Saturday, December 27, 2014

My ten favorite concerts of 2014

I did a blog entry like this last year, and I suspect this'll be my last time writing one. The simple explanation is that I just don't think I'll be going to enough concerts in 2015 to justify another list like this. At this point, I've seen the vast majority of my favorite bands live and have recently either cancelled or entirely skipped many shows that I would've attended without hesitation. Comes with adulthood; I'm just busier and less energetic these days. So let's take a look back at what will probably be the last notable year of a very important and very memorable phase of my life.

10. Jack White @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/7)

Anyone who's still despairing over the breakup of the White Stripes probably hasn't seen Jack's solo act and doesn't realize how much better off he is with full creative control. Over the last few years, he's been touring with top-shelf musicians who gel so smoothly with the guy that he plays every show without a setlist, picking songs on the fly and simply expecting his band to follow his lead. I'm torn on both his new music and his off-stage shenanigans, but he's reliably one of the best guitarists on the planet, and his shows still lean heavily on enough on classic input from both White Stripes and the Raconteurs that even if his live act wasn't an emergent thrill to watch, it'd still be a delight to listen to. The only disappointment of the set was the lack of a Dead Weather team-up, since his bandmate, Alison Mosshart, was also on the festival's roster under her primary project, the Kills. (Standout: a riveting end-of-set rendition of "Icky Thump," which he didn't play the first time I saw him.)

9. Neutral Milk Hotel @ Union Transfer (1/30)

A few years ago, the idea of seeing Neutral Milk Hotel's music performed live in any sort of authentic capacity was absurd. Two miraculous things happened. First, lead singer Jeff Mangum returned to the concert scene for an extensive solo tour, performing his music for the many fans who either weren't old enough to experience it in the late '90s or were simply happy to see the guy back. Then, out of nowhere, the full band got back together. I was lucky enough to attend their very first reunion show in Baltimore last year, but sadly, the sound at the venue was awful. This year, they played at Union Transfer, my favorite venue. As much as I loved Mangum's solo shows (two of which I went to), nothing compares to hearing this material performed with a full band. Like a good indie fan, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea ranks among my favorite albums of all time, and being around for a reunion like this is a privilege I never thought I'd have.

8. TV on the Radio @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/6)

The first day of GovBall had the one-two punch of Phoenix and Outkast playing back-to-back on the main stage, which meant that the crowds elsewhere were pretty thin. That probably sucked for the artists themselves, but it was great for me, as I had no trouble securing a spot front and center for my first majorly anticipated set of the festival, TV on the Radio. I'd already seen them once at FreeFest a few years ago, and they still hold their spot as one of the tightest, most confident bands performing today. My only real gripe with their show is that they generally seem to stick to the same set of songs, and a few of my favorite tracks from Dear Science and Return to Cookie Mountain seeming destined never to be performed on stage again. Nevertheless, they're exhilarating. I missed the chance to see them in a proper club later in the year, so their dominating GovBall performance will have to do.

7. The Knife @ Terminal 5 (4/30)

The weirdest show of 2014 for me and probably anyone else who attended it. The Knife's music has always been political, but my image of them had been dark and moody, and not, as my concertgoing buddy described them, "like a gay West Side Story." She wasn't being facetious: Band co-founder Olof Dreijer has basically admitted that their Shaking the Habitual tour was essentially a pride celebration, albeit performed in front of groups of people who had never attended anything like this and probably just came to hear music. The often sexually-charged dance choreography took such center stage that some of the music was even blatantly prerecorded, which defied expectations for better or worse... but one way or another, this was a performance, and one unlike any other I saw this year. MVP: Light Asylum's Shannon Funchess, whom I'd previously seen sing backup for LCD Soundsystem's final show, and who joined The Knife for their first proper North American tour after only three prior concerts on the continent.

6. The Strokes @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/7)

To be honest, the Strokes are one of those live bands, the kind that sound excellent but don't diverge from their studio work in any way. From a performance standout, a live setting adds nothing. This set makes my list for pure event status, however. It had been years since their last show, they'd never toured for their most recent album (Comedown Machine), and they were headlining a festival in their hometown. The turnout was unreal and the energy level was through the roof, to the point that GovBall's medical staff wheeled dozens of people away throughout the course of the show and security spent the whole thing frantically spraying surviving fans with crates and crate of water bottles. It was full-on Beatlemania, and while it was one of the most exhausting concerts of my life (not helped by the fact that I'd been camping the stage since the festival gates opened and was unable to sit for essentially the entire day), it was also one of the craziest.

5. Death from Above 1979 @ Union Transfer (11/29)

I was actually supposed to see Death from Above 1979 twice last year: once at GovBall, and again at an afterparty the same weekend. For reasons still unclear, the band cancelled both appearances, and my dreams of seeing the long-defunct two-piece were shattered until they finally releases their follow-up album and announced a proper tour. That the crowd was off the chain goes without saying (this was the first time I've ever seen a blow-up sex doll being flung around at a show), but the band itself sounded fantastic, bolstering both classics and new material with extended and often tantalizing intros. The only letdown of the night was the omission of "Black History Month," but that makes me all the more hopeful that there's a next time. Just crossing my fingers that it doesn't take another decade.

4. Damon Albarn @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/6)

Poor Damon wound up being scheduled against Outkast, which meant that there was absolutely nobody there; I approached the stage while he was beginning his second song (having just seen TV on the Radio across the field) and I wound up maybe eight rows back. He didn't seem phased. In fact, he rewarded his most devoted fans with a rare treat when he brought De La Soul on-stage to play an authentic rendition of "Feel Good Inc.," which may just have been my single favorite concert moment of the year. Beyond that, his backing band aptly clarified why his ticket prices have been so high and the show was heavy on Gorillaz hits both expected and unexpected. Would have been nice to hear more Blur material (this was around the time he retired "This Is a Low," one of my favorite songs of his), but what a cheerful, energetic and unforgettable performance this guy turned out. The highlight of an altogether great festival for me.

3. Kishi Bashi @ Mauch Chunk Opera House (8/16)

It was essentially happenstance that I saw Kishi Bashi live. He was playing in the middle of nowhere, one town over from someone I was dating (whom I've since become official with!), and I suggested it essentially as a convenient activity, even though I was already a fan of the guy. His live show was great in every way that a show can be great. He's both a wonderful singer and a spectacular violinist, and his band was equally capable. Notable for a relatively unknown artist, he played for nearly two hours, thanks to both a lengthy setlist and heaping dose of enthusiastic stage banter, much of it unique to this specific show: comments about the town, jokes about the various quirks of the venue (like a weird smoke machine that fired up at rude moments), and numerous interactions with audience members, including a couple that got engaged at the show. I can't imagine anyone seeing Kishi Bashi and not becoming a lifelong fan. He's incredible.

2. Slowdive @ Union Transfer (10/23)

This is a great time to be a shoegaze fan, with so many notable reunions happening seemingly out of the blue lately. Last year, I was fortunate enough to catch My Bloody Valentine, and I've already got a ticket for Ride's first tour in two decades. This year, the star player was Slowdive. I'm a bit embarrassed to say that my fandom of theirs is a somewhat recent occurrence, but it isn't going anywhere, thanks in part to this absolutely spellbinding show. Of course the music is fantastic (seriously, if you're into shoegaze and swelling guitar work altogether, don't wait on this band like I did), but the visual element of the show left my eyes feeling the same way that my ears did: overwhelmed in the best possible way. They hit every end of the spectrum: sometimes unbelievably heavy, sometimes catchy, sometimes tranquil, and always beautiful. They were away for two decades and it's amazing how little was lost. 

1. Arcade Fire @ Barclays Center (8/22)

This was overdue. I saw Arcade Fire on their tour for The Suburbs, but I was a mile from the stage. I sought to rectify that earlier this year when I got a pit ticket for their Reflektor run, but I had to drop out, no thanks to my unwillingness to take my newly-purchased car through snow (which I still believe was the smart decision). So when I made a final attempt to see Arcade Fire properly, I went through hell to ensure that the experience was as good as it could possibly be. I worked until 3am the night before, and only a couple of hours after my shift ended, I jumped on a train to New York, reached Brooklyn by late morning, and spent the rest of the day with a friend of mine crazy enough to accompany as the first two people in line for the show. I slept when I could (on the ride up and in the streets), drank a power shot right before entry, and snagged a front-row spot.

It was 100% worth it. Even putting aside the fact that Arcade Fire are absolutely one of the best bands in the business, it was a night of unforgettable moments. I bumped into, and shook hands with, Spike Jonze. I saw Buster Poindexter lead a rendition of "Hot Hot Hot." I got to hear Win Butler sing the opening few lyrics of LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends," my favorite song. I shook hands with Win when he walked down the barricade and thanked fans at the end of the show. I got to see some of the greatest songs ever written performed with the enthusiasm and production values fully justifying a near-hundred-dollar ticket, and it was worth every penny. There's really no other show that could top this list. It's an all-timer.