After nearly 43 years on this planet, most of them spent with tunes playing somewhere in the background if not being piped directly in my ears, it should no longer be a surprise when music displays its power to slack my jaw in astonishment, bring me to tears, or otherwise move me in ways that not much else can. Still, I find myself frequently amazed by music's ability to stir or soothe the emotions, or take them on a wild roller-coaster ride combination of the two. Such was the case in 2003, a year characterized by an inordinate amount of loss, both in the music world and on a personal level. Below, in no particular order, is a list of memorable emotional moments from this past year--some seemingly universal, but most feeling choreographed just for me.
The Avett Brothers House Concert
This young, rootsy trio from Concord, N.C., isn't the first band to play bluegrass music with punk energy and rock 'n' roll sweat, but you would have been forgiven for thinking that they were inventing it on the spot in a furnished basement in Durham. Exhilaration, in its most raw and reckless form, is a sight to behold from five feet away. (Soul-rockers Marah performed similar magic in a Raleigh living room several months later. I upgraded to two feet away for that one.)
Don Dixon's "Renaissance Eyes"
As Dixon performed this delicate beauty at the Berkeley, you could sense a change in the emotional current of the show. He reached deeper and deeper, stretching the song out like he didn't want it to end. Bringing it to a hushed close, he looked at the crowd, leaky-eyed, and said, "You have to be careful. You never know what door you're going to open." We were right there, ready to follow him in.
John Howie singing "Shopping for Dresses"
In March, a month after I lost my dad to cancer, I sat at one of the Cave's booths with a group of friends and listened to John Howie, Chip Robinson, and Chris Smith swap songs. Near the end of the night, Howie dedicated Merle Haggard's "Shopping for Dresses" to his father who had passed away the year before and who had introduced him to the music of Haggard, Johnny Cash and other country artists. Displaying his trademark kindness, Howie also dedicated the song to my father. My dad wasn't a huge music fan, but I do remember records from Haggard, Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Roger Miller around the house when I was young. Nope, he wasn't what you could call a music lover, but, although he didn't put it into words often, he loved me. I remember riding with him six or seven years ago, and he was playing a tape of my radio show that I had made for him and my mom. When the music was playing, he'd talk and not pay much attention to the tape. But when I'd come on the tape talking about the songs I'd played, he'd get quiet, turn up the volume, and listen intently. All that, and so much more, came back as I sat in that booth.
Jimmy Smith and The Pogues
On a September Saturday, I was part of a two-vehicle convoy that carried the Gourds, a band from Austin, TX, whose sound is a righteous blend of The Band, The Pogues and Doug Sahm, from Raleigh to the third annual Spread Your Wings Benefit in Charlotte. For me, the music continued on Sunday as I drove bassist Jimmy Smith, drummer Keith Langford and band manager Jim Archibald back to the Raleigh-Durham Airport. I had strategically placed the Pogues' Rum, Sodomy & the Lash in the disc changer, and for the last 50 miles of the trip I was treated to Smith, seated directly behind me, singing along to every song, never missing a lyric. It was Sunday-morning punk gospel, it was karaoke Gourds style, and it made Spread Your Wings the benefit that kept on giving.
"Thirteen" and "A Song for You"
In October, Gerry Livers, a dear friend to musicians and fellow music fans all along the East Coast (from his hometown in Connecticut through Philly to his latest stop, Asheville) and a truly generous soul, passed away unexpectedly. At a memorial gathering in Chapel Hill, remembrances and whiskey were shared while members of such local bands as Glory Fountain, the Brown Mountain Lights and the Two Dollar Pistols teamed up to play music. A hushed version of Big Star's "Thirteen" in particular scaling the heights of poignancy, the couplet "rock and roll is here to stay/come inside where it's okay" resonating gently in the twilight; folks were still comparing chill bumps five minutes later. Also in attendance at the gathering was Frog Holler, a rootsy six-piece from Berks County, Pa., that Gerry had taken great pleasure in championing. Later that night at a Manbites Dog Theater show, Frog Holler closed their first set with a riveting version of Gerry's favorite song, Gram Parsons' "A Song for You." More chill bumps to compare.
School of Rock and "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)"
There I was watching a feel- good movie that I didn't feel bad about feeling good about (a movie celebrating, as star Jack Black might put it, the majesty of rock), my 5-year-old son sitting next to me totally absorbed in the movie and bopping along to my favorite later-period Ramones song. Life was good.
The Backsliders at the Alejandro Escovedo Benefit
The line-up behind the Backsliders' three recordings (minus only guitarist Brad Rice) reunited for the benefit in late November and, in doing so, transported a large chunk of the crowd back in time. When "Hey Sheriff" came around, with Chip Robinson doing his best impersonation of a fugitive lion in a cage, I was no longer in a downtown Raleigh dance club. It was 1996 and last call at the Brewery, and I was deciding whether I had enough money and functioning brain cells to get one more. And at the end of the song, when the band crashes back in like a S.W.A.T. team through the door of a double-wide, it's one of the most thrilling releases in music, on par with the aftermath of the climatic 1-2-3-4 countdown in "Born to Run."
The Passing of Warren Zevon and Johnny Cash
It was a year in which, among far too many music-world deaths, we lost two truly unique American artists. In late October of 2002, Warren Zevon appeared on The Late Show, displaying unflinching courage, humor and grace in the face of a death sentence capped by a soul-penetrating version of his "Mutineer." It was a performance that echoed through most of 2003, at least until his final album The Wind was released, giving fans two more souvenirs to cherish: a take on Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (Zevon's "open up, open up" are pleas for the ages) and the impossibly stirring "Keep Me in Your Heart." And the five-disc Unearthed box set, which consists mostly of unreleased recordings that Johnny Cash did for the American label, features the ultimate snapshot of loss with Cash and Joe Strummer dueting on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." It's a gathering of icons from country, punk, and reggae; three voices now silenced but not soon to be forgotten.