The high notes of 2015: A look back on a year of music in Charleston

Pharrell Williams sang at Emanuel AME Church on Nov. 1.

We all know 2015 was one of the most difficult years in recent memory for Charleston. There was tragedy, pain, division and controversy.

But if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that we don’t let the bad trump the good in Charleston. We shed tears, but we had our fair share of good times, too. And in both cases, music was there to bring us together. As we head into the new year, let’s take a moment to remember the high notes of 2015, the times we broke into song, danced until our feet hurt or cheered after a performance we didn’t want to end.

After a lone gunman shot and killed nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17, Charleston was thrust into the international spotlight in the worst way possible. And while it wasn’t easy to grieve with cameras bearing down, the ever-present media captured the uplifting moments that helped define the city’s resilient spirit.

President Barack Obama made history when he started singing “Amazing Grace” in the middle of his address to the nation during S.C. Sen. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral on June 26 at the College of Charleston’s TD Arena. The world had never seen or heard that side of the president, but what many may remember is the organist who chimed in from the orchestra as soon as the president started to sing.

Charles Miller Jr., the local organist who works for Fox Music House, explained after the service that he felt called by God to play his instrument at that moment: “In the black tradition, when a lot of preachers get to the end of their sermons, the musicians come in and assist with the message. Even though President Obama is not a minister, he was delivering a word for this church, for this community, this city, the state, and for the nation.”

That weekend, Miller was featured on several major broadcasts on ABC, CNN and NBC, among others.

The tragedy inspired another highly publicized performance months later. Pop star Pharrell Williams visited Charleston in early November with A+E Networks and TV host Soledad O’Brien to speak with community members about race relations for a program called “Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America.”

The program aired Nov. 20 and included a segment of Williams singing his latest single, “Freedom” at Emanuel AME Church with members of the church choir, which was filmed live during a regular Sunday service Nov. 1.

While the performance caught many local headlines, Williams told the Associated Press that the program was about more than music.

“That’s not what these communities need. They don’t need another song, they need action,” Williams said. “And if that’s accompanied by music, that’s a beautiful thing.”

Some of the best performances of the year came totally unexpected.

On a Tuesday in August, Darius Rucker announced on Twitter that he’d be performing a free concert the next day in Charleston, and that tickets would be handed out in a few hours on the College of Charleston campus.

All the tickets were claimed within 15 minutes, and the following evening, roughly 500 locals got to see the Hootie and the Blowfish frontman and solo artist sing a mix of Hootie hits and his latest country tunes at the Windjammer on Isle of Palms. The whole two-day ordeal was filmed for CMT’s “Instant Jam” series, which aired on Sept. 5.

In early June, local Americana fans were spoiled with a Shrimp Records family jam at the Pour House. The music collective includes many of Charleston’s elite players, such as Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope, so it was a given that there would be some pretty special collaborations. But nobody could have predicted what happened after set break.

By the end of the show, the room was a little more than half-full and the stage was filled with musicians including Hearst and Trent, Joel Hamilton, Sadler Vaden, Kevn Kinney of Drivin ‘N’ Cryin and even the Grammy-nominated country artist Jason Isbell.

Isbell’s last few performances in Charleston at the Charleston Music Hall and the North Charleston Performing Arts Center sold out, so it was surreal for fans to see him sit in with local musicians in such a laid-back setting.

There were a few shakeups for local music festivals this year.

The Southern Ground Music & Food Festival that was held on Daniel Island every fall since 2011 didn’t return in 2015. Organizers moved the event hosted by the Zac Brown Band to the spring in an effort to boost ticket sales.

Will Ward, a founding partner of ROAR, the entertainment company that manages the Zac Brown Band, said in September that holding the event in the fall meant competing with regional football games for attendees.

“Whether it’s at a restaurant or on a couch, people are watching football,” he said at the time.

Earlier this month, the Zac Brown Band announced the festival will return to Daniel Island’s MUSC Health Stadium, formerly known as the Blackbaud Stadium, on April 16-17. Headliners include Tedeschi Trucks Band, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Kacey Musgraves and several others.

In May, the global beverage company Lipton announced that it would host a music festival, called the Be More Tea Festival, in North Charleston to celebrate the company’s 125th anniversary. The free event was held at Riverfront Park in October, and featured several nationally known bands such as Passion Pit, The Roots and BORNS.

For those who didn’t score tickets during local giveaways, the event will likely be remembered for its oddities.

For instance, the company never quite clarified why it chose to hold the event in North Charleston, other than the fact that the city “embodied the spirit of Lipton,” according to spokeswoman Melanie Watts.

Also, Lipton broke the Guinness World Record for the Largest Iced Tea at the festival by filling a 12.5-foot-tall pitcher with the beverage, taking the record that had just been set by the town of Summerville in June. The town went for the title because of its claim as the birthplace of sweet tea, which helps drive tourism to the area. Before the event, Lipton representatives wouldn’t confirm or deny any plans to go after the record.

While the Be More Tea Festival may have been a one-time event, a big take-away was that Riverfront Park shined as a scenic outdoor venue capable of handling a nationally promoted music festival.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

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