Editor’s Note: This year, we asked our bloggers to name their Top 10 shows of 2019 or choose their Top 10 photos of the year. We will run them over the course of mid-December as our Best of the Year posts.
How am I going to do this?! Pick 10 favorites shots, moments, concerts, etc., from a year that was packed with them. Of course, the year had its fill of frustrations and challenges, as well, but those quickly fade from memory to be replaced by the realization that I am, indeed, very fortunate to combine two loves of my life, music and photography, into something I can share.
These moments, documented in the following images, all taught me something… about photography, about the power of music, and, ultimately, about myself; what I value, what moves me, and what’s important.
This list, such as it is (and in no particular order, of course) begins with a moment during the Martin Barre show I photographed in April. As I was crouched on the right, I’m convinced Martin saw me, crossed the length of the stage and proceeded to rip one of his signature solos right above me. I’m incredibly grateful for this moment of connection because although there is nothing extraordinary about the photo (no rock star posing, no laser beams, etc.), it nonetheless documents a moment of connection, that I can now share with a broader audience. And isn’t that what photography is all about? Making connections? Yes, I do believe it is.
I’ve followed Anoushka Shankar’s music for over 15 years, watching and hearing her develop into an artist worthy of comparison with her renowned father, Ravi. She’s a master of the sitar and Indian classical music, but also has the uncanny ability to weave modern Western pop, Spanish flamenco, American jazz, traditional classical, and myriad other influences into her compositions. This performance at the lovely Sixth & I was purely Indian classical and had me mesmerized the entire evening — to the point where I made the conscious decision to put down the camera and just allow the ragas to wash over me.
Emily and Andrew have made a life together, of song and of love. This duo, and couple, perform songs of exquisite beauty, steeped in the bluegrass and folk tradition but tackling contemporary themes such as loss, bigotry, and racism. But the heavy words are wrapped in pleasing and soothing melodies. As I wrote in my ParklifeDC review: “Heartbreak and joy. The words kept running through my mind, for to experience Mandolin Orange’s music is to feel those two emotions simultaneously. Their melodies and words conjure longing and loss yet, somehow, always feel hopeful and defiant.”
The lesson is that opposites can occur at the same time. And that the distance between two extremes always exists along a continuum, so that joy and love can overcome conflict and hate because, perhaps, the distance between them is not as far as we may think.
Beth Cannon, lead singer, guitarist, and composer for Elizabeth II, is a dynamo onstage. She prowls, her flowing blue hair flying, back and forth between her bandmates pushing and exhorting as she leads them through her unique brand of pop, rock, and metal. This shot from HERAFest was actually my second exposure to Beth’s guitar magic, after seeing her perform initially with Iza Flo at the DC Music Rocks Festival at the 9:30 Club in August.
Seeing new talent emerging from the DC region is one of the greatest pleasures of my role as a photographer/writer. I’ve been exposed to a wide range of styles, genres, and artists and, as a result, their vibrancy, enthusiasm, and talent keeps me young. Or as Dylan says, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
My second Mountain Goats (TMG) concert was in April, as John Darnielle and company opened their In League with Dragons tour with a slightly bumpy (it was, after all, opening night) but deeply satisfying two-hour performance before a sold-out crowd. The night’s set list drew mainly from the new album, “In League With Dragons” (Merge Records). But I was there for more than Darnielle’s highly engaging melodies and intelligent and hilarious lyrics. The sense of community with all TMG fans was palpable, and powerful; all of us singing at the top of our lungs, a communion of nerds, coolkids, and everyone in between. Isn’t that what we all want? The knowledge and comfort that we’re not alone, that despite our differences, backgrounds and beliefs, we belong.
Maggie Rogers’ brand of high-energy dance pop music is not the sort of thing I normally seek out on my own. At the risk of coming off as elitist, I prefer emotionally complex, structurally interesting music whether it be 3-chord blues-based rock, traditional classical baroque, or the ambience of post-rock electronica. Pop music all too often comes off as cheap, flash in the pan, 3-minute ditties by bands whose 15 minutes fade in 10.
But I was fascinated by Maggie’s rapid rise to pop prominence. What was it in her voice, in her songs, and onstage that so many felt to be so compelling? From the moment she hit the 9:30 stage ,the energy level shot to “11” and never dropped. The songs were catchy and more importantly, delivered with honesty, sincerity, and a humility that one often does not hear from pop stars of Maggie’s stature.
Moments after this shot was taken, she melted my heart when during “Say It” she stopped suddenly, sweetly but assertively imploring the photographers working the photo pit not to block the fans’ views in the first row. For those who got to the venue early, hung on to places along the wall to get a clear view of the performance, and interact with the artist, it was an electrifying moment, and clearly indicative of a performer who still embraces what being a fan means. And for this cynical old music fan, a reminder that strength, and integrity, is found in surprising places.
A couple of years ago, thanks to Pandora, I started getting into post-rock, the largely instrumental heavy guitar and drums driven genre of rock music that’s been around since the early 2000s. God Is an Astronaut (GIAA) is known as one of post-rock’s premier bands and while their “songs” are largely instrumental, sometimes using vocals as an accompanying instrument to augment tone and melody, the repetitive musical themes that build and flow in varying degrees of intensity feel operatic at times. But there is a clear emotional characteristic of GIAA’s music, for the songs all have a heart, a delicate and searching quality that lifts the spirit, as the melodies rise and fall building to an inevitable passionate climax.
The ability of music to lift us from pain born of tragedy is one of its enduring qualities. GIAA confirmed how despair and grief can be relieved — if only temporarily — with soaring melodies, a huge backbeat, and the sort of musical intimacy between player and listener that gives solace. As a photographer and fan, occupying a space between documenting their performance and feeling it was both exhilarating and poignant.
8 – Lucinda Williams @ Redwing Roots Music Festival, Mount Solon, Va. — 7/13/19
Lucinda is an old soul. Years on the road have put miles on that face and body. The music industry can do that to a person. Yet her voice, that voice, is as sweet, and rugged and as perfect as ever. When Lucinda sings, she can break hearts or drive off the worst of times.
It had been many years since I’d last seen her perform but the opportunity arose unexpectedly this summer when my wife and I drove down to Mount Solon with a couple members of one of our favorite bands, River Whyless, who were also performing at Redwing Roots. Why is that chance encounters many times lead to the most sublime of experiences?
Experiencing Lucinda’s show that night (after already having seen River Whyless perform that afternoon) was a vivid reminder of how music heals, redeems, and gives us strength. And then I started thinking about all the things that had to have happened for me to get to that moment. I’d had to join, and then work for, the Peace Corps, where I met my wife to be, and then have a son who grew to be interested in Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, where the school’s introductory film featured musicians who eventually became River Whyless — who allowed me to photograph one of their early DC performances and who we later befriended — which led to a wonderful road trip down I-81 in the summer of 2019 to that moment where “Drunken Angel” brought tears to my eyes.
All those chance connections, which now feel somehow preordained, led to one moment of supreme happiness, of connection, of peace. Or as Ms. Williams herself has put it, “I’m just like everyone. I like to feel togetherness with someone.”
Getting older, aging, maturing, whatever you’d like to call it does have its upsides. Like wine or whisky, guitars and violins, aging produces deep tones and a richness that can’t be duplicated any other way. The same can be said for music, the timelessness and appeal that cuts across space and time.
Jon Anderson is well known as the founder, and former lead singer, of YES, a band I’ve followed through all its ups and downs since 1970. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the passage of time and how much, and who, we’ve lost in the last few years. Too many musical icons and heroes have died or been stricken with debilitating illnesses. We’ve lost Petty, Bowie, Prince. Eric Clapton and now Peter Frampton face the devastating prospect of not playing guitar any longer. For Linda Ronstadt, that day has already come. I saw Queen recently and was struck by what Adam Lambert, Freddy’s stand-in, said about keeping music alive, “that you have keep singing it, playing it.”
Some of the musical icons from my youth are still performing. This year, more than ever, I realized age is not an impediment but a series of milestones to be embraced. Those of us still listening need to be there for those still singing.
Earlier this year, my wife and I traveled to Cuba on what we anticipated would be the first of many such journeys. Well, events since then have made the possibility of repeat trips to the island nation ever more remote, but the week we spent there was worth a lifetime of memories. From the moment we touched down in Havana, we were surrounded by a palpable sense of the country’s troubled history with the United States — but after interacting with many ordinary, everyday Cuban citizens, a belief that positive change was coming.
The music, something that has always been a hallmark of Cuban life and optimism, enveloped us from the start. Since at least the 18th Century, Cuban music has influenced a wide variety of genres and styles worldwide including rhumba, Afro-Cuban jazz, salsa, soukous, Argentine tango, Ghanaian high-life, West African Afrobeat, Dominican Bachata and Merengue, Colombian Cumbia, and Spanish Nuevo flamenco.
Evening strolls through the streets of Old Havana (Habana Vieja) were journeys of wonder and joy. Around practically every corner, we’d find the spicy, energetic melodies of Cuban jazz, salsa, and rhumba; lively percussion and pumping bass punctuated with the high wail of a lone saxophone drawing listeners (and dancers) in as if a siren’s song. Or a stop into a courtyard restaurant for a mid-day mojito to be greeted by a trio of seasoned yet soothing baritone voices and the expert strumming of Spanish guitars. The bands may be configured differently with guitars, keyboards, saxophones, trombones, countless percussion instruments, and robust, powerful singing, but the talent, musicianship, and passion are always the same.
That was the lesson of this trip and this year: Musicians and audiences around the world, whether in the quietly exploding DC music scene or the in-your-face, around-every-corner “fiesta musical” of Havana, we music lovers are all one. The individual moments documented above, among many others I experienced, were powerful reminders of our need for, and the payoffs of, that connection.