“I think that live music is something that the internet can never kill” – Jim James (My Morning Jacket). In an age when we can access our favourite music in so many ways and so many forms, for me the best way remains – live. I’m not talking massive stadium or arena gigs, but small and medium-sized venues with character and intimacy. With only a handful of exceptions, these are the places where most Americana artists will ply their trade in the UK. Luckily for me, there are a number of such venues in Manchester providing the opportunity to see top acts for relatively small amounts of money.
January is a slow month, but I managed to see Chris Smither and Israel Nash. Both performed excellent shows. Moving into February and two very contrasting gigs: White Denim at the large and spacious Albert Hall (about as big as I can stand) and Sam Lewis at the tiny Castle Hotel venue. White Denim put on a very impressive performance. They are the type of band that are made for such venues.
As the days started to grow longer, we moved into March and the gig tap started to run more freely. Highlights were Nick Waterhouse and Lavinia Blackwall. At the oddly named Gorilla, Waterhouse’s brand of retro soul and r&b had my ageing legs shuffling awkwardly from side to side. Lavinia Blackwall appeared at the aforementioned Castle Hotel to debut some of her new solo material following on from the disbanding of former band Trembling Bells. More pop orientated, her debut album is one to look forward to in 2020.
So on to April and things are hotting up by now as we reach the first of my gigs of the year, Molly Tuttle. Her acclaimed ‘When You’re Ready’ is a bit too smoothed down for my taste, but live she gave one of the best displays of country guitar picking that you’re ever likely to see. This, along with her beautiful voice and engaging character was a perfect illustration of my opening assertion that the best way to hear anybody is live. The other force at work here is that engagement with the audience, which such a part of the folk tradition. The explanation of a song, the humorous anecdote or the comic observation are all part of what sets a live performance apart from a studio recording. April also brought great shows from Dan Mangan, Steve Gunn and Simone Felice. It also brought my first slight disappointment in the surprising shape of The Long Ryders. Under rehearsed and under prepared, the band gave a mixed performance.
May proved to be a super month. Great shows from Drugdealer, Hayes Carll, Robert Forster and The Black Peaches were all throughly enjoyed. If that wasn’t great enough, there were also two more of my gigs of the year. Firstly, The Nude Party, a young new band from North Carolina signed to New West Records. Now when you reach a certain age, and you think you’ve seen it all before, you can become quite cynical. The Nude Party played such a stunning set that I was genuinely bowled over. There is something uplifting about seeing new young talent emerge and this was the best performance I’ve seen by a new band in quite some time.
In June I enjoyed the Meat Puppets and a rather cantankerous Justin Townes Earle. It was also the time of my least enjoyable gig as The Flamin’ Groovies failed spectacularly to revive past glories. By way of contrast, Nick Lowe gets better with age and his performance with Los Straitjackets oozed class and also makes it in to my gigs of the year list. Another surprise packet were The Sheepdogs who, despite being from Canada, dished up a warm stew of southern rock; rock, blues, soul, country, all the right ingredients went in and the end product was delicious – another for the yearly list.
Things were getting quiet again by July, but it did yield a near perfect solo performance from Jonathan Wilson. It was then festival time – but that’s another story in itself.
The September resumption saw two decidedly non-Americana artists (is that allowed?) impress, namely Edwyn Collins and Stanley Brinks. Whereas The Sheepdogs a subtle and nuanced take on southern rock, The Steel Woods took more of a sledgehammer approach. A set riddled with rock clichés provided one of my least memorable nights of the year. However, you can rely on Wilco put things right. Despite a lukewarm reception for ‘Ode to Joy’ Jeff Tweedy and the boys have very few peers as a live act and they didn’t disappoint. A certainty for the list.
October was my peak period of gig-going. The month provided high quality shows from Sam Outlaw, Bill Ryder-Jones and Tyler Ramsey. Unfortunately the same could not be said of the shows I witnessed from The Detroit Cobras and Chance McCoy. Two list-making shows more than made up for it though. Firstly a beautiful set from the enormously talented Caroline Spence followed by Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore & The Guilty Ones. Whereas the first showcased an emerging force, the second celebrated two huge influences on this music that we love.
Every now and again a tour comes round that doesn’t have a Manchester date. Now with enough else to keep me occupied, it takes something special to tempt me elsewhere. So it was then, that I found myself in Leeds to witness Erin Rae. Needless to say, it was worth every extra mile and every extra minute invested as it turned out to be a performance of the highest order, Also in November I caught my first sight of high octane R&B band The Hooten Hallers and Austin soul/r&b outfit The Black Pumas.
Rounding off the year, I again made the trip along the M62 to Leeds to see the prodigiously talented Dawn Landes deliver a set of such strength, diversity and emotion that I was genuinely moved. A definite late addition to the list. Only a few days previously I had been fortunate enough to see another equally talented woman: the fabulous Lola. Both these shows were recently fully reviewed for AUK so I won’t elaborate any more.
My personal gigs of the Year:
2. Jonathan Wilson
3. The Nude Party
4. Nick Lowe
6. Dawn Landes
7. Dave Alvin & Jimmie Dale Gilmore
8. Caroline Spence
9. Molly Tuttle
10. The Sheepdogs