TOP PICKS OF 2014
Year of the Alvins. No musical project in 2014 has brought me more joy than the reunion of Phil “the Voice” Alvin and Dave “Songster-Geetarman” Alvin. The brothers, known and beloved as the core of 1980s L.A. roots-rock faves the Blasters (and Dave for his stellar solo work), had not made an album together for many years. It took the combination of Phil’s near-death experience and a passion for the ouevre of Big Bill Broonzy to bring the Downey-bred duo’s special mojo back into our lives. Beginning with their April event at the Grammy Museum celebrating the release of Common Ground (YepRoc)--the bros’ singular tribute to Broonzy that I’ve had in high rotation--and continuing with a triumphantly soul-rockin’ June evening at the Troubadour, Phil’s wondrous howl and Dave’s six-string shred helped keep me sane this year. (The Alvins backed by the Guilty Ones return to the Troubadour, Saturday, January 31)
FLUID TRUTHS, PROTEST SONGS,
AND TRADITIONAL REIMAGININGS
The inexorable careen of a well-played Irish set bears no small resemblance to a stretch of river that morphs from a smooth swift flow to rambunctious and frothy to the full-blown tumult of raging rapids. Fiddler extraordinaire Martin Hayes offered a voluminous reminder of this fluid truth during the Masters of Tradition concert March 30 at a fine-sounding Royce Hall on the UCLA campus. Just when you thought he couldn’t wind things any tighter, he blew through your expectations and ratcheted up the energy to another level in a torrential cataract of sound and groove.
The mad-bowing, well-spoken virtuoso had plenty of company. He was joined by a half-dozen other major-league traditionalists: long-time Hayes collaborational guitarist Dennis Cahill, sublime sean nos singer Iarla O’Lionaird, All-Ireland uilleann piper David Power, Four Men and a Dog fiddler Cathal Hayden, steel-string guitar whiz Seamie O’Dowd, and champion squeeze-boxer Mairtin O’Connor. The touring group represents an attempt by Hayes to compress into a few hours the music festival of the same name that he directs every year in Bantry, County Cork.
AND SHOOTING STARS
The memories of the mighty flowin’ river’s currents and eddies over a full summer and early fall of live music have faded somewhat, but many a highlight—and a few lowlights—remain as crystal clear in memory as a mountain stream. Speaking of ebbing and flowing, two shows at the Bootleg Theatre in L.A.’s “Historic Filipinotown” (where few Filipinos live any more) offered about as jarring a contrast in sound quality as one is likely to find, the equivalent of a gentle riverine burble and the raging torrent of a snowmelt-gorged waterfall falling on top of your head.
In early June, Sam Amidon embraced the quiet, the pastoral and the eerie bittersweet with his plainsong made modern, letting the occasional dissonant outburst punctuate the space like a nightbird’s plaintive screech on a country night. The October L.A. debut of Tal National from Niger, West Africa, however, featured a decibel level and barely differentiated wall-of-sound mix that might have worked in a much larger, possibly open-air venue but not in the relatively modest confines of the Boot bar.
Free the music!
Southern Italian swirl,
boisterous Balkan brass
and a handsome goat
The river of sound overflows its banks when the floodgates of musical programming open every summer in Los Angeles. Even in one of the world’s sonic meccas, the occasional periods of drought during the rest of the year make one long for the sweet abundance of sounds that abounds from June through September. As happens every year around this time, the currents run so deep and swift that some evenings there can be three, four or more must-see free concerts taking place around the Southland. Makes one wish for a clone or two to take it all in.
Since emerging on the scene to join such stalwart free-music programs as Grand Performances at California Plaza, Skirball Cultural Center, and the Twilight Dance Series at the Santa Monica Pier, the Levitt Pavilions in Pasadena and MacArthur Park have become two of the leading summertime venues. Each bandshell features 50 shows per season, with wide-ranging lineups curated with keen ears. I’m partial to the Pasadena site, since it’s 10 minutes from home and parking’s not a hassle. If the two shows I’ve seen there so far this year are a harbinger of what’s to come—at the Levitt’s and elsewhere--then 2013 promises to be bellwether.
MIGHTY FLOWIN’ RIVER OF SOUND
Kora-cello meditations, Thompsonian perambulations, and countrified confabulations
One of my favorite analogies about music is that the vast, ever-changing torrent of audibles passes by like a mighty flowin’ river of sound. Currents, eddies, subtle and not-so-subtle fluctuations affect the journey from the source all the way downstream, with one’s own perspective subject to its constantly shifting nature from moment to moment. As I thought about a title for this new semi-irregular, semi-irreverent Folkworks column, I’ve chosen to hang my editorial hat on that “Mighty Flowin’ River” moniker.
It’s appropriate with this first installment that I lead off with a review of the March 14 concert at the Skirball Cultural Center from a master of the West African harp-lute that exemplifies that riverine feel, kora player Ballaké Sissoko.