A banner year

No matter how you look at it, 2009 was a weird year. For some it was downright trying, while for others it ranked up there among the best 12 months ever. The latter group just happens to include a number of local musicians who — despite a dwindling recording industry — managed to put out great albums, win prizes, tour far and wide, play big-name events, rub shoulders with stars and get name-checked by national press.

We know this list is far from complete, and we want to hear from readers about other bands who had a big year. Share your favorites here!

Top to bottom, Floating Action by Sandlin Gaither, Ahleuchatistas by Josh Rhinehart, Tyler Ramsey by Christopher Wilson, John Doyle, Mad Tea Party by Sandlin Gaither, Josh Phillips by Lydia See, Reigning Sound and Now You See Them by Michael Traister

Asheville-based guitarist Tyler Ramsey earned props from The New York Times for his appearance as part of folk icon Pete Seeger's 90th birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden this past May. Bruce Springsteen was there, as was Dave Matthews, but it was our own Ramsey (and Band of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell) who caught the reviewer's attention.

Since joining the indie-rock phenoms Band of Horses, Ramsey — a keen singer/songwriter in his own right — has been traveling to some dream locales, like the Beatday Festival Copenhagen this year. Ramsey and Band of Horses also got to   play with country star Willie Nelson. In Hawaii. The one place Ramsey hasn't spent much time in 2009 is in the studio working on his next solo release, a follow up to 2008's A Long Dream About Swimming Across the Sea. He recently told Xpress he plans to record again in 2010.

And don't forget former Blue Rags-bassist Bill Reynolds, who's come into his own as a producer (he's also the bassist for Band of Horses). His latest project is the Fat Possum recording artist/big ol' emotional voiced singer Lissie, whose new EP is out now.

The people spoke (well, clicked frequently on the online "vote" box) and Josh Phillips, in a brilliant display of musical democracy, was elected to a 2010 term on Jam Cruise. To celebrate (and to thank his voting constituency), Josh Phillips Folk Festival held a Jam Cruise pre-party at the Orange Peel last week, on the band's second anniversary. But Phillips' big year included more than just his unique blend of reggae, soul and folk music. In April, he won the regional leg of the Bud Lite Hard Bat Ping Pong Tournament, beating out 10 other competitors in the single-elimination challenge. His prize was air fare to Vegas last June, three nights at the Venetian Hotel and a chance to compete for $100,000. Ultimately, the musician didn't walk away with the prize, but winning isn't everything. See Phillips' clip on ESPN (his "Morning Song" plays in the background) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0c4KX6SdKk

The big news this year for kid-hop innovator Secret Agent 23 Skidoo was that he got signed to "ultra funky kids label" Happiness Records, which reissued Skidoo's much-praised album Easy. The Easy single "Gotta Be Me" was selected for the Kidzapalooza Compilation CD. Skidoo performed at Kidzapalooza (founded by Perry Farrell) in August and is already on the list of performers — along with Zach Gill of Jack Johnson's Band — for 2010. Earlier in the year, Skidoo released a DVD with videos for "Gotta Be Me" and "Family Tree," the former won first place (coincidentally, by 23 votes) in the 2009 Zooglobble Tournament.

Overachiever Michael Libramento has, at the tender age of 23, mastered guitar, bass and keys and his singing's none too shabby, either. Just out of college, the musician is already living the dream (that is, making a living as a musician rather than slinging coffee). A veteran of a number of local bands (stephaniesid, Mind vs. Target, Ice Cream), he joined Floating Action on bass this year.

As if touring cross-country with Floating Action wasn't enough, Libramento was handpicked by Floating Action tour/label-mates (Park the Van Records) The Generationals to join their tour. Our suggestion for next year: Join at least three more bands, ace the bassoon and run for public office. We'll totally canvas for you.

Libramento's triumphs aside, Floating Action has earned plenty of notches in the proverbial belt. The brainchild of singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist Seth Kauffman, Floating Action went through a few incarnations (one was called Tropical Disease) before settling on its current name and sound. Kauffman's sound borrows from the island lilt of vintage Caribe and the swank and strut of MoTown, with plenty of surprise soundscapes and the effortlessly cool lo-fi production that is Kauffman's stamp. (Check out this year's Fare You Well, the album Kauffman produced for country singer/songwriter Cary Fridley.)

The band opened a string of shows for label-mates Dr. Dog that culminated with a spot in Park the Van's SXSW label showcase (Floating Action is already on the roster as a SXSW showcasing band for 2010). Following the Asheville-based launch of its self-titled album, Kauffman's band headed out on a cross-country tour, garnering favorable reviews with indie-media.

For many people, a trip to Europe is a rare pleasure, if not a once-in-a-lifetime excursion. For punk/metal/avant-jazz trio Ahleuchatistas, it's a yearly occurrence. The band headed to France and Spain this past fall (and have Italy and Austria dates lined up for March and April, 2010), touring in support of the John Zorn-founded Tzadik label release Of the Body Prone.

Prone is Ahleuchatistas' fifth album and earned them reviews in The New York Times ("Together they lurch swiftly from speed metal to thrash punk to a kind of heat-stroke minimalism. There's noise and fire in their playing, but most of these tunes are also studded with signposts, demanding close attention and clear execution."), All About Jazz ("This take-no-prisoners music is purposeful virtuosity. Perlowin's guitar writes math equations on 'Owls' while the band swaps directions and speed.") and NPR ("It's the kind of musical tug-of-war that sounds as jagged as it is graceful"), among others.

Look for 2010 to be a similarly big year for the group and its members, and watch for Shane Perlowin's new solo release in February, along with the dimension he adds to the significant post-folk project Pilgrim.

This year, much-loved and too-seldom-heard-from Reigning Sound released Love & Curses on label In The Red — the band's fifth release (depending on how you count). The record warranted a writeup in The New Yorker, complete with praise such as, "Cartwright serves up reminders that he is at his best when he is most emotional, which is not to say sentimental, and though there are plenty of barn burners ('If I Can't Come Back,' 'Debris') the songs with the most staying power are the ones that aren't in such a hurry to get away." That, and they toured Spain (one stop was the Go Sinner Go music party in Madrid).

Then, in his spare time, front man Greg Cartwright was featured in the November issue of Uncut magazine, released a solo album (Live at the Circle A) and reunited with his famously rad former band, the Compulsive Gamblers. In 2010, Asheville will still be lucky as hell to claim Cartwright as a resident.

Mad Tea Party, the ultimate DIY group (for starters, the duo plays enough instruments — at one time — for a full band), spent most of 2009 on the road. Jason Krekel and Ami Worthen started the year with POPAsheville (including a recording with Jar-E which aired on WNCW), played the Denver Ukulele Festival, toured the Northwest in May and the Northeast in July, recorded and released the Halloween EP Zombie Boogie and then did a Southeast tour and a Gulf Coast tour in support of the album. All of that amidst two major family losses — but the Mad Tea Party just kept on rockin' in fine style.

It's not even been two years since folk-pop trio Now You See Them landed in Asheville (fresh off round-the-world adventures, including being deported from Australia). But the band's serious work ethic, constant gigging (clubs, streets, farmer's markets, wherever and whenever) saw not only their rapid rise on the local scene but several exciting career developments.

2009 played out something like this: Won WNC Magazine's Last Band Standing contest and with it a coveted Bele Chere slot. Rocked the Flat Rock Music Festival, Shakori Hills Grassroots Music Festival, LAAFF and D.I.G. Documented by photojournalists (http://www.carolinaphotojournalism.org/cpjw/2009/busking), completed a Monkeywhale.com video session (http://www.monkeywhale.com/video/harveys-kitchen-growing-older), recorded their fourth Live from Asheville EP and got into Echo Mountain Studios to work on two more songs. And to prove just how good their songs are, both songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Shane Conerty and Dulci Ellenberger were finalists in Mo Daddy's Brown Bag Songwriting Competition. The band is now working on not one but two albums with producer Eric Wilson and has signed on a management/promo/booking team. For 2010, says drummer Jason Mencer, "We're dreaming very big."

When frontwoman Stephanie Morgan announced there would be no POPAsheville (the much-loved winter music festival she founded and ran) in 2010, the crowds despaired. But part of the reason was so Morgan and Co. could focus on their band — an understandable move, and one that seems to be paying off. 

With the release of this year's Warm People, stephaniesid seems to have risen another rung on the ladder to national acclaim. Music reviews popped up in dozens of magazines and music blogs; some notable include Blurt and Billboard magazines.

But the attention didn't stop with the written word: The band was tapped as a World Cafe NEXT Artist in June (songs "Bullet Train" and "Big Grey Peepers" got airplay). Warm's single "Hey Hey Hey" aired on the Showtime comedy noir "Nurse Jackie;" filmmaker Mariano Vivanco included the same song on the the fashion clip "Ninety Five Chapel Street." View it at http://www.feelfilms.co.uk/feelfilms/full_showreel. Expect more big news this year.

Ireland-born guitarist John Doyle gained international recognition during his turn with Celtic-influenced band Solas. Doyle's decision to leave Solas and the group's New York home base for a solo career and a move to Asheville (in 1999) might have raised some eyebrows, but the guitarist knew what he was doing. Not only has Doyle's solo work amassed an impressive fanbase; he also landed an impressive supporting slot on tour with folk legend Joan Baez.

This year saw Doyle — who is currently is musical director/guitarist/singer with Baez — completed his third extended tour with in late November with the folk singer. (Go to Baez's tour blog on her Web site www.joanbaez.com, for a super-cute photo of Doyle being visited on the road by his daughter.) He'll round out the year performing for the BBC's televised Hogmanay New Year's Eve celebration in Glasgow, Scotland, but even more impressive than that is what 2010 could bring: Doyle's 2009 Compass Records-release Double Play (with fiddler and frequent collaborator Liz Carroll) has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Traditional World Album category. http://www.johndoylemusic.com

Other notables: The Cheeksters had their song "Movers and Shakers" in an NFL commercial. Buncombe Turnpike's video "Where the Hills are Blue" made it onto CMT's Music City Madness online video contest. Steep Canyon Rangers were hand-picked as the backing band for comedian/banjo player Steve Martin's 2009 tour. David Holt and Josh Goforth were both nominated for a Grammy, in the category Best Traditional Folk Album for their new release Cutting Loose.

Toubab Krewe continued its phenomenal rise, playing a host of big-name festivals (including Bonnaroo) and with The Dead at Rothbury. See the video on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNHCChGUWl4

And in a cool twist, the four local musicians who backed up underground folk icon Rodriguez on his Asheville appearance continued touring as his backup band, playing a series of East Coast dates, Les Argentes in Belgium and the Austin City Limits festival.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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