I’m very lucky to have seen a lot of good music in 2017. For a year that may be more remembered for the collective clenching every time a news alert came up, I spent more time than I realized seeing music…why am I complaining about a stressful year? So, in absolutely no order, here are some of the best (rock and guitar centric, I know) shows I saw in 2017.
Alvvays, Brooklyn Steel, Brooklyn, New York // October 5th
I bought tickets to see Alvvays at Saturn in Birmingham before their excellent new record, Antisocialiates, came out. I loved the first one, I believed in the dream pop to keep rolling. Unfortunately, the Saturn show ended up coinciding with a run of shows I had to play, and I feared I missed my chance. Turns out, we found ourselves in New York on a Thursday night and decided to see see if we could figure out how to get into their first NYC show since the record came out. It said sold out. We figured we’d risk it, try and finagle in. It was really sold out. No begging at will call. No last minute ticket drop. As we stood around in the early autumn cool, a little rain drizzling, a group of dudes climbed out of an Uber and I heard one say “Well, anyone want 2 tickets?” I looked at my buddy, who has a streak of luck with things like this that is just short of miraculous, and he asked if they were serious. We had our tickets.
The show sounded exactly like the records in the best way possible. It created its unique, fuzzy little universe, and watching a band that has played a lot of shows together, grown together musically, is always special. Molly Rankin nailed the vocals. The venue itself was pretty perfect: a big, cavernous, industrial kind of room (1800 capacity), where the spacey stuff could ring out and the power pop could thunder, without the harsh bounce those places can sometimes have. They are one of those bands that manage to make an album’s worth of singles, so at the show, even for a band with only two records, it felt like hit after hit. The crowd was fully engaged, young, and energy giving. After the show, we met friends, wandered around, and drank through Williamsburg. It was cliche and excellent.
Big Thief, Syndicate Lounge, Birmingham AL // March 21st
I drove by myself from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham on the Tuesday after a long week/weekend in Austin for South by Southwest to see the band that made one of my favorite records of 2016. Turns out, they’d play a lot of songs from what would become one of my favorite records of 2017. I didn’t know that yet.
When you play at the Syndicate, you load up a long, narrow, steep metal staircase to the second floor backdoor. It sucks. Once you’re in, its a small place, but the sound is excellent and it has a cozy vibe, so I’m far from knocking it, but Big Thief is a band that had also been at South By Southwest, like me. Only they were being touted by the likes of NPR as the next big thing at massive showcases. But they played everywhere that week. Lesser bands would’ve needed a month’s recovery, but these guys hit the road and just kept playing because it really, deeply, genuinely seems to be what they do.
The show that night was excellent. There couldn’tThey spoke to the small crowd off mic. Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek made their guitars absolutely howl and haunt. I loved it. They moved and sang and delivered as if there were thousands, which is what you’re supposed to do, but they seemed to have it easy because they really give a shit about the songs. And how could you not? I have rarely seen someone who so viscerally has a connection from spirit/source/whatever, to craft, to performing in front of a crowd. They are a lightning rod for capital A art, and it hits me right in the gut.
Four months later, I’d turn a corner at the artists area of the Winnipeg Folk Festival and see them hanging out. I watched them that weekend, too, and was mesmerized again, after getting to sit with the new record Capacity for a few months. They had barely stopped touring since March; the songs carried across Canadian fields, even more powerful and lived in after months of show after show after show, packed together in a small van. You either grow or go crazy, or both, but my impression is that they are living the romantic life on the road, soaking it all up with a grace, a gratefulness that they are making records and playing bigger and bigger shows. Songs like “Mythological Beauty” and “Shark Smile,” are ones I’ve put on over and over and over again on long drives. I think the record for “Mythological Beauty” is 6 in a row, with only minor misty eyes.
Granddaddy, Waterloo Records, Austin TX, // March 17th
So back to the Austin trip…this is one of the most memorable sets from that week. It was a free show in the parking lot outside Waterloo Records, which is a real peak experience for South By Southwest. Beautiful blue Texas spring sky. New green on the trees. I ate vegetarian chorizo tacos afterwards. It was great.
The ease with which these guys pulled off this set was incredible. No one has good sound at SXSW, no one seems relaxed, but they breezed on stage and just played. It floated, lifted off, rang around through the spring sky. There’s obviously a melancholy to the music, and they played stuff off of Last Place, the record they’d put out just weeks before, but it just felt familiar throughout. Like, “Yes, they are playing exactly what they should, and I am exactly where I should be watching this.” Now, there’s more than a pang of tragedy to the show: bassist, co-founder, and clear rock during this show, Kevin Garcia, passed away suddenly less than two months later. I’ve never met any of these guys, and it feels voyeuristic to say anything beyond its an honor to have seen these legends before the untimely loss, full of life on a perfect spring day. It was beautiful.
Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, 116 E Mobile, Florence, AL // October 11th
There is not a better live band in Alabama than the Glory Fires, and it’s not really close. They make me feel pride for where I’m from in the pit of my stomach, occasionally the corners of my eyes. I would vote any of them into public office tomorrow. Or yesterday, if possible.
They are the wall of sound. An untouchable rhythm section, Lee and Eric Wallace wail on guitar, and over it all, sings a very, very underrated voice who just happens to be speaking radical truth. I also managed to catch them in Austin, in an alley under a tent. They set their amps up in front of a crowd that had clearly camped out for a few hours, which is always a risky thing for a band: what are these folks going to think? They weren’t left a lot of time to decide. “Fuck Donald Trump,” a speech started and concluded over a wail of feedback, with nothing but decidedly graceful, empathetic words about tolerance, support for the least of these, wonder at the disillusionment that led to the hate of 2017, and, not unrelated, self reflection on the shortcomings of Southern white males (who make up the entirety of the Glory Fires) in-between. The tent filled up. No worries there.
“I’ve got a people and a history and a place bearing down on me,” Lee sings on the single, “Whitewash,” off their great new record Youth Detention, and for anyone who has ever felt the same, this music means so much. The Quentin Compsons of the world stepped off the bridge, came home and started making rock records and playing thunderous shows.
The show in Florence was a headlining set, so there was more time to spread out, and its just great, so for the reason of hearing more songs (including a quiet rendition of early tune “Reba,”), it gets the nod on the list. Songs like “Dirt Track,” boom as a statement of purpose, and you can’t help but have a deep respect for what these folks are doing. They crashed at my house afterwards; the beds were so well remade the next morning we weren’t sure they had been used at all. Professional crashers. Road heroes. The good fight.
Hiss Golden Messenger, Saturn, Birmingham, AL // November 18th
These guys are cut from the same cloth as Lee & company in a lot of regards. Deep souls making music with conviction. They are also just a loaded band-Phil Cook (Megafaun) and Darren Jessee (Ben Folds Five, Hotel Lights) help MC Taylor lead the charge, along with a stageful of other killer players. There is much of the South in this band, much Pops Staples New Orleans, Dockery Plantation, much that could be called true Americana if that term didn’t seem tired from overuse and bad Ryan Adams impressions; they have very little to do with that. They are a Southern band, hailing from Durham, North Carolina and putting material out via indie institution Merge Records, which is fascinating because they come from all over: California for Taylor, Wisconsin for Cook. They chose to be here after coming to a heavy respect for southern music. They pull from that encyclopedic knowledge without ever veering into imitation, and as 2016 unfolded into 2017 and Trump was sworn into office and things turned upside down, these guys hunkered down and used the tradition of protest music in America to give voice to a resolute group of folks. Refuse to be drawn into hate, to see decency and faith and family hijacked. If the Drive-By Truckers are the dance band of the resistance (and they are; their electric set at Memphis In May more than deserves mention on this list), Hiss is the groove. Their most recent album, Hallelujah Anyhow, was released in September less than a year after their excellent Heart Like A Levee, bucking the timetable a band “should” operate on because, screw it, they had the songs and something to say.
This night at Saturn, they had no opener; they came out and launched into a nearly 2 hour set. Springsteen does it, the Truckers do it, the Dead did it. A community rallies around a presentation of art, and are lifted up because of it, band and audience, all together. Its as pure a musical transaction as possible (one that the Glory Fires also excel at). They spun out around and through the songs, tightened from a long month on the road. A wall of sound and churning groove that provided the sonic touchstones to navigate Taylor’s lyrics. Of the looming Doug Jones-Roy Moore showdown, Taylor said “Is this Roy Moore guy bumming y’all out? Don’t let him; he’s all hate and death and that can’t live long.”
That’s it. A Top 5 in no order, that may have been different if I’d written this on another week. Like I mentioned, the Drive-By Truckers were on fire, I saw The Kernal what feels like 100 glorious times and loved every single one, Daniel Lanois in Winnipeg blew my mind. A buddy almost inciting a riot at a Third Eye Blind reunion at SXSW was a highlight for another reason. There was a lot of great music this year, and a lot of reasons to hope; I’m thankful.