I always wait to crack open a new calendar, to another January, before I review my year in music – in records, concerts and pivotal events – because the best of it can still happen in the December innings: Steve Miller playing the blues with fire and ardor; the blistering return, after a 30-year sabbatical, of the Dream Syndicate; and Warren Haynes’ moving epitaph, via Pink Floyd, to a rock & roll year laden with loss. This set of reflections is not everything that mattered to me in 2017. But it will give you a good idea of how my year in rock got me through the year in darkness.
“Exhibitionism,” January 9th; Terminal 5, New York City, February 23rd
It is one thing to ask a musician to confess and detail the inspirations embedded in the work. It is always more illuminating to see those loves in play, as I did in the prelude to my January 9th interview with this Canadian power-rock duo: strolling through the Rolling Stones’ gallery show, “Exhibitionism,” with singer-guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse. King was the bigger Stones freak, taking cellphone photos of vintage guitars and concert posters including one from a 1989 tour that listed Vancouver, Japandroids’ hometown. At one point, King paused over proof sheets for the inner sleeves of Exile on Main Street, explaining how he designed the vinyl edition of his band’s latest album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, in the gritty, documentary style of Robert Frank’s Exile photography.
At Terminal 5, Japandroids wore another set of passions on their sleeves. They were touring with an old friend from past cross-country hauls, singer-guitarist Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, as their opening act. And in the encore, King and Prowse brought Finn back out for a tear through mutual roots: the classic impatience of the Saints’ “(I’m) Stranded,” an Aussie-punk nugget decked out in Exile-style fuzz and howl.
Berlin, New York City, March 24th; Dead Reckoning (Wicked Cool)
To quote myself, from the text I wrote (on the house) for the shrink-wrap sticker of this Philadelphia band’s new album, Soraia are “searing guitars, burning soul and true CBGB grit” – a conclusion I reached after a year of playing their earlier records on my Sirius XM radio show, The Writer’s Block, then finally seeing Soraia live in Jesse Malin’s basement club. That room was hardly big enough to contain the anthemic vigor of the band’s writing and the shotgun channelling of Siouxsie Sioux and Janis Joplin in singer Zou Zou Mansour’s avenging rapture. I stand by the rest of what I wrote in that quote, especially after subsequent gigs I caught at Berlin again and Bowery Electric: “Soraia are the rock you need, in your face now.”
Oklahoma City, April 19th; Jazz Fest, New Orleans, April 30th; Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, Queens, New York, July 27th
I knew, from an interview I did with Petty announcing his 40th-anniversary tour, that his 2017 shows with the Heartbreakers would likely be his last run of that major cross-country kind. No one thought it would be the end of the road. In the aftermath of Petty’s death, at 66 on October 2nd, one week after finishing the tour in Los Angeles, I have counted myself lucky that I caught three shows in very different circumstances. There was opening night in Oklahoma City with two great songs of recent vintage (“American Dream Plan B” from 2014’s Hypnotic Eye; “Something Good Coming” from 2010’s Mojo) that quickly disappeared from the set to give the hits room to breathe; Petty’s cheerful defiance of the monsoon that nearly shut down his headlining day at Jazz Fest; and the second of his two nights in New York, where the improvising quadrants in “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “It’s Good to Be King” were technicolor testament to the unbroken empathy in Petty’s lifelong ride with the Heartbreakers. It came to a sudden, shocking halt; I’m grateful for all that I got in the time that was left.
Webster Hall, New York City, May 13th and 14th
When singer Peter Garrett walked away from Australian politics, after more than a decade in that suit-and-tie dogfight, I was not expecting him to go back to rock & roll’s bully pulpit. But the Oils’ timing was exquisite. Garrett, drummer Rob Hirst, bassist Bones Hillman, and guitarists Jim Moginie and Martin Rotsey hit the road for their first world tour in 15 years just as the polarization and paralysis in American and European capitals rendered every fireball they had thrown in the Eighties and Nineties newly relevant and alarming. Garrett was fighting a viral infection when the Oils pulled into New York on the first U.S. leg, but there was no visible dilution in his fury, the band’s attack or their commitment to the long view in their catalog. The Oils drew from as far back as the 1980 EP, Bird Noises, and 1981’s Place Without a Postcard; revived the haunting last-chance urgency of “Now or Never Land” from 1993’s Earth and Sun and Moon; and recalled their 1990 hit-and-run gig in front of the Exxon offices on 6th Avenue, revisiting the John Lennon cover from that lunchtime set, “Instant Karma.” Garrett couldn’t help pointing out that our current Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is a former Exxon CEO. “How do those people sleep at night, and how can they not remember John Lennon?” Garrett asked at Webster Hall – still exasperated, back to calling those in power to account as if nothing has changed and everything must.
What started as a lively email exchange with Alvarius B – a.k.a. singer-guitarist-songwriter Alan Bishop, formerly of experimental Arizona troupers the Sun City Girls – became an immersion in this marathon ride: 35 songs across a three-volume set of LPs (or two CDs), conjured over three years of sessions in Cairo from an iridescent sandstorm of Southwest desert blues, truly outlaw country, spectral psychedelia and North African-guitar mojo by Bishop’s Egyptian-American band. The handful of covers – Ennio Morricone, Gene Clark, Sly Stone, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band – give you an idea of the surrealistic distance and exploratory wonder Bishop covers in the earthy, funky confrontation of his own writing.
Baker’s Dozen, Madison Square Garden, New York City, July 22nd
I went on the second night. But even knowing the evening’s designated donut flavor – strawberry – did not prepare me for the playful nerve and barbershop-harmony invention of the opening number, the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” in four-part a cappella bond. A cover of Shuggie Otis’ “Strawberry Letter 23” was further, savory icing, while the determined, ascending advance in “Down With Disease” – 19 minutes at the front of the second set; another seven in reprise at the end – was a vivid measure of how far Phish hoped to go across the entire run. In the encore, Anastasio appeared to sing the chorus in Talking Heads’ “Cities” – “Find myself a city to live in” – with extra, loving bite. He and his band were settling in nicely – with 11 donuts to go.
Teatro Cariola, Santiago, Chile, August 5th
I went to Santiago to speak at a public event sponsored by the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio. I expected to hear a lot of local music during my visit. I was not expecting New Wave renewal. In this funky Santiago dancehall, the Furs – on a South American tour between dates in Argentina and Peru – were as dark and driving as the first time I saw them in New York, in 1980, but with more greatest hits. Singer Richard Butler prowled the stage with a limber menace and that scoured-Bowie signature in his voice; the band – with founding bassist Tim Butler, Richard’s brother, and longtime saxophonist Mars Williams – brought the night to a thrust-and-drone climax in “India.”
I also saw a lot of Chilean rock history unfold in front of me: a rehearsal by the progressive-rock institution Los Jaivas, performing tracks from the 1981 concept LP, Alturas de Machu Picchu; a set by the Eighties synth-punk group Electrodomésticos, opening for the Furs; a double bill of the long-running prog-folk groups Congreso and Inti-Illimani; and an entrancing living-room session by an ensemble led by Angel Parra Orrego and Javiera Parra, singing the songs of their late grandmother, Chilean folk icon Violeta Parra. On Las Últimas Composiciones de Violeta Parra (Evolucion), Angel and Javiera give new light and blood to Violeta’s final songs, originally issued the year before her suicide in 1967.
In Love With These Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records by Roger Shepherd (HarperCollins); Four Strings, Phony Proof and 300 45’s: Adventures from Roxy Music, Sparks & Milk ‘N Cookies by Sal Maida (HoZac)
Few record labels have summed up a scene so jubilantly, on such a thin dime. But Flying Nun – founded in 1981 by Roger Shepherd in Christchurch, New Zealand – went even further, propelling that nation’s post-punk generation of bands, besotted with Television and the Velvet Underground, to international prominence. If the Clean, the Verlaines and the Chills, to name a few, were the R.E.M.’s of their hemisphere, Flying Nun was its Elektra and Stiff Records combined, exporting the excitement with aesthetic certainty and democratc, if helter-skelter, business ideals. Shepherd tells his story – including the mistakes that cost him the label for a time – at a natural, conversational gait packed with colorful, at times sobering asides on New Zealand punk-rock nightlife and educational details on the dollars and sense of going indie. Read this before you take your next demo tape to a pressing plant.
Sal Maida’s memoir of his unique trajectory – from growing up amid wise guys in Little Italy to playing bass with Roxy Music, Sparks and the Long Island glam band Milk ‘N Cookies – is a breezy, sharply drawn portrait of life in the nearly-star-time lane. Maida recalls a 1969 holiday in England – catching Yes at the Marquee in London, the Hollies at a prom – with wish-you-were-there immediacy; his accounts of Roxy Music and Sparks at large in the Seventies capture the grind with the glory. As to those 300 45’s: The final third of the book is Maida’s capsule reviews of his favorite singles from the eras here – one per artist, in no particular order. He is an astute advocate, too, as in this summary of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale: “They basically rewrote [Percy Sledge’s] ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ and cast it in a Blonde on Blonde setting.” I can’t say it any better.
In the age of streaming, you don’t get the fine print – the labor and legacy behind the stars, summed up in the credits for producers, engineers, songwriters and session musicians that often made for the most interesting reading on album covers and labels. For the last few years, Ace, the British reissue specialists, have been issuing dynamite, thematic various-artist compilations tied to a particular name or team just beyond the limelight. Earlier collections, some in multiple volumes, have been devoted to songwriters (Goffin-King, Laura Nyro, the pre-solo-album Randy Newman), producer-arrangers (Bert Berns, Ragavoy), and classic-soul treatments of the Bob Dylan and Beatles songbooks. Three of the best in 2017 – packed with hits, classics and obscurities; sequenced like knock-out mixtapes – covered an even longer waterfront of great voices and cross-licensing nirvana: Gotta Get Up! The Songs of Harry Nilsson 1965–1972 (the Monkees, the Shangri-Las, the Yardbirds); To Love Somebody, The Songs of the Bee Gees 1966–1970 (heavy on the R&B twist with Al Green, Nina Simone and the Staple Singers); and Making Time: A Shel Talmy Production, highlighting that American producer’s killer Sixties streak in British studios with the Who, the Kinks, the folk group Pentangle and a young Davy Jones, soon to change his surname to Bowie.
Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City, December 1st
The Space Cowboy turned the focus in this show – the guitarist’s third in an annual series of blues concerts for JALC – on the social and musical forces running between Memphis, Chicago and Texas. Miller was joined by his sparring partner from last year’s presentation, Texas guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, and the Mississippi-born singer and harp player Charlie Musselwhite, who saw a lot of the miles in that triangle in his emigration to Memphis, then Chicago. The three veterans, fronting a sharp, tight crew of JALC regulars, rolled through the blues’ mid–20th-century library – stopping at Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker and Little Walter, among others – with refined chops and near-boyish joy, with Miller adding narrative context and personal reminiscences. My highlight: Miller’s crackling-treble blast of K.C. Douglas’ “Mercury Blues,” a song I first heard when the original Steve Miller Band covered it on a 1968 hippie-flick-soundtrack LP, Revolution.
Bowery Ballroom, New York City, December 2nd; How Did I Find Myself Here? (Anti)
Reunions, 30 years on, are rarely as good as this: a founding unit of the early Eighties’ so-called Paisley Underground in both vintage and evolving form on its best album since the first two (1982’s The Days of Wine and Roses; 1984’s Medicine Show) and in a live incarnation that does incandescent justice to the length of the canon. At the Bowery Ballroom, singer-guitarist-songwriter Steve Wynn fired his passions for Bob Dylan and Lou Reed through a psychedelic-California whirlwind; the veteran rhythm section of drummer Dennis Duck and bassist Mark Walton kept firm, brawling time; and guitarist Jason Victor, from Wynn’s solo band the Miracle 3, evoked the feedback storms and tremolo-bar spasms of original guitarist Karl Precoda while leaving his own violent radiance on the extended-improv passages and twin-guitar dogfights in the new album’s title track. Actually, “reunion” is the wrong word here. The Dream Syndicate are a great band reborn – and still headed out.
Beacon Theater, New York City, December 30th
This was a hard year in rock & roll passings, and Warren Haynes – the Mule’s singer-guitarist-leader – was painfully close to two of them: the suicide of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks last January and the passing of the Allmans’ founding singer-organist Gregg Allman in May. In a room where he spent so many nights onstage with the Allmans, Haynes acknowledged the missing by coming out of the drum-solo sequence in the second set with a full-blown cover of the Allmans’ instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” with guitarist Jimmy Vivino. Then, in the encore, Haynes played a brief flourish of Duane Allman’s “Little Martha” before leading the Mule and their audience into a majestic reading of Pink Floyd’s ballad of memorial, “Wish You Were Here.” Near the end, Haynes stepped around his mike to the front of the stage and let everyone else take the final verse, a gesture of sharing with the crowd and a lesson in singing through profound loss. This year will be a hard one too. But we have the songs to move through it.