What can be said for a year that began with so much promise but ends, well, like we are all feeling stuck in an alternate dimension. Looking back on my calendar which went so off the rails after two and a half months in, it really does look like a glimpse into a world that should have been but one that’s now alternate history.
But even in this bizarro world of COVID-19 there was some great music created at homes, online, socially distanced, and even on the streets! There is nothing that can beat the feel of a crowded show, the thrill of being there, and the joyous exhaustion that follows, but this past year we saw people pulling together – giving what they could – to keep live music alive despite every roadblock tossed in its way.
Since these lists are often limited by “best of” or Top 10, I want to include, well, all of those performances I caught this past year. There weren’t many, but each one I relive when I hear a song from a brilliant artist I’ve seen or go through photos from the past year. Here are my Top 12 Musical Moments of 2020 in chronological order.
1 – Eric Bachman @ Club 603, Jan. 16, 2020
The year started off slow for me, with my first show being near the mid-point of January. I knew of an Archers of Loaf reunion coming to the Ottobar and I heard from the grapevine that Eric Bachman, singer and principal songwriter of Archers was coming by my favorite spot for house shows, Club 603. Man, every song from Archers of Loaf and Crooked Fingers that I could have wanted to hear he performed beautifully on piano/keyboards, guitar, and banjo. There is nothing like the experience of sitting on the floor surrounded by friends and seeing one of your musical idols perform a foot a way from your face.
A couple of short days later, I was at another one of my favorite places, but this time it was about 40 miles away at that home-away-from-home, the 9:30 Club, and seeing David Lowry perform with Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven. I’ve seen Cracker and CVB before, but each time it’s a thrill and this show was no exception. A total joy from start to finish.
Last year (2019) J Roddy Walston and the Business performed a handful of final shows with the last one in Baltimore being part of a Halloween show at the Maryland Science Center. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear J Roddy putting together a “A Single Dose or Strangeness” with J Roddy doing a solo set and then joined with new band, Palm Palm. What resulted was one of those great sold out shows where the boundary where the audience and artist are blurred and everyone ends up sweaty, ears ringing, and thoroughly happy.
There are shows where you decide to go at the last moment and they end up being the best! Grace Potter put on one of the best shows of the year at The Anthem – full of energy and great music, but the thing I remember most is all the friends who were there. The Anthem is one of those places where you are bound to run into someone you know, whether it’s amongst fellow writers and photographers or friends you haven’t seen in a while because of work or distance, and for a few hours everything’s okay.
In February I found myself back at the 9:30 Club and witnessing one of the masters of the craft, Raphael Saadiq at the second of two sold out nights at the club. One of those shows where it feels like one big party. From his own solo material to a few Tony! Toni! Toné! gems, Saadiq played to the crowd and had everyone smiling ear to ear.
I had missed Michael Kiwanuka’s last time back in 2017, so this was my first time seeing him and it was an amazing experience. Again, and I think it’s a thread here, it was also a show I got to experience with good friends and the more I think about it the more I feel that shared experience is integral to how, at least in my own mind, those memories are to our connections to songs and performances. And I think a lot of the music of Michael Kiwanuka put you in a state of self-reflection – whether consciously or unconsciously – and that’s also part of the magic.
I’ve been a fan of the band Sloan for a while now, and hearing that they were coming back to DC and, not only that but touring on the anniversary of one of my favorite albums, Navy Blues, well, I just had to go! Sloan, for the uninitiated, are a band of four brilliantly talented songwriters from the frozen North. From the opener, “She Says What She Means” through to a second whole set from their extensive catalog it was a one of my favorite shows by one of my favorite bands!
8 – Quattracenta @ Baltimore Soundstage, Feb. 29, 2020
Baltimore’s own Quattracenta had put out a brilliant debut a couple of years back, but I hadn’t seen them perform before I witnessed them opening for Ex Hex last year. I caught them again at the Baltimore Soundstage opening for Cult of Luna and, again, they blew me away. With heavy melodic lines reminiscent of bands like Slint or The Convocation Of, Quattracenta is like hearing the crack of thunder and being caught up in the sheer beauty of the storm. Their second LP, II, was just released this past month. Produced by J Robbins of Jawbox, and can be found here.
I had seen Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy in various places over the past 20 years or so, but it had been a while since the last time I had seen him perform. So, seeing him perform alongside Emmett Kelly was a welcome sight. Beautiful and funny, Will Oldham’s performance was something I had sorely missed. And the combination of Oldham and the legendary Jonathan Richman was so good! Richman, a master storyteller, alongside frequent collaborator Tommy Larkins, took us on a musical trip, dotted by passages from the Sufi poet, Rumi.
10 – Heart Bones @ Metro Gallery, March 10, 2020
Another one of those shows where I didn’t know what was going to happen. I knew both Har Mar Superstar (Sean Tillmann) and Sabrina Ellis by way of A Giant Dog and Sweet Spirit. Both fantastic performers in their own rights, but together as Heart and Bones it was energetic, choreographed, and felt completely spontaneous. The last club show I saw this year too. There was a sense that we all sort of knew things after that week were going to be different, but it’s safe to say none of us knew to what extent.
Baltimore has some of the most creative artists in the world, and I don’t just say that because I call the city my home. Starting in April, the Creative Alliance started working with local artists and musicians to do socially-distanced concerts on the streets and sidewalks throughout city. One of the best is EZ Jackson who both with his solo material as well as the MC for the experimental hip hop group Soul Cannon creates vibrant and thought-provoking music. On July 4th, just before the evening’s fireworks EZ Jackson came to my block and performed with just a microphone and some backing tracks, bringing a much needed musical relief. Definitely catch EZ Jackson’s newest EP, GOALS, here.
The Baltimore Soundstage, Frederick Fairgrounds, and Showtime at the Drive-In put together a series of drive-in movie style concerts from October through the first part of November. I was fortunate enough to catch The Front Bottoms in one of the few socially-distanced drive-in concerts they performed this year. It was new but also felt like a lot of what I was craving for most of the year – music played in front of an audience – even if it was an audience in vehicles with calls for “encore” replaced by enthusiastic horn blares amid the cheers.