Levon Helm, Crooked Fingers, Toyah Willcox with The Humans

Levon Helm, Crooked Fingers, Toyah Willcox with The Humans

Ok, so last year I had a ‘Top 10’ list. What can I say; 2011 was kind of a struggle. But I did discover a common theme for this year’s favorites: delivering a stellar performance in the face of adversity. Whether it was a legendary performer who had overcome personal struggles to come back, absolutely blazing (Toyah Wilcox, Levon Helm, and Eric Bachmann with his band Crooked Fingers); or just a rough night (lead singer Evan Way of The Parson Red Heads being really sick but soldiering on anyway, and The Drowning Men and their ‘road trip from hell’); my soaring admiration combined with musical prowess to create these special evenings.

Levon Helm at the Life Is Good. Festival – Sept. 25

As drummer and sometimes lead singer for legendary 60s group The Band, Levon Helm’s strong, distinctive vocals were a highlight of several of their classics – “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, “Ophelia” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. Yet in the late 1990s, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, no question the worst news a singer could receive. Rather than have a laryngectomy (as his doctor suggested), he instead went through radiation treatments which fortunately in time proved successful. While his voice of course isn’t what it once was, he took a turn at some lead vocals throughout the show, and his skill and fortitude sent that enthusiastic, supportive crowd over the edge. It was a very emotional experience, and my first time seeing him. Amazing. Read my review on Ryan’s Smashing Life (and check out Kira Doucette’s wonderful photos).

The Humans with Toyah Willcox at Church of Boston – Sept. 25

Catching up with Toyah’s career over the years (I had no idea she had been mostly an actress), I read about her early life, which included battling extreme physical disabilities from birth, including many operations and years of therapy, and the alienation that type of childhood experience will cause. In addition to overcoming all that (I’m guessing it’s what propelled her independent, ambitious spirit), she came back to the U.S. with her band, The Humans, after primarily an acting career in England. It was their first time here in the states, doing a small handful of club dates with no clue as to how they’d be received. Brave as hell. And they put on a brilliant show that had the vibe of a Broadway musical, in her performance and delivery. I was impressed with her back in the ’80s when I was a big fan, and I’m even more impressed now. She’s one special lady, and knowing more about her, my admiration of this powerful singer and performer has increased exponentially. I didn’t get any video or photos that evening, but you can read my advance of the show for a little background.

The Parson Red Heads at Great Scott – Sept. 26

It’s not just that The Parson Red Heads are based in Portland, Oregon, and that they’d been traveling cross country in a van on a national tour to promote their new album, Yearling. Or that being a small indie band, they all still have “day jobs,” and Evan continues to do his – as a web developer – from the road, while on tour. Or that some of these shows, in places where people don’t yet know them, have been for small handfuls of people. On top of it all, he had to get ridiculously sick. But being the troopers that they are, not only did the show go on, but it went on beautifully, with their warm and loving embrace of sunshine-filled West Coast folk-rock and those delicious harmonies. And when Evan’s voice gave out, they revamped their entire set ‘on the fly’, with Sam taking over vocal duties… stunningly. They sounded great, and it was obvious they won over an audience of new fans. Love these guys.

Also check out: Happy We Agree with Sam on lead vocals.

Crooked Fingers at T.T. the Bear’s Place – Nov. 6

Before this latest album with his band, Crooked Fingers, Eric Bachmann had a kind of “vision quest” in Taipei, where it seems he was trying to figure out just what he wanted to do with his life. He might have stayed and been an English teacher, but fortunately for us, he came back, released an album, and went on tour – with both Crooked Fingers and his “other band,” Archers of Loaf. One still gets the sense that there’s some lingering ambivalence, but that only adds to the power of his lyrical gravitas and emotionally stirring music. Here’s my review of the show.

The Drowning Men (and The Airborne Toxic Event) at The Orpheum Theatre – Nov. 19

For the full story on what made this particular show so special, see my article, The Airborne Toxic Event and The Drowning Men: A Road Story. Being in a touring rock band and traveling in a van cross country is stressful enough without being hit by a drunk driver on some godforsaken stretch of highway in the dead of night. Apart from the miracle that no one was hurt (thank god), the fact that The Drowning Men could perform at all that night – never mind as well as they did – is quite astonishing.

You can see their performance of their wonderful song “Rita” in the article above, with good friends Airborne adding to the merriment. Here’s some more of their lovely set, in the nearly sold out Orpheum Theatre.

Honorable mention to Airborne as well for a great show, despite having two radio promotions to deal with earlier in the day (which included a beautiful acoustic set at The Black Rose – thanks ‘FNX!), after what was probably no more than a few hours of sleep. I don’t need to remind any readers of this blog how much I love that band.

In the video below, Mikel defies the limits of human endurance (and I think of common sense as well) with his performance of “Something New” and “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”:

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