Bao Le-Huu has been prowling the Orlando music scene since he was a skater kid at all-ages concerts and club nights. For the past 18 years, he's been covering local music and touring acts officially as a columnist, 15 of them for Orlando Weekly.
In 2020, we remarked on how upside-down that year was. This year has just turned out to be a different shade of unreal. Even with reopening, venues and performers have struggled to find a balance between their livelihood and their safety on still-shifting ground.
Personally, I've gone from clocking in over a hundred concerts a year to a record-scratching zero. Between such a long scene absence and now only going out in public looking like I'm in the band Clinic, I'll be surprised if anyone even recognizes me anymore.
But the human spirit is indomitable, and things were still willed and worked into existence around the Orlando music scene, even in the face of unprecedented adversity. Here are some of this year's most notable ones:
Best Local Record: Frens, Sad Halen
One of the more exceptional live bands in recent years, Orlando's Sad Halen opened 2021 with an outpouring of Bandcamp releases. But the best, most complete is this first one. Rocking and groaning like Dinosaur Jr. on a blissful shoegaze bender, the Frens EP is a triumph of tune and texture.
Best Release Roll: Alien Witch The Orlando no-wave act owns this category in both quantity and quality. In 2021 alone, Dee "Alien Witch" Crittenden has so far cranked out seven full-length albums — most over a dozen songs each, and none of them filler. Factor in the extraordinary stylistic range covered and you've got a marvel of accomplishment.
Best New Temple of Boom: The Vanguard
Give credit to the movers behind this new downtown nightclub for rolling the dice and opening in a very uncertain (pandemic) environment. A complete overhaul of the legendary Firestone nightclub in both facilities and brand, the Vanguard has managed to re-establish this hallowed ground as a premier dance-music destination with some of the city's most heavyweight bookings (e.g. Diplo, Carl Cox, Eric Prydz, ARMNHMR, etc.), thanks primarily to a partnership with EDM powerhouse Insomniac. An old dance-music legacy gets a fresh, gleaming reboot for a new generation.
Best New Venue: Tuffy's Music Box
Opening a new live-music venue in a time when people were retreating to their homes en masse is a feat. Even more so is doing it with this much direction and ambition. Since expanding to include an on-site venue and bringing on scene veteran Thomas Wynn as promoter and venue manager this year, Tuffy's Bottle Shop in Sanford has rapidly become an area contender, boasting bookings like the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood, North Mississippi Allstars, Cordovas, Great Peacock and George Porter Jr. in their Music Box space. They’ve got the size and the booking smarts and the sound system. Now if only Florida could get this vaccination stuff right.