25. Rodrigo y Gabriela
September 10 at Live on the Green
These guys are always a fun sight. Their enthusiasm is infectious, as well as their breakneck guitar playing. Their Latin flared rhythms can get a crowd rolling or mellow them out, and they invited a bunch of people on stage to feel the vibes with them. But they're also well known for their covers. Rage Against the Machine's Bombtrack shreds, even on an acoustic guitar, Thrash metal classics Holy Wars, Symphony of Destruction & Battery are also great for getting fists raised in the air.
24. Flying Lotus
June 12 at Bonnaroo
Flylo has established himself as one of the most dominant personalities in electronic music. His trademark blend of twisted, warped electronica made it worthwhile. He brought along his Layer 6 stage setup, which consisted of one screen in front of him and one behind him showcasing crazy visuals. It looked like we were in space at one point, then we were being dragged into a wormhole at another. I got jazzed when he played “Sultan’s Request,” one of my favorite cuts from his 2012 album, Until the Quiet Comes. He also performed a little of his Captain Murphy side project, which consists of him coming out from behind the screen and rapping over his beats. We weren't fortunate enough to have Kendrick Lamar join for their collaboration, “Never Catch Me,“ but we were treated to it as the final song before the encore. I don’t do DJ music much, but I’m down with Flying Lotus.
23. Sylvan Esso
June 12 at Bonnaroo
I adore this girl! Singer Amelia Meath had such a laid back demeanor. Her exuberant and cheery nature makes you feel good inside! She encouraged us to seduce ourselves in front of a mirror whenever we aren‘t feeling good about ourselves. “You all should try it,” she advised. “It makes you feel like a million dollars.” Her dance moves are so quirky and full of personality that it makes you feel less self conscious to bust out a move yourself. Nick Sanborn’s production is mostly minimal, sleek and sophisticated. It could be a commercial for Ikea or Ipod, but what can I say? There’s something about that aesthetic I really dig! Every now and then he’ll drop a thick, intense beat and that’s when you’ll go really nuts.
22. Billy Joel
June 14 at Bonnaroo
This set was clearly not Billy Joel's best, but with an artist like this even a 50 percent effort is well worth watching. He ditched his attempts to interact with the crowd early on, and also cut out a big chunk of tunes that appeared regularly in his setlist. That made it hard to feel like we got the full Joel experience. Yet, the afro-boogie of "River of Dreams," the high spirited delivery of "We Didn't Start the Fire," his roadie coming out and delivering a spot on cover of "Highway to Hell," as well as the performance of rock solid gems like "Piano Man" made for a quality set, if not exactly a perfect ending to this year's Bonnaroo.
21. Courtney Barnett
June 11 at Bonnaroo
Courtney Barnett is my girl. She’s a bonafide rockstar. She’s sexy as hell. If you watch her set for longer than four hours, you'll probably have to call a doctor. Most importantly, she knows exactly who she is as an artist and she owns it. Get yourself out to a club and see her. She pours personality into each song, meaning there’s no one doing quite what she’s doing. Best of all, she’s got guts. While she delivers a laid back, grimy guitar sound on her LP, on stage she emanates incredible power while delivering those riffs. “Pedestrian at Best” and “Elevator Operator” hit with manic energy, while “Small Poppies” notified me there’s not much greater than watching this chick develop a riff. Now I’d better stop, cause if I say much more this whole article is gonna catch fire.
20. Run the Jewels
June 12 at Bonnaroo
Killer Mike and El-P bowled the crowd over with their incredible confidence. They came onstage while Queen’s “We Are the Champions” reverberated through the speakers, and before leaving Killer Mike declared themselves the best rap group in the world. Opening cut “Run the Jewels” served as the duo’s mission statement, while notorious banger “Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck” was so intense that El-P felt bad for what was going to happen to already sweat soaked crowd once they played it. But the singular moment that got the crowd most fired up had to be El-P’s speech declaring that each attendee had been given an invisible 36 inch chain, making them a member of the Run the Jewels family. That came with certain privileges, he informed us. Any political leader who “tries to tell you you’re not gonna do the job you want, that you’re not gonna marry the person you want, that you’re not going to be the person you’re supposed to be, you can tell them to suck your motherfucking dick!” The crowd was in the palm of their hands the rest of the night.
19. The Strokes
May 8 at Shaky Knees
There is a certain intrigue factor when it comes to The Strokes. They don’t tour often; their site listed only four other shows for all of 2015. There is an unmistakable aura around this band, that I can’t deny was generated to a certain extent by their well coordinated light setup and smoke screen, and that may not be everybody’s thing. Yet Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. are not your everyday guitarists. The guitar/bass interplay on opening cut “Reptillia” showcases one of the band’s biggest strengths. The way that guitar blast mollified the crowd right out of the gate left no doubt they were going to own this crowd. “Under Cover of Darkness” and “Take It Or Leave It,” show that the band has an ear for guitar work that is catchy, distinctive, and full of energy. Not to mention “Automatic Stop,” one of my personal favorites, It’s such positive, happy, feel good music. Julian’s stage banter leaves something to be desired. but as a whole the band was tight and on point. They sprinkled in some song rarely played or never played before on stage (“All the Time,” “You Talk Way Too Much,” Vision of Division”) and even allowed superfan Mac Demarco to come onstage and give Julian a hug in between songs. Unless you were just committed to being a hater, this was a set near impossible not to have a blast at.
November 16 at The Tabernacle
You are in the presence of heavy metal royalty. They may be down a few members, but this is still the same band that played an integral role in the development of thrash metal. These guys shared a scene with all time greats Megadeth and Slayer, and even more so with Metallica. This was the band that Kirk Hammet was a member of before joining Metallica. Vocalist Steve Sousa is relentless in firing up the crowd, at one point splitting the crowd into two sides and then having them charge at one another to create a mosh pit. The bulldozing intensity of cuts like "Bonded by Blood" would give them all the motivation they needed.
17. Dwight Yoakam
September 4 at Ryman Auditorium
Dwight keeps his shows running like a well oiled machine. The king of country/honky tonk/Bakersfield sound impressed early and often, but the set’s second half truly shined with classic tune after tune from one of the most impressive catalogs ever released with nary a break in between. He had to bring some of those high notes down, but what’s impressive is there’s really no break in between these tunes; he displays endurance much younger performers wish they had. Personally, it gave me a bit of a surreal feeling hearing these songs live that I’ve been jamming to since I was about seven years old on my parents old cds. Turn It Up, Turn It On, Turn Me Loose, Pocket of a Clown, The Heart That You Own. And if that’s not enough, how would you like to have Dwight’s job? He still boogies and scuttlebutts across the floor getting the women to look at his ass, and it still elicits high pitched shrieks from the crowd. Over 30 years in, he’s still a sex symbol.
16. Frank Turner & the Sleeping Souls
December 9 at 3rd & Lindsley
He’s very warm and relatable. The biggest thing that shines through in his shows is just how personable he is. What you get is a very warmhearted, uplifting Englishman up there bouncing around on stage and whipping the crowd into a frenzy, and he’s very interactive with his crowds. He had us all sit down, then jump up at a certain point in the song, and told us to dance with someone we didn’t know before we came here. He makes everyone at his shows feel like part of a big, collective community. An artist who can pull that off is rare find indeed.
June 11 at Bonnaroo
Mac Demarco tried to set a world record for most people sitting on other people’s shoulders, placed a rubber dildo on his keyboard, had a crowd surfer throw their shirt onstage, his bassist climbed onto a stack of speakers, he popped the cork on a champagne bottle onstage, and to top it all off, he got a running start and stage dived into the crowd before finishing it off with a cover of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” for an encore. He landed directly on my forearm. And I haven’t even (really) talked about the music yet. Known for his lo-fi slacker indie anthems, he kicks it up a notch or two live. “Freaking Out the Neighborhood” and “Salad Days” had the crowd in a fit, but I’m partial to slow groover “Rock and Roll Nightclub.” It sounds like something the Bee Gees might listen to when they’re ready to unwind.
14. Modest Mouse
July 19 at Forecastle
They’re a veteran live band who do damage in a variety of ways. Songs like “Bury Me With It” and “Styrofoam Boots/It’s Nice on Ice Alright” deliver almost punishing riffs, something I never got the sense the band had in them when listening at home. The boogie groove of “Dashboard” and ominous bass rumble of “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” meanwhile, got fest goers in the mood to shake their can. We got a taste of the band’s earlier days with “Dramamine,” pulled from their 1996 debut This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About. It paints a picture of the band as much more serene and thoughtful in constructing their riffs and instrumentation, but still with a decidedly rough edge. Frontman Issac Brock even broke out thumb picking on the banjo with mid career cuts “Satin in a Coffin” and “This Devil’s Workday."
13. Florence + the Machine
June 14 at Bonnaroo
The Bonnaroo gods didn’t grant Florence much time, but she made the most of it. Whipping the crowd into a frenzy early and often by breathlessly sprinting across stage and down into the pit to mingle with fans, she put on a clinic on how to exert high energy while still slaying us with that captivating voice and never missing a beat. Kendrick Lamar needs to take lessons from her. Her show is a spectacle without pomp, lights, or confetti being blown everywhere. Florence herself is a spectacle, even if she were all alone on the stage. There's a devotional feel to her shows-- hands raised all throughout the crowd while those deep, rich, overpowering tones of her songs boom forth. All signs point to her going down as one of the great performers of her generation.
June 13 at Bonnaroo
Slayer is primal. My glasses were knocked off twice, I was hit in the head in the pit, and then was literally knocked on my ass. You might ask what I was thinking, but I got to scream “Angel of Death” from about three rows back with a bunch of other dedicated Slayer fans, and they knew every word. I was close enough I could feel the sweaty hair of the denim jacket guys sloshing against my raised fist. Slayer didn’t fuck around. “Raining Blood,” “Postmortem,” “South of Heaven,” and “Seasons in the Abyss” shows just how deep and unrelenting their catalog truly is. But they also show off humor and self-awareness. “Dead Skin Mask,“ with its lyrics celebrating the pleasant fragrance of death in the light of the moon, serves as one of the band’s most romanticized notions of death. Before playing it, frontman Tom Araya introduced it as their version of a love song. This is the roughest show I’ve even been to at Roo, or maybe ever.
11. Widespread Panic
July 19 at Forecastle
I see these guys get bagged on a lot on internet music forums. Most websites don’t even bother to cover them when they play at festivals. Accordingly, I went in not expecting much but willing to give them a chance. They ended up being the best thing I saw all day. You can picture the scene: old hippies jamming out. Guitar solos for days. Elaborate light patterns washing all over the stage. I was skeptical at first, but the closer I moved to the stage the more I fell into the spell of their beat. Their tasty riffs and improvisation is easy to find yourself lost in. My biggest criticism is they don’t play with much passion. The guitarist plays his leads and solos with clinical precision. It’d be nice to see them legitimately attack for once, to really go nuts on their instruments. But when you can play like these guys do, I guess you can get away with it. Before I knew it I found myself having an amazing time, and would have gladly rocked out with them for longer.
April 23 at Marathon Music Works
This was one of the most celebrated reunions in the early months of 2015 and I was just like, "who?" I'm glad I found out. Carrie Brownstien is one of the most magnetizing rock stars of this generation, and it's truly a shame she's taken a decade off from it (minus a side project here and there). She was like a true punk conductor up there, gesticulating with her hand motions ripping out clever riffs that show why she's one of the most creative guitarists out there. Songs like "Dig Me Out" hit with the force of wrought iron. The sheer intensity of "Jumpers" was brought to life in stunning, immaculate fashion. Drummer Janet Weiss is also amazing. The guitar/drum combo on the opening of "The Fox," couple with Corin Tucker's ear splitting shriek near the song's close, was one of the best full band moments I've witnessed in awhile. I wanted to hear "One More Hour," yet they wrapped it up with the mellow but lovely Modern Girl before shaking hands with eager fans on the floor. (“You’re never gonna wash that hand again!” one girl exclaimed to another). But perhaps, they did what many of the best bands do -- leave you wanting one more song. And the fact there’s so many great cuts they didn’t play attests to the strength of their discography.
May 9 at Terminal West
I feel like this is the quickest hour and a half that has ever gone by listening to live music. When it was done, I was like, is it done? Is it really done? It’s like that feeling when you first get out of the swimming pool. My senses were assaulted by this wonderful, glorious noise coming at me from all directions. Their sound is very spacey and chaotic, but equally beautiful. On a song like "Electric Mainline," the bass and drums come together to create this pumping, seething, breathing engine that powers much of what the band does. It is hypnotizing to behold. There are moments of chilled out bliss when the band settles down to allow J. Spaceman to take the microphone. And when everything falls into place at the end for a glorious sing along like "Come Together," you know you've witnessed a truly incredible concert performance.
8. Godspeed You! Black Emperor
September 19 at Marathon Music Works
The best of the three times I’ve seen them. Much of that likely had to do with me knowing the material better, but this setlist was almost perfect. The new album material is a 40 minute roller coaster ride, and does a nice job of taking the place of “Behemoth,” which I never particularly cared about anyway. The twinkling chimes of “Moya” laud in 10 minutes of pure, sublime beauty, and it’s something anyone who’s a fan of live music should experience at least once. The only disappointment was no "Mladic." That would have elevated this concert from superb to unforgettable. “The Sad Mafioso,’ though, was the perfect way to end this set in a moment of bliss and serenity.
September 27 at Ryman Auditorium
I never thought silly songs about robots, highways, and computers could be so amazing. The defining characteristic of Kraftwerk is simply their warmth. They’ve got this element of holy crap, if you had verbally described what this show was going to be and told me how awesome it was going in, I doubt I would have believed you. The only band I can think of that comes close in that department is Animal Collective, and Kraftwerk blows them off the stage live. I’ve seen my share of concerts, as well as some impressive audiovisual displays as well. But nothing really compares to seeing the wide open autobahn stretching out before you on the display monitors and hearing those vibrant synth tones ring out. I'd bet they're the only band that can take you on an odyssey in a spacelab, unleash the grandeur of central European railways, and then tech things up with futuristic computer odes. Not to mention they’re THE pioneering band when it comes to electronic music. Get out and see them while you have the chance, folks.
November 16 at The Tabernacle
It’s not often that live music feels like a theatrical performance, but still provides the fist pumping energy of a concert. King Diamond’s Abigail tour is a truly captivating music related spectacle. This tour features Diamond performing every song from his 1987 Abigail album, which tells the story of two travelers, Miriam and Jonathan, who spend the night at a creepy mansion haunted by a wicked spirit known as Abagail. The stage is dominated by a big gothic staircase. Diamond brought out the baby Abigail and stabbed it with a knife. Marian wandered around the stage possessed like, wrapped in a white sheet and carrying a lantern. The setup is impressive and the musicianship is top notch, but make no mistake as to who the star of the show is. Diamond himself is not only one of the most underrated performers in metal, but also one of the genre's most underrated vocalists period.
January 28 at Bridgestone Arena
No two Jack White shows are the same. He was always going to be hard pressed to live up to last year’s transcendent Bonnaroo performance, which ranked #1 on my 2014 list, but there were plenty of aces up his sleeve for his Bridgestone Arena show. We all knew he was going to play with Loretta Lynn (and what a treat that was, seeing a living country legend performing a set of vintage classic tunes to open the show). But what we didn’t know was that White would pull off a full blown reunion of The Raconteurs right here on our very stage! The boys came out to open the encore with a ravishing performance of their biggest hits. Other highlights included the folksy shuffle of "Hotel Yorba" and the heavy blues garage rock of "Ball and Biscuit" lit up our nights, while new cuts like "Three Women" and "Black Bat Licorice" provided an energetic jolt that will hopefully figure into his sets for years to come. The final chords of Seven Nation army would send us with our ears ringing into the night.
4. The Rolling Stones
June 17 at LP Field
This night will always be a great memory for me. Summer is at its height, I was coming off of Bonnaroo hype from less than a week before, and it was the first concert I’d been to with my dad since Paul McCartney nearly five years earlier. Mick and Keith and the boys were in fine form and put on a stunning show. I just wish I had known half the songs they played. Hot Rocks and Forty Licks had not proven adequate to fully saturate my knowledge of their catalog, surprisingly, but The Stones had no qualms about reaching farther into their back catalog to pepper us with a few for the diehards. I did appreciate the nod to Nashville with the country swagger of “Dead Flowers” -- featuring Brad Paisley, no less -- which is a facet of the band that most people overlook in favor of I CANT GET NO SATISFACTION, MANG. Speaking of which, hearing Satisfaction’s opening riff live hit me in an all new way. After having heard the studio version a million times, I never pictured it sounding so thundering, world rattling, and all encompassing. If I didn’t before, I now understand why people would quiver at the very mention of this band’s name. They’re far removed from their glory days, but they still emit a shock that their records won’t ever quite be able to replicate.
3. My Morning Jacket
June 13 at Bonnaroo
Damn! These guys are good! What deal did they make with the devil? What kind of P.E.D.’s are they on? I don’t know, but I hope they keep taking them! The much ballyhooed house rock band of Bonnaroo lived up to their billing and more, putting on a two hour showcase that highlighted a wide selection from their back catalog. The Louisville jam rock outfit switched effortlessly between various styles, creating moments of sheer serene beauty, hair raising rock and roll, smooth, emotive soul, and everything in between. James never spoke to the crowd, letting his band’s play do all the talking that was needed. Their tour dates leading up to this point had focused heavily on their newest album, The Waterfall, but on this night they would salute their diehard fans by giving us only on the essentials from that album and focusing instead on older, fan favorite cuts.
2. Sufjan Stevens
November 11 at Ryman Auditorium
What’s great about Sufjan as a live performer is his versatility. His latest album, Carrie and Lowell, is one of the major critical darlings of the year, and serves as the centerpiece of his 2015 tour. For the first little bit, he’s just audiovisually fucking you up there. There’s this magnificent combination of lights, scenery, and this beautiful, lilting, fingerpicked folk music. These waves of relaxation to undulate over you in a way the album versions can’t come close to doing. He’s masterful at extending songs, as “Futile Devices” and “All of Me Wants All of You” demonstrates, the latter of which features an wild extended keyboard/guitar solo that sounds very Genesis-like, in the best possible way. His encore stripped away all the production and showcased his ability to wow a crowd with just bare bones folk music, piercing through the stillness of hallowed Ryman Auditorium. “John Wayne Gacy” gave me goose bumps. There’s also quite a bit of warmth and humor to the man. When he tried to line up his band members to sing into a single microphone, he said he didn’t see how Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris used to do it. The night’s most staggering moment, though, belonged to main set closer “Blue Bucket of Gold.” I won’t spoil it for you. You’ve just got to get out to a show and see it for yourself. Seriously.
1. D'Angelo & the Vanguard
June 13 at Bonnaroo
If D’angelo hadn’t become such a recluse in the 14 years between 2000’s Voodoo and the shimmering followup, Black Messiah, he would have taken over the world two or three times by now without breaking a sweat. He’s drawn comparisons to Prince and James Brown. Women love him, but even if you’re male, he exudes such charisma that it’s impossible to not, at the least, want to have a beer with him or something. His band, The Vanguard, consisted of 10 members all engaging in crazy antics. His guitar had silver plated edges and had his name on it, two other guys would come to the front of the stage, guitars in tow, and jam with him. Later on, some of his band came up and did a little dance number with him. There was this one backup singer who was getting funky and kicking it the whole time. The Vanguard’s cascade of voices bubbled forth on “Back to the Future” and “Sugah Daddy” then put on his own personal vocal showcase on “Brown Sugar,” his breakout 1995 hit. He’s making a strong claim of not only being the greatest soul/R&B star of his time -- he might just be the greatest rock star of his generation as well.