep explorers.

Chronixx at the Paradise, June 4: This two-hour, no-filler set by the current ruler of the reggae revival was just what Boston’s somewhat moribund reggae scene needed. Also worthy of mention was his peer Kabaka Pyramid’s show, performed before a much smaller but just as excited crowd at the Middle East Upstairs.

Ghost Train Orchestra at the Museum of Fine Arts, July 1: Boston’s indefatigable Brian Carpenter had a typically busy year, releasing discs both by his Confessions and by GTO, which plays radically fun rearrangements of lost ’20s and ’30s jazz treasures.

Dale Watson at Atwood’s Tavern, July 15: Atwood’s may have a small performance space, but that didn’t stop it from hosting many nights featuring local and national greats, including stone country stalwart and Lone Star Beer pitchman Watson.

Lowell Folk Festival, July 24-26: Lowell’s ultra-eclectic celebration of traditional music and food is always a highlight. Among the many fine moments: Armenian oud master John Berberian revisited his groundbreaking Middle Eastern Rock LP and jammed with Chinese, Mexican-American, Appalachian, and Indian musicians at the World Strings workshop.

Forro in the Dark --

Forró in the Dark — Does John Zorn’s music right.

Forró in the Dark plays John Zorn at the Regattabar, July 31: What does the Northeastern Brazilian folk of forró have to do with New York avant-garde titan John Zorn? They’re both a lot of fun, at least when this NYC outfit melds their sounds together.

Beres Hammond and Freddie McGregor at Franklin Park Zoo, Aug. 9: For years local reggae fans wondered why Boston had no major outdoor summer event dedicated to the genre. “Reggae in the Park” has now had two successful outings, and the latest pairing of two of Jamaica’s golden voices and songwriters was inspired.

Detroit Jazz Fest, September 4-7: This free festival continues to bring a large number of jazz masters to a large and appreciative audience. Highlights included artist-in-residence Pat Metheny’s challenging orchestrated tribute to German bassist Eberhard Weber, the burning Jamaican rhythms of Monty Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express, and a Carla Bley-led reunion of the late Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra which showed how jazz can make a social message. A new film festival component to the festival showcased The Case of the Three-Sided Dream, a revealing and well-crafted documentary on the life of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Ricardo Lemvo and Makina Loca at Johnny D’s, September 17: The impending closure of Johnny D’s later this winter will be a huge loss in many ways. It was the perfect location for this World Music/CRASHArts-produced evening with Congo-born, California-based Lemvo, whose mix of Latin and African rhythms is as hot as it gets. It was a night of top-tier musicians playing to a packed dance floor.

Ponderosa Stomp, New Orleans, Oct 2-4: This biennial celebration of early rock and soul pioneers is the ultimate destination for music geeks. This year’s edition flowed seamlessly, with rare appearances from the likes of soul giants Willie Hightower, Betty Harris, Mable John, Mississippi rockabilly wild man Mack Banks, and a revue of San Antonio Chicano soul greats. The value of the festival was driven home when “Secret Agent Man” and “Eve of Destruction” songwriter P.F. Sloan passed away just weeks after his triumphant set here.

Davie Rawlings Machine at The Wilbur, Oct. 16: In the past, when Gillian Welch’s longtime musical and life partner toured under his own name it tended to feel like a side project. Not so this time, as Rawlings and Welch plus Boston fiddler Brittany Haas and former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson added up to a rewardingly cohesive combo.

Regina Carter’s Southern Comfort at Scullers Jazz Club Oct. 17: The ever-adventorous violinist Carter is currently exploring her southern folk roots, and recreating them with startling textures in a group that includes accordionist Will Holshouser.

Abdullah Ibrahim at Berklee Performance Center, Oct 19: South African pianist Ibrahim didn’t say a word to the audience, but his solo and octet compositions were never less than spellbinding.

Al-Murtaja: A celebration of Sudanese music at Berklee Performance Center, Oct. 22: Berklee student Mohamed Araki brought together several of Sudan’s musical luminaries, including his famed father Abu, for this wide-ranging revue. Sudanese music draws heavily on Arabic influences, so hearing it performed with a lavish string orchestra was a special treat.


Choro Bastardo at the Lily Pad, Dec. 20: This daredevil quartet, born at New England Conservatory and now touring the country, takes the Brazilian choro tradition and infuses it with modern classical, tango, and jazz influences.

Biggest disappointments:

Willis Alan Ramsey at Passim, April 13: Texas songwriter Ramsey recorded a single LP full of oft-covered classics in the ’70s, then dropped out of sight for years. There were some charming moments, but an opening set by Ramsey’s wife, his propensity for meandering stage patter, and an encore in which Ramsey’s daughter covered “A Change is Gonna Come” made for a very lengthy and rarely rewarding evening.

Paddy Kennan at the Burren, May 27: There was nothing wrong with Irish piping master Keenan’s playing. But while he often shines in duo settings, an expanded and seemingly unrehearsed band did his sound no favors.

Booker T. Jones at the Green River Festival, July 11: The Green River Fest is a wonderfully intimate festival that brings together both rising and legendary roots artists. It successfully expanded to a third day this year. The only lowlight was the set from Stax icon Booker T. Jones. The MGs were replaced by a bar band and he spent little time at the organ. Instead, he opted to play guitar on generic Beatles and Prince cover tunes.

Mighty Clouds of Joy at the United House of Prayer, Aug. 9: Hours into this gospel program the Clouds informed listeners that the group’s lead singer of over 50 years, Joe Ligon, was home sick, so they had to perform without him. It later surfaced that Ligon had left the group that appeared in Dorchester and was touring with his own outfit. It’s unclear whether the promoter knew and still decided to run ads with Ligon’s photo or if she was misled by the Clouds. Either way, audience members deserved to know in advance that they weren’t getting the legendary Ligon. Fortunately many other fine groups sang earlier in the day, particularly Brockton’s Lincoln Congregational Church’s Men’s Witness Choir.

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. Follow him at @nschaffer.

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