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

2018 in Review: 15 Favorites

Happy New Year’s Eve, y’all! I’m clicking publish on this just before picking up my kids from daycare and heading to a neighbor’s house to send off 2018 in style. It was a really weird year. Good in lots of ways, bad in many other ways, but I’d argue that the music was truly excellent. Here’s one more list — the albums I loved that didn’t fit into the other categories (EPs, Jazz, Blasts from the Past, and RVA), ordered alphabetically. There’s even a quick list of other jams I enjoyed at the bottom.

Thank y’all wonderful people for sticking with this dusty old blog in 2018. Be safe out there tonight. See you in 2019.

Arctic Monkeys — Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

File this under “Things I didn’t know I needed…” If you would have come up to me and said, “One of the bands you like is going to make a completely sincere album about a space casino,” I’m not sure how I would have reacted, or if I would have guessed Arctic Monkeys were the band. Then again, you could argue that the seeds for Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino were planted in the making of A.M., in which Alex Turner found a new and uniquely convincing narrative voice as a chronicler of messy late night interactions. That’s what makes Tranquility Base work so well: It doesn’t sound like Turner is acting, even though it couldn’t be clearer (ahem, space casino) that what he’s singing about is imaginary.

As a side note, I listened to this almost exclusively while on a non-imaginary trip to Las Vegas earlier this year. My first time there. Alex Turner was my spirit guide. Like I said, “Things I didn’t know I needed…”

Car Seat Headrest — Twin Fantasy

This year’s winner for Difficult Album Categorization. It’s not a reissue, since the songs have been rerecorded, but the original Twin Fantasy was released all the way back in 2011, so this doesn’t exactly feel like a new album. In the end, none of that matters, because there’s power baked into these songs, their themes, and their memorable melodies that transcends how they’re presented. And I genuinely enjoy how Will Toledo forces you to examine your assumptions about whether recording a song means it’s “finished.”

Honorable mention for difficult album categorization goes to Ryley Walker’s excellent rework of Dave Matthews Band’s Lillywhite Sessions, which were never actually released, making Walker’s album the first official Lillywhite release? I guess?

Phil Cook — People Are My Drug

This album has all of spiritual buoyancy of Cook’s Southland Mission album, and it arrived at a time when his brand of relentless optimism is needed most. I’ll never forget giving it a spin when my faith in humanity was especially low, after a creepy encounter I had while canvassing here in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District for Abigail Spanberger. I got home, put this on, made a pot of chili, and the world felt right again. Well, almost as right as it did when Spanberger won 🙂

Jonny Greenwood — Phantom Thread OST

Cooking with mushrooms will never be the same in the Jones household. Not sure what I mean? See the movie, and then try to cook with mushrooms while this soundtrack is playing in the background and not get creeped out. It’s impossible.

Lonnie Holley — MITH

Holley is a true original. I’ll never forget how his 2017 show at the Broadberry was staged — Holley on keys and two cellos. Tons of improvisation. It was wild. I follow him on Instagram, and I still haven’t seen that arrangement repeated. I was ready for anything when MITH came out, and while there’s still a wildness to the way Holley delivers his songs, there’s a sharp thematic focus to the album, with “I Woke Up In A Fucked-Up America” leading the way.

As a side note, this made the Bitter Southerner’s Best Southern albums of 2018 list, and I loved the way Chuck Reece’s podcast explored “I Snuck Off The Slave Ship.”

Jump Little Children — Sparrow

Off Your Radar readers know about my love for Jump Little Children. I was so thrilled to see the band had gotten back together and recorded a new set of songs, but given how much time had passed, I was cautious in terms of my optimism. Lead single “Hand On My Heartache” was a great start, though — and a big hit in the Jones household, given that my daughter loved it right away — and the rest of Sparrow ended up following suit. We’ve listened a bunch as a family, which I love because of how I first learned about the band from my older sister.

I had a really hard time picking a song to feature for this one, because so many of these songs demonstrate what’s been great about Jump Little Children all along. I ended up going with the title track, which opens the album with a nice balance of quiet moments and anthemic builds.

Adrianne Lenker — abysskiss

I fell hard for “cradle,” which I first heard while on a trip to Maine with my family. It seems so fitting in retrospect, and not just because I listened to the song while I was literally putting together a Pack ‘n Play. There’s such a wonderful sense of intimacy to the album. Even when Lenker is singing “No one can be my man/No one can be my woman,” the closeness of her voice makes you feel like you’re on the inside of some warm, small space that she’s constructed with her words and arpeggiated chords. I love spinning the album at home and feeling grateful for the warm, small space in the world my wife and I have constructed together.

Buck Meek — Buck Meek

The two brilliant Big Thief solo albums are back-to back alphabetically! How perfect is it that? Meek is Big Thief’s guitarist, and I love his approach — restless and inventive, not unlike Blake Mills’. I even hear some of the same guitar tones. Meek’s lyrics are just as gripping. I could go on and on about “Joe By The Book.” Who knows how many times I’ve listened to it. It doesn’t even cross the two-minute mark, but it’s a study in how details enrich lyrics, with colloquialisms like “Who’d you fool to borrow this race car?” and “You should get paid to waste my time” that feel so true-to-life that I wonder if they’re one side of a real phone conversation. Either that or the most economical short story I’ve heard since “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Blake Mills — Look

Speaking of Blake Mills and restlessness… Look came out later in the year (I’m actually still waiting for my online order for a vinyl copy to be fulfilled), and I’m still getting to know it. But I love how Mills is constantly looking for new muses — in this case it’s Japanese guitar synthesizers from the 1970s. According to an interview I read, Look is a document of Mills’ learning to use them — like a sketchbook kept by an artist mastering a new technique. Yet Look sounds like mastery to me, and I envision spending a ton more time with it.

Mountain Man — Magic Ship

This one has been within the vicinity of my record player since it came in the mail. In all seriousness, I don’t think it’s left that room. I’ve reached for it in so many situations: Cooking dinner, first waking up on the weekend and making coffee, during chaotic kid dinners. It pairs with solitude and serious contemplation just as well as it accompanies lighthearted moments of communion. Can’t wait to see Mountain Man at Capital Ale House in the coming year. Get your tickets here if you haven’t already.

John Prine — The Tree of Forgiveness

Much of what I said about Both Directions at Once in my jazz post applies here as well, since this is Prine’s first album of original material since I started getting to know his music. But I’m inclined to think this contains some true all-timers. “Summer’s End” packs an incredible emotional punch and reminds me a little of the power of “Hello in There,” and “When I Get to Heaven” offers a beautiful example of Prine’s benevolently dark humor.

Rosalía — El Mal Querer

Hypnotic spareness. Arresting, beautifully ornamental singing that lays bare the link between cante flamenco and musical traditions rooted farther east. Production from the brilliant El Guincho, who shows as much of a knack for listening here as for building out rhythm and atmosphere. Add in a track that incorporates the melody from “Cry Me A River” and you have an unreasonably generous feast for the ears, especially if you’re interested in the interconnectedness of styles from around the world.

Jeff Tweedy — WARM

I guess I never really stopped to think about the opaqueness of Wilco’s lyrics. There’s always been so much to dig into musically, especially since Nels Cline joined the band and became a focal point unto himself (one of the reasons I love Sky Blue Sky). But this whole narrative about how the lyrics on WARM are direct in a way Tweedy’s haven’t been in the past — I totally buy it. It really does feel like a refreshing creative left turn, and I feel like I understand him a little better after listening to WARM. That’s pretty incredible, given how much time I’ve spent with his work over the past decade or so.

Brocker Way — Wild Wild Country OST

I loved Wild Wild Country, and I especially loved the way it used Bill Callahan’s “Drover” in the series’ climactic scene. In that moment, the lyrics of “Drover” bring the show’s dark and complicated narrative full-circle, and the show brings out shading in the lyrics that I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. When I first saw this album at Small Friend Records & Books, I thought it would be more of a soundtrack, with songs like “Drover” included, but this is the original score, which was done by Brocker Way, brother of the creators of Wild Wild Country. When I saw it had been pressed to maroon vinyl, I had to snag it. I’m glad I did, because it’s haunting in really interesting ways — controversially so.

As a side note, you’ll see an honorable mention below for Callahan’s Live at Third Man Records album, which (coincidentally?) includes a version of “Drover.” Did I mention the song is where the show got its name?

Thom Yorke — Suspiria OST

Creepy, pretty, and perfectly suited for pumpkin carving. Thom Yorke’s first foray into the world of film scoring. Really impressive. Looking forward to hearing more from him in this format.

10 more 2018 albums I enjoyed:

Nathan Bowles — Plainly Mistaken
Bill Callahan — Live at Third Man Records
Father John Misty — God’s Favorite Customer
Mary Lattimore — Hundreds of Days
Lindi Ortega — Liberty
Screaming Females — All at Once
Shovels & Rope — Busted Jukebox Volume 2
Ryley Walker — The Lillywhite Sessions
Wilco — Live At The Troubadour L.A. 1996
Neil Young: Roxy — Tonight’s the Night Live

More 2018 in Review:

2018 in Review: EPs
2018 in Review: Jazz
2018 in Review: Blasts from the Past
2018 in Review: RVA Part 1