Best of 2019: Don Wilcock’s Favorite Musical Moments of the Year

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“This was Dick Waterman’s last blues festival.”

He said it so matter-of-factly and in the third person. I looked over at him sitting in the passenger seat next to me as I drove him home to Oxford, Mississippi from the King Biscuit Blues Festival on the banks of the Mississippi in Helena. It was in early October. The flat Mississippi landscape streaked behind his profile and seemed to suck his life away in a blur.

Dick had just spoken at my Call and Response Seminar at the Festival. I’d asked him to describe a typical Son House performance, and he transported the audience back to the 1960s when he, Dick, had rediscovered the bluesman who taught Robert Johnson how to play guitar. Son’s tutelage was good enough to cause a good percentage of blues fans the world over 80 years later to believe Robert Johnson had sold his soul to the devil for his prowess. Not a soul moved as Dick transported us back with a description so visceral you could see Son House attacking his guitar as clearly as if you were 50 feet in front of him on stage.

Dick Waterman

Dick Waterman singlehandedly pulled Delta bluesmen like Son, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James out of “retirement” and put them into the folk circuit in the mid-60s, elevating blues from a footnote in folk music to its rightful place as America’s music, period! He literally lived with Son House on the road for nearly a decade. And here he was, for the last time, sharing his memories with blues fans from around the world.

Driving home with me, he was coming to grips with the idea that this appearance was his swan song. The crowd knew they were experiencing oral history at its finest. I did another Dick Waterman interview that weekend with Scott Lundsford from the University of Arkansas Pryor Film Archives, and Scott told me afterwards that that half hour was the panicle of his long career. A British gentleman approached Dick in tears after his seminar appearance and told of a time in 1965 when he met Dick and Son on the streets of London and Son had played for him on the street. He grabbed Dick’s hand and thanked him openly weeping.

I’m working on a book about the struggles to bring blues to a mass audience, and I consider Dick to be the single most important conduit to make that happen. It was an enormous struggle for Dick at 84 to be there, and his presence alone was a tipping point in my life.  The fact that he is so eloquent besides makes that seminar the most important moment of a year of great musical moments.

As a young man I assumed I would become jaded about my experiences in music as I got older. Fifty years in, to the contrary I’m blown away. I’m trying to figure out if the concerts are getting better. Or is it simply that I only go to the transcendent shows? Or am I just so damn glad to be alive at 75 and still enjoying life? I did more interviews for more publications than I saw shows this year, but of the shows I did see, none were clunkers, and most transported me into another reality and helped me realize that music itself is an elixir. Here are some high points:

Songwriter Jimmy Webb’s version of “Wichita Lineman” on piano at Cohoes Music Hall on November 23rd surpassed Glenn Campbell’s hit version. Webb’s conversation about his incredible career as a hitmaking songwriter made you feel like he was talking just to you.

Albert Lee played the Strand Theater in Hudson Falls on January 9 and again on June21st. The much-underrated British pop singer/songwriter and guitarist was enthralling both times, but what was most interesting was how different both shows were. The second time around, it was as if he was playing for a family reunion. Much more relaxed, intimate and just comfortable.

Thornetta Davis

Thornetta Davis is the latest in a long line of effusive Detroit blues rockers. Her show in Central Park, Schenectady, on August 4th was closer to fellow Motor City boogie master John Lee Hooker than it was anything Motown ever put out.  She has the grit of Mitch Ryder, the finesse of latter-day Bob Seeger and the attitude of Bettye LaVette, all great acts out of a city that deserves more credit as a center for great music than it gets.

I admit that I have a deep prejudice against cover bands, but with drummer Jim McCarty, the only remaining member of The Yardbirds – the British invasion band that once included Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck – they pulled it off with a stirring set on March 6th at The Egg that reminded me why the Brits were able to sell blues rock back to America half a century ago.

One might expect that Robert Cray and Tommy Castro would outshine their opening acts, but Joe Louis Walker all but blew Cray off the stage at the Egg on March 13, and Tinsley Ellis gave Tommy Castro a run for his money at Cohoes Music Hall on November 20th. That’s not to demean either Cray or Castro, but rather to give huge kudos to Walker and Ellis.

Special mentions need to be made for John Hammond’s acoustic blues set at Caffe Lena on April 6th, John Morse’s rock extravaganza at Watervliet’s Chrome November 15th, and The Masters of The Telecaster show September 15 at Cohoes Music Hall with Jim Weider, G.E. Smith and Duke Levine.

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