Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Totally Unauthorized Presents: the Top 25 Live Shows of 2014

If nothing else, the concert scene in 2014 shows why it's important to strike while the iron's hot. Two of my top six acts are highly unlikely to tour again in the imminent future, and one of those are headed out on their final tour next year. That said, it was still another great year for live music. Here's the best I saw:

25. Deafheaven

February 18 at The End

Watching Deafheaven on stage isn't like watching a typical metal band.  This was an epic, energy draining set. Their frontman was kind of weird, but in a good way. He practiced lots of exaggerated hand motions, and he liked to scream right in the faces of people that were close. Of course, they were eating it up. His vocals were barely audible, though. I stopped by a Papa John's on the way back to ask for a bottle of water. They were closed, but thankfully they let me have one. 

24. Goat

June 15 at Bonnaroo

Even with all the shows I've seen, there's still few bands like Goat. Their sound is a carefully culled mixture of 60s psych folk rock, but the colorful gypsy costumes they don onstage and their bold sense of creativity makes this a must see. They're a rare act to catch stateside but with any luck a successful new album might bring them around more frequently.

23. Lily & the Parlour Tricks

June 13 at Bonnaroo

Glorious harmonies from this band. They showcase three part girl harmonies backed up by crunchy rock guitar. And if that's not enough, they closed with a cover of Black Sabbath's War Pigs, which segued into Ann Peebles' "I Can't Stand the Rain" before finally morphing into Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." They harmonized their three voices together to replicate the closing piano coda of "Closer." My jaw was on the ground.

22. Samantha Crain

October 29 at Ryman Auditorium

Crain is a consummate singer/songwriter, in the sense that she definitely expounds on the motivations and inspirations behind her songs. Onstage, her manner of speaking to an audience causes her to feels very down to earth, and easy to relate to. An example of her loveable, quirky personality: she wrote a song inspired by a movie Convoy about a trucker running away from cops and said if Convoy 2 ever came out she hoped it would make the soundtrack. 

21. Swans

June 30 at Exit/In

They rose from the grime and grit of the early 80s New York art scene, but now Swans have finally arrived and they're here to kick your ass. There is also a strong art house vibe with frontman Michael Gira doing some weird Native American spirit dancing, and rolling his tongue all around the microphone. But more than anything else, it's all about those riffs.  The opening salvo on "Bring the Sun" hit with so much force it felt like the equivalent of being mugged on a street corner.

20. Machine Head

July 21 at Exit/In

Rob Flynn of Machine Head is one of the most well respected voices within metal today, not to mention one of the most thoughtful and insightful. On stage, he will stop at nothing to fire up a crowd. It may have been an odd, between album cycle tour but it marked the band's first headlining gig in Nashville in almost 20 years. The spitfire riffing in "Aesthetics of Hate" and the pounding, old school punishment of "Ten Ton Hammer" were as good of a welcome back present as any.

19. MS MR

June 12 at Bonnaroo

If you know me you know I love my synth pop bands, so the moment I found out that's what they were I had to check 'em out. They're more about vocals/hooks as opposed to electronics/production, which has its pros and cons. On stage though, the band is far too infectious to deny.

Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow ripped their way through most of the cuts from their debut, Secondhand Rapture, and tossed in covers of the Arctic Monkeys' "Do I Wanna Know" and LCD Soundsystem's "Dance Yrself Clean" for good measure. This was the first band of the weekend I saw people seriously getting hype over, and it looked like the band themselves were blown away by the reception they were getting. We were feeding off their energy as much as we were feeding off ours.

18. First Aid Kit

October 29 at Ryman Auditorium

The Swedish dual threat of Johanna and Klara Soderberg have emerged as one of the day's most compelling indie folk duos, and the grand glory of their dual vocal harmonies rang forth in fine fashion at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. They also put on display considerable charm that wowed the audience, and left little doubt the only direction they're headed is up.

17. Rodrigo y Gabriela

August 8 at Ryman Auditorium

A duo doing little more than playing guitars on stage might not sound that exciting at first glance, but there's something living, breathing, and vital about Rodrigo y Gabriela onstage. They capture the giddy, whirlwind energy of street performers. Rodrigo works out speed metal inspired guitar leads and Gabriela practices the most insane rhythm playing I've ever witnessed. If that's not enough, they throw in a pretty bitchin' set of covers as well.

16. Cake

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Bahaha, these guys are insane. I knew of Short Skirt Long Jacket and The Distance, but didn't get really turned on to these guys until I started researching the fest lineup and heard their cover of I Will Survive. I had a front row spot for this show, and one of my friends caught a drumstick they tossed into the crowd. It's fun, sing along, breezy feel good music that makes you feel good and doesn't make you think too much.

15. Tune Yards

October 9 at Marathon Music Works

It has been a joy to see Merrill Garbus's band and stage show grow over the years. The band's presence is delightfully bizarre, while never deviating from their brand of exotic rhythm based pop music. They've gotten more diverse and electronic since I first saw them, and seem to be getting into the artier side in terms of dress and presentation as well.

14. Hundred Waters

November 11 at Marathon Music Works

I caught these guys opening for Interpol. I knew very little going in but they turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises I've had in a while. What impresses me most is their versatility. They vary from James Blake like downtempo soul vibe but can also get more upbeat and frenetic in their drumwork without losing their aesthetic. They can be more electronic/ambient at times, and sometimes the girl even pulls out a flute and starts wailing away. I found myself wondering if there's anything this band isn't capable of.

13. Janelle Monae

June 13 at Bonnaroo

Her set was significantly shorter than the last time I saw her, but Monae was undeterred as she demonstrated that sparkling, vivacious, electric showmanship that's made her one of today's must see acts. It was mostly an energetic set, only slowing down for rosy cheeked love tune "Primetime," in which Monae urged us all to bring our lover closer together for a slow dance. She closed the set by hopping off stage and mingling with the crowd before being carried off piggyback by one of her crew members.

12. Cloud Nothings

June 12 at Bonnaroo

One of my favorite Bonnaroo moments was raging out with this band. The set was a pure unleashing of energy and emotion.  So cathartic moments: the shrieking of "Psychic Trauma," the colossal build up and release of "Wasted Days", straight up to the eerie parting drone of "No Future No Past." The crowd responded in kind, whipping up some of the most intense moshing of the entire weekend. Apparently it was too much for some, as people were leaving the show in droves.

11. Kvelertak

November 6 at Marathon Music Works

Norwegian heavy metallers Kevelertak come across like viking conquerors onstage, come to smite us with heavy metal. Their frontman, Erlend Hjelvik, knows how to play to a crowd; he came out wearing an owl mask for their opening number "Ă…penbaring," and never let up from there. The gang is very energetic on stage. They hit loud, fast, and hard, and played with the swagger of 70s rock and roll stars.

10. Elton John

June 15 at Bonnaroo

Seeing Elton was a highlight of the year, even if his show didn't quite live up to other headliner caliber sets I've seen. He opened with the 11 minute epic "Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding," which was among the greatest songs I heard at Bonnaroo. After drawing top billing, many festivalgoers began to wonder how he'd compare to last years #1 billed act, Paul McCartney. He didn't come close to the majesty of that set, but that's not a bad thing. Unlike fellow headliners Kanye West and Jack White, Elton didn't have much to say. He simply kept his head down and powered his way through his hits. It seemed like he was going through the motions to a certain extent, but when your catalog contains "Bennie and the Jets," "Tiny Dancer," and "All the Girls Love Alice," it's not hard to forgive. Not to mention that Ben Folds came out to join him for "Grey Seal." Before hitting the exit gate, I saw a group of people who joined hands together and ran/danced around in a circle, and then brought it in and high fived one another, and I managed to get in on it. It was one of my favorite moments of the weekend for sure.

9. Mastodon

June 13 at Bonnaroo

Mastodon has gained a reputation as one of the best live acts in their field for good reason. I saw them twice this year, and it was tough to decide which performance was better. Ultimately I'm going with their Bonnaroo set for its more varied setlist. They pulled a good amount of traditional metal from fan favorite albums Blood Mountain and Leviathan, but delved into their more noodly, progressive side also. They've got great stage presence, one of the best drummers walking the planet, and a killer light setup. I was also jazzed for Capillarian Crest, one of the best deep cuts they've done.

8. Beck 

July 15 at Ryman Auditorium

Last time Beck hit Nashville, we saw him stealthily slipping into a nearby restaurant to wow patrons with secret set. No such festivities occurred this time, but what we did get was a career retrospective from a stunning artist who observes no rules but his own. He shared the tale of how many cuts from his latest album, Morning Phase, originated from recording sessions in Nashville and wooed us with a handful of those dreamy cuts. The highlight, however, was when Beck rolled out yellow police tape and finished his set with a combination of crazed harmonica playing, 90s hip hop, and a mashup of Rolling Stones' "Miss You."

7. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

June 14 at Bonnaroo

I only caught the last half of Nick Cave, but even from that it is dead obvious the man was born to be onstage. He cast a sinister shadow as he leered over his crowd and wove his tale of the murderous madman Stagger Lee.  I loved how the drummer clashed his stick against the kit to make it sound like gunshots when Billy Dilly got filled full of lead. But if that wasn't enough, Cave drops a secret verse on us where Stagger Lee straight up kills the Devil! I loved the the chilled out dissonance of his Push the Sky Away material as well as the gothic, Quentin Tarantino vibe, but Stagger Lee was the most badass moment of Bonnaroo for sure!

6. Outkast

July 18 at Forecastle

Forget everything you've heard about that off-kilter Coachella performance. Hip hop's most dynamic duo dominated Forecastle during their Friday night headlining set, delivering spitfire rhymes and hooks tastier than Southern fried steak and gravy. The duo's reunion was one of the inescapable music stories of the year, and with a chance to hear "Ms. Jackson," "So Fresh So Clean," and "The Whole World," among many others, it's no surprise why. The only nagging concern was whether or not Andre was truly on board, and apparently he wasn't. In a post tour interview he talked about how much he disliked the entire experience so it's almost certain we'll never have the chance to see them again.

5. Damon Albarn

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Albarn is pound for pound one of the best pure performers I have ever seen, but the frontman of Blur and Gorillaz had no designs on hogging the stage during this solo set. Along with him came a dazzling cast of guests, paving the way for one of Bonnaroo's most unforgettable main stage acts in recent memory. He belted out hard rockers, hip hop inspired beats, more downtempo fare and even a bit of circus style music as he weaved his way through material from all the various bands and collaborations he has been a part of over his career. But when he brought out De La Soul for "Feel Good Inc." followed by Del the Funky Homosapien for "Clint Eastwood," an uproarious celebration broke out and engulfed the entire field.

4. Neutral Milk Hotel

June 13 at Bonnaroo

Few reunions have been more lauded by fans and critics than that of 90s indie folk darlings Neutral Milk Hotel. After a somewhat disappointing performance at Ryman Auditorium, their set at Bonnaroo showed me exactly why.What is typically a laid back affair became balls to the wall as the normally timid Jeff Mangum unleashed a torrent of buzzsaw guitars. The moshing, pushing and shoving became so intense that several people had to flee the set. But suddenly you got hit with the 8 minute ballad Oh Comely. After all the roughhousing we were all so drained it felt you were dying and that song was the only thing keeping you alive.

3. Darkside

June 14 at Bonnaroo

Navigating Bonnaroo, especially on a Saturday night, can be a trying experience. Fortunately, Dave Harrington's minimalistic, ethereal guitar work coupled with Nicolas Jarr's heavenly, all encompassing synth washes proved to be the perfect healing salve. Jarr's high pitched vocals sneak in to a track and then slip back out like a thief in the night. There was an booming bass beat that keeps kicking you in the chest. And then there was their gigantic mirror, reflecting radiant beams of light throughout the tent.  This was one of those experiences that made me forget where I was -- to just forget about everything for a moment. For that reason, I'll always hold it in the utmost regard.

2. Arcade Fire

May 1 at Bridgestone Arena

Win Butler and crew are some of the brightest, most innovative and forward thinking musicians of our day. It's hard to put a finger on what exactly it is, but everything about their stage show and production is a breath of fresh air. The band's first stadium tour had it all: raging calypso drums, blankets of confetti, Mexican wrestler masks and crystal monsters dancing around. Famed DJ Kid Koala even showed up to jam while the equipment was set up. But Arcade Fire also have the booming catalog to back it up. They could rattle the arena with Springsteen-esque rock or get experimental with more exotic material from their latest album, Reflektor, but it was the giant anthems that carried the night as the entire building was swept away in a riveting rendition of "Wake Up."

1. Jack White

June 14 at Bonnaroo

He may hail from Detroit, for but three hours in a field in Tennessee Jack White did all he could to position himself in the pantheon of all time greatest Southern musicians. He had a particular concept in mind, so I'll let him tell you in his own words:

"All the musicians up here with me now, I think they all mentally decided that the best thing to give to you right now was not a show that would put on a bunch of explosions behind us and give you some sort of pyrotechnics for some festival or something like that. But the kind of show that we show you what kind of music we would play if we were in a room all by ourselves and you were there too."

As simple as it may seem, some performers put too much stock into presentation or focus too much on trying to girls onstage topless with them. With Jack White it was not just about the music; it was a celebration of music. This show was special because everything about his delivery felt very personalized; it was like he was talking directly to you in the crowd no matter where you were.

But you also have to excel in terms of musicianship to make a concept like this work, and in White's case he's capable of doing things that many musicians can't. There are plenty of blues players with amazing instrumental skills, but White combines electrifying charisma with awe-inspiring musical chops, and he can actually write songs too. I found myself mesmerized by his playing. He belts out blues inspired solos but can also jam out quite a bit.

"Seven Nation Army" was the moment the audience had been anticipating all night. When he hopped onto the speaker and belted out that riff it was a full blown coronation. Of all the iconic, instantly recognizable guitar riffs that one is the most recent, and may well be the last for all we know. But what we do know is this: there may not have been any pryo at this show but you're out of luck if you're trying to determine anything else it was lacking.