In August 2022, I relocated to Bellingham, Washington, looking forward to a new and exciting (but uncertain) future covering the region’s music scene for Parklife DC. Now, as I look back over the last year, I’ve been afforded some extraordinary opportunities to see new artists in lovely, intimate venues.
Although it may not be the musical powerhouse that is the DC metro region, Bellingham’s claim to unique and stellar artists is second to none. The images included here are only a small sample of the great music I’ve experienced since arriving in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. These are my Top 10 photos of 2023.
I was welcomed by the warm and friendly staff at the 140-seat New Prospect Theatre, a reopened performance space near the heart of downtown Bellingham, for my first show there: Caitlin Canty along with Joachim Cooder and Will Seeders. Normally, photographing in unfamiliar venues can be a daunting prospect (no pun intended) but the lighting, sight-lines, and Caitlin’s performance made for a lovely musical and photographic experience.
The term “power trio” usually evokes images (and memories) of bands like Cream, Rush, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience where a virtuoso lead electric guitarist, heavy booming bassist, and powerful drummer together drive the sonic mayhem forward. But perhaps there is space in the definition of power trio to include a singer-songwriter, pedal steel player, and electric mbira player doubling on percussion who captivate a sold-out roomful of attentive fans with pristine vocals, soothing melodies, and a sense of warmth and intimacy.
Photographed in another of Bellingham’s small listening rooms, Leigh Jones of Portland’s Eugenia Riot stopped into The Blue Room for a record release show for “Can’t Wait to Miss You” back in May. My first exposure to the region’s musical riches, I was blown away by Jones’s vocals, songwriting, and self-assured stage presence.
Leigh Jones and her seven-piece collective, Eugenia Riot, took another step on their musical journey celebrating the release of their debut album, Can’t Wait to Miss You, at Bellingham’s Blue Room. And for the warm and attentive audience, Leigh’s songs guided us a little further down the path of musical discovery. For me, it was a lovely introduction to a newly discovered artist in an intimate Bellingham venue.
For a long time, I’d been wanting to see Joe Pug perform. When he was scheduled at the Wild Buffalo. I leapt at the chance to cover the show. I was not disappointed. Pug’s musical tales and engaging, sincere delivery held us enraptured.
If a song is a short story, then Joe Pug’s songs are novels, epic and engrossing. With his uncanny knack for narrative and powers of description, Pug wove tales of hope, and despair, on a chilly, rainy March evening at Bellingham’s Wild Buffalo House of Music.
I’ve long been a fan since I saw Sunny perform as an opening act years ago at DC’s Pearl Street Warehouse. Her “show” hasn’t changed much since then: a young Black woman standing stock-still at a microphone singing songs of extraordinary beauty, depth, and meaning. Sunny’s another in a long line of singer-songwriters upholding, and celebrating, Woody Guthrie’s life mission: “It’s a folk singer’s job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb comfortable people.”
Sunny’s music also was reminiscent of American guitar master John Fahey, whose playing style is credited with establishing “American primitive guitar,” a genre based on folk and blues traditions and referring primarily to the self-taught nature of the music and its minimalist style. Lest you think that primitive means “simple,” Sunny’s unique finger-picking style evokes Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, whose own technique relies on the thumb to provide a bassline while his remaining fingers define the melody. Sunny did much the same thing but relied only on her thumb and forefinger, her other three fingers firmly anchored to the guitar’s body. Meanwhile, her left-hand flied over the strings and frets in a dizzying combination of chords, hammer-ons, and pull-offs.
When I learned Joachim would accompany Caitlin Canty, I was intrigued at how the evening might go. In a word, it was sublime. As I was searching for unique sightlines and lighting, I caught this momentary glimpse of Joachim from the opposite side of the stage.
At New Prospect Theatre on Nov. 14, Joachim Cooder (Ry’s son) kicked the evening off with a short set featuring tunes from his 2020 release, Over That Road I’m Bound-The Songs of Uncle Dave Macon (Nonesuch). Cooder is known as a percussionist but he is also an expert electric mbira player…During Cooder’s opening set, he used it as a lead instrument but when he returned with Canty the mbira provided beautiful accompaniment to Will Seeders’s mournful pedal steel, and Canty’s pitch-perfect vocals.
I’d known of Yo La Tengo for years, but had never fully embraced the band’s music, or seen a live performance. I was blown away by Ira’s guitarwork and the sonic power that came off that stage, filling the Wild Buffalo’s open spaces.
If live performance gives one a window into the spontaneity, power, and drive of a band, then YLT blew me away and, judging from the crowd’s reaction, most of whom were long-time fans, the feeling was shared. Since 1992, the band’s lineup has remained Ira Kaplan (guitars, keyboards, vocals), Georgia Hubley (drums, keyboards, vocals), and James McNew (bass, keyboards, vocals). True to form, the trio filled the spacious Wild Buffalo with raucous sound: Ira coaxing a dizzying array of sounds from his guitar; Georgia, her expert drumming surpassed only by her gorgeous vocals that provided a wonderful melodic counterpoint to McNew’s powerful bass lines.
This was a bucket list show if ever there ever was one. Although I’d seen Young perform on various occasions since the 1980s, I seriously thought the last time I saw him in 2012 would be…well, my last. Whether through chance, serendipity, or just plain dumb luck, though, I witnessed the master performing alone in Auburn, Washington (southeast of Seattle) on a warm July evening. Neil looked like an old man (he’s pushing 80, after all), but for a solo show-no band to fill musical spaces-he kept the energy cranked to “11” the entire evening. I was there to review the show (no photo pass) but, along with 9,000 other fans, still managed to make a few iPhone images.
Neil’s love of tradition and all things analog was evident in the way he’s surrounded himself with vintage musical instruments, saving them from obscurity or, worse, the landfill. His music itself is a bridge between artists who preceded him, people like Bert Jansch, Carl Perkins, and the King himself (Elvis Presley) to a younger generation of musicians who cite Young as a mentor and influence.
As a (mediocre) guitar player, I’ve long been a fan of guitar rock and artists like Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, and John Jorgenson (Hellecasters) who create compelling, accessible instrumentals. Vai brings a wizardry and showmanship that I’d never experienced at a live show before that kept me guessing where his instrumentals would go.
“I’ve been touring the world for forty-three years!”
If there is any musician who’s earned bragging rights to longevity, rock guitar virtuoso Steve Vai certainly belongs on that list. On a recent night in Vancouver’s Rickshaw Theatre, Steve and his band reminded a sold-out house of his relevance and endurance on a night that was wall-to-wall guitar rock magnificence.
I interviewed Dante in anticipation of Steve Vai’s Rickshaw show. Our conversation was enlightening, humorous, and a complete delight. Watching him, months later, perform with Steve Vai was the same. Although there were plenty of rock star poses, we all knew not to take ourselves too seriously, especially Dante as the camaraderie, banter, and stellar musicianship proved the “new guy” deserved to be onstage with his musical hero.
What I love about Steve’s music is his attention to the detail of textures, much in the same way that Alex Lifeson is a very textural guitar player. I think that’s why I love electronic music so much, it’s all about texture. There’s a million different ways to make a chord sound and Steve and Alex both go for a lot of the sounds I really like…it comes down to one simple truth about performing that I learned from the public speaking world. People will not remember what you say, they will remember how you made them feel.
After seeing Chris open for Neil Young a few months earlier I knew I had to see him perform in a more intimate setting. Chris’s songs require attention, the lyrics illuminating larger truths, his stories intensely personal and revealing. At the Irene and Harold Walton Theatre, Chris’s passion and clarity shone through on every song-the photos all confirmed it.
In true troubadour fashion, Pierce prefaced each song with a lengthy introduction detailing its background and inspiration, crediting cowriters, and endearing himself to the enthralled, near sold-out audience at Mt. Baker Theatre on Sept. 9. Pierce’s songs combine blues, soul, and gospel, but fall clearly into a traditional folk genre that channels the spirit of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Opening the show with “American Silence” (from the 2021 album of the same name), a lament on the failure of civil discourse in politics (and elsewhere) to address the country’s many pressing issues, Pierce set the tone for an evening of stories; both musical and spoken word.
What will the New Year bring? I’ve already got a few shows lined up and can’t wait for what 2024 brings. I experienced a huge variety of extraordinary live music this past year. Will 2024 exceed it? Only one way to find out, get to as much live music as possible-sound advice for everybody!
All photos courtesy and copyright Mark Caicedo.