Best of Capital Region pop, rock, jazz, r&b and folk 2019

Highlights from the local concert scene
Elton John, pictured here at Madison Square Garden, thrilled an Albany audience.
Elton John, pictured here at Madison Square Garden, thrilled an Albany audience.

Elton John took the stage at the Times Union Center for what had to have been one of the most popular shows in the Capital Region in 2019.

Here’s what Gazette music reviewer Kirsten Ferguson had to say about the show:

“Audience members, who managed to snag some highly coveted and expensive seats, got their money’s worth over two hours and 45 minutes of classic music and bombastic stage effects.

“From the psychedelic shooting stars that filled the massive onstage video screen during ‘Rocket Man’ to the deluge of confetti that rained down on the crowd after ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,’ the evening could be summed up with a word: magic.”

English singer Robyn Hitchcock returned to the Capital Region to play a new-to-him (and locally loved) spot. Ferguson had nothing but good things to say about the show. 

“Robyn Hitchcock carried a cup of tea on stage to start his sold-out Sunday night solo show at Caffé Lena, an intimate setting that showcased the English singer-songwriter’s brilliant poetic-creative side and dark gallows humor.

“Despite the threads of bleakness that weave through most songs, it’s hard to exaggerate what a pleasure Hitchcock is to watch perform; he always comes across as witty and wildly creative onstage.”

The Outlaw Music Festival seemed like it might have to do without Willie Nelson for a minute earlier this year with the announcement that the artist was ill. However, the legendary artist managed to make it out for the festival, much to the delight of fans and to Ferguson.

“Although he canceled much of his tour over the summer due to medical problems, Nelson seemed in fine form at SPAC, where he opened, as always, with the signature tune, ‘Whiskey River.’ From there, Nelson’s headlining set just flowed, like the river of brown liquor in the song.

“How lucky we were to see the 86-year-old Nelson — the poet laureate of American music in braids and a red headband — bring his charm and good-heartedness to Saratoga Springs on a beautiful early September night.

“R&B legend Bonnie Raitt and bluegrass fiddler Alison Krauss — two consummate professionals, with unmatched talent and beautiful voices — opened with flawless performances.”

More top shows
Music columnist Michael Hochanadel offers his “Fabulous Five” — top picks of the 60-plus rock, country, jazz, blues, soul and folk shows he saw in 2019.

Lizz Wright at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Jan. 26.

Breathtakingly lush or racing in a breathless rush, Wright settled us in a sumptuous sofa of sound. Singing and playing — by keyboardist Kenny Banks Jr., guitarist Chris Bruce, bassist Ben Zwerin and drummer Michael Jerome — swung in relaxed, polished ease. But graceful, languid Wright detoured off the map, too. Sadly, she cut k.d. lang’s “Wash Me Clean” from the setlist, but she subbed in Sandy Denny/Fairport Convention’s musing “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” as her wistful encore. Back to us at the piano, she took us as deep into the song with her as in the quiet numbers that opened and the Gospel that stirred things up.

Songs of Our Native Daughters at The Egg July 26.
A bold, beautiful “sisterhood is powerful” claim that black music is all music, this saga of slavery, rape and lynching transmuted pain into glorious sound through fierce principle and musical strength.
Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Layla McCalla and Allison Russell linked their own stories of Africa, the Caribbean, and the south, of cities and farms, to harrowing history, of hard-won survival through family strength and pride.
They eclipsed what we admire of their past solo work by blending in moral and musical force. Even crooning quietly, they churched us; but their righteous rage and defiance blossomed best in call and response dialog.
Before the earned Gospel-y joy of “Up Above My Head” sent everyone home energized and at peace, they dragged us through hell, then sang us to hope.

Jupiter & Okwess at Music Haven Aug. 18.
When storms drove this combustible crew into the Niskayuna High School auditorium, fans followed, wrapping the 16-show Music Haven free series in jubilant Afro-pop from Kinshasa.
Openers Nkumu Katalay & the Lifelong Project got dancers up by their second song, then built from there. Katalay taught dance steps and sang of home and identity in words we couldn’t parse, pumping musical meanings we couldn’t miss.
A great guitar band with rocking beats, fast but light, agile but authoritative, Jupiter & Okwess were relentless in the sweetest, happiest way. Fervent and forceful vocally, the band played hot, crisp. At times they sped up and sped up, without the wheels flying off, defying dangerous physics.

Lucinda Williams at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Sept. 18.
Performing her 1998 classic album “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” in order, plus hot encores, Williams delivered the best show I’ve seen her do; her strongest collection of songs, in a wonderfully evocative format, on big beats from her most rocking band. She didn’t even have to sing the place names “Opelousas” or “Ponchartrain” to take us there. Her voice, cracking on the heartbreak, brassy when she belted, carried us south.
She leaned on the band early, but she cut them loose later. In turn, the band energized her, into Chrissie Hynde-like bop abandon in “Foolishess” where she pulled no punches and indicted liars, fear-mongers, hate, walls and greed, then called for peace and love.

Darlingside at The Egg Dec. 7.
Four airy tenors aimed bluegrass instruments at sophisticated folk-rock songs of their own ironic or sincere invention; sometimes both at once. They examined travel (geographic, in time), love and loss, memory and mood through their singular prism of smarts and melodic mastery.
No prettier blend may exist among current post-modern harmony groups, or such last-generation giants as CS&N, than Darlingside’s four rather similar voices linked at the synaptic level in blithe cheerfulness or deep melancholy. They started in fresh territory, but also reached back to crowd-pleasing effect.
They layered instruments with voices in distinctive, low-key beauty; solos were brief and the singing was most often together. Very together.

Categories: Entertainment, Life & Arts

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