52 Weeks, 52 Concerts — Part IV

March 27, 2017

Meeting one of my musical heroes, Conor Oberst, at the airport after his show at the Ryman in Nashville

(Below is the fourth and final installment of a blog series chronicling my marathon year of concert-going. For those interested in backtracking, here are posts one, two, and three. It’s a wide-ranging selection of musical styles – hopefully there’s something here for everyone. And as always, your musical recommendations are always appreciated.)

Amanda Shires at the Turf Club, St. Paul

When discussing married music-industry power couples, the conversation might naturally gravitate toward Jay Z and Beyonce. For me, it’s all about Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. Isbell’s post-Drive By Truckers career has absolutely taken off, and as noted in an earlier post, I believe he’s among the greatest songwriters of our time. Too few people know, however, that his wife not only contributes violin and backup vocals directly to Isbell’s records, but she is a phenomenal writer and solo performer herself. Her latest release, “My Piece of Land,” is a beautiful, moving record rooted in Americana and country but featuring a sound all its own. Here’s a lovely performance with Shires and Isbell singing together:

Animals as Leaders at the Fine Line, Minneapolis

In the event that you haven’t plunged down the rabbit hole of metal music and its many subgenres, it can be a bit daunting. There’s a segment of the scene that focuses not on screaming vocals or crazy onstage antics, but instead on technical proficiency – instrumental groups that create mind-boggling time signatures, string-sweeping solos and drums so fast and precise it’s difficult to fathom. Animals as Leaders is among my favorites in this vein of heavy music. Even if this isn’t your go-to style, it’s tough not to be mesmerized by their incredible musicianship.

Conor Oberst at the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville

I’ve been an unabashed Conor Oberst fanboy since I first heard his earliest records under the Bright Eyes moniker. His emotional songwriting channels greats like Elliott Smith, and his prolific catalogue keeps growing. I’ve seen him at least a dozen times – as Bright Eyes, in his wildly underrated (and more relevant than ever) politicized punk band Desaparecidos or under his own name. I’ve seen him in numerous states (a show at New York’s Beacon Theater where he was joined by Laura Marling, Suzanne Vega, Natalie Merchant and others was a standout). I’ve seen the bands Dawes and Felice Brothers perform as his backing band. (In other words, a bit obsessed.)

This time, I saw him at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium (perhaps my favorite venue), joined by his friend Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon. Among songs from his entire discography, Oberst played his recent “Ruminations” album, mostly solo, in an intimate setting, save for a great moment when Gillian Welch joined him onstage to sing tunes from the “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning” album. To top things off, I ran into Oberst at the airport and finally got to meet one of my musical heroes.

Suzanne Vega at Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis

Suzanne Vega is the epitome of cool. Her personal style, her smooth, spoken-word-style songwriting…everything about her. Many people who don’t know her by name would quickly recognize her ’80s hits like “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner” (or at least the remixed version of the latter). I saw Vega on the night of the presidential election, which created an eerie atmosphere at the intimate Dakota Jazz Club. But even as I monitored election results on my phone and witnessed others doing the same, Vega and her inimitable style created a calm in the room, reminding people that no matter what happened politically, there’s a unique power in music.

Petal at 7th Street Entry, Minneapolis

My favorite album of 2016 was Pinegrove’s “Cardinal.” So I snagged tickets as soon as they announced a Minneapolis tour stop – and was bummed when they had to drop off the tour due to a death in their singer’s family. I decided to attend the show anyway, in part because Pet Symmetry – a fun pop punk group featuring Evan Thomas Weiss of Into It. Over It. – filled Pinegrove’s spot. It turned out, however, that the highlight of the evening was the first opener: a band called Petal, which at first seemed unassuming. But soon, the band’s leader, Kiley Lotz, completely captured my attention. Her seemingly simple melodies were infectious, and so was her bubbly personality, as she kept talking about how honored she was to perform on Prince’s home turf. (She played a killer Prince cover too.) Since the show, Petal’s latest album has seen many rotations on my turntable.

Kelsey Waldon at the Station Inn, Nashville

While I was stocking up on seven-inch vinyl at Jack White’s Third Man Records, one of the girls working in the shop walked up and said, “Sorry if this is weird, but I think we have the same taste in music” (based on a band shirt I was wearing and the records in my hand). She recommended a ton of great albums, so I asked if she knew of any local shows that night. Just my luck, her friend Kelsey Waldon – who had just made her Grand Ole Opry debut the night prior and was on the verge of truly breaking out as a country singer – was playing at Station Inn, a legendary Nashville venue up the road. Waldon’s songwriting, supported by a stellar lap steel player, made for an incredible (and unexpected) evening.

Tiny Moving Parts at The Garage, Burnsville

City Pages, which has repeatedly named The Garage as the top all-ages venue in the Twin Cities, described the perplexing place thusly: “During the day, The Garage serves as an after-school youth center, offering everything from homework help and Guitar Hero sessions to weightlifting and support groups. But at night the Garage transforms into a bona fide club (minus the booze) that helps promote the local music scene.”

One of the high school bands I played in performed at The Garage more than a decade ago, and stepping inside to see locally based Tiny Moving Parts was like entering a time machine. Rather than a bar, there’s a little café that sells coffee, soda and energy drinks. The sea of baby-faced teens in the audience all seem to know each other (and all the words to every band that performs) like they’re part of a secret society. The energy was palpable – everyone singing in unison, stage-diving and sweating profusely. It was great to see a younger generation so passionate about building a music community.

The Good Life with at the Turf Club, St. Paul

Tim Kasher, known best for fronting the band Cursive, is one of the most cynical, perceptive and articulate songwriters I’ve eve listened to. He created The Good Life as a side project that quickly took on a life (and loyal fan base) of its own. Kasher’s powerful, witty lyrics, which are often laced with literary references, have always captured my imagination. And despite tackling heavy subjects like infidelity, shows from The Good Life never cease to be pure fun. Their latest gig at the Turf Club featured opener Jake Bellows (known for his Saddle Creek Records band Neva Dinova).

That concludes my chronicling of highlights from 2016 concerts. Looking back, I’m actually amazed at all the shows I missed, despite attending so many.  For example, PUP at 7th Street, Opeth at First Avenue, Hotelier at The Garage and Cass McCombs at the Turf are all concerts that I’m still kicking myself for missing for any variety of reasons.

Luckily, 2017 is a new year, and I currently have plans to see many shows (spanning at least five states, and it’s only March). I hope this little exercise might’ve offered some new music to explore, or inspiration to catch the next great concert that rolls into town.