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David Fricke’s Year in Rock 2017

Tom Petty’s final tour, Phish’s Bakers Dozen, the rebirth of the Dream Syndicate and other musical highlights from the year that was

David Fricke's Year in Rock 2017

David Fricke looks back on his most memorable shows, albums and music books of 2017.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic; Al Pereira/Getty Images; Scott Barbour/Getty Images

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. 

Midnight Oil: Webster Hall, New York City, May 13th and 14th

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Midnight Oil

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.

Alvarius B: With a Beaker on the Burner and an Otter in the Oven (Abduction – available at www.forcedexposure.com)

Alvarius B

With a Beaker on the Burner and an Otter in the Oven (Abduction, available at Forced Exposure)

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.

Phish: Baker's Dozen, Madison Square Garden, July 22nd

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Phish

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.

Psychedelic Furs: Teatro Cariola, Santiago, Chile, August 5th

Lorne Thomson/Redferns

Psychedelic Furs

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 (Harper Collins) Four Strings, Phony Proof and 300 45's: Adventures from Roxy Music, Sparks & Milk 'N Cookies by Sal Maida (HoZac Books)

Two Rock Memoirs

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.

Gotta Get Up! The Songs of Harry Nilsson 1965-1972

Ace Records’ Songwriter Series

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. 

Steve Miller: The Blues Triangle – Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City, December 1st

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Steve Miller: The Blues Triangle

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.

The Dream Syndicate – Bowery Ballroom, New York City, December 2nd; How Did I Find Myself Here? (Anti)

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The Dream Syndicate

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.

Gov't Mule – "Wish You Were Here," Beacon Theater, New York City, December 30th

Frank Hoensch/Redferns

Gov’t Mule, “Wish You Were Here”

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.

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