You could point at almost any year this century and it would be a vintage year for music – there’s so much out there that, once one has struggled through the ever expanding amount that is mediocre or just straight dross there’s always a fine collection of musical gems to pluck out and hold high overhead to amaze and dazzle. And this last year has been no exception to this rule. It’s impossible to listen to everything – even if one casts one’s net no further than just the content covered by Americana-UK – so this short summary is very much a personal view: it’s certainly not the official Americana-UK statement on what was good and what was not good in 2016. And I’m also going to stick as much as possible to music – I’ve no desire to revisit wholesale the avalanche of obituaries from this year or for that matter to reflect on the abject disaster of the presidential election in the USA or the home-grown childishness of the EU referendum.
The year achieved an early high-point in January with the Milk Carton Kids appearance at The Union Chapel – proving that great songs, great harmonies and two guitars are all that is needed to achieve a sublime musical experience. This was the first of several visits to the Union Chapel which really had a magnificent line-up of bands and artists throughout the year. Later on there were stunning albums from Cam Penner – who was also magnificent live at The Green Note – and Joe Purdy who rocked The Borderline with the material from his thoughtful album Who will be next?. Explosions in the sky proved that there’s still a lot more to be done by way of sculpting musical landscapes with epic guitar solos and a rhythm section that just does not stop – The Wilderness is as fine an album as any they have produced.
It’s been an interesting year for those who’ve been working their whole lives in music. Bob Dylan continued along his singular path, with a second album drawn from the Great American songbook – a worthy if not completely exciting album. He also picked up a well-deserved Nobel prize recognising his fifty years of writing poetry. Having provoked Neil Young into calling it a day for CSN&Y, Crosby also managed to have a huge falling-out with his stalwart friend Graham Nash which looks to have finally brought the curtain down unhappily on CSN. We’ve heard that before of course so time will tell – but in any case from the debris of this rock edifice crawled a series of solo albums. Stephen Stills brought out a solid second album from his blues-rock side act The Rides whilst Graham Nash dug through his conflicted emotions stemming from his divorce and his relocation to New York to be with his new love whilst Crosby, not to be left out, has just issued a new album – which hopefully will be winging its way to me for December 25th. Graham Nash took his superb album, This Path Tonight, out on tour for a memorable solo appearance – just one sideman, no band, no support act – at The Union Chapel. Never have I seen such a queue to get in – I was convinced that they’d oversold the gig. With music going from his early days with the Hollies, through CSN and beyond as well as pretty much the whole of This Path Tonight it was a landmark gig. All we need now is David Crosby, same venue, in 2017. I hope someone is listening!
Another long lived band that finally came to an end – although Bob Weir is still suggesting they haven’t – was The Grateful Dead who celebrated with one last set of gigs, which were released as a reasonably large box set. Not as large as the wonderful Complete July 1978 and not as significant as The National‘s own tribute box set Day of The Dead which saw superb cover versions from The war on drugs, Phosphorescent, Jim James and so many others. It’s the listen that keeps on givin’, with new favourites popping up on each revisit. Yeah, it’s fun to revisit the past, but nostalgia is over rated: which is why The Long Ryders mini-tour on the back of their huge archival box set was such a hotly anticipated and universally celebrated thing. They kicked ass – just proving what we all new at the time that they’d called it a day too soon. Talking of the contributions from musical elders, The Forum saw a pair of gigs featuring late blooming senior musicians – Roky Erickson reprised the songs of The Thirteenth Floor Elevators whilst Charles Bradley stormed through his take on classic soulful rhythm and blues. His album – Changes – served to confirm him as an artist of some stature; he also popped up on Day of the Dead with a powerful Cumberland Blues. Another hugely enjoyable dollop of a soul-rock-blues mix was served up by JJ Grey & Mofro who ripped the Union Chapel apart with an uplifting sound only the emotionally dead could have resisted.
At the other end of the spectrum there was a plethora of superb younger and new artists – I was really impressed with the two albums from Mikko Joensuu, Amen-1 and Amen-2 with a third instalment to come in the New Year. Andy Shauf’s The Party was a singer-songwriter concept album success. Anna Tivel‘s Heroes Waking Up showed an incredible maturity of playing, singing and songwriting. Established artists like Richmond Fontaine, Wolf People and The Handsome Family again confirmed their excellence with more than solid new albums, enjoyment of the first named’s offering slightly tinged with sadness as it’s also their last release. Drive By Truckers held a mirror up to the political situation in the States – and, even before it became so very necessary, by so doing reminded us that it’s important to remember that The Trump represents less than half of those who voted. Sturgill Simpson continues to impress and is well on the way to being a major Americana artist.
Looking back on 2016 then it has been a real-life roller-coaster that seems destined to plummet out of control – but the soundtrack has been magnificent.
I see you got your list out – say your piece and get out – yes I get the gist of it, ‘cos it’s all right.
And with a weary stylistic inevitability we reach the section of this reflective reappraisal of 2016 that is designed solely to provoke a response. Most likely it will be “Is he mad?”. Yup, it’s the lists – albums, gigs, songs. Let’s face it, even I won’t agree with this selection by the time it has been published. And a huge apology here for the gigs section being so London centric – there were great gigs elsewhere as well, I even went to some of them.
Top 10 Albums (Album/Artist)
1. Final Wild Songs – Long Ryders
2. These Mountain Blues – Norrie McCulloch
3. Sex & Politics – Cam Penner
4. Who will be next? – Joe Purdy
5. Day of the Dead – Various Artists
6. Songs of Separation – Songs of Separation
7. This Path Tonight – Graham Nash
8. Burning Sun & the atomic power within – The Mining Co.
9. You can’t go back if there’s nowhere to go back to – Richmond Fontaine
10. Joint Control – John Renbourn & Wizz Jones
Top 10 Gigs (Band/venue)
1. The Long Ryders – Under the bridge
2. Milk Carton Kids – The Union Chapel
3. Blitzen Trapper – The Lexington
4. Jonathan Wilson – The Union Chapel
5. Jayhawks – Islington Assembly Room – 1st night ? 2nd night ? Both great.
6. Cam Penner – The Green Note
7. Fay Hield – St. Pancras Old Church
8. Graham Nash – The Union Chapel
9. Hawkwind – Alban Arena
10.The Lumineers – Hammersmith Apollo
Top 10 Individual Songs (song/artist/album)
1. Touch of Grey – The War on Drugs – The Day of the Dead
2. Calico Days – Norrie McCulloch – These Mountain Blues
3. Children of Privilege – Joe Purdy – Who will be next?
4. Changes – Charles Bradley – Changes
5. Hey You (lovers of music) – Cam Penner
6. Myself at last – Graham Nash – This Path Tonight
7. Two Pencils and a Photograph – Anna Tivel – Heroes Waking Up
8. Water in the well – BJ Barham – Rockingham
9. Quite like you – Andy Shauf – The Party
10. American Bride – My Girl The River – This is no fairytale