Friday, December 27, 2013

Totally Unauthorized Presents: the Top 25 live shows of 2013

Let me begin by saying that this is easily the best concert year I've ever had in my life, and I don't expect this to be topped. 2012 got the ball rolling with plenty of great acts, which led me to attempt to up the ante this year. I succeeded, and then some. Here are the best 25 I saw this year:


25. Ty Segall Band

January 28 at The End

This show deserves a mention if for no other reason than for just how rowdy it was. It's probably lucky no one was hurt, but seeing as no one did it presents a fascinating case study on the type of impact an environment like this can have on a rock show. Broken bottles had to be swept from the stage, a massive Hispanic kid tried to stage dive directly on top of me, and I had to be hoisted over the side railing just to get back to the bar area. Ty Segall pulled off a rare sellout at The End, and had the place busting at the seams with sludgy garage rock influenced by everyone from Black Sabbath to Iggy and the Stooges.

24. Run the Jewels

July 16 at Exit/In

When you combine one of the boldest, most outspoken emcees with one of today's most free thinking producers (who also happens to kill it on a mic), it makes for a one-two hip hop combo that's hard to top by anyone, anywhere. Killer Mike and El-P even had guys in the crowd with cardboard cutouts of their faces taped to the end of wooden sticks,  and invited them onstage. Mike's intensity combines with El-P's face shredding beats to create arguably the best hip hop act touring the club circuits right now. For those who aren't sold on sitting in a dank arena for Kendrick, Drake or Yeezy, Run the Jewels is your best bet.

23. Wilco

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Wilco has consistently been billed among the best live bands for well over a decade, and it's simple to see why. Their Friday night pre-headlining set at Bonarroo had all the elements of a great rock show. Jeff Tweedy showcased himself as a relatable and  clever frontman, while guitarist Nels Cline let loose with ample amounts of rock shreddery, not to mention a back catalog that boasts plenty of influential, game changing tunes from their late 90s/early 2000s output. If that wasn't enough, they even brought out alt-country brethren Calexico onto stage for a ravishing guest spot for a song or two.

22. Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers

June 13 at Bonnaroo

She's not well known, but knows how to put on a good time. Imagine a gritty, southern rock sound coupled with Bluhm's impressive set of pipes, which also features great classic rock guitar soloing to boot. It's the kind of music designed to get you set to head to the bar and kick your good for nothing man to the curb.

21. Megadeth

September 5 at Bridgestone Arena

Unfortunately, their opening set for Iron Maiden at Bridgestone Arena didn't deliver the type of spectacle these Bay Area headbangers are known for putting on. Despite their extensive back catalog, they rushed through a short set that didn't even touch the hour mark. The only pause came before the final song, when Dave Mustaine delivered a few short remarks on the conflict in Syria. Yet it's still hard to argue with the pure headbanging power of "Hangar 18" or the god-tier soloing on "Tornado of Souls."

20. Of Monsters and Men

June 14 at Bonnaroo

For a relatively new band, Icelanidc indie pop folk band Of Monsters and Men have set a solid foundation for live shows for years to come. With only one album out, there's not much pomp, flair, or elaborate stage setups, but what comes across best is the demeanor of the band. Onstage they're all so easy going and laid back, and it makes it easy to feel endeared to the band and their material.  They played their album My Head is an Animal in full, while also impressively transforming Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Skeletons" into a mellowed out, deep sea submerged sounding version of an old Icelandic folk tune.

19. Bad Religion

March 20 at War Memorial Auditorium

Anyone with any interest in punk whatsoever should revel in frontman Greg Graffin's tales of the San Fernando valley scene the band came up in and the slam dancers they once played in front of. This set would have been a couple of notches higher had I not accidentally gotten balcony tickets, where the energy level was lethargic. But it was easy to see the kids on the main floor were in a frenzy. Bad Religion's influence runs wide and deep, and they tore through a career spanning setlist that featured everything from their old school hardcore hits to their newer, more melodic driving rock sound.

18. Menomena

February 23 at Mercy Lounge

This Portland based indie rock duo put on a great sing along performance with a very clever and unique songwriting style. The best part is that it's hard to know where their songs are going to end up when they start. The music is predicated on a great sense of rhythm from drummer Danny Seim, while frontman Justin Harris keeps the crowd on their toes by switching between bass and saxophone

17. Patty Griffin

October 21 at Ryman Auditorium

Griffin displayed a very warm and inviting personality while touring her album American Kid, which focuses on her family relationships. She told personal stories about her dad and grandfather and explained how they connected with the themes of each song. She also cleverly tinkered with different arrangements for several songs. She transformed "Don't Let Me Die in Florida," with the presence of blusey, warbly electric guitar, while a dash of accordion was injected into the teary eyed eulogy "Go Wherever You Wanna Go."

16. Animal Collective

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Their set was insane, and had great stage production value. With rows of teeth and and giant pointy blowup balloons adorning the stage, it looked like something out of an acid trip. Michael Winslow from Police Academy announced the band's entrance, and they played late into the night. It came across like listening to an old transistor radio late at night, fading from one song into the next. One of the highlights was Avey Tare twerking around onstage with nothing but mic in hand while singing "Peacebone." They played a bit long, but their dieheards probably would have taken much more.

15. The Whiskey Gentry

December 7 at Variety Playhouse

This show marked a special occasion for these Atlanta based country/folk rockers as they celebrated their 5th annual Merry Y'all Tide Celebration. The band was a blast onstage, ripping into breakneck solos on banjo, mandolin, violin, and more. Although they may be country/folk based, the intensity they play with rivals that of a punk band. Throughout the set they were joined by various artists from the Atlanta area, ending with a folk/gypsy extravaganza that featured over 15 performers onstage. No matter your spirit, The Whiskey Gentry proves there's no better band for celebrating the holidays with glasses raised high.

14. Preservation Hall Jazz Band

June 15 at Bonnaroo

It's hard to discount the way good old New Orleans jazz can positively affect the soul. Preservation Hall Jazz Band have not only kept this incredible tradition intact, but have impressively expanded upon it. Their Saturday night Bonnaroo crowd responded in full force, dressing themselves up in 1920s style suit and ties and kicking it like it was still pre-Depression era.The best treat, though, came near the end when My Morning Jacket's Jim James joined them onstage for a jaw dropping rendition of blues/jazz classic "St. James Infirmary."

13. Atoms for Peace

October 3 at War Memorial Auditorium

Atoms for Peace take the cake in terms of unique stage setup. The Thom Yorke fronted superband relies heavily on percussion and electronics, eschewing guitar almost entirely. This leaves Flea to play bass like a lead instrument, which is essentially what it functions as in this band. There are flourishes of guitar, but it tends to get eaten up by their impressive wall of sound.  Nigel Godrich's deep knowledge of electronics enables him to crank out impressive beats, while a pair of percussionists layer over top of that. Also consider that you have Thom Yorke and Flea on the same stage, and that's almost too much badassness to comprehend.

12. Savages

October 7 at Municipal Auditorium

For a band with only one album, Savages are way better live than anyone has a right to expect them to be. The band is powerfully propelled by their rhythm section, bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton. They have a versatile guitarist in Gemma Thompson, who can alternate between light, gentle brushstrokes and jagged riffing, while frontwoman Jhenny Beth generates a blast of defiant, feminist energy while slipping back and forth from steely edged rock singer to performance artist and back again.

11. David Byrne/St. Vincent

June 16 at Bonnaroo

Dave Byrne and Annie Clark are about as good as you can ask for when it comes to performers who know how to have fun. They promote a quirky, fist pumping nature, while singing songs covering all sorts of zany topics. Their band presented a big, loud, and brassy sound, and the duo even mixed it up by letting all of their bandmembers go through line and sing a line into the microphone. If that's not enough, hits from the Talking Heads catalog, along with gems from Clark herself should be ample to convert almost anyone. These two clearly have a blast on stage, and make sure you do too.

10. Weird Al

June 15 at Bonnaroo

Some might scoff at Weird Al, but don't write him off.  His showmanship is first rate, and his decades of experience have enabled him to perfect the art of his live shows. It's a very production heavy show, as Al's costume changes see him parody everyone from Nirvana to Green Day to Amish preachers. Also charming is his use of video screens to poke fun at non-musical entertainment figures in between costume changes. The popular culture he satirizes is so ingrained in our culture that almost anyone can relate to his shows on a variety of levels.

9. Janelle Monae

November 17 at Ryman Auditorium

When it comes to meticulously planning and arranging a concert, few put more work in than Monae. She entered the stage strapped to a dolly like a mental patient, then proceeded to blow our minds. Her shows are highly thematic, her upbeat demeanor rivals that of Matt & Kim, and she can also lay claim to the best set of pipes I have ever witnessed live. But it all paled in comparison to her 25 minute extended jam of "War of the Roses," where she moonwalked, led the audience in a Cab Calloway style sing along, jumped into the crowd, and even conducted an audience costume contest.

8. Sleigh Bells

November 8 at Marathon Music Works

This was the best I physically felt after any concert this year. After soaking in all the energy this duo left on stage, I felt like I was ready to go level a forest. Guitarist Derek Miller's playbook extends far beyond mere headbanging, allowing him to craft musical backdrops that are threatening and dissonant, while others are rowdy and rollicking. Alexis Krauss, meanwhile, draws from her experience fronting a girlpop band and proves she knows how to play to a crowd, getting them riled up with throat stomping badassery. 

7. Steven Wilson

April 17 at Variety Playhouse

Wilson's previous band, Porcupine Tree, was a regular entrant on many best live bands list. He hasn't garnered as much press since their hiatus, but it would be a major error to write off his solo shows. The musicianship is first rate, with famed British guitarist Guthrie Govan joining Wilson's live band, along with a slew of other virtuoso musicians. Wilson weaves an impressive multimedia aspect into his act, projecting eerie, dissonant video clips to complement his creative concoctions. Touting material from his excellent album, The Raven That Refused to Sing, Wilson haunted the auditorium with tales of ghosts, supernatural beings, and other menaces, while also breaking out cataclysmic prog rock from his first two albums. The highlight goes to their captivating performance of "Raider II," which silenced the crowd for its 25 minute duration.

6. The Wayne Shorter Quartet with Esperanza Spalding and the Nashville Symphony

April 12 at Schermerhorn Symphony Center

This was easily the jazz event of the year in Nashville. Shorter's backing quartet features some of the most talented musicians in the world, on any instrument in any genre. Shorter can't blow the pipes like he used to, but just seeing him preform is a treat. The symphony upped the ante by joining in after the first set, but that was no preparation for what Spalding brought to the fore. I admit I wasn't well versed in her work prior to the show. That changed after her glorious and dominating voice pierced every square inch of Nashville's cavernous Schermerhorn Center.  It served as an overpowering testament to jazz's legacy, along with a strong affirmation that its future is indeed bright.

5. Queens of the Stone Age

October 7 at Municipal Auditorium

Queens of the Stone Age aren't flashy, but they operate like a well oiled machine. With Josh Homme showing off muscular rock and roll chops, bassist Michael Shuman going nuts all over the stage, and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen clad in his signature black suit and red tie, these are some of the meanest, leanest rockers around.  They got off to a blazing start, instantly hooking the audience with great rock and roll sing alongs "No One Knows" and "Burn the Witch," but demonstrated their catalog is much more diverse than the hits their known for. They pack plenty of well known crunching rockers, but can also deploy raging piano power ballads, grooving funk pieces, and even dissonant jam tunes. Their songs always have a distinctive flavor, and it is predicated on being slightly different in their rhythm section. Many songs will have very distinctive beats but are also very simple, to the point it makes you wonder why someone else hasn't thought of it first.

4. Bjork

June 15 at Bonnaroo

This is the show that made me a fan of Bjork. Up till this point I always had a curious interest in her but had never found time to listen to her works. Her sunset set on Bonnaroo's main stage vindicated that sentiment in a big way. She came out in a dress that looked like it was made of mangled fish, wearing that unforgettable icicle headgear and supported by a choir dressed in blue and gold cloths. The early part of her performance felt like a New York art museum translated into a musical equivalent, with songs that were mellow and restrained but serene and majestic. As the sun began to set, however, she broke out much harsher beats in songs like "Hyperballad" and "Nattura" that you could free yourself to get lost in. There was no more absorbing dance related experience this year, and certainly nowhere else you can go to get an audiovisual experience quite like Bjork.

3. Nine Inch Nails

October 22 at Bridgestone Arena

When I heard talk about the Nine Inch Nails light show, I had no idea what I was in for. Thinking of it in terms of a light show is simply missing the point. The vision designed by Trent Reznor and Rob Sheridan is a full on embrace of the various ways technology can transform our idea of what a concert can be. Full on digital scanning creates various images that complement each song, the most jaw dropping of which was the giant NiN logo at the end that was made by what was initially just nine clusters of lights. But to pull it off the way these guys also requires a killer band onstage, and Nine Inch Nails is a band capable of tearing it up with or without fancy tricks. This was proven by the final three song run in the main set, consisting of "Head Like a Hole," "The Hand That Feeds," and "Wish," undoubtedly my most breathless concert experience of the year. 

2. Iron Maiden

September 5 at Bridgestone Arena

I'd seen clips of Bruce Dickinson electrifying massive crowds on TV specials and Youtube videos, but an opportunity to physically see one of the world's most passionate, intense, and beloved bands is an incomparable experience.  Their Bridgestone set was ripe with an amazing setlist, and the stage setup and production is second to none. The concert's theme was based upon their Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album, and had the corresponding icy glacier/mesa setup, Bruce wore his aviator cap and waved the UK flag, and Eddie stalked around all over stage. Far from just a band onstage playing old songs, like contemporaries Metallica and Megadeth. This is one of the last few remaining bands that still capture the spirit of 1980s metal and communicate it to younger generations. It's a shame I couldn't have been there to drink in that scene, but thanks to Iron Maiden I was able to live it for one night.

1. Paul McCartney

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Paul McCartney has been enjoying a heavy dose of visibility lately. He's had a great new album, Saturday Night Live cameos, and continual touring over the past few years. I was fortunate in that this was my second time seeing him. His performance was on par with his Bridgestone Arena set I saw three years ago, although that show will always be my favorite as it was my first time seeing him. Nevertheless, his headlining set at Bonnaroo allows McCartney to top my list for the second time in four years. It was an incredible shared collective experience with 80,000 other people.

The final remaining core of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting battery preformed a slew of songs from his solo projects, Wings, and The Beatles and showed us why he's one of the most electric performers and songwriters to ever walk this planet. Massive screens broadcasted all of his antics and fireworks all the way to the back of Bonnaroo's massive main field. He broke out several old Sgt. Peppers songs that hadn't been heard in years, including "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "Your Mother Should Know." Even more fittingly, someone tossed a plush walrus doll on stage, which Paul placed on his piano while he played his final encore. There isn't a better live show on earth than this.

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