Colorado is known for its fourteeners, the term for mountains that equal or exceed 14,000 feet in elevation. You can't really get any higher in the lower 48 states, especially after Colorado legalized the use of recreational marijuana and allowed stores to open for business on Jan. 1, 2014.
For one writer based just outside of Denver who covers rock, pop, folk and more strictly for fun and inspiration, the year in music had its share of high points, too.
Having the chance to pick the brains of numerous artists was just as enjoyable as hearing their albums and seeing them perform. So this personal list of peak performers is totally subjective, determined on the basis of three categories -- favorite record (if they had a new full-length studio release), favorite concert (most of which were in Colorado; others at AmericanaFest in Nashville) and favorite interview (most of which were over the phone).
Of course, for a writer who does this as a part-time passion, only a chosen few met all three criteria (each category indicated by icons). Not coincidentally, those performers can be found at the top of this list.
So without further delay, here are one Coloradan's fabulous fourteeners of 2014, appearing in descending order:
14. (tie) Allison Moorer: Sept. 19, Nashville's City Winery; honeyhoney: Oct. 19, Beaver Creek's Vilar Performing Arts Center
Neither had a new album to plug but these two make the list because, for different reasons, they were my Favorite Concerts of the Year. The wish-it-were-longer AmericanaFest showcase by Moorer (left) was, in essence, a preview of coming attractions in 2015 for the stunning singer-songwriter from southern Alabama whose return to Nashville (for a show, anyway) was a thing of beauty. Steve Earle's ex, who understandably has put her career on hold while raising John Henry, the 4-year-old love of her life, sang several songs from her March 17 release, Down to Believing. All of them were winners, particularly "Like It Used to Be," "Mama Let the Wolf In" and the title track.
After twice witnessing honeyhoney as an opening act, it was a thrill to see the daring duo of Suzanne Santo (right) and Ben Jaffe perform a full set for an upscale audience in a majestic setting. Though their relationship is strictly (?) platonic, the personable pair's blend of dark tunes and lighthearted, often risque but hilarious banter makes them the Sonny & Cher of the millennial jet set. An album scheduled for a spring release joins Moorer's to set up 2015 as a potential blockbuster year for both performers.
13. Olivia Jean: Bathtub Love Killings
The solo debut by Third Man Records' latest apprentice brought black humor to this Jack White Christmastime of the year. Original rockers the Nashville transplant wrote such as "Merry Widow" and "Deadly Hex" made this October release feel like a blast from the past. And Olivia Jean Markel, the daughter of middle-class parents from Detroit, was an unexpected pleasure to interview. While admittedly not a Christmas person, this multi-instrumentalist wearing a sweetheart on her sleeve joyously shared favorite holiday memories of her childhood.
Quotable (on her favorite gift as a kid): "It was like a purple neon karaoke machine and I just kept singing (Deee-lite's) 'Groove is in the Heart.' "
Phantogram's Sarah Barthel (left) and Josh Carter perform at the Boulder Theater.
12. Phantogram: Voices; Sept. 28, Boulder Theater
Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter provided a double shot of adrenaline in late September, giving one of the most boisterous performances I witnessed this year before an amped-up audience. Wearing leather hot pants and an ice-cool expression, Barthel played the part of the seductive rock goddess to the hilt as she and her "psychic twin" ripped through riveting numbers such as "Black Out Days," "The Day You Died" and "Howling at the Moon" from February's bop-till-you-drop release. Even if your dancing days are over, this pair of thirty-somethings will make an old-timer's heart skip a beat or two.
Humming House (from left): Bobby Chase, Leslie Rodriguez, Justin Wade Tam
and Josh Wolak. Not pictured: Ben Jones.
11. Humming House: Sept. 17, Nashville's Basement
Another festival highlight was catching this Nashville-based act perform a midnight show at the Basement only a half-hour or so after interviewing group founder Justin Wade Tam and spirited singer (and social media butterfly) Leslie Rodriguez outside on a balmy September evening. Now Nashville residents, they were the essence of Southern hospitality and made that first AmericanaFest experience complete. Though not a studio album, Humming House Party!, their 2014 collection of mostly covers played live, was a delight, and the abbreviated late-night performance that followed was just as joyful. So the expectations are high for Revelries, their next studio album set for a March 24 release by Rock Ridge Music.
Quotable (Rodriguez on pet names for instruments): "I'm gonna have to name my snare (drum). I'm gonna buy a snare soon, my own. Because right now I'm using (Justin's). When I get a snare and name it, I'll let you know. I'll tweet it at you." (She did, tweeting me on Nov. 20: "he's Frederick, Freddie for short (the Brazilian way - Fredgie.")
Bruce Robison (left) shares a booth with his wife and musical partner, Kelly Willis.
10. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison: Our Year
The Favorite Couple of the Year award goes to this husband-and-wife team from Texas, who were looking forward to celebrating the May 27 release during a late April dual (or was it duel?) interview. While their second studio album as a duo might not have been as critically acclaimed as 2013's Cheater's Game, it's still filled with a number of touching swan songs as they go back to separate solo careers. Married since 1996, Willis and Robison warmly shared their love-match story while also conveying the honest thoughts of a couple that doesn't always agree.
Quotable (Robison on his reluctance to cowrite with Willis): "I'm not good at (cowriting) at all. And I don't really like it, honestly. ... I don't wake up in the morning just saying, 'Let's get together and write a song, Kelly.' We always have stuff better to do than that."
Imelda May (right) performs on the Folks Festival stage with
guitarist -- and husband -- Darrel Higham.
9. Imelda May: Tribal; Aug. 16, Lyons' Rocky Mountain Folks Festival
The fine folks from Planet Bluegrass were worried that this fiery Irish songstress and the band bus might not arrive in time for her scheduled Saturday afternoon set at the Folks Festival. But May was right on time, following a warm introduction from Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. With her punkabilly band that includes husband and rave-up guitarist Darrel Higham, the Dublin darling brought swing (and a skull necklace) to a stage where most genres of music that move these festivarians are generally accepted. May, who performed a number of selections from her hot but unheralded July release, also had her say just in case there were any doubters who thought she was out of place.
Quotable (May to the audience between songs): "This is a folk festival. I know that. I'm aware of that. ... We're rocking our asses off up here. ... I'm raised on old, traditional Irish music, and old roots American music as well. And I know very well if you didn't have folk music, you wouldn't have rock 'n' roll. ... I'd just like to tell you that in case anybody here's confused."
8. The New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers; Oct. 11, Denver's Gothic Theatre
Some of my favorite acts are untouchable to review, and this outstanding indie pop-rock group of mostly Canadian free spirits is one of them. Maybe it's for the rare chance to sit back and fully enjoy the music or possibly out of fear of disappointment. Regarding the latter excuse, I know I should know better, particularly after seeing Carl Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar, Kathryn Calder and the rest of this huge cast of musical heroes a handful of times in the Denver area. The uplifting August release is one of their best. And the 100-minute-plus concert filled with Brill-bruising tunes was just as good, even if they didn't perform "You Tell Me Where," the album's closing cut with tasty hooks and stirring harmonies that just might capture them in their finest hour.
7. St. Vincent: St. Vincent; March 29, Denver's Ogden Theatre
Annie Clark is a fabulous enigma who apparently likes to keep audiences and album listeners guessing. Maybe it's just as well if we don't know the method to her madness. After the dazzling Love This Giant tour with David Byrne that was my favorite concert of 2013, the artist known as St. Vincent (who has nothing to do with the Golden Globe-nominated movie starring Bill Murray) nearly topped herself this year. Her wondrous self-titled solo album released in February and an act that was just as ostentatious, if not as ambitious, as her turn with Byrne, were audio-visual pleasures to treasure. Random thoughts, robotic dance moves and blistering electric guitar solos were all enticing elements of a set that exquisitely reached its peak with "Huey Newton" and "Bring Me Your Loves," a pair of St. Vincent cuts that left as many questions as answers. Who knows if it can get any better than this, but Clark just might dare you to guess again.
The Duhks' Jessee Havey (left) and Leonard Podolak.
6. The Duhks: Beyond the Blue
One of the most endearing events of the year was the return of Jessee Havey to the Duhks, her band of loyal Canadians. And the beautiful singer's joint phone interview with Duhks founder, frontman and clawhammer banjo player Leonard Podolak was equally compelling, totaling more than 90 minutes as Havey, who left the group in 2007, continued to chat long after her musical mentor departed. Havey's show of emotion felt genuine and, combined with Podolak's entertaining storytelling and their sublime comeback record in June, showed that these two Winnipeg kindred spirits are meant for each other.
Quotable (Havey, on being asked by Podolak to rejoin the Duhks): "Before I could even say anything, tears started streaming down my face and I was, 'Yes, I want my band back! Yes!' "
Larkin Poe's Rebecca Lovell (left) and Megan Lovell.
5. Larkin Poe: Kin
Though the lovely Lovell sisters of Atlanta have performed together for years, it was the emergence of two of the three of them as rebel rockers that made October's release one of my most pleasant surprises of the year. An insightful interview with Megan and Rebecca -- two-thirds of the Lovell Sisters roots act that reinvented themselves as Larkin Poe (named after their great-great-great-great grandfather) -- simply sealed the Peak Performer deal. Lead singer Rebecca (electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, keys, violin) is the younger of the two, but with a powerful voice and the courage to rip through Jimi Hendrix covers, she doesn't lack the confidence of Megan (lapsteel, dobro, keys), whose impressive playing caught the ear of Derek Trucks last year.
Thoughtful and smart singer-songwriters who have been prolific since forming Larkin Poe in 2010, they have performed with musicians as varied as Conor Oberst, Sugarland's Kristian Bush and Elvis Costello (see their cameo on Showtime's Lost Songs: The New Basement Tapes Continued).
Quotable (Megan Lovell on "Stubborn Love," her first cowritten song with Rebecca): "I love the lyric: 'I've been all around / You've been all around / Tell me have you / Found anything better? / Than our stubborn love.' Like I don't want to say (to Rebecca) that I need you and I love you all the time, but it's like that's always there."
• Rebecca, on her sister act with Megan: "We'll go to our wheelchairs as little old ladies with these amazing experiences, as somebody who's shared every moment with you."
4. Laura Cantrell: No Way There From Here; Sept. 18, Nashville's City Winery
On my wish list of artists to see since the turn of the century has been this Nashville native who, like Moorer, moved to New York, then put her music career on the back burner when she became a mother. As her daughter Isabella neared the age of 8, Cantrell got ready to record again. She came back in style in January with a luscious release, and happens to be the first of these next three performers who were featured in my AmericanaFest coverage. The singer-songwriter-pianist-guitarist co-produced her first studio album of original songs since 2005 with Mark Nevers, and I previously wrote that its pace is comparable to enjoying a leisurely walk on a brisk fall day. Her showcase performance was a display of quiet elegance as Cantrell, backed by a three-piece band, strolled through a pleasant set that included the album's "All the Girls Are Complicated," "Letter She Sent" and "Someday Sparrow." She can take pride in her stride.
Quotable: "When you add to your family and go about bringing a little critter up, you have to sort of open yourself in ways that maybe you didn't know how to do before. I think that, to me at least, I can sense that in the music itself and in the songs and the writing. It feels more direct to me than I was sort of able to be before."
3. Parker Millsap: Parker Millsap; Sept. 18, Nashville's Mercy Lounge
Currently the pride of Guthrie, Oklahoma, this 21-year-old country boy with simple tastes and good manners was viewed as a hunka, hunka burnin' love in a hall crammed with sweaty bodies yearning for the return of Elvis. His original songs from February's self-titled debut album touch on old-time religion and rolling-thunder gospel, but sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are found in his material just as much as wheeling and dealing with God and the Devil. It's too early to tell if he can fill the King's blue suede shoes, but this best emerging artist nominee at the Americana Music Honors & Awards show has the stage presence, charisma and songwriting promise to potentially build a career on his own amazing state-of-grace land -- sooner rather than later.
Quotable (on transforming from showy musician to serious singer-songwriter): "I was a better guitarist when I was like 16 than I am now probably. (laughs) As far as a lead player. As a rhythm player, I'm definitely better now. But as a lead player back then, that's all I did all day. I played electric guitar solos. I'd go to my room and just play and play and play and play and play. And now I'm more worried about writing songs then masturbatory guitar playing."
Special guest Elizabeth Cook (left) has a laugh with Lucinda Williams
at Nashville's City Winery on Sept. 21, 2014.
2. Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone; Sept. 21, Nashville's City Winery
The Big Mama of Americana first spilled the beans about her festival-closing appearance in Nashville during a highly entertaining phone call on Sept. 8 that turned into my Favorite Interview of the Year. Not sure what to expect after hearing stories about how tough she could be on interviewers, I was relieved to find an easygoing Williams willing to answer every conceivable question in a relaxed, thoughtful manner. Later that month, Williams made her powerful presence felt at AmericanaFest, with early appearances at Jim Lauderdale's showcase and the glorious Rock My Soul show taped for PBS at the Downtown Presbyterian Church. Then, with special guests Amos Lee and Elizabeth Cook, she and her crackerjack band overcame a couple of technical glitches to deliver a dynamic set filled with selections from her superlative double album that was released at the end of the month. As the final act of AmericanaFest, Sweet Lu truly made that September one to remember.
Quotable (on Nashville expanding its musical boundaries): "The town has really completely changed. ... The music scene is so much better now. And there's a lot more rock music, alternative kind of music. I think it's 'cause a whole new generation moved in there and, you know, they're all hipsters and rockers. The country thing, of course, is still there, and always will be. But it doesn't dominate the town like it used to. It's not so overbearing. It's a little annoying when you're staying at the Loews Vanderbilt and all the music you hear, you get on the elevator and it's all like that straight Nashville music. But then every so often you'll hear something else coming out and you'll go, 'Wow.' "
Lake Street Dive at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival on Aug. 17 (from left):
Mike "McDuck" Olson, Rachael Price, Bridget Kearney and Mike Calabrese.
1. Lake Street Dive: Bad Self Portraits; March 23, Boulder's eTown Hall; Aug. 17, Lyons' Rocky Mountain Folks Festival
This Boston- and Brooklyn-based quartet of former New England Conservatory students first came to my attention on Nov. 4, 2013, when a publicist shared a YouTube trailer for their album that would be released on Feb. 18, 2014. The song, "Rental Love," and the singer, Rachael Price, knocked me out. After seeing the group's televised appearance for the December Showtime special celebrating the music of Inside Llewyn Davis, I was hooked, then couldn't stop playing the album that blends retro swing with blue-eyed soul and kick-ass rock, topping them all off with gorgeous four-part harmonies. My interview with Price fell on Valentine's Day, just days before the album's release, and it didn't take much longer to proclaim my love in writing: It's only February, but Bad Self Portraits might already be the album of the year.
Ten months and two concert appearances later, that still holds true. Lake Street Dive -- founded by trumpet/guitar player Mike "McDuck" Olson, who brought Price, stand-up bassist and Iowa native Bridget Kearney and Philadelphia drummer Mike Calabrese together in May 2004 -- tops my list as Peak Performer of the Year with its Album of the Year.
Quotable (Price on Lake Street Dive's long road to success): "We spent eight years playing in rooms where we were trying to get people's attention. And now we're walking into sold-out rooms and we just have everyone's attention at the beginning of the show. Like there's no winning over. It's like we're starting at a completely different level from the beginning of the first song. ... You can't measure that sort of thing in success or the amount of gigs or press or whatever. It's like this is that feeling. Like we walk out and we have 500 faces smiling up at us ready to have a good time."
It'll be a challenge to top 2014's high notes, but knowing what's already on the horizon (Sleater-Kinney, Whitehorse, Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Moorer, Humming House, honeyhoney, to name a few), I'm here (and not scaling back) to hear more in the new year.
Colorado and Nashville concert photos by Michael Bialas. All other publicity photos courtesy of the artists. Interviews with nine of the listed peak performers and other entertainers can be found at The Huffington Post.
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