What kind of year it was for live music in Lexington might depend on who you ask. For club owners, it was tumultuous. For concert bookers, it was tentative. For one venue, it was triumphant, even though few noticed it.
▪ Let’s begin with commerce. As far as local clubs were concerned, 2015 was a year of reshuffling. Buster’s Billiards and Backroom called it a day during the summer but was reborn by year’s end as the Manchester Music Hall. Lexington’s Americana hot bed, Willie’s Locally Known, shut down its North Broadway haunt but is to reopen on Southland Drive late in the winter. The most disheartening loss, though, was the closing this fall of Natasha’s Bistro — easily the best listening-room venue in the city.
▪ If it seemed that the club scene was scattered, the popularity of non-traditional music environments flourished in 2015. Leading the pack was Soulful Space, an organization that presented programs by national (The Fairfield Four) and local acts (Warren Byrom) at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. The long-running Outside the Spotlight series staged indie jazz programs in a number of venues both conventional and artfully distinctive. The latter included a wonderful sleeper September show at the Mecca dance studio by the Norwegian free-jazz troupe Cortex.
▪ Rupp Arena was unusually active for concerts in 2015. The bill of fare didn’t tilt so severely to country music, either. Admittedly, many of the acts booked had already played elsewhere in the region before coming our way (Eagles, Taylor Swift, Motley Crue). But it was an encouraging shift that will continue into 2016 with a Jan. 30 visit by Janet Jackson. Still, itwould be nice to see the arena score more shows that weren’t also-rans in other markets. Rupp did land a significant exclusive: one of the few performances by the Avett Brothers to feature Jason Isbell as an opening act. The Americana songsmith’s warm-up performance easily upstaged the headliners and wound up as one of the smartest, most satisfying arena sets of the year.
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▪ The sleeper concert of 2015: a July outing at the Green Lantern by Reeves Gabrels and his Imaginary Friends. An astonishing guitarist — currently of The Cure and formerly with David Bowie — he played a sweaty, intense power trio set before a modest crowd on the same Saturday night the Eagles packed Rupp downtown. It’s an apples-and-oranges comparison, sure, but the fun and invention Gabrels offered in sweatbox conditions made for some wonderfully earnest and inventive rock ’n’ roll. Then again, Rupp had its own heat to contend with, as the Eagles insisted on performing much of their concert with the air conditioning turned off. Not surprisingly, that caused a few fans to get a little hot under the collar.
▪ The venue offering the most consistently engaging musical menu of 2015 turned to be the Opera House, thanks largely to a number of high-profile — and often high-ticket price — shows presented by the Troubadour Concert Series that included a January blast of blues and pop with Keb’ Mo’, a hearty career retrospective May program by New Orleans funk-a-fier Dr. John, and two expert Americana outings by Steve Earle and the Dukes (September), and Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell (October).
▪ The Opera House’s biggest coup, though, was one of its few non-Troubadour bookings — a late-March date by Rhiannon Giddens. The performance was such a surprise that no one really knew what to do with it. It was the singer’s first headlining date of a yearlong tour, so there was little word of mouth to carry it. Subsequently, the show was afforded minimal promotion and played to a half-empty house. But it was astounding evening, from the high country wail Giddens used to power the Patsy Cline hit She’s Got You to the field holler intensity provided the Odetta-popularized Waterboy. In terms of booking and performance, landing Giddens was a coup. Too bad more people didn’t realize that.
▪ Nothing I saw last year matched the Giddens concert. But there many honorable mention shows, including a cabaret-like evening with Storm Large at Kentucky Theatre, the bluegrass return of Hot Rize at the Lyric Theatre, the pop chieftains of Lake Street Dive at Cosmic Charlie’s, an abbreviated and rain-soaked set by the BoDeans for the Christ the King Oktoberfest, a bluegrass doubleheader by The Travelin’ McCourys and Town Mountain for the Breeders’ Cup Festival, JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound at Crave Lexington, John Prine at the Singletary Center for the Arts, Rosanne Cash at the EKU Center for the Arts, a string summit featuring the California Guitar Trio and Montreal Guitar Trio at Natasha’s, Cyrille Aimee at the Norton Center for the Arts, and Jorma Kaukonen for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.
▪ Finally, there was Chris Stapleton. The Lexington-born country traditionalist released his debut album, Traveler, last spring after years as a heralded Nashville songwriter, a co-founder with the progressive country-grass-blues troupe The Steeldrivers and a few under-the-radar sets at Cosmic Charlie’s with the Jompson Brothers. Stapleton’s real-deal country sound — a blend of Muscle Shoals-style soul and elegiac country reminiscent of Waylon Jennings’ darker tunes — took its time to click with the mainstream. But it caught fire in a big way after a fall appearance at the CMA Awards. Curiously, Stapleton’s only Lexington appearance since the release of Traveler last spring was a six-song in-store show at CD Central in May.
Let’s hope 2016 brings us a full serving.