2020 in Review Part 5: Live

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live (You are here!)
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites

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

From September’s Bandcamp Friday post:

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

Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

How’s everyone’s week going? Anything eventful happening? In all seriousness, if you’re like me, you could use a reason to stare at something other than election results. Bandcamp Friday to the rescue once again. In truth, Bandcamp waiving its fees for a day is more than an excuse to stop doomscrolling. We seem to be entering a new phrase of the pandemic-prompted pause on live music, given that case numbers are climbing to record highs, and I’m more motivated than ever to send love and support to the artists who are releasing new music out into a world that’s desperately in need of the kind of fulfillment only art can provide.

This time around, I thought I’d zoom in on folks with Richmond connections. I can’t say for sure what’s going to happen with the election, but I know that looking out for one another listening more deeply are going to be crucial along the road ahead. As I said in my post on election day, I love you all, and I think you’ll find some new music you love below:

Gold Connections — Ammunition

I posted back in June about Gold Connections’ previous release, a searching standalone tune entitled “Iowa City” that was recorded in isolation during The Year of Our Lord 2020™. These tunes, on the other hand, came from sessions that predated COVID, and while these have a full band feel that distinguishes them from “Iowa City,” it feels like it’s all part of one big winning streak in which Gold Connections is releasing one crisp, memorable tune after another. If tapes are your thing, be sure to grab one of these before they’re gone. I certainly will be.

Sons Of The James — “Everlasting

The full-length debut from this dynamic duo of Rob Milton and DJ Harrison is due 11/19, and I can’t wait to hear the whole thing. All the singles (including “Things I Should Have Said,” which was featured on HBO show Insecure) have been excellent, and this last one, “Everlasting,” is no exception.

Bradford Thomas — Bradventure III

When I started making mix CDs that compiled select Bandcamp Friday downloads, I decided on a no-repeat artists rule — as a way to keep things fresh, and as an extra incentive for being adventurous when the next Bandcamp Friday rolled around. Beat craftsman Ohbliv has sidestepped that rule repeatedly thanks to his many pseudonyms — I’m pretty sure only one or two mixes HAVEN’T included sounds he made. This is my first purchase on his Bradford Thomas page, but I bet it won’t be my last.

Big Kahuna OG — HOW TO MOB, Vol. 1

More brilliance from the Mutant Academy contingent — this time a beat tape from Big Kahuna OG, who is half of the combo that brought you standout 2019 LP Holly Water. I’ve been enjoying all of HOW TO MOB, Vol. 1, but “SCHEME THRU THE VONAGE” is an early favorite, with layer upon layer of sound inviting you to lose yourself along the way. So good.

The Hustle Season — Volume 1

The Hustle Season podcast has been my go-to auditory coping mechanism during this unfathomably tense week. Speaking of losing yourself — it’s been such a relief disappearing into discussions of Phil Collins’ relationship troubles, magician-shaming, and the surprising awesomeness of the AC/DC comeback. I’m a relatively new listener, so I’m in that honeymoon phase of familiarizing myself with all the regular segments and recurring jokes, but no additional research is needed to know that the show’s hosts (Reggie Pace, Gabriel Santamaria, James Seretis, and Kelli Strawbridge) bring a super-deep pool of musical talent to the table, and their Volume 1 LP provides a kaleidoscopic glimpse of those varied interests and abilities. I definitely recommend giving “The Day The Nationalists Came” a listen as a way to process the week’s political news. In that sense, the Hustle Season has helped me both escape from and engage with this challenging and historic time. I’m deeply grateful.

tangent — “gone in your eyes

More Kelli Strawbridge! The versatile member of some of my favorite Richmond groups (including Mekong Xpress & the Get Fresh Horns) has shared a new song under the stage name tangent. Love the feel and flow of this one. Looking forward to hearing more tangent tunes.

Mitchel Evan — “Leeches

Richmond singer-songwriter Mitchel Evan has kept a steady stream of new music coming throughout the quarantine, including a seven-song EP entitled Don’t Tell Me It’s Gonna Be Alright that was released in April. (Also available on Bandcamp!) His latest is called “Leeches” — alongside previous single “Band-Aid,” it heralds an LP that promises to be one of the city’s 2020 Americana highlights.

Other releases on my radar for today:

Mdou Moctar — Mixtape Vol. 7
Jaimie Branch — SOS sessions 3
ragenap & the Baked Growhouse Orchestra — “the national anthem
DJ Mentos — The Maxell Tapes Volume 2
Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell — Live at the Shoals Theatre
Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood — LIVE

Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

It’s time for another installment in Bandcamp’s series of fee-free Fridays, though this month’s event has an elevated sense of purpose amid the Black Lives Matter demonstrations happening all over the country. While Bandcamp started waiving its revenue share once a month as a way to generate income for artists who have been negatively impacted by COVID-19 and social distancing, several bands and labels are pledging some or all of today’s proceeds to organizations working toward racial justice, including the National Bailout Fund, Reclaim the Block, NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and many more.

Whether you’re supporting black artists directly or pledging funds to the organizations listed above, there are so many great (and great sounding) ways to show your support during this pivotal moment. Here’s Bandcamp’s official list, and here are a few recommendations of my own:

Angel Bat Dawid — Transition East

Back in May, the composer, clarinetist, singer, and “spiritual jazz soothsayer” Angel Bat Dawid released a pair of new tracks — “Transition East” and “No Space Fo Us” — with the option to buy a vinyl/book/poster bundle that includes an outer space grey 7-inch, a copy of Emma Warren’s book Make Some Space, and a poster that bridges the two. “Transition East” was originally conceived as accompanying music for the audiobook version of Make Some Space, which tells the story of the dynamic London DIY music facility and community called Total Refreshment Centre. (Dawid and Warren met there in 2017.) What a beautifully rendered collection this is. And what beautiful music this is.

Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble — “Stay Beautiful”

Angel Bat Dawid is also part of International Anthem labelmate Damon Locks’ 15-piece Black Monument Ensemble, which released the stunning Where Future Unfolds LP in 2019. Can’t recommend that one highly enough. Same goes for “Stay Beautiful,” which was recorded live in November of 2018 at Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory and released a couple of months ago as a single. It’s a tale of layered meditation, from the spoken poetry to poetry in motion (video available here), backed by Dawid’s pulsing clarinet and culminating with a cappella repetition of the title phrase.

McKinley Dixon — The House That Got Knocked Down

If you thought the Angel Bat Dawid thread in this post was finished, not so fast. Richmond-based artist McKinley Dixon released The House That Got Knocked Down in March, and as it turns out, Dawid is a fan of Dixon’s work. The clarinetist had this to say about “Sun Black,” the third track on the EP:

McKinley Dixon is an incredible MC. His new album… is full of laid back vibes, soulful beats and powerful delivery. I met McKinley at a film festival and we became great friends. When he told me that he had a new album coming out I immediately downloaded it when it was released and was completely blown away!

I had no idea this connection existed when I started working on this post. True story. I also recommend picking up Dixon’s entry in Saddle Creek’s Document Series.

Amaria Hamadalher — Music from Saharan WhatsApp 05

Sahel Sounds has a great thing going with its Music from Saharan WhatsApp series, which shares music recorded in the Sahel directly to cell phones. It’s immediate. It’s direct. There’s such electricity to seeing a new set of recordings pop up, knowing they’re unfiltered but not knowing what you’ll hear. This month’s featured artist is Amaria Hamadalher, and while I have heard her play before, it’s been with the group Les Filles de Illighadad. Excited to start exploring her work outside of that context. And can we all agree that this cover art is amazing? (I believe it’s from a shot that appears in the first issue of Third Man’s new Maggot Brain magazine, which is excellent.)

Mdou Moctar — Mixtape Vol. 2

Speaking of Sahel Sounds, Mdou Mactor released the first volume of this new mixtape series for the May 1 Bandcamp day, and it’s a keeper, mixing various live and acoustic recordings into one long track in a way that feels organic and alive. Speaking of “alive,” Moctar’s guitar is a live wire as always. Brings me back to the frenzied feel of his live shows at Strange Matter and Gallery5 over the past few years. While he may not have been able to perform at Friday Cheers this year as scheduled, these mixtapes are a great way to get a sense for what his sets are like.