I’m Just a Fan…. Or Am I?
I saw and listened to a lot of music in 2018 – a lot. I have a demanding full time job as head of In the Public Interest (check out the link and feel free to sign up.) But music kept me going, gave me a break from the daily horror of “America Insane“ and allowed me to think creatively about how to better connect music and movements for justice; between music and my work.
Rosanne Cash, in her speech at the Americanfest Annual Awards said it best: music is “the premier service industry for the heart and soul. We cannot survive without music. It is the language everyone understands in this dangerous and divisive time.”
I couldn’t agree more so here’s how I spent my year in music.
Work travel took me lots of places and my Songkick and Bandsintown apps helped me find music that overlapped with those trips. I saw Patty Griffin in St. Louis, Del and Dawg in Northampton, Rhiannon Giddens in Raleigh and others in NY, SF, Boston, DC, and Montreal. At the top of the list, I was able to go through Woodstock between speaking gigs to see a great show (Lone Bellow) at the iconic Leven Helm Studios (aka the Barn) that I’ve been wanting to visit for decades.
A few years ago, we decided to spend big parts of our vacation time at music festivals. We look for festivals where we can find new music and are human scale (i.e. no SWSX, Bonnaroo, etc.) Each year, we say we’re going to switch out which ones we go to but it’s hard to let go. There’s nothing like Pickathon outside of Portland, Or. Americanafest in Nashville is full of interesting workshops and great music all around town. And Folk Alliance annual conference, while more of an event for artists and industry folks, it’s jam-packed with music all in one hotel – day and night.
When I’m home in LA, there’s a ton of music to see. It’s so hard to resist hitting the buy button when those apps just keep popping up on my phone.
At Americanfest I met and became friends with Kelly McCartney (a No Depression contributor) who had just started a non-profit, TKDubs, to promote diversity (actually bring it back) in roots and Americana music. Long story short, I’m now on the board. Kelly has a long history and deep connections in roots music and is chock full of cool ideas. I get to go along for the ride.
I had the chance to meet a number of cool musicians and music writers, promoters, managers, organizers, advocates and podcasters with important things to say. And I continue to learn and experiment with ideas about how fans can be more supportive of artists in the age of streaming (i.e. virtually free music.) I tweet, retweet, post as much as a I can – tagging, commenting, etc. figuring that may somehow be helpful to the algorithm gods. I moderated a panel of insightful musicians (JT Nero, Allison Russell, Johnnie Irion, Amythyst Kiah and ShoShona Kish) at Americanafest about the working life of musicians to educate fans that gave me new ideas. Johnnie suggested that someone offer lessons in how to be concert promoters for both fans and new promoters so now I turn my music loving FB (and real) friends onto shows I think they’ll like in their towns – it’s a simple click we can all do that can create new lifelong fans for musicians.
Finally, I bought a lot of music – 135 albums at last count. I could have streamed them all and saved myself a ton of money but that would be at the expense of the artists I want to support. It should be part of the “social contract” between artists and fans. It has to be.
I can’t do a “best of” list (it’s all so good) but I need to highlight a few albums I bought that say profound things, teach and inspire: Kaia Kater’s Grenades, Mary Gauthier’s Rifles and Rosary Beads, Eliza Gilkyson’s Secularia, Will Hoge’s American Dream, Gretchen Peters’ Dancing with the Beat, Alejandro Escovedo’s The Crossing, Rosie and the Riveters’ Ms. Behave, Amy Ray’s Hollar, Shemekia Copeland’s America’s Child, Rosanne Cash’s She Remembers Everything and I’m sure there are many more on list. There’s no doubt that there has been a “Trump Effect” in music with more artists writing more political music in more genres.
And, this year brought further confirmation of my decision to buy any album that Joe Henry produces. I’m not even going to listen first. This year it was Amy Helm’s new album, This Too Shall Light, Milk Carton Kids, All The Things I Did and All The Things I Didn’t Do and the two earlier Over the Rhine Albums that I finally bought.
All told I saw about 220 artists in about 69 different concerts and festivals. Many artists were new to me plus a few on my bucket list I saw for the first time like John Prine, Paul Simon, and K.D. Lang. Some of the new artists (to me) this year are now favorites who I watch out for: AHI, Phil Cook, Will Hoge, War and Treaty, Toshi Reagan, Mark Erelli, Crys Matthews, Anais Mitchell, Rose Cousins, Amythyst Kiah, William Prince, Rosie and the Riveters, Ordinary Elephant, Neko Case, Jeffrey Foucault, Francesco Turrisi, Victory Boyd and I’m sure I’m missing some.
It’s hard to choose but there were some highlights that stand out: Martha Redbone’s Bone Hill Concert, Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday celebration, K.D. Lang at the Ryman, three shows of Rhiannon Giddens’ residency at Symphony Space in NYC (Sisters Past, Sisters Present, Francesco Turrisi), Rosanne Cash and Ry Cooder singing Rosanne’s father’s songs and Dakhabrakha, a Ukranian hip-hop band from Kiev. The coolest musical moment may have been Margo Price playing drums at the Jerry Garcia Tribute and doing the signature “sniff” at the start of Casey Jones (for the Deadheads.) And it may be a little over the top, but I saw Birds of Chicago eight times (thanks, in part, to work travel coincidences) I could have seen them many more times– it’s some of the most joyful I listen to. (AHI, if you read this far, I topped out at five times – a close second!)
I don’t know if I can keep this up in 2019 – but, then again, those apps keep popping up on my screen. And my favorite curators – Folk Alley and NPR’s Ann Powers – keep turning me on to new artists. Next year I hope to branch out and find more jazz, blues and even a ballet. The work trips are already piling up and there are 365 days in a year!