Our expert music critics serve up their usual highly eclectic round-up of the year’s most memorable.
Jason M. Rubin
Here are a baker’s dozen of great concerts that graced our local stages in 2019, listed chronologically within three thematic categories.
Quality Concerts from Prog Heroes Going Solo
- Alan Parsons Live Project, February 27, Chevalier Theatre – When Alan Parsons Project co-founder Eric Woolfson died in 2009, Parsons retired the band name. For his tours, however, he uses the title Alan Parsons Live Project. Whatever the name, his gang meticulously reproduced the details and sonics of the original recordings.
- Jon Anderson, March 29, Lynn Auditorium – The voice of Yes delivered a set that showed his voice to be surprisingly strong. Rather than tax his band with comparisons to the virtuosic abilities of his former colleagues in Yes, many of the songs traded extended solo passages for lively world music–based rhythms.
- Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, April 13, Orpheum Theatre – Pink Floyd’s drummer went against expectations by covering the pre-Dark Side of the Moon era of the band’s history. It was good, trippy fun and a reminder that Syd Barrett was the group’s only true genius.
- Rick Wakeman, September 23, Wilbur Theatre – The former Yes keyboardist is more than the sum of his 10 fleet fingers. He’s quite the raconteur and humorist as well, and his stories are as entertaining as his songs, performed exclusively on piano.
- Steve Hackett, September 24, Wilbur Theatre – The former Genesis guitarist continues to keep the group’s music alive; this tour featured songs from the 1973 Genesis classic, Selling England by the Pound, as well as from his 1979 solo album, Spectral Mornings.
Fully Enjoyable Shows from Bands With Not Many Living Members Left
- The Monkees, March 1, Chevalier Theatre – Too sick to join the tour, Peter Tork died just a week before this show. But Mike Nesmith and Mickey Dolenz carried on with bittersweet enthusiasm (Davy Jones died in 2012; this was the second Monkees tour without him).
- America, March 15, Lynn Auditorium – Dan Peek left the band in 1977 and died in 2011, so surviving members Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell have long since jelled as a duo. They still produce great harmonies and have an impeccable catalog.
- Mott the Hoople, April 9, Orpheum Theatre – Mainstay Ian Hunter was joined by latter-day members Ariel Bender and Morgan Fischer (original members Dale Griffin and Overend Watts are dead, and Mick Ralphs is recovering from a stroke). At 80, Hunter still rocks like a 20-year-old and his compatriots pitched in to give a great show.
Best of the Rest
- Neko Case, January 24, Royale – Touring off her terrific Hell-On album, Case proved herself to be an engaging and energetic performer. Our only complaint is that she didn’t introduce her band.
- Joe Jackson, February 13, Schubert Theatre – Jackson dropped a great album, Fool, just a month before this show but rather than beat the audience over the head with it, he also played tracks from throughout his four-decade career.
- Tal Wilkenfeld, May 7, City Winery – The bass sensation (Jeff Beck, Herbie Hancock) proved herself to be a skilled singer and songwriter, and entranced the crowd with her new album and a couple of choice covers.
- Dave Mason/Hot Tuna, August 21, Wilbur Theatre – It was Guitar Hero Night at the Wilbur, with Mason and Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen providing the six-string thrills. Given that Mason was harder-rocking, the show would have been better had Tuna opened for him, rather than the other way around.
- The Waterboys, September 18, Wilbur Theatre – The Waterboys released their bouncy, soulful Where the Action Is in May and brought it to life in September at a rapturous show. I caught them the next night at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton, but Boston was the better show, featuring an encore of “Purple Rain.”
India Arie, the “Worthy” tour. Part soul diva, part Shaman, part Civil Rights warrior, part motivational speaker — Arie wove them all into a seamless blend that is authentically her own. She would work the crowd up with righteous anthems of self-confidence and fearlessness, then tell us all to relax. (As in really relax, like let your jaw muscles go slack and let the tongue fall off the roof of your mouth.) The opening acts, Melissa Polinar and Jamison Ross, killed as well. (I caught her in Austin on May 20, but she played Boston on June 4.)
The Birth of the Cool, a documentary about Miles Davis. A corrective to the fictionalized Miles Ahead movie with Don Cheadle, this powerfully constructed film surveys the evolution of a complicated musical genius with both objectivity and sensitivity.
Santana, Africa Speaks. Santana lashes his guitar over grooves that are alternately hypnotic, driving, and sophisticated, creating one of the rare World Music records that works as a cohesive whole rather than a forced patchwork of styles. The fearlessly expressive Afro-Latin singer Buika is a major discovery for American audiences.
Enrico Merlin, Never Again! (Five discs, available on the artist’s website.) Italian guitarist, composer, and musicologist Enrico Merlin explores the entire range of jazz, from playing banjo in a Dixieland band to playing electronic avant-garde freakouts. You’ll find the best of Italy’s jazz community here, aiding and abetting Merlin’s multiple border crossings.
George Benson, Walking to New Orleans. Who expected George Benson to put out an album of New Orleans music? Benson frees himself from the major label’s slick production and parties with enthusiasm and chops on these Fats Domino and Chuck Berry covers. Yes, he can rock!
The Terence Blanchard E-Collective with choreographer Rennie Harris. Trumpeter Blanchard remained plugged into an echoplex for an intense night of Bitches Brew-meets-hip hop music. Against a striking backdrop of lights and images, dancers from Rennie Harris’s Puremovement troupe improvised and performed powerful narratives of what it means to be black in 2019. I caught them in Austin on April 11.
Peter Gabriel, Rated PG. This Record Store Day limited LP release technically isn’t new — it’s a compilation of songs Gabriel contributed to movies over the years, from Natural Born Killers to Babe: Pig in the City. But with a little imagination it works as a cohesive album, and you can’t help but be impressed by Gabriel’s restless creativity. He never phones it in for the paycheck.
I’m not keen to tap a trope like the year of the woman, but most of the music that left an impression on me in 2019 came from a diverse female cast.
That included a few mainstream breakthroughs. Billie Eilish, who just turned 18, became the youngest solo female artist to hit No. 1 on the album charts with her debut When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? — produced by her brother Finneas. Beyond the sparse, creepy/catchy throbs of “Bad Guy” and “You Should See Me in a Crown,” the whispery-voiced Eilish showed she could embrace the tender acoustic ballad “I Love You” as well. Meanwhile, Lizzo opted to take the roof off with Cuz I Love You, a shameless showcase for her high-powered voice and personality, roaring from the over-the-top soul of the title track to thumpers “Juice” and “Tempo,” an ode to big-boned girls with her kindred rap idol Missy Elliott. Lizzo’s got attitude and talent that’s not to be denied.
Country music took a quadruple take with the Highwomen, whose name nods to the legendary Highwaymen. A pushback at the dearth of women on country radio, the supergroup of singer/writers Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby kept their eponymous debut both fun and topical with spot-on harmony around the details of relationships, empowerment, and motherhood. The group’s public debut at this year’s Newport Folk Festival also proved one of that fest’s highlights. The Highwomen introduced their robust take on Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” and contributed to a Carlile-curated first headlining set of all-female collaborators that included Dolly Parton, Sheryl Crow, and upstart Yola.
Two of my favorite albums from 2019 led to stunning shows at House of Blues. But apart from her dance-centric live presentation and elaborate costumes, FKA Twigs’ Magdalene proved wondrous, her ethereal soprano shape-shifting from hip-hop inflections (with rapper Future on “Holy Terrain) to Kate Bush-styled art rock, culminating in “Cellophane,” a fragile paean to heartache and privacy pains. And the most admirable thing about Brittany Howard’s Jaime is that the dynamic frontwoman for Alabama Shakes swapped her group for a solo debut that itches her more experimental side, ranging from sweet soul tunes like “Stay High” to fuzzy jazz/funk collages and personal reflections on love and biracial identity.
After an indie-rock hiatus where she had a baby, studied psychology and tried acting, Sharon Van Etten emerged to forge a fresh sonic palette with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Angel Olsen), musing to dark, spectral soundscapes and synth-rock on Remind Me Tomorrow, her fifth and best album. Lana Del Rey likewise summoned her most sweeping effort with Norman Fucking Rockwell! Produced with Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde), the album finds the languid, California-based singer/songwriter in a melancholic, largely mellow mood that belies her blend of quiet desperation and optimism. With her flow of classic pop-culture references, Del Rey winks at the chaos of American life and romance.
Of course, there were great 2019 albums from men as well. One of the most interesting came from Black Midi, a young English band whose schizophrenic style-mashing on Schlangenheim astounds with brash changeups of technical proficiency and assaultive creativity. It’s not for everyone, but fans of Captain Beefheart, the Boredoms, and John Zorn’s Naked City can relate. Another superb record came from R&B veteran Raphael Saadiq, whose Jimmy Lee – his first album in eight years — pays tribute to his brother felled by addiction and other siblings lost too early. A go-to collaborator for artists from D’Angelo to Solange, the ever-smooth Saadiq hones crisp slices of grooving soul and gospel exhortation, this time with a more personal bent.
Finally, from the local music scene, although I’m partial to Lowell’s electro-glam-rockers Corner Soul, I’ve been most enthralled by the Gala, a garage-punk combo possessed by dervish Emily Doran. The Gala corralled the tightly coiled Bad News early this year, even if that debut inevitably can’t match the band’s live howl.
Childsplay, a unique group comprising world-class fiddlers (all playing violins built by Cambridge craftsman Bob Childs), performed for the final time, after 33 years of shows and CDs, in late November at Sanders Theater. The music soared, the tears were shed, and the emotion and performance were off the charts in a fitting farewell to Childs and this amazing ensemble.