The South London band Dry Cleaning are a bit of a mystery. They seem to have appeared suddenly, out of nowhere, but that’s not quite true. In 2019 alone, they released two fantastic EPs and then followed those up last year with the band’s first LP, New Long Leg — a brilliant record that’s hard to not listen to constantly. And in that short time they’ve created a buzz that’s hard to ignore.
On their first full US tour, Dry Cleaning recently made its way to a completely sold-out Ottobar. (Right before the pandemic, the band did play a short swing through the states.)
Matthew Logan Vasquez leads Delta Spirit in a performance at Ottobar on March 26, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Some rock bands deserve an attached forewarning, even if only half-serious, to help illustrate just what it is they’re doing up there on the stage or in the recording studio.
“CAN YOU HANDLE THE SPIRIT?” has probably been used as a T-shirt slogan or a sticker at some point in the past for some act out there, somewhere. But that could be a good question to pose at the door to who hasn’t yet experienced the furious goodtime that is a live Delta Spirit show.
Led by the energetic and wild-eyed Matthew Logan Vasquez and currently based in SoCal, Delta Spirit was just in town back in the fall but announced another local show at Baltimore’s Ottobar not long ago, and the five-piece group took the small stage at the storied Howard Street venue for what would be a fulfilling, exemplar night led by this consistently thrilling band.
Bob Mould’s return to 9:30 Club in September ranked among David LaMason’s Best Shows of 2021. (Photo by David LaMason)
If you would have told me around this time last year that I would have had the opportunity to see concerts again, let alone in indoor venues -– some that I hadn’t stepped foot inside in over a year and half –- I would have thought you were crazy. But not only did I have that opportunity –- in large part to vaccines, mask mandates, and the venues and artists who did everything in their power to make sure it was safe to experience live music again –- but I saw some of the best shows I’ve seen in years!
One of the shows I had been hoping to see after a year and a half of not having shows was Nada Surf, the New York-based band that’s consistently put out album after album of great guitar heavy gems, whether it be old favorites like “Popular” or “Always Love” or their ninth LP, Never Not Enough, released on Barsuk Records last year which is filled with the kind of hook-filled rock, like opener, “So Much Love,” that grabs your brain and holds on tight. Nada Surf has always had great songs, but I think the songs on this new album are some of the best they’ve created.
That’s been the way for this group that got its start when its members were just high schoolers up in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Touring relentlessly and honing their sound, The Districts have made a name for themselves around Philly, where they’ve lived for the better part of the last decade and where they received crucial support from local media and music lovers as they strived to find their way.
Andrew Savage leads Parquet Courts during a performance at Ottobar in Baltimore on Oct. 30, 2021. (Photo by Casey Vock)
These days there really aren’t too many bands that can flourish or even survive without a social media presence, as platforms like Instagram and Twitter are undeniably essential platforms for connecting with fans and promoting material.
Try to convey that to Parquet Courts — an indie band based in Brooklyn that has barely lifted a finger on social media since forming back in 2010. Without a single Tweet, and only two IG feed posts of questionable authenticity — is that even an official handle? — Parquet Courts has dismissed the importance or even any practical use for the apps that countless humans spend hours engaging on their smartphones.
Alex G performs on the second of two sold out nights at Ottobar in Baltimore on Oct. 29, 2021. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Do-it-yourself artists obviously have resources at their disposal that simply weren’t there for musicians of the past. But that doesn’t necessarily put success any closer within reach, nor does it grant an artist any listeners.
The fact that Alex Giannascoli recorded his first album as a senior at Haverford High School, even in today’s day and age, is an impressive achievement, and by attracting his initial fan base in organic fashion, he set the course for what would be a remarkable rise to prominence over the course of a decade while staying true to his lo-fi sound and his hands-on approach to creating unreserved songs.
Recently selling out two back-to-back shows at Ottobar in Baltimore as his musical vehicle known as Alex G, previously known as (Sandy) Alex G, showed his momentum hasn’t been slowed by the pandemic.
Not to sound like a Doubting Thomas, but as recently just a few months ago, I don’t think I would have believed it. But Wednesday night, I found myself walking into the Ottobar for the first indoor club show I’ve experienced in nearly a year and a half. Definitely the longest time I’ve gone without stepping foot in the my home away from home in probably 20 years. But if there was a show that bring us all back home it was seeing Mac McCaughan and Jim Wilbur of Superchunk on that raised stage, playing to a rapt, and vaccinated, audience that night.
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.