Rick Holmstrom, Mavis Staples
Guitarist Rick Holmstrom and the great Mavis Staples brought the joy to Lincoln’s historic Zoo Bar’s 46th anniversary street festival July 20, 2019. Photo by B.J. Huchtemann

Looking back at 2019, here, in no particular order, are some shows that brought me joy.

Jon Dee Graham & The Fighting Cocks played at B Side of Benson Theatre in July with Bonnie Whitmore opening and holding down the bass in the band. Graham’s rock ‘n’ roll reflections on the happy moments and challenges of everyday life are uplifting and ring with an extraordinary truth. It’s life-changing stuff for me from an artist whose work resonates deeply and personally. Find out for yourself at JonDeeGraham.com. Graham had a heart attack a few days after the show, while in Chicago, so don’t miss him next time he comes to town. I can’t wait to see where that experience takes his songwriting.

Dave Alvin, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and The Guilty Ones brought their rich collaboration to both Omaha and Lincoln in June, hitting The Waiting Room and Lincoln’s Zoo Bar on their way to the prestigious Chicago Blues Festival. Both Alvin and Gilmore are icons of roots, folk and Americana. Alvin started his career with The Blasters and Gilmore with The Flatlanders.

Together with Alvin’s longtime backing band, The Guilty Ones, they recorded a wonderful album and have been on tour, giving audiences a delightful and powerful dose of material from their individual catalog and also performing new music created for the project. Two back-to-back nights of heart and joy. It’s always a special treat to see an act of this caliber in the Zoo Bar, where you can be next to the stage, soaking up the creative energy. I appreciate how Alvin keeps reaching out for new collaborations and stretching his music. Look for a new project with Alvin and other all-star musicians Victor Krummenacher (Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker, Monks of Doom), David Immergluck (Counting Crows, Monks of Doom, John Hiatt) and Michael Jerome (Richard Thompson, Better Than Ezra) called The Third Mind out in 2020 on Yep Roc Records. See DaveAlvin.net.

Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal is based in Lincoln, and their Zoo Bar show in November underlined the resulting excitement generated by the work, dedication and fierce energy this band puts behind their original music. The power coming off the stage, through the music, was a physical force. Hoyer’s soulful voice is distinctive and readily recognizable amongst national purveyors of funk and R&B, and his songs are tremendous. The band continues to tour nationally, and they have a new disc coming in 2020 produced by The New Mastersounds guitarist Eddie Roberts for his Color Red label. They’ve also been tapped to join The New Mastersounds for several national gigs in Chicago and on the West Coast. See JoshHoyer.com.

Longtime Hoodoo favorite Hadden Sayers has been focused on more solo acoustic shows and house concerts, garnering a 2019 Blues Music Award nomination for “Best Acoustic Blues Artist” on the strength of his recording Acoustic Dopamine. Sayers gigged at both B Side of Benson Theatre and Jerome Brich’s FolkHouse concert series last year. The shows are engaging, and it’s fun to see old fans and newcomers to his music appreciate Sayers’ songwriting and guitar work. Longtime fans enjoy the stories Sayers has to tell about his songs. See HaddenSayers.com.

Last year, ZooFest, the annual street festival hosted by Zoo Bar for its anniversary, was plagued with scorching hot weather. Thankfully, a cool front brought a bit of breeze just in time for Mavis Staples’ headlining set. Staples is another personal favorite. A lifelong musician, she obviously delights in performing. That delight is contagious, and her show is a joyous celebration featuring the top-flight musicians in her band. She’s a force of nature with a big, soulful voice, and she performs with a fierce joy. At 80, she shows no signs of slowing down and remains relevant, with a new disc produced by Ben Harper, We Get By, which garnered late-night TV appearances when the record was released. See MavisStaples.com.

Other particularly notable shows I caught last year included the supercharged soul-blues of multiple Blues Music Award-winning entertainer and vocalist Sugaray Rayford and an amazing band that included a horn section that has worked with Amy Winehouse. They played both Chrome Lounge and The Zoo Bar. Chris O’Leary Band is another standout on the touring circuit. O’Leary has great stage presence, a terrific band and a tremendous, commanding vocal style. It was a delight to see Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter-bandleader Scottie Miller at The Jewell in November. It was my first full show at the club, and the acoustics are exquisite. It was a great environment to showcase Miller’s songwriting and keyboard work alongside his fine band.

I’m sure the minute I hit send on this piece I will think of someone else I should have mentioned. Bottom line: I look to music to bring the joy, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to soak up experiences like these and, hopefully, point you toward shows that will resonate with you, too.

January Recommendations

It’s a little early to find full schedules for venues in January, but here’s what I can recommend for starting your 2020 off with live music. The Blues Society of Omaha (BSO) Thursday shows continue, starting with guitarist Hamilton Loomis Thursday, Jan. 2, at The Jewell, 6 to 9 p.m. Biscuit Miller & The Mix bring the funk Thursday, Jan. 9, at Stocks ‘n’ Bonds, 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23, Tas Cru & His Band of Tortured Souls is the featured act, also at Stocks ‘n’ Bonds, 6 to 9 p.m. The Blues Society’s BSO Presents Thursday show schedule as well as other show announcements can be found at OmahaBlues.com.

Thursday, Jan. 16, 6 to 9 p.m. at Stocks ‘n’ Bonds, the BSO hosts Hector Anchondo in a performance that is an IBC send-off party and fundraiser. Anchondo is representing the BSO in the solo/duo category of the 2020 International Blues Challenge in Memphis Jan. 28-Feb. 1. Anchondo represented the BSO in the band category in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, the Hector Anchondo Band made it from a field of more than 250 artists to be selected as one of eight finalists performing for top honors.

Representing the BSO at the IBC in the band category is Rex Granite Band featuring Sarah Benck. This is the band’s second year representing the BSO. They made it to the semi-finals in Memphis in 2018. Bands may represent their sponsoring blues society for two years in a row before they must sit out a year, according to IBC rules. Rex Granite Band featuring Sarah Benck made it through to the semi-finals in 2018. A send-off party and fundraiser for Granite, Benck and their band takes place at The B. Bar Friday, Jan. 20, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.

The Blues Foundation produces the annual International Blues Challenge, now in its 36th year.  A stand-out performance on this truly international stage can be a huge career boost even if an artist doesn’t make it to the finals. For more information on the IBCs visit blues.org/international-blues-challenge.

Hot Notes
In the things I usually don’t have space to mention category, there are some ongoing events of note. The first Tuesday of every month, 6 to 9 p.m., Absolutely Fresh Seafood and Shucks present the “Crabby Blues Band” featuring Bucky McCann, Craig Balderston, Gayland Prince, Greg Lindberg, George Bryan and friends. They perform at the Shucks’ Pacific Street location at 1218 S. 119th St. Each month a charity is selected, and 13% of that day’s sales are donated. See shucksfishhouse.com.

Every Monday, the Ozone Big Band plays at Ozone inside Anthony’s Steakhouse 7 to 9:30 p.m.

There are a number of open jams in Omaha and Lincoln. Find a curated list on the calendar at OmahaBlues.com.

Swing and New Orleans jazz take center stage when the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band perform at the Holland Performing Arts Center Thursday, Jan. 30, 7:30 p.m.
Also at the Holland, Omaha native and acclaimed jazz drummer Curly Martin returns to the 1200 Club with a show featuring some of his talented friends and family Thursday, Feb. 6, 7:30 p.m.

Indigenous, featuring popular blues-rock guitarist Mato Nanji, is back at The Waiting Room Sunday, Jan. 12, 7 p.m.

Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal share a triple bill with Black Swan Theory and Funk Trek Friday, Jan. 24, 9 p.m. at Slowdown. Hoyer & Soul Colossal also play two shows at the Zoo Bar Saturday, Jan. 25, 5 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.

Don’t forget our fine local talents, such as Josh Hoyer, Hector Anchondo, Rex Granite Band featuring Sarah Benck and so many others, when you are making your plans to go experience live music. And support the local clubs that are booking and supporting the music you like. Live music matters. So does your support.

Rick Holmstrom, Mavis Staples
Guitarist Rick Holmstrom and the great Mavis Staples brought the joy to Lincoln’s historic Zoo Bar’s 46th anniversary street festival July 20, 2019.

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