If you’re going to run a site like this, some sort of end of year round-up is pretty much mandatory. I’m going to hold off from finalising a recorded music top ten (and a 2010 mix CD) because I keep hearing new stuff – today’s tip, check out a great seasonal single from Trembling Bells and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy called ‘New Year's Eve's the Loneliest Night of the Year’.
But I’m not currently due to go to any more gigs in 2010, so let’s start with…
…the five best concerts I have been to this year.
Totting up, I’ve been to twenty in all - so a pretty good crop and some great nights amongst them. Of course this is bound to be an even more subjective and unmoderated exercise than writing about records: the target number is smaller; they just happen to be the ones I got to go to; what makes them great is a combination of music, performance, place, your feelings, etc; and you can’t play them again if you didn’t quite catch something first time round. So, with all that said, my top five countdown:
5. Bob Dylan, Tunng, Laura Marling et al – Hop Farm Festival, Kent, 3 July
I’m normally reluctant to go to big festivals, preferring to see performers up close where you can check up on the whites of their eyes and what they’re doing with the fingers. But sometimes you have to make exceptions, like Hard Rock Calling in Hyde Park last year for Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, and Bob Dylan this year at the Hop Farm, with a fine supporting cast.
I hesitate to say much about watching Dylan live: most things you read are ludicrously black and white – either he’s a pitiful parody of his lost talent, stumbling unrecognisably through his back catalogue; or he can’t take a step wrong and those who don’t appreciate every fumble don’t deserve to follow the Zen master. For me, he’s the towering figure of popular music in the last fifty years: unapproachable as a songwriter and with few peers as an interpreter, able to sell a song that he likes (whether his or someone else’s) as effectively and distinctively as anyone.
And yet…I can’t pretend, as some do, that he’s as good now as he ever was. He’s found an effective and viable way of writing and performing as an older man (he’ll be seventy next May – just wait for the media blitz) which is no faint praise. But I’d have bitten your hand off if you’d offered to swap my Hop Farm ticket for a time machine trip to see him with the Hawks in 1966, or the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, or the glorious gospel shows in 1980 (bizarrely still awaiting the Genuine Bootleg Series treatment from Sony), or [insert your own favourite period here]. I first saw him at Wembley in 1987 when he was hauling himself out of his most dodgy period artistically. (But that was still a period in which he’d managed to come up with ‘Brownsville Girl’ and ‘Blind Willie McTell’, neither of which he played – OF COURSE…) He’s never perfect, never boring, always comes up with something you weren’t expecting. So I’ll keep going to see him whenever I get the opportunity.
A great supporting bill sealed the deal. Laura Marling’s was my favourite performance on the main stage. But best of all was getting up close to the wonderful Tunng on the second stage: a quirky blend of folk and electronics with some great tunes and a real energy about them.
4. Robert Plant & the Band of Joy – Roundhouse, London, 29 October
I’ve already posted about this Electric Proms concert here. It was beautifully done – by another old rocker who has found his own way of aging credibly and interestingly, in his case by keeping his ears open and being ready to go where they take him…
3. Liz Green, Two Wings, Eaten by Children, et al – On Margate Sounds, Tom Thumb Theatre, 29 August
Another one that I’ve already written about here. This gets its place on musical merit – really great stuff from the three mentioned above in particular – as well as family connections, an incomparable venue and general good fun.
2. Time Jumpers – Station Inn, Nashville, 31 May
You might have expected my first trip to Tennessee to produce some fine musical memories. This was the bonus, not planned in advance. And what a bonus…
The Station Inn is a windowless shack with a basic stage and long, communal tables. You can’t book; they sell beer, pizza and popcorn, and that’s about it. The Time Jumpers have a long-standing Monday night residency and are something of a local legend. They play Western Swing – a sort of cross between country and big band jazz – and include a lot of very experienced and very able Nashville session-men. They were a ten-piece on the night we saw them (three – count ‘em – fiddles, accordion, pedal steel, two guitars, bass, drums and vocal), but brought also up a very young guest fiddler, Eli Bishop. (His Myspace page here has a video clip with the Time Jumpers.)
It’s not my favourite style of music, but the skill, warmth and generosity of their playing – and the sheer Nashville-ness of the occasion – were impossible to resist.
1. Neil Young and Bert Jansch – Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, 1 June
So, on to the main event. I’ve written about Neil Young’s performance in reviewing his Le Noise album. It was a shame that Neil and Bert didn’t do anything together, but otherwise, no disappointments for me in the evening.
Seeing Pinky and Perky at the Ryman would be good enough – the wooden pews and fine acoustics of the former home of the Grand Old Opry make a wonderfully intimate and generally resonant setting to see anyone. Add in one of the finest guitarists and singers in the British folk tradition for an opener and a solo Neil. Irresistible.
Bert was surprisingly nervous – and the Ryman crowd annoyingly talkative – but he won through with a fine set, including my all-time favourite of his, ‘Blackwaterside’.
So that’s my top five – and I’m reminded what a great year of music it’s been when I see what didn’t quite make the cut, including Stornoway, Jackson Browne & David Lindley, Alejandro Escovedo, spine-tingling singing from mezzo soprano Chloe Maloney, and a superb Brian Eno-curated Brighton Festival, where, as well as the man himself, I saw fine stuff from The Necks, the Philip Glass Ensemble, Portico Quartet and Anouar Brahem.