The Year That Was 2019

Highlights of my rock & roll journey during the past 12 months

It feels unreal to me Christmas and New Year’s are upon us again – not to mention a new decade! I still recall a conversation with a school friend when we were 12 years old. He and I imagined where we might be when the year 2000 comes. At the time, the turn of the century was still more than two decades out. It seemed so far away. Now, not only has 2000 come and go, but we’re 20 years down the road, baby – crazy how time flies!

Well, this post doesn’t span decades. The idea is much more moderate: Looking back at my personal music journey over the past 12 months, as documented by this blog. While to some extent it reflects what happened in music this year, it’s not a broad review piece. Since I mostly listen to ’60s and ’70s artists or new music they release, I couldn’t do a legitimate comprehensive look-back on 2019 in music.

In the past, I’ve said more than once most new music nowadays lacks true craftsmanship and sounds generic and soulless to me. And while I still largely ignore what dominates today’s charts, I’ve finally come to accept contemporary music isn’t inherently bad. It’s just different and I generally don’t like it. Here’s the good news: I don’t have to. There’s so much “old” music out there I’ve yet to discover, and while artists may retire or pass away, their music will stay. Forever. That’s the beauty of music. It means for those of us who dig it, rock & roll will never die! Okay, enough with the wise-cracking and on to some highlights of my music journey this year.

Concerts

As a retired band-turned-closet musician, live music remains the ultimate thrill to me. Yes, ticket prices continue to be outrageous for most top acts, and that’s not going to change. But this hasn’t deterred me yet from seeing artists I dig. However, it did require being more selective (for example, I skipped Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, since I had seen both in 2018) and oftentimes settling for cheaper seats.

My two concert highlights this year were The Rolling Stones at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. in early August and The Who at New York’s Madison Square Garden in May. I had seen both before, but since they are among my longtime favorite bands and in the twilight of their careers, I simply did not want to miss the opportunity. I’m glad I was able to catch both, especially The Who. At the time I bought my ticket, I had not realized this wasn’t a “regular” gig but The Who backed by a symphonic orchestra. Had I understood this, it may have deterred me. But the concept worked pretty well, so I’m happy I didn’t read the fine print! Here’s a clip from each show: Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the Love Reign O’er Me, two tunes that will never go out of style in my book!

I also saw various other great shows: Walter Trout (The Iridium, New York, April 9), Joe Jackson (State Theatre, New Jersey, New Brunswick, May 18), Govt’ Mule (The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, N.J., June 28), Southern Avenue (The Wonder Bar, Asbury Park, N.J., July 11) and Hall & Oates (Fairgrounds, Allentown, Pa.). I wouldn’t have gone to that last concert, had it not been for my wife. While I wouldn’t call myself a Hall & Oates fan, it was a great show.

As King/Emperor of Tribute Bands (blame Music Enthusiast for the title! 🙂 ), this concert section wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the many tribute shows that continued to attract me. I know some folks roll their eyes when they hear the word tribute band. I find nothing wrong listening to music I dig, especially when it’s faithfully captured. Among the many tribute concerts I saw, two stood out: Pink Floyd tribute Brit Floyd (Sands Bethlehem Event Center, Bethlehem, Pa., March 30) and the annual Rock The Farm Tribute Festival (Seaside Heights, N.J., September 28). Here’s a clip from the Brit Floyd gig: Comfortably Numb – epic!

And then there’s of course Woodstock’s 50th anniversary. I finally got to see the director’s cut of the documentary on the big screen. While I can’t deny 224 minutes is pretty massive, I enjoyed every minute of it. Here’s the main post I did to commemorate the festival. And here’s a clip of one of the most iconic rock performances of all time: Joe Cocker and With A Little Help From My Friends.

New Music

As stated above, for the most part, new music means new albums released by “old” artists I dig. As I looked back through my previous posts, I was surprised to find that I reviewed 22 new albums. Granted this number includes three live albums (The Doobie Brothers/Live From The Beacon Theatre, The Rolling Stones/Bridges To Bremen and Paul McCartney/Amoeba Gig) and an excellent posthumous compilation by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers (The Best Of Everything), which do not feature new music. Even if you exclude these, it still leaves you with 18 albums. This makes me wonder what I would do if I also paid more attention to contemporary artists. It pretty much would be impossible to review their new music as well, given I have a family and a full-time job – another good reason to focus on what I truly dig! 🙂

Albums by “old hands” I’d like to call out are The Who (WHO), Booker T. (Note By Note), Neil Young (Colorado), Ringo Starr (What’s My Name), Santana (Africa Speaks),  Little Steven And The Disciples of Soul (Summer of Sorcery), Joe Jackson Fool and Sheryl Crow (Threads). One artist who seems to be missing here is Bruce Springsteen and Western Stars. While I dig Springsteen and don’t think it’s a bad record, it just doesn’t speak to me the way other music by The Boss does, so I ended up skipping a review. Crow said Threads is her final full-fledged release, explaining in the age of streaming music, most people make playlists and no longer listen to entire albums. Boy, this statement really reflects how much listening habits and the music business have changed! Here’s Live Wire, a nice bluesy tune co-written by Crow and Jeff Trott and featuring Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples.

There were also some new blues releases I enjoyed by both older and younger artists, including Walter Trout (Blues Survivor), Jimmie Vaughan (Baby, Please Come Home), Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band (The Traveler) and “wunderkind” Jontavious Willis (Spectacular Class), as Taj Mahal has called him. How about some music from Willis’ sophomore album? By the way, it was executive-produced by Mahal. Here’s opener Low Down Ways.

I also would like to call out albums from three other contemporary artists: Rick Barth (Fade), SUSTO (Ever Since I Lost My Mind) and Southern Avenue (Keep On). If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, you may recall Southern Avenue is one of the very few young bands I truly dig. I just love how these guys blend blues, soul and R&B, and the vocals are just killer! Here’s the title track from the above album, which is their second one. The tune was co-written by guitarist Ori Naftaly, lead vocalist Tierini Jackson and producer Johnny Black. There’s just something about Southern Avenue’s sound I find really seductive.

Coolest Clip

I think I came across a number of great clips I posted throughout the year. One of the best has to be this footage of The Who performing Won’t Get Fooled Again. That’s the raw power of rock & roll! It was filmed on May 25, 1978 at England’s Shepperton Studios, about 20 miles southwest of London, for the closing sequence of the band’s rockumentary The Kids Are Alright. And then, there’s this very different but equally mesmerizing clip: a live demonstration of the Hammond B3 by the amazing Booker T. Jones. To really get excited about it, I realize maybe you need to be a musician.

And Finally…

2019 marks the third full year I’m doing this blog. While I really wanted to start writing about my passion, I wasn’t sure whether I could keep it going when I set out in June 2016. Due to personal reasons, I had to slow down a bit during the past couple of months. But music and writing about artists I dig is therapy to me, so I have every intention to continue and hopefully pick up the pace again. When starting the blog, I also felt I’m doing this for myself first and foremost, not to become some “Internet sensation.” While that is still the case, I can’t deny it’s great to see visitors and that traffic has trended up nicely. Of course, growing from tiny numbers is relatively easy, and there is realistically no way I can keep up the current momentum.

Blog Stats

I’m leaving you with a clip from my most popular post this year (measured by total views): The above mentioned Rock The Farm Tribute Festival. The positive reception made me really happy, since it’s great music for a great cause. Here’s It’s Late by Canadian Queen tribute Simply Queen.

I’d like to thank all visitors for reading and especially those who go through the trouble of leaving comments. I always love getting feedback, even if I may not agree with everything folks say. But that’s cool.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas Emoji

Sources: Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Jontavious Willis/Spectacular Class

I’ve said it before and I say it again. While the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon are gone and Buddy Guy is one of a handful of last men standing from the old guard, the blues is alive and well. It’s particularly encouraging to see young artists embrace it. Perhaps the most compelling example I know is 22-year-old Jontavious Willis. None other than Taj Mahal has called him “Wunderkind.” Recently, he executive-produced the young bluesman’s sophomore album Spectacular Class, which appeared in April this year.

In some regards, the story of Willis, who is from Greenville, Ga., mirrors that of other great blues artists. The church and a key event determined his path. According to his website, Willis grew up singing gospel music with his grandfather at a local Baptist house of worship. Then, as a 14-year-old, he saw Muddy Waters on the tube. In the old times, it would have been television, but this is the 21 Century, so it was actually YouTube. Apparently, Willis was instantly hooked and knew that’s the music he wanted to play – I just love these types of stories!

Jontavious Willis and Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal with his Wonderboy, the Wunderkind

I’m not sure how Willis and Taj Mahal found each other. Apparently, Mahal asked Willis to play on stage with him in 2015. Then I guess he became a mentor. “I had an opportunity to have him grace my stage when I came to Atlanta,” said Mahal. “He had a thunderous response from the audience. It was just so great. I’m very, very particular and very private about my stage so – and if somebody is on it giving the full run to go, you know that they must be able do whatever it is that they say they can do, and I say that he can do it and more.”

In 2016, Willis released his debut album Blues Metamorphosis. The following year, he opened up select gigs for Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ during their TajMo tour. That’s were I first heard about Willis and actually saw him.  As you can read here, I was really impressed what this young man who performed solo got out of his acoustic guitar. Fast-forward to the presence and Spectacular Class, which by the way is not some overly confident statement by the artist about his music, though it actually is outstanding, in my humble opinion. Instead it refers to a line in one of the songs called Take Me To The Country: …The folks in the country don’t live too fast got good mannerism and spectacular class

Time to get to some of that spectacular music! Here’s the opener Low Down Ways. Don’t you agree this sounds awesome and certainly not like some 22-year-old kid? It does remind me a little bit of Keb’ Mo’, who served as the record’s producer and also plays guitar on several tracks including this one. By the way, all songs on the album were written by Willis.

In the second track Willis asks the question The Blues Is Dead? But he doesn’t waste much time to offer his perspective: …The blues ain’t going nowhere, gonna be here for a great long time/As long as folks got situations and problems on their mind… According to this upbeat review from Rock and Blues Muse, the tune in addition to Willis on lead vocals and slide guitar features Phil Madera on piano and Andrew Alli on harp. Apart from Mo’ (electric guitar), other musicians on the album include Martin Lynds and Thaddeus Witherspoon on drums, as well as bassist Eric Ramey – clearly, all top-notch craftsmen!

Daddy’s Dough is a delta blues type of tune that nicely showcases Willis’ abilities on acoustic guitar, with nice harp fill-ins by Alli. Dig the groove on this one!

Next up, the above mentioned Take Me To The Country. This is the type of country blues Willis is oftentimes associated with and another nice example of his acoustic guitar chops – just great! Here’s a nice video showing Willis in action. Check out the great fingerpicking!

The last track I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer The World Is In A Tangle. Here’s the official video – some killer guitar, banjo and mandolin work on this tune! Sadly, the lyrics capture how I sometimes feel about present day America: The world’s in a tangle it’s time to make a change/I’m gonna move away and change my name/I said the world’s in a tangle what’s going on/I’m going to a foreign land and make it my home

Here’s how Willis describes his sound and approach to the blues: “My instrument sound is simple; my voice is what I put on the forefront. I feel that’s what the blues is about. When you start focusing on your instrument more than vocals you are forgetting the purpose of the blues, which is to tell a story.”

Given Taj Mahal’s important role in Willis’ career thus far, it feels appropriate to quote him again: “Jontavious Willis. That’s my Wonderboy, the Wunderkind. He’s a great new voice of the 21st Century in the acoustic blues. I just love the way he plays. He has really just delightful timing and a real voice for the music because he was raised in the tradition and the culture. It’s just wonderful to hear him sing. The way he tunes his guitar is just amazing. There’s not a bluesman alive that could pick his instrument up and play it. You’d have to sit there for a good while to figure those tunings out.” High but well-deserved praise from a living blues legend!

Willis is currently on the road in the U.S., with a few gigs overseas in Switzerland, Denmark and Norway scheduled between August 29 and September 7. On some of his dates later this year, he is playing with Keb’ Mo’, e.g., Charlotte, N.C. (Sep 18), Oklahoma City (Sep 22) and Fort Collins, Colo. (Sep 26) – should be an awesome show! The full schedule is here.

Sources: Jontavious Willis website, Rock and Blues Muse, YouTube