(Lilly Hiatt singing “Melissa”)
In 2021, Trying To Get Back To Where We Once Belonged
If you felt like you were in a time warp in 2021, you weren’t alone. All it took was watching eight hours of Get Back, the film documenting the Beatles’ fabled Let It Be sessions, revisiting Bruce Springsteen’s “No Nukes” performances (from forty years ago) and traipsing through the six CD set by Peter Stampfels who recorded one song per year for the entire 20th Century. The year’s best album was Lorenzo Wolff’s reimagining of the late Judee Sill’s songbook and a new band, The Immediate Family, featured a core rhythm section that played on Carole King’s Tapestry fifty years ago. Oh and did I tell you that Lilly Hiatt ran off on tour with the Allman Brothers? Well not exactly but she too was time traveling.
“Enter Lilly Hiatt.” That was an actual line on the setlist for Allman Family Revival, a series of Allman Brothers tribute shows led by Devon Allman and Duane Betts of the Allman Betts Band. The offspring of two of the Allman Brothers founders have proven that the children get along better than their parents did. The kids are alright. And Lilly Hiatt, herself the offspring herself of a famous father, ran off with the traveling troupe of all-stars to sing “Melissa” for a few weeks, not quite the conventional touring strategy after releasing her gem of a new album Lately.
Hiatt, who initially released Lately on cassette, has been messing with my sense of time for a while. I sat in her show at Gypsy Sally’s in Washington, DC about five years ago when she tried out a few new songs. One of the lines was “My favorite record is Purple Rain/That was the year I got my name.” I sat there stunned at her use of language and then the analytical side of my brain kicked in and I did a math calculation. I suddenly felt old realizing I was in my early twenties when Hiatt was just a baby. It might have precipitated a mid-life crisis that I was getting older, a strange feeling, when for most of my life, I felt I wasn’t old enough.
I always felt like I was born ten years late and was deprived of the impact of seeing the Beatles and The Rolling Stones in my teen years. Barely out of diapers for seminal events of the 20th century, I carried the weight of this like a giant boulder on my shoulder for most of my life. Thankfully I had babysitters who snuck over their older sister’s Beatles albums but I was always in catch up mode and by the time I came of age, the Beatles had broken up.
But in 2021. a year of time traveling had its healing powers. My end of year is less of a best of than it is a list of random musings:
The Beatles Get Back: Peter Jackson’s documentary Get Back was like remaking the end of my childhood and erased what I thought was the grim finale of the Beatles. They actually didn’t break up as we thought in the film Let It Be and actually seemed to be having fun singing the songs they wrote as teenagers and creating in real-time the songs that would become their last album Abbey Road. Never before have we been up so close and in the moment of watching music being created. Seeing the Beatles work through nonsensical word play to get to the right lines for songs like “Something” and “The Long and Winding Road” is an overwhelmingly emotional and cathartic experience.
The Rolling Stones No Filter Tour: Being born late, I never saw The Rolling Stones in their prime but I’ve seen just about every tour since 1980. If every show felt like it could have been the last time, instead it has turned into something more remarkable. The band that is pushing sixty years together seems to be getting better with age. Mick Jagger’s remarkable physical acumen has him covering endlessly long stadium stages and ramps. On the resumption of the No Filter tour, Jagger was once again out in space (in football parlance) at the edges of the extended stage as Richards slashed away at the chords of “Satisfaction.” When I saw the band in Tampa, it was just a half-hour from the hotel where Keith Richards woke up in the middle of the night and laid down the chords of the song on his tape recorder before going back to sleep.. But hearing Jagger sing a few verses of ancient bluesman Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen” during “Midnight Rambler” was worth the whole night.
Lorenzo Wolff—Down Where The Valleys Are Low: As the first signing to David Geffen’s Asylum Records label, Judee Sill only made a few albums before passing away. On Down Where The Valleys Are Low (StorySound Records) Lorenzo Wolff re-imagined Sill’s songs in an ethereal adventure that contemporized Sill’s songs with a mirage of colliding electronic instruments and a rotation of accompanying lead vocalists. Wolff’s arrangements power what the artist calls Sills’ otherworldly music. When Wolff imagined “Crayon Angels,” he said “I was interested in what it would sound like if Godflesh had been Judee’s backing band instead of Bob Harris.” Against the tension of all of the things going on in Wolff’s arrangement, Grace McLean sings the line “I sit here waiting for God and a train to the Astral plane,” transporting the listener to another dimension. And when Osei Ossed sings “There’s a Rugged Road” and Bobby Hawk is paired with Kate Ferber on the closing track “The Phoenix,” they sound like traditional folk songs remade for the 21st century. This is one that keeps surfacing new sounds every time you cue it up. Wolff also produced Anna
Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century In 100 Songs: Peter Stampfel’s ambitious six cd set is an anthology of 20th century music from the longtime frontman of the Holy Modal Rounders. Sttampfel covers one song per year beginning with 1900’s “I Love You Truly” and concluding with Coldplay’s “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” His idiosyncratic approach to singing covers “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” Irving Berlin, Henry Mancini, the Kinks and Billy Idol. Stampfel’s liner notes are like an extensive research project and full of delightful anecdotes like the time he went to see an Anne Murray concert and saw an unknown opening act by the name of Bruce Springsteen.
Morgan Wade—Reckless: Easily the most compelling songwriter to emerge over the last few years, Morgan Wade’s raw emotions and narratives make Reckless gripping. Wade’s use of language has you hanging on every line and totally enveloped in the characters that unfold. “I didn’t know the difference between what I needed and what I was wanting,” Wade opines at the beginning of “Northern Star.” Wade’s songs are intensely personal but equally cinematic. After hearing songs like “Take Me Away,” “Last Cigarette” and “Met You,” you feel like you’ve watched entire movies.
Lilly Hiatt—Lately Enter Lilly Hiatt…again. Lately is Hiatt’s first album in almost two years. There’s a moment when you feel like Elvis Presley and Gram Parsons guitarist James Burton is in the room on “Face.” The early Seventies country romp and kiss-off to a lover reminds that Hiatt has a great feel for country music. I always imagined George Jones and Tammy Wynette singing “Walking Proof” were they alive. That’s just one aspect of Lately. On the contrary its atmospheric, ambient sounds captured by Hiatt and co-producer Kate Waldrup are like brush strokes that paint the words that are like journal entries. The exercise of writing all one-word titled songs leaves the listener intrigued to seek out the finer details of Hiatt’s joys and her solemnity. On “Ride,” the intermingling and subtleties of the guitar lines transport us to a higher plane. The elation of Hiatt is somewhat muted and sanguine. “Sparkling marquees/once had my name/nothing’s the same” might be just a few random lines in a song but after a long lockdown, it speaks not just for Hiatt but for every artist.
Margo Cilker–Pohorylle “That river, in the winter, could really fuck me up,” Margo Cilker sings opening up her album Pohorylle (Fluff and Gravy Records). I guess you could say she had me at hello. Pilker’s songs are full of rich geographic references from the title track (a nod to the Spanish Basque region) to the California town of “Tehachapi.” In her fascinating travelogue, she is like a reporter observing a crime in the harrowing “Broken Arm In Oregon.”
Abby Bryant & The Echoes–Not Your Little Girl Every year you fall in love with a new band and this is Asheville, North Carolina band is one of them. They have an innate understanding of r&b and those horns really swing. Americana Highways reviewer John Apice rightly likened them to the great Delaney & Bonnie and Friends from another era and the comparison is worthy of the pedigree.
Get Back …. To Live Music
This year was also one in which we tried to get back to normalcy and concerts. Suffering from post-traumatic at home syndrome during the lockdown, we dared to venture out publicly. My first concert in August was Dead and Company at the outdoor Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater in Northern Virginia. Like many music lovers, I was torn between craving community and being safe. The Dead required proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test on-site. This was the same a few weeks later at their stadium show in Hershey, Pennsylvania. But the lack of orderliness getting in made the crowds feel like it could have been a superspreader event.
Jason Isbell was adamant that attendees provide proof of vaccination when I saw him at Virginia Credit Union Live in Richmond. As Isbell changed guitars seemingly every song, he seemed a little stiff. But when he covered Drivin n Cryin’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” he seemed liberated and loosened up. It didn’t hurt having guitarist and Drivin n Cryin’s Sadler Vaden next to him to sing the song. From there they played REM’s “Driver Eight,” both of which were included on his album of covers by Georgia bands.
Seeing Nathaniel Rateliff there a week later, I presented my vaccination card only to be told “Oh we don’t need that.” On this night, wristbands were only needed to buy alcohol. It angered me knowing that Rateliff did not follow Dead and Company and Isbell who had set the bar for the safety of their attendees, band members and road crew.
Other highlights included seeing Sturgill Simpson’s ten piece bluegrass band with Sierra Hull and the great Warren Haynes lead his band Gov’t Mule and rock the Mann Center in Philadelphia. By the time I reached Raymond James Stadium in Tampa to see The Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger played their grim lockdown song “Living In a Ghost Town” and said he hopes this will be the last pandemic. Against the guitar strains of “Gimmie Shelter” images flashed of a world with its population and environment out of control. Singer Sasha Allen belted out the lines originally sung by Merry Clayton, meeting Jagger out at the end of the extended stage for a duet sung in a new context– and one that still tears down the stadium house every night.
Too Many Podcasts, Too Little Time
Increasingly podcasts and webcasts occupied my time in 2021 making me rebel against the reality that time is a fixed zero-sum. A few highlights on my ever growing list:
Live Ledge—This year Scott Hudson’s Live Ledge celebrated its 500th show. The Friday night program broadcast on realpunkradio.com is essential for keeping up with new releases and Hudson’s creative themed shows are always delightful. On his recent “Annual Rock and Roll Christmas Party,” Hudson notes: The goal of the annual Ledge Christmas extravaganza is to prove that holiday music doesn’t have to suck. And once again, it’s certainly true as the vast majority of rock, punk, garage, and Americana tracks are brand new songs specifically for this year’s festivities!” and have touched on specific years? years, b-sides,
The Cowsills Podcast–The late Sixties family that inspired The Partridge Family still performs but have recently reinvented themselves as podcasters and the host of The Cowsills Podcast. Full of stories, musings and self-effacing humor, Susan Cowsill and her brothers Bob and Paul know how to have fun and will put a wide smile on your face.
Living On Music With Steve Houk–Born out of the pandemic, Steve Houk’s weekly Living On Music broadcast on Facebook has the feel of a television show. Pairing the Emmy-winning broadcaster and producer with artists from the greater DMV area and beyond, It filled an important role during the lockdown and continues to tap into the ethos of songwriters and musicians who create and persevere with their craft.
“What if someone in fifty years watches this and says the Beatles broke up because Yoko was sitting on an amp?” Paul McCartney muses in Get Back. It’s amusing and ironic but somewhat prescient considering that the presence of John Lennon’s future wife was widely blamed for the band’s demise.
Ono is present throughout but it seems largely benign. There is this funny moment when, Heather, the young daughter of Paul’s fiancée Linda, begins imitating Ono’s vocal cries and techniques while Paul picks up the drumming for an impromptu jam. This was long before the B-52’s ever appeared on the scene and co-opted Ono’s vocal modulations. Ono herself is amused by the young girl. I wonder what it must have been like for Heather watching herself in Get Back fifty plus years later.
Did I mention I cried watching Get Back? I know you will too.