What can you say about a year that started in pandemic amber and ended with yet another wave of lockdown sap oozing out? If time flies when you’re having fun, parts of 2021 barely crawled. Then, just as things started lightening up for several months, Style Weekly was placed into a greed-induced coma by it’s former owner. If you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone — to continue this mixmaster of metaphors — what remained in the darkness blazed even brighter.
While nightly live performances were sharply cut, streaming was something of a substitute. The Firehouse Theater hosted adventurous performances, starting with Scott Clark’s intense, poetic solo drum performance. The Richmond Jazz Society virtualized its weekly VMFA series and a new one was launched by In Your Ear, with a screen bottom crawl and between-song contribution entreaties that were a cheerful reminder of the virus’s devastating impact on musician income. [Nationally] saxophonist-turned-visual artist John Lurie cut through the TV clutter with the acerbically charming “Painting with John,” and released the first volume of his biography, “A History of Bones.”
Recorded music never went away, even though it is often a losing proposition without shows to move merchandise. Butcher Brown quietly followed up 2020’s “King Butch” with “Encore” and when things started to open in the fall, went on a whirlwind tour of Europe. Band members Andrew Randazzo, Marcus Tenney, and Devonne Harris- as DJ Harrison- all released solo projects. Buttafly Vasquez showed her intimate command of standards with “Bruja’s Lament.“ Doug Richards quietly released a brilliant set of big band Thelonius Monk arrangements. Matthew E. White organized a small army of collaborators for his at once complex and down home “Kbay.” Charles Owens’ “Ten Years” blended Hendrix, Coltrane, Sesame Street, and originals into one of the year’s highlights. Angelica Garcia’s “Echo Electrico,” a set of ravishing solo renditions of traditional Hispanic and Latin American folk songs recorded at RVA’s Spacebomb Records, is a beauty for the ages. Garcia’s performance at Gallery 5 in 2020 was one of the last of the pre-COVID era. Her November return this year was one of the year’s intermittent whiffs of normality, proof of vaccination required.
Another brief respite in the summer saw jazz icon Kurt Elling, along with Butcher Brown rhythm section Corey Fonville and Devonne Harris and the great hybrid guitarist Charlie Hunter, in a debut performance of his new album,“Superblue.” The Mekong Express had an all-too-brief summer residency at the Hof and Bio Ritmo played a sunset concert on the venue’s roof overlooking Scott’s Addition.
New institutions launched including Mike Hawkins’ bi-weekly jam sessions at Orbital Music Gallery and Curt Sydnor’s bracing first Fridays series at Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Brian Jones’ monthly all-star Tuesday sessions at Spacebomb continued the high standard for RVA music, as moving and accomplished as anywhere.
Outside shows were the new normal. Some major events were back, notably the 2nd Street Fest and the Richmond Folk Festival. Brambly Park, along with some other brew-themed venues, hosted a series of well-atttended shows. Friday Cheers sectioned off enthusiastic audiences in rectangular pods and sold out every week. The Afro-Zen Allstars played the summer sun down from Chimborazo hill and just released a new album. Barry Bless reconstituted his Breakfast Cabaret in his front-yard garden. There were street concerts from Miramar, Victor Haskins, Prabir and Kenneka Cook, and from the area’s inspirational king of home porch performance, James Plunky Branch.
Any list is inevitably incomplete. There were moments missed and others inexcusably omitted, swept unlauded into the irretrievable past. As many fade, some remain: Charles Owen’s lovely closing version of “The Rainbow Connection” at his CD release; pianist Daniel Clarke’s playful sweeps and dives through standards at the Spacebomb upright. Sam Reed, channeling the great soul singer Nina Simone, stepping back from the microphone to let the pure power of her voice fill the room. It’s the moments that shine, before fading into memories. – Peter McElhinney
I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more vinyl reissues.
That’s because in my little corner of the world, there hasn’t been much else to do over the past two years besides work, play records or watch basketball games and movies. It almost makes the pandemic sound pleasant, for some strange reason. If you hate other people in general, I imagine this is like your Golden Era. Of course, it’s no fun, I jest.
Though I am hoping the pandemic will ultimately serve some greater purpose in the grand scheme of things. (Hint: clearly there are very few adults at the civilizational wheel, so maybe that whole climate change thing should be a uniting cause? Maybe? Maybes?) Or maybe because I work in “The Media,” I’m just another Oz-like figure behind an idealogical curtain of your choosing, making everything up for clicks or to annoy the unbelievers – or is it outlanders? And the majority of the world’s scientists are a bunch of dizzy, wine-and-cheese scarfing lefties who don’t work for Exxon, for some reason.
Can you tell I just watched “Don’t Look Up”? Since I occasionally write about music for Style, and thankfully not major glaciers about to melt in 3-5 years and flood the world, here are some musical memories from ’21.
Michael Hurley’s “The Time of the Foxgloves”: I’ve been a fan of this old school, country-folk artist since the owner of a small record store in Northern California gave me a cassette of his classic 1971 album, “Armchair Boogie” in the mid-‘90s. Little did I know then that Hurley lived in my hometown of Richmond for a while before settling in Astoria, Oregon, where he still performs free gigs in nearby Portland and was a 2019 inductee into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. Why he has never been booked for the Richmond Folk Festival remains a total mystery to me. At age 80, he was still playing national music festivals (before the pandemic) and he’s still putting out great records, as evidenced by this charming new album that feels, like most of his catalogue, like an intimate, homespun affair filled with violin-playing friends, an upright bass, pump organ and xylophone, a jug being passed around or maybe a barking dog or two; featuring guests including the ghostly, operatic folk singer Josephine Foster (on “Jacob’s Ladder”) and Betsy Nichols on a lovely cover of the Louvin Brothers’ “Alabama.”
It’s inspirational to listen to an artist who has continued to mine his own unique musical stylings since the early 1960s, when he began recording on the same Folkways reel-to-reel that Leadbelly used; a singer who still delivers achingly heartfelt melodies, often surprising you with his sweet falsetto croon, pandemic be damned. All Hurley needed for creative inspiration was to see his beloved Foxglove flowers bloom.
Here are five other new albums that stood out.
1. John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme: Live from Seattle”: Whew. Just an amazing, newly discovered performance of the master from late 1965; not much else to say here except music rarely gets any more deeply spiritual or expansive.
2. Human Expression, “Live at a Psychedelic Velocity”: Newly released on the great Mississippi Records with Moi J’connais Records, a nice lost psych classic featuring a heady mix of burners recorded in ’66 – ‘68 that should appeal to fans of the 13th Floor Elevators, the Seeds, maybe early Love.
3.Ìxtahuele, “Dharmaland”: America’s original hippie, the fascinating “Nature Boy” songwriter, Eden Ahbez, died in 1995 after releasing only one obscure exotica album in the 1960s, the great “Eden’s Island.” But this barefoot vegetarian’s tropical, psychedelic island music lives on thanks to filmmaker Brian Chidester, who was making a new documentary film about Ahbez when he found 22 of his compositions at the Library of Congress and promptly arranged for them to be recorded by the Swedish exotica group, Ìxtahuele. The result is this year’s wildest fantasia of an album, “Dharmaland”; think of expansive works of shimmering pop art such as Brian Wilson’s “Smile” and you’re on the right track.
4.“The Cosmic Genius of Big Boy Pete: 1965-1977”: Brit Peter Norwich, former guitarist for the Offbeats in the 1950s and the Peter Jay and the Jaybirds in the 1960s, wrote some crazy-ass, bubble gum/garage rock songs and changed his name to Big Boy Pete after moving to San Francisco in the early 1970s. Coming off like a mixture of Ray Davies and a giddy Syd Barrett, there are some catchy numbers here with bizarre lyrics. On side one, the sixties side, check out “Knit me a Kiss” and the sitar-flavored “Paranoia.”
5. Shout out to my friend, Rosali Middleman, a great singer-songwriter based in Philly. I met her four years ago while her garage rock trio, the Long Hots, was touring Richmond with Purling Hiss and they all needed a place to stay. I found out later that she is an amazing solo talent (fans of Richard and Linda Thompson may be interested). She put out another excellent album this year, “No Medium,” that made many national critics’ lists. Congrats, Rosali!
Favorite live performances:
I really didn’t go to many, keep that in mind. I’m sure I missed some great small shows at Fuzzy Cactus and many other places (no need to rub it in). But my favorite one was probably the wild Saturday midday set by Washington, DC Go-Go legends Rare Essence at the Richmond Folk Festival. It was packed full of people dancing, under the tent and outside of it, which just felt good, if a bit unnerving at the time.
Another fun night was the fired-up country-blues show by San Benito, Texas’ Charley Crockett at the National on Sept. 4. Before a less-than-packed room, Crockett and his band were clearly thrilled to be back on the road and tore through a blistering set of American blues, roots country and Americana – while the crowd just got more into it, and for many, more and more inebriated; possibly to help sooth the nerves from being inside around a crowd for the first time in a year (throat clear).
Also on my list was the lovely impromptu gig by Richmond’s own amazing bolero group, Miramar, which set up on the porch of a Fan house near VCU and played to a crowd gathered in the street and at the nearby children’s park. It’s always special to hear Rei Alvarez and Laura Ann Singh harmonize on these beautiful songs together, while Marlysse Simmons plays amazing keys and she and Rei’s sweet little son, Desi, runs around the perimeter. We even got a cameo from the great Ellen Cockerham Riccio, principal second violin for the Richmond Symphony. But this felt like an especially uplifting afternoon of sheer musical poetry during what has been a depressing two years for many. Just like Bio Ritmo, Miramar is a true local treasure we should feel lucky to have in Richmond. A heartfelt thanks to them for helping us through tough times with their art.–Brent Baldwin