“Best of” lists for records have only become a commodity in recent decades because of technology – I’d like to see what the “best phonograph cylinder list of 1908” was (my guess is Thomas Edison dominated the top ten). However, live music has been around since… well, I can’t quite tell you the exact date, but it’s been around for awhile. There’s just something about a live performance that’s hard to compress into an MP3 file, just like there’s something about recorded sound that cannot be duplicated to the point in a real environment. And who would want that? Some of the best shows I’ve seen this year (and any year at that) have the thrill of the “performance in the moment” – a special quality of experiencing the music literally grabbing you, those around you, and the musicians themselves – that excel beyond the normal trappings of a “rock” show. These lists are always tough, because, unlike records, not everyone was there to experience the moment when (enter your favorite artist here) played (enter your favorite song here) in a certain way in (enter specific venue/town/etc here). This particular list is quite tricky, as a large chunk of shows I’ve seen this year I’ve had some organizational role in; for the sake of this list and whatever hard-to-get-to performance I helped put on, I’ve excluded all those shows I’ve put on in the past year (despite the fact that many of those will always remain favorites of mine). But, without getting ahead of myself, here are my top ten concerts I attended as a paying gig-goer/whatever you want to call it from 2008 (I apologize for leaving off the dates for these shows):
10. TV On The Radio at the Wilbur Theater (Boston)
Six times, and each viewing was a charm, though this performance came with a price, and I’m not talking about the expensive nosebleed seats. Like any number of listeners of “independent” or “underground” music, I was attracted to TVOTR and other acts because they exemplified something entirely different than what was being peddled to the masses… and I wanted to get away from the masses. So it’s a little odd when the masses show up – I wholly enjoy all the success that this group has been getting, but it’s a little upsetting when the only song that gets the crowd moving is their single from a few years ago (“Wolf Like Me”). You’d think people who’d plunk down money for any show over $20 would at least be willing to dance to songs; I’ve never seen a crowd so dumbfounded by a performance. And some of that was the sheer power of TVOTR (the clip below doesn’t do justice to physically seeing them). Their set was surely as heartfelt as any other I’d seen, they mixed in a wealth of excellent new material and blended it in with their older songs, and they kept it fresh with the addition of a horn section, mixing up and rearranging compositions while retaining their original essence. It’s impossible to contain Tunde’s vocal prowess on the page, same as the entire band’s instrumental whirlwinds, so I’ll just leave it at that. If only everyone had their Dancing Choose on…
TV On The Radio – Dreams (live, Wilbur Theater):
9. Subtle/Zach Hill/Pattern Is Movement at the Middle East Upstairs (Boston)
After a period of concert-detox, this triple bill of underground oddballs was just the thing I needed to get back into the live show groove. Pattern Is Movement opened the show with a deft display of minimalist punk drumming smashed headstrong into a wave of gothic organ/keyboard work – and man did this duo enjoy their time onstage. Zach Hill kicked it in gear with his “backing band” Peer Pressure (aka a pre-recorded tableau) and for fourty or so minutes my eyes and ears were subject to some of the fastest, careening display of drumwork I’ve ever witnessed. And to cap off an excellent show were Subtle; after a summer soundtracked by this band, I was ready to see this group pull off their egnimatic sound in a live setting. They certainly didn’t dissapoint. With Doseone spitting lyrics a million miles a minute and the rest of the band covering an amalgam of instruments, they created an intricate pattern wholly unique to their presence in the moment. And it wasn’t a bad way to start a birthday either.
Zach Hill and Peer Pressure – Necromancer (live, Middle East):
8. Liars with No Age at Paradise Rock Club (Boston)
It’s great when you see a band surprise you in concert and never see it coming – so went the tale of my Liars/No Age show. I’d been having trouble getting into Liars and heard great things about their live set; I’d heard great things about No Age and enjoyed what music of their’s I’d heard; I’d had a free weekend and desperately wanted to go see a show that I wasn’t involved in planning. What a treat. No Age seemed dwarfed on the rather-lengthy stage at the Paradise, but their zeal couldn’t be contained by the space or their place as openers, as they cleanly burst from one great hardcore-pop gem to the next. It was tough to top, but Liars were up for the challenge. Frontman Angus Andrew barely left his chair in the center of the stage, but was a riveting ringleader, headbanging to the steady, pulsating music that grabbed my rib cage and wouldn’t let go. And I no longer have any problem picking up their recorded material.
Liars – Clear Island (live, Paradise Rock Club):
7. Why? at the MFA (Boston)
Sure, I complained about the conceit of close-minded hipsters at this Why? show in a previous post, but that was only a slight blight on what was a powerful performance. Simply the fact that the band forced people out of their seats and onto the stage by the end of the show is a testament to the force of this band’s live draw. Beyond that, there’s just something about the way they play live. It could be Yoni Wolf’s nasally drawl hitting every note just right; it could be the instrumental rearrangement of numerous songs, turning many an aesthetically muddy piece into fully-fledged bangers. It could be the great catharsis that came with dozens and dozens of fans passionately screaming alongside Wolf’s verbose lyrical displays. And it’s easily the combination of all of these things that really hit it all home.
Why? – Yo Yo Bye Bye (live, MFA):
6. Mission of Burma performing all of Vs. at Paradise Rock Club (Boston)
This show was a wet dream for any Mission of Burma fan – their entire first full length performed in full. Add on two encores and a venue packed with the hometown crowd and you’d be hard pressed to not be pumping your fists in the air. Even though Burma decided to do the whole “play your best/favorite/seminal album in full,” they subverted the business as usual method of performing these kind of shows and began with a handful of tracks at the end of the record (“Laugh The World Away,” “OK/No Way,” etc). And with the whole band in perfect synchronicity, it was simply an astounding show, with one great song after another. But, is that really any different from a “normal” Burma show?
Mission of Burma – The Ballad of Johnny Burma (live, Paradise):
5. Mark Kozelek at the MFA (Boston)
Mark Kozelek (aka Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters) was completely at ease in the MFA auditorium. Outright I was happy simply to be at this show; after several years of trying, I’d made it to a live performance featuring one of the most moving voices I’ve listened to in years. And that voice didn’t let down; the minute Kozelek opened with “Trucker’s Atlas,” he on an acoustic guitar accompanied by a touring partner on another guitar, the hair on my arms stood on end when Kozelek made an impromptu humming pattern where there was none on the record. And it just got better, with Kozelek knocking out hits from the past three Sun Kil Moon records and digging deep into his Red House Painters and solo material. Even with the live version of “Duk Koo Kim” stretching into the double digit minute run time, the show was as moving and haunting as anything Kozelek has committed to record. His encore, four different songs from his long repertoire strung together in a makeshift medley left me completely elated for days on end.
Unfortunately, there is no video of this show available online at the moment. Instead, here is a brief snippet of Kozelek performing Duk Koo Kim in California from 2004:
4. Ponytail at The Talking Head (Baltimore)
Spend half a day in a tiny Baltimore club and you’d be tired as shit. But cram that place with 50 friends and put Ponytail onstage long after midnight, and it makes for one hell of a party. I’d convinced a friend to drive down to Baltimore from DC to check out the band live, and was it worth the (sometimes awkward) wait. After seeing these folks play three times this year, their hometown show was by far the best out of the lot, with the entire band putting their whole essence into one captivating half hour that sent normally stiff concert goers into a spastic, dancing frenzy. With Molly Siegel’s bemusing and careening whoops and hollers at the helm, the band took off from the first song until the seven-minute closer, “Celebrate the Body Electric.” I left Baltimore tired and ultimately triumphant.
Ponytail – Celebrate the Body Electric (live, Talking Head):
3. Parts & Labor at Siren Music Festival (New York)
Siren’s a tough gig to do. There’s the scorching heat, the terrible sound, the crowds of oft-disinterested scenesters packed into one big sweaty mess, and the whole thing takes up most of the day. Great bands have gone through mediocre and ok sets at the hands of this festival. Parts & Labor weren’t one of them. Returning from a European tour, they gave the hometown crowd all that was in them, which was quite a bit. It was my first viewing of the band as a quartet, and it certainly knocked me out, as the group delivered one of the best performances at Siren I’ve seen, period. The hits kept coming through (“The Gold We’re Digging,” “Death,” etc), and Parts & Labor were as taught as ever. And thankful to boot; it’s often rare to see a band member smile while performing, but Dan Friel grinned while tossing his head back and forth throughout the set. And if you didn’t believe that the band really cared about each and every song of their set, perhaps the moment when B.J. Warshaw launched his well-worn bass into the crowd at the end of “Changing of the Guard” sealed the deal. It certainly did for one lucky fan.
Unfortunately, there is no video of this show available online at the moment. Instead, here is a performance of Changing of the Guard in Dallas from this year:
2. Boredoms at Paradise Rock Club (Boston)
I think my mind literally melted during this show. Boredoms have put out a lot of records – many of them unlistenable and unpalatable for those with the slightest distaste for punk. But I’d be hard pressed to find someone who likes to dance who wouldn’t have freaked out at this performance. With three members on drums and frontman Eye on a combination of synths, 8-necked guitar, two strange glowing balls of light that made static noise, and random chanting, Boredoms put together a fantastic and fluid set that was more a rave than a punk show. Hip shaking syncopated beats provided by the three drumsets gave way to techno-like synths with change ups that tugged at your ears and feet. It lasted well over and hour and a half, but ended far to quickly.
Unfortunately, there is no video of this show available online at the moment. Instead, enjoy this selection from their ATP set from 2006:
1. The Baltimore Round Robin Tour at Mass Art – Feet Night (Boston)
This is what shows should be like. Bands packed in, playing for the thrill of performance and a sense of urgency that cannot be covered by a ticketmaster fee, a big chaotic mess wherein things fall apart, but everyone is there to help pick it up, where concert goers and performers intermingle freely and lines are blurred to the point where no one really cares who is who, where one act who may not mean anything to folks outside of a certain city performs as an equal to other musicians who get more press than folks who spend lifetimes in the PR industry could dream of, where a four and a half hour show gets you twelve different bands of a diverse set of genres, all pleading with you to dance and enjoy life and take a chance because hell they just did by treking around parts of North America to show you their community. It’s about community and it’s about creating and it’s about music for the sake of music and not hype or fame. And man is it thrilling. So thrilling it’s made attending most shows afterwards seem downright complacent by design. You have to give it a hand to the Wham City crew for pulling that show together; equipment broke, set times ran long, the Pozen Center at Mass Art smelled like a middle school locker room, but it fucking worked. It was in the moment, and the moment was captivating. Although some of the acts didn’t quite perform as passionately/deftly/well as others, they tore it up just by being there. Double Dagger brought the political punk mosh pit, but not before the Deathset provided a heady mix of electronics and thrash punk, while Smartgrowth had some downright danceable mashups, Future Islands got everyone to dance even in cramped conditions, Videohippos overcame technical difficulties to bring some lo-fi dance pop, and Nuclear Power Pants were downright in-your-face hilarious. Of course props to Dan Deacon, who ended the evening with a stellar performance of “Wham City”; as most of the hype-following crowd members had abandoned the show in droves before the end of the fourth and final go-round of the Round Robin, it felt like one big communal celebration, with members of the Wham City family and the concert die-hards dancing and singing around Deacon to what has ultimately become that community’s theme song. Right then, everyone there was a member of Wham City and a performer in the traveling circus of the Baltimore Round Robin. Now that’s in the moment.
Dan Deacon at Feet Night (live, Mass Art):
(Very) Honorable Mentions:
Iron & Wine (Pearl Street, Northampton): Sam Beam’s voice can warm a thousand + person crowd while the rain outside provides ample acoustic rhythms.
Shudder to Think (Paradise Rock Club, Boston): Reuniting for the first tour after their break up in the later half of the 90s, these first-wave prog-emo rockers kicked out all the best of the best of their backcatalog.
Edie Sedgwick (Oxfam Cafe, Somerville): Minimalist twee-styled punk done by a full band – complete with a couple of chorus singers in matching dresses – and an outlandish sense of self-aware humor not unlike labelmate trailblazers Nation of Ulysses and you’ve got one hell of a fun dance party.
Videohippos (Union Square, Somerville): A great set as part of an outdoor art festival in Union Square, this duo brought a surprising amount of energy and whipped up people into something resembling a dancing frenzy.
The Hold Steady/Drive By Truckers (The Orpheum Theater, Boston): These two bands just want to have fun (as if the smile on Craig Finn’s face didn’t tell you), and the Hold Steady certainly stole the show with one guitar-fueled-Americana song after another. Their pairing may have felt a little awkward, but these two bands certainly had a great time.
After the Jump Festival at four stages in Brooklyn: Four stages of free sets by a range of Brooklyn artists, this was an excellent place to check out those artists about to burst onto the national scene. Great sets by Noveller, an acoustic two-manned version of Extra Life, a pre-iPod fame Chairlift, and finally, where would a great noise fest be without Ponytail.
Dr. Dog (Rickenbacker Park, Philadelphia): People of all ages from all across town packed into a park on a beautiful day – isn’t that what summer’s all about? And Dr. Dog was there to pull all those warm ‘n fun summer feelings together with over 2 hours of classic rock cum modern indie. If only every summer day could be so great…