There is a gigantic learning curve associated with moving to a new city, particularly one halfway across the country. This curve extends to every part of daily life. There is a different rhythm, a different drumbeat, a different well … everything.
And so it goes with a city’s live music scene. New Orleans is a spontaneous city. You can pop inside any number of jazz clubs and see a great show any night of the week. As for national touring acts, particularly those of the indie variety, the city can be hit or miss. A partial reason? There are not a great deal of venues to host mid-sized acts.
Portland is stronger than New Orleans in terms of getting national acts but its local flavor is lacking. Good shows sell out quicker in Portland. Oftentimes that’s because scalpers purchase tickets, only to jack up prices. The Portland crowds are a little more subdued and image conscious. There are a wealth of venues of different sizes that make the Rose City an attractive tour stop. Enough comparing New Orleans and Portland.
This year, I chronicled more than 40 live music acts on this blog, and that’s just a portion of the shows I attended. This is a list to celebrate the best shows I had the pleasure of seeing in Portland, as well as some great shows I saw in Chicago (Pitchfork Music Festival) and Seattle (Bumbershoot).
Without further delay, I give you my favorite live music shows of 2011:
HONORABLE MENTION: Man Man (Wonder Ballroom, Portland, May 18); BRAIDS (Holocene, Portland, March 2); GIVERS (Mission Theater, Portland, May 31); Mogwai (Wonder Ballroom, Portland, May 5); Explosions In The Sky (Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland, Sept. 10); Big Boi (Bumbershoot, Seattle, Sept. 5)
10. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (Roseland Theater, Portland, Sept. 9)
Seattle hip-hop act Macklemore and Ryan Lewis performed in front of the most hyped audience I saw at a club venue this year. From the first song, the capacity crowd of 1,200 rhymed along with Macklemore, bounced up and down, and threw their hands skyward. Macklemore and his DJ Ryan Lewis channeled the goodwill into a celebration of hip-hop and life, in general. Macklemore spit with fury whether he was onstage or in the crowd. And he appeared to be having more fun than anyone, whether he was donning a blonde wig on “And We Danced” or reflecting on how far he and Ryan Lewis have come in the past year. The show not only justified the crowd’s outpouring of love for the hip-hop act, but significantly raised my expectations for their future recorded releases and live shows.
9. Fleet Foxes (Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago, July 18)
There’s something majestic about four members of Fleet Foxes harmonizing along with 20,000 background singers. I’ve seen Fleet Foxes five times, including their June 23 Edgefield performance in Portland. Their headlining set at Pitchfork stands out as my favorite. Bands are generally interesting live because they put on an entertaining visual or aural show. The great live bands accomplish both. Fleet Foxes is not visually entertaining, but their sound is so golden live that it does not matter. And when you have a crowd of thousands singing along with every word, as was the case at Pitchfork, it is hard not to get swept up in the simple beauties projected in Robin Pecknold and Co.’s folksy songs. Plus, hearing them close with “Helplessness Blues” left me awestruck.
8. Bon Iver (Edgefield, Portland, Sept. 24)
The Bon Iver I fell in love with was a spare, understated four-piece who were sonically drowned out by Spiritualized at the 2008 Pitchfork Music Festival. The Bon Iver that played a sold-out show at the 5,000-capacity Edgefield this year had morphed into a formidable nine-piece complete with two drummers and a horn section. The songs from For Emma, Forever Ago benefitted from the fleshed out, meatier arrangements. Still, Justin Vernon remained at the center of it all. His voice is/was a revelation. His falsetto always had an affecting quality. It has only gotten richer and more emotive as the years have passed. Vernon’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side” was one of a several highlights during the show. Surprisingly, it was one of the few songs where the high school girl to my right did not burst into tears.
7. Big Freedia (Dante’s, Portland, Sept. 11)
I’ve seen the Queen Diva of New Orleans’ sissy bounce scene five times in the past 14 months. I am having withdrawals right now because I have not seen Freedia in almost three months. The show referenced above was arguably the best Freedia performance I have experienced. That’s not to say it greatly differed from past shows. It featured abundant ass shaking, me jumping around like a berserk person, and ended too quickly — albeit, not before I was drenched in sweat. Oh, and it featured two plus-sized ladies with kabuki face paint who participated in an ass-off. They shook their ample posteriors till Freedia declared one the winner. Art, it was not. Great entertainment, check.
6. TV On The Radio (Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago, July 19)
TV On The Radio bears a slight resemblance to Big Freedia for me. I have seen both artists so many times that I know what I am getting with each. That’s not a backhanded compliment. Vocalists Tunde Adibempe and Kyp Malone are the best one-two punch in rock music. Both men can be forceful when need be or delicate. TV On The Radio’s set that night contained the requisite lose your shit moments (i.e., “Wolf Like Me” and “Satellite”) and starry-eyed passages (i.e., “Will Do”, “Young Liars”). Just as expected, TV On The Radio were great, maybe even transcendent. Did I mention I saw them play at night in Chicago in the shadow of the skyscraper formerly known as the Sears Tower?
5. The Dismemberment Plan (Pitchfork Musical Festival, Chicago, July 18)
The reunited Washington, D.C., emocrats, as I once saw them described in Spin Magazine, performed a blistering Pitchfork set, heavy on cuts from their albums Emergency & I and Change. Their songs, all of which were at least eight years old, sounded like they were released yesterday. Frontman Travis Morrison commanded my attention the whole time, even when I was bouncing around like I was at a Big Freedia show. He played the keyboard with his head, made weird references to dropping acid in the crowd hours earlier, and sung/spoke with a Pentecostal revivalist’s fervor. Not to be outdone, drummer Joe Easley’s hands were blinding as the mid-day sun. His breakneck rhythms helped drive the band’s best tracks, and provided Morrison a backbone to explore whatever tangent struck his fancy. The entire show had an “I can’t believe this is really happening” vibe. I hope the band will stick around a little longer before saying goodbye.
4. Japandroids (Bunk Bar, Portland, Aug. 31)
Two days after seeing Japandroids at a tiny bar in southeast Portland my neck hurt. There is something about the meat and potatoes anthems of this Vancouver, B.C., guitar and drums duo that instinctively makes me bang my head for an hour. I know people who don’t really care for Japandroids. That’s OK. I love them. Guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse started their Bunk Bar set with songs slated for release in 2012. I have faith these songs will rock my brains out in the upcoming year. They did not quite get me there on this particular night. But when they switched to material off debut album Post-Nothing and their assorted singles I went ape shit. And my neck paid the price. In retrospect, it was a small price to pay for rock’n’roll.
3. Charles Bradley (Bumbershoot, Seattle, Sept. 5)
The most uplifting show I attended this year came from none other than the Screaming Eagle of Soul, Charles Bradley. The 62-year-old soulman radiated love and peace. And his voice … my god, it sounded like he was exorcising all his demons out on the stage. Bradley also deserves credit for being a sensational performer. Within two minutes of taking the stage, he had dropped to his knees, pushed his mic down to the ground, then in one motion yanked it back like a yo-yo. I was smitten from that point. The line “Life is full of sorrow, heartaches, and pain” is seared into my brain. Bradley’s delivery was so pitch-perfect, so honest that it took me aback. It was a good thing most of my focus rested with the singer. His backing band, while effective as musicians, were dull and inexplicably wore frowns through half the set. Seriously? You’re playing with Charles Bradley! How can you wear a frown at a time like this???
2. Yelle (Wonder Ballroom, Portland, May 15)
I became interested in French dance trio Yelle when I saw a webcast of them playing the Coachella festival in California. Frontwoman Julie Budet wrapped the crowd around her finger. She oozed charisma. Oh, and she sung in French. A few weeks later I had the good fortune of seeing Yelle live in Portland. Everything I enjoyed about Yelle while watching on my MacBook was multiplied by 1,000. Budet is a sneaky great frontwoman. She doesn’t immediately come across as a great dancer or singer. Yet, she does both with such ease and rambunctious joy that I could not help but be mesmerized by her. She proved that night at the Wonder Ballroom a star is a star in any language. Yelle’s show stands heads and shoulders above the rest of the shows I have seen in my year living in Portland. I exited the Wonder Ballroom with a sense of wonderment, for lack of a better phrase. My T-shirt was soaked. My sideways smile was bright. I was breathless.
1. Cut Copy (Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago, July 19)
I waited three years for this show. Australian dance titans Cut Copy had teased me with their greatness at the 2008 edition of Pitchfork. A late-arriving flight forced them to take the stage late, only to exit after performing three or four songs. For the next two years, I hoped they would visit New Orleans or anywhere near there. No dice. Imagine my giddiness then when I learned they were making a return trip to Pitchfork this summer (and playing before TV On The Radio). Ironically, Cut Copy’s set almost ruined TV On The Radio for me. Cut Copy’s show left me feeling spent. I was five or six rows from the stage, and in the middle of a massive sea of pogoing humanity. Dan Whitford invited the crowd to go nuts on songs like “Lights and Music” and “Hearts on Fire,” and the crowd obliged. I could not help but bump into other people. One girl told me my arm burned her. Whoops! Cut Copy set me on fire that early July evening. I could throw out every superlative I know and it still would not do Cut Copy’s Pitchfork show justice. They were on a different level. Suddenly, the wait did not seem so long. It seemed well worth it.