The best Northwest Arkansas concerts of 2011

January 2nd, 2012 at 5:03 am

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones at Harvest Fest. All photos by KEVIN KINDER, NWA Media.

Welcome to 2012. Now that we’re through the New Year’s Eve shows, it feels like a good time to reminisce about the best concerts of the year that was. Here were the rules, which were pretty simple: The show had to take place in this paper’s 13-county coverage area and it had to happen in 2011. That’s it. In previous years, I’ve lumped festivals together, but that’s not terribly fair. First, those have to fall among the highlights of the year, and second, it doesn’t allow us to focus on some amazing individual moments from many of these festivals.

So, without delay, my favorite concerts of 2011:

10) Broncho, Nov. 19 at The Lightbulb Club

A complaint with Broncho’s show? It was really short. How short? Well, I don’t know. I wasn’t at their show at The Lightbulb Club for an official review, I was at their show to meet up with some friends and have an adult beverage. I didn’t have my notepad. I don’t know what songs they played. I just know I enjoyed it.

9) Steep Canyon Rangers, Oct. 13 as part of Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Music Festival near Ozark

The Steep Canyon Rangers at Harvest Fest

As I said in my initial review, this was a Steve Martin-less version of the Steep Canyon Rangers, but those who avoided the band for that reason made a big mistake. I didn’t get to watch nearly enough of the band’s performance, but their tight harmonies, musical prowess and energetic approach sold me.

8) Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Oct. 15 as part of Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Music Festival near Ozark

Victor Wooten of Bela Fleck & The Flecktones

It’s hard to classify Bela Fleck & The Flecktones; it’s even harder to resist being dazzled by their performances. The group, now touring with its original lineup for the first time in more than a decade, used their slot as one of the headliners of Harvest Fest to conjure up a spell of expert playing. When Victor Wooten let loose with his bass guitar, it was a sight (and sound) to behold.

7) Kopecky Family Band (and the Memphis Pencils), May 27 at Smoke & Barrel Tavern

The Kopecky Family Band has been making a name for themselves on the road and the media, like Paste magazine, who named them one of the top touring acts of 2011, are taking notice. The group from Nashville, Tenn., performed in Fayetteville a couple times this year, but I most enjoyed their set on May 27, which served as fundraiser for Joplin tornado victims. That night featured a particularly strong collection of local openers, too, such as the Memphis Pencils, who, sadly, have moved on to other opportunities outside Northwest Arkansas.

6) Lucinda Williams, May 1 at the Fayetteville Town Center

Lucinda Williams

I’ve watched Lucinda Williams several times throughout the years, and, like always, she was good, bordering on excellent when she took the stage her in early May. She’s a strange blend of surly and self-deprecating, but it works for her. Her band was excellent that night, too. But like most, I’ll not forget that night for another reason. After the conclusion of her set, Williams announced prior to her encore that terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan. The crowd hooted in approval and electricity crackled through the room. Williams finished her set with the protest song “Fort What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield, and the lyrics held a little more poignancy in that setting.

Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons

5) Mumford & Sons, June 4 as part of the Wakarusa festival near Ozark

I’m slightly jaded here (and spoiled) because I saw Mumford & Sons a week after their Northwest Arkansas performance and thought they delivered a better set the second time I watched them. That may be prohibiting me from ranking them much higher here. However, that may also be shorting them in this instance. The U.K. band stormed this country with their excellent album “Sigh No More” then stormed the Grammy ceremony by playing with The Avett Brothers and Bob Dylan. They then stormed the festival scene, including Wakarusa, where a group danced so passionately that a dust cloud rose in the midday sun. There is a grand power in the ability to make a crowd of 40,000 sing like they did that summer day, and Mumford had the group in the palm of their hands for this performance.

Sharon Jones

4) Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, June 3 as part of the Wakarusa festival near Ozark

If you want retro soul, delivered with passion, you need look no further than Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, who have released a series of fantastic albums. That list includes “I Learned the Hard Way,” which was released not long before Wakarusa took place. A Jones show is a rare treat in this part of the country, and she proved by dancing and belting out her songs the shows are not to be missed when they do arrive.

3) Girl Talk, Sept. 10 as part of the Festival on the Border in Fort Smith

The Fray in Fort Smith

Decked in sweatpants and a T-shirt, and using only a laptop, Girl Talk inspired one of the biggest, sweatiest dance parties of the year. Originally billed as a supporting act for the inaugural Festival on the Border event in Fort Smith, a day-of decision put him on the top of the bill over piano-pop act The Fray. Girl Talk rewarded the crowd with a slew of hits, blasts from confetti cannons and near-constant streams of flying toilet paper launched from onstage blasters. Girl Talk — aka Gregg Gillis — also performed at a secret show in Fayetteville later in the year, but his first show exceeded the schmaltz and fun factors of the second event.

2) Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, April 17 at the Walton Arts Center

The Del McCoury Band with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band

In a word, the combined performance by two legendary groups was, simply, joyous. The disparate sounds of bluegrass icons Del McCoury Band and legendary New Orleans residents Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined together for a memorable night of Americana. The two sides traded the spotlight throughout the evening, trading highlights, too, such as a take on “I’ll Fly Away,” and the rousing closer, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Jim James of My Morning Jacket at Wakarusa

1) My Morning Jacket, June 3 as part of the Wakarusa festival near Ozark

Those who know me best probably saw this coming from a million miles away. From the moment Wakarusa announced that My Morning Jacket would be among the headliners for the annual festival, my anticipation levels for the show and festival became unhealthy with the fear my heart would explode. Surprisingly, considering that level of personal hype, the Louisville-based rockers delivered. Focusing heavily on their newest record, “Circuital,” the band also delivered previous gems with blasts of guitar-fueled frenzy that came at the audience in waves.