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A few of my favorite 2020 musical things

December 30, 2020
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It’s only speculation on my part, but I’m guessing you sought an escape route this year. Many of us, myself included, found it in music.

I’ve never subscribed to the belief that all of the good stuff has already been recorded. I believe a case could be made that there is more good music being written and recorded now than at any other time.

Despite the lack of live shows (and I miss that experience dearly), a wealth of truly great music was made this year. Here are some of the artists and titles that saw me through. As I look over my preliminary list of 2020 musical faves, it occurs to me that they are all independent artists.

The Flat Five released their second album “Another World” in November and it’s been in heavy rotation in my world ever since. They’re a Chicago-based band of all-stars consisting of Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough of NRBQ, Kelly Hogan and Norah O’Connor (Neko Case, Mavis Staples, The Decemberists, Jakob Dylan) and Alex Hall (J.D. McPherson, The Fat Babies) that record other-worldly songs written by Chris Ligon, Scott’s brother. Ligon’s songs have been heard in a wide range of venues from “Weeds” to the Dr. Demento Show. He combines antiquated innocence with a degree of elegant subversiveness that’s masterfully delivered by these players and singers. “Another World” has become one of my favorite musical escapes this year.

Griffin Swank is a gifted young Texas-based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who released his second album “Hubble Space Parade” this year. Swank reminds me a bit of late 60s-early 70s Harry Nilsson in his songwriting approach. “Hubble Space Parade” is a record so rich with melody, its songs-within-songs will have you singing along from the first spin. Thanks to a good friend with impeccable taste for turning me onto this one.

Like any other year, I spent a lot of time listening to and watching concert videos from Vermont’s finest. I think it’s safe to say that no band did more for its fans this year than Phish. The band’s “Dinner and a Movie” free weekly concert webcasts (monthly as of September) announced at the outset of the pandemic has generated $750,000 for 27 non-profits to date, all donated by fans watching at home.

On April Fool’s Day, Phish dropped “Sigma Oasis,” a surprise new studio LP of newish road-tested songs that strikes the perfect balance of composition and improvisation.

Guitarist Trey Anastasio released his 11th studio album “Lonely Trip” in July. Written and recorded entirely in isolation, the album is (in Trey’s words) “a message in a bottle” and his way thanking the Phish community for listening and responding. In September, Trey issued “Burn it Down,” a smoking double live LP from the Trey Anastasio Band recorded on tour in January.

The relentlessly creative Anastasio then undertook one of his most ambitious live projects to date with the “Beacon Jam” series starting in October. An eight-week virtual residency unfolded live from the historic Beacon Theatre in New York City as Trey, with an evolving and revolving band of musicians, delivered acoustic and electric performances of 156 songs (with no repeats) to an interactive audience viewing at home via Twitch. The series generated more than $1 million for the Divided Sky Fund which will go toward the construction of an addiction rehab center in Vermont. The Beacon Jam shows are archived at LivePhish.com and viewable anytime with the LivePhish+ app. It’s a stunning musical salve for this or any year.

Throughout the year, Phish released six further archival concerts from the 1990s, including audio versions of several shows from the Dinner and a Movie series. As if that wasn’t enough, another surprise album, “December,” appeared on Christmas Eve containing duet performances of six Phish titles from keyboardist Page McConnell and Anastasio recorded earlier in the month at Trey’s studio, The Barn, located near Burlington.

Ring in the new year with Phish during the next installment of “Dinner and a Movie” with one of the band’s most highly rated shows ever, a 1995 3-set extravaganza that marked their first New Year’s Eve show at Madison Square Garden. The concert will stream in full for free at www.webcast.livephish.com beginning at 8:30 pm on December 31. During the fall ’95 tour, Phish played an ongoing chess match with the audience that culminated with a 1-1 tie on New Year’s Eve. The band has issued a rematch (this time played virtually) by teaming up with www.Chess.com for a Phish vs. audience chess match coinciding with the concert video.

Some of my favorite music from the year originated here in Maine. In January, the Portland-based Emilia Dahlin Sextet released the amazing live record “…Green Things to Grow,” containing the first new material in more than a decade from this uber-talented singer and songwriter. Her live record was a community event that included a special one-night only venue, a catered meal and a recording crew. You can see the performance that became the record’s stunning closer, “Blue Balloon,” on Dahlin’s YouTube channel.

Joel Thetford just keeps getting better. The singer, songwriter and bandleader released a killer live record in the spring called “Live at Port City Music Hall,” and he followed it last month with his 5th studio album, “Jacksboro Highway.” It’s a record full of great songs and excellent musicianship from Thetford and his band. He tells me he’s written enough new songs this year to fill four more albums and I can’t wait to hear them.

An Overnight Low is a band dedicated to recording and performing the songs of leader Chad Walls as a musical travelogue. Each album is titled after a different train station in the U.K. and Ireland and reflect Walls’s experiences there as a student abroad. “Connolly,” dedicated to Dublin, is a two-part affair whose first installment arrived as an EP in May. Its infectious songs serve to describe the writer’s impressions while traveling from Wales to Dublin while its follow-up, due next year, will focus on songs about the Irish capital.

Last modified on Wednesday, 30 December 2020 11:43

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