I packed a lot of live music into this past weekend much to my husband’s chagrin since he got dragged along for all of it. I have been a long time member of WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania radio station. I get free passes to their annual music festival, the XPonenential Music Festival aka XPNFest, with my membership level. However, until COVID happened the festival was always the same weekend as the Newport Folk Festival, so I was never able to go. Back when we were all young and naive and thinking COVID would be a thing of the past by fall of 2020, they pushed the festival back from July to September. Of course the festival didn’t happen that year, but they announced that they would be keeping the September date permanently because it would offer better weather anyway. They did have the festival in September last year, but I was still leery of large gatherings even outdoors so I didn’t go. I finally took advantage this year.
The festival is a half day Friday, a really full day on Saturday, and then a shorter Sunday. The only band I was super interested in for Friday was The War on Drugs, who I had already seen back in May, so we skipped out on Friday so that we didn’t have to take off work early and didn’t have to pay for an extra night in a hotel. It also meant that on Friday night I could drag my husband down to Annapolis to see Amos Lee in concert. He was playing as part of the inaugural Annapolis Songwriters Festival, which had a mix of over 70 paid and free concerts throughout the week. The concert was outside on City Dock. Madison Cunningham opened for him. I really want to like her more than I do because I keep seeing lots of people talk about her including critics and artists I am generally in alignment with musically, but I just can’t get into most of her music. She was fine, but even live I couldn’t get super into it. Oh well.
I have said it here before and I will continue to say it that Amos Lee’s Thursday night Instagram concerts during the first year of the pandemic really got me through that time, so I relish any chance I get to see him live. It doesn’t happen very often because he never plays in Baltimore. I saw him play a solo acoustic show last summer at Wolf Trap with a half capacity, socially distanced audience. I had tickets to see him play with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center back in April that was rescheduled from pre-COVID, but it was too close to our trip to Hilton Head for me to want to go and risk our vacation. So I was happy to finally get to see him play with his band. I will admit that it was not my most favorite of his sets. I paid to watch his shows from the Ryman and at Red Rocks on this tour and I liked those set lists more. I still enjoyed it though and will happily jump at the chance to see him again any time.
After getting home late Friday night from the Amos Lee show, we got up bright and early Saturday morning to drive up to Camden for XPNFest. We had a hotel booked at the Hilton Garden Inn, which is in walking distance to the festival. You’re pretty much not near anything else, but since we were essentially only going to the festival that was fine and it worked out well that we could just park over there and walk to everything.
I was kind of annoyed at both XPNFest and the Annapolis Songwriters Festival because of all the rules that differed across the 3 different venues I was going to be at and the fact that they didn’t enforce most of them. I think Freedom Mortgage Pavilion is the only one that actually enforced their annoying rules. I don’t consider it freedom to not be able to take my stuff into places anymore for security reasons, but I guess only gun owners freedoms count these days. The security at the other two venues was pretty lax though. I’m used to Newport where they literally do go through every little bit of your stuff thoroughly. In Annapolis and at Wiggins Park they barely glanced at anything. In Annapolis people had bags much larger than were supposedly allowed, and apparently they changed the no chair rule at the last minute I guess because they sold way fewer tickets than expected. I don’t know how other people found this out, but it would have been nice to know so we could have brought ours. Speaking of chairs, the chair height rule at XPNFest was way lower than at Newport, so I spent a bunch of money to buy us new chairs that fit their height requirements and so many people had tall chairs. We could have taken in whatever we want. Why have the rules if you’re not going to enforce them. I’m just mad because I spent so much time and money trying to make sure I complied with everything at each venue and then it mostly didn’t matter.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at XPNFest as the set up is kind of funky. During the day they have shows in Wiggins Park on the waterfront, but then the big headlining shows at night are next door at Freedom Mortgage Pavilion. That holds 25,000 people, but I gathered that they sold additional tickets to those shows beyond the festival and that the Wiggins Park capacity was smaller than that, I just wasn’t sure by how much. Turns out the answer is A LOT. I have no idea what the capacity or attendance actually were, but I know the Newport Folk Festival caps at 10,000 people per day, which is tiny for a music festival, and XPNFest was definitely just a fraction of that. It was a teeny, tiny little baby festival. It also skewed very old. Most of the people there were my parents age. I only saw a handful of people in their 20s and then there were middle aged people, some with kids. I guess it’s because it’s a festival put on by a radio station and kids these days don’t listen to the radio. I did appreciate feeling like I’m not the only old weirdo that’s still into new music, and doesn’t just want to listen to what I enjoyed in high school. I’ve got a long way to go to catch up to most of the people at that this festival.
There were two stages at XPNFest. The River stage is the main stage overlooking the Delaware River and then the Marina stage that is sort of behind it and off to the side a little overlooking, well the marina. They are very close together and you can totally hear the music from anywhere, but the topography of the park means you can’t actually sit at one stage and turn around and actually see the other. They music basically just flips back and forth between the two stages. While they change the sets on one stage music is playing on the other. It was kind of nice not to have the Newport problem of always feeling like I’m missing out on something because there is music happening in too many places at once.
We set ourselves up at the Marina stage both days because there was better shade. I was amused because at most venues people fill in from front to back, but at the River stage people filled in from back to front because that’s where the trees were to provide shade. The Marina stage had more trees that were larger, so there was better shade overall. My husband just stayed put and I just walked over and stood in the back to watch the sets on the River stage.
On Saturday we left the shows at Wiggins Park a little early so that we could go have dinner with one of my oldest friends. We’ve been friends since I moved to Massachusetts in 7th grade. We stayed in touch even after my family moved again right after my Freshman year in high school. Since Baltimore and Philly are fairly close, we have usually been able to see each other once or twice a year. Then COVID happened and we hadn’t seen each other in 3 years. So I wanted to make sure to see her while we were up there. We met up for dinner and got to catch up for a few hours, which was nice. Then my husband and I headed back to the headlining part of the festival in Freedom Mortgage Pavilion.
I’ve talked a lot about the setup but haven’t actually said much about the music. I won’t bore you with an in depth look at every artist. I will just point out a couple of my highlights. I was happy to finally see Lo Moon, who I had tickets to see at a small club in Baltimore back in May but that I didn’t use. I think their music fits better in a dark club at night, but hey if what I can get is a bright stage in the middle of the day I’ll take it. Bartees Strange was definitely the highlight of Saturday. His new album, Farm to Table, is definitely going to be on all the best of 2022 lists. He also has an incredible stage presence. His set was a lot of fun. Sunday was my highlight day though. I was excited to see Buffalo Nichols, who I had been looking forward to at the Newport Folk Festival before we had to abandon ship. I was happy to get a second chance at seeing him. The set I was most looking forward to all weekend was Kathleen Edwards, who I have never seen live but have wanted to for awhile. She was my favorite set of the weekend, and I immediately wanted to go see her live again. So I’m hoping that will happen at some point. Jenny Lewis was the Sunday night headliner, and she also gave a really great performance. I was extremely happy that she played “She’s Not Me” as her second song in the set because it’s my favorite and she doesn’t always play it.
All in all it was a nice little music festival, and I look forward to going again in future years. It’s not the Newport Folk Festival. Going to this just reminded me how special that is. The sense of history and the collaborations that happen there can’t be beat. This was a festival where artists played music and it was enjoyable, but it was each artist doing their own thing. That was not what Newport is about. I will go back to XPNFest and enjoy the music, but Newport is home and where I get to commune with my folk family.
Saturday night we saw Bonnie Raitt with Lucinda Williams at Pier Six Pavilion. The show still indicated that we needed to have vaccine verification. They also said that when we were there a few weeks ago to see the War on Drugs, but no one asked to see our card so I kind of figured that it was just outdated information from before everywhere dropped all their restrictions. Luckily we brought them just in case because they did in fact check this time, though it was completely pointless because they didn’t check IDs along with them, so you literally could have shown them anybody’s vaccine card. As COVID cautious as I am, even I think having a vaccine requirement at an outdoor venue is silly at this point.
We grabbed the same exact spot at the front of the lawn that we had for The War on Drugs concert, which is a great spot. Great sight lines to the stage, no one in front of you, and cause of the positioning of a pillar no one wants to sit right next to you either because then they wouldn’t be able to see. Some guy did sit down next to me on the opposite on the small retaining wall that holds the lawn in and talked to me the whole time. He wasn’t a bad guy to talk to, but also I really didn’t need him chatting me up the entire concert.
Lucinda Williams was opening. I was a little bummed because half of this tour Bonnie Raitt had Mavis Staples opening for her and the other half was Lucinda Williams. I wish we had gotten Mavis, but oh well. I did not realize that Lucinda Williams had a stroke back in November of 2020. She can sing fine, but she still has a lot of problems with movement. She had to have someone walk her on and off the stage and needless to say she can’t play guitar anymore. I appreciate that she’s still out there trying to do her thing as best she can. Her band was great definitely filled in for her that respect. I don’t really know Lucinda Williams music very well. I mostly just know the song “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”. I just don’t think I like her voice that much even though her music is generally in my wheelhouse, and obviously she’s not much of a stage presence these days. So not a terrible set, but definitely not my favorite opening act ever.
Bonnie Raitt was great. She started off with a couple of songs off of her new album, which I happen to like. She’s still out there making good music. I was surprised she only played two songs from it, but I’m sure it pleased the crowd who were probably all there for the old stuff given that we were pretty much the youngest people I saw there save for one or two other groups of people. She played a good mix of songs from across her career. She of course played “Angel from Montgomery” and dedicated it to John Prine. She said she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to sing it on this tour, but instead it was cathartic. Speaking of people no longer in their performance prime, she definitely had to adjust “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. She can’t hit those high notes anymore, so she started much lower and at some points when the original song goes up she went down instead. It’s inevitable with older performers. Just a reminder that we’re all getting old and no longer in our hey days, but it’s not to say that the performance was bad at all. It was a really good set though that flew right by. I was shocked when she was done and I realized that she had in fact been playing for 90 minutes. It went by in the blink of an eye. I definitely wish she could have played longer, but noise ordinances yada, yada. I was happy to see her again, and we had another perfect night for an outdoor concert. I hope that trend continues.
Last night I went to see Garbage and Tears for Fears at Merriweather Post Pavilion. It was a real 90s throwback in a lot of ways except of course the fact that had it been the actual 90s I highly doubt these two bands would have been on the same bill together. Now they both tap into old people nostalgia all lumped together. I say it’s a 90s throwback concert because it was like the olden days when I first started going to concerts where you would have a single opening act that played for an hour and then the headliner would play for about 2 hours. Now bills are jammed full of multiple acts and even if there are only 2, they start later and it’s rare for the headliner to play for longer than 90 minutes.
It was Father’s Day and I think there were a good number of people in the crowd who were there as a father’s day present as there seemed to be lots of families with kids of all ages from babies to adults. Most of the audience as is to be expected were people approximately my age or older unless they were clearly there with people of that age group. There was one group of three twentysomethings that showed up for Tears for Fears and sat near us and I was like how did you get here?
There was a family inside the pit right up against the rail with two little girls one 13 and one 8. You may wonder how I know this, but it’s because the 13 year old was crazy excited and singing along to every song. The camera people kept panning to her during both sets, and at one point Curt from Tears for Fears talked to her and said I have to know how old you are and said that she’s been down here singing the words to every song, even the ones off the new album and said it was making his night. Then he asked how old her little sister was and apparently their father must have also said his age because he was like I don’t care that you’re 54 sir. But obviously you are raising your children right. Right before the end of the concert he asked her name and again told her that she made his night. What an exciting concert experience for that kid. I love that she’s going to have that story to tell for the rest of her life.
I was less enthused about the tween aged child in front of me who stood and clapped off beat over her head for almost the entire Tears for Fears set. At one point her parents pulled her down and were talking to her and then when she got back up she was just doing more rhythmic arm movements, so I thought maybe they had asked her to stop clapping. I was fine with the arm movements. It was really the off-beat clapping that was annoying me especially during slow songs that did not need anyone clapping along to them. Alas, that did not last long and she went back to the clapping. As a fellow rhythmically challenged human I’m not trying to denigrate that as much as say if you can’t clap on the beat then don’t spend two hours at a concert doing it non-stop. Someone needs to teach that kid how to channel her enthusiasm for the music into some dancing in place. Other than that it was a great night though.
Garbage was the opening band. Shirley Manson was so excited. She was like this is the best night. Things don’t get any better than this if you’re me. The weather is perfect and not the 100 degree heat we’ve been playing in. She said she couldn’t believe how many people came out to see them open. I would say the majority of the crowd was there for their set. I only saw a few people wander through our space in the lawn that were clearly looking for a place to sit right before Tears for Fears played. She said they haven’t played a crowd that big (~19,000 people) in this area since the HFStival back in 1995. HFStival being a big music festival in these parts back in the day that was attached to the radio station WHFS that has been defunct for almost 2 decades now. I’ve seen Garbage play a couple of times around these parts and they were playing in clubs that hold about 1,200 people so this was obviously a huge jump in crowd size as she said.
They were great. Shirley Manson is still the coolest in my opinion. She’s like the person I always secretly wanted and still secretly want to be even though I’m like 100% opposite of her. They of course played all their hit songs along with some other stuff. I had completely forgotten that they had a Bond song until she said they never play it, but that they were going to do it and we should enjoy it because they’re not going to do it again for a long time. They are still such a fun band to see live.
This was my first time seeing Tears for Fears live. I was too young to have seen them back in their hay day. They broke up just about the time that I was going to my first concerts. They have been back together off and on since 2004 and I guess have done some touring in that time, but never around these parts. Last night they said that the last time they played a concert in Maryland was 1990. So it’s not really like I’ve had much opportunity to see them. It would be easy to write them off as a legacy act, but they’re actually still writing new music. This tour is supporting their new album The Tipping Point, which came out earlier this year. It’s actually really good. They played a bunch of stuff off of it along with all of the hits that people came to hear, so I think everyone left happy. I was happy to get both because I do really like the new music as well as their old stuff. Though honestly I could have left happy after the third song when they played “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. It’s by far my favorite Tears for Fears songs and quite honestly one of my favorite songs ever. I fell in love with it as a little kid when it came out and have never stopped loving it. I’m very happy I finally got to hear it live. All in all a great show.
On Friday night we went to Wolf Trap to see my first concert there of the season and thankfully not the last. It was super hot during the day, but once the sun went down it was a very pleasant evening to sit outside and enjoy some live music. I always enjoy sitting on the lawn and enjoying a picnic there. Though it was a sold out show and we wound up setting our chairs up on the concrete just behind the lawn because the lawn was jam packed full. A family even set up behind where we were. I do have to question why the mom in that family thought tater tots are a good picnic food. Seems to me they would just be cold and soggy. She was listing off all the things she brought to the kids, and I was like tater tots?
Waxahatchee was opening. Her set was really short since Jason Isbell and Sheryl Crow were co-headlining. She only had 30 minutes to play. It was an enjoyable little set though. I don’t have much to say about it.
This was a quick tour these three acts did together. I think it was something like only 6 dates. As is often the custom when artists co-headline they seemed to be trading off who went first and who went second. We had Sheryl Crow up first with Jason Isbell doing the final set. I have never been a huge Sheryl Crow fan. There are a handful of songs that I do actually really like, but most of them are just there apparently invading my brain against my will. I have never owned a Sheryl Crow album nor do I ever really seek out her music. Though I do have one of her songs, “I Shall Believe”, on my Amazing Songs Spotify Playlist. Sadly she did not play that song, though I didn’t really expect her to. My point with all this is to say that despite never really seeking her out on my own I knew pretty much every word to every song during that entire hour and fifteen minute set. I vaguely recognized a song from the Cars soundtrack that she apparently sings. I did not at all know some new song she made for the Showtime documentary about her that recently aired. But other than that I pretty much knew everything much to my surprise. I guess she had way more hit songs that were impossible to escape than I realized. She is a good performer, and I did enjoy her set. I’m still not going to go seek out her music though.
I’m always happy to be at a Jason Isbell concert. I love his music so much. It wasn’t one of the better sets of his that I’ve seen though. It felt very short. With them co-headlining and Wolf Trap having a hard out, they only had an hour and fifteen minutes each as I mentioned, which seemed very short and then he didn’t even really use it to its fullest. Sheryl just played straight through her full time. He did take the time at the end to do the whole dumb encore thing which ate up time and then they didn’t play all the way to 11. I feel like had they skipped the encore and played their full time they could have fit 2 more songs in there.
I was pleased that his wife, Amanda Shires, was there playing in the band. Literally the first thing I do every time I see him live is look to see if she’s there. She plays fiddle on all his albums, but as she has her own musical career she only sometimes tours with him. So they have all the songs re-orchestrated to play without the fiddle, but I much prefer it when she’s there. Apparently it was a special treat that she was there that night as she wasn’t supposed to be. He said she showed up and surprised him the night before in a rented Chrysler that he thought was the Uber Eats driver when she was first pulling up. I was also happy that he played “Goddamn Lonely Love”. It’s a song from back in his Drive-By-Truckers days, and although he usually throws one or two Truckers songs into his sets, he never plays this one live. During one of their Iso-lounging concerts that they did online at the beginning of the pandemic, Amanda told him that it was her favorite song that he’s ever written and he commented that he never plays it because it’s too depressing. I didn’t go too far back, but I did look up the most recent week of his setlists to see if it was something they had in regular rotation right now and doesn’t seem like it, so whether or not it’s true I’m going to believe that he added it to the set for her since she showed up to surprise him.
Overall a very enjoyable night of live music. I’m happy to be able to get to go to some concerts again that it’s still outdoor concert season. I don’t know when I’ll ever feel ready to go back to crowded indoor concerts. It’s super depressing to think about since obviously you know how much I love live music, and I’ve already sat out so much shows in the past year. I’m just going to try and enjoy the ones I can enjoy now in a much less risky environment.
Last summer I wound up skipping a lot of concerts that I had tickets to that I didn’t wind up going to because after Delta showed up and it was clear that COVID was not actually gone and my doctor warned me about being very careful not to get it I was too paranoid to go to any of them. Data after the fact seemed to support that it would have been a reasonable thing to do. I’m not actually sure how with the new Omicron variants are making that data hold up for crowded spaces even if they’re outside with how much more transmissible it is, but I also know that it has to lessen the risk and I will go insane if I just lock myself away in my house forever. I was hoping to get back to some indoor concerts too with the way things are I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon, but I’m not going to sit out my outdoor concerts this summer. (I’m so bummed that I’m going to miss Chvrches again next week. I had tickets to see them in DC right after Thanksgiving when OG Omicron was going crazy and didn’t go. Then they announced they were coming back again after only 6 months which is unheard of to a venue I like much better and I thought it was a sign that we were going to get another summer reprieve, and I was going to get to make up for missing out on the first show. Apparently it was just a sign that I’m too hopeful and willing to get kicked down over and over again.)
So all that being said I went to my first outdoor concert of the season last night to see The War on Drugs at Pier Six Pavilion. It’s a nice little outdoor venue in the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. It was the perfect night for an outdoor concert too. It was also a nice low key reintroduction to concerts for me because unlike everything else I’m going to this one was not close to sold out. I bought lawn seats so that we had control over where were sitting and where in relation to other people with the ability to move if we wanted. Since the show wasn’t sold and the back of the pavilion was particularly empty a lot of people from the lawn went in and grabbed seats because there was no one policing it like at Merriweather and Wolf Trap where you have to show your tickets 50 times to get to your seats. That left the lawn very uncrowded. We had a spot right in the front of the lawn and there wasn’t anyone within 10 feet of us in any direction. I brought a mask but didn’t wear it until we were walking out in the crowd. I’m pretty sure I won’t have nearly that much space at any other show, so this was a nice dipping my toe in experience.
If you’re not familiar with The War on Drugs they’re originally from Philly, but I think they live in LA now. Their album I Don’t Live Here Anymore was my favorite album of 2021. I’ve been a fan for a long time, but this is the first time that I’ve actually been able to see them live because as their lead singer said last night even though we’re from just up the road in Philly we never play down here. It’s sadly true for lots of bands because Baltimore falls within the radius clauses for lots of DC And Philly venues and since those are bigger markets the bands just play there and skip Baltimore.
They’re basically a good old guitar based rock band the likes of which you don’t see too much these days. I love their music, in particular all the guitar sounds. Their songs do tend to have some long instrumental breaks, but they’re contained which in my mind makes them different from jam bands that will take a 5 minute song and turn it into a 25 minute song live. Their songs live were still their songs even if there are stretches that are only instrumental. I appreciate my husband letting me drag him along because I knew he would really not care for this concert. It made me laugh to myself a little because stereotypically if you told someone that one us was being dragged to this concert against their will people would guess that it was me rather than my old, white guy husband.
It was an enjoyable show. They didn’t have an opening act so they had plenty of time to play with and didn’t go on until almost 30 minutes late, which I was annoyed at. I get annoyed at rock and rollers acting like stereotypical rock and rollers, particularly because I’m not used to it. Between festivals and individual shows that are packed to the gills with multiple acts, concerts these days are generally very regimented with strict set times. It’s rare that acts don’t go on when they’re supposed to. They did play for a good two hours though, which is rare because of a lot of shows having not just one, but two opening acts in this day and age. It was perfect chill music to sit outside and listen to on a gorgeous summer night with a couple of songs worth getting up to dance to. It did make me realize that this is the only way I would really ever want to see them live again. They are not a band I would want to stand around in a crowded club or arena and see. They’re definitely a chill out on the lawn and enjoy the vibe band for me. It was a nice way to get back into a full fledged concert season. Looking forward to several shows in a few weeks over my birthday weekend.
Last night I went to my first indoor concert since the pandemic started. Last summer in that glorious six weeks when we all delusionally thought COVID was over I did go to see Amos Lee at Wolf Trap and went to the Newport Folk Festival. Then Delta hit and things got worse and my doctors all made me paranoid about doing pretty much anything, so I bought a lot of concert tickets and then didn’t go to any of them for the rest of the year.
Last night I decided to finally brave going to see another concert. I don’t know how much people understand how big of a step this was for me, since most people have been back to living their lives mostly like normal for awhile now. I literally don’t do anything with crowds, and don’t do anything indoors at all except go to work and doctor’s appointments. I could probably count on my fingers and toes the number of times I’ve gone into stores and half of those were probably during that brief window last summer when things felt good. I don’t hang out with friends inside. Pretty much nothing. So to go to a crowded indoor space was a huge leap.
There were a couple of reasons I decided to make it at this point. Case counts are pretty low at this point. I’m newly topped off with anti-bodies since I qualified for a fourth vaccine dose. I would qualify to take some of the anti-virals now on the market if I did catch COVID, though I’ll feel better about that when they are more readily available. Also, Wolf Trap still had all their mask and vax requirements in place last night, which most concert venues have now dropped. It’s also a pretty small venue, fewer than 400 people seated, and they shared all the things they’ve done to upgrade their ventilation system. Like I have concert tickets for this coming weekend that I bought last May, when again we all thought COVID would be history by now, and I’m not going to that because all the precautions have been dropped, it’s sold out, standing room only, and I’m not ready to go stand smushed up against 1,200 other maskless people who may or may not be vaxxed.
I am so very glad I set aside my anxiety and went. It was a glorious night. Everything I love about live music and have missed so much. It really sucks when the thing you love most in the world becomes one of the most dangerous things you can do. I’m hoping we’re really at a detente with COVID for awhile, so I can start doing this more regularly.
Kyshona was the opening act. It was just her and an acoustic guitar, but she was crazy powerful. I was already somewhat familiar with her because some artist I follow was promoting her at some point, and I pay attention to who people I love are telling me to love. So I’ve already been following her on Instagram and listening to some of her music for awhile now. She was also part of the Once and Future Sounds set that Allison Russell curated to close out the Newport Folk Festival weekend last summer. So I wasn’t completely surprised, but it was one of those amazing sets where most of the people in the room had no idea who she was when she took the stage and now they’re all fans for life. I love those moments. They don’t happen too often, but when an opening act just blows an audience who doesn’t know them away there’s just nothing like it. She got a standing ovation and people were literally flying out the door to get the merch table as soon as she left the stage. She told the audience that she used to be a music therapist, but now she does music therapy for everyone and wow was that some therapy last night. Her voice is incredibly powerful, and her songs bring such a powerful message about loving yourself and other people. She was great at involving the audience and getting us to sing along with songs that almost no one knew. Another delight, the joy of singing along with an audience, something I have missed so much. She was the perfect opening act, and I can’t wait to keep following what she does next. Go acquaint yourself with Kyshona if you don’t know her already.
Allison Russell’s set was just as wonderful and full of joy and positivity. Her first solo album, Outside Child, which is what she’s promoting on this tour is up for several Grammy’s and was in the top of every best of 2021 list out there including mine. It’s about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her step-father and how her mother turned a blind eye, which led her to run away from home and spend her teenage years homeless. She was joking about trying to tell people about how they should go listen to this album about her childhood trauma, but it’s really not about that. She said it’s about survivor’s joy. She just has such a wonderful spirit in her music and the positivity and forgiveness she puts out into the world.
She talked a lot about how Brandi Carlile pulled her up and helped move her career forward after years of struggling to make it as an artist and now there’s all these doors in the walls she once face and how she wants to continue that and bring up the people behind her. She had four other women on stage with her in what she said she didn’t want to call her band but her circle because the term band sounds hierarchical to her. I have never seen someone introduce her bandmates with such joy and love for what they do with her and the other music their creating. She did the same thing for all the other people in her crew. She talked a lot about that closing set she curated at Newport last year and how she wants to take that on the road and do it in different cities to help introduce people to more new artists especially those people who have a hard time getting their foot in the door. I hope she does it and comes near me because I would love that. She was just so giddy and excited. It was so much fun. You would have thought it was her first time out on stage since the pandemic with how excited she was about everything.
There was also actually some music in her set too. Since she only has the one solo album at this point she pretty much played everything off that plus the songs she wrote for the Songs of Our Native Daughters album with Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, and Amythyst Kiah. She also covered a Sade song and Tracy Chapman song for her encore. It was such a lovely night, and everything I could have hoped for.
I spent the past three days in Rhode Island (sadly I’m still there as I type this waiting to get a tire replaced instead of on the road home) for this year’s modified version of the Newport Folk Festival, which they were calling Newport Presents Folk On. It’s somehow both a smaller and bigger affair. Smaller in that each day was only 50% of normal capacity, it started later in the day, and they eliminated one of the stages so there were fewer performances than usual. With 5,000 people in the audience it was still the most people I’ve been around since before the pandemic. I found out that back in June when things were looking really good instead of trending in the wrong direction Rhode Island told them they could lift the capacity restriction. I appreciate that they stuck with it and honored that they sold the tickets promising 50% capacity. No other festival would have done that, but that is the Newport way. They did require proof of vaccine or a negative COVID test for entry. None of that is foolproof, but it helps. Space at the main stage didn’t feel much different to me because of the fact that they pushed the stage out presumably for more room “back stage”. I still didn’t feel that close to other people most of the time and if anyone was within a couple feet of me I had my mask on. There was plenty of room at the other stage to be far, far away from people if you wanted, which I did. The changes they made also helped free up some of the bottlenecks in the travel lanes between stages so that there wasn’t a lot of crowding like there is most years. Hopefully between that and the fact the festival is all outside with a nice breeze off the bay it was reasonably safe.
Aside from the set up of the festival itself being different this year was different for me because I actually had friends there with me instead of just my begrudging husband who would never do this if I didn’t force him to. One of my friends has also been coming to Newport for years, but we didn’t really know each other before. She was friends with some of my friends and I knew who she was but we never really talked ourselves. We had just started to hang out a little before the last festival and said we’d look for each other, but not even enough to have each other’s phone numbers at that point, and we never did run into each other. Now it’s funny because we’ve become good friends since then and text pretty much every day. She convinced one of our other friends to come for the first time as well as one of her other friends who I had never met before. So the four of us ran around the festival all day and left my husband with our blankets at the main stage where he always just stays. My friend and I are both of the same mind that you should never be somewhere music isn’t playing and since the others were new to the festival they were happy to just follow our lead.
I was a little bummed going into the festival this year because due to the capacity restrictions they extended the festival to six days instead of three so they could still sell the same number of tickets over all. You could buy tickets for Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or both. We just stuck with our normal weekend tickets, but when they started announcing some of the artists who were playing it seemed like everyone I wanted to see was going to be playing one of the weekdays. I would still love to see Allison Russell, Hiss Golden Messenger, Lake Street Dive, Christopher Paul Stelling, Katie Pruitt, and Julien Baker, but in retrospect I’m also glad to have had the experience I did. My advice to people going to Newport has always been go see the people you don’t know and always go to the themed curated sets where you never know who will pop up. I feel like being there on the days I was forced me to do that a little bit more and of course it meant I got to see some wonderful things I would not have otherwise.
I felt like there were mostly (though this is not 100% true) two major things going on during the weekend sets. You had the theme of really trying to give the stage to Black artists (even more so than usual because I don’t feel like the artists are ever all that white even though the audience for sure is) and then sort of doing the opposite of when Bob Dylan shocked everyone by going electric at Newport and having a lot of artists do acoustic stuff. You had Pattersoon Hood and Mike Cooley of the Drive By Truckers billed as the Dimmer Twins doing acoustic DBT songs, Phosphorescent played acoustic for what they said was the first time ever, and although Jason Isbell switches back and forth he did an all acoustic set with just Amanda Shires and Sadler Vaden instead of his full band. It’s funny because he got way more into the electric rock than he has been on his newest album Reunions and now that he finally got to play some of it live for an audience he took all those songs and made them acoustic.
Although I did love Friday and Saturday, Sunday is what really felt like the festival to me. One of the things I love the most about Newport is all the collaborations and people popping into other people’s sets including people not even on the bill and who are just there for the love. That didn’t happen much during the first couple days. I was honestly shocked that Amanda Shires didn’t join Natalie Hemby during her set to sing a Highwomen song since they were both there. All the themed sets where they were inviting artist after artist to the stage happened Sunday. It makes sense because that way some of the Newport die hards like Brandi Carlile, Jess from Lucius, M.C. Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger, and Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes could be there and overlap both parts of the festival because I’m guessing they’re all going to pop again today aside from the ones that have actual sets to play.
The most Newport set of the weekend of course was the final set on Sunday called Allison Russell’s Once and Future Sound. Instead of having big named band X close the festival, Newport does these curated collaborative sets. And in this case they handed the reins to Allison Russell. I’m not sure how this all came about, but it seems crazy and so very Newport that someone who has been in the folk scene for awhile, but who literally just released her first solo album and is not someone who has been well known up until this point was not only given an open door herself but invited to bring as many other Black women as she could along with her. I thought there might be a little more torch passing and was 100% expecting Mavis Staples to be part of it. They paid homage to her, but she’s playing the Newport Jazz Festival next weekend and was saving herself for that. The final surprise guest of the night though was Chaka Khan because why not having Chaka Khan come out and sing two songs to close out the festival. It was just pure joy. If you could have seen my face behind my mask you would have seen the biggest grin on it. It was the best way to close out the night watching all these wonderful artists having so much fun on stage and the audience totally living it up to. I’m so glad that I got to be back and experience the joy that is Newport again.
Last night I went to my first concert since the pandemic started. If you’ve been around here at all you know how desperately I love and missed live music. I’m trying to take as much as I can in now while there are a lot of shows outside because things do not seem to be going in the right direction COVID wise and I’m not sure how willing I’m going to be to go to inside concerts this winter when there will probably be a lot of young unvaccinated people crowded together.
This was a really nice reentry into the concert world. During June and July Wolf Trap was doing socially distanced shows. You had to buy pods, so we actually paid for a pod of four on the lawn even though there were only too of us. Sadly I don’t know any other Amos Lee fans to take the extra tickets. It’s a shame because he’s great. There was also no opening act so it started at 8 and ended at 9:30, which is just about perfect for me, especially at a Wolf Trap show. I was actually home before my bedtime instead of 12:30 am like usual. I wish all concerts were like that.
Amos is not doing a full tour yet. He just a few random dates here and there, so he was just playing acoustic solo rather than with his band which was a-ok with me. It just felt like a live version of the weekly Instagram Live concerts he did every Thursday night during the first year of the pandemic. It really did help keep me going, and I’m so thankful for him. It felt like the perfect thing that my first concert back was Amos Lee at my favorite Baltimore/DC area venue.
The concert was great. He is super funny joking a lot between songs. He also is one of the few artists I’ve seen that doesn’t come out with much of a set list. He just kind of decides what to play on the fly and also took a bunch of requests from the audience. He played a couple of new songs off his forthcoming album, which has been on hold since the pandemic started. One of the songs he played so much on the Instagram shows that I actually forgot that it’s not already been released.
Amos does a lot of work with Musicians On Call an organization that sends musical artists to hospitals to play for people, and he always seems to be attuned to his fans that are battling a significant illness. He befriended a kid named Jordy over the Instagram concerts and Jordy even came on and played with him one night. Apparently Jordy is from Virginia so he too was at the concert last night and Amos dedicated the song “Kid” to him because they used to play it together. It was a very sweet moment, and I love that song and it doesn’t seem to be one he plays a lot so I was very happy to hear it. He also ended the show with a song called “Charles St.”, which I’m not even sure I’ve ever heard before or at least paid attention to when I did hear it because the Charles Street in reference is actually the Charles Street in Baltimore. He said he had some friends from Baltimore who were also in the audience so he was singing it for them. Most of the song doesn’t have anything to do with Baltimore and you would never know he was referencing that until the very last night until it references Charles Street and I-83 when it definitely becomes obvious to anyone who knows. So that was kind of fun and just reinforced even more that this concert felt like a perfect live music come back.
It definitely reminded me of the joys of seeing live music. Even though it was a limited crowd due to the social distancing they had in place there was a lot of energy in the place. There was a lot of clapping and singing together. All the things that you just can’t experience watching concerts over a computer like I did so often for the past year. I’m so happy to have concerts back in my life. Please go get vaccinated if you haven’t yet, so that I can keep them.
It’s that time of year again where I share my favorite things I experienced in pop culture over the past year. As a reminder these are not necessarily things that came out during 2020 though many of them are. They are however things I enjoyed for the first time this year. This year is a little bit different because some of my standard categories I didn’t really have a choice in thanks to the pandemic. It wasn’t a matter what my favorite thing was. It was a matter of did I even get to do any of these things this year. Although I am sad that I didn’t get to do a lot in the way of seeing things like concerts and theater, which are what I love to do more than anything else in the world, there was thankfully lots of excellent pop culture to keep me entertained while I’ve been stuck at home for most of the year. Let’s get to it.
Movie I Saw in a Theater
This was an easy pick because I saw exactly one movie in a theater in 2020. At least I enjoyed the film, though I doubt it would be sitting in this spot had I seen other movies over the course of the year. It was Birds of Prey, the Harley Quinn movie starring Margot Robbie. Who knew I was going to be enjoying so much Harley Quinn this year, since I also loved the Harley Quinn animated tv series now available on HBOMax. I actually appreciated the smallness of this movie. While I mostly enjoy a lot of comic book superhero movies I hate when they are too what I call smashy smashy where you have long 20-30 minute CGI fight scenes of characters just smashing on things and each other. They bore me to tears. There was none of that in this movie. The fight scenes were at close range and a lot of fun. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but I found a lot to like about it and am not sad that it gets to be the lone movie I saw in a theater this year.
Movie I Watched at Home
I probably watched more movies at home this year than I normally do because I couldn’t see movies in theaters. I normally prefer to see movies in the theater as I have a hard time concentrating on them for that long at home without getting distracted by other things. I think my favorites though were two documentaries about collecting, The Booksellers and Vinyl Nation. As you might guess The Booksellers were about rare book dealers and collectors while Vinyl Nation was about record stores and record collectors. I am not a collector. I guess I don’t have that kind of personality, but I enjoyed seeing the worlds of these people who are super into collecting their books and vinyl records. Despite being a librarian and avid reader I have no interest in collecting books. I borrow most of the books I read and am happy to send books back out into the world for others to enjoy. I rarely reread books so I don’t see the point of having shelves full of them. I do often wish I was the kind of person who was into vinyl collecting though. Music is obviously something I consume over and over again and the idea of having a collection of records that I look through, select from, and then sit down and listen to appeals to me. In reality though the record player we have is not even out on the floor and the two vinyl albums I own were WXPN pledge drive gifts. Realistically I am never going to be that person, but I enjoyed living in the world of the people who are for a little while.
Without actually meaning to or seeking them out I feel like I read a number of books having to do with various wars or people living under the constant threat of violence. Although it is to some degree an entirely different thing I also felt like there were a lot of parallels to our current state living through a pandemic with lots of death, living in a constant state of fear, and not knowing if or when it’s ever going to end. The best of these books and the one that is the best fiction book I read all year is Apeirogon by Colum McCann. I am just going to share my review on Goodreads because I don’t think I have anything better to say about the book than that.
“An apeirogon is a figure with an infinite number of sides and that is actually the perfect title for this book. I don’t even know how to describe it. At its basest level it is a fictionalized story of the real men Palestinian, Bassam Aramin and Israeli, Rami Elhanan both of whom lost their daughters to violence but who come together to try and fight for peace in the Middle East. It also includes non-fiction passages at the heart of the book written by both men. The story if you can really call it that moves and folds back and around itself while weaving in other facts and histories all written in short vignettes ranging from a mere sentence to several pages. It’s masterfully written and creative in a way that compares to no other book I can think of save for maybe Lincoln in the Bardo, which I more admired for what the author did than I actually enjoyed reading it. Here I think everything comes together perfectly. It’s definitely not a book for anyone who needs their books to have a straight narrative story, but this is beautifully written and full of so much meaning that it is a true masterpiece.”
I have two books that qualify for my favorite non-fiction book of the year. Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of thee Generic Drug Boom by Katherine Eban was the first book I read in 2020 and even then I said this is probably going to be one of my favorite books of the year. I was not wrong about that. It’s the informative and horrifying true story about how generic drugs are made and why there can be so many issues with them. This has made me question everything when it comes to the medications I take.
The second book, which was no surprise, was Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. I was very much looking forward to this book as I loved Wilkerson’s previous masterpiece The Warmth of Other Suns. Caste looks at how the United States really operates on a caste system based on race. She delves into the history and the effects on people and our country. She offers the best explanation I’ve seen as to why it’s important for us to actually address this issue and do what we need to do to repair rather than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist or say it’s not our problem because we’re not the ones who caused it. If you read one of the three books I’ve mentioned here make it this one.
I have a few tv shows I want to mention that were the highlights of a year in which I watched a LOT of television and that’s saying something given how much I watched before this. I already alluded to Harley Quinn in the movie section. It’s a fun adults only show that I was sad when I ran out of episodes of.
The first show I watched in 2020 was Schitt’s Creek. I binge watched it over my winter break last year. I had not watched it for a long time thinking it was not something I would enjoy. I was never into all the Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara movies and I generally don’t like shows where people are just awful so on the face of it this show was just not for me. But I had heard so many people talk about how much they loved it that I decided to give it a chance. I’m so glad I did because it is such a delightful show full of so much heart. It is a little rough going in the first half of season one where it felt more like what I was expecting, but eventually the show grows and the characters grow and it’s something that brings me so much joy. If you haven’t watched this show yet please do yourself a favor and do it.
My second favorite show of the year has sadly already met an untimely death after only one season. Thanks Netflix. It’s Teenage Bounty Hunters. I love this show so much! Talk about a show with so much heart. In some ways it shares a lot of DNA with Schitt’s Creek in that it is a ridiculous over the top story with characters that are somewhat caricatures but who have such heart that you just fall in love with them. Everyone I have convinced to watch this show has loved it and I know the many other people I’ve been telling to watch it but who have been resisting my efforts (you know who you are) would love it too. I saw it on a lot of year end best of television lists too. I wish Netflix had let it stick around and grow an audience because get why based on the name and description it wasn’t something people jumped right into when Netflix put it out, but it’s definitely a show that would have grown an audience through word of mouth if it had only been given time. Even though it does end on a bit of a cliffhanger I still highly recommend treating yourself to the one season of this show that we were gifted.
I also fell in love with the show Wynonna Earp this year. It’s not a show I had ever really heard anyone talk about aside from one guest on a podcast I listen to. Apparently her love of the show was enough to get me to check it out and I’m glad I finally did. I tell people if they were Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans than this show is probably for them. It’s got a strong female lead, actually lots of strong female characters, love stories, and supernatural fun. I can’t wait for the second half of the most recent season to air hopefully sometime soon.
I have two episodes to talk about in this category. First Season 4, Episode 8 of Insecure, “Lowkey Happy”. This is one of those pay off episodes that I love from long running tv shows. Season 4 was mostly about Issa and Molly’s friendship and was an excellent season looking at the fading of friendship, but this episode was about Issa and her ex-boyfriend Lawrence. They reconnect over a long night spent together that reminds me of the Before movies. It was lovely and romantic and something that only could have happened with these characters and their relationship being developed over seasons.
Second is Schitt’s Creek Season 4, Episode 9, “The Olive Branch”. This is actually another payoff episode in that earlier in the season Patrick sings an acoustic version of the song “The Best” by Tina Turner to David during an event at their store that David both hates and loves. Then as a romantic makeup gesture after a fight in a later episode David does a dance to the song for Patrick. It’s so wonderful. It’s, no pun intended, the best scene from the entire show and is one of the videos I keep in my arsenal to rewatch when I need something to make me happy. Sadly it seems like the videos on YouTube of just that scene have all been pulled down. So you’ll just have to go watch the show to see it.
I had far too many albums I loved this year to talk about in this post, so I refer you to the separate post I did recently on my favorite albums of 2020.
My favorite song of 2020 was Janelle Monae’s “Turntables”. It’s an amazing empowerment anthem that has kept me going through some pretty dark times in this year.
Also have to give a special mention to the song “It’s Still Alright” by Nathaniel Rateliff. It was the first song I added to my 2020 playlist and it’s a song I came back to a lot. Although the song is about substance abuse and the death of Rateliff’s long time producer Richard Swift, the soothing tones of the song and the lyrics of the chorus repeatedly telling us “and it’s still alright” were a continued gentle reminder in this year full of so much pain and sorrow that there are brighter days ahead.
Unlike most years when I would have dozens of concerts to choose from in this spot, this year I only had two. The final concert I went to in 2020 before everything fell apart was Trampled by Turtles at Baltimore Soundstage. It was a fun show and one I would have cherished all the more had I known it was the last show I was going to see for who knows how long.
The concert that was ultimately my favorite and probably would have been in contention for that even if I had gotten to see everything I already had tickets to in 2020 was traveling to Nashville to meet up with a friend to see Brandi Carlile at the Ryman Auditorium. One of my favorite artists in a fantastic, historical venue with a friend and fellow music lover. Who could ask for more? If I was only going to get to see two concerts in 2020 I can’t complain that this was one of them.
I’m adding in this new category this year because in lieu of getting to go out and see actual shows I watched a lot of artists perform online this year. Hopefully it’s one that I will only need to use this year because I want nothing more for 2021 than to be able to see live music again. There many, many online shows I watched from artists playing on Instagram and YouTube from their houses for free, shows I paid for with artists playing in their houses or shows I paid for with artists performing in actual venues with no audience. None of it fulfills the same experience as going to an actual live show and sharing the musical experience with a crowd.
The two things that I’m going to talk about here are things that are/were some of the least produced online music experiences but because of the way they are/were done brought at least a little of that communal experience you get from live music. When the pandemic first started Amanda Shires did 30 straight days of shows from her barn, which she called I So Lounging. Most of them also featured her husband Jason Isbell as well as Seth and Kelly Plemmons who were living with them at the time when we thought this would all be over in a few weeks. Seth is a member of her band and Kelly worked on the behind the scenes stuff. It was something that really kept me going those first weeks of lockdown when everything was so new and raw. It was wonderful to hear them play and just laugh and cry together and there was a little community in the YouTube comments for the shows. Although they were up on YouTube for a long time, sadly it seems like they’ve pulled all the videos down now.
The other online shows that I have loved have also been because of their regularity and the fact that they feel a little bit more intimate and personal. Almost every Thursday night since the pandemic started Amos Lee has been going live on Instagram on Thursday nights at 7:30. He hasn’t even been collecting tips. I’m not sure how he’s keeping himself going with no touring income. He’s done a couple of fundraisers for various organizations so whenever he does that I make sure to donate to whatever his chosen cause is. I’ve turned Thursday nights into a little bit of date night surrounding these concerts. We get take out and then I make my husband play a board game or card game with me while we listen to Amos Lee play. He’s even saved a lot of them to his IGTV so you can go back and watch if you want.
Broadway Theatre Production
Even though I had tickets to several shows later in the year I did not get to see any Broadway shows in 2020. My Company tickets were refunded. Who knows when or if that show will ever open. Our Music Man tickets were rescheduled twice and we’re now set to see the show in February of 2022. We thought it was hilarious when we were buying tickets for November 2020 in August of 2019. Little did we know.
Baltimore Theatre Production
I did get to see one show in Baltimore this year before everything shut down. It was Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally at Baltimore Center Stage. Unlike with the one movie I saw I can’t say that this was a show I super enjoyed. Sadly I’m not sure that the new artistic director and I see eye to eye on theatre. After loving almost every show I saw there for many years as a season ticket subscriber, this past season I didn’t really like much of anything. I think most of it was chosen in the interim before she actually started so I’m hoping that I’m wrong and that when the finally do get back to being able to have actual shows there that she selects shows that are more to my liking.
Online Theatre Production
Like with concerts I saw some online theatre productions this year as well. Some were previously taped performances that were released from archives. Some were weird Zoom like things (though not actually on Zoom). And some were live productions in front of no audience. I watched several shows put on at the Old Vic in London that were produced live with no audience. It lead to me watching theatre at some very odd times given the time difference. I think my favorite was Three Kings starring Andrew Scott, who you may know as Hot Priest from Fleabag. Sometimes one person shows where it’s just one long monologue can lose my interest, but I thought he did an excellent job and the story he was telling kept me engaged.
I think I’ve mentioned Make Me Smart to some degree in this space every year since it has existed and that is not going to change this year. This year they expanded from their once a week on Tuesday episode to transitioning to a daily podcast after the pandemic started. They still do what they call the big show on Tuesdays, which is usually around a half hour or so. Then the other days they do short 15 minute episodes most of those they each bring a news story and something that makes them happy to talk about. They started naming the episodes at some point: Make Me Smart Mondays, Big Show Tuesdays, Whatta Ya Want to Know Wednesdays (in which they ditch the normal daily show format and spend the whole episode answering listener questions), Hollowed Out Shell Thursdays (because by that point in the week we all feel like hollowed out shells), and Economics on Tap Fridays (their weekly happy hour episode where they would have a drink and would often live tape over YouTube so people could see them and join in in the comments). It’s the first podcast I put on every time there’s a new episode in my feed. It helps me going and I’m so happy they expanded to 5 days a week.
Staying in with Emily and Kumail was a short lived podcast produced by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani that they put out at the beginning of the pandemic when we were all in lockdown. They basically just talked about their lives and the things they were enjoying and experiencing. Although she is no longer practicing Emily is a trained therapist so she had a lot of great insights to offer about what we were all experiencing and how we were experiencing them. She also is immunocompromised and at high risk for COVID so they were being extremely careful just like my husband and I have been. So it was nice to get their perspective on that as well. It’s not something that would probably make sense to listen to now if you didn’t listen to it when it was first on, but it was super helpful for me in processing everything that was happening and all the feelings I was having at the beginning of the pandemic. I get why it’s not something they kept up, but I do think it would be kind of nice to have a check in episode every once in awhile.
Last night I went to see Trampled by Turtles at Baltimore Soundstage with Upstate as the opening act. As one might expect from a band called Upstate they are from upstate New York. They have kind of a folky jazzy sound. They had some really nice harmonies, which I always appreciate. They were a decent opening act. Their music probably isn’t something I’m going to choose to sit around and listen to, but I didn’t mind it and they were entertaining enough performers. That’s really all you can ask for in an opening act.
I’ve seen Trampled by Turtles live several times in the past, but this is the first time that I’ve seen them somewhere other than the Newport Folk Festival. I don’t really have too much to say about this particular concert. They are always a super fun time. Their music creates a lot of energy and the crowd was really into it. They played all the songs I wanted to hear, so I have nothing to complain about in that regard. They were lots of fun as always. It was an excellent night.