This year marked my second retirement as a music writer; the first took place in 2009 at another Triad weekly.
It’s bittersweet: The transition is allowing me to dive deeper into investigative reporting and do a better job of keeping my finger on the pulse of Triad news. And yet with all the gamesmanship, subterfuge and outright cruelty and oppression in the political arena, music has been a necessary antidote to sustain joy. I’m grateful to the many talented musicians across the Triad who gave me pleasure, and I’m awed by the care they put into their craft, which rarely receives monetary reward and often doesn’t get the public appreciation it deserves.
The truth is, much as I love listening to live music and writing about it, I always considered myself a caretaker of the role, a kind of John the Baptist preparing the way for one greater than myself. I don’t really have the time to keep up with new releases, religiously attend concerts, develop expertise on the wildly varying genres of music that define the Triad or fully explore the different musical subcultures in the region. If that’s you, we’ve got a position to fill and we’d like to talk to you.
In this, my third year covering music for Triad City Beat, I approached the job more as a fan than in the past, seeking refuge in music and a sense of community in the scene. And I needed it, personally and as a citizen of a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams.
As both a showcase of talent and enactment of community, the Stand Against HB 2 concert at the Millennium Center in Winston-Salem in July — one of a series of concerts across the state — captured the spirit of the year. Singer-songwriter Lara Americo showed her vulnerability by talking and singing about the experience of being transgender while the reunited Little Diesel telegraphed a timeless celebration of gender-queer liberation with a raucous rendition of the David Bowie song “Rebel Rebel.” Since 2013, Snüzz’s “North Carolina, We’re Better Than This” has become the state’s unofficial anthem of conscience, and while illness kept him away from the event, both a reunited Bus Stop and an ensemble led by Kenny Roby and Caitlyn Cary paid tribute with two separate renditions. Those were only a few of the highlights of the day, which also included excellent performances by Sarah Shook, Chris Stamey and the Camel City Collective.
The sixth iteration of Phuzz Phest, streamlined into two days in April with about 50 acts, also felt more cohesive than past years. If one moment encapsulated the spirit of communion, it was the Los Angeles psych-rock outfit Thee Oh Sees’ scorching yet playful set on the first night at Bailey Park, as fans went into a frenzy — grinding against each other, laying hands on amps for salvation and sharing big smiles. The next night, rapper/poet/songwriter Shirlette Ammons of Durham claimed a sex-positive, queer-positive feminist space with the backing of a sonically devastating rock combo. The musicians were also fans that weekend, as attested by Cashavelly Morrison guitarist Ryan MacLeod’s admiration for the country noir sound of Lera Lynn’s band.
Cashavelly Morrison, the performance moniker of MacLeod’s wife, Melissa, released a stunning debut, The Kingdom, in 2015, with songs that sound like they could have been written a hundred years ago in Appalachia. In November, they performed new material that features a more spacious sound at the Garage as they prepared to go into the studio to record their second album.
North Carolina’s underground rap scene is unfortunately fractured, but its lack of hierarchy makes spotting talent, of which there is no shortage, all the more rewarding. First among equals in 2016 was Tange Lomax, a High Point rapper who slayed the Black 2 Hip Hop showcase at the Blind Tiger in February with spitfire rhymes, electric delivery and an unpredictable stage presence.
Also proving the premise that the most talented artists don’t always enjoy the highest profiles was G-$antana, a 21-year-old McDonald’s employee who awed KRS-One at a cypher on the campus of NC A&T University in Greensboro, and then finagled a backstage pass to the hip hop legend’s show at Dynacon Event Center in April. A week later, G-$antana was opening for KRS-One in Orlando, Fla., and a couple months after that he was on tour with the legend in Europe.
While G-$antana deconstructed hip hop to its fundamentals, the Sinaloan narco-corrido artist Alfredo Rios, aka El Komander, proved that traditional Mexican music is a modern force in the Latin American diaspora. While the artist’s mercenary persona — with lyrics depicting violence and band members wearing uniforms with an AK-47 ensign — are nothing to celebrate, his concert at Disco Rodeo in Winston-Salem in February was dazzling. Like a cross between Eazy-E and Elvis, Komander earned his name with a dominating stage presence, and the roster of similarly inclined acts on the supporting bill suggested the excitement of early rock-and-roll bills in the ’50s that included the likes of Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Irata, possibly the hardest persevering metal-rock band in Greensboro, released Sweet Loris in October 2015, but had to cancel a string of concert dates because drummer Jason Ward was hospitalized with an infection stemming from a broken collar bone. An album release party in January 2016 had to be canceled because of a snowstorm and the band eventually performed in a secret, underground location. An East Coast tour scheduled for March with Nashville’s All Them Witches — a crowd favorite at the Garage in Winston-Salem — proves Irata is trudging towards the recognition they deserve.
Totally Slow, a band that plays good, old-fashioned punk but nonetheless shares scene camaraderie with the more metal-ly Irata, took a more linear route. The band recorded its excellent sophomore album, Bleed Out, at Legitimate Business in Greensboro in January, and released it in September.
Despite being otherwise challenging, it’s been a good year for music. In 2017, I won’t be processing music as an intellectual exercise, chasing down song titles or looking for storylines. Next time you see me in the venues, I’ll be with you experiencing the music as a fan.