By Noah Schaffer
Still, for all the gloom and doom, there’s no question that a bountiful amount of live music was finally on offer throughout the year as musicians and presenters continued to defy the odds.
During the worst days of the 2020 lockdown some of us imagined a post-Covid world, where live performance venues would open their doors and instantly be overcrowded with music-starved fans.
That didn’t quite happen: one variant after another caused tours to go on pause. On the one hand, the live music world has largely moved on from the massive waves of show cancellations seen at this time last year. On the other, mask wearing is still common (and in some cases is mandatory) at many shows that draw an older demographic. What’s more, festivals in 2022 routinely had to scramble their schedules at the last minute when artists on the bill came down with Covid.
More concerning is that the music world now seems to reflect the economy at large. The biggest tours by one percenter superstars sell out immediately despite ever-escalating ticket prices. But, for mid-tier venues, it’s been hard to ignore the fair amount of empty seats at theaters as well as the extra room at standing room clubs. Short-staffed venues are more likely than ever to simply cancel a show if advance sales don’t meet expectations. And even successful artists are struggling with the increased costs for gas, flights, and hotels. For example, this fall the famed Irish band Clannad pulled the plug on its farewell US tour, explaining that the dates, booked in 2019 and postponed numerous times, simply no longer made financial sense.
Still, for all the gloom and doom, there’s no question that a bountiful amount of live music was finally on offer throughout the year as musicians and presenters continued to defy the odds. Two or three or more good shows often happened on the same night, so it would be foolish to try to name any moment as the “best.” Instead, here are some particularly joyful memories.
Bela Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart
Fleck’s return to full-band acoustic music yielded an excellent album and a lengthy tour. At Carnegie Hall a galaxy of newgrass stars were on hand, including Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Billy Strings, Michael Cleveland, Stuart Duncan, Sierra Hull, Molly Tuttle, and Chris Thile. And it jelled in a way that isn’t always guaranteed with all-star affairs.
Le Vent Du Nord
Crystal Ballroom at the Somerville Theatre
The traditional Quebec combo celebrated their 20th anniversary with a barn burner presented by Global Arts Live. If you don’t think you’re a fan of Quebecois folk, this band will change your mind. They’re coming back March 29 for a Global Arts Live concert at the City Winery.
Mal Barsamian & Qawsaan
Boston clarinetist and oudist Mal Barsamian is in such demand for Greek, Armenian, and Middle Eastern dances and community functions that he doesn’t often have time to showcase his music in a more formal concert setting. With fellow masters violinist Layth Sidiq and cellist Naseem Alatrash, Barsamian displayed his command of Arabic, Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Armenian music. Hopefully Qawsaan (“Two Bows”) will be heard from again soon.
Big Ears Festival
Big Ears can easily claim to be the premiere North American festival for what might be described as serious boundary-crossing music making, all of the shows presented in about a dozen excellent venues throughout this small city’s downtown. Some of my favorite moments were John Zorn reconvening his Electric Masada band, the pairings of Odean Pope and Immanuel Wilkens, and a night that fused Haitian and New Orleans rhythms. Perhaps the most impactful set was Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble. The 2023 edition boasts yet another roster of dozens of music’s most important mavericks.
Long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine DakhaBrakha took its place among Ukraine’s top cultural ambassadors. Since the war started, the band has toured its avant-trad sound nonstop, raising awareness and, if the t-shirt sales at this Global Arts Live-presented concert were any indication, raising a significant amount of money for their homeland. The emotional evening included an astounding screen projection that had been created by Ukranian visual artists.
Music and Art: A Benefit for Ukraine
Swedenborg Chapel, Cambridge
US-based musicians and artists were also active in the fight for Ukraine. This Journeys in Sound–produced benefit included a host of excellent Boston musicians, Ukrainian students from Berklee, and the Ukrainian-American master Julian Kytasty.
The Makanda Project featuring Chico Freeman
Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, Roxbury
Pianist John Kordalewski and his multigenerational band continued their ongoing exploration of the legacy of Makanda Ken McIntyre with free concerts that were of consistently high artistic merit while also serving as community gathering spaces. Many of their events featured 88-year-old percussion legend Warren Smith, but on this night Boston audiences got one of their first glimpses of the exciting young drummer Anton Kot, as well as a too-rare chance to hear the great Chicago saxophonist Chico Freeman.
The Boston Synagogue
The Boston Festival of New Jewish Music has made a big mark on the local cultural landscape since it started up last fall. Happily, the free series is continuing into 2023 with a lineup that proves how much can fit under the umbrella of Jewish music. This evening found clarinetist Glenn Dickson’s adventurous avant-klezmer combo making a most welcome comeback as it celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Marlon Asher with Roots Alley Collective
The Reggae Takeova continued to be a crucial event for any Boston fans of Jamaican music. Reggae in Boston can be a dicey affair thanks to steep ticket prices, underrehearsed bands (or backing tracks), and events that start so late the performance is truncated because of the city’s early curfew. But the Takeova’s Sunday night residency at Bill’s Bar offers reasonably priced shows performed by excellent international and local bands with professional sound systems. The gigs start and end at a reasonable hour. Prior to this evening I confess I could only name one Asher song — his hit “Ganja Farmer” — but he proved himself an artist with a dynamic stage show and a whole bag of good tunes. Many of the Takeova shows pair touring artists with either the Roots Alley Collective or the Naya Rockers. Both bands are inevitably up to the task.
Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival
I hadn’t been to the hallowed Berkshire-born bluegrass fest since it moved (all the way back in 2007) to its current location, which is closer to the Catskills. During that time the event has incorporated a number of excellent improvements, such as having all of its daytime stages under tents and hiring an artist in residence (in this case Jerry Douglas) to make cameos with bands throughout the weekend.
The Lowell Folk Festival
As mentioned above, not every music event was packed this year, but there were some happy exceptions. The return of the Lowell Folk Festival drew what seemed like its largest crowd in years. Those who came were amply rewarded by stellar performances from soul legend Don Bryant, the Cajun and Creole sounds of Cedric Watson, the Puerto Rican rhythms of Los Pleneros de 21, and the revelatory and nearly lost Tejano fiddling of Panfilo’s Güera.
Berklee Performance Center
Brazilian songwriter Calcanhotto appeared at this Global Arts Live concert with just her guitar and her songs, and she couldn’t have been more captivating.
Michael Formanek Elusion Quartet
Saxophonist Tony Malaby’s move to Boston has been a boon not just for his Berklee students but also for local fans of creative music. Malaby has frequently been collaborating with his musical peers at both the Lilypad in Cambridge and the Virtuosity music shop in Boston. On this occasion, the compositions of bassist Formanek were beautifully performed by a quartet that was rounded out by pianist Kris Davis and drummer Ches Smith. Check Malaby’s social media for future dates.
Big Night Live
The British country soul singer’s January 2020 appearance at the Sinclair never quite caught fire. But she was unstoppable on her return to Boston. Her stage presence was as powerful as her voice.
The Bay State Barn Dance at the New England Shake-Up
Sturbridge Host Hotel
Alas, the New England Shake-Up rockabilly weekender concluded a fine run with its September edition. All the music and special events were wonderful, but the Shake-Up really outdid itself with an Opry-style revue called the Bay State Barn Dance. Happily that event was filmed and will be screened over Labor Day weekend as part of a series of events presented by the mighty Swelltune Records.
Crystal Ballroom at the Somerville Theatre
That this psychedelic ’70s Zambian band ended up touring the US in 2022 was as fortunate as it was unlikely.
Chucho Valdés: The Creation
Berklee Performance Center
Any evening featuring the maestro of Cuban jazz piano is a memorable one, but this Celebrity Series presented occasion was particularly special because Valdés performed a full suite (backed by a large ensemble) that told the story of creation through an Afro-Cuban spiritual perspective. As great as the big band was, one of the best moments was hearing Valdés play solo, like he’ll be doing at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport April 16.
Boston Soul Live
The Sinclair Restaurant
Full disclosure: I had a hand in producing this celebration of the Boston soul and gospel tunes compiled in The Skippy White Story LP (for which I co-wrote the liner notes). I couldn’t have been happier with how Leon Beal, Dennis Taylor, Sax Gordon, Ryan Lee Crosby, the Harmonizing Stars of Boston, and a band led by Eli “Paperboy” Reed brought those songs to life. No one present will forget hearing Joyce Crayton of the Crayton Singers reprise “Master On High,” a gospel garage song she recorded as a teenager.
Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club
The elder statesmen of jazz in the Cookers mean business when they hit the bandstand, as was proven by Billy Harper’s opening solo, which kicked off a scorching set that also featured Cecil McBee, Billy Hart, Donald Harrison Jr., George Cables, David Weiss, and Eddie Henderson. And you won’t even have to go to New Hampshire to see them in March — they will be at Scullers in Cambridge on March 11.
Duke Levine Band
Guitar god Levine’s hometown appearances have dwindled since he was tapped to be part of Bonnie Raitt’s band. That made it extra special to see him trading licks with his longtime collaborator Kevin Barry. He, like Duke, is normally seen backing big names in much bigger venues — he was in Roseanne Cash’s band when she appeared at a “Mountain Stage” taping at Berklee earlier in the month.
Noah Schaffer is a Boston-based journalist and the co-author of gospel singer Spencer Taylor Jr.’s autobiography A General Becomes a Legend. He also is a correspondent for the Boston Globe and DigBoston, and spent two decades as a reporter and editor at Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and Worcester Magazine. He has produced a trio of documentaries for public radio’s Afropop Worldwide, and was the researcher and liner notes writer for Take Us Home – Boston Roots Reggae from 1979 to 1988. He is a 2022 Boston Music Award nominee in the music journalism category. In 2022 he co-produced and wrote the liner notes for The Skippy White Story: Boston Soul 1961-1967, which was named one of the top boxed sets of the year by the New York Times.