The Year that was 2020 – Part 1 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

At first, the thought of writing a year in review type post didn’t look very appealing. After all, it’s safe to assume most of us can’t wait to kiss 2020 goodbye and erase it from our memories. This certainly describes my sentiments in many ways. But while the past 12 months brought unprecedented challenges, including for the music business, I think not all was doom and gloom. Initially, this was supposed to be one post. Then, it got longer and longer, so I decided to break it up in two parts. Here’s part 1

The good and the bad…

On the positive side, the music industry recorded rising revenue fueled by streaming. As Music Business Worldwide noted in September, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported a 5.6% year-over-over increase in total U.S. recorded music retail revenue to $5.6 billion for the first half of 2020. This included a 12% surge in streaming music revenue to $4.8 billion. If streaming kept that pace in the second half of the year, it would be up one billion year-over-year. However, according to this Billboard story from earlier this week, growth in streaming volume has stalled since the end of June.

At the same time, the concert business, the main source of income for most artists, is in the toilet. The Los Angeles Times recently reported America’s largest concert promoter Live Nation experienced a nosedive in revenue of 98% and 95% during the summer and fall, respectively. The same article also stated 90% of independent performance venues will close for good without government aid, while long-established venues like the Troubador in L.A. are hanging on but face an uncertain future. This doesn’t only put the livelihoods of many artists at risk but also of all the folks working at performance venues or whose job are otherwise tied to live entertainment.

New music kept coming out

Despite COVID-19, new music continued to be released throughout the year – lots of it. In fact, at least some of this activity can be explained by the pandemic. Artists who weren’t able to tour found themselves with more time on their hands to work on new material. New albums by Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney are just some of the examples that come to my mind in this context.

I’m happy new music was a major theme for my blog in 2020, more than ever before. As frequent visitors know, I’m not talking about music you can find in the present mainstream charts. As of this blog post, I reviewed more than 20 new albums. That’s only counting new original music, not other releases, such as new installments from Springsteen’s great live bootleg series or James Taylor’s cover album of the American songbook. Yes, while I know next to nothing about American standards, I did review that album and enjoyed listening to it!

Frankly, I could have reviewed more new albums. I didn’t. In addition to lack of time, part of the reason was because of Best of What’s New. This weekly recurring feature on newly released music, which I launched in March, focuses on songs rather than entire albums.

It’s gratifying to me that except for one time due to a death in my close family, I posted new installments each week, meaning I’ve been able to discover new music week after week I found decent enough to write about. Keep in mind this is the same guy who as recently as last year kept complaining how “terrible” contemporary music is! I forgot one important qualifier: Music that’s in the mainstream charts. Let’s take a look at some of the new music I wrote about over the past 12 months.

My favorite new albums

While it’s hard to narrow things down, from the 20-plus new albums I reviewed the four ones I feel most excited about are AC/DC/Power Up (released November 18), Walter Trout/Ordinary Madness (August 28), Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor (June 12) and Ruby Turner/Love Was Here (January 24). Following is a tune from each:

AC/DC: Shot in the Dark (Power Up)

Shot in the Dark, the album’s great lead single, is classic AC/DC and makes you feel you just time-travelled back to 1980. Like all other tracks on Power Up, it was co-written by Angus Young and his older brother Malcolm Young during the period between the Stiff Upper Lip (February 2000) and Black Ice (October 2008) albums. You can read more about Power Up here, a must listen to for AC/DC fans.

Walter Trout: Wanna Dance (Ordinary Madness)

I love Walter Trout, a no BS artist and decent guitarist who has lived through dramatic ups and downs. Perhaps, he’s the ultimate blues rock survivor! Here’s Wanna Dance. “I had Neil Young and Crazy Horse in mind when I wrote the tune,” Trout told American Songwriter. Dancing is a metaphor for enjoying and celebrating every moment in life, since We ain’t gonna live forever, as Trout sings. He knows all too well. This is one hell of a blues rocker! See here for more about Ordinary Madness.

Norah Jones: Flame Twin (Pick Me Up Off the Floor)

I had been aware and always liked Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz for ,any years, but had never explored any of her albums. I’m glad Flame Twin from her seventh studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor finally changed this. Written by Jones, the tune injects a dose of blues, which rarely if ever is a bad thing in my book. I also dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who plays electric guitar as well. And, of course, there are Jones’ great soothing vocals and piano playing. Like other songs on Pick Me Up Off the Floor, the tune was inspired by poetry. My review of this great album is here.

Ruby Turner: Don’t Cry Over Yesterday (Love Was Here)

Don’t Cry Over Yesterday was the track that made me listen to Love Was Here, a beautiful classic soul album by British soul, gospel and R&B vocalist Ruby Turner. I hadn’t heard of Turner before, even though she’s performed since 1983 and worked with other artists like Bryan FerrySteve WinwoodMick Jagger and UB40. “Discovering” great artists like her is part of the reason why I love music blogging. If you’re into ’70s style soul, I’d encourage you to check out this album, a true gem! You can read more about it here.

Other new 2020 studio releases I’d like to call out include McCartney III (Paul McCartney), Letter to You (Bruce Springsteen), Bless Your Heart (The Allman Betts Band), Hate for Sale (Pretenders), Rough and Rowdy Ways (Bob Dylan), Homegrown (Neil Young), Self-Made Man (Larkin Poe), Blues with Friends (Dion), Early Morning Rain (Steve Forbert) and El Dorado (Marcus King).

In part 2 of this post, I’m revisiting the Best of What’s New feature and concerts before wrapping things up with final thoughts.

Sources: Music Business Worldwide; Billboard; Los Angeles Times; Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

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Allman Betts Band Release New Album Bless Your Heart

While Devon Allman and Duane Betts don’t deny their famous fathers, they continue to forge their own path on band’s sophomore album

Even though my streaming music provider had included Pale Horse Rider in their latest new music mix, I didn’t pay full attention to the The Allman Betts Band at first. Thankfully, Max from PowerPop recommended them to me – yet more proof how remarkably similar our music taste is! Earlier today, I checked out the band and their sophomore album Bless Your Heart, which appeared on August 28. I really like what I heard, including the fact this band is clearly forging their own path, not trying to be a continuation of The Allman Brothers Band.

Before getting to some music, I’d like to provide a bit of background. In December 2017, songwriter and guitarist Devon Allman, a son of Gregg Allman from his first marriage to Shelley Kay Jefts, decided to organize a tribute concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco to honor the music of his father. The show also marked the debut of his new band, Devon Allman Project, and featured a notable guest: Songwriter and guitarist Duane Betts, son of guitarist and Allman Brothers founding member Dickey Betts.

Devon Allman and friend at the Fillmore in San Francisco, December 2017

Following the tribute show, the Devon Allman Project embarked on a year-long world tour, with Duane Betts opening for the band and joining them for Allman Brothers songs. While they played some tunes by the Brothers, the Devon Allman Project was not a tribute band. In fact, Devon and Duane mostly performed songs from their respective solo careers. Inspired by the favorable audience reception, they decided to take things to the next level by writing songs together.

They also reached out to Berry Duane Oakley, son of Berry Oakley, former Allman Brothers bassist and another founding member, to ask whether he would join them. All three had known each other and been friends since 1989 when they met during the 20th anniversary tour of The Allman Brothers Band. Oakley was on board. Johnny Stachela (slide guitar), John Lum (drums) and R Scott Bryan (percussion) were brought in to complete the lineup, and in November 2018, The Allman Betts Band was officially announced.

The Allman Betts Band (from left): front: Devon Allman & Duane Betts; back: John Ginty, R Scott Bryan, Johnny Stachela, Berry Duane Oakley & John Lum

Subsequently, the band worked with producer Matt Ross-Spang to record their debut album Down to the River at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Guests included keyboarder Peter Levin, former member of Gregg Allman’s band, and pianist and organ player Chuck Leavell, a current member of The Rolling Stones’ touring band. The album appeared in June 2019. For a subsequent world tour, the band brought in John Ginty as keyboarder, who remains part of the current lineup.

This brings me to Bless Your Heart. While you can hear traces, just like the Devon Allman Project, The Allman Betts Band does not try to be a continuation of The Allman Brothers Band. I think it’s a smart choice they want to find their own way. It seems to me this reflects what Devon and Duane set out to do from the beginning of their careers in the early ’90s and late ’90s, respectively. Time for some music.

Here’s the aforementioned Pale Horse Rider, the album’s opener and second single. It’s a great example of a tune where the twin lead guitars are reminiscent of the Allman Brothers but that otherwise doesn’t sound much like them. “‘Pale Horse Rider’ was a really fun one to write,” Devon Allman, told Rolling Stone Country, as reported by Rock & Blues Muse. “Duane had this almost vertigo-inducing descending melodic pattern that was so unique. Once I started the lyric about a man feeling so lost and isolated with the world out to get him, the story just kind of wrote itself. The Wild West seemed like the perfect setting to tell the tale.”

Carolina Song is one of my early favorite tracks on the album. It’s got a great sound. Johnny Stachela’s slide guitar, John Ginty’s keyboard work and the singing including the backing vocals stand out to me in particular. BTW, just like their debut, Bless Your Heart was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, with Matt Ross-Spang serving again as producer.

On King Crawler, things turn honky tonky. With Art Edmaiston’s saxophone work, the band almost sounds like The Rolling Stones – great tune!

Things get personal on Southern Rain, were Devon is singing about the death of his father and his mother, who had passed shortly before Gregg had died. “There’s elements in there of being OK with the lumps we’ve taken,” Devon told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He noted the song had come to him while being on the road on a tour bus. He also shared the last time he saw Gregg his dad told him how proud he was of his son. “It was amazing to finally hear that from my dad. The chorus is ‘I believe in you and I will be with you,’ from my dad’s perspective. That was a heavy day when my dad told me that. I left his house, and I knew I would never see him again. It’s a pretty cathartic experience to put that in a song, and it felt good to share that with people.”

I’d like to call out one more tune: Magnolia Road, another standout on the album that also became the lead single. It was written by Los Angeles singer-songwriter Stoll Vaughan, who also had collaborated with the band on five tracks from their debut release. Here’s the official video.

Asked by Cleveland.com how the band is planning to deal with the legacy of the Allman Brothers, Devon said, “I think that you’ve got to be careful. You can dip into the well a bit, but it’s also important to balance the visitation of nostalgia with stepping forward into the future because we don’t want to be just some kind of rerun band. We really want to have a legacy of our own music and our own exploring. We’re getting to a place where we can rise to this challenge, we can throw some stuff into that long body of work our heroes did and feel good about it.” While I’ve yet to listen to the band’s debut album, I think they off to a very promising start.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Allman Betts Band website; Rock & Muse; St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Cleveland.com; YouTube