I’m fortunate enough to live in an area with a tradition of supporting live music. It’s not Austin or Nashville, but Santa Cruz holds its own when it comes to getting some great Americana tour stops. I’m also lucky enough to be able to travel to some music festivals every year. So while I don’t catch as many live shows as several people I know, here were my favorite sets of 2014, counted down in Letterman style.
10. Joan Osborne at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz. As I’ve said before, Joan could sing an insurance jingle and give it texture and style. While most of this show featured songs from her latest album, Love And Hate, she added choice cuts from previous albums and a couple of tunes from her time as “the Dead’s chic singer”. I also caught a set of Trigger Hippy in Nashville and that just about made my top 10.
9. Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives at the XM Studios in Nashville. Over time Stuart repeatedly shows why he’s won some many awards as Performer of the Year. Sure, he has great songs and an outstanding band. But like the great vaudeville performers of the past, his repertoire extends into comedy and storytelling and the ability to cover a huge range of genres when he’s just fooling around. Even if you’re not a huge fan of his music, I still recommend catching one of his live shows.
8. Shinyribs at Old Settler’s Music Festival in Austin. Yes, he was playing to a home crowd, but Kevin Russell never ceases to amaze me. No matter how many times you’ve seen him, he still manages to keep things fresh and give you one part something new for every two parts of the familiar. More than almost anyone I’ve seen, he feeds off the energy of the crowd, and the more they go crazy, the crazier he gets.
7. Parker Millsap at Don Quixote’s in Santa Cruz. I caught Millsap 3 times this year. For me, his best performance was at a small club in the hills outside Santa Cruz. Perhaps because much of the crowd came from small towns no bigger than where Millsap was raised, or maybe just an appreciation for a spiritual upbringing, regardless of the specific religion, the crowd was super appreciative of Millsap. He returned the favor with a soulfulness that didn’t come through as much in the larger venues where I saw him perform.
6. Front Country at Moe’s Alley in Santa Cruz. This is another group I saw multiple times in 2014. At their core, they say they’re a bluegrass band. But that’s like saying the Beatles were just another rock band. The members of the band have a varied background and push bluegrass in a lot of directions. If they’re in the mood, they can do a fine impression of a jam band. Or if you’re really lucky maybe you’ll hear them riffing on one of the best trends I know, playing an album in its entirety, like when they covered The Band’s self-titled album start-to-finish in November for their Sake Of the Sound release party.
5. Joe Fletcher at Crepe Place in Santa Cruz. Fletcher did a great set to close The Basement one night of the Americana Music Festival in Nashville in September. But it was a room full of music lovers, so he had good material to work with. That he did the same thing in a small room in Santa Cruz where half the people didn’t even know who he was is a testament to his charisma and skill as a performer.
4. Donna the Buffalo at Old Settler’s Music Festival in Austin. The Herd (Donna’s fan base) has elevated DTB shows to an almost legendary status. I’ve seen them a couple of times before their show in April, and they were good, but not, you know, great. Then came their performance to close out Thursday night at OSMF. The 75 minute set went 2 hours, and the band and crowd were both on fire. Now I get it.
3. Wood Brothers at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz. Acoustically, this is the best venue in the area, and Chris and Oliver took advantage of it when they played there earlier this year. With their bandmate, Jano, on shuitar (kind of a cross between a guitar and a drum kit), they combined jazz and blues and rock and country into their unique style of music. There were fabulous solos and harmonies and everything you want to hear from a world class act.
2. The Americana Music Awards Show at the Ryman Theater in Nashville. OK, yeah, this is kind of cheating. There were a couple of dozen acts all taking their turn on stage and how could that not be good. But no one was just phoning it in, and it featured everything from the various Emerging Artist nominees to a emotional performance by Loretta Lynn 50 years to the day after she first performed at the Ryman. It was everything I’d hoped for and more.
1. St. Paul and the Broken Bones at Old Settler’s Music Festival in Austin. Words can’t possibly prepare you for the first time you see Paul Janeway and his band mates light up the stage. Janeway channels the great soul singers of the 60’s and 70’s while the Broken Bones remind you why Muscle Shoals was the studio geography of choice for so many years and hit albums. The main set of the Friday performance at the Bluebonnet Stage had adults screaming like little girls. Then, for the encore, they did covers of Hey Jude and a A Change Is Gonna Come. If St. Paul had passed around the Kool-Aid after that not a person in the crowd would have thought twice about drinking it. Hallelujah!
Read more Twangville Best of Year coverage here.
About the author: I've actually driven from Tehatchapee to Tonopah. And I've seen Dallas from a DC-9 at night.