I love the live music experience. Seeing a band bring their sound and vision to the stage, no matter how big or small, is an exciting thing. There is so much that can go wrong, and yet the payoff can be incredibly high. To me experiencing a great concert is comparable to a food lover eating at a four-star restaurant. This year I was spoiled. I witnessed great performances in small clubs and at large festivals in the South, Midwest and Pacific Northwest. There were very few shows I wanted to attend that I missed. Well, there were two – the Strokes at Austin City Limits Festival (bought tickets but scratched my plans) and Florence and the Machine at Voodoo Music Experience (I was saving up for a move). It’s okay, though. You can’t see every show you want, right? Right????
Here are a list of shows that just missed the cut:
Honorable Mention: Trombone Shorty (Oct. 31, Voodoo Experience in New Orleans); Wolf Parade (July 17, Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago); Major Lazer (July 18, Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago); Girls (Feb. 2, One Eyed Jacks in New Orleans); Ted Leo and the Pharmacists (April 2, One Eyed Jacks in New Orleans); Broken Social Scene (July 16, Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago)
Special Honorable Mention: My former boss, Keith Magill, and his band Southern Smoke played their 30th year reunion show in a bar outside New Orleans earlier this year. They covered rock staples from the 1970’s and 1980’s and were damn good. I hooted and hollered after each song. It’s not everyday you see your boss, particularly one who calls you “Raymus,” sing Stones and Zeppelin classics, and sing them well.
Let’s do the damn thing! Here’s my Top Ten!
10. Titus Andronicus (July 17, Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago). I’m often skeptical of watching bands whose music I am unfamiliar with. To me, it diminishes some of the fun. But in a festival setting you really have no choice. It’s a smorgasbord. I resisted listening to Titus Andronicus’s music for a while. I didn’t like the New Jersey punks’ name nor the concept of their second album being about The Civil War. But on one glorious Saturday afternoon in Chicago this summer, I learned the folly of my fickle ways. Titus frontman Patrick Stickles and Co. made me a believer one epic rock n’ roll barnburner at a time. A good show inevitably causes me to want to share my experience with friends. “Titus Andronicus has restored my faith in New Jersey,” I wrote on Facebook afterward. Tell me why I lost faith in New Jersey again.
9. Beach House (July 18, Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago). On a day when the Earth was practically on fire, Beach House brought forth a sonic breeze, if not a real one, that hovered in the air long after its members had left the stage. The Baltimore haze pop artists’ album Teen Dream had established its position as one of my favorite albums of the year long before I drove to Chicago. Seeing vocalist Victoria Legrand and guitarist Alex Scally perform the songs live, though, made me view the album in a grander light. So what that many people in front of me left early to get food or go to another stage. That just meant I inched closer to the stage. Inched is appropriate because by set closer “10 Mile Stereo” I was still the length of a football field from the stage. It didn’t matter. When Legrand hit her final note, her soaring, impenetrable voice built a home in the sky and left an indelible impression in my mind.
8. Band of Horses (May 1, Jazzfest in New Orleans). I’m not a big jazz fan. I know, it is utter blasphemy for a native New Orleanian to type this. But it’s the truth. Jazz has inspired forms of music I enjoy, but the art itself seems to take more patience than I have. I never attended Jazzfest before this year because for me doing so would be akin to burning money. The presence of Band of Horses on this year’s bill made me reconsider. I had heard their glistening brand of southern rock in a live setting once before in Baton Rouge years earlier and was eager to hear them again. Under overcast skies that threatened to make the crowd disperse like ants, Band of Horses delivered a knockout performance of past, beloved material (i.e., “Funeral”, “No One’s Gonna Love You”) and new material (“Compliments”, “Factory”). The origins of frontman Ben Bridwell’s superlative voice remain a mystery to me. When he opens his mouth and reaches back for words, it’s like the soundtrack of oil gushing out of a well. Think There Will Be Blood not the Deepwater Horizon. (Pay Louisiana the money you owe it, BP!)
7. Robyn (July 16, Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago). Quick story: As I stood at the comedy stage on opening night of Pitchfork this year, I spotted stage headliner Eugene Mirman aimlessly walking through the crowd an hour before his set. As if needing to document the sight of a rare animal in the wild, I handed my friend my phone, walked up to Mirman and asked him for a photo. He seemed caught off-guard but he obliged and even feigned a smile. Despite this kindness, I later turned my back on Mirman and the other comedians to see Swedish pop star Robyn on a different stage. It was worth it. She oozed joy and charisma. Her voice was gorgeous and her dance moves, while unorthodox, were sexy. Her setlist was nothing short of a greatest hits collection (i.e., “Be Mine”, “Dancing On My Own”, “Heartbeat”, etc.). A photo with Mirman and a performance by Robyn … I’d say the night was a success.
(Tie) 5. Yeasayer (Oct. 9, House of Blues in New Orleans). The decision to leave Yeasayer’s Odd Blood off my favorite albums list earlier this month was not an easy one. The Brooklyn band’s second full-length has a handful of songs I love; a handful I can leave. Even so, when I learned Yeasayer were playing New Orleans, I wasted little time buying a ticket. They are one of those blessed few bands whose live show enhances the quality of each song, even the cream of their catalog (see: “Tightrope”, “ONE”, “2080”). Employing two percussionists works wonders in their case, and it helps that Chris Keating and Anand Wilder both sing well without the benefit of studio polishing. Keating was incredibly awkward on-stage the first time I saw Yeasayer, years ago opening for MGMT in Baton Rouge. He lurched forward and back like he done a line of cocaine meant for a robot. In New Orleans, he was relaxed, confident, more stable. The show, as good as it was, left me wanting to see more of Yeasayer, which in this case is a good thing.
(Tie) 5. Matt and Kim (Oct. 12, House of Blues in New Orleans). It’s hard to distinguish the Yeasayer and Matt and Kim shows. They happened within three days of one another around the time of Austin City Limits Festival in Austin. That festival temporarily makes New Orleans a hot destination for indie bands looking for an extra gig. Matt and Kim, a keyboard and drum combo from Brooklyn, were an act I expected to put on a good show, if only because of the boundless energy exhibited on their most recognizable songs (i.e., “Lessons Learned”, “Daylight”). Admittedly, I had not heard much else from them. It didn’t matter once they came on stage. They stood on their seats, told raunchy jokes at each other’s expense and excited the audience with Pentecostal fervor. I described it on this blog days later as a pep rally. I jumped up and down, danced and shouted along. They bottled euphoria, stopped time, and struck sadness from the dictionary of those in attendance that night. Months later, I still can’t name you five Matt and Kim songs. It doesn’t matter. I’d gladly see Matt and Kim again, wearing a pair of comfortable shoes, of course.
4. Big Boi (July 18, Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago). My Facebook review of Big Boi’s silly good Pitchfork turn (paraphrased): I don’t need to see another concert this year. I don’t need to see another concert ever. So how is it that show is No. 4 here? You’ll just have to continue reading to find out. As for Big Boi, he owned the stage, he owned the crowd, and he owned the city of Chicago on the final night of Pitchfork. Don’t believe anyone who said Pavement bettered Big Boi. That’s laughable nonsense. With apologies to his solo material, which is very, very good, when Big Boi spit his verses from Outkast’s classic works like “Rosa Parks”, “Ms. Jackson”, and “B.O.B” I thought my ears were going to cum. Sorry for the obscenity, ma. That’s just how I felt. I waited an hour to get a prime spot near the stage, and it was worth it. Backed with a live band and DJ, Big Boi’s set was nothing short of aural ecstasy. It’s not too often you hear one of the author’s of your youth’s soundtrack perform on a perfect summer night in Chicago. Ok, it never happens. It was magical. I called friends and held my phone up so they could hear it. The quality, given how loud the area near the stage was, wasn’t the greatest. In this, you just had to be there.
3. Big Freedia (Dec. 10, Holocene in Portland). Strange but true fact: I’ve never heard a recorded Big Freedia song. I don’t have a single song on my iTunes by the NOLA Sissy Bounce headliner. And yet I would call Big Freedia, who I saw three times in the past three months, one of the year’s breakout performers. Big Freedia, for the uninitiated, is a very tall black man with highlighted, shoulder-length hair and a propensity for crazy rhyming and ass shaking like you’ve never seen. I’m from the 985 by way of the 504 and even I had never seen anyone shake their ass like Freedia, the queen diva, and his assorted stage “performers.” Part of me wanted to call an ambulance and report someone’s ass had been dislocated the first time I saw Freedia opening for Matt and Kim. By the time I saw Freedia in Portland I knew the deal. Amazingly, so too did the jam-packed crowd at the tiny club Holocene. It was a sweaty dance party with Freedia’s every move drawing delirious cheers. He screamed, “I got that gin and my system,” and the crowd boomed, “Somebody’s gonna be my victim,” as if the line was as common as a nursery rhyme. It’s probably too much to ask for every live music experience I have in Portland to be as good as my first. Big Freedia set the bar impossibly high.
2. LCD Soundsystem (June 8, Stubb’s BBQ in Austin, Texas). As he lingers near death in remote Arizona, James Franco’s character in “127 Hours” concludes that every step of his life led him to the rock that trapped his right arm and endangered his livelihood. If I applied that thought process to seeing LCD Soundsystem for the first time this summer, my first flashback would involve the worst date/non-date of my life, in which this girl I hardly knew drove me to New Orleans while keeping her stereo at “43” so we couldn’t talk. She was “batshit insane.” I should have just retired the phrase after spending one evening in her car. Anyway, on the path to sudden adult deaf syndrome, she played “Get Innocuous!” off LCD Soundsystem’s best of a generation album Sound of Silver. A love affair began. Not with her – she was batshit insane! – but with LCD Soundsystem. Seeing James Murphy and crew this summer at Stubb’s, a spacious outdoor venue near the heart of downtown Austin, was karma repaid. I’ve never danced so hard at a show. If God dances, he dances to LCD Soundsystem. I’m not God, but I dance my ass off now and again. Murphy is one of those rare showman that doesn’t have to jump up and down or possess a huge voice to command the crowd’s attention. He just presides over one of the best bands making music today. They are so much more than a dance band, although their live percussion is simply unreal and demands that you lose your mind. On this particular night at Stubb’s, I thought I might cry when LCD started playing “All My Friends,” one of my favorite songs ever. I made it through the song, head drenched in sweat, heart full. Several songs later, LCD launched into its standard encore finale “New York I Love You” which ended with the band singing Alicia Keys’ part from “Empire State of Mind.” It was divine, like a love letter to the fans. Just thinking about it makes me misty eyed. Damn, that was a good show.
1. Janelle Monae (Oct. 31, Voodoo Experience in New Orleans). Florence and the Machine could just have easily inhabited this spot. How is that possible, you’re probably thinking, since I didn’t see Florence and the Machine? Well, I decided to only go to one day of Voodoo this year, in order to save money. The decision ultimately came down to going Saturday (Florence and the Machine) or Sunday (Janelle Monae). My friend, Laura McKnight, had a ticket for Sunday, which also happened to be Halloween, thus swaying my decision in favor of Janelle Monae. When the fateful day came, we arrived at the New Orleans Fairgrounds right as Monae was scheduled to begin, only to learn her show had been moved back an hour later to a side stage. A side stage? For Janelle Monae? Ridiculous, I thought. Laura and I benefitted from others’ ignorance by tightroping our way to the front row. Once there, we had to wait an additional 45 minutes while her band sound-checked. I admit I was impatient as a 5-year-old on Christmas. But it was totally worth it! Janelle Monae is a STAR! She is incredible, phenomenal, sensational, and any other superlative you can dream up. Her voice has a warmth and purity reminiscent of Judy Garland’s, her 1,000-watt stage presence resembles James Brown or Prince, and her theatric stage show recalls her former tour mates Of Montreal. Her black and white look is timeless and unique. She makes everything seem effortless, yet heartfelt. Her backing band and dancers are fantastic, too, particularly guitarist Calindo Parker, who was easily one of the best I saw live this year. Monae closed her pre-encore set with “Cold War” and “Tightrope”. I nearly shimmied my shrimp boots off, in addition to screaming my lungs out (Note: I dressed as a shrimper for Halloween). The show, had it ended there, would have exceeded my wildest expectations. It didn’t end there, though. Monae and her band came out for an encore. I wish I knew what song she played, but I don’t. Monae walked into the audience and the crowd filled in around her. She bent down until she was no longer visible. A voice slowly rose from below, getting stronger and louder with each note, until Monae, now standing, was belting, her band jamming and the crowd pogoing up and down like they had way too much bite-sized candy. Come to think of it Monae’s backup dancers threw candy into the crowd. That explains it all.