If you’d told me on January 1st that concerts would register as a distant memory by year’s end, I’m not sure whether I would have either laughed or cried. Either way, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine how this feels — the strange sensation of my favorite venues seeming so remote. Of driving by them and wondering what it’s like inside. It’s so heartening that relief for those venues is on the way, as a result of recent Congressional action, but with live music’s return still a ways off, I’ve been turning to live albums as a way to fill that void. And if Bandcamp Fridays have been any indication, artists have also been turning to the format — as a way to engage fans while we all wait for tours to resume.
Here are a handful of 2020 live albums I loved, starting with one that immediately feels like an all-time great.
Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood — LIVE
The word transcendent gets thrown around a lot, often as hyperbole in place of “really good.” But this live set from Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood breaks through the performer/audience barrier in spectacular fashion. In the process, she lays bare the set of power dynamics that hangs in the balance at a concert. While that whole set of invisible exchanges — everything from the height of the stage and the price of admission to the convention of applause — often flies under the radar for attendees, imbalances are acutely perceptible when you’re the performer, and on this night in Germany, Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood turned a lack of balance (resulting from racism they experienced while on tour) into art.
You hear it in the opening moments of LIVE, when Dawid is scolded by a hotel employee for playing a lobby piano, and you hear it during the set, when Dawid entreats an audience member who didn’t join a call-and-response chant: “What’s wrong with me? You don’t love me. You don’t love my family. We need you to affirm us.” In that moment, she shatters the whole set of power dynamics, especially the one about crowd participation being earned, en route to something both totally revolutionary and refreshingly simple: She holds someone in the audience accountable. In real time. And not by stopping the show and having them removed or shunned by the rest of the crowd; she brings that onlooker’s decision to withhold support into the song itself.
The very best live albums find a way to break down that barrier. Think “You’ve Got a Friend” from Donny Hathaway’s similarly titled Live album — the crowd becomes a part of the song during the choruses, and there may not be a more beautiful recording of that well-traveled composition. But what Dawid did in Germany feels vital for this moment, especially as we have some time and distance from live music to think about how concerts work. Whether we’re talking over singers who are baring their souls, or failing to compensate those same artists by streaming their music instead of buying it at the merch table, listeners could stand to hold themselves accountable in ways we haven’t in the past. It’s not unlike how this summer helped many white folks find a clearer sense of accountability in connection to the many manifestations of systematic racism in America. We can all do so much better, and I’m in awe of the way Dawid’s art has illustrated that.
John Moreland — Live at The Grey Eagle – Asheville, NC – 6/9/19
I was so thrilled to see this pop up on Bandcamp. Moreland’s show in Richmond at the Camel was one of those rare moments when you know you’re in the middle of something you’ll never forget. I remember wanting to hold onto every moment. It was as packed in there as I’ve ever seen the Camel, and yet the crowd was absolutely silent as Moreland sang. As a group, we were hypnotized as part of what seemed like a collective realization of how lucky we were. Those vibrations are long gone, which is the way it has to be, but getting to hear a similar set (both with the multitalented John Calvin Abney accompanying) is a real treat. Get a taste by listening to their barn-burner of an opening number, “Sallisaw Blue.”
Joan Shelley — Live at the Bomhard
July’s Bandcamp Friday was quite the shindig, and it started unusually early. I already had Live at the Bomhard downloaded, but No Quarter had bundled a new vinyl pressing with an LP of Nathan Salsburg’s fascinating Landwerk album, in which he paired melodic loops lifted from old 78 RPM records with guitar and lap steel to create new compositions. FOMO was running high, so in the wee small hours of the morning, just after midnight on the West Coast, I quietly grabbed my laptop and made my purchase in the bathroom to avoid waking a still-snoozing Mrs. YHT. What does this have to do with the actual content of Live at the Bomhard, which comprises a totally fantastic survey of the Kentucky singer-songwriter’s catalog? Nothing, of course. I just thought y’all might find the image of a 36-year-old dude hiding in the bathroom with a laptop to buy records at 3 a.m. funny and/or endearingly deranged. (Just don’t tell Mrs. YHT.)
Daniel Romano’s Outfit — Okay Wow
Good lord, y’all. It’s so good. This is one hell of a band, and not just in the sense of rendering songs well or being proficient. They have that elusive thing that makes the whole endeavor feel grander and more meaningful than just people on a stage playing instruments. The harmonies feel triumphant, and there’s grace and power to the way the group moves together. If you haven’t heard Okay Wow, please listen to it now.
Sylvan Esso — WITH
Sylvan Esso would be near the top of a list of “Acts that I wish I’d made it a point to see live before the virus hit” — a list that would double as the list of “Acts you better believe I’m making it a point to see live after this shitstorm passes.” WITH is more than a temporary fix; it’s the realization of a vision for what the group’s songs can feel like when rebuilt with a community mindset, with some of my favorite musicians in the whole wide word (including Adam Schatz of Landlady, Joe Westerlund of Megafaun, and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Molly Sarlé from Mountain Man) forming that caring and deeply connected community.
Other 2020 live albums I enjoyed:
Phil Cook — From the Kitchen (too many excellent volumes in the series to pick just one)
The Decemberists — Live Home Library Vol I
Dogwood Tales — Live in the Velvet Rut Vol. 2
Drive-By Truckers — Plan 9 Records July 13, 2006
Hiss Golden Messenger — A fundraiser for Durham Public Schools students
Hiss Golden Messenger — Forward, Children: A fundraiser for Durham Public Schools students
Jason Isbell — Reunions: Live at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville
Mdou Moctar — Mixtape (another great series — I believe only the most recent volume is available, though)
The Mountain Goats — The Jordan Lake Sessions
Mountain Man — Look at Me Don’t Look at Me
Sylvan Esso — WITH LOVE
Ryley Walker — Bozo in Big Smoke