Don't look now, but Richmond's music scene increasingly is putting people across the country on notice. We had local releases this year that wowed national critics, local artists touring with big-time Grammy winners and a consistent smorgasbord of weekly shows featuring strong local and national touring acts. And we seem to excel at small club shows with Strange Matter, Balliceaux, Steady Sounds in-stores, and the Canal Club bringing interesting, up-and-coming acts on a regular basis.
Many of our music writers describe 2012 as a coming-out year.
"It is tempting to call 2012 the year of Matthew E. White, whose critic-lauded debut 'Big Inner' was both a personal triumph and a communal success for the many local players who took part in its creation," as jazz critic Peter McElhinney puts it. "Over 30 of them took part in the massive performance at the Hopscotch Music Festival that kicked off White's national tour, which becomes international at the start of 2013. The local scene also was represented by Reggie Pace, globe hopping with Bon Iver, flashing his No BS Brass Band colors on 'Saturday Night Live.' And Daniel Clarke on tour and television with K.D. Lang. Not to mention D.J. Williams expanding the sonic horizons of Karl Denson's Tiny Universe."
Indeed, Richmond's name got around both nationally and at home, with WRIR-FM 97.3 launching its first annual musical history bus tours, providing some context of the rich musical history of the city. We weren't without downer moments. Probably the worst being the month-long imprisonment of Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe in the Czech Republic on manslaughter charges after a fan died, allegedly from injuries in a fall at a 2010 gig (see "The Score" Cover Story). Also, Rand Burgess, owner of music venue the Camel, was arrested for fighting against parking tickets issued outside of the club, an action that sparked public debate over the validity of the signs, which in turn were changed. And we still have that pesky ongoing admissions tax and some minor noise ordinance issues making things more difficult than they need to be.
We asked some of our music writers to list things that stood out to them this year. Let's celebrate a good year for local music fans and hope that our pride continues to bulge like "Spinal Tap" spandex. — Brent Baldwin
Starting with the big story, Matthew E. White, previously of Fight the Big Bull fame, released his mellow debut album, "Big Inner," immediately hailed by national critics as one of the best albums of the year, including an uncommon 8.1 rating on Pitchfork, Rolling Stone's artist-to-watch designation, praise in The New York Times, and Paste Magazine's No. 1 best new band of 2012. White has been on an ongoing tour opening for the Mountain Goats, with select headlining dates in Salt Lake City and Denver, exposing his music to larger audiences.
The Trillions' "Tritones" album, which buzzed heavily on blogs, Black Girls' "Hell Dragon" (the group opened for the Head and the Heart on East Coast dates) and White Laces' "Moves" were some of the other top releases this year that shoved the River City into the national spotlight.
The local music scene also welcomed new groups that caused the city to take notice, such as: Dead Fame, which had a killer EP, Herro Sugar, Road Kill Roy, Wolf//Goat and Nelly Kate, all of whom released strong work that helped them gain steady followings. 2012 also saw promising new releases from Lobo Marino, the Southern Belles, Horsehead, Doethepaperboy, Anousheh, Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird, Hoax Hunters, Bryce McCormick and the Snowy Owls.
Goldrush got some national attention when it was picked to play South by Southwest as well as releasing an EP produced by members of Motion City Soundtrack; not to mention lots of local love for playing the soundtrack to a well-attended Japanese sci-fi flick ("Destroy All Monsters") at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
While Richmond gained many new bands, it lost a few as well. Singer and songwriter Dean Fields said goodbye to Richmond to make a new home in Nashville but ended things with a heartwarming farewell show at Capital Ale House.
If I had to conjure an image to describe the past year in concerts, it probably would be a sleeping, overweight cat suddenly coughing up a whole watermelon, and then stretching, nonplussed, and waddling away. It just felt that way.
Among the chronological highlights: Last March a solid set by Kurt Vile and the Violators at Strange Matter helped me better appreciate his laconic indie melodies. In contrast, a few nights earlier there was a hit-packed Elton John megashow at the Richmond Coliseum that delighted St. Patrick's Day revelers of all ages.
In April I finally got to witness throwback soul sensation Charles Bradley deliver a typically impassioned performance in Charlottesville at the Jefferson Theater. The man sweats more good music in one show than many artists make in a career. That month also saw Style Weekly's first Shadrock Music Festival, a gloomy weather day that nonetheless featured an eclectic line-up and strong sets by reunited hard-rock locals Kepone, as well as critical faves Shabazz Palaces, Dum Dum Girls, Yo La Tengo and headliners De La Soul, who deftly mixed old-school hip-hop and new.
Early summer included a large, well-attended show by Southern soul newcomers Alabama Shakes at Brown's Island, with gritty frontwoman Brittany Howard making instant fans. There were also intimate club treats from original country weirdo Kinky Friedman at Ashland Coffee and Tea and proto-punk troubadour Jonathan Richman at the Camel, spurring the crowd to joyous, call-and-response choruses. Legendary gospel singer Mavis Staples took us there at Lewis Ginter and local musician Matthew White launched his nationally acclaimed album, "Big Inner" with a small show at Balliceaux where I watched with Mike Martinovich, the Connecticut-based manager of My Morning Jacket and Flight of the Conchords, among others, there to see White.
September saw a great show at the Camel by perennial favorites Lake Street Dive from Boston (who will play Brown's Island next summer). The following week had two exceptional indie shows at Strange Matter: (ex-Sleater Kinney frontwoman) Corin Tucker celebrated an album release and the garage-rock sweat fest that was Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees (metal legends Sunn) also drenched the small club in heavy low frequencies). An intimate and mesmerizing show that didn't get much attention was David J (Bauhaus) cabaret-style gig at Fallout on Oct. 26, which had the bass player belting out old Love and Rockets classics and a hauntingly beautiful cover of Tom Waits' "Dead and Lovely."
October began with '80s two-hit wonder Adam Ant underwhelming at the National, and a diverse Philip Glass week at the University of Richmond, culminating with a retrospective gig by the man himself, accompanied by incendiary violinist Tim Fain. We also had the most successful Folk Festival on record — beautiful weather and much-buzzed-about sets by performers such as Roseanne Cash, Joshua Nelson, Wang Li, Ralph Stanley (who returns to play University of Richmond's Modlin Center in February) and Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas.
November featured a rare punk show by Philly's the Dead Milkmen at Kingdom (old Alley Katz) with a young man proposing to his own "Punk-Rock Girl" onstage, then the happy couple being serenaded with said song by the band. Bruce Springsteen played a rare solo acoustic set at an Obama rally at the Charlottesville Pavilion, dedicating the closing "Thunder Road" to now-U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. Later that month, locals Lamb of God made a triumphant, post-tragedy return to the National; elderly dirty rapping legend Blowfly came to Strange Matter; and Patti Smith and Neil Young and Crazy Horse brought their grizzled classic rock to the Patriot Center in Fairfax, where pot-bellied ex-hippies roamed the halls in ragged concert tees and flannel.
Local metal faves Municipal Waste continued to earn fans around the globe with their latest release and a well-received tour with Napalm Death as well as a metal cruise trip to the Bahamas aboard the aptly named Barge to Hell.
We closed things out with a Richmond return from the first lady of rock 'n' roll, Wanda "Fujiyama Mama" Jackson at Capital Alehouse, a true legend who at 75 looks like my dear, departed grandmother but still sings like a reform-school girl riding an atomic wildebeest into the sun.
Ten albums worth owning this year: Frank Ocean "Channel Orange" (Def Jam); Can "The Lost Tapes" (Mute); Wendy Rene "After Laughter Comes Tears: the Complete Stax and Volt Singles and Rarities: 1964-65" (Light in the Attic); Daniel Bachman "Seven Pines" (Tompkins Square); Various artists, "Qat Coffee and Qambus — Raw 45s from Yemen" (Palortone); Kendrick Lamar "Good kid: M.A.A.D. City" (Def Jam); Ariel Pink "Mature Themes" (4AD); Dr. John "Locked Down" (Nonesuch); Leonard Cohen "Old Ideas" (Columbia); Matthew E. White "Big Inner" (Hometapes).
In town some of the most memorable events were homecomings: Rene Marie at Modlin in February; drummers Howard Curtis and Emre Katari's return for Doug Richard's "Ben Semi Variations" and the all-star lineup from the VCU Jazz Program in September. The city's big music events continued to build. The Richmond Folk Festival remains amazing. The Richmond Jazz Festival in its second year was much improved, featuring a solid track of appealing alternatives to the sweet, commercial banality of smooth jazz.
The biggest loss of the year was the brilliant and mercurial Steve Kessler, who traded being the under-recognized genius of the local scene to become the musical hero of Timmons, Ontario, a gold-mining town in the granite heart of the Canadian Shield.
In compensation, there's the birth of the Monday Night Big Band at Balliceaux, and the competing Richmond Appreciation Night gig at Mekong. (Voted the best beer bar in America by the best online voting base in the world). There is No BS, Glows in the Dark the Scott Clark 4-tet and the deeply musical acoustic reinterpretation of bubbly '80s pop by Love Canon. There are any number of great, free Virginia Commonwealth University student recitals — often ambitious, tightly conceived, valedictory performances. (This year's many standouts include Andrew Randazzo and Victor X. Haskins, soprano Stephanie Auld, and twin, Hammond B2-powered recitals from Chris Ryan and Brian Mahne).
The year is defined by moments: bassist William Parker's extended transcendent solo at St. John's Church; Samson Trinh's hyper-enthusiastic conduction of his massive big band at the Camel; the visiting students from South Africa taking over the Larri Branch Agenda's instruments a quiet Sunday night at Commercial Tap House for a burning invocation of mid-'60s Miles Davis; and the joyous, tribal, conga-line singalong at the end of Matuto's triumphant return to Balliceaux.
Choosing the best is arbitrary. On Friday, Brian Jones' Wurlitzer Trio, with Daniel Clarke and Randall Pharr, did a funky wild ride through Christmas tunes at Crossroads. On Sunday, Marcus Tenney's saxophone trio (with Andrew Randazzo, Devonne Harris) blazed headlong through Joe Henderson's "Shade of Jade." Modern Groove Syndicate is reuniting for a New Year's Eve gig at Cary Street Café. It could, conceivably, snatch the top laurels in the last seconds of the fading year.
Every night in this town isn't magical. But most nights, most nights, if you keep your ears open, have magic in them.
Top recording picks: Dave Douglas, "Be Still" (Greenleaf); Vijay Iyer, "Accelerando" (Act Music); Res Abassi. "Continuous Beat" (Enja); Brad Mehldau, "Ode"/"Where Do You Start" (Nonesuch); Jerry Gonzales y Los Comandos de la Clave, "Avisale A Mi Contrario Que Aqui Estoy Yo" (WEA Spain); Matthew E. White, "Big Inner" (Hometapes).
Best Announcement: R&B singer Frank Ocean confessed on his Tumblr that he once loved a man. The urban music community largely was supportive of Ocean's revelation, which was followed by what some consider the album of the year, "Channel Orange." Kanye West is still trying to figure out why some of those same music people weren't feeling his leather skirt at the Sandy relief concert in December.
Worst Comeback: Our own D'Angelo proved to his doubters and fans that he can still stand and sing, write songs and do it something like he used to. But after an early tour overseas and some dates in the states (he skipped Richmond) the singer also proved that he still isn't ready to release new material, which he hasn't done in more than a decade.
Best Second Life: Dr. Dre isn't making albums right now, and he doesn't have to. The producer has loaned his name to an expensive line of headphones that are ubiquitous with music heads and bootleggers. He was named "highest paid musician" by Forbes. He continues to keep heads ringing onstage, as he brought Tupac, as a hologram, back for the Coachella festival.
Last-Minute Gifts: Local soulster Marlon C. waited until a few days before Christmas to drop his holiday album, "Soulfull of Christmas." If you were lucky enough to get one as a present, you'll probably wish you'd opened it first. The former partner of John Legend on the short-lived music program, "Duets," and Richmond resident Bridget Carrington returns with a December single, "Fall Off," which isn't holiday-related but deserves a spot in your December play list.
R.I.P. Don Cornelius, Dick Clark, Dave Brubeck, Kitty Wells, Donald "Duck" Dunn, Whitney Houston, Adam Yauch, Chris Lighty, Donna Summer, Robin Gibb, Ravi Shankar, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Major Harris, Jenni Rivera, Jon Lord, Levon Helm, Natina Reed, Bob Welch, Chuck Brown, Davy Jones and Etta James.
Here are some under-the-radar bands that did some pretty amazing stuff you should know about in 2012.
Alt-J: Mesmerizing and odd, these Mercury-prize snagging blokes make eclectic, spaz pop that's surprisingly accessible.
Chromatics: How do you make Neil Young sexy? Not a trick question. Let these Portland electro-rockers sing "Into the Black."
Devin: Brooklyn-based fireball who clearly spent many a late night obsessing over people as varied as the Hives and the New York Dolls. His debut, "Romancing," kicks and jerks with classic rock 'n' roll riffs in all the right places. Side note: This man also knows how to wear a pair of jeans.
DIIV: New York band obsessed with water and wordplay. If you listen carefully, you'll notice that many of the dizzying tracks on "Oshin" give a nod to Malian guitar techniques. Sounds pretentious as hell, but it's textured bliss.
Haunted Hearts: The Dum Dum Girls' Dee Dee Penny and husband, Brandon Welchez of Crocodiles, are the quintessential rock 'n' roll couple and foxy duo, Haunted Hearts. Everything that is perfect about their respective bands comes together on the single "Something That Feels Bad Is Something That Feels Good." While the 7-inch won't be available for purchase until next year, you can find it streaming on the internet courtesy of Zoo Music.
Io Echo: Dramatic and dark, Io Echo's Ioanna Gika harnesses the vocal mojo of Siouxie Sioux and a smidgen of Zola Jesus. Their self-titled EP is an all-consuming delight.
King Tuff: Kyle Thomas looks like something you'd pull out from between sofa cushions, but by God the man knows how to pull together a raucous, rock 'n' roll record. Amazing cover art and liner notes to boot.
Say Brother: Columbia folks who know how to raise a glorious ruckus with unpolished, Southern stomp 'n' roll. Their debut, "All I Got Is Time," manages to capture some of their live fervor, but for the full effect see them live in a dive bar or back porch near you.
Shovels & Rope: If there could possibly ever be another Johnny and June, this Charleston, S.C., couple might be them. On their latest album, "O' Be Joyful," they churn out murder ballads, tear-in-the-beer ballads and salt-of-the-earth pickers. S