I admit it; I’ve been really lucky this year. I’ve been to loads of gigs featuring bands and artists across a range of musical styles and I haven’t seen a bad one; fifty-two weeks of great gigs and now I have to pick out my five favourites. It was never going to be easy and the gigs that made this list were truly special for many different reasons. So, in no particular order, here we go.
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul – Indig02 October 2016
Little Steven, Steven van Zandt, Miami Steve, Silvio from The Sopranos. This is someone who’s had a huge impact on popular culture as an Asbury Juke, an E-Streeter, an actor and the man who wrote the anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City”. If you grew up loving The Boss and Southside Johnny (and I did) you knew and loved this man. When I heard about this gig, part of the BluesFest at the O2, my only concern was to get a photo pass. Despite pulling every string I could, there was no joy, but I wasn’t giving up, so I borrowed my wife’s camera (a Nikon Coolpix P530 for the record) to try to grab one good shot of the main man. The thirteen-piece band (with horn charts written by fellow E-Streeter and Juke Ed Manion) was stunningly good as Steven ran through a set of his own songs, blues covers and old soul classics. There wasn’t a second’s respite and there was even a guest appearance from Richie Sambora. And I got the photo. What a night.
Underhill Rose @ Green Note
I’d been looking forward to this one for months, ever since I missed them at the same venue in April because of other commitments. After a lovely meal with Plus One, we made our way to the venue a fashionable fifteen minutes after doors open, only to find that the doors were still firmly closed and there were no lights. Power failure? Not a problem; the Green Note team lit up the venue with dozens of candles and Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed and Salley Williamson decided to play a genuinely unplugged set. The setting was perfect for the band’s beautiful melodies and glorious tight harmonies and created a level of intimacy that even Green Note doesn’t achieve very often. During the interval the power was restored, but Eleanor, Molly and Salley decided to carry on with a second completely acoustic set. A magical night.
Pete Wylie/The Mighty Wah @Water Rats 09/11/16
As memorable as the previous gig but for very different reasons. I was a big fan of Pete Wylie in the eighties, but somehow managed to avoid seeing him live. This was the chance to find out what I’d been missing. Water Rats is a room at the back of a pub in Kings Cross; cosy but with a great atmosphere. The last time I was there, there were three people watching a band; me, the band’s manager and the sound engineer. This was different; ten minutes after the doors opened, it was rammed; not only that, but rammed with fans, people who wanted to see Pete Wylie. In that atmosphere, failure wasn’t an option. Pete has put together another powerful incarnation of The Mighty Wah! and their playing throughout was spot on; subtle when necessary and thunderous for the anthems; and there were plenty of those. It was a night of passion, humour and power with a performer who knows his worth and an audience who know their music. It wasn’t just a nostalgia trip either. He featured a stunning new anthem, “I Still Believe”, from his upcoming album titled, with typical Wylie moxie, “Pete Sounds”. The will to survive’s come back.
Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro @St Pancras Old Church
Rewind to the beginning of the year as musicians start to emerge after their short hibernation and the lovely St Pancras Old Church (lovely if you aren’t a photographer). It was gloves, woolly hat and brass monkeys looking for welders weather, but inside the church a full house was waiting for Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro. This was one of those intimate gigs where two incredibly accomplished musicians play material they love to play with a passion that the audience taps into, leaving everyone with a warm glow. Playing mainly Weissenborn (Martin) and upright bass (Daniel) the two wove complex textures that sometimes had you wondering where all of the other musicians were hidden. The two voices worked perfectly together and the interplay between songs was sometimes hilarious with Martin’s ‘Englishman Abroad’ persona as the subject of Daniel’s dry observations. Good news is they’ll be back next year. This was the only gig this year where I actually wanted to hear a bass solo (and I wasn’t disappointed).
Michael McDermott @Twickfolk, The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham 04/12/16
I waited until seeing this gig before selecting my five favourites of the year. After hearing Michael’s two superb albums released this year (the “Willow Springs” solo and “Six on the Out” by his band The Westies), I wasn’t going to miss this performance. It was a solo show, using guitar and keyboard (and the inevitable harmonica) to create different textures and settings for the songs. Stripping away the full-band arrangements allowed the audience to focus on the quality of the writing and the raw emotional roar of Michael’s voice. The first half of the show, featuring songs taken mainly from the 2016 albums was an intense experience, emotional, sometimes harrowing and primal, songs punctuated by monologues which were surreal, often hilarious and sometimes tinged with sorrow. The second half was less of a roller-coaster but still packed with great songs. Michael McDermott provokes the same sensation I had when I listened to early Springsteen for the first time; there’s poetry, passion and a grim and gritty reality in his work that grabs you by the lapels and stares you straight in the eyes; you know that he’s lived the life. This is for real.
Molly Rose Reed is one third of Underhill Rose, who featured in an album review on MusicRiot this year, and also played one of the most amazing gigs we saw this year when they ignored a power cut in Camden and played a completely acoustic set in a candlelit Green Note; if you saw it, you’ll never forget it. Molly’s sharing her favourite gigs with us (plus a few near misses).
Malcolm Holcombe at the Sunflower Public House, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast, Ireland
It was a rainy and unseasonably cold day in May, and nearing the end of Underhill Rose’s first tour to the UK. The band had the afternoon off, so we put on our coats and drove to Belfast. While holding a cup of warm coffee, sitting on a small stool to the right of the stage, I was bathed in the richness of Malcolm’s songwriting. Jared Tyler perfectly accompanied Malcolm’s dynamic guitar playing on lap steel and backing vocals. Hearing Malcolm play on the small stage to a crowded bar of intent listeners brought me home to the Swannanoa Valley of North Carolina, where Malcolm is from and also where I went to college with my bandmate Eleanor. There is nothing like being reminded of home when you are on the road.
Lori McKenna at 12th and Porter, Americana Music Festival, Nashville, TN
Her album, The Bird and the Rifle, was my introduction to this wonderful songwriter. Mostly writing hits for pop country greats like Tim McGraw, Lori McKenna’s album touched me with it’s feeling of authenticity. I could tell from the record that she feels her songs, sings from her heart and ain’t got nothin’ to prove. Seeing her live was 10 times better than the record!
Jonas & Jane, opening for Underhill Rose at the Stables, Milton Keynes, England
I admit to my bias on this Top 5 pick, but Katherine Marsh (aka Jane) and Charlie Jonas are the real deal. They sing into one microphone, and Charlie’s picking on mandolin/guitar and singing beautifully compliments Katherine’s pure voice. Their harmonies are tenderly worked and perfectly executed, and their songs will take you on a journey back in time.
Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Asheville, NC
This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and worth every penny (and it was a lot of them)! I can’t even remember how many harmony parts I heard in one song. It was truly a magical night to hear the full orchestration of a work of genius.
Chantae Cann at my wedding, Black Mountain, NC
I had to put this one on the list, because this is one of the most memorable days of my life! Chantae is an amazing jazz singer from my hometown of Atlanta, GA. She performs her original tunes but learned “At Last” for our first dance. My family and friends danced and danced to her amazing quartet. You can see her singing with grammy-award-winning Snarky Puppy here .
John Paul White at the Grey Eagle, Asheville, NC
Dylan LeBlanc at the Mothlight, Asheville, NC
The Broadcast at Rockwood Music Hall, New York, NY
Well, it was certainly an interesting night out in Camden. I’ve been looking forward to seeing Underhill Rose since I had to miss a show earlier this year and what could be better than watching them play at Green Note. Just one little problem; the queue outside and the absence of any kind of lighting didn’t look too good, but it takes more than a power cut to close Green Note. After a slight delay to position dozens of tea lights around the room, the venue opened and things went ahead pretty much as normal, Underhill Rose had decided to play a completely unplugged set rather than disappoint the sellout crowd. Not having power isn’t necessarily a problem for players brought up in acoustic tradition, and a candle-lit gig does have a certain romance to it. In a typical twist of fate, almost immediately after the stage had been cleared of mic stands and DI boxes at the interval, the power was restored but by that stage, neither the audience nor the band wanted to move away from the acoustic format.
Underhill Rose is Eleanor Underhill (banjo and harmonica), Molly Rose Reed (guitar) and Salley Williamson (upright bass) and they all sing, creating some of the most gorgeous harmonies you’re likely to hear. The songs are all beautifully crafted and the live performances make good use of all the vocal and instrumental textures available to them. After the drama of creating a scene that took us back almost a century, it was appropriate that Underhill Rose opened their first set with “Not Gonna Worry”. It’s difficult to pick favourites from a set packed with lovely songs and performances, but a song dedicated to friends, “They Got my Back”, the swing-tinged “Whispering Pines Motel” and “Montana” did it for me and a cover of “These Boots Were Made for Walking” was a huge crowd-pleaser.
Watching Underhill Rose at any time is a pleasure and a privilege; an intimate performance by candlelight is a once in a lifetime experience. I’ve never been so happy about a power cut (or should that be outage). A wonderful night.
They also played their current single “One Time a Year” which is out now. It’s a great single and a portion of the proceeds from each sale will go to Women for Women International.
You can see some photos from the night here.