Top 20 Shows of 2020

Coming off of a great year for in 2019, this year was starting out looking even better with a bunch of great shows lined up in the Winter and the fantastic festival kicking off in April.  There was no waiting as I rolled up to Greenville on January 2 to see Lettuce and I was off to the races. The first two months were fantastic and then it all came crashing to a halt at the end of February.  I had been anticipating writing this article somewhat in jest as the pandemic drew on, but ultimately realized that in fact I could write up the Top 20 Shows of 2020 anytime after March provided I could muster up 20 shows (which I did and then some). Unfortunately the year in live music wrapped terribly early but I’m fortunate to have seen more than 20 banging shows and here’s a rundown of the best.

Lettuce, The Firmament, Greenville, SC, January 2: I took the 2.5 hour drive up to Greenville to this place which is strangely in an office park, but the crew and fans there were great. Of course Lettuce, being the premiere funk band on the scene today brought the house down. Their latest album at the time “Elevate” was is nominated for a Grammy as Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.  This set featured Larimar  from that album but also Checker Wrecker and Silence from the subsequent album “Resonate.”

Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio, The Firmament, Greenville, SC, January 2: DLOT opened for Lettuce on both nights this week and really brought back sounds the greats like Booker T. Jones.  It was great seeing them open but then I actually saw them again as the headliner at Terminal West, Atlanta on January 9, making a very unusual trifecta in one week.  In any case, they got me hooked and on top of having a great sound, they’re super nice peeps and I’m happy to have grooved with them to start the year.

Lettuce, Iron City Brewing, Birmingham, AL  January 3: With Atlanta halfway between Greenville and Birmingham, I had a nice layover at home before heading out for my second Lettuce show of the year.  This one was at a nice local microbrewery and was rock solid featuring songs from Elevate (Shmink Dabby, Krewe, Gang Ten ) and Good Morning Mr. Shmink from the newest release Resonate.

Hive Mind, Aisle 5, January 11: Hive Mind is a electronic/future funk /jam band out of Atlanta formed a couple of years ago by Dan Cox (guitar), Dave McSweeney (bass), Rohan Prakash (drums), Niles Roberts (keys). Every performance of theirs blows me away and I’d love to see them more after the pandemic abates.  They’ve developed a sound all their own and this one was exceptional.

Turkuaz, Georgia Theatre, January 18: Turkuaz is the full funk package – driving rhythms, blazing horns, great male and female vocalists and choreography.  This was another one worth traveling 1.5 hours for, especially on a Saturday night.  The show was hot on a real cool night.

Cory Wong, Terminal West, January 22: Cory is widely known as the guitarist in Vulfpeck but his own show is always amazing and totally funky.  On top of that, he’s been wildly prolific having recently released live albums from Amsterdam (with the Metropole Orkest), U.K., Minneapolis (his hometown) and he Lido Deck (Jam Cruise) after his studio album The Optimist. It’s even better when he brings along a full horn section as he did on this night!

Ripe, Variety Playhouse,  January 25: Ripe out of Boston has quickly become a favorite pop-funk band.  The have great chemistry, catchy tunes and sweet horn licks.  On top of that their energy is almost unmatched.  At this show, the band’s first at the venue, Robbie Wulfsohn, the lead singer actually choked up at one point from all the crowd support and love.

Spafford, Variety Playhouse, January 31 and February 1: These guys are one of the fastest rising bands on the jam-funk scene and hugely popular in ATL.  So they had a two night stand at VP and it was tight. I decided to lay back and not video but there are plenty of sound recordings of both nights like the tune ‘Leave the Light On’ here.

Leave the Light On

The Fritz, Aisle 5, February 8: If you’ve seen my Hulaween writeup, then you know how terrific this Asheville based quintet is and how much fun they are to watch. This gig featured many songs from their soul driven – dance, rock album album Natural Mind.  The vid is 4K with sweet sound so check it out and thank me later.

Ronnie Laws, February 9, The Velvet Note: Ronnie is a legend, an original, one of the godfathers of funk-jazz fusion.  His seminal tune, Friends and Strangers is an anthem for a generation.  So it was a no brainer to see him at The Velvet Note, an intimate 50-seat club about 1/4 mile from my home. And what a terrific show it was.  And to top it off, I got to meet the man, take some pics with him and he signed 3 of my original albums from the 70s and 80s. 

GroundUP Music Festival, North Beach Bandshell, Miami Beach, February 14-16: For the last four years, GUMFest has been one of the highlights with artists and people around the world in a small outdoor, ~1500 person capacity, venue on the beach! Realistically, I could list 20 great sets just from this festival alone and I encourage everyone to check out the details and attend one in the future if you can.

Snarky Puppy, GUMFest, February 14-16: Each year, Snarky Puppy performs all three nights and naturally that results in a bunch of highlights, from all three nights.  I’ve posted video of the first two nights, with the amazing with Hamilton de Holanda on bandolin during the closing Lingus on the second night.

FORQ, GUMFest, February 15: This band, founded by Henry Hey on keys, features Chris McQueen (guitar)  and JT Thomas (drums) from Snarky Puppy and the inimitable Kevin Scott (bass).  Their funk-fusion is captivating and I was happy to catch this set in full. Check out their latest album “Four.”

Lettuce, GUMFest, Evening February 16: The Lettuce crew had just rolled in to the festival after performing across the state at FunkFest in Punta Gorda and were scheduled for a double header. This set featured some classics like Phyllis and Nyack but also the (at that time) yet to be released Resonate, the title cut from the upcoming album. And the kicker for me as a lifelong Tower of Power fan was when the kicked ass with Oakland Stroke as a Nyack lead in!

Lettuce, GUMFest, Late Night February 16: This was a classic “off-book” Lettuce set because they mixed a little of everything here including a sit in by Robert “Sput” Searight (Ghost-Note and Snarky Puppy) on the last tune.  Here’s the set list – 01.Get Greasy 02. Spider [Herbie Hancock] 03. Purple Cabbage (inc. Thelonius [J Dilla / Slum Village / Common]) 04. I Can’t Stand The Rain [Ann Peebles] 05. The Flu (with Robert “Sput” Searight) .

Electric Kif, Aisle 5, February 24:  I was anticipating this show with excitement coming on the heels of GUMFest where I had the opportunity to hang with the EK fellas as part of the family.  This show was heavy on tracks from their newest terrific album Jefe. It also featured the Herbie Hancock tune “Actual Proof.” This set was top shelf and they were kind enough to shoot me the soundboard audio.

Shaun Martin Three-0, Aisle 5, February 24:  Shaun Martin was the back half of this terrific twin bill and another friend from Snarky Puppy and GUMFest.  Shaun played some hits like “Yellow Jacket” and his new group was banging.  He can play so many styles including funk, jazz, gospel and basically anything he wants to. His latest release just came out and you can listen and buy Three-0.

Butcher Brown, Terminal West, February 28 & 29:  I can’t say enough good things about these guys, who I first caught as the opener for Lettuce in The Caverns (Pelham, TN) last year.  This time they were opening both nights for The Motet and I knew that I needed to catch them.  Their mix of old and nu school jazz, funk, hip-hop is so good.  Marcus Tenney on sax and trumpet is so good. And then, I was stunned when the ripped into “Tidal Wave”, an old Ronnie Laws tune shown on the video and they nailed it.  Check out their album #KingButch and you’ll be hooked.

The Motet, Terminal West, February 28 & 29: This two-night weekend run at Terminal West would turn out to be the last shows of the year and the band was at its peak.  I’d first seen these guys at Smith’s Olde Bar in 2008 and many times since every time they bring that joyous old school funk fusion that I love so much.  The band started out as all instrumentals and are always silky smooth when they play that way.  It’s always tough for me to film The Motet because Lyle Divinsky is such a kinetic front man and movin’ and groovin’ the entire show.  I do so much appreciate Lyle every time I see him and glad I got to see him here, in what was likely one of his last shows with the band.  He announced that he’s moving on last week.  Check out the video focused on him – I wish him great success moving forward.

So that’s a wrap! I originally started thinking about writing this in the spring, as a ‘joke’ but as the months rolled by I could see it was reality.  For all of us, the music stopped in March and we’re aching to get it back. I was fortunate to catch such a heavy dose in January and February.  Let’s all hang tough and do whatever we can to support the bands, venues and staff that are all suffering through this crisis. Let’s look forward to the great times ahead in 2021 when we’ll all be dancing and celebrating together again!