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BLUES & BEYOND: 2020, the year everyone got the blues

Recapping the last 12 months of uncertainty

Northsidetavern Smt Web
Photo credit: Stephen Talkovich
NORTHSIDE TAVERN: Even when its doors are closed, the joint’s rockin’!

There’s little more to be said about a year that put the brakes on virtually all live music after the middle of March.

Those working in the blues and roots fields, not the most profitable genres even in the best of times, had to reevaluate their careers and a life without income from playing live shows. Of course, concerts are the lifeblood of blues, folk, and other roots genres that blur the lines between them; the place where, when everything is aligned, the audience and performer join in an indefinable bond that only those who have experienced it can truly understand. When we will return to that remains uncertain, but 2021 isn’t looking good at this point, either.

Still, the year found that when the going got tough, the tough got going.

Local guitar hero Tinsley Ellis, who had the bad fortune to release the terrific Ice Cream in Hell album at the end of January, watched his entire schedule to promote it quickly dissipate in the mist of COVID-19 within a month of the coronavirus’s appearance. Undaunted — well a little daunted but still resolute — he took to the internet to add to his impressive weekly Facebook series, “Sunday Mornin’ Coffee Song,” usually an acoustic cover, by introducing a newly penned track in another weekly series, “Wednesday Basement Tapes Song,” a nod to Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes.

Athens-based roots rockers Drive-By Truckers released not one, but two exciting full-length discs with January’s The Unraveling and October’s The New OK, both heavy on the left-wing politics (“Babies in Cages,” “Thoughts and Prayers”) that anyone who has followed them over the years knows they have supported and espoused for decades.

Greenville, Georgia’s own Jontavious Willis received a coveted 2020 “Best Traditional Blues” Grammy nomination for his Spectacular Class album, helped enormously by legendary and very vocal supporters Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’, with both assisting in the disc’s production and promotion. He didn’t win, but the high-profile visibility put him on the international blues map.

They have since moved to Nashville, but Marietta’s guitar toting sister duo Larkin Poe were also 2020 Grammy award nominees for their well-received Venom & Faith. They too stepped up with a consistent live-on-the internet presence and recorded a new stripped-down covers set, Kindred Spirits, for a late November street date. More on that in a future column.

WRFG, the area’s leading blues radio station with over 20 hours per week of such programming, continued broadcasting with DJs recording their shows from home. However, the station’s annual Labor Day Blues BBQ event, one of the biggest, oldest, and most profitable blues occasions of the year, had to be moved online. The music was stellar, as most acts recorded a new video for the event with RFG volunteers introducing them. But without an admission charge, fundraising was severely impacted. Everyone in the blues community is looking forward to getting back together “live and in person,” where this annual concert is most effective in terms of raising much-needed cash for the scrappy community nonprofit.  

Veteran Atlanta bluesman and historian Mudcat saw his highly anticipated annual event, “Chicken Raid 2020,” scuttled. It was particularly frustrating since the two-day event with over 100 acts scheduled was to debut for an all-ages clientele at Waller’s Coffee House. It would have been the first time the show moved from the far less family-friendly Northside Tavern. Danny Dudeck also took to the internet for various live-streamed events.

Speaking of venues, it has been rough going for Virginia Highland’s usually dependable Blind Willie’s. The long-established club has opened and closed a few times since March, but now seems to have found a comfortable schedule with local acts playing Friday through Sunday nights weekly, with no cover, masks required when you’re not drinking, and social distancing enforced. Tipping, of course, is highly encouraged.

The Northside Tavern reopened in October after months of being dark. No indication about pandemic policies on their webpage, but a spokesperson says the staff wears masks and the club does “the best we can” to maintain social distancing. Of note is that the iconic dive bar closed for three days during the last week of October for the filming of an Aretha Franklin film. More on that as details emerge.

The City Winery, located at the Ponce City Market, also reopened with strict COVID guidelines, all detailed on their homepage. Some strong headliners (see below) are on tap for December at the more upscale location.

And finally, sadly, Roswell’s Gypsy Rose, one of the few OTP venues to book local and nationally recognized roots acts, closed its doors after two years of ups and downs, beat down by the pandemic nightmare.

Live shows are back? Well, sort of … Here are some December Christmas gifts for the live music lover.

Thurs., Dec. 3, Thurs. Dec. 17, & Thurs., Dec. 31

Lucinda Williams, City Winery — The roots Americana icon crafts swampy music infused with country, folk, blues and rock, all torched with her ragged but right vocals. Her previously scheduled appearances at the venue have been canceled, but City Winery is offering live streams of her recent performance covering the songs of other artists. The themed sets, appropriately titled Lu’s Jukebox , are studio presentations with a full band, with proceeds to financially assist independent music venues in this difficult time.

Fri., Dec. 11

John Hiatt, City Winery — Like Williams, Hiatt has carved out his place as one of Americana’s earliest and most talented singer/songwriters. While he’s best with a crack band rocking behind him, solo shows like this one allow him to pick and choose highlights and obscurities from a nearly five-decade career.

Tues., Dec. 15

Wynonna Judd Unplugged, City Winery — The flaming red-headed country diva is a full-blown star — and she knows it. Sure, some of her material is slick and commercial, but she has recently shifted to a tougher, rawer music approach. She is larger than life on stage — this show should be a blast.

Sun., Dec. 20

Michelle Malone & the Hot Toddies, Napoleon’s/The Vista Room — Pandemic be damned, it’s Toddie Time again as Michelle Malone’s stripped-down, jazzy/rockin’ Christmas tradition continues. Malone is a local treasure, and this lone gig is a perfect way to celebrate the season. —CL—

Please send upcoming blues events to consider for CL’s Blues & Beyond concert calendar to hal.horowitz at creativeloafing.com.