Best of the Year: Top 10 Musical Moments of 2020 by Mark C.

Graham Nash

The year started out typically enough. But the way it began and how it’s ending are startlingly different. By the end of March, so many plans and hopes were dashed that now, as we race toward 2020’s conclusion, many of us feel they may never be realized.

Like so many others in this Year of Covid, I’ve had a chance to reflect, reassess, and reset for the coming year, sorting out what is, and isn’t, important. I enjoy photographing people, whether it be portraiture, cultural documentation, or musical performance. As a photographer, I strive to become invisible and capture moments as they are, not as I or the subject, would like them to be. Although photographing live music has been challenging as of late, I’ve been afforded the luxury of time to go through my archives and, as a result, have made a belated but important discovery: the final image must also render the photographer invisible.

Of course, I’m just as egotistical as the next person and desire acknowledgement, credit and recognition for my work. However, an image should stand solely as a celebration of, and to, its subject. The following moments, along with the words I wrote at the time, recognize the magic and dedication that these artists, whether well-known or local, bring to the stage and to their fans to create a magic, musical moment.

This year we needed those moments more than ever. Here are my Top 10 “Musical Moments” of 2020 — in chronological order.

1 – Near Northeast, Comet Pizza Ping Pong, Jan. 9, 2020

I’ve followed this wonderfully talented, homegrown DC band since 2016. Not content to occupy any musical niche for too long, each new release finds Near Northeast pushing new musical boundaries, experimenting with rock, jazz, electronica, and folk-rock, and wrapping it all in a pleasing and accessible pop influenced package. Here is how I characterized this performance:

Watching and hearing Near Northeast’s evolution has been a wonderful musical journey. Since 2016, when I first became acquainted with this DC-based quartet (Avy Mallik: guitars; Kelly Servick: cello, violin, vocals; Austin Blanton: bass, volca keys, organelle, pocket operator drum machine, vocals; Antonio Skarica: percussion), I’ve become a devoted fan of their extraordinarily crafted electronic baroque folk Americana.

My first show of 2020 found me at Comet Pizza Ping Pong for Near Northeast’s first show of the year. Though their set was disappointingly short (the curse of the opening band), the performance was exceedingly polished, including “rehearsed” stage banter. The first two songs, “Crane,” and “Name Form” are new pieces which were well received by the audience, many of whom were there specifically for Near Northeast. The next song, “Electric,” from their 2019 release, Cabin Sessions (Exte Records), is a gorgeous ballad with lyrics to break your heart (“Don’t think for a minute you’ll get away untouched, don’t think for a minute”). Sung as a duet on the album, Kelly handled the vocals beautifully while the instrumentation, a combination of guitar, cello and Austin’s electronics built slowly to the song’s lovely, subdued conclusion.

Find more Near Northeast music at Extre Records’ website.

Near Northeast


2 – The Smithereens @ The State Theatre — Jan. 17, 2020

We continue chronologically with The Smithereens’ January performance at The State Theatre. Rereading my ParklifeDC show review, this is how I presciently began:

“In sickness and in health.”

Those words are normally reserved for particularly solemn occasions, but those same moments can be joyous, life-affirming and festive…much like a Smithereens concert, come to think of it. Friday night was just one of those instances with the New Jersey based Smithereens making their 20th appearance at The State Theatre in Falls Church. For many of us battling colds, flu and various other ailments, the Smithereens energetic, exuberant, and healing music was just the right medicine.

Find much more Smithereens music on the band’s website.

The Smithereens

3 – Karen Jonas with Sweethearts of Americana @ Pearl Street Warehouse — Jan. 23, 2020

Karen Jonas headlined this first show of the short (but sweet) “Sweethearts of Americana” tour; my thoughts at the time:

The term “Americana” conjures an earthy, roots type of music. Unfortunately, many find that label too uniform, limiting, and quite frankly, meaningless. That’s how overused the term has become. If anything, this first show of the “Sweethearts of Americana” three stop tour, demonstrated the diversity of the genre. Minks Miracle Medicine, Lauren Calve, and Karen Jonas each brought a distinctive flair and unique musical approach to Pearl Street Warehouse that defied Americana’s catch-all meaning.

Finally, Karen Jonas, Tim Bray and the two Seths (Brown and Morrisey) closed out the evening with a typically satisfying set. The Fredericksburg, Virginia based Jonas continues to broaden her appeal with catchy, folk-bluesy originals (just a touch of country mixed in) and expertly placed covers. Karen’s performance of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” along with the other “SweetHearts,” Melissa and Lauren, was the perfect combination of sweet and raw. Originals such as “Butter,” “Country Songs” and “Wasting Time” clearly demonstrated Karen’s broad musical palette. With lead guitarist Tim Bray’s tasteful fills and killer solos, her songs cross traditional musical boundaries, blurring the lines between country, rock, gospel and blues.

Find much more of Karen Jonas’ music on her website.

Karen Jonas

4 – Spafford @ 9:30 Club — Feb. 5, 2020

I had been waiting at the bar to shoot a show Pearl Street Warehouse in fall 2019 when a great song came on the P.A. Asking the bartender, I was told, “I think it’s Spafford.” A few months later, I found myself at the 9:30 Club experiencing music that combined rock, funk, soul and, of course, the Grateful Dead. In a year largely devoid of bright spots, I still hold this one close.

Watching the band from the balcony as the night wound down, with my camera chips full, I found myself enthralled with this music that takes a one or two chord sequence that lasts eight, ten, or upwards of twenty minutes and turns it into an exquisite musical journey. Jam bands are frequently accused (and in some cases, justifiably so) of self-indulgent noodling; each player displaying his musical chops at the expense of fellow band members or worse, the song itself. But that was not Spafford. The ebb and flow, the rise and fall of each extended passage always felt like the song was heading in a particular direction; that the musical tension would inevitably culminate into a satisfying musical climax. With Spafford, there was no noodling this night; only four musicians radiating intent and purpose.

Find much more Spafford on the band’s website.

Spafford

5 – Sarah Borges @ Jammin’ Java — Feb. 21, 2020

Having now seen Sarah Borges perform multiple times I can say with confidence that she always delivers. Her easy and hilarious onstage banter always gives her shows a quasi-vaudeville act feel. Along with her long-time bassist, Binky, their back-and-forth ribbing is a light-hearted contrast to the explosive rock and roll that she and The Broken Singles consistently serve up. Here is how I previously saw it:

Sarah’s music is a roller coaster of styles, from rock and roll to blues, from country to punk. Yet a Sarah Borges show never feels rushed or disjointed. Sarah’s affable onstage demeanor and her hilarious between-song banter with Binky, her bassist, makes one feel like we’re just hanging out in someone’s living room listening to friends play music. Indeed, after the frantic day I’d had, I felt right at home. Chatting with Sarah afterwards, she said tongue firmly in cheek, “Ah, don’t worry [about missing the first set], we do all the shitty songs in the first set and save the good stuff for the second.” Well, perhaps, but I sure won’t make that mistake twice.

Find much more of Sarah Borges’ music on her website.

Sarah Borges

6 – Graham Nash @ The Birchmere — March 10, 2020

This was the last show I shot before the interruption of live concerts. Not knowing how long we’d endure the lack of live music, here’s what I thought of Graham’s performance.

With a voice as powerful and pure as it was on the “Porch” Crosby, Stills and Nash album, Graham Nash gifted a sell-out Tuesday night crowd on March 10th at the Birchmere with a stunning two-and-a-half-hour performance. Though many of us had seen him perform with CSN (and sometimes Y), to experience a Nash solo performance was a rare privilege.

Graham and company opened the second set with a trio of delicate acoustic numbers, “Simple Man,” “Right Between the Eyes,” and “Taken at All.” Did I mention Graham’s voice is as pure and powerful as it’s ever been? Because for the quieter songs to work, one’s voice needs to carry the melody incorporating subtleties in volume, emphasis, and phrasings. At 78, Graham’s voice is still a wonder to behold, even more so when it’s front and center.

“Golden Days” from This Path Tonight (Blue Castle Records, 2016), was the only song (unfortunately) he performed from his latest studio album. Beautifully biographical (as is the entire album), the song speaks to Graham’s love of music, the camaraderie of playing with his friends (“I used to be in a band made up of my friends, we played across the land when music had no end”), and the mutual love between performer and audience.

Find more from Graham Nash on his website.

Graham Nash

7 – Elizabeth II @ Jammin’ Java — June 20, 2020

Elizabeth II’s performance was the first socially distanced, outdoor show I experienced. Beth Cannon and her companions turned in a fun but somewhat bittersweet performance on this late June afternoon.

Normally, summer has been in full swing for weeks by this point each year. Concerts, festivals, parades, baseball, road trips and, of course, late evenings out with friends. But as we all know, this summer ain’t normal.

So when Jammin’ Java announced its “A Song & A Slice: A Socially Distanced Outdoor Concert Series” to celebrate the opening of Union Pie (Jammin’ Java’s new pizza shop), a glimmer of hope sprang up that maybe summer had actually returned. And that maybe things could feel a little more normal.

When Neil Young wrote, “live music is better (bumper stickers should be issued),” he probably had evenings like this in mind. First, there is the performance itself and the artists’ ability to handle and recover from flubbed chords, forgotten lyrics and all manner of unanticipated occurrences. But if live performance presents myriad opportunities for disaster, the prospect of reaching new musical heights, putting a new spin on a melody, or simply reinterpreting a song on acoustic guitar, is irresistible for adventurous musical artists. When Beth tackled “Oh Darling” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” she revealed an ability to eschew her normal stage prowling and dizzying speed metal guitar licks and transfix the crowd on the moment. On this cool summer evening such spontaneous moments are what live music is all about; community, shared experience, and truly living in the moment.

Find much more of Elizabeth II on her website.

Elizabeth II

8 – Oh He Dead @ Jammin’ Java — July 3, 2020

My second 2020 Oh He Dead performance (I’d seen the band at a house show earlier in the year) was a low-key, socially-distanced yet celebratory affair. This show took place on a typically sweltering DC July 4th weekend.

More than once it’s been said that, despite our differences, music’s greatest gift is its ability to break down barriers, bring people together, and unite us in common cause. In this age of pandemic lockdowns, economic uncertainty, and just plain fear of the future, that those in need, particularly struggling local musicians, would work to support causes larger than themselves, is a beautiful testament to the power of song.

Oh He Dead started as a duo in 2014 with Andy Valenti and C.J. Johnson. The band now consists of five players: C.J. on vocals and Andy on rhythm guitar with Alex Salser (lead guitar), John Daise (bass), and Adam Ashforth (drums). The combination of C.J.’s vocals, smooth as Sade and husky as Bonnie Tyler, Alex’s tasty lead guitar work, John and Adam’s solid rhythm section with Andy’s driving guitar and engaging onstage banter make Oh He Dead one of DC’s most versatile and entertaining bands.

Midway through the set, the band paused so Andy could wander through the audience collecting donations for Black Lives Matter DMV. Although he never got overtly political, one could feel the determination in his voice as Andy implored us to work for justice in our country, “I don’t mean to get too political, but this is something about which I feel very strongly.” To which someone in the audience replied, “And you’ve got a microphone!”

Find more Oh He Dead on the band’s website.

Oh He Dead

9 – Cat Janice @ Jammin’ Java — Sept. 18, 2020

I’d learned of Cat Janice through another home-grown DC rocker, Elizabeth II. So I was looking forward to seeing Cat perform with great anticipation. Although the hour-long set was way to short, I knew I was witnessing another DC star in the making.

Fierce!

If I had to write a one-word review of Cat Janice’s recent Jammin’ Java performance, that word would undoubtedly be “fierce.” Cat’s simultaneously powerful and subtle voice took center stage at Jammin’ Java on a recent crisp fall day and it figuratively blew the roof off the place. Cat won the 2019 and 2020 Washington Area Music Award (WAMMIE) for Best Rock Artist/Group. Clearly, audiences are taking note of her songwriting, performing, and vocal talents.

Although her set only lasted an hour, it was enough to demonstrate why she’s earning accolades. Cat opened the show with an energetic “Wild” which quickly segued into “Fire,” a tune featured on Country Music Television’s popular show, “Redneck Island” in March 2016. “Pricey” and “Hurricane” followed before Cat introduced her Mom’s favorite song, a blistering cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” that featured Dante Frisiello’s spectacular lead guitar work. The rest of the set continued Cat’s unique blend of rock, jazz, and soul reflecting influences like Portugal. The Man, Lady Gaga, and Amy Winehouse. Or, as Cat succinctly put it, “I want to make tunes that people bounce on their toes to!”

Find more music by Cat Janice on her website.

Cat Janice

10 – Bobby Thompson @ Jammin’ Java — Sept. 20, 2020

Although Bobby Thompson has been a regular on the DC music scene for years, I only recently became familiar with the man’s music. I’ve long been a blues fan (my first Nighthawks concert was in 1978) and the DC metro area has nurtured some great players over the decades. The opportunity to see this bluesman did not disappoint.

Famed American multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter David Bromberg wrote, “you gotta suffer if you wanna sing the blues.” The irony, of course, is that when the bluesman (or woman) sings, everybody else feels good. So it was when local blues musician Bobby Thompson performed recently on a brilliant late afternoon show at Jammin’ Java.

With a thumbnail moon rising, the set drew to a close with a few inspired covers. As if paying tribute to bands whose influence helped audiences hear, and love, the blues in new ways, Thompson began the final third of the show with The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek,” that had bassist Morrissey handling vocal duties. A masterful rendition (again with Morrissey singing lead) of David Crosby’s counter-culture classic, “Almost Cut my Hair” followed. I’ve heard that song so many times that I unconsciously insert the Stills Young dueling leads and fills, but Thompson’s expressive guitar work made the tune his own. The next song, Steve Winwood’s (of Blind Faith), “Can’t Find my Way Home,” was performed as an up-tempo R&B influenced rocker, featuring Thompson’s searing lead guitar work. The evening’s finale, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” turned into a mass singalong that seemed, given the context of our country’s multiple crises, to provide a bit of hope, that we will get what we need.

Yes, we may be suffering these days, but that night Bobby Thompson’s blues sure made his audience feel a whole lot better.

Find much more Bobby Thompson music on his website.

Bobby Thompson

11 – David John Goodrich @ Gray Ghost Vineyards — Sept. 6, 2020

I had to throw an extra one in because this show was one of the finest musical moments of the year for me. In addition to experiencing a lovely musical afternoon (as well as a fabulous Gray Ghost rosé), reconnecting with an old friend made the day even more delightful.

For many of our region’s working musicians, performing at area wineries has been a lifeline for maintaining an income stream, and connecting with a live audience. On a perfect Sunday afternoon earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to reconnect with an old friend, fellow musician, and local singer-songwriter, David Goodrich. The Labor Day weekend promised to be a subdued affair, with many celebratory options cancelled because of Covid related restrictions, but the allure of a socially distanced afternoon outdoors, sipping wine and noshing cheese and crackers, was simply too irresistible (not to mention the prospect of renewing an old friendship).

Dave and I took guitar lessons together in high school several (ahem) decades ago. The fact that I did learn how to play, “Stairway to Heaven” may qualify me as a “musician,” but what Dave has accomplished is far more impressive. Born in Washington, DC, Dave and his family eventually made it to Mexico City, where he and I took up the aforementioned lessons together. By that time, though, he was already drumming, playing piano and had even attempted the trumpet. Our paths eventually diverged, me to Florida, Colorado, Central America, California, and finally to Northern Virginia. Dave’s path led to Berkeley, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and today Fredericksburg, Virginia. But as life will sometimes do, paths that diverged can once again converge. And so it was a few weeks ago that our separate roads came together at Gray Ghost Vineyards.

Find David Goodrich’s music on his website.

Dave Goodrich

As we end 2020 (finally!) there is, thankfully, hope. New national leadership, promising vaccines, and a collective patience and determination by both music fans and artists promise a return to “normal” in 2021. In the meantime, I would urge all music and arts lovers to push their local representatives on Capitol Hill to pass the bipartisan Save Our Stages Act (S. 4258 and HR 7806) to give our independent venues and promoters the financial support they so desperately need.

The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) is relying on music fans of all genres, local merchants, and the general public for support. Traditionally, independent venues and promoters have been isolated from one another, struggling to survive in competitive, local marketplaces. The pandemic closures have changed that, though. The power of unity and common purpose to pressure the federal government is needed more than ever today and the general public has a crucial role to play: NIVA needs our support, not necessarily for money, but rather to pressure our Congressional Representatives and Senators to act on behalf of independent venues in our communities. Individuals may visit the NIVA website to auto generate an email that will go directly to your elected officials in the state you reside. It’s handy, simple, and takes less than two minutes to fill in and send. Small, individual acts can and do result in great collective action.

Please support your local music scene and go to NIVA’s website.

In a year that was anything but normal, most of us did our best to pursue activities that “felt” safe, and as summer came around that started to feel okay. Outdoor dining, accompanied by live music, gave us the opportunity, and hope, that by the end of the year we might return to some real live music shows. As we slid into fall, a few local venues even offered safe, socially distanced indoor shows. But by November, all that progress had stalled as the COVID case numbers started rising, skyrocketing really, again.

Though a cold and frightening winter is upon us, I’m still looking forward to that time when we can all be together again, soaking up the energy, community, and magic that live music will bring us. I’ll have my camera, attempting to melt into the background, while the players take the spotlight. In the meantime, stay safe and healthy.

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