Sunday, January 10, 2016

Totally Unauthorized Top Live Shows of 2015: 40-26

This has been an exhilirating year for live music. I feel like I need to come up for air after everything I've seen over the past 12 months. I'm not sure if it's the best year I've ever seen; that honor would go to either this year or 2013. But I don't know if I'll see a year like it again. I'm not gonna come out and say this is the last year I'm gonna make one of these lists, but I will say not to expect one of these lists from me next year. At the least, it won't be anywhere near as big as the ones I have done. So in honor of that, I've decided to go big this year. Here are the 40 best bands I saw this year.

40. Unlocking the Truth

June 11 at Bonnaroo

Can metal get more respect at Bonnaroo now? These 14 year olds showed that talent and energy can sometimes trump experience, as they put on the most memorable opening set I‘ve seen at Bonnaroo. With raw bravado, front man Malcolm Brickhouse ordered the crowd to split in half and form a moshpit. Cue relentless crowd surfing. He didn‘t break out the guitar solos often, but whenever he did they melted face. Bassist Alec Atkins proved to be a great, sweat soaked showman as well; at one point, he could be seen dousing himself with a bottle of Dasani. No doubt many were interested in them merely as a novelty act due to their age, but they showed they have the most potential of any young band since Black Tide.

39. Iceage

June 11 at Bonnaroo

These Danish post punkers are too chaotic and noisy for me to listen to on record, but it translates very well live. Frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt drug his mic stand around behind him like it was his personal plaything and thrust himself toward the front of the stage like a vicious rottweiler trying to free himself from his leash. Twisting and sashaying around the stage, he exuded a heavy Jim Morrison vibe while taking sips of Corona. Guitarist Johan Weith pitched in with walls of battering sound, although at times he’d switch it up for a more American rock and roll type of guitar riff that worked to perfection. Even a few sound problems early in the set weren’t enough to sway them. Though I can’t see Corona being Morrison’s beverage of choice, their hypnotizing performance brought to mind memories of musical eras gone by.

38. The Offspring

April 28 at War Memorial Auditorium

There aren’t many surprises when it comes to an Offspring set, but you’re gonna have a hell of a time anyway. Lots of jumping, moshing, and rocking out. You know all their songs and probably know the words to the vast majority of them. They stick pretty strictly to their mid to late 90s hits in concert, delivering an energetic punk rock blast with “All I Want” and “Come Out and Play.” Fun, bouncy numbers like “Why Don’t You Get a Job,” meanwhile allow you to catch your breath a little while still providing a great opportunity to belt it out at the top of your lungs. And when they finish it off with “Self Esteem,” you’ll be transported back to wherever you were when first heard that song in your wayward youth. 

37. Mastodon

May 8 at Shaky Knees 

Third time seeing these guys in less than a year. Definitely my least favorite setlist of theirs; it was pretty much exclusively new album. Nothing at all from Blood Mountain, although we did get to see Brent Hinds break out his double necked guitar for “The Czar,” a rarely played 13 minute deep cut from their 2009 album Crack the Skye. None of that mattered though, it was still a great time. The pit was hella fun. I saw the same 45 year old shirtless guy I saw at the Clutch set. I was gonna leave early to get a spot for Pixies but I was having so much fun I decided to stay. Then they brought out Neil Fallon, the vocalist from Clutch, to do the final verse of “Blood and Thunder” at the end and ratcheted it up even further.

36. Grimes

November 10 at Marathon Music Works

I was drunk, in the back dancing wildly for most of this show. There’s a lot to like with her sets, but this was just too short. The warmth of Art Angels shines through very clearly, and she has the kind of personality that can translate very well to a live set, but she didn’t seem that interested in playing much of her material. I’m not a huge fan of when an artist decides they just don’t like their first two albums, so they’re just going to play you a shorter set. But she didn’t even touch on that much of her two newer album. "Flesh vs. Blood" didn’t get played, as well as a few other Art Angels gems. Right at the moment when it felt like the set was reaching its crescendo, it came to a screeching halt. My buddies and I had to work off our buzz at CafĂ© Coco. 

35. First Aid Kit

July 19 at Forecastle

The rich velour of their vintage, 70s infused, harmony rich folk is slightly out of place in Louisville’s blazing summer heat, but even so they got a crowd cheering under a baking midday sun. Johanna cheerily greeted patrons to the duo’s first ever Kentucky show. “We’re used to polar bears and snowstorms, not this!” she exclaimed. Rich harmonies, tambourine banging, and Ryman inspired swinging country combined with youthful wistfulness was the order of the day. 

34. The War on Drugs

June 13 at Bonnaroo

If you think they sound good in studio, you gotta see this band onstage. The dusky reverb emanating from Adam Granduciel’s guitar strings is one of the most glorious sounds I heard all weekend; his soloing skills make it worth the price of admission alone. Tunes like “Buenos Aires Beach” and “Arms Like Boulders” benefit greatly when freed from the grainy production of the debut, while towering solos in “Under the Pressure” and “Ocean in Between the Waves” serve as ringing reminders as to why you see live music in the first place. The band’s laid back onstage demeanor struck the perfect tone for a late afternoon set. 

33. Loretta Lynn

January 28 at Bridgestone Arena

Seeing Loretta Lynn takes you back to a different time. Her set is composed of two minute little country stompers that come in, make a quick point about a no good woman or cheatin' man, and are done before you know it. It's not hard to imagine a time when this was the industry standard, watching Loretta or Johnny or Waylon tear up in front of a packed rowdy crowd at the Ryman. This show gives a great idea of how much the music industry has changed, but also reminds us of our roots. 

32. Metric

November 18 at Marathon Music Works

I don't really remember much about this show. All I know is I was dancing wildly and Emily Haines has the best legs ever. 

31. The Tallest Man on Earth

May 27 at Ryman Auditorium

About 20 minutes into his performance, Mattson stands stage right while the shadows drape his shoulder, eyes downcast, entirely focusing on the beautiful, finger picked riff emanating from his guitar. I’m sitting in the fourth row at Ryman Auditorium, close enough to hear the scraping of his thumb pick against the strings of his guitar. His band has left the stage. Matsson himself isn’t even really pushing himself very hard in particular and still he is killing it. “Your voice is sexy!” some girl calls from behind me. Mattson takes notice, approaches the mic and sardonically replies, “I’m just trying to figure out the pedals up here.” The Wild Hunt” and “Where Do My Bluebird Fly” evoked lush, pastoral dreamscapes, while closer "Like a Wheel" saw Matsson gathered with his band for a five part harmony section in his most stunning moment of the evening.

30. Tears for Fears

June 12 at Bonnaroo

These guys have more great songs than I think most people give them credit for. “Mad World” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” were obvious humongous sing alongs, but don‘t forget “Head Over Heels,” popularized by Donnie Darko. I liked the backup singer dressed like Debbie Harry; she was grooving the whole time. One of the key moments of the entire festival occurred near the close of their set, when they dropped a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” It was the biggest sing along I have heard at Roo since Paul McCartney. Set closer “Shout” was almost equally outstanding. There was so much power pulsing through everyone in the tent, with dramatic light beams sweeping  all over the stage.

29. Clutch

May 8 at Shaky Knees 

Vocalist Neil Fallon declared they were 100 percent committed to having a good time, and it showed. There was this shirtless 40-something dude in front of me who was going nuts the whole time, and his enthusiasm was neat to see. The only song I knew from the going in was “Earth Rocker,” but the last two songs were the best.  The second to last song, which he said was from their first album, had some of the best riffs I heard all day. The finale, “Electric Worry,” had this great sing along section  during its chorus. I walked away from this set with a big smile, and was able to say to myself I had a great time watching Clutch tear it up in a blazing Georgia field.

28. Gogol Bordello

July 2 at Marathon Music Works

They're unbelievable hype men who know how to get a crowd moving. The best part was this old guy they had wearing a ship captain outfit who played violin. At one point, the rest of the band stopped to let him solo for a moment and all the lights went out except for a blueish hued spotlight that centered directly on him. It‘s proof that sometimes minimalism can be the best driver of hype. “Start Wearing Purple” and “Pala Tute” were great, but they missed a few good ones from Trans-Continental Shuffle.


27. Jamie xx 

August 4 at Marathon Music Works

Jamie is big on 70s funk and soul -- music that’s easy and great to groove to. That final three song run of "Gosh," "Loud Places," and "Gonna Be Good Times," was something to behold. I had retreated back toward the back of the club by that point and I was having a better time back there. I’m not big on dancing, but "Gonna Be Good Times" had me visualizing dance moves in my head I’d never have the guts to break out in actual public. When an artist can do that to me, it’s safe to say  they’re doing something right. 

26. Brad Paisley

June 17 at LP Field

He might have been opening for The Rolling Stones, but Brad Paisley was doing his best to match them in star power. CMT queen Carrie Underwood and Joe Walsh of The Eagles made guest appearances to sing duets with Paisley. If you can't get hype about seeing a legend like Walsh, you can kindly get the hell out sir. My favorite part was seeing something a completely different subset of music fan sees. I admit I don't identify much with their scene but there is something electrifying about seeing these guys (and gals) I've heard about so much. Paisley's material ranged from hardcore honky-tonkers about moonshiners running from the cops to easy listening love ballads that sounds like something CMT would have on when I was a kid getting ready for school in the morning, to general beer commercial/titans commercial soundtrack music. There is talent, it's just that Nashville music labels whitewash the music until it sounds just like everyone else.

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