WYSO's Best Of 2020: Andy Valeri
As we finally make our way into 2021, WYSO asked our music hosts to take one last look back on the year that was 2020, and give us their favorite selections from an unorthodox year in music. Today, we'll feature picks from Around The Fringe's Andy Valeri.
2020. A tough year by nearly any measure. And one which saw music culture take a serious hit, not only in the ability to produce it, but especially in arguably music’s most impactful realm - performing it live with and for people. The effects these challenges have posed this year to musicians and to music culture have definitely taken their toll on the amount of music not just being performed, but being produced in general, with a litany of different works having been or still being delayed in their production and release.
That said, it was certainly still a year with a notable list of interesting, inspiring and elevating musical creations and experiences. Literally first and foremost among these for me was having the good fortunate of starting off this incomparable year last January down in Athens, GA for the Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven ‘Camp In’; A weekend-long mini-music festival these iconic bands have been hosting at the iconic 40 Watt Club for a number of years now.
There are few musical experiences more rewarding than to be introduced to some truly quality new music via an intimate live setting, being immersed in not just the sound but the energy of the experience. And this year’s Camp-In provided an embarrassment of riches in that regard, with a stellar line up of great musical performances, from not only the wide assortment of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven-related performances, but music from Portland’s Eyelids (featuring members who did a stint here in the Miami Valley with Bob Pollard’s Boston Spaceships project); John Cameron Mitchell, the creator of Hedwig and The Angry Inch (whose live show backed by members of Eyelids, The Drive-By Truckers and REM’s Peter Buck was one of the best on stage shows I’ve seen in years); and being to singer/songwriter Jesse Malin and his powerhouse band (on the road fresh on the heels of Malin’s new Lucinda Williams-produced album “Sunset Kids.”)
Hanging out in Athens with my sister among her old stomping grounds where she lived back in the early 80’s during some of the town’s true salad days of creativity, it was wonderful to observe all the connections of friendships and shared histories come alive before me, ones stretching back decades. You could feel the love and even a certain shared pride and appreciation among it all, something that resonated with me as it is very much the exact same familial appreciation I feel experience here among Dayton’s musical community with its long and deep roots.
The kind of feeling that came to the fore the very next weekend in February at the Yellow Cab Tavern for the special performance of Nick Kizirnis’ new release The Distance, an album and performance which was not only a highlight of 2020, but one of the best works to come out of the Miami Valley’s music scene in its history.
The February show was beautifully memorable for many reasons, though unfortunately also because it was the last live performance I took in before the pandemic brought a stop to those. At least of the in-person variety, as live performances have continued to happen, albeit amidst the new emerging art form of ‘quaranstreaming,’ of whom none was more originally innovative and enjoyable for me than rock veteran Ike Reilly and his Family Quarantine Hour. These family productions were a series of ongoing live shows in Ike’s living room in Libertyville, IL, featuring his adult kids, none of whom are professional musicians, but who not only held their own musically, but created some of the most fun, heartwarming and inspiring performances of the year. The shows drew upon both numbers from Reilly’s own extensive catalog of punk/folk/blues influenced rock, as well as covers from everything from Bob Marley to The Clash to Johnny Cash. As Cracker’s David Lowery wrote about these live streaming shows: “You and your family basically need your own variety TV show. It’s like a f'd-up Partridge family, while remaining family-friendly. You have the best livestream going.”
And with this year having so much new work being delayed in its completion, the gap was more than filled by some notable re-produced, remastered and reinvented works from the past, being brought into the future and sounding as fresh and innovative as when they were first created.
One such collection was from the 80’s Athens, GA band Love Tractor, whose all-instrumental debut self-titled release from 1982 has been re-introduced to 21st century audiences thanks to the re-production work of original drummer Bill Berry (later with REM), and David Barbe (Sugar, The Drive-By Truckers). The new audiophonic sheen brings out the timelessness of the music, which as one critic noted is the kind of record you might hear if Tom Verlaine’s Television and the Talking Heads had a mute baby. The album is more than flavored with the kinds of tones that later became globally recognizable thanks to the popularity of REM, a band who was notably influenced by Love Tractor. As REM’s Mike Mills note about this, one of his all-time favorite albums ever, “Love Tractor is a go-to for me when I need to be reminded that there is a reason to listen to music.”
Another of 2020’s stellar re-productions was that of one of Tom Petty’s masterworks, Wildflowers, whose box set collection Wildflowers & All The Rest featuring not only a remastered version of this classic album, but a collection of a whole extra albums worth of never before released material that was slated for what was originally going to be a double-album makes one wonder why it wasn’t released as that originally? A beautiful collection of Petty’s home demos from that time period, as well as a whole album of top notch live performances by the Heartbreakers of many of the works from Wildflowers makes this a must have for any Tom Petty fan, or even of any fan of quality American pop rock songwriting.
Another of the great historical musical collections from the past this year wasn’t a record, but an unofficial 5-part documentary series posted on YouTube chronicling the lifelong personal and creative relationship between Lennon and McCartney, entitled Understanding Lennon/McCartney. It is a fascinatingly deep dive using rare historical archival footage and audio. As a life-long Beatle fan and collector, it was impressive just how much original audio and imagery I had never seen or heard before featured in this extensive documentary series, using their own words to tell a very interesting story, one that alters some of the common perceptions about just who was responsible for what in the storied legend of this partnership and their band.
Whoever produced this is clearly a serious Maccaphile, as they also produced a 5-part series on McCartney’s creative life after the Beatles, a no less impressive documentation on a person and career that is arguably without peer in modern popular music. These documentaries may dive a bit far into the weeds of Fabdom for some of the more casual viewers, but they are tremendously fascinating and insightful documents for any Beatle fan with more than a passing interest in the band and the prolifically creative forces behind it.
Among the quality modern remakes of less-distant past material was the Thievery Corporation’s Symphonik album, one where the band re-imagined and re-recorded some of their best works with Prague’s stellar FILMharmonic Orchestra, creating beautiful, thoughtful music which serve as an antidote to some of these turbulent times.
Last but certainly not least on my list for this year were a couple of new releases that were fortunately in the can before the plague hit, though the timing of their releases was definitely impacted.
Though an entirely new production, is one that still culls from treasures of the past - Blonde On The Tracks. Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift, with help from her partner Robyn Hitchcock and some musical friends of theirs in their adopted hometown of Nashville, have produced one of the best, most accessible collections of Dylan covers ever recorded.
In a very different vein is the stellar new release Wreckless Abandon, by one of the all-time great rock guitarists Mike Campbell and his band The Dirty Knobs, delivering a high powered barn burner of grade A guitar-driven rock and roll, the kind you only get when its played live in a great sounding room, with a bunch of musical veterans with dozens of years of combined experience. The Dirty Knobs have been Campbell’s musical side project for over a decade when he was not busy being the co-pilot for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.
This album was actually finished and ready to go a year ago, and was going to be released in the first rather than the last month of 2020 as part of the band’s first tour outside of California, but we all know what happened to plans like those. A great way to conclude a difficult year, with music recorded pretty much live and exuberantly fun. I know the first band I’d want to see live after we finally get out from under life in quarantine is The Dirty Knobs, loud, and ready to rock the world free again. And bonus points for having Klaus Voorman provide the cover art.
Listen to Andy with Rev Cool every Friday from 8-10 PM on Around The Fringe.