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Musical Moments 

A smattering of musical memories from 2019.

click to enlarge R.I.P. David Berman (Purple Mountains).

R.I.P. David Berman (Purple Mountains).

Lonnie Holley with Spacebomb musicians at the VMFA (Sept. 26)

An intimate performance in the Leslie Cheek Theater by the Alabama-born artist and experimental musician whose shows can feel like séances or fever dreams — a little like an untrained, outsider folk version of Sun Ra, but in this case backed by top-notch local musicians without much practice of the material. First there was a documentary shown, then an uplifting, spontaneous and otherworldly show that was only happening once.

Bob Dylan at Virginia State University’s Multi-Purpose Center (Nov. 13)

One of the best Dylan shows I’ve seen, featuring excellent, reworked versions of “When I Paint My Masterpiece” on piano, “Girl of the North Country,” and a foreboding, bluesy take on his late-career classic, “Not Dark Yet.” Dylan is still changing as a performer, even after more than 50 years in the spotlight, and he reminded people tonight he can still rock out with the best of ‘em.

Donovan Williams performs “The Star-Spangled Banner” solo on violin at Richmond Spiders basketball game

Easily one of the most beautiful versions of the national anthem that I can recall hearing at a sporting event. Donovan Williams, a 10th-grade student at Collegiate School, delivered a moving rendition that made one of our most familiar tunes sound new, mesmerizing the Robins Center. The crowd gave him two standing ovations as he walked off the court. School officials tell me Williams is an exceptional student and athlete in multiple sports. Just watching how he performed and smiled at the crowd, genuinely humbled, it was obvious this kid is going places. I’m told his sister Kyla, who is in the sixth grade, also is one of the leads in Richmond Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” Impressive, talented family: Thank you, parents.

Quick West Coast swing (May)

I took a total of five days off this year and used them all to visit some old friends out West. Drove 500 gorgeous miles in a rental from Northern California to Portland, arriving on a Friday afternoon and heading straight (sorta) to a free Michael Hurley show at Laurelthirst Public House, a great venue where I met the 77-year-old folk legend and chatted with him about Richmond; he used to live here. Toward the end of his show, I left to see a solo Neil Young concert at Keller Auditorium downtown ("How much did you pay for that?" Hurley joked). Two musical highlights: Hurley opening his happy hour set with “I Stole the Right to Live,” prominently featured in Harry Dean Stanton’s last movie, and Young performing the lovely Buffalo Springfield ballad “Expecting to Fly” (1968) on a burnt-out grand piano.

On the way back through California, I joined some friends at the warm and welcoming Strawberry Music Festival in Grass Valley and saw a rocking electric set by Richard Thompson’s trio. Basically it was a full week of music, friends, great Mexican food, and a much-needed break from people arguing online about everything, and computers in general. (Side note: I sat beside a woman on the plane who was knitting color-coded scarfs featuring national park temperature data to replace information that Trump’s anti-science crew erased — that was pretty cool, too.)

Mike Watt and Piranha Rama at Capital Ale House (Oct. 14)

I've seen some primo Watt over the past 30 years. I’ve seen him in a bunch of different bands in vastly different venues, interviewed him, hung out in the back of his Econoline van and heard war stories. I’ve even been at a urinal in a club when he walked offstage a good distance, straight to the urinal next to me to relieve himself, all while continuing to play a hellacious bass solo and never missing a beat.

Still, I think this last show in Richmond was one of the best I’ve seen him do.

The tight trio featured his old friend Tom Watson on guitar and a new kid, Nick Aguilar, who was a beast on the drums, playing a sweet mix of Minutemen classics, Blue Oyster Cult and Roky Erickson covers. Locals Piranha Rama, who seemed everywhere this year, played their hearts out for a big-sounding opening set [they have a new 7-inch out on Broker's Tip Records, run by Trinity-grad Bob Nastanovich of Pavement fame].

Honorable mention: The John Maus show at the Broadberry (Feb. 10) was a manic solo performance by one of the more interesting synth pop artists out there now. The crowd was really into it, singing along to songs, with many folks ending up onstage dancing their butts off.

Purple Mountains “s/t” (Drag City)

An old friend of University of Virginia alum David Berman sent me this album several months before it came out. Berman, the poet lyricist behind the Silver Jews, had been silent for over a decade but this country-inflected album recorded in Nashville struck me as the best thing he ever did. I knew right away it would be a critics’ favorite when it came out, and it was, receiving widespread media attention.

A few weeks later, I was all ready to go to Washington to catch a Purple Mountains gig and meet the singer through a mutual friend. Sadly, Berman took his own life a few days before the show, just 26 days after his most successful album was released.

It’s tempting to read these beautiful and often funny songs, like “Snow Is Falling on Manhattan” and “Nights That Won’t Happen” (“the dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind”), as a kind of suicide note set to music. But as former Style music critic Mark Richardson, now a critic at The Wall Street Journal, noted at Pitchfork: “It’s important to remember what Berman’s friends at Drag City said following his death: His music didn’t predict his death, it was written despite his depression.”

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