The return to live music events this summer, after a 16-month pandemic lockdown, made 2021 a year to celebrate, albeit cautiously. Witness the number of artists who performed in San Diego between August and this month who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, from Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Smokey Robinson and the Doobie Brothers to the Indigo Girls and John Mayall. And witness how many concerts and festivals, here and nationwide — including Coachella, Wonderfront and KAABOO — were postponed for a second consecutive year until 2022. So take nothing for granted and cherish every musical experience, whether in-person or at home. You never know how long it may be until the next one.
Home is where the music is
There was electricity in the air as concerts returned this summer — or, in a few fleeting instances, spring — to reactivated venues small and large, indoors and out. While I happily attended the 2021 opening performances at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, the Del Mar Fairgrounds parking lot (when drive-in concerts were still the only game in town) and other locations, my first live gig this year was by jazz pianist Christian Sands, a five-time Grammy nominee, and his trio.
The audience in the courtyard of La Jolla Music Society’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center was socially distanced and capacity limited. The music was inspired throughout. When Sands and his group performed a transcendent extended instrumental version of the 1969 Blind Faith classic, “Can’t Find My Way Home,” it was a vivid reminder that live music makes its home anywhere and everywhere.
The long and winding road
If any band merits a nearly eight-hour long, three-part film documentary, it’s The Beatles. In the hands of Oscar-winner Peter Jackson, the forever Fab Four were matched with a director whose command of cinema is matched by his passion for the greatest of all rock acts. The result, “Get Back,” captures the warts-and-all Beatles in January of 1969, preparing for their final concert and creating their penultimate album, “Let It Be.”
Moments of inspiration and tedium are given equal billing in chronicling the band’s creative process. The frayed nerves and colliding egos of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr are matched by their abiding love for one another and the music they created. How are magical songs made in even the tensest of circumstances? “Get Back” provides some answers.
Better than Woodstock?
A labor of love for first-time director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots, “Summer of Love” has been belatedly hailed as the “Black Woodstock.” Why it took 52 years for this stunning concert footage to be released is a mystery wryly noted in “Summer of Soul’s” subtitle: “Or … When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.”
In any case, this treasure trove of performances from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival in New York is historical and electrifying. The lineup includes Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Abbey Lincoln & Max Roach, Mongo Santamaria, Woodstock alums Sly & The Family Stone, and more. And when Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples launch into the classic gospel song, “Take My Hand Precious Lord,” their soaring vocals are beyond heavenly.
The Shell yields musical pearl
Creating what becomes an instant cultural landmark is a lofty dream for most arts organizations. But that is exactly what the San Diego Symphony achieved with the August debut of The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, its $85 million year-round concert venue.
That the opening was delayed a year by the pandemic raised expectations, which The Shell — as it is also known — handily exceeded. Nestled alongside San Diego Bay, the state-of-the-art venue suggests a waterfront combination of a more intimate Hollywood Bowl and an open-air version of the Sydney Opera House. As visually striking as it is superior in sonic quality, The Shell looked and sounded as terrific hosting orchestral concerts by the symphony as it did hip-hop mainstay Nas, the blues-rocking Gary Clark Jr. and jazz-soul singer Ledisi (who delivered a pitch-perfect tribute to Nina Simone). That all but a fraction of the venue’s $85 million price tag was privately funded only added to a “wow” factor that should continue for years to come.
“King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King” is not the first biography of this singular American music giant, who died in 2015 at the age of 89. But this vividly written and expertly researched book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Daniel DeVise, a former Washington Post reporter, seems like the definitive chronicle of the iconic blues singer and guitarist.
Over the course of nearly 500 pages, DeVise paints a vibrant portrait of his subject. What makes “King of the Blues” even more notable are the other stories it tells: of a corrupt music industry that expertly exploited Black artists; of a segregated nation, systemic racism and the rise of the Civil Rights movement; and of the skill, grit and indefatigable spirit that enabled King, a sharecropper’s son born into abject poverty, to rise to worldwide fame.