Thursday, February 12, 2015

Every Concert I Went to in 2014, Ranked

Well, it is February 2015. What better time for me to begin my 2014 year-end retrospective? As anyone who has ever had a conversation with me lasting more than three minutes knows, I go to a lot of concerts. Last year, I went to a concert every 9.6 days (that is 38, for those of you keeping score at home). A few months ago, I was bored enough to rank all 38 of those concerts in order from least to most memorable. And who am I to let a perfectly good list go to waste?

A few things to note: none of these concerts were remotely bad. With a few exceptions, I only went to concerts by musicians I already really liked, so the shows on the bottom of the list fell in those slots due to a combination of a) me being tired (Friday night shows were particularly susceptible to this), b) me having already seen that musician perform recently, c) me not being as into that particular musician relative to other acts I saw this year, or d) Third Eye Blind. Also, you will notice none of the Bonnaroo performances made it onto this list. But, in the famous words of George Harrison, it's been done. Plus, ranking festival sets amidst standalone shows is annoying because they are such different experiences (nonetheless, I still attempted to do so with bands I caught at the Pitchfork Music Festival). With those disclaimers out of the way, here is the list:

38. 6/28: Third Eye Blind at Old St. Pat's Block Party

37. 7/19: tUnE-yArDs at the Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park
As my friends and I trudged through Union Park looking for a spot to view the show, I watched in horror as we planted DIRECTLY in front of someone I had recently been on a date with but had not contacted afterward. Even the quirkiest of songs were not going to save me from feeling extraordinarily awkward during this set.

36. 11/14: The New Pornographers at the Riviera Theatre
I had somewhat high expectations with both Neko Case and Dan Bejar touring with the band, but this show fell somewhat flat for me. They have good, energetic songs but the band was not able to translate that into a particularly memorable live experience. As my friend and I discussed after the show, they need to play faster!

35. 8/10: Bitchin Bajas and Friends Play Terry Riley's "In C" at Constellation
A rare non-rock concert for me- always nice to take in some modern classical. This probably was not the most technically perfect performance of "In C" but it sufficiently provided me a nice soundtrack in which to space out, which is generally my aim at classical concerts.

34. 7/19: Cloud Nothings at the Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park
Absolutely nothing wrong with this set, but having seen them do pretty much the exact same thing at Bonnaroo I was minimally engaged this time around.

33. 7/19: St. Vincent at the Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park
Ditto what I said re: Cloud Nothings, except I saw her at her own show (see below).

32. 6/26: oneohtrixpointnever at Millennium Park
I spent this set eating sandwiches and playing chess.

31. 5/19: Robbie Fulks at the Hideout
This was a performance by a local singer-songwriter who does a weekly Monday residency at my favorite venue in Chicago. For this show, he played Bob Dylan and The Band's Basement Tapes in its entirety. Well, not the complete version that was released last year, the original 1975 version. And he and the band did a really good job! How a band can casually learn the music and lyrics to 24 songs is beyond me (seriously, most of the lyrics appeared to be memorized). Anyway, I am forever grateful to have finally heard Dylan's timeless classic "Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread" live.

30. 8/1: GRMLN at Electric Owl (Vancouver)
I talked about this show in my rundown of last year's West Coast trip. This show ranked as high as it did due to the "I'm at a cool venue in a city very far from Chicago" factor.

29. 6/23: Bob Mould at Millennium Park
Mould and his band sounded fantastic as they ripped through songs from his solo career, Sugar, and Hüsker Dü. 

28. 7/10: Janelle Monae at Taste of Chicago
A bunch of strangers sang me Happy Birthday at this show! Janelle came on stage strapped to a hand-truck Hannibal Lecter-style. Also, she covered the Jackson 5. This show probably deserves to be ranked higher but we were back in the lawn and I spent a lot of it (gasp) socializing rather than focusing fully on the music.

27. 6/22: Swans at Lincoln Hall
Another show that probably deserved to be ranked higher, but I was completely zonked out from this weekend. Even in my extremely fatigued state, Swans' pummeling assault was a sight to behold. Not as memorable as my first time seeing them at Bonnaroo '13, if only because I knew what to expect this time around. Truly one of the more remarkable live rock acts on the planet right now.

26. 7/18: Beck at The Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park
I last saw Beck in 2008 on the Modern Guilt tour, wherein he, for better or worse, took the advice I gave to The New Pornographers above and played every song twice as fast as the recorded version. This time around, touring a much mellower and Grammy ™ award winning (sorry, Kanye) album, he played it straight and delivered a satisfying set of songs spanning his career. Midnite Vultures gem "Get Real Paid" was the highlight for me.

25. 7/1: New Order at Aragon
Two things would have made this show better: a different venue (remember how I said the Hideout is the city's best venue? The Aragon is the worst) and the presence of Peter Hook on bass. Hooky may seem like a bit of a jerk, but he was such an integral part of the band that the fact the band now exists without him is a shame. I usually avoid partial-lineup reunion shows but in this instance I decided that this was as good of a chance as I'd ever have to hear these songs live. Despite my reservations, I'm glad I went. 2014 New Order still have a pulse, playing versions of their old hits ranging from good to excellent in quality. Really lame crowd, though. Who just stands there during "Blue Monday"??

24. 4/2: Mac DeMarco at Empty Bottle
Anyone who covers Neil Young's "Unknown Legend" in full while getting the entire crowd to kneel and then rise to their feet and loudly sing the "Somewhere on a desert highway" refrain in unison is all right by me.

23. 5/4: Angel Olsen at Lincoln Hall
A lovely performance by Ms Olsen, who (spoiler alert) delivered one of my favorite albums of the year. Not quite as memorable as the last time I saw her at The Hideout in 2013 but only because that show had the thrill of seeing someone I felt was on the verge of breaking through to a much larger audience. In fact, I bet one of my friends who accompanied me to that show that within five years she would be headlining the (1,200 person capacity) Vic Theatre. She's been selling out 600-800 capacity venues lately so I could still totally win that bet (you just wait and see, Danny).

22. 1/17: Darkside at Metro
I wish this wasn't a Friday night show because I was exhausted but trying my best to appreciate what was quite a unique performance. Darkside melded (past tense because they no longer exist :( ) rock and electronic elements better than pretty much anyone else, and it was fascinating to see that unfold in the live setting. Most impressive was their encore, with a completely improvised ending.

21. 3/27: Real Estate at Metro
They opened with my favorite song of theirs, proving that one of my preferred mixtape strategies (starting with a song that ends the album it is on) works well in a live setting too. This was a show where the band didn't do much other than get on stage and play their songs well, but I remember it fondly because I was really in the mood to hear those sweet shimmering guitar notes that particular evening.

20. 7/19: Neutral Milk Hotel at the Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park
Singing along to "O Comely" with 15,000 people is fun.

19. 8/5: Parquet Courts at Vera Center (Seattle)
Not sure anything from this show topped the shrimp I ate at Toulouse Petit beforehand, but I enjoyed myself. Did I enjoy myself as much as I would have if I had elected to see Diarrhea Planet instead that evening? Probably not. With that said, Parquet Courts' performance of "Sunbathing Animal" was quite rockin'. 

18. 4/5: St. Vincent at the Riviera Theatre
I've had the privilege of watching St. Vincent's entire career develop before my eyes over the past eight years- going from no-name opener for Arcade Fire in 2007 to Millennium Park headliner in 2009 to indie guitar god touring "Strange Mercy" in 2011 to a poised, confident musical force firing on all cylinders in 2015. It was a joy to see Ms Clark displaying such intensity and managing to increase her showmanship while still delivering a musically stellar performance.

17. 5/13: Neko Case at The Chicago Theatre
Neko Case and her killer band played an eminently satisfying set showcasing her outstanding catalogue of songs- with her and backup singer/pal Kelly Hogan's often hilarious banter creating a joyous atmosphere.

16. 7/18: Giorgio Moroder at The Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park
Well this was just hilarious. Watching a 74-year-old Italian dude throw a dance party for a bunch of 20-somethings is not something you see every day. Never did I think I would hear Moroder's glorious synthesizer masterpiece "Chase" (from the 1978 film Midnight Express) live, but it happened. Hearing snippets from that and other wonderful songs he produced throughout his career made clear that Moroder is truly one of the most important figures in the development of dance and electronic music. I was privileged to see him.

15. 12/12: Wilco at the Riviera Theatre
I have seen Wilco 18 times. EIGHTEEN times. Even I am embarrassed by that figure. But when you are me from 2006-2008 and one of your very favorite bands is from your city and plays in it all the time, you are going to see them every single chance you get. Since then, my Wilco fandom has cooled somewhat but it is still highly enjoyable to see a band live when you know their songs by heart. Wilco might be the band whose catalogue I know the best, and so to go to a show and be able to sing along to nearly every song is a wonderful thing. There was nothing particularly special about this show relative to other Wilco shows I've seen (the 2008 residency will always be tops in my mind), but after 2.5 Wilco-less years it warmed my heart to hear their songs performed again. Also, my friend Jamie scored free tickets. Thanks, Jamie!

14. 9/23: Ty Segall at Thalia Hall
Not quite as mindblowing as his Bonnaroo performance but only because (as with Swans) I now knew what to expect. However, this time, I had listened to Manipulator on repeat so it was fun to hear Segall and co. rip through a bunch of tracks from what I consider his best work to date. The sloppy David Bowie medley in the encore was the icing on the cake ("Happy David Bowie Day, everyone!").

13. 4/19: The Mountain Goats at the Old Town School of Folk Music
The Mountain Goats are one of the few bands that I am game to see every time they come to town. No two shows are alike, and John Darnielle's stage banter is always delightful. It was a treat to see him in the intimate confines of the Old Town School this time around. Playing a set of rarities (no "This Year!") and closing with an adorable 45-second song about a pig he wrote for his young son, this was one of the best of the half-dozen or so Mountain Goats shows I've seen. Listen to it here (or just skip to the pig song at the end).

12. 10/30: Slowdive and Low at The Vic Theatre
Reunited shoegaze greats Slowdive did their reunion right, reforming with their entire classic lineup and sounding every bit as good as they did in their heyday (not that I was there the first time around, but that seems to be the consensus). Excellent visuals, too. Low also provided a great opening set, with me being particularly thrilled to hear my favorite song of theirs, Starfire, live for the first time.

11. 7/18: Sharon van Etten at The Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park
It is not easy for me to be completely transfixed by a musician while standing in the back of a field with a large group of friends, but Sharon van Etten managed to have that effect on me at Pitchfork this year. Playing selections from her wonderful album Are We There (another 2014 favorite of mine), she performed powerful versions of song after heartbreaking song.

10. 8/26: Arcade Fire at The United Center
The rare indie band that knows how to play to the rafters at a stadium show, Arcade Fire brought the spectacle for this show with legendary opening acts (Devo!), multiple stages, confetti galore, gigantic bobblehead versions of themselves, and hometown-centric cover songs. Though I wasn't fortunate enough to hear Mavis Staples join the band (that happened the following night), I did get to hear them tear through a raucus cover of the Bo Diddley classic "Who Do You Love?"

9. 5/31: White Mystery at House Show in Pilsen
My first ever house show (not counting college, of course). White Mystery were the perfect band to see in some stranger's scuzzy basement, playing an energetic set of rockers.

8. 4/21: Neil Young at the Chicago Theatre
Though not as memorable as the Crazy Horse performance I saw in 2012, it was neat to see Neil play a solo set stacked with songs from his '60s and '70s peak (save for a few covers from his A Letter Home album). Me having a soft spot for his '70s "Ditch Trilogy," hearing him perform "Mellow My Mind" on banjo was particularly special. Plus, Neil made corny jokes! (for example, as he sipped from a glass of water: "Tonight's show is brought to you by water. And also glass." And then later "and this glass is brought to you by sand and fire").

7. 3/14: John Prine at Symphony Center
My dad had been telling me to listen to John Prine since I was in high school, but I was never too interested until a few years ago. Point being: High School Me was an idiot. Prine's self-titled debut, Sweet Revenge, and Bruised Orange are amazing singer-songwriter records. This show occurred months after it was announced that Prine had (operable) lung cancer, making it all the more special to see him play a set heavy on songs from those three albums in the confines of Chicago's beautiful Symphony Center. The penultimate performance of "In Spite of Ourselves" was particularly memorable (somehow I'd never heard that song before! It's so good!). Apparently the crowd of mostly people twice my age weren't too keen on recording songs and posting them on youtube, but I've placed a different (and equally lovely) performance from 2006 below.

6. 4/17: John Cale at the Old Town School of Folk Music
Anytime I get to sit in a room with less than 400 people, and one of those 400 people is a founding member of the Velvet Underground, that makes for a good day. Though he has not satisfied my desire to hear any of that fabled band's songs performed live either of the times I have seen him, given the high quality of his solo material, seeing Cale doesn't exactly leave one disappointed. My dad scored seats right up front (thanks, dad!) so I spent most of the show thinking "holy crap this guy literally played on 'Sister Ray.'" He and his outstanding band tore through a number of songs from his 45-year solo career, with the set-closing performance of Fear's "Gun" (with a little bit of "Pablo Picasso" thrown in) particularly thrilling me.

5. 3/23: The War on Drugs at Metro
To the shock of no one who knows my taste in music, The War on Drugs made my favorite album of 2014. As someone who spends way more time than he should thinking about what experiences will be cool to look back on years from now, I always particularly enjoy catching bands touring a career-highlight album. You know, when the new songs are the ones you care most about. This was definitely one of those shows. I have been a fan of The War on Drugs ever since my friend Matt put the song "Taking the Farm" on our fabled "Matt 2 Matt" mix exchange back in 2009. It has been fun to watch them get better with each ensuing album, culminating in the masterwork that is Lost in the Dream. Live, they more than did the songs justice- playing powerful renditions of every song on the album (and some old favorites to boot).

4. 2/7: Neutral Milk Hotel at The Riviera Theatre
I still kind of cannot believe this show is an actual thing that happened. I remember googling Jeff Mangum when I was first getting into Neutral Milk Hotel back in 2007 and viewing him as almost this mythical person. No one knew why he disappeared from music or what he was doing exactly. I certainly never expected to see him perform, but then there was his 2012 solo tour and, to my delight, a full-blown NMH reunion tour the following year. As mentioned earlier, I dislike reunions that are missing key members from the classic lineup, but this was the real deal. These were the four dudes that made the iconic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea record and they were standing on stage at the Riv playing the hell out of those songs and seemingly having a ball. After years of thinking I'd never hear Mangum's voice anywhere but coming from my computer speakers, it was surreal and wonderful to hear his distinctive vocals reverberate within the very same building in which I stood. This concert also occurred after a really, really frustrating day at work and this show completely lifted my spirits.

3. 1/11: Songs: Molina - A Memorial Electric Co. at The Hideout
Yes, a tribute show was my third favorite concert of the year. This was no ordinary tribute show, though. Songs: Molina honored the life of one of my very favorite musicians and creator of the song for which this blog is named, Jason Molina. Having never seen Molina perform (why oh why did I not see Magnolia Electric Co. at The Abbey Pub in 2008? I will regret that for the rest of my life), it was wonderful to hear his beautiful, tragic songs performed live. And these weren't some shlubs off the street either- these were the actual musicians who recorded and toured with Molina over his 13-year recording career. The show consisted of two sets- one by "Songs: Ohia" (band members who played with Molina during the first half of his career) and the latter by his bandmates from Magnolia Electric Co. They played fantastic versions of pretty much every song I could have wanted to hear including, yes, "Farewell Transmission." Though this show did not quite make up for that gaffe in 2008, it was a nice consolation prize- and a fitting tribute to one of the best songwriters who has ever walked on this earth (that is not even hyperbole. He was that good).

2. 11/2: Patti Smith at the Old Town School of Folk Music
I am going to let myself from minutes after the show ended summarize why this show was so amazing, preserved in a rather excitable Whatsapp voice message to my girlfriend as I sat in my car before driving home. You'll see that I am better at writing than talking (this is why I almost never raised my hand in eight years of high school and college). Here is a verbatim transcript of what I said, "ums" and "ahs" and all:

So, the show just ended, and that was fucking incredible. I will never forget that show. That was really, really, really, really good. Very special to get to see her in such a small, intimate setting. And it was just her, and her bassist, and her son. Just the three of them. And, um, ah! It was, just...such incredible performances spanning her entire career. Paying tribute to important people from her life as well as, like, wonderful musicians. Um, she covered a Velvet Underground song that I love called "Pale Blue Eyes" as a tribute to Lou Reed. She, um, covered "Beautiful Boy" by John Lennon, um, both as a tribute to her son', her son's son that is just about to celebrate his first year birthday..and also as a tribute to John Lennon. She covered a Neil Young song too, she paid tribute to Jerry Garcia. She, um, and then she, um, I'm, um, I'm just really rambling at this point but, um, um, uh, she finished the night with, um, "Because the Night" um, and, just rocking out and it doesn't get...doesn't get much better than that. Um, and (clears throat) it was just really, really wonderful. She's such an inspiring human being so it was really great to see her.

Um, uh, the only thing I'll add is that her banter was amusing and charming (why yes Patti Smith, you may spend five minutes telling a story about getting a hair cut in Paris), and that her performance of Horses standout "Birdland" was fantastic.

1. 9/13: Replacements at Midway Stadium (St Paul, MN)
After typing up those last two show synopses, I had to think: was this really the best show I saw this year? The answer is yes, which is a testament to how special this Replacements show was. Before I go any further, I must apologize to my dad, who initially asked me if I wanted to go to this show but I declined, thinking that seeing them the previous year at Riot Fest was satisfactory and that they would come back to Chicago again at some point (and hey! I was right about that. You're still going to see them, dad!). But then my dear Minneapolis friends Sam and Keith kept asking me to join them at the show and I wanted to get up to Prince-land at some point that fall to visit them anyway, so I relented. In conclusion: I am a bad person for making my dad miss this show because it was incredible. Now, earlier I ranted about how I dislike incomplete reunion shows. And yes, if we resurrected Bob Stinson and convinced Chris Mars to drop his art career and rejoin the band, sure, this show would have been better. But even without those treasured members of the band present, I don't think a single person in the crowd of 14,000 hometown fans left disappointed. 

This was a reunion show done right, thanks to original members Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson and an able backing bad. Sure, there was no new album to support, with the setlist consisting of nearly all old favorites from their original run from 1981-1991 along with a handful of covers. But this was not a band going through the motions just to collect a paycheck by any means. Though barely acknowledging the magnitude of the occasion (this was The Replacements' first hometown show since 1991), the band was energized on stage and played the hell out of every song- while still maintaining their ramshackle, rough-around-the-edges charm. Additionally, the setting was absolutely perfect. Already geeking out over seeing the legendary Replacements in their home city, I was elated to see them at Midway Stadium, home of the St. Paul Saints independent league baseball team (this was actually the last event held in that stadium before it was demolished, with the Saints moving to a brand new stadium downtown). Any event that combines rock and roll and baseball is going to be a winner for me. 

There was a jubilant atmosphere in the ballpark, with what seemed to be a good majority of the crowd consisting of longtime fans who had seen them many times in their original iteration. I was honored to watch the show among them. Given the above, as well as the fact that I listened to The Replacements non-stop in the weeks leading up to the concert, becoming intimately familiar with their entire (amazing) catalogue, everything just clicked for me at this show. So often when I am at a concert I find my mind drifting off- thinking about what I need to do at work the next day, or "shit, I need to do laundry." There was none of that at this show. I was completely engrossed. The band saved the best moment for last, with Westerberg smoking a cigarette and slowly plucking the intro to one of their greatest songs, "Unsatisfied." (not played since '91!) and bursting into an emotionally charged rendition. An unforgettable ending to what was absolutely the best concert I saw last year.