OK, I'm sure you've read a ton of 'best-of' lists by now, but I feel obliged to wrap up a pretty tremendous year of live shows in Salt Lake City along with great new releases with a few of my own. Sure, there were some regular visitors hitting SLC's venues this year and I skipped some of the "big shows" like Katy Perry and Lady Gaga - please forgive me - but there were a handful of performers that fly under the radar and our city should feel fortunate that their alternative path leads them here. And it also featured a handful of icons who don't grace our city with their presence very often, but when they do, it's worth seeing.
The Wood Brothers This Colorado-based band chose to use The State Room for their tour opener, in September while they worked to record a live album. As a result, they brought in their own mixing board, which meant the nearly sold-out crowd was treated to one of the more acoustically pleasing nights imaginable. And that's on top of the fact that these guys are NOT to be missed anyway. Oliver Wood is a fine slide guitarist, occasionally stunning lyricist and a consistently great singer. His brother Billy is easily one of the best bass players on the road and has forged a living for more than 20 years with jazz fusion stars, Medeski, Martin and Wood. This gig was one of the rare concerts where the energy in the room nor on stage didn't wane at all during the night. And if you haven't heard their song "Blue and Green," from their latest album, "Smoke Ring Halo," you're missing out. I'd lay odds that it's one of the few songs released this year so beautiful it could be played at a wedding or a funeral.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings - Outdoors on a summer night at Red Butte Garden in mid-August? Oh yeah. Nothing but a dance party. Who wants to do the monkey-butt? Who wouldn't? The guy in the photo above with Ms. Jones certainly would. And his expression is similar to the joy seen on everyone's faces at Red Butte as the Dap Kings floored a crowd of good-timing revelers. And kudos to Red Butte for having accordion-pumping, Louisiana music legend Buckwheat Zydeco open up. What a double-bill. There were several great gigs - as usual - at RBG this summer, but none were more fun than this one. Believe it.
Gillian Welch/David Rawlings: I'd seriously go see these two perform every night of the week. Why Rawlings isn't routinely listed as one of the country's great guitarists is a complete mystery to me. The guy plays like an angel. And Welch is a haunting songbird with ageless lyrics and a real sense of purpose to their angst-ridden, gem-filled songbook. And put it in the acoustically perfect Kingsbury Hall with a properly reverent crowd and their act can't be topped.
Wanda Jackson w/ The Dusty 45s: This show featured twangy-ass rockabilly from a woman who used to date Elvis. And she covers Amy Winehouse. She's also a living legend and a treat to see live. Jackson and company were just as good the second time - when they opened for Adele and their mainstream, pop-loving crowd. Don't get me wrong. Adele is an awesome talent, but sings some snoozy pop drek, but does shine on several rootsy numbers she has written for herself. That being said, the super-fun night with Wanda was at the end of March, when she headlined a jubilant show for a crowd of rockabilly lovers at The State Room.
Merle Haggard/Kris Kristofferson - Even though this "co-headlining show" was really just a Merle gig featuring his regular band that was buttressed with Kris doing about eight songs along the way at Kingsbury Hall in late September, that didn't detract from the gig's impact. These guys are more than iconic figures in country music and songwriting and when they opened with a number from the equally iconic songbook of Townes Van Zandt, "Pancho and Lefty," I felt like I had died and went to heaven. How often does that happen? And Merle's 19-year-old boy, Ben, can truly conjure up some beautiful country sounds from a Fender Telecaster. A great show, for sure. Not bad for two guys in their mid-70s. I love them both.
Christian McBride and Inside Straight - One of the many terrific installments of the "Jazz SLC" concert series, which has since relocated to the Capitol Theatre. This night offered a straight-forward set of red-hot modern jazz from fantastic musicians. If there's a better jazz bassist on the road right now than McBride, I'd love to hear about it. The band's music provided the soundtrack for what was simply a terrific night that made one realize what a treat the Jazz SLC series really is. This was a terrific concert.
David Mayfield Parade- Bizarro country-rock show at The State Room that ended with an unplugged encore in the middle of the dance floor for the 75 of us who remained. This is a terrific group that proves there is a lot of good music coming from Nashville, just don't expect to find it on the radio. He's Jessica Lea Mayfield's brother, FYI, and used to be in Cadillac Sky.
The Moondoggies - Another low turnout for these guys here in SLC, but they played a 100-minute set that was its usual soul-stirring self. They're the best band with a low profile that deserves a wider audience. Sigh.
Deer Tick - Although their crowd is largely a bunch of morons, these guys rock like there's no tomorrow. I wish they'd play bigger rooms so I wouldn't daydream about strangling dozens of 20-something hipsters instead of focusing on their music. This was the third time I've seen them and I can't wait to see them some more. They're energetic, genuine and hard working. What's not to like?
Jeff Beck - A longstanding member of my "bucket list," Beck's show was a nonstop highlight. The legendary British guitarist, who is on the Mount Rushmore of rock guitar - and has been for nearly 40 years - plays like a demon - just like he always has. Sure, he attracts a lot of old six-string slingers, but when he was covering Hendrix's "Little Wing," it was easy to think I wouldn't see anything that good again for some time.
Whitey Morgan and the 78s - Genuine "certified" country from Michigan. Morgan's a real country singer in the mode of Haggard and Paycheck and the band's white-hot. At the Urban Lounge in August, I was lucky enough to see them play for 18 people, including the opening band, SLC's underrated country-rockers Triggers and Slips. They didn't care about the low turnout and played for nearly two hours, and took a bunch of requests. This was super-fun night, made all the better by an enthusiastic gent at the bar that bought everyone in the place a few rounds of kamkazies. Go figure. And the best news is that Whitey and the '78s are getting noticed. Fellow Michigan resident Bob Seger recently tapped them to open considerably higher profile gigs in Philadelphia and Detroit at 20,000 seat venues.
And special, final honorable mention to March Fourth Marching Band from Portland, Ore. - These guys make the list for sheer weirdness. Ever seen three people on stilts dance and do acrobatics in the middle of a non-stop stream of funk music? Well, neither had I until these guys rolled through. They are not to be missed. And wear a costume. About half of the audience does.
See you next year.