BEST OF 2017: Fred Rudofsky’s Top 35 Favorite Concerts (And Other Observations)
Story by Fred Rudofsky
Photograph by Rudy Lu
I saw more than 65 live music events this year, but easily missed over a dozen that might have ended up on this list. Oh well….
1. Hamell on Trial @ the Low Beat, Albany. August residency gigs. With the rapid decline of human decency and democracy in the USA compounded by the threat of nuclear war in the summer air, Hamell on Trial provided a voice of gallows humor and yet reassurance during a series of remarkable Wednesday evening gigs. His incisive new songs from the must-have Tackle Box and dips into his vast catalog took the edge off the zeitgeist, as did spontaneous monologues and jokes that would have had Bill Hicks and Don Rickles applauding from some astral plane.
2. Alejandro Escovedo & the Burn Something Beautiful Band @ Club Helsinki, Hudson. With the Minus Five. January 6. Escovedo has endured through so many trials and tribulations that he warrants admiration. On this particular evening, joined by garage-meisters the Minus Five, he tore into songs about life and near-death with gusto, and the jubilation conveyed between the stage and the audience was unwavering.
3. Richard Thompson @ The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, Albany. December 1. Solo. Acoustic. Songs ranging from his Fairport Convention days to the present. Wry asides and joyous audience participation. Multiple encores. Pure genius.
4. Mavis Staples @ the Palace Theatre, Albany. Opening for Bob Dylan. November 17. She only got an hour to open for ex-boyfriend, but great God almighty did Mavis Staples celebrate her superb new album’s release that evening and then some. Hearing her exuberant singing against the brilliant guitar work of Rick Holmstrom was thrilling. Mavis had everybody, upper balcony included, on their feet during the Staple Singers’ classic “I’ll Take You There.” Mavis Staples owned the venue. (In contrast, Dylan was about as introverted and detached as anyone I’ve ever seen on stage).
5. Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express @ Club Helsinki, Hudson. With the Bottle Rockets. March 31. Rock and roll double bills should always be this superlative. The Bottle Rockets blazed for over an hour, playing songs that should be part of the vernacular of music fans everywhere. Then Prophet and his band raised the bar a few levels higher – indeed, his songs this particular night lingered in my mind for a few weeks.
6. Chandler Travis Philharmonic @ the Hangar on the Hudson, Troy. September 30. Also Chandler Travis Three-O @ Caffe Lena, Saratoga Springs. April 22. No matter the configuration or the venue, Travis and his band of merry pranksters in pajamas reinvent the the whole notion of live performance, drawing upon a catalog as deep and varied as that of ten of the most heralded bands put together. They created magic on both nights, months apart.
7. Ronnie Baker Brooks Band @ the Upper Room, Albany. October 14. For someone who lost his father (Lonnie Brooks, one of the greatest Chicago bluesmen ever) and sister in 2017, Brooks had every reason to sing the blues. Yet, like the best in the genre his music was wry, cathartic and grooving. No one who was present will ever forget Brooks sauntering through the venue, pouring a drink at the bar with one hand and playing deep blues riffs with the other. Indeed, he made a connection with every patron.
8. Walter Salas-Humara @ the Low Beat, Albany. With the Coal Palace Kings. October 6. CPK’s reunion this year was one of the best happenings in 2017, and after their rocking set they backed Salas-Humara (of The Silos) perfectly. The man was smiling like he had won the lottery. They should all go on the road together for a couple of weeks, right, Howard?
9. Jimmie Dale Gilmore & Dave Alvin @ Club Helsinki, Hudson. November 2. Two of the best in American music, armed with acoustic guitars and a wealth of songs and stories. The sold-out crowd was with them from the opening chord, and ecstatic to learn midway through the evening that Gilmore and Alvin were in the midst of recording a studio album together.
10. Joe Louis Walker @ the Empire State Plaza at The Egg, Albany. July 19. Oh man, when you hear electric blues this dynamic – for free, as part of the Made in the Shade of The Egg lunchtime concert series on a hot summer day – you’ve got to holler, “Amen!” Walker was in top-form vocally and instrumentally, playing a set that mixed his own diverse catalog of songs with those of his heroes.
11. Super 400 @ Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Troy. July 8. Have you ever been to Super 400? You need to be get experienced if you have not. The area’s best band devoted an evening to the music of Jimi Hendrix. It was extraordinary – the love was there in every note, and kudos to the band for playing the deepest cuts from the master’s albums.
12. Tift Merritt @ The Linda, Albany. April 1. A perennial visitor to The Linda, Merritt was mesmerizing and wonderfully spontaneous (throughout the evening, she inquired about UNC, her alma mater, which was playing in the NCAA basketball semi-final). Her voice was a wonder to behold, especially with evocative new songs and old favorites to dip into at a moment’s notice.
13. Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue @ The Egg’s Hart Theatre, Albany. June 14. If ever The Egg should have ripped out the first ten rows of seats for a show, it should have been this one. The man and his wickedly awesome band brought grooves that demanded a floor of dancers. Covering Ernie K. Doe’s “Here Come the Girls” was all the proof that was needed to shake your rump.
14. Los Straitjackets @ the Hangar on the Hudson, Troy. August 22. Mexican wrestling masks – check. Cool guitar riffs – check. Rhythm section that could guide a fighter jet to land on a dime – check. Crowd yelling for more – check. What a night to be a music fan.
15. Amy Helm & the Handsome Strangers @ Cohoes Music Hall, Cohoes. With Eastbound Jesus. January 21. Also Amy Helm @ the College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center for the Arts, Albany. October 7. Two very different venues, two knockout performances. At the former, Helm mixed her own songs with those of her father (Levon), Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Allen Toussaint; at the latter, she and her band of Woodstock virtuosos played a closing mini-set of Tom Petty songs that had everybody up on their feet, tears flowing with astonishment.
16. J.D. McPherson @ the Hangar on the Hudson (November 8). McPherson should set up a residency at this comfy venue. Is there anyone else out there whose fans know the lyrics to his newest songs this quickly? Plus, his band flat out rocks the rafters and never lets up.
17. Scotty Mac’s Rockshow @ Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Troy. February 3. Read the Nippertown review and kick yourself several times if you missed this mid-winter sizzler of a show. Scotty Mac’s command of early British rock and blues is jaw-dropping.
18. Bridge Jazz Festival featuring Maceo Parker and Cyrille Aimee @ College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center for the Arts, Albany. February 24. James Brown and George Clinton’s sax icon brought it all, even channeling some Brother Ray in his vocals at one point. And Aimee was a revelation – a versatile, bilingual singer (and beat-boxer) whom you have to see to believe, backed by a spry band that could do no wrong.
19. Shannon McNally @ Caffe Lena, Saratoga Springs. With Brett Hughes. May 19. McNally had never played Caffe Lena before – say what?! Really. Yet she played with such good cheer and ease that you’d swear she had been a regular. The songs off the recent Black Irish sounded perfect in the renovated venue, and Brett Hughes not only offered fine accompaniment on second guitar but also an excellent opening set that drew friends and family from Vermont.
20. Soul Rebels Brass Band @ the Empire State Plaza at The Egg, Albany. For the full brass band experience, it does not get much better than this New Orleans combo who’ve been funkin’ it up since the early ’90s. If you weren’t there for this free Made in the Shade of The Egg concert, you were sorely missed.
21. Buddy Guy @ The Egg’s Hart Theatre, Albany. August 15. One of my all-time heroes. If he’d played the entire evening (his protegee, Quinn Sullivan opened and sat in a bit, with mixed results), Guy would’ve made my Top 10 of the year. Guy sings and plays with indescribable energy, skill and joy, and swears with good humor, too.
22. Shemekia Copeland @ the College of Saint Rose’s Massry Center for the Arts, Albany. December 16. The late Johnny Copeland told me back in ’88 that he had a daughter who would some day make big waves in the blues world. Despite a so-so turnout, Shemekia Copeland and her talented NYC band played some really deep blues and raucous rockers from her catalog and her father’s, too. She left everybody smiling.
23. Eilen Jewell Band @ Club Helsinki, Hudson. September 3. Jewell’s band – featuring guitar genius Jerry Miller – fits her supple voice perfectly and energized a 90-minute set, which drew heavily from her great new album of blues drawn from a wide range of sources.
24. Loudon Wainwright III @ The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, Albany. With Suzzy Roche & Lucy Wainwright Roche. October 28. Equal parts concert and theater, Wainwright’s set was riveting, blurring the lines between art and autobiography. The opening duo set by his daughter and ex-wife was sweet, quirky and melodic.
25. Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys @ Club Helsinki, Hudson. With Sarah Borges. September 1. Call it what you will, but I call it a night by one of the best bands in the USA – country, swing, blues and rockabilly, Big Sandy and company can do it all. A sublime opening solo acoustic solo set by Helsinki fave Sarah Borges was just what the doctor ordered for Labor Day weekend.
26. Willie Nile @ The Linda, Albany. April 11. Nile’s recent Dylan tribute album is worthwhile, but hearing selections from it live is awesome (what a band!), especially alongside Nile’s songs, which stand right there with the best from Dylan and close friend Bruce Springsteen.
27. Dale Watson & Ray Benson @ The Egg’s Hart Theatre, Albany. (April 9). Ameripolitan music’s leading voices teamed up, traded stories and quips, and by the way played some really cool songs. Check out their recent collaboration album, Dale and Ray.
28. Marcia Ball @ the Upper Room, Albany. February 16. Ball and her Texas combo defrosted the venue with a spicy mix of barrelhouse blues, Gulf Coast soul serenades and nods to the fonkified sounds of Professor Longhair and Dr. John.
29. Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters @ the Upper Room, Albany. February 11. Despite nursing “half a cold,” one of the greatest guitarists on the planet plugged into the energy of his blues heroes and added to their legacy with his own moving songs from 2016’s Father’s Day.
30. John Doe @ Club Helsinki, Hudson. February 23. The founder of X and The Knitters is one of the great voices in Californian music, with songs that capture the grit and longing that life throws one’s way, sometimes slowly and sometimes in a blink. His solo set had the audience leaning in and nodding in approval.
31. Ray Wylie Hubbard @ the Hangar on the Hudson, Troy. June 3. A case could be made that Willie Nelson is the greatest living songwriter out of Texas, and Hubbard is second – he’s that talented. Add to the equation that Hubbard lays down a hellacious groove with just a guitar and drums and free-associates in his monologues with the best of them. Anybody at this show will swear it was like being in Austin in the early 1980s, before Dell and the yuppies ruined it all.
32. Corey Harris @ Old Songs, Voorheesville. September 29. Harris is often described as a blues artist, but his artistry is pan-African, drawing upon the music of Mali, Jamaica and the early Delta era. His first set was like that of Bob Dylan at the Palace: he played the songs with no comments. The second set was like having a friend play your living room, cracking jokes, recalling his travels and altering the sense of time with a hypnotic voice, deft guitar and poetic lyrics.
33. Beausoleil @ the Music Haven, Schenectady. July 30. For over 35 years, Michael Doucet’s group has been the Cajun equivalent of Los Lobos, paying respect to tradition and adding stylistic innovations and new songs for future generations to tackle. On a tranquil summer night, Beausoleil lit up Schenectady’s cozy park.
34. John Primer @ the Upper Room, Albany. November 4. Few can match the resume of Primer, who played in Muddy Waters’ final band and later in the quintessential Magic Slim & the Teardrops. A really cool evening of Chicago blues, old and new, with great banter between Primer’s gritty voice and guitar and Steven Bell’s righteous harp.
35. Bobby Whitlock & Coco Carmel @ The Egg’s Swyer Theatre, Albany. June 16. Whitlock was in supergroups Delaney & Bonnie and Derek & the Dominoes, and this concert was as much about the songs as about the sometimes volatile history behind them. Backed by just his wife, Whitlock was in prime voice, and playing with the enthusiasm of someone who knew the value of a second chance.
A FEW OTHER MUSIC-RELATED OBSERVATIONS FROM 2017:
1. Meeting Harry Belafonte at The Egg after his interview with Alan Chartock left me in awe. When I mentioned Lorraine Hansberry, Belafonte spoke fondly of one of his “closest friends” and recommended a pair of her early works to read. When I told him that my parents had seen him play in the 1960s and that my mother had introduced his early albums to my sister and me, Belafonte replied with smile. “She has good taste. she raised you right!”
2. There is nothing quite like new radio station 106.1 the X. Hearing Robert Johnson, Peter Gabriel, The Fleshtones, Michael Eck and Etta James in the span of 25 minutes will make you a believer, too. That, and the return of Jimmy Barrett.
3) Never, never, never mention Rita Coolidge to Bobby Whitlock. Not unless you want him to glower at you like you’ve taken his last set of guitar strings. Sorry, Bobby!
4. I mentioned to Shannon McNally after her show at Caffe Lena that The Parting Glass was just a few blocks away. “You mean it’s named after the song?” When I nodded yes, she proceeded to sing the melody wordlessly in the lobby for over a minute. I was spell-bound.
5. A crowd of people were chatting with Eddie Angel after the Los Straitjackets show. It turned out that some were from bands he played in during high school. One was an early guitar teacher of Angel’s who said that “after one month of lessons, Eddie knew how to play ‘Day Tripper’ and “Ticket to Ride.'”
6. “Ozzy and Jack’s World Detour” is a must-see series.
7. “Sidemen: Long Road to Glory” and “I Am the Blues” were the best music documentaries I saw – both played at Proctors during the summer.
8. While signing his memoir, Ray Benson’s face lit up when I mentioned Evan Johns, who had recently passed. “He was one of the best musicians around, Fred. What a loss to the world!”
9. Thanks for the music, Gregg Allman, Chuck Berry, Charles Bradley, Lonnie Brooks, Sonny Burgess, Fats Domino, J. Geils, D.L. Menard, Tom Petty, Clyde Stubblefield, Butch Trucks, Pat Dinizio, Evan Johns and Malcolm Young – your songs will always be in my life. Rest in peace!
10. Hearing the various takes of “A Day in the Life” on the 50th anniversary deluxe edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is fascinating, especially when realizing the alarm clock that Mal Evans set off happens 24 bars in (24 hours in a day, eh?) and that The Beatles initially wanted to close out the song with a collective “Om!”
MORE BEST OF 2017 LISTS
STEVE NOVER’S Top 50 Concerts
RICHARD BRODY’S Top 22 Concerts
MICHAEL ECK’S Top 10 Concerts
RUDY LU’S Top 12 Favorite Concerts
FRED RUDOFSKY’S Favorite 50 Albums
ED CONWAY’S Bakers’ Dozen Best Concerts
J HUNTER’S Best Jazz2K Releases (Part Deux)
DON WILCOCK’S Top 8 Blues Albums (And Year-End Rant)
WES SENECA’S Best Third Member of a Duo, Fourth Member of a Trio, Fifth Member of a Quartet…
STANLEY A. JOHNSON’S Top 12 (Or So) Live Music Performances
J HUNTER’S Best Jazz2K Releases (Part I)