1) I saw a lot of live music in 2011, and below you’ll find reviews, videos and photos of my 11 favorite concerts of the year, plus links to more on each.
2) You’ll note, perhaps, that these happened at 11 different venues in Central Oregon. I thought that was cool.
3) Why 11? Because I couldn’t bear to cut any of them to get it down to 10!
4) As long as you’re here, be sure to click over to our Near/Far page and check out the rest of our coverage of 2011′s best music, including free, legal downloads of the year’s best songs!
JAN. 9, OLD MILL MUSIC LOUNGE
As is frequently the case in this genre, Champagne Champagne’s DJ (Mark Gajadhar) is a secret, shadowy weapon. As is less frequently the case, he may be their MVP. (MCs Sir Thomas) Gray and Pearl Dragon were solid, engaging performers all night; Gray manned a mic stand like a rock singer, and his partner stalked off the stage more than once to rap from within the crowd. They slayed their best song (so far), “Soda & Pop Rocks,” with its wicked, dubstep-y bass line and shoutouts to the streets of Seattle: “My city’s not pretty it’s gritty,” Pearl Dragon raps. “Top notch when the block’s hot, blow up like soda and pop rocks.”
Elsewhere, the MCs showcased their influences: indie/alt-rock (one tune referenced Sonic Youth’s “Bull in the Heather”) and ’80s-child pop culture (“She looks like Molly Ringwald. She’s beautiful to me.”), while Gajadhar rocked like an octopus working overtime, bouncing from electric guitar to keyboard to tambourine to drum machine to melodica and back. His work was sometimes ominous and murky (“Something Strange”), sometimes bright and poppy (“Hollywood Shampoo” sounds like hip-hop built on a Shins song), and sometimes a sweet and sour collision of video-game bloops and punk-rock squall.
(Video by tdworak)
Honestly, my jaw was on the floor throughout most of the night. From the minute the quartet walked on stage — Stuart in a black suit (embroidered with flowers) and a turquoise scarf, his band mates in glittery, head-to-toe turquoise suits and all-white boots — this was a show so tight, so smooth, so perfect, it was like watching a video of a band that had been rehearsed and re-shot and edited until all mistakes were eliminated. Except this was live, right in front of my eyes.
Not a note out of place. Not a hair out of place. Devastatingly gorgeous harmonies swooping through the air. White-hot guitar playing as far as the eye could see. Big smiles, charming winks, witty banter. And a selection of wonderful songs, perfectly paced.
GREGORY ALAN ISAKOV
APRIL 16, POETHOUSE ART
Isakov’s set was a blend of old (the downcast “The Stable Song,” the throwback jazz of “Salt and the Sea”) and brand new (he said he’s working on his next album now), plus a stark cover of John Hartford’s “In Tall Buildings.”
Then there was plenty from Isakov’s wonderful 2009 album “This Empty Northern Hemisphere.” The Ryan Adams-esque sway of “That Moon Song” got the biggest response of the night, “Virginia May” rode a likable shuffle, and “Evelyn” gave Isakov’s crack band — drums, keys, cello and violin — a chance to rock out in their own gentle, orchestral style.
The highlight of the night, though, came mid-set when Isakov did a warm, resonant and drop-dead gorgeous song about the universe’s beauty and bruised feet, and then followed it with the title track from “This Empty Northern Hemisphere,” which crescendoed into a swarm of strings and falsetto oohs and ahhs. Isakov’s band has a firm grip on the power of dynamics, and those two songs showcased every inch of their range.
The band showcased its versatility, jumping back and forth across its catalog but understandably focusing on its 2011 album “The King is Dead.” Sara Watkins (formerly of Nickel Creek) provided strong harmony vocals on “Down By the Water,” guitarist Chris Funk’s pedal-steel playing stood out on “Rise to Me,” and Meloy glanced toward the sky in “Calamity Song” as he sang, “Will we gather to conjure the rain down?”
Later in the set, more “King” songs made their mark. “This is Why We Fight” closed the main set on a high note (it might be my favorite song of the year so far) and “Rox in the Box” actually prompted a gentle mosh pit, almost certainly the first powered by accordion, fiddle and bouzouki.
Other highlights included the gorgeous oldies “Leslie Ann Levine” and “The Crane Wife 3,” the pounding drums of “The Rake’s Song,” and the massive singalong at the end of “Billy Liar,” which, just for a second, made me wish I was several miles upstream to hear all those voices whooshing down the canyon.
VANDAVEER AND CHEYENNE MARIE MIZE
JUNE 22, MCMENAMINS OLD ST. FRANCIS SCHOOL
FULL REVIEW AND VIDEO
It was a night full of gorgeous songs. Mize opened with an hour-long solo set that featured a handful of moments so arresting, you could hear a pin drop in a room that rarely lacks for chatter. The sine-wave keyboard line of “Have You,” the minimalist violin plucking of “Rest,” and the jaw-droppingly beautiful love song “All I Am” not only commanded the attention of the audience, they seemed to stop time. Mize is an enormous talent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple years, the folks who saw her play an intimate (not to mention free) show Wednesday in Bend will be thanking their lucky stars they did.
If Mize’s set was a thing of understated beauty, Vandaveer’s was more like the confident swagger that comes when you know you’re looking good. The band’s principle, Mark Charles Heidinger, has it all: catchy and clever songs, cinema-star good looks, and charm pouring from every pore. He’s got an affable, self-effacing manner and a million-watt smile, and he pairs those two things with a seemingly endless well of memorable melodies. I really believe the guy has all he needs to become a huge star in the post-Avett/Mumford age. I know if I were a record label exec, I’d be swooping in on him as we speak.
The band hit all the highlights of its first three albums. “Australia,” “Kissing the Lipless” and “Know Your Onion!” were bouncier than a trampoline. “Mine’s Not A High Horse” and “Sleeping Lessons” showcased the band’s rhythmic eccentricities. Two old obscurities — “Sphangum Esplanade” and “When I Goose-Step” — harkened back to The Shins’ gentle early days and gave veteran fans a special treat.
And “Phantom Limb,” “Girl Inform Me” and “Saint Simon” reminded me that no one does more with a “whoa” or an “ah” or a “la la la” than Mercer.
As you’d expect from a band still learning to play together, not everything was perfect. “Sea Legs” was snoozy (as it tends to be) and “New Slang” lacked its usual delicate charm thanks to a new keyboard-driven arrangement.
On the other hand, the only cover of the night, David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” sounded so at home in this band’s hands, folks who hadn’t heard it before might’ve thought it was a song off The Shins’ upcoming fourth album.
Speaking of which, as far as I can tell, Bend got the first look at two new songs. The first had a surf-y, submerged feel and lyrics that matched; Mercer sang about waves and driving to the sea and taking on water as Yuuki Matthews’ rubbery bass line echoed around the room.
The second was a slow, sprawling tune that had a very laid back, classic rock feel, like a twangier Pink Floyd discovering the relaxed and rootsy wonders of the Hammond organ.
SEPT. 11, SISTERS FOLK FESTIVAL
On stage, Pug is a soft-spoken but compelling performer who spills his guts into each verse and stares down his microphone as if it just insulted his mother. His eyes remain closed much of the time, but when he opens them, it’s like peering through a window at the downcast desperation that pervades his songs.
That feeling was particularly evident on “Disguised As Someone Else,” a request for forgiveness with a luscious arrangement for two acoustic guitars. And in set-closer “Hymn 101,” when Pug practically spit out the line “I’ve come to say exactly what I mean / and I mean so many things,” you got the sense that his poetry comes from somewhere deeper than most songwriters.
LARRY AND HIS FLASK, TUCK & ROLL AND THE CONFEDERATS
SEPT. 17, THE HORNED HAND
FULL REVIEW, VIDEO AND PHOTOS
Helluva show Saturday night at The Horned Hand in Bend, featuring one of the best local punk bills I can remember in my five years here. Tuck and Roll kicked things off with some top-notch pop-punk, followed by a furious set from local old-school shredders The Confederats. Both bands have been scarce around town in recent years, so it was great to see them rip it up.
The Flask was awesome, as always, nailing all their originals and covering Thin Lizzy, Marvin Gaye and someone else I can’t remember (I think?). You can tell that playing scores of sets in all sorts of circumstances this summer on the Warped Tour really honed the band’s skills and tightened up their show. It’s still a wild time, but not quite the unnerving chaos it was, say, 18 months ago. It’s more of a controlled chaos these days.
SUBLIMINAL’S TRIBUTE TO NIRVANA’S ‘NEVERMIND’
SEPT. 23, GROVER’S PUB
FULL REVIEW AND VIDEO
When I heard that the local band Subliminal (which spent all summer playing Sublime covers around town) was going to cover Nirvana’s “Nevermind” in full Friday night, I was drawn to the show because I am still, 20 years later, drawn to those songs. It helps that Subliminal is steered by Andy Jacobs, a guy who I know loves Nirvana enough and is talented enough to do a respectable-or-better job.
It was pretty great. The band did every song from “Nevermind” (though not in order), and there were sloppy moments, but Nirvana also had sloppy moments. In fact, sloppy moments were an essential part of the Nirvana aesthetic. So Subliminal’s occasional missed note or drumbeat actually just made the tribute feel even more authentic.
And besides, in this case, power was more important than precision, and Subliminal was powerful, recreating the roar of “Nevermind” quite convincingly. Jacobs’ howl approximated Cobain’s, and he delivered the songs’ lyrical and vocal tics with an attention to detail that could only come with about a zillion listens to the original versions.
Drummer Craig Goodenough worked hard to fill Dave Grohl’s impossible-to-fill shoes, while bassist Cameron Harris more than ably anchored the sound; his parts and tone often sounded exactly like Novoselic’s.
OCT. 20, MAVERICK’S COUNTRY BAR AND GRILL
FULL REVIEW AND VIDEO
Barnes did several songs from his outstanding 2009 album “Pizza Box,” including the lolling title track, the bumpy clatter of “Miss Misty Swan” (complete with some of the most tolerable scat singing I’ve ever heard), and the cheeky love song “TSA.” The prettiest and best song of the night was also from “Pizza Box,” called “Overdue.” Even in a venue with pool tables across the way and a bar ringed with people, it was one of those show-stopping moments where it seems like everything outside the stage lights fades away.
Silver Moon was certainly not packed, but comfortably crowded, especially for a Monday. And for the first 10 minutes of the show, the audience simply swayed and stared, as if waiting for the band to shift into another gear.
Then, the Brothers launched into “Fire at the Pageant,” one of the most rousing songs from “Celebration.”
And suddenly, everything changed.
To me, it seemed obvious that the new material energized the band, especially Greg Farley, who sawed intensely at his fiddle and thumped out electro-beats on a sampler, and James Felice, whose accordion became putty in his hands as he lost himself in the song.
James and his brother Ian are the focal point of the band’s show, and they could not seem more different. Burly, gregarious James spent the evening in another space: arching his back, singing to the sky, staring down his mic like it was looking for a fight. He handled all the between-song banter.
Slight, shy Ian, on the other hand, handled most of the lead vocals, but otherwise shuffled around the stage nervously, occasionally turning to face the wall and rarely peering past his long bangs. Watching these two is like watching an apple and an orange, diametrically opposed, that fell from the same tree and decided to start a band.
Tags: Best of 2011, Champagne Champagne, Cheyenne Marie Mize, Danny Barnes, Gregory Alan Isakov, Joe Pug, Larry and His Flask, Marty Stuart, Subliminal, The Confederats, The Decemberists, The Felice Brothers, The Shins, Tuck And Roll, Vandaveer