Boomer-generation rocker Bruce Springsteen may have tilted the election.
Springsteen, the Stones, the Who, Eric Clapton, Roger Waters, Billy Joel and Bon Jovi raised millions for Hurricane Sandy victims earlier this month. Springsteen, Neil Young and Bob Dylan released highly regarded albums this year. And Springsteen and his E Street Band earned $80 million on the road — good for second place among top-selling rock tours after Waters.
Both played locally this year, as did top-sellers Phish and the Dave Matthews Band, the biggest box office stars among the literally hundreds of pop, rock, folk and blues artists who performed here in 2012.
Gazette music writers Michael Hochanadel, Brian McElhiney and David Singer reviewed more than 130 concerts and here they highlight five top shows of the year, listed chronologically; Hochanadel and McElhiney also picked their top five albums of the year.
Year in Review 2012
Michael’s Top 5 shows
Red House (John Gorka, Eliza Gilkyson and Lucy Kaplansky) at the Eighth Step at Proctors GE Theater (Jan. 7). Who knew their voices would blend so well? Everybody did, as soon as they harmonized in Neil Young’s “I Am A Child,” an absolutely stunning opener but just the first of many peaks. Each is an admirably equipped, accomplished troubadour; but combining their talents in Red Horse felt fresh and fine, masterly and easy.
Willie Nile at WAMC’s The Linda. (Feb. 18). When Nile detonated the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” he yelled, “Stand up: This is IT!” Everybody did. Wiry, black-clad and tall-haired, Nile made everyone believe that this show, right now, was it. He strummed an acoustic guitar and when he called bassist deluxe Johnny Pisano, “Johnny, play me some stuff!” Pisano uncorked exceptional stuff.
Alejandro Escovedo at The Egg (June 15). Escovedo protested, loudly, an America waking from a nightmare, opening with the bitter “Sally Was a Cop” about a wounded nation that can’t afford police, or teachers, but kills strangers thousands of miles away. Not all of it was that angry, but all of it was that strong: rock ’n’ roll from an impassioned, articulate heart.
Nick Lowe at The Egg (Sept. 18). Past 60, Lowe may be best known as Elvis Costello’s first producer. He echoed both Elvis Costello in laments of loss and Elvis Presley in rollicking rockabilly; with less voice than either, but just as much feel. Lowe sang plenty from his fresh album “The Old Magic,” jewel in the amazing second act of a team player turned troubadour.
Victor Wooten and Jimmy Herring at The Egg (Nov. 18). Two enormous sounds: bassist Wooten celebrated soul with a band full of bassists, and guitarist Herring bent blues and Beatles into something jazzy and jaunty. Dave Singer was there, too: “Guitar heroes live. Jimmy Herring is one of them, playing an ecstatic 90-minute set packed with nasty jams with solos that require a combo of doctorate in guitar and rock-star recklessness. When the lights went on, mouths were properly agape.”
Brian’s Top 5 shows
The Psychedelic Furs at The Egg (June 2). Too often, rock shows in The Egg can feel stilted and stoic, as if the band and the fans are afraid of letting loose in such a pristine concert hall. Not so with The Psychedelic Furs. The British post-punkers ripped into classics from their entire ’80s catalog, turning in a vicious, full-throttle performance where the give and take between the musicians and the small but enthusiastic audience drove the show into the stratosphere.
Matthew Sweet at The Egg (June 22). No mere nostalgia trip, Sweet’s energetic run-through of his classic 1991 album “Girlfriend” managed to find lots of vitality in these old songs. Sweet’s emotional delivery stayed rooted thanks to his stunning band: “Girlfriend” drummer Ric Menck, bassist Paul Chastain and especially lead guitarist Dennis Taylor, who took Richard Lloyd’s original guitar riffs from the album and firmly made them his own.
Brandi Carlile at The Egg. (Aug. 1). Carlile returned to the Hart with a vengeance, bettering her 2010 performance in the theater in every way. Armed with new material from “Bear Creek,” Carlile’s band rocked out with everything in them — but the star was Carlile and her sultry, earthy voice, which flipped from a whispery croon to a full-throttle roar at the drop of a hat.
Sean Rowe at Valentine’s (Sept. 8). Rowe kicked off touring behind his first official studio album for Anti-Records, “The Salesman and the Shark,” with a powerful hometown performance in Valentine’s upstairs section, backed by his friends in Railbird. The only complaint was that the set felt much too short at only one hour, but for that entire hour Rowe showed over and over again why his music has been getting so much national attention.
Mike Watt and the Missingmen at Valentine’s (Oct. 18). The legendary punk bassist and his trio took three passes at his 2010 rock opera “Hyphenated-Man” before finally making it through on the third go. Watt’s perfectionism paid off, and the audience was rewarded with a stunning performance on par with, well, no one — that’s why he’s a legend. Watt even threw in some Minutemen classics during the encore.
David’s Top 5 shows
Ani DiFranco at The Egg (Apr. 18). Alone on stage, DiFranco kept the crowd of 900 focused with her physically aggressive playing and political rallying. She was wild, unafraid, smart, and she inspired dancing with just her acoustic guitar, as if we were back in a 1925 juke joint.
Patty Smyth at Alive at Five (June 21). The 55-year-old ’80s rocker Patty Smyth won over a skeptical audience, determined not to give her a chance, with sheer will. Determined to win the day, she told us she felt delirious in the sweltering heat, and that’s how she played. By the end, we were all on her side asking for more.
Phish at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (July 6). It’s an embarrassing cliché to say that a Phish show was one of the best of the year. We know what to expect, we know what it will look like, and we know how they’ll sound. And that’s exactly what happened, and I still left thinking that they have to be one of the best four-man bands playing today.
Morrissey at the Palace Theatre (Oct 17). Self-indulgent and tormented like a good bluesman, Morrissey, now a grown-up version of himself, delivered a colorful, emotional show filled with good songs, politics, fashion and great singing.
Ruthie Foster at The Egg (Dec. 7). The blues and soul woman played with an all-women power-trio for a small crowd. The three Texans worked over every song, Foster’s muscular voice hollerin’ out every tune, turning U2 and Adele covers into spirituals. A current Grammy nominee, she defies all commercial rules, yet would emotionally move anyone who sat through even one song, regardless of their musical taste or knowledge.
And now for the albums
Michael Hochanadel picks the best of the national releases, and Brian McElhiney chooses his favorite local release. Both lists are alphabetical by artist.
Michael’s top 5 albums
“Bloom” by Beach House, one of those “cute indie bands,” as she puts it, that my daughter favors. Smoother and more unified than its three (equally highly praised) predecessors, the newest by the Baltimore dream pop duo lacks a head-and-shoulders standout single, but that feels like strength here. So do its engaging melodies and distinctive keyboard-generated sound.
“Locked Down” by Dr. John. Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach produced, aiming for the murk and mystery of Doc’s 1970s swamp wizard Night Tripper persona, and doesn’t miss by much. This has swing and swagger, old school, It’s a different time and place (Nashville versus Doc’s New Orleans home, or LA — his 1970s funk lab) but it works.
“Black Radio” by the Robert Glasper Experiment. Is it hip-hop? Is it jazz? Yes, and hell, yes — and brilliant at both. In other words, it’s soul music at its most bracingly contemporary and richly surprising. Rappers and singers chime in, not as spice but as substance, on grooves that grow into songs and songs that fade into grooves that carry you away.
“Arrow” by the Heartless Bastards. This straight-on rock record elevates them into the exalted company of Wussy, the Drive-By Truckers, Visqueen and Neko Case’s crew — great female-featuring or -fronted rock bands. This band orbits around the songs and etch-steel-with-tenderness voice of Erika Wennerstrom, but adding second guitarist Mark Nathan fills out their sound beautifully.
“Blunderbuss” by Jack White. Ignore the ex-White Stripe’s deceptively pale cover photos: This is colorful, full-blooded bold rock with guts and glory and, when he wants, grandeur, too. Did he always sing this much like Robert Plant? And does everybody in Nashville know how to play like Led Zeppelin? Seems so on this tuneful, tough-and-tender album.
Brian’s Top 5 Albums
“The Salesman and the Shark” by Sean Rowe. Forget local — this may be my pick for best album of the year, period. With help from members of former Saratogians Railbird, Rowe has created a dizzying experience of an album that defies easy categorization, and requires multiple listens to truly understand — both fulfilling and building on the promise of “Magic” with lush arrangements and intimate vocal performances.
“I Am the Salt” by Alta Mira. On its second album, the Albany indie quartet expanded upon the haunting sounds found on its 2009 self-titled debut. Opening with the one-two punch of rockers “Good Enough” and “Organ Anthem,” the album sprawls out every which way from there, with a heavy emphasis on hooks amid the challenging-as-always atmospherics.
“The Blue Wall” by John Kribs. For close to five decades, Kribs has defied categorization on the local scene — he’s done everything from rock ’n’ roll (Johnny and the Triumphs) to folk (Racquette River Rounders) to country (The Bluebillies). His first solo studio album in more than a decade manages to touch on just about every genre he’s ever played, all in 11 heart-rending songs.
“A Distant Sound” by Grainbelt. Scene veteran Howe Glassman and his ragtag group manage to raise quite a ruckus on their second full-length, calling up images of open roads and shady small town bars throughout these eight twangy-yet-snarling tunes.
“Small Sacrifices Must Be Made!” by Jed Davis. Another scene veteran, of Hanslick Rebellion and Sevendys among many others, Davis doesn’t hold back on this solo record nearly four years in the making (and at least one song, “Babysitter,” is even older than that, having been written when Davis was 16). From power pop to hard rock, Davis hits on all the sounds he’s been known for over the years, while turning in perhaps his most mature batch of songs yet.
— Gazette music reviewers Michael Hochanadel, Brian McElhiney and David Singer