Cliche as it sounds, this whole Thanksgiving thing has kicked my sense of gratitude into high gear, and since 2019 has its landing gear down and will soon be starting its final descent, I figured I’d ride the wave and take a look back at 2018 through the lens of a music writer and just as importantly a giant music fan.
As we take this walk down memory lane, ask yourself these questions: What were some of your favorite songs and shows of 2018?
In January, Katie Matzell released a fantastic R&B, jazz and funk-laced EP, which includes four originals including “Brick Sidewalks” and “Don’t They Say,” along with a terrific cover of The Beatles song “I Need You.” Back then, I described her vocals as sweet, full and gorgeous, and giving the EP another listen as I write this, I’ll also add that there’s a richness to them that make the songs burst all the more.
In February, the earth stood still for a moment, at least in terms of local music moments to remember. Electronic-pop trio The Other Bones reunited, seemingly out of nowhere, after a nearly six year hiatus. Old wounds had healed and the time had come to head back into the studio to finish a project started years earlier. The Other Bones released the EP “Circular” and, boy, was it ever good to hear singer Loretta Allen, synths player Andrew Mead and guitarist Bruce Schnare back in action.
April brought with it plenty of showers but also a fabulous new album from singer-songwriter Jenny Van West called “Happiness to Burn.” The album was recorded in California and produced by Los Angeles producer and musician Shane Alexander. The songs were written over a period of about six years, and there’s a running theme of optimism interspersed with tender moments on songs like “Never Alone” and “Embers.” I caught the album release show “Happiness to Burn” at Mayo Street Arts and Van West and her band most certainly crushed it.
In May, an ’80s music dream came true when I got to interview Kate Pierson from The B-52’s in advance of their show at Aura. Pierson told me that she still loves “Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster” and that she, Cindy Wilson and Fred Schneider are all still really good friends. I also went to the show, which was a huge deal, as I’d never seen The B-52s live after being a fan for decades. The show was indeed a party out of bounds. Like a true music geek, I got to the show early to secure a spot in the front of the line and, in turn, a perfect spot on the floor right in front of the stage. Every nanosecond of that concert was one part nostalgic romp and one part modern-day dance party. There’s really nothing quite like “Rock Lobster” live.
In June, local singer-songwriter and wordsmith extraordinare Max Garcia Conover released his “Stagger” album. It doesn’t get much better than the track “Rich Man” with the lines “I don’t come from money but I’ve been around it some/My friend went to a college that was like a country club/Where a hockey player left her lying naked in a hall/If you’re stealing from a rich man you’re not stealing at all.” I’ve written about Garcia Conover a couple of times over the years and have referred him to as Maine’s Bob Dylan in terms of lyricism. With each new song he releases (he’s quite prolific) this comparison is proven all the more true.
July just about put me over the edge with interviews with Patty Griffin, Courtney Barnett, Brandi Carlile and Judy Collins. To put a bow on this, I can report that I saw all four of these artists live that and every show was tremendous. Patty Griffin’s show at the intimate, divine space of the Stone Mountain Arts Center was stirring and emotionally profound. I caught a little bit of Courtney Barnett’s State Theatre show but left early to make part of the drive to Newport Rhode Island where I attended, for the first time ever, The Newport Folk Festival. There I stood under a blazing sun and Barnett destroyed her set, heavily stacked with tunes from her latest record “Tell Me How You Really Feel.” Judy Collins’ show was at Aura. Toward the end of it she sang a new song called “Dreamers,” and I frankly think it’s among the most important songs of 2018. It’s a capella and Collins’ voice was absolutely striking. But it was the lyrics that really got me and, no lie, had me in tears. It’s clearly political and clearly expresses opposition to the construction of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and other current immigration issues but it’s done so from the first-person perspective of an immigrant. “My name, it is Maria, my daughter is a dreamer/She says that she is worried, that she will have to leave” is the opening line. Later in the song Collins sings, in chilling fashion, “My husband is a good man, he is no raping criminal/His hands are rough and scarred now, from digging in the earth.”
And as for Brandi Carlile, I’ve seen her seven times this year in five different states, and her latest record, “By The Way, I Forgive You,” is my favorite album of the year. Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have seen Carlile perform at the Joni Mitchell 75th birthday tribute show in Los Angeles. She duetted with Kris Kristofferson on “A Case Of You” then sang “Down To You” and both times brought the house down.
August was another crackerjack month for music, especially on the local music front. I discovered a new artist named Deep Gold who sings like a disciple of Tom Waits. His album is anchored by the single “The Waters Rose” written post-Hurricane Katrina and speaks of “bad news on the bayou” with a raspy, enrapturing voice. Armies stormed back into the spotlight with its second album, “Armies II.” “Social Life” is my favorite track, as Anna Lombard and Dave Gutter sing about the perils of social media. I happily attended the album release show at Aura, and it did not disappoint. Another thing I wrote about in August is a song that actually came out in June and is hands-down my favorite local song of 2018. “Diamonds” is the song and JanaeSound is the artist. The track is among the most hopeful, inspiring and gorgeous things I’ve ever heard. In August, it was hovering around 15,000 streams on Spotify, and it’s now over the 20K mark, as is her other track “Break Me Down.” Oddly enough, I have yet to her live but have every confidence it will happen soon.
October was all about the new album from local rock band Weakened Friends. It’s called “Common Blah” and one of the songs on it is the fierce and fuzzy “Hate Mail” featuring guest guitarist J Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. “Blue Again” was the album’s first single, and it’s a superb example of Sonia Sturino’s spectacular, shrieking vocals, the magnificent bass lines from Annie Hoffman and heart-thumping drums from Cam Jones. People often peg me as someone who only digs chill, acoustic music and I get that. But if you saw me rocking out to Weakened Friends you might reassess.
November’s magic moment came in the form of a conversation of Sarah Jarosz from I’m With Her. Her two musical partners in the trio are Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan, and their album “See You Around” gets another 2018 gold star. They ended their State Theatre mid-November show with an enchanting take on Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” as a nod to the icon’s birthday the week before.
December is also looking rosy with third annual Fogcutters Super Christmas Extravaganza on Dec. 15 at the State Theatre and the ninth annual tribute to Stevie Wonder with Kenya Hall & Friends at Port City Music Hall on Dec. 22. I’ve gone to this show so many times that the other day I heard a Stevie Wonder song while at Ocean State Job Lots in Falmouth and, in my head, heard it in Kenya Hall’s voice.
And with that, my friends, I shall land the 2018 music gratitude plane. May your potatoes be properly mashed, and as you begin the post-Thanksgiving foray into holiday shopping, consider this a gentle reminder that the gift of local music in the form of tickets, CDs, T-shirts and such is perfect for the music fans on your list and also a grand way to shop local.