The power of live music never fails to appeal, as well as move me. This list has been heavily influenced by artists I’ve seen perform live. It may have only been once, it may have been over 50 times but the performances of these ten acts have all stood out to me over the years, in many different ways, and led to them being included in my top ten. There’s not much left to write about the compilation of these lists that other writers haven’t covered, so I’ll leave you with the thought that it’s almost always worth the effort of going to see a live concert rather than staying at home sitting on the couch.
Number 10: Wilco
On their day Wilco are one of the best live acts around. At the Black Deer festival last year, they were on top form with Nels Cline showcasing his guitar skills, Jeff Tweedy intertwining songs from ‘Cruel Country’ with ‘Yankee Foxtrot Hotel’, and Courtney Marie Andrews joining the band for a singalong ‘California Stars’. Memories are made from such performances.
Number 9: Alison Krauss And Union Station
I’ve only seen Alison Krauss And Union Station once, in 2005 at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was a gig that almost didn’t happen. A localised power failure meant that the venue was without electricity and we were kept waiting outside until it was restored, just in time for the concert to take place. It’s just as well it did. Krauss and her band gave a near faultless performance and Grammy-winning Jerry Douglas’s dobro playing was a thing to behold. This gig alone, not to mention a run of brilliant albums, is enough to merit them a place in this top ten.
Number 8: Iris DeMent
I stumbled upon Iris DeMent via a 10,000 Maniacs CD single which featured ‘Let The Mystery Be’. I first saw DeMent on 25 June 1994 in the Acoustic Tent at Glastonbury. The same year, the music critic, Ben Thompson described DeMent’s voice better than I’m able to, saying, “There’s a sob in it, a roll of the tongue, a fluting quality that speaks of dust and dryness and the heartbroken slam of porch doors. There is also, every now and then, the hint of a yodel. Backwoods to the roots but nobody’s redneck, its owner is a rare free spirit amid the Stepford Wife legions of air-brushed new country divas”. DeMent’s voice may have mellowed over the years but, making a rare live appearance in London last month, it still has the power to move you, whilst speaking truth to power.
Number 7: Natalie Merchant
I’d been a fan of 10,000 Maniacs since the late 1980s but I’d never managed to catch them or Natalie Merchant live. Merchant then “retired” from live performances to teach arts and crafts to underprivileged children in New York state. Fortunately, in July 2018 she decided to undertake a tour of small venues accompanied by her guitarist Erik Della Penna. I spent a magical evening in Saint John The Evangelist Church in Oxford at which Merchant delivered stripped-down versions of, amongst others, ‘Motherland’ and ‘Dust Bowl’, and which ended with her standing on a chair singing a stirring version of ‘Kind And Generous’. Her recently released ‘Keep Your Courage’ record is one of my albums of 2023, and a three-hour performance last month, with a full band and four piece string section, at the Bath Forum confirmed that her voice is still a thing of beauty.
Number 6: Laura Cantrell
Having seen Laura Cantrell at least twice in 2003 for some unfathomable reason 13 years passed before I saw her play live again. It was another captivating evening at the Saint John The Evangelist Church in Oxford. She was touring to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of her debut album, ‘Not The Tremblin’ Kind’, albeit a year late, and her new vinyl album of BBC sessions. It was a show where the spirits of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Kitty Wells were never far away. In June this year, I was at the Union Chapel in London to hear her crystal clear vocals again and to celebrate the release of her new album ‘Just Like A Rose’. It’s always a life affirming experience to see her play live.
Number 5: Billy Bragg
Does Billy Bragg belong in the ‘americana’ fold? There’s been some conjecture in the comments section on this site about this in the past, but surely somebody who’s recorded three albums of Woody Gutherie lyrics and a record of American railroad songs qualifies. In addition, Uncle Bill’s 1991 attempt at pop stardom, ‘Don’t Try This At Home’, included country-tinged songs such as ‘You Woke Up My Neighbourhood’. I’ve seen the Bard of Barking over 50 times since my first encounter with him on 30 December 1984 at the Lyceum in London. Currently out gigging on his roaring forties tour, to celebrate the anniversary of his debut album released in 1983, Bragg’s been a constant in my life over the past 40 years. It’s good to see that, as he puts it, whilst everybody else is “zigging”, he’s “still zagging”.
Number 4: Calexico
I first came across Calexico in 2001 at a Howe Gelb & Friends concert at the Barbican, which was part of the Beyond Nashville Festival. At that time Joey Burns and John Convertino were well on their way to stepping out of Gelb’s shadow, but they didn’t really make an impression on me until ‘Feast Of Wire’ was released in 2003. I’ve been lucky enough to see them numerous times over the past 20 years. Live it’s always great to see Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela alternate between trumpets, vibraphone, keyboards and vocals, backed by Convertino’s subtle drumming, as Burns sings tales of border patrols and the dusty frontier between the USA and Mexico. In my opinion they’re one of the most versatile and imaginative bands I’ve ever seen.
Number 3: Gillian Welch
Born in California, a graduate of the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she met her life and musical partner David Rawlings, Gillian Welch sounds like she has spent her life playing bluegrass on a porch somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains. I still recall being entranced by them at a gig at the Shepherds Bush Empire in 2003, which was as close as you can get to musical perfection. As one reviewer said of the gig, “it is an increasingly rare sight: musicians so perfectly practised and in tune with each other that they make what they do look simple, like you or I could do it. We couldn’t”. Having not toured in the UK since 2011, a series of live concerts on this side of the pond is long overdue and much anticipated.
Number 2: Steve Earle
My first recollection of coming across Steve Earle was back in 1988, when he appeared on Radio 1’s breakfast show plugging his new album ‘Copperhead Road’, sounding considerably worse for wear. It was The Pogues-backed ‘Johnny Come Lately’ which grabbed my attention, leading me to buy the album. I spent much of the 1990s working overseas and lost track of Earle partly because he wasn’t played much on the BBC’s World Service and partially because it coincided with Earle’s battle with drugs and imprisonment. Earle popped into my life again via the superb ‘Train A Comin’’, by which time he’d cleaned up. It’s a tremendous, acoustically based album, but make no mistake, as Earle said at the time, “This ain’t my unplugged record, this ain’t no part of no unplugged nothin’, God I hate MTV“.
I didn’t have the opportunity to see Earle live until 1997 at the Cambridge Folk Festival when he played ‘Christmas Time In Washington’, which he dedicated to Townes Van Zandt who died earlier that year. Since then I’ve seen him play live on at least a dozen occasions; highlights being a superb three-hour gig with The Del McCoury Band at the Royal Festival Hall in 1999 and an incendiary performance at the Hammersmith Odeon in November 2004, the day after George W. Bush was re-elected, at which Earle declared, “I’d like to personally apologise to each and every one of you for the outcome of the US election“. Earle’s still out there doing his thing and has as much fire in his belly as ever.
Number 1: The Byrds
The Byrds was where it all started for me. As a teenager, as well as being enthralled with The Jam, I also spent a lot of time listening to The Byrds’ first four albums. It was only some years later that I was able to appreciate the joys of ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’. As fellow AUK writer, Graeme Tait, so eloquently argued last year The Byrds really can be considered to be one of the bedrocks of americana. As far as this list is concerned, The Byrds are a bit of an anomaly, in that I’m not old enough to have seen them play live. However, I was fortunate enough to see Roger McGuinn play a set list of classics on his 12-string Rickenbacker a couple times in the first decade of this century, and regale the crowd with numerous stories including why the time signature of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ was changed. Given the number of americana acts that The Byrds are intertwined with and spawned, I feel compelled to place them at number one.