BEST OF 2015: Stanley Johnson’s Favorite Things
Story and photographs by Stanley Johnson
This is not a “Best Of” list, because my tastes are mine, not yours. Maybe you saw some of these shows, heard some of this music, read some of these books. Maybe you have a different opinion. But in the words of Buddy Guy at The Egg this year, “Shut the fuck up and learn something.”
Mountain Jam, Hunter Mountain. I only went to one day of the four-day fest this year, but rocking sets by Trigger Hippy (my Favorite New Band of the year), Grace Potter, Robert Plant, Gov’t Mule and others made this the most incredible day of music I heard in 2015.
Dad Fest (Super 400 were hot); the Albany Riverfront Jazz Fest (Keith Pray and Booker T. Jones made me forget we were under I-787); Jazz at the Lake, Lake George (where I finally understood why Julian Lage is considered one of the best young guitarists around); and the Troy River Fest (Albert Cummings was so good I forgot he was once a local act).
FAVORITE FREE SHOW
This was a tough choice since I prefer free admission to the high prices most concerts demand these days. (Because of this I didn’t attend SPAC or the TU Center this year). So, instead, here are the multiple ties for this category:
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba at the Music Haven at Proctors, Schenectady: Kouyate, if you missed him and his band, played very fast, very beautiful music from Mali in West Africa.
Steeleye Span featuring Maddy Prior at the Music Haven at Central Park, Schenectady. The British folk-rock band played music from another time while still sounding right in the moment.
Novalima with Maria Zemantauski & GX3 at the Music Haven at Proctors’ GE Theatre, Schenectady. The small venue was packed, yet people still found room to dance to Novalima’s Peruvian-African and modern DJ rhythms.
The Bad Plus Joshua Redman at Alive at Five at Jennings Landing, Albany. Jazz in the style of Coltrane and Miles. In other words, the real thing.
Yonder Mountain String Band with the Blind Owl Band at Alive at Five at the Corning Boat Launch parking lot, Albany. The second of three great shows this year in one of the worst venues in the area. Their high energy bluegrass almost had me thinking that I liked it under the highway.
Edgar Winter Band at Alive at Five at Jennings Landing, Albany. I’ve seen Edgar at least four times (including once with brother Johnny and Rick Derringer), but this was the most fun because he appeared to be having as much fun as the crowd.
Blue Oyster Cult with Blotto at Alive at Five at Jennings Landing, Albany. Fun was also the reason I loved this double-bill. I knew Blotto would have a great connection with the local crowd, but I didn’t expect the black-clad Cult to smile so much. And then Buck Dharma brought his mother and granddaughter onstage. I can’t remember any other hard-rock band doing that.
Jocelyn Arndt at Riverlink Park, Amsterdam. Her band, including her brother, are this year’s Favorite Local Band.
Maxi Priest at the Empire State Plaza, Albany. The Plaza had a tough year with the NYS Museum steps under renovation and a big pile of criticism by those who would rather live in a neighborhood that exists only in their memories of more than 50 years ago. But this venue has been the site of many truly wonderful events in the years since those almost-forgotten days, and I’m grateful to Gov. Rockefeller for putting forethought before hindsight. The reggae that Maxi Priest brought this summer to the base of the Corning Tower (another one of the worst places for a concert) was a bright spot in a rather weak At The Plaza summer schedule.
FAVORITE SHOW AT THE EGG
This venue deserves its own category. I’ve already quoted Buddy Guy from his amazing show here. He also said The Egg was the best-sounding venue he’s ever played and I think he was sincere. It’s certainly the venue that gives the best value. There is no bad seat in the house. And Buddy was on fire this night, his fingers flying all over his guitar. His traditional stroll through the audience was as exciting as it could have been.
Loreena McKennitt, who has never played in this area of the state for as long as I’ve been a fan (20+ years). You could hear a pin drop during her original Celtic songs, and I had chills up my spine more than once during this show.
Dave Davies, without the Kinks, played a whole bunch of Kinks songs that his brother Ray probably wouldn’t have played. This was a comeback tour following an illness and his guitar playing was sharp and rocking. He was very friendly with the audience, and they returned the favor with a spirited sing-a-long on “Death of a Clown.”
FAVORITE NEW ALBUM
Two discs released this year were in my music devices the most often: Rattle That Lock by David Gilmour and Tracker by Mark Knopfler. I like them both because, like Robert Plant’s show at Mountain Jam, they sounded a little, but not very much, like their previous band’s music.
FAVORITE REISSUE/BOX SET
A three-way tie by the Big Three: The Beatles 1 for the videos; the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers for the music; and Bob Dylan’s The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 for being all too much and not nearly enough.
I loved great action and special effects movies like “Jurassic World,” but the relatively low-budget “Cop Car,” produced by and starring Kevin Bacon, stays stuck in my mind. After seeing Kevin playing music with the Bacon Brothers at an Alive at Five show a couple years ago, I thought maybe his movie career was fading. Then I saw this gripping thriller about the consequences to two boys who steal a cop car for a joy ride.
“The Fifth Heart” by Dan Simmons. Simmons has written more than 25 books in a variety of genres, sometimes with more than one genre in the same book. This historical-fiction-detective-literary-thriller features writer Henry James teaming up with Sherlock Holmes and guest appearances by Samuel Clemens and Theodore Roosevelt. As soon as I finished it, I hunted up Simmons’ Hardcase trilogy about the ultra-violent, hard-boiled detective adventures of Joe Kurtz, soon to be a series on your viewing device. His only other book to be dramatized, I believe, was “The Hollow Man,” starring, um, Kevin Bacon.
FAVORITE SHORT STORY COLLECTION
“The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” by Stephen King. Because nobody tells a scary story better than King.
Take a guess…