Best New Music of 2020

2020 has been a mess of a year on so many levels. For one, live music came to a total standstill. We are still standing still during this last week of the year.

Thankfully, when times get tough, artists get busy.

What did not stop this year is the writing and performing of music (in socially distanced studios). In fact, you could argue that 2020’s recorded music is truly outstanding by any measure. But why discuss such matters, when you can push play and listen?

The 21 songs in this playlist are standout tracks. Each track is also a signpost to the artist’s new album.

Laura Veirs, Jerry Joseph, Margo Price, Alicia Keys, Destroyer, Wolf Parade, Chuck Prophet, My Morning Jacket, and so many more musicians offered us songs of beauty and harmony in 2020—exactly what we need to shift from chaos to peace, and from collective despair to a new hopefulness.

It’s Been Seen Before, Through Other Eyes, On Other Days

Dead & Company with John Mayer on guitar and Oteil Burbridge on bass is on tour this summer and turning in one inspired performance after the next.

Scott W. Allen, author of Aces Back to Back: The History of the Grateful Dead—like many others who have attended a Dead & Company show—can’t quite hold back the praise:

In less than three short years, Dead & Company have clearly established themselves as the best Grateful Dead offshoot band of the post-Garcia era, and by a wide margin. There is a level of musicianship, combined with a commitment to the music and culture, that is unsurpassed by every previous Grateful Dead incarnate dating to 1995.

Of course, that’s absurd. Phil Lesh is not in the band.

What gets lost in these inside arguments is how there’s a massive difference between the actual music performed and one’s experience at a show. Many Deadheads have had experiences at shows post-Jerry that equaled or surpassed the experiences they had at actual Grateful Dead shows. That doesn’t mean the music is better. It means people are having the time of their life, regardless of who is playing the guitar or singing the songs.

Mayer does bring a muscular approach to his axe, and you need that with Grateful Dead music. I like Mayer’s enthusiasm and he’s incredibly talented, but he’s no match for Warren Haynes on guitar. Mayer’s work with Weir, which is also stellar, also falls short of Warren and Jimmy Herring’s inventive and commanding approach to the songbook.

The Quintet, which no longer plays as a unit, also featured Rob Barraco on vocals. His angelic voice sounds a lot like a young Jerry.

Today, if you want to immerse yourself in the power of Grateful Dead music, my recommendation is Joe Russo’s Almost Dead.

The guys in JRAD can sing, and for me, that’s what’s been missing most from the modern mixes. Jerry was a virtuoso on guitar but his voice made me and many other people weep one minute and cry for joy the next. JRAD is also tight and getting tighter. On top of all that, one can see JRAD in awesome venues for a fair price.

Tickets for Dead & Company upcoming shows in Wrigley Feild are going for $200 on Stubhub right now. But get this…that’s the price for tickets that are not inside the venue. The tickets are for rooftop access across the street. By contrast, you can see JRAD at Red Rocks—America’s greatest outdoor venue— this summer for $45.

case/lang/veirs Is Pure Brilliance

When is the last time you heard something that really blew your mind? For me, it happened just last Spring, when case/lang/veirs put out their first release on Anti Records.

I’m not the freckled maid
I’m not the fair-haired girl
I’m not a pail of milk for you to spoil

case/lang/veirs is the new super group and I simply must sing their praises. Each musician is a star in their own right, but the three together—Neko Case, kd lang and Laura Veirs—form a constellation that shines brighter than bright.

Every song on the album is a treat, and some are standouts that can be listened to on a daily basis. The first track, “Atomic Number,” plus “Best Kept Secret,” and “Greens of June” are spellbinding. “Delirium,” “Down,” and “Supermoon” are equally hypnotic.

When we saw the band perform at The Zoo in June, it was as if they had cast a spell, one I remain under to this day. The lyrical genius, the three-part harmonies, kd lang’s showmanship, Neko’s fierceness…it’s all sublime.

The album, which will win a Grammy if there is justice in this world, was made in Portland and produced by Laura Veirs’ husband, Tucker Martine. Martine, who is originally from Nashville, has worked with The Decembrists, REM, My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse and many others at his Flora Recording studio.

If you’re looking for the Portland sound, Martine, Veirs and company are making it soar.

Some are born to sweet delight
Some are born to endless night
Cruel hoax and lightning strikes
I’ve tasted both they are the same
Into each other turn again

Phish Makes First Trip To Bend, Oregon

Phish Makes First Trip To Bend, Oregon

“Control for smilers can’t be bought
The solar garlic starts to rot
Was it for this my life I sought?
Maybe so and maybe not.” -Anastasio/Marshall

Trey Anastasio impressed a lot of Jerry Garcia fans this summer with his well conceived and expertly delivered work as lead guitar player in “Fare Thee Well,” a tribute to 50 years of Grateful Dead.

Phish in Bend

I watched the first three shows via Youtube pay-per-view and felt that the first two shows suffered from a serious lack of Trey. Whether Trey was being overly kind and respectful, or being held back by Bob Weir is a question we can debate over beers. Whatever the reason, the two shows in Santa Clara lacked the confidence and cohesion needed to elevate the music and the people in love with the music.

After also watching the first night in Chicago, it was clear “The Boys” oiled their rusty gears and more importantly, they gave Trey the clear directive to step up, which he did to most everyone’s delight.

For a variety of reasons, I wasn’t interested in attending Fare Thee Well shows in person. I did see Grateful Dead in several large stadiums, but it’s something I stopped doing when the original band stopped touring 20 years ago. Now, I seek out shows at small outdoor venues, theaters and clubs where the venue itself is part of the package. The grassy park that is Les Schwab Amphitheater in Bend is such a place, and with two nights of Phish to open the band’s summer tour, I knew these were the shows for me.

It had been 17 years since I last saw Phish (who took six of those years off themselves, first in a hiatus and then in a breakup). What a time to come back!

Phish introduced a handful of new songs in Bend. Old favorite or new to my ears, I liked most every song I heard. There was no aimless wandering. Everything the four musicians did, they did with purpose. This is mature Phish and I’m all for it.

Following the shows, it was awesome to realize that the code on my ticket stubs entitled me to a free download of the shows from I love not just the instant access but the leveling of inane hierarchies. In Grateful Dead days, you had to know a taper to get a first generation audience copy of the show. And so on down the chain…second gen., third gen., forth gen. Grateful Dead fans—like most every scene I’ve seen—can be elitist and exclusive in many ways. By providing instant access to a crispy soundboard of the show for everyone with a ticket, the playing field is leveled by technology and those who would use it generously.

Since returning from Bend, I’ve been buying shows from that I attended in the 1990s. The Jazz Fest show in 1996 is one I recommend, if you’re looking for some new old Phish. I’ve also been listening intently to the lyrics and remembering how much I loved them in the first place and how fresh and brilliant they remain today. Trey’s prep school buddy Tom Marshall is the Robert Hunter of Phish, and the guy truly delivers lyrical gems.

Phish Makes First Trip To Bend, Oregon

I’d Pay to See the Holographic Jerry Garcia on Guitar

The remaining members of Grateful Dead are playing five “Fare Thee Well” shows this summer.

According to a statement from the band, it will be the last time the four remaining members play on stage together. Naturally, such an announcement created a sense of scarcity and scarcity lends itself to various forms of exploitation, particularly around price.


The face value of Fare Thee Well tickets is an outrage to begin with, but that’s nothing compared to what’s happening on the secondary market. Currently on Stub Hub, prices for obstructed view tickets at the top of Soldier Field are going for $379 and up, per ticket.

I’m not even going to reprint the obscene prices that people seeking VIP treatment are shelling out for this. Instead, I’ll ask, is there going to be even one hippy within a mile of these shows?

Back in the day, Deadheads would grimace when the band closed the show with “Keep Your Day Job.”

Ring that bell for whatever it’s worth
When Monday comes don’t forget about work

It appears that someone took these lyrics to heart. Not all Deadheads are trust-funders and/or drug dealers. Some actually have day jobs that pay for the extravagance mentioned above.

I think it’s worth mentioning that a lot of Deadheads do not have the means to attend these Fare Thee Well shows, or any concert that costs $80 to $100 per person, per day, as so many shows do now.

It’s also fair to ask, what would Jerry think of the state of the live music industry, 50 years after the first Grateful Dead shows? No one can say for sure. Garcia was a shrewd operator, as was legendary promoter Bill Graham.

Ultimately, it’s not for me to judge. It’s my job to choose, and I did that a long time ago. I understand we all want to have fun. How we choose to do it and how much we will pay for the pleasure, that’s up to each freak to figure out.

The Best Radio Stations In The World Are Inside Your Machine

One of the things I enjoy most about digital culture is the ability to listen to community radio stations around the country. It is something I do each day, and each day I find it as enriching as the last.

We become the media we consume. For your own sake and the sake of the nation, consume the best media you can find. Here, this list of amazing community radio stations will get you started provided that you like indie rock, jazz, blues, Americana and other forms of progressive music, opinion and news.

[listly id=”YPY” layout=”gallery” show_header=”true” show_author=”true” show_sharing=”true” show_tools=”true” per_page=”25″]

Phish Makes First Trip To Bend, Oregon

Hunter’s “Silent Bell Beneath A Shower of Pearls” Informed By Welch’s “Ring of Bone”

Jerry Garcia was born 72 years ago this week. Garcia brought millions of people together—people who are now married, or best friends or co-workers, and he introduced even more people to a life of beauty and music. In order to “Keep on Shinin’,” (as Jerry would have us do) let’s take a few moments to explore one important aspect of Grateful Dead culture—the genius of lyricist Robert Hunter.

Steve Silberman is a brilliant writer and a well known Deadhead. In 1992, when Grateful Dead’s legendary lyricist, Robert Hunter, started producing volumes of poetry, Silberman interviewed Hunter for Poetry Flash.

Here is one small piece of their dialogue:

SILBERMAN: The song “Box of Rain” began as a rough vocal outline from Phil [Dead bassist Lesh]. How does that process work?

HUNTER: Scat singing: “Dum-dum dum, da-da-da-da, bump-dum-dum-dum-dum, dee-dee-dee.” I’m able to translate peoples’ scat. I hear English in it, almost as though I write down what I hear underneath that. I hear the intention. It’s a talent like the Rubik’s Cube, or something like that, and it comes easily to me. Which might be why I like Language poetry. I can tell from the rhythms, or lack of rhythms, from the disjunctures and the end stoppages, what they’re avoiding saying– the meaning that they would like to not be stating there, comes rushing through to me. I understand dogs. I can talk to babies.

A cat dictated “China Cat Sunflower” to me. It was just sittin’ on my stomach, purring away, and sayin’ this stuff. I just write it down; I guess it’s plagiarism. I’ve credited the cat, right? [laughing]

Clearly, the cat on Hunter’s tummy had quite the vocabulary. “I rang a silent bell beneath a shower of pearls in the eagle wing palace of the Queen Chinee.”

The interview with Hunter is heady matter. I read and write poetry, yet much of the conversation is beyond me. Which is fine, I like stretching to pull goods from the top shelf. Here’s what I found up there, tucked neatly away in Hunter’s memory.

About 25 years ago I was visiting a girlfriend in the City, and there was this little orange book in her bookcase that I pulled out. It was On Out, by Lew Welch, and I thought, “How long has this been going on?”


Naturally, the slender volume so key to Hunter’s development as a poet is now out of print. Which leads me to wonder why any book of merit would be hard to find today. The notion of being “out of print” is itself an anachronism. We can unearth these volumes and make them available in digital formats.

Thankfully, there are web-ready copies of a few of Welch’s poems. “Chicago Poem” is particularly hard-hitting, whereas “Ring of Bone” is simply lovely in every way.

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #9

Working on a team with other like-minded people, all striving to reach a common goal is the path to progress.

But it’s not an easy route.

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #9: Collaborate

Jerry is known for his singular sound on guitar. One lick and you knew it was him. But for all his chops as a soloist, Jerry’s true strength came in group settings. Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia Band, Old and In The Way and Garcia Grisman were all wonderful showcases for Jerry’s musical gifts, and each band was also a great fit for Jerry in that he found partners in the music to help make his own work better.

Of course, one of Jerry’s greatest artistic partnerships was with songwriter Robert Hunter. Many of the best songs in Grateful Dead’s canon were written by this duo, including “Sugaree,” “Althea,” “Ripple,” “Terrapin Station,” “They Love Each Other,” “Row Jimmy,” “Standing on the Moon,” “Birdsong” and “China Doll” to name a few favorites.

Hunter and Garcia shared more than an artistic sensibility. Like conjoined twins, they shared a brain.

There’s a great story about the writing of “Terrapin Station.”. Hunter wrote “Terrapin Part One” in a single sitting while overlooking San Francisco Bay during a lightning storm. On the same day, while driving to the city Garcia was also struck by a singular inspiration. He turned his car around and hurried home to set down the music that came to him. When the two met the next day, Hunter showed him the words and Jerry said, “I’ve got the music!”

Let my inspiration flow
in token lines suggesting rhythm

Writing is a solo act, like playing guitar. Yet, if your writing is to go anywhere– if it is to connect with other human beings — then the writer needs to collaborate and find an editor, a publisher, a filmmaker, songwriting partner, or what have you. Same with a musician. It’s not enough to be the master of your chosen instrument, you have to learn to listen, to play in a group and be part of something bigger than yourself.

The ad business, where I’ve toiled now for nearly 18 years, also requires tons of collaboration. Whatever I might have to say on the client’s behalf, has to be done artfully, but that’s not the hard part. The hard part is retaining the artfulness while dozens of people inside the agency and at the client hack away at the idea in effort to improve it and to make it partly their own. Even when I’m given a solo opportunity to create a long copy ad for instance, the piece has to fit the into a much larger framework. It has to meet the client’s objectives and motivate people to buy.

As a writer, I can be a bit touchy about people messing with my copy, but I also know that the power is in the collective. When I work with an editor or a client who consistently makes my writing better, I’m not touchy at all, I’m ecstatic.

Jerry was surrounded in life by friends and fellow musicians who helped make his work better. He was a great listener (duh!) and he worked well with people. But he could be touchy too, because he cared. There’s a funny story about Jerry throwing Phil down a set of stairs after a show because he was upset about the quality of Lesh’s bass playing on that San Francisco night. When Jerry listened to the tapes later, he heard how stellar Phil’s playing was and knew he’d been wrong about the show and his response to it.

Jerry had amazing things to offer the world. His music is going to live on for generations, possibly for centuries. Much of the credit for this goes to his ability to find his tribe and to work well with some super talented people therein. Whether he was picking and grinning with David Grisman, or working on a new song with Hunter, Jerry knew when to add a little here and give a little there. That’s art and alchemy, and it’s a large part of what helped make Grateful Dead soar.

Previously: Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #8: Do It Yourself

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #8

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #8

To make it big in the music business you need to know the right people, get several lucky breaks, listen to your producer and your label and generally speaking you need to be willing to be shaped by others. This was true when Jerry Garcia and members of Grateful Dead were growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, and to a large extent it remains true today.

Unless you find another way.

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #8: Do It Yourself

Jerry Garcia and friends were masterful at finding a way. I believe, finding a way was in the air in the San Francisco circa 1967. Take the Diggers. They found a way to feed all the hungry kids in Golden Gate Park who showed up for the Summer of Love with no place to stay, little money or food and basically no clue. Sure, the Diggers redistributed other’s wealth to get the job done, but I don’t want to judge their Robin Hoodishness. I just want to acknowledge their “can do” spirit.

Grateful Dead was an ingenious outfit and they were not afraid to go it alone, or do it themselves. Thanks to benefactor Owsley Stanley (a.k.a. Bear), his money from the sale of LSD and his uncanny ability to make complex things, the Dead had a homemade but totally state-of-the-art sound system. The band later created its own record label, produced its own feature film and created its own mail order distribution system for concert tickets.


The band’s DIY ethos was in part a rejection of mainstream music business culture, but that’s not all it was. It was also about the balls out pursuit of innovative solutions. It meant creating something elegant and better than what existed before. I met Owsley in 1987, and we had a long talk in the car as I drove him from Alpine Valley to the Hilton in Lake Geneva. He didn’t say this, but I am pretty sure he felt the technology that the band relied on had to be good enough to compliment with the LSD people were taking. Put another way, bad sound could easily ruin a perfectly good trip and Owsley wasn’t about to let that happen.

Jerry was also an avid painter and illustrator throughout his life. He did attend art school in San Francisco for a short time, but like he did with most things he figured it out. And then some, as Jerry’s larger canvases were selling for $40,000 while he was alive. Today, his work (including prints) continues to fetch top dollar.

I should note here that Jerry was a super smart guy. He was witty, sharp, a great conversationalist and brilliant in a lot of ways. Jerry had the other essential qualities to go with it: curiosity, passion, charm and a great ear. He’s also a native San Franciscan, and this makes a difference because there’s a pioneering gene common to many residents of the city by the Bay. It’s not known as the “Athens of America” for no reason. In San Francisco so many things are possible, and this wide open approach to things — “if we can dream it we can do it” — was Jerry’s way.

It’s pretty clear to me that this lesson, about self-reliance, innovative thinking and not taking no for an answer, has impacted me in a large way. I didn’t study to become a copywriter. I just became one, by attending the school of hard knocks and by learning on the job. Same with hypertext markup language. I wanted to make websites, so I took an online tutorial in html and started building. That was in 1999 on slow days at the agency. Since that time, I’ve built many client sites, but also established myself as a leading ad industry critic (and champion) thanks to another DIY moment in 2004, when a former colleague and I started In 2009 I founded Bonehook, a guide service and bait shop for brands to serve the needs of companies making a difference in their customers’ lives. Clearly, I listened to Jerry on this one!

By the way, doing it yourself doesn’t mean flying solo. When you combine the DIY ethos with superior teamwork, magic happens.

Previously: Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #7: Explore

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #7

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #7

Note: I am grateful for this entry from Kirk Leach, a friend from Franklin & Marshall College. The band had a profound influence on many F&M students in the ’80s, and it’s a pleasure to recall what we were thinking and doing back then.

I came to the Dead relatively late in life, at about age 21 or so, thanks to an incorrigible housemate who played their tunes incessantly (thanks, DB). Over the next ten years, I had the good fortune to catch 50 or so shows, though I missed about two and a half years in that time span doing something that, in hindsight, I think in some measure relates back to getting to “know” the band and the scene around it. That something–Peace Corps service in Honduras—lead me to value exploration and a certain level of defying convention that may not have happened had I never encountered Jerry and the band.

Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #7: Explore

Let’s go back to 1985, the year of my first Grateful Dead concert. I was an Army brat who grew up up in a very typical homogenous American suburban setting for 14 years, attending a private school where almost everyone went to a four year-college, and then on to be lawyers, doctors, bankers, teachers, etc. Convention was defied only at great risk to one’s psychological and/or physical health. So naturally, I went on, as one did, to an elite northeastern liberal arts college, where, again, convention was the order of the day and exploration of ideas was sadly minimal.


My first show was in 1985, but I started regularly seeing shows and getting to know the scene in 1987, and it was, indeed, an eye-opener. Here was a band, and its followers, who, in many (but not all) ways explored and defied conventions, both musically and in life-style choices. As I read more about the band and its history, particularly about Jerry, it struck me that Grateful Dead were truly inveterate explorers and risk-takers. This appealed to me, though I didn’t fully realize it at the time.

In 1988, after graduation and having worked a couple of office jobs, I decided that there was no reason to be following this path, particularly at such a young age. So, I applied for the Peace Corps and spent 1989-1991 in Honduras building gravity-flow water systems. This sealed the deal for me. I was an explorer unafraid to chart my own way, over the queries and objections of some (though not my immediate family, who were always supportive).

The next 15 years were spent working in International Development, with six more years in Latin America in three different countries. Tucked into that time was a cross-country bicycle trip from Oregon to Connecticut. Another adventure I must have been “crazy” to do.

I’m still a fairly conventional person. I’m not naturally inclined to the truly unconventional lifestyle of Jerry and the band (particularly in their early days), and its hardcore followers. But, I can definitely give at least partial credit to them for influencing the choices I have made that were outside the norm.

Today, they continue to inspire me to explore the possibilities for that next great unconventional experience, and for that I am, indeed, grateful.

Previously: Jerry Garcia Life Lesson #7: Be Kind