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Best of the Year: Top 10 Musical Moments of 2021 by Mark C.

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The Allman Betts Band performs at The Birchmere in June. (Photo by Mark Caicedo)

2021 saw a gradual return to live music as venues and musicians did their best to return to “normalcy” and keep everybody safe. Things didn’t always go according to plan: People still got sick, tours were canceled or postponed, and attendance to indoor shows still sometimes lagged.

But the heart (and ear) wants what it wants, and we had plenty of opportunities to experience the joy and connections afforded by live music.

I’ve put together a small collection of a few moments from this year where my heart and ear(s) were filled with that joy. In no particular order, and certainly not ranked, here are a few of the moments I remember best. Hopefully, dear reader, it prompts you to reflect on the joy live music brought to you, as well.

1 – Joanne Shaw Taylor, The Allman Family Revival @ The Fillmore Silver Spring — 12/10/21

If not for live music, I would not have discovered this wonderful blues guitarist.

When blues guitarist extraordinaire Joanne Shaw Taylor hit the stage there was a perceptible bump to the energy level in the room. For those of us not familiar with Ms. Taylor’s guitar playing and singing, one could be forgiven for thinking the late, great SRV had stepped onstage.

Find more Joanne Shaw Taylor music on her website.

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2 – Dominique Bianco @ Pearl Street Warehouse — 7/11/21

Dominique is a local DC jazz singer who, in early 2021, started popping up on music pages I follow. By the end of the year, she seemed to be performing everywhere all the time.

The Emily King cover, “Distance,” was the evening’s final number. As Dominique noted on her Facebook page, this was a song she’d been wanting to perform for over a year. As her voice soared with passion and abandon, the lucky crowd at PSW was reminded that in the years ahead we can expect many more “crystal moment” performances from Ms. Bianco.

Dominique’s live performance schedule can be found on her Facebook page or her website.

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3 – Elizabeth II @ Pearl Street Warehouse — 9/10/21

Beth Cannon, the fierce lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter of Elizabeth II is a DC musical dynamo whether performing solo or with her band.

Elizabeth II, Beth Cannon’s nom du stage, has been a fixture on the DC music scene since 2017. She grew up on a musical diet of what today is called classic rock (Zeppelin, Whitesnake, Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, etc.) and has evolved into a powerful musical storyteller herself, whether performing brash, loud rock and roll with a band or standing alone on a stage with simple an acoustic guitar.

Find more of Beth’s music on the Elizabeth II website.

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4 – The Walkaways @ Pearl Street Warehouse — 6/26/21

Another discovery of another local band, The Walkaways blew me away with their easy-going, alt-country rock.

The headliner, The Walkaways, took the stage shortly after 9:00 PM. Led by Todd Daniel, a man whose onstage persona embodies Hank Williams’ lankiness, the folksiness of Woody Guthrie, and Springsteen’s powerful, husky vocals, the band opened with “The Hardest Part” from their 2017 release, After the Fall.

Find more Walkaways on the band’s website.

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5 – Sarah Borges @ Jammin’ Java — 12/1/21

I’ve seen Sarah perform so many times I’ve lost count. But I know I’ll keep going back to experience that rock and roll she serves up so well.

Sarah and her band, the Broken Singles, rolled into town on December 1st, hitting the Jammin Java stage with Eric “Roscoe” Ambel for another of her typically rockin’ and quip-laden performances. Having seen Sarah previously, I was prepared for a seriously fun rock and roll show. This one, the first in our area since 2019, featured plenty of new additions to the setlist as she road tested a few new songs from her forthcoming release, Together Alone (due Feb. 18, 2022).

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

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6 – Midnight North @ The Hamilton Live — 10/7/21

Seeing Midnight North for the first time, along with a guest appearance by Phil Lesh (guitarist Grahame Lesh’s Dad) made me a fan for life.

After a two-year absence, Midnight North made a much-anticipated return to the DC area, even briefly renaming The Hamilton on the strength of the two “Graham(e)” bandmembers. The show featured an appearance by Phil Lesh, beloved Grateful Dead bassist and father of Midnight North guitarist and founder, Grahame Lesh. For two-plus hours, the “Gramilton” felt like an extended family reunion with fans from differing generations and bands reuniting after a too-long pandemic hiatus.

Find more about Midnight North on the band’s website.

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7 – Devon Allman, Allman Betts Band @ The Birchmere — 6/13/21

The Allman Betts Band is fast becoming one of my new favorites. Although I enjoy the jam bands of yesteryear (Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, etc.), this ensemble strikes a perfect balance between playing well defined songs and extended improvisation.

In November 2018, the offspring of three of the Allman Brothers Band’s principals (Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Barry Oakley) formed the Allman Betts Band and, although dedicated to carving out their own musical path, their live shows included impeccable performances of their fathers’ music.

Find more of the Allman Betts Band on the band’s website.

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8 – Oh He Dead @ 9:30 Club — 9/25/21

If 2021 is any indication, local favorites Oh He Dead are set on a trajectory to blast into the stratosphere. The individual band members’ personalities mesh perfectly, their live shows produce smiles and laughter all around, and their songs are simply the best, with shades of rock, pop, soul, and funk combining into little melodic gems.

“Poppy enough for ya…bitch?”

Those words, spoken in jest years ago between Oh He Dead’s CJ Johnson and Andy Valenti, actually signaled a dogged determination to never compromise on their dream. Saturday night, during their headlining 9:30 Club debut, the two Oh He Dead (OHD) founders related the story of demoing one of their new songs, only to be told that it wasn’t “pop” enough. That long ago, unnamed producer might be a little humbled to find that OHD has amassed an exhaustive repertoire of original and cover songs, has legions of fans around the world, and this past Saturday played to a packed 9:30 Club (only the first, no doubt, of many such appearances to come).

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

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9 – Nighthawks @ Jammin’ Java — 9/18/21

That the Nighthawks introduced me to the blues is fair to say. I first saw this legendary band back in 1978 and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Institution. If there’s any word to describe The Nighthawks, it’s one that connotes longevity, durability, strength, maturity, and endurance. And of all Washington DC’s institutions, none has the grace, consistency and joy that The Nighthawks delivered on a recent Friday night at Jammin Java in Vienna, Virginia.

Find more about the Nighthawks on the band’s website.

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10 – Jonny Grave @ Pearl Street Warehouse — 9/10/21

As I may have mentioned, I’ve long been a blues fan and to say that the DC metro area has produced some great players would be an understatement. Watching Jonny play again (after a long pandemic break) was a welcome, if brief, return to “normal.”

When Jonny Grave takes the stage, the first thing you notice is not necessarily the trim, black clad figure wielding the bright, cream colored Gretsch. It’s not the way he prowls the stage or the way he exhorts and encourages his bandmates. The first thing one notices…no, feels…is how the energy in the room suddenly amps up as if someone had unexpectedly flipped a switch.

Find more Jonny Grave music on his website.

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As I write this, the Omicron variant has descended on us, case numbers are again rising and so is the despair we’ve felt for far too long. The words I wrote at the end of 2020 still feel relevant today: 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.

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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