The widespread consensus on 2016 seems that it was one of the most dismal years in recent memory — except in regard to music, which has had what most would consider to be a banner year, with a huge number of artists releasing and touring behind excellent albums. Some of those artists visited Birmingham to perform; some were from Birmingham. Below, four of Weld’s music writers share their favorite Birmingham shows from 2016.
Though they didn’t share a bill in the traditional sense, I have to list Death Cab for Cutie and Ryan Adams’ back-to-back SlossFest sets as my favorite three-plus hours of 2016. Both groups held spots on my concert bucket list, so I bought tickets as soon as I could. Though I wish I could have witnessed Death Cab perform with former guitarist Chris Walla, the band plowed through some of their best sentimental, nostalgic songs (“Photobooth” and “Cath,” for example) with a dynamic and ferocious energy.
Getting to hear Adams perform his track “Halloweenhead,” from 2007’s Easy Tiger was a treat. The rest of the set was phenomenal, with a stellar backing band and an arcade-themed stage set-up. Adams played his staples (“Come Pick Me Up,” “Oh My Sweet Carolina”), tracks from his latest full-length (“Gimme Something Good”) and even an impromptu jam with lyrics about Birmingham memories and the SlossFest VIP section. Though I started to leave a few minutes early, I rushed back from the gate as soon as I heard the opening of “Magnolia Mountain.” Sleep could wait.
A few months later, on my way to see Switchfoot and Reliant K on Halloween night, I realized I would be seeing both bands for the fifth time.The fact that Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman actually got to do his part from the Relient K collaboration “Deathbed” live with the band added an extra layer of specialness to the night. Of course, Foreman’s climbing all over the balconies of Iron City was no small feat either, especially when he landed by our group, had the crowd surf his guitar from the stage and played “Twenty-Four.”
Meanwhile, Birmingham’s music scene continues to amaze me, and Wilder Adkins is an artist who always delivers a phenomenal live performance. At his album release show in March, after a solid opening set from Preston Lovinggood, Adkins played the record, Hope and Sorrow, from start to finish, adding and subtracting musicians to recreate the songs as accurately as possible. Following this show, the impact of Hope and Sorrow expanded throughout 2016, culminating in last week’s grand prize victory at the NewSong Music Competition in New York City.
At 74 years old, Paul Simon put out a fabulous record. Stranger to Stranger is maybe not one of the best of his career, but it has been too easily forgotten among year-end lists. In May, Simon came to Birmingham for the first time in many years to tour behind it, and it was a flawless performance. Guns ‘N Roses loudly had a huge year in 2016 because of their long inability to mount a successful comeback. Paul Simon just as successfully “came back” (presuming he was gone), but it was never going to receive the same universal praise because people would expect nothing less. Sometimes it’s okay to recognize the most brilliant among us.
WZZK’s Downtown After Sundown Series brought Maren Morris to Rogue Tavern in August. Admittedly, the venue was completely packed, so it won’t go down as some sort of hidden gem that only a handful of people can boast that they saw, but still, Morris’s debut album has since been named the Album of the Year by Rolling Stone Country, and she has appeared on Saturday Night Live. Rogue has a knack for landing this occasional blockbuster show that most wouldn’t typically expect inside their walls, and each time, it’s especially memorable for just that reason.
Just three months before Sturgill Simpson shocked the world by earning a Grammy nomination for his album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, he sold out the Alabama Theatre. It was a remarkable lesson in how many of his own fans really don’t fully understand what he’s doing. He’s beloved by country fans because his twang recalls Waylon Jennings, but he’s not as interested in saving the genre as those people want to think. He’s interested in constantly reinventing himself and recording whatever kind of record he pleases.
I don’t know that I danced anywhere this year more than I did at Saturn, which didn’t so much book concerts as throw parties this year. There was a set from electropop group Unknown Mortal Orchestra that saw guitarist Ruban Nielson strutting into the crowd, a visit to the grimy disco of Neon Indian’s VEGA INTL. Night School, and one excellent show from Atlanta-based group Deerhunter, who made Saturn a last-minute stop on their tour. (Also great, if sadly underattended: A free show, sponsored by Good People Brewing, from Detroit post-punk group Protomartyr, whose album The Agent Intellect was one of the best records of 2015.)
Destroyer’s performance at WorkPlay in October was also a real joy, as Dan Bejar — without his usual band — darted through his deep, deep catalogue of obscure-yet-catchy tunes. It might take a thesaurus and plenty of footnotes to really delve into the meaning of most of Bejar’s lyrics, but the intimacy of the performance somehow managed to make even his most esoteric songs immediate.
And finally, it’s been a real joy to watch the Syndicate Lounge come into its own as a venue, booking shows with indie darlings like Frankie Cosmos, Mitski, and Mutual Benefit, all three of whom released some of the year’s most rewarding, understated indie albums. But most fascinating was a July 13 ambient music night with local electronic musicians Daniel Farris, Jim Fahy, Blake Wimberly, and Balcony View, who made the tiny space seem bigger than it was with an improvisational blend of constantly mutating atmospheric music.
Rob Baird’s album Wrong Side Of The River was my favorite 2016 release, and he played two shows at Workplay — a full-band show in October and a solo acoustic show in December. It was great to hear his songs in those two different settings. James Hunter, a British R&B singer/guitarist that has gained the support of Van Morrison, performed at WorkPlay in September and reminded us that a “retro” sound is always relevant. Rounding out WorkPlay was Jay Farrar performing the entire Son Volt album Trace in its entirety in May. I hear from friends on a regular basis that Trace turned them on to country and alt-country and encouraged them to dig deeper into those genres. Farrar’s set at WorkPlay reinforced the impact and influence of the album’s material.
The Lydia Loveless show at Saturn in October was another highlight. Her 2016 release Real can be found on a number of year-end “best of” lists, and her songs took on an even more raw and honest tone in the live setting.
Finally, Boz Scaggs brought his combination of ‘70s chart-busting hits and his more recent straightforward R&B material to the Lyric Theatre in May. The venue’s setting proved ideal for Boz’s sophisticated sounds and a packed crowd responded in turn. The show reminded us that artists can evolve and age gracefully even after the Top 40 hits stop coming.
Based on the shows that are already being announced for 2017, our scene should have no letdown of great live music in the coming year.