On February 22nd, I made the two-hour drive from my house to the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. I was heading up to see Jesse Malin, Hollis Brown, The Eck’s Men, and Matty Carlock. It’s a long drive, but I was glad to do it. The Stone Pony is a great venue, and that was a killer lineup.
The show was phenomenal. Matty Carlock came out first and was intense as heck. I’d been listening to his song “Young and Fucked Up” from his 2019 album “The Jailbirds” a lot and was excited when he played it during his opening set. It’s a great song and would have been worth the trip just for that alone. The Eck’s Men followed him up with a set of their fun brand of pop-rock.
Hollis Brown followed The Eck’s Men to the stage and lit the place on fire. They opened with Cold City, a favorite of mine, from their Cluster of Pearls EP. It’s a jagged blues noir song and a great way to start a set. They muscled their way through songs from their latest “Ozone Park,” a Velvet Underground cover, and a taste of Pink Floyd, before wrapping up with a sweltering version of their Bo Diddley collaboration Rain Dance.
The room was suitably warmed up when Jesse Malin and his band came out and laid down a huge 20 song setlist featuring a good mix of covers, old favorites, and songs from his “Sunset Kids” album. The encore felt special. The crowd was sweaty and completely in tune with Jesse by that point, and he walked us through the Clash, Tom Petty, Lou Reed, before leaving the whole room in the Bob Dylan classic “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”
It was a special show, and as I drove back home on the darkened New Jersey highways, I remember feeling warm despite the February cold and elevated the way that the best of shows can make you feel.
I had no idea it would be the last live music I saw for the year.
Roughly a month after the show, the hammer came down on the world, and Covid shut the country down. At the time, I had no idea that by the time I wrote a year-end piece that most everything would still be closed, limited, or too dangerous to bother with.
Normally I wouldn’t be writing this until a few days from now because I’d be at the Mighty Mighty Bosstones three-day annual event, the Hometown Throwdown. Instead, I’m in my house missing friends I only see once a year at those concerts and hoping next year will be better. As it is, I’ve been wondering for a few days how exactly to write about the year that was, and I think the best way to sum everything up is that 2020 is the year music became personal.
It feels weird to say that music got more personal when we’re all locked in our houses and there haven’t been many shows to go to, but it feels true. I’m mostly referring to livestreams. When concerts and clubs got shut down after a few weeks, artists began to stream music in a variety of formats and sites. I personally have watched shows through Zoom, Youtube, Facebook, Facebook messenger, Rollinglive Studios, Twitter, Instagram Live, StageIt, and a few more I’m forgetting. Whereas usually the musicians are up on stage and everyone else is out in the audience, with most of these livestreams, everyone is just in living rooms. How can things not feel strangely intimate when you can see Frank Turner’s bookshelf in the background?
Beyond just the artist broadcasting from their personal space, most of these formats have chat systems, which means viewers are interacting with both the artist and other people watching. At a concert, it’s (hopefully) too loud to chat, but when you’re watching something on youtube, you can keep a running conversation going while the music is playing. Whether it’s a distraction or not is up to people participating, I’d say, but it’s hard to deny that over time it can manage to form a community.
The development of a community is precisely what happened over the year among fans of Jesse Malin.
On March 28th, a couple of weeks after rushing back to New York from England, Jesse Malin came onto youtube and said, “Is this happening? Is this really going on?” into a phone set up in the living room of his apartment. He stood next to an exposed brick wall with his kitchen in the background; the noted technophobe began a series of livestream shows that would gradually transform from him playing solo on his acoustic guitar into full band shows in an empty Bowery Electric, while only occasionally getting interrupted by the fire department. He called the shows “The Fine Art of Self Distancing,” a play on his first album, “The Fine Art of Self Destruction.”
Malin has always told stories, “Bits,” as he calls them, between songs, but with this new format, he took it to a new level. Beyond stories and anecdotes, he would show things from around his apartment, recommend movies and books, and gave updates on what New York was like outside his window. At the time, the city was being overrun with the pandemic, while the rest of the country was just starting to feel it. Malin’s broadcast from the epicenter of the storm felt like wartime radio. They were fireside chats for the digital world. After so many months in this new normal, it’s hard to describe just how powerful and emotional his voice felt in these first few terrifying moments of our generational disaster. A frequent comment in the accompanying chats was, “This show was the only thing that got me through this week.”
The setlist of that first show is up on Setlist.fm, and you can see how Malin mixed in covers and his own material. I can say that the highlight that day was his take on “Here Comes a Regular” by the Replacements. It’s a song with a lot of emotional punch typically, but on a day when everyone and everything felt so far away, it was pretty special.
There was a moment in one of those early shows that stuck with me as to how personal and behind the curtains, things had become. During the May 2nd show, Jesse was joined by keyboardist Rob Clores. Rob wore a mask and set up his keyboard well behind Malin’s usual spot. A couple of songs in, they began playing “Rise and Fall,” the classic from Malin’s D-Generation days. He gets about 30 seconds into the song and then stops. As he tends to do, he starts riffing in his Bob Strauss (a manager character he plays sometimes) voice saying “We can’t do this song” and things of that nature, but in the middle, he leans over his shoulder and says very clearly in his normal voice “I’m out of tune.” He’s letting Clores know why he stopped, and usually, the mic wouldn’t pick up on it, but in the apartment situation, it’s clear as day. Not only had we been invited into his home, but now we were behind the curtain into how the band communicated with each other. It was a small thing, easily overlooked, but for me, it said a lot about this new world we are in.
A couple of weeks later, Malin launched “Season 2.” The show had moved out of his apartment and off YouTube. It was a minimum of $10 to see the stream, which most were more than happy to pay, and everything had been upgraded. They were playing as a band in the Bowery Electric with better sound and cameras. The show included Jesse doing interviews with friends and other musicians, occasional guests, and even post-show zoom chats. The first song they played in this new format, appropriately enough, was “Basement Home” from his second album, “The Heat.”
As the shows coalesced into this new format, a group of regulars showed up every week and chatted on the site while the band was playing. Week in and week out, moderated by the esteemed Harry, this group of people from all over the world enjoys each other’s virtual company as everyone shares in the music. Plenty of the folks knew each other before all of this happened, but I imagine the after-show drink groups will be much bigger than before after all this.
I’ve compared Jesse to a preacher before, and I feel even more strongly about that notion now. By being a strong and caring voice during the worst year of so many lives and giving his fans a place to meet and bond, he’s strengthened what was already a dedicated group of parishioners.
These shows also sent me down a lot of rabbit holes musically. I had never really listened to his band D-Generation until he began playing some of their songs during the sets. He played covers of “Up The Junction” by Squeeze, “The Archer” by Elton John, “Mystery Dance” by Elvis Costello, and so many more than got me listening to things I’d never listened to before.
Jesse Malin wasn’t the only one trying to figure out how to operate in the new housebound landscape. Hollis Brown had a tour celebrating their cover album of Velvet Underground’s Loaded canceled. They responded by launching a Patreon page offering the occasional exclusive stream and lots of different versions of songs. They also tried out concerts on Zoom and other streaming platforms.
One thing that Hollis Brown did was a series of small afternoon performances for a few weeks. Each day frontman Mike Montali would hop on and play a song or two while interacting with people watching and chatting in, often playing requests and covers. As the days of quarantine stretched on, these were a nice dose of music to help break up the days. One of the highlights was Montali taking a request to play the Band’s “The Weight” spontaneously. When I talk about music being more personal, this was a great example. These kinds of small performances and moments didn’t really exist prior to this year and may not exist after we have gotten out from under Covid’s shadow. But for the time being, they made for some very human moments.
Trapper Schoepp tried to weather the storm by launching a Kickstarter. From porcelain clowns to private concerts, he offered a variety of rewards. I backed him at the level for a private show, which was both fun and a bit strange. We worked out a time to meet on Facebook messenger and then for an hour chatted as he played a mix of requested songs and old favorites. It was the kind of unique experience that took the place of concerts and bars and really showed how quickly everything evolved, and people started to adapt. I do still wonder about the porcelain clowns, though.
One cause that united many musicians and livestreams the world over raised money for was helping out venues. Just about every place we all go to see music has been struggling to pay rent with little to no income. The National Independent Venue Association pushed along with hundreds of artists to help “Save Our Stages”, which recently passed as part of the Covid relief package.
Frank Turner took to Facebook and Instagram for a series of shows to benefit specific venues in England, using each to play one of his albums and tell stories about his times playing those great places.
These are just some of the stories of what music and musicians have been about this year. There are thousands more. It’s been a long, strange, sad, and occasionally uplifting year.
I guess I should talk a bit about the actual music.
There may have been fewer albums recorded and released, but that doesn’t mean there was a shortage of absolutely wonderful new music to come out.
All of the artists I mentioned above used these streaming platforms to debut new songs. Some of which have been released, and some haven’t.
During a show streamed from the Bowery Electric, Hollis Brown debuted a thunderous new tune called “Mojo Music” filled with pounding drums and 70’s rock guitar hooks. Not long after that, they played a couple of new ones while doing a stream ‘Live at Daryl’s’ including “The Changing of the Guard” and “Garage Days,” both blues rockers that I personally cannot wait to hear again.
Jesse Malin debuted a number of songs, including “Greener Pastures,” “Nicky Disco,” and “Todd Youth.” He’s released some as singles, but they’re all apparently part of an album he hopes to release next year. I know I’m excited.
Trapper Schoepp played a new one called “Paris Syndrome” during the Guitars For Vets live stream, and it’s another that will hopefully be on an upcoming album. He has also released a series of cover tunes on Bandcamp at regular intervals. I’ve written about a couple of them as they came out, including Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me In Your Heart” and Tom Petty’s “Walls.” On the night before the election, he dropped a timely cover of Randy Newman’s classic “Please Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man).” The most recent was a Christmas day cover of Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy,” which certainly made me happy. Overall it felt like a cool way of doing a covers album without doing a full covers album. I’m not sure if He’ll continue with it into the new year, but it’s been an excellent way to celebrate Bandcamp Fridays.
Mike Montali of Hollis Brown released a solo album in one of the more unique ways I’ve ever seen. Rather than selling it through streaming platforms or putting out a record, he made 300 small paintings and sold them over social media with a download code taped to the back. The album itself, called “One Night In the Color Blue,” is a seven-song blues-rock delight. Montali is in great voice, and the songs fall somewhere between Hollis Brown and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. “Head Down Shots Fired” might be the standout, but truthfully there aren’t any skips. It’s fun having a hand-painted piece of art too.
Oddly this is the second piece of hand-painted art I’ve gotten from a musician this year, the other being a painting from British Folk singer Beans on Toast, who sold paintings to raise money. 2020 has been pretty different.
Finding new ways of releasing music was an industry-wide story in 2020, and no one was sitting on their laurels. Bob Dylan released a new album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” on June 19th, but prior to that, he released several of the songs late at night on Youtube for night owls to enjoy before the rest of the world woke up to new Dylan tunes. He did this with the masterful “Murder Most Foul,” “I Contain Multitudes,” and “False Prophet.” The album itself is a masterwork of latter years Bob Dylan. It’s been on every end-of-year “Best Of” list I’ve read, and rightfully so. It’s politically charged and heavy in a way Dylan hasn’t felt in years, while also dabbling in his old-man impishness. It wasn’t my personal favorite album of the year, but it’s definitely in my top five.
The Airborne Toxic Event announced in September of 2019 that they would be releasing their first new album in five years during 2020, as well as a tour and a memoir about lead singer Mikel Jollet’s life. They’re not a band I’ve written about before, but they are one of my favorites. Jollet’s lyrics are some of my favorites from the last decade, and I generally think they get written off as a lightweight pop-rock band when they’re far more. This album and corresponding tour might have been the one I was most looking forward to this year. The tour was, of course, canceled, but the album and the book came out, and neither disappointed. “Hollywood Park” is a different kind of album with its biographic themes and combination of joy and sorrow. Someday I’ll write more about it and the book, but they’re both an experience worth having.
As good as all of this music has been, my top album of the year is “Come On Angels” by Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen. I wrote a review back in July when it came out, and the album has only gotten better since then. The Philadelphia-Area rockabilly outfit put out an album that has been the perfect soundtrack to a tough and rough year. From the sinister groove of “There are no Secrets Here” to the haunting “Angeline,” it’s a record that has never been far from my turntable and has been the music of choice on a lot of late nights. It’s the musical whiskey that I’ve needed during these miserable 365 days.
Honorable mention would go to Emma Swift’s album of Dylan covers “Blonde on the Tracks.” I’m a sucker for good interpretations of Dylan, and this album is a fabulous collection of them. Her versions of “Queen Jane Approximately” and “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) are the standouts for me. I highly recommend checking this out; there’s something for everyone.
Despite having a podcast (The Mix Is In) where I put together mixes, I don’t really love ranking songs and albums. Even though my favorite album of the year is “Come on Angels,” there were days that “Hollywood Park” was. Making lists feels more definitive than what is truly an ongoing conversation with albums and songs. That said, I’ve been thinking about what my top five songs of the year would be. There’s been so much good music from so many different directions that it’s hard to narrow it down, but I guess this would be as close as possible. In no particular order:
5. Murder Most Foul – Bob Dylan
4. Come on Out – The Airborne Toxic Event
3. Todd Youth – Jesse Malin
2. Keep Me In Your Heart – Trapper Schoepp (By way of Warren Zevon)
1. Come On Angels – Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen
One song I’d like to mention that didn’t come out this year but felt like the ultimate theme song to 2020 is “Back Against the Wall” by Son Volt. This is off their 2017 album “Notes of Blue.” It’s a song about traveling through darkness and coming out the other side stronger. Time and time again, I found myself listening to this song this year and finding hope and power in it. I particularly listened to it in the run-up to the election and in the days immediately after. I’m going to wrap up with some lyrics from it that hit just right here at the end of the year:
All the signs say pick up the pieces All the signs say make a stand as one What survives the long cold winter Will be stronger and can't be undone