Put yourself inside the mind of a music festival organizer. It might get somewhat cozy in there, considering how much wheeling and dealing goes on in that noggin year-round.
Planning for the next year's event must begin as soon as this year's ends. Admittedly, I don't have the qualifications for that line of work, but we do share a passion for music. And while I prefer on my own time to listen and write about a fairly wide range of genres, including the various sub-genres of rock, pop, folk, Americana (whatever that is) and the blues, assembling this list of 15 favorite acts of 2015 gives me the chance to compile my own festival lineup -- in my brain at least.
This personal collection is based on my own subjective guidelines, beginning with one essential requirement -- these folks must talk a good game as well as play one. So any musician I interviewed for an article that already has appeared online or in print this calendar year was in the running. (Sorry Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift. No matter how many Grammy nominations you received, you're not on the list. Maybe next year ... but probably not.)
Besides being intriguing interview subjects and fine musicians, these artists have quite a few other things in common (see how many times album producer Dave Cobb is mentioned ). Most of them released a record this year, and have been active on the road, ranging in age from 19 to 74 at the time of our interview.
Besides the interviews, other factors figuring into this decision were favorite records (full-length studio releases only) and favorite concerts or festival appearances, with bonus points for music videos that really stood out (and were premiered here). Only a select few met three criteria (each category indicated by icons) and just one mastered all four. So it should be no surprise that artist is No. 1 for 2015.
Primarily, though, I dig what each musician does or has done, and would be proud to include them in my festival lineup -- whenever I can afford to pay them all, which is about as likely to happen as Trump becoming president. So as Santa prepares to guide his reindeer into town, let's give the music world something else to talk about.
Fourteen days before Christmas, let the other countdown commence (in descending order):
Lindi Ortega appears in a screen shot from the video for "Ashes."
I've been audibly infatuated with this cool Canadian cowgirl in the red-hot boots since the release of 2013's Tin Star and an appearance the following year at AmericanaFest, where we first met in the stairwell of Nashville's High Watt for a brief interview after her four-song set on a Friday afternoon. Her star has brightened considerably since then, while this self-proclaimed "mama's girl" of Mexican-Irish descent works hard to establish her roots in the Music City, where she's lived since mid-2011. After the August release of her follow-up that was co-produced by studio magician Dave Cobb, her career has continued to take off. A filled-up touring calendar has included her Grand Ole Opry debut in November, and a slew of appearances throughout the United Kingdom, Sweden and Spain are scheduled to start off 2016. Don't think that success will prevent her from writing the saddest of sad songs, though. As evidenced by "Ashes," Ortega knows heartache -- and isn't afraid to write or sing about it.
Quotable: "I had gone through what I think a lot of us go through when you meet someone who seems to be magical and you really buy into it only to find it was all just an illusion. I was angry at myself for falling for it. I kept envisioning the moments we shared like photos that were burning up in my mind. That's what sparked the idea for the song." -- Lindi Ortega on writing "Ashes."
Nathan Barlowe and Anna M'Queen pump up the volume
in the Boom Boom Tent at the 2015 Hangout Festival.
14. FIVE KNIVES
Album: Savages, June 2.
Concert: Hangout Festival, Gulf Shores, Alabama, May 15.
Interview: Lead singer Anna M'Queen by phone, May 5. (Other members: Shane Wise, Nathan Barlowe, Zach Hall.) Article published May 15.
Out of my comfort zone while enjoying this electro-pop group's first full-length album, I still didn't know what to expect when I interviewed lead singer Anna M'Queen in early May ahead of Five Knives' appearance at the life's-a-beach party in Gulf Shores. But she was quite precious, showing a soft side unlike much of the gritty (as in X-rated) material on the album. The rocking quartet combined elements of EDM, punk and pop into a sweet, sexy and sweaty set inside the Boom Boom Tent. Pour some "Sugar" on another slice of Seventh Heaven.
Quotable: "It's interesting just how much your life changes and where you think it's going to end up. And if you think you can predict things, nothing surprises me anymore. I played guitar for my college and they had these convocation worship services, whatever. I played acoustic guitar for that." -- Anna M'Queen.
Nashville singer-songwriter Liz Longley performs in the Tuft Theatre
at Swallow Hill Music in Denver.
The folk singer-songwriter who grew up near Philadelphia is a Berklee College of Music graduate who was schooled by Livingston Taylor and John Mayer, taking her craft seriously while performing with a twinkle in her eye. Relationship woes are a constant theme and source of inspiration for Longley but in concert, she sets them up in such a charming yet intimate manner that it's like she's sharing her deep secrets and true confessions with family and friends inside a heavily guarded circle of trust. She can balance tearjerking tunes ("When You've Got Trouble," "This is Not the End") with nostalgic throwbacks ("You've Got That Way") and anthemic adrenaline rushes ("We Run"), displaying a limitless emotional range that leaves her listeners perfectly willing to take the good with the sad.
Quotable: "I'm leaving you with a breakup song, it that's OK ... just to lift your spirits up one more time. Don't worry -- it's angry, it's not sad or slow. I don't have many ex-boyfriends, it's just the last song ("When You've Got Trouble") is about them, so it seems to add up on stage. ... This is a song about cars. I didn't think that anyone would know what I was talking about, so if you figure it out, don't judge me." -- Liz Longley introducing "Camaro" in Denver.
Banjo player Chris Pandolfi takes center stage as Andy Hall (dobro)
offers support as the Infamous Stringdusters perform at 2015 RockyGrass.
12. THE INFAMOUS STRINGDUSTERS
Concert: Boulder Theater, April 18; RockyGrass, Lyons, Colorado, July 24.
Interview: Band members Andy Hall and Chris Pandolfi by phone, April 1. (Other members: Travis Book, Andy Falco, Jeremy Garrett.) Article (not available online) published in September.
A plum assignment for the return to print of "roots authority" No Depression (left) in commemoration of its 20th anniversary was to focus on the ever-popular Greensky Bluegrass and how they and similar bands have affected the jamgrass scene in Colorado. Not knowing much about either Greensky Bluegrass or the jamgrass scene in Colorado, I turned to Planet Bluegrass' Brian Eyster, who turned me on to the Infamous Stringdusters, among others. Two of their members now living in Denver -- Andy Hall (dobro) and Chris Pandolfi (banjo) -- not only are extraordinary players but also incredible interview subjects. Engaging, enlightening and quite gracious with their time though they didn't have an album to promote (2014's Let It Go is their most recent), the gregarious pair could skillfully teach a class in "How to Win Friends and Influence People" to other musicians far less cooperative and/or entertaining. In concert, the 'Dusters are a hard act to top, whether you're a jamgrass newbie or Craig Ferguson, the Planet Bluegrass honcho who emailed me this for publication: "It would be easy to argue that the 'Dusters are the most accomplished musicians of the entire genre right now." Not knowing what I missed all these years, the Infamous Stringdusters were so good in Boulder that I had to see them again this summer, the only band I saw twice in 2015.
Quotable: "I think with bands that are your contemporaries, you learn from one another and you push each other and compete as well, I think that's a good thing. For me, I want to see bands that are playing this type of music succeed. But I want us to succeed, too. And when I see Greensky having so much success, I'm absolutely super-psyched. It gives me hope that this type of music can really be very popular." -- Andy Hall.
Allison Moorer performs at City Winery
in Nashville during AmericanaFest in 2014.
One of my Favorite Singer-Songwriters of All Time since she emerged on the Nashville scene with her Alabama Song debut in 1998 is on the list for a second straight year after returning to Nashville for an outstanding AmericanaFest showcase in 2014. It's always special when this Divine Miss M releases a new album, which unfortunately no longer happens as often as her fans would like. But that's understandable, considering the focus remains on raising John Henry, her 5-year-old child who's been diagnosed with autism. Also handling her divorce from outlaw country's Steve Earle with class and dignity, the Alabama-born beauty has enough life experience to fill up an intriguing book, starting with a memoir of her childhood that Moorer is in the process of writing, she told me earlier this year. As those latest chapters get polished, hopefully the best voice in the biz will keep belting out powerful songs like "I Lost My Crystal Ball" and "Mama Let the Wolf In," too.
Quotable: "I wasn't sure after being away for a while that I wanted to talk about myself and talk about these songs because sometimes it's painful to rip the scab off." -- Allison Moorer on returning to the stage.
Members of Humming House (from left) Leslie Rodriguez, Justin Wade Tam,
Ben Jones and Josh Wolak perform at the Basement in Nashville
during AmericanaFest in 2014. Not pictured: Bobby Chase.
10. HUMMING HOUSE
Album: Revelries, March 24.
Interview: Band members Justin Wade Tam and Leslie Rodriguez by phone, March 2. (Other members: Josh Wolak, Ben Jones, Bobby Chase.) Article published March 10.
Video: "Great Divide" premiered March 10.
Also on my year-end list for the second consecutive time after seeing them at AmericanaFest in 2014 (and calling them a Must-See Act of 2015), this is a band that's going places, in more ways than one. The potential to be an earthier version of Lake Street Dive (my top pick in 2014) is there, because the musicianship, showmanship and camaraderie among the five gifted players already exists. Just check out the video for "Great Divide" -- with its enthusiastic "We're on your way" message -- that premiered at The Huffington Post to see their joy for the open road that translates into a rollicking good time onstage. Band founder Justin Wade Tam deserves all the credit for assembling this Nashville-based folk-rock-roots outfit, which is sparked by talented singer-songwriter Leslie Rodriguez, who provides the cheery choo-choos behind this freight train. While she's returning to her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, in 2016, after her husband accepted a job at a hospital there, don't expect that to stop Humming House from reaching the next station in their lives.
Quotable: "We've been writing a bunch of new songs and I woke up singing one of those the other day. I think that a lot of it has to do with the energy, I hope. ... We don't want to sing at the crowd. We would like them to engage with us and enjoy themselves by singing along and dancing along." -- Leslie Rodriguez on Humming House's ability to write hook-laden numbers that'll make you sing in your sleep.
Fairground Saints (from left): Megan McAllister, Mason Van Valin
and Elijah Edwards. (Photo by Gus Black.)
Megan McAllister, Mason Van Valin and Elijah Edwards aren't household names in the music business yet -- but give them time. The youngest collection of artists on this list is my pick for Favorite Find of 2015, and I don't think it will take long for the world to fall in love with this unrelated Los Angeles-based trio that has the precious promise to become a perfect bookend as a West Coast version of North Carolina's Delta Rae. Their phenomenal self-titled debut album -- anchored by fit-to-be-hits like "Can't Control the Weather" and "Sunday Lover" is as snappy and solid as they proved to be in our thoroughly enjoyable interview, and just as in sync. Pop tunes might be their bread and butter, but Fairground Saints can bring gospel, soul and country to the table, too. Say Amen, brothers and sisters.
Quotable: "All these efforts that everybody has in their daily lives, big or small ... they make or sacrifices or whatever it is that go unheard and they don't get notoriety for it. And the world seems to be sort of this chaotic explosion, similar to like a fairground whenever you go to it. So we just want everybody to feel included in that. You don't have to be an amazing person to be a saint in your own way." -- Mason Van Valin on the thinking behind the name of the group.
Heather Maloney performs at the 2015 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
How a Northampton, Massachusetts-based performer developed Joni Mitchell-composing-in Laurel Canyon sensibilities remains a mystery, like trying to compare Woodstock to Monterey. But the luscious sounds and words coming out of her mouth are stirring, no matter where she's playing. Maloney's first record for Signature Sounds landed near the top of my 2013 list, and her follow-up offers more depth and daring while sharing its American beauty. Finally breaking out as a performer at prestigious summer events like Planet Bluegrass' Folks Fest (where she was one of my listed faves), this late bloomer as a musician has the ability to bring grown men to tears with heartfelt songs like "Linger Longer" and the title track. Listening carefully to "Making Me Break" just might make you break down and cry.
Quotable: "Becoming an adult, I understand my parents more. When you're a kid, you're just like ... they're heroes or they're villains. And then they just become humans when you get older. And I think that's another thing I've been going through a lot. Like in my late 20s, I'm just like, 'Oh, I totally get it. They were winging it that whole time.' ... Plus my mom is a psychotherapist, so I tend to process and overanalyze everything anyway." -- Heather Maloney.
San Fermin's Charlene Kaye and John Brandon wow the crowd
at the 2015 Hangout Festival.
7. SAN FERMIN
Album: Jackrabbit, April 21.
Concert: Hangout Festival, Gulf Shores, Alabama, May 16.
Interview: Group founder Ellis Ludwig-Leone in hospitality tent, May 16. (Other members: Allen Tate, Charlene Kaye, Rebekah Durham, John Brandon, Stephen Chen, Tyler McDiarmid, Michael Hanf.) Article published May 29.
In concert, these seven band members perform like a riled-up but polished new wave symphony, with Ludwig-Leone (left) as the cerebral conductor in the background. Certainly the most inventive act I witnessed during the three-day event in the Deep South, San Fermin up the IQ quotient with their classical backgrounds while connecting to the crowd with front-and-center zeal lead by show-stopping singers Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate, along with brass tacticians John Brandon (trumpet) and Stephen Chen (saxophone). Watching this class act is as intellectually invigorating as getting a full ride to Graduate School of Rock.
Quotable: "I'm certainly like the bandleader. But I try not to think of it as a dictatorship. ... Musically, I arrange everything and I bring it to the band, but you'd be stupid not to trust your musicians. They're all such great players." -- Ellis Ludwig-Leone.
The Wailin' Jennys at the Boulder Theater (from left): Heather Masse,
Nicky Mehta and Ruth Moody.
My Favorite Trio of Leading Ladies continues to perform together on the road while working on various side projects, whether they're personal or professional, so I'm always eagerly anticipating the follow-up to 2011's Bright Morning Stars, which was No. 3 of my list of best albums four years ago. The most hopeful answer came in an email reply from Ruth Moody, co-founder of the group with fellow Winnipegger Nicky Mehta around the turn of the millennium, who then added Maine native Heather Masse a few years later. "We'll probably take a bit of time off in early 2016, and try and find a window of time to record later on in the year," Moody wrote in March. "We'll get there." Still, seeing them bring their pitch-perfect harmonies to Boulder for the first time was reason enough to get excited. And the recent announcement that bassist (and mommy-in-training) Masse has teamed up with 80-year-old free jazz trombone player Roswell Rudd for the Feb. 26 release of an album called August Love Song (in honor of her 3-year-old son) is worthy of a New Year's celebration.
Quotable: "I think we'll stay together as long as we possibly can -- as long as we can continue to balance our other priorities with the needs of the group, I can't see why we'd stop. -- Nicky Mehta, who gave birth to twins in 2009.
Houndmouth guitarist Matt Myers cuts loose at the 2015 Hangout Festival.
Album: Little Neon Limelight, March 17.
Concert: Hangout Festival, Gulf Shores, Alabama, May 15.
Interview: Lead singer-guitarist Matt Myers by phone, April 30. (Other members: Katie Toupin, Shane Cody, Zak Appleby.) Article published May 12.
This dynamite quartet from southern Indiana emerged with their album debut in 2013, but exploded onto the scene this year with producer Dave Cobb at the controls of their sophomore effort. Full of enough energy and electricity to light the Griswold's home for Christmas (pump up the volume on "Black Gold" and "Sedona"), Little Neon Limelight is my Favorite Rock Record of the Year. Even before I saw them rip through a manic set on a small Hangout stage in May, they had to be dubbed "Best Little Indy Rock Band in Americana."
Quotable: "I'm never leaving," -- Matt Myers, laughing about his allegiance to his home state after revealing that he bought a home in New Albany, Indiana, the same town where he grew up and went to high school.
The HillBenders at 2015 RockyGrass (from left): Nolan Lawrence, Gary Rea,
Jim Rea, Chad "Gravyboat" Graves and Mark Cassidy.
4. The HILLBENDERS
Album: Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry,
Concert: RockyGrass late show, Wildwood Pavilion, Lyons, Colorado, July 25.
Interview: Backstage, frontman-lead singer-mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, July 25. (Other members: Gary Rea,
Jim Rea, Chad "Gravyboat" Graves and Mark Cassidy.) Article published Aug. 4.
Who knew a bluegrass quintet based in Springfield, Missouri, could play a classic rock opera so well? I certainly didn't, but such a fan of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon from the glory days of "Tommy can you hear me?" couldn't resist checking out a late-night performance of this fast and furious five's Opry that still gives me chills every time I think about it. The album was a thrill, but the show (and Graves' manic display on the dobro, left) must be seen to really appreciate the "transformance." Nolan Lawrence laughed when I asked him hours before they show if they would every consider taking on Quadrophenia as a career encore, but I'm guessing that whenever they tire of playing "Pinball Wizard" for the umpteenth time, the HillBenders will be ready to return to their roots. On second thought, though, imagine what they could do with the Who's mini-opera A Quick One, While He's Away.
Quotable: "He said he loves it. In fact, I think we sent (the album) to their camp and within an hour of sending it to him, he had responded with, 'I love the record. I want to meet the guys.' " -- Nolan Lawrence on getting Pete Townshend's blessing for the bluegrass version of Tommy.
Former Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen performs
at eTown Hall in Boulder.
In a year when Jefferson Airplane turned 50 and he turns 75 (on Dec. 23), the humble (and underrated) guitarist who has to be at least partly responsible for creating "psychedelic rock" had a new album to promote but was cool enough during my Favorite Individual Interview to look back at the good ol' days. Stories about Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Woodstock (where Kaukonen was featured during a set Slick called "morning maniac music") and even Altamont seemed fresh in his mind, like he was telling them for the first time. Almost certain that Slick wouldn't be an active participant in a group reunion, Kaukonen was sure something would be done to commemorate his band's milestone anniversary. Sure enough, it happened with Lake Street Dive's Rachael Price filling in for the Airplane's lead singer at the Lockn' Festival in September, then as a special guest when the guitarist celebrated his 75th birthday a month early in November. As the golden years continue, expect more sunshine waiting for Kaukonen a little further down the road.
Quotable: "I never played before a crowd like that and probably never will again. The fact that we, you know, we of a certain age, all of a sudden had an identity, you know the camaraderie that we were actually part of the culture. Even my father got it, you know. And he hated all that stuff back then." -- Jorma Kaukonen on Woodstock.
Jason Isbell performs at the 2015 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival.
Now that he has a couple of Grammy nominations under his belt, it must be OK to pronounce this the Best Year Ever for the pride of Greenhill, Alabama. Just when you thought it couldn't get any better than 2013's Dave Cobb-produced Southeastern, he waited until the dead heat of the summer to release his acclaimed follow-up -- my Favorite Americana Record of the Year -- that included "Children of Children," perhaps as a premeditated shout-out to the baby girl his beautiful wife Amanda Shires was preparing to deliver in September. He played that moving number at Lyons during his final show of the summer, then bolted minutes after his headlining set with the 400 Unit ended, undoubtedly making a beeline for Nashville. The former Drive-By Trucker got his motor running during those whiskey-haze days of his 20s, but, at 36, he's all grown up now, sober as a judge and happy as a clam. Fatherhood, temperance and maturity suit my pick for Best Individual Performer of the Year, and the acceptance of fans turning out for sold-out shows (including four straight nights at the Ryman in his adopted hometown) is living proof that cleaning up your act can wash away the demons.
Quotable: "My parents were 17 and 19 when I was born, and I'm 36 years old, so if they can handle it as teenagers, then surely I can figure out a way to make it work." -- Jason Isbell on becoming a first-time father.
HoneyHoney's Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe appear in the
video "You and I," which plays out like a film noir-ish mini-movie.
Album: 3 (yet another Dave Cobb production), June 9.
Concert: Bluebird Theater, Denver, June 2.
Interview: Founding members Ben Jaffe and Suzanne Santo over lunch at the Buckhorn Exchange in Denver, June 2. Article published June 9.
Video: "You and I," premiered Aug. 18.
Life on the flip side of 30 also looks pretty good for Ben Jaffe and Suzanne Santo, the pair who dare to be different than most other roots-oriented acts. After all, they're doing their thing in Los Angeles, not Nashville, the West Coast vibe luring a Cleveland girl who plays banjo and fiddle and an East Coast guy on guitar who seem destined to perform together forever. Proving that point are 3 songs of longing like "Yours to Bear" (recorded way in advance of their hilarious send-up at the Buckhorn Exchange, below) and "You and I." Irreverent, bawdy, bold, candid, smart, personable and perceptive, Honey-squared not only takes home Favorite Group Interview honors but also Best Duo of the Year and Best Concert of the Year, which also featured touring drummer Conor Meehan. And being the only artist that landed in all four of the above listed categories, HoneyHoney must be deserving of an honorary EGOT, like those actors who have won the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
There couldn't be a better way to end this than getting a final word (or two) on the Year That Was from HoneyHoney's Jaffe, a wordsmith/philosopher whose comments sent just hours before publication are a lesson to musicians and fans alike: Let's not take ourselves too seriously.
"When Michael reached out to us about contributing to this piece I thought immediately of the meal we shared with him, at Denver's Buckhorn Exchange, for an interview," Jaffe wrote. "Buckhorn Exchange is an ancient place, looking like a prospectors cafeteria. Inspired by our inner lumberjacks and to satisfy a real masochistic urge, we ordered Rocky Mountain Oysters. Testicles, sliced and fried. That was months ago. 2015, "the year we ate balls." Perhaps it was with the vested power of that castrated bull that we spent the next 6 months on the road, livin', lovin', and lumpin' around in a used Cadillac Escalade our supporters bought for us. I don't know. Summing a year up is strange and difficult, kind of like eating balls. We've never had a better time making music and meeting all the lovely weirdos out there. Come see us play! We'll be snowballing through the country once again at the top of January."
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more from the past year in music performances.