Best Live Shows 2016

Another great year of live music filled with trusty favorites, pleasant surprises and not one, but two, dream-come-true reunions.

1. Low Cut Connie/Dirty Fences – April 9 – Bowery Ballroom

I bookended my year with two shows from those Philly-throwbacks Low Cut Connie. I’ve been following them for awhile, but their show at the Bowery Ballroom in April — sorry, the video is from a December show I saw. I couldn’t find any from April — was special.

Frontman Adam Weiner with his piano Shondra always brings an unmatched level of honky tonk energy (standing on his piano bench and beckoning the crowd to “get weird”), whether the show be in a tiny bar off I-95 in Wilmington or in a larger theater like the Bowery. But that Saturday was one of those nights where a magic current seems to be running through the crowd putting everyone on the same dance-ready page. It helped that they had the perfect opener: an ambiguously-aged punk group called Dirty Fences that I had never heard of prior to this show. Both bands’ carefree antics gave the show the feel of a house party, despite the prestige of the Bowery.

A few days later, when I needed another musician’s input for a story about HB2 in North Carolina, I got on the phone with Weiner and talked politics and Bruce Springsteen for a half hour.  He was a true mensch.

2. Wolf Parade – April 17 – Bowery Ballroom

In middle school  (at the onset of my obsession with indie, alternative, whatever you want to call it) I fell in love with a song from Canada’s Wolf Parade called “Shine a Light.” It’s still one of my favorite songs and I can remember listening to it via headphones on the bus every morning and imagining how powerful the fuck-9-to-5-life anthem would be live … if I only had a way to drive to a show. Then they broke up and I lamented that I would never get the chance.

This year Wolf Parade reunited and I was lucky enough be at their first show back together at Bowery Ballroom – the first of a week-long, sold out residency. Seeing Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug (who each went on to found quite a few criminally underrated solo projects, including Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown) on the same stage, in my favorite venue, tearing through their decade-old setlist with more than a few nerves (they admitted as much) was magical. Nothing about the night, including “Shine a Light,” was a letdown. I saw them a few weeks later at a free show in McCarren Park as part of Northside Music Festival, but compared to an intimate return show, among nothing but giddy super fans, it was just not the same.

3. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – September 9 – Citizens Bank Park

September was my 12th Springsteen show. The Boss was my first concert, back in 2002, and it sparked a permanent lust for live music. On this night, my girlfriend was being “baptized”(as my Dad puts it) into the church that is a Springsteen show and his fans. Her favorite song of his? The Born in the U.S.A. deep cut “I’m Goin’ Down” (Vampire Weekend had previously covered it). Despite the rarity of the song making the set list, I wasn’t surprised when a half hour into the show, Bruce picked up his guitar and roared into her choice track, spontaneously queued by a sign request from a fan in the pit. That is the magic of a Springsteen show, with the improvised set lists, powerful E Street Band musicianship and contagious passion. Every show feels curated just for you and leaves you wanting for nothing.

My Dad’s favorite song? “Racing in the Street.” Mine? “New York City Serenade” (these days, anyway) or “Promised Land.” All three of those were played too.

66 years old (now 67). 4 hours 3 minutes. A hot, humid night in Philly. Still nothing like it.

4. Arcade Fire/Run the Jewels/Sia/LCD Soundsystem – July 22-24 – Panorama Music Festival

I’m a big believer in the idea that the venue, or, more accurately, the environment, makes the show. Context is key and the right vibe can elevate a show or make an otherwise reliable band feel like a disappointment. That is why multiple sets at the inaugural Panorama Music Festival are getting the collective nod here.

Five years ago now I went to the first ever Firefly Music Festival in Dover, Delaware. I was a volunteer (I couldn’t afford to pay to be there) and the festival cleared just about 40,000 people in the “woodlands” of my home state. I’ve been back all but one year since and in that time the fest has ballooned to near 100,000. It is still always fun, but that year it felt like an under-the-radar secret (as under the radar as 40,000 people can be anyway).

Nothing was too crowded, it was always possible to get relatively close to even a headliner just 15 minutes before the start of the set and it was not yet trendy enough to attract the more party-concerned crowd with no actual interest in the music — If that sounds too pretentious, well, tough, it’s true. Last year you would have needed a flare gun to find a friend in the crowd even 100 yards from the stage.

Panorama this past summer reminded me of that first Firefly. It was as under the radar and intimate as a NYC Kendrick Lamar/LCD/Arcade Fire-headlining event could possibly be, largely overshadowed by the popular and well established Gov Ball weeks earlier at the same Randall’s Island location. It was littered with fascinating art installations and themed tents that topped anything I’d seen at other events, featured some authentically delicious NYC food (shout out to the Roberta’s Pizza booth) and maneuvering it all was relatively painless despite some seriously sweltering heat.

I showed up late on Friday night with Arcade Fire being my one and only true priority. Without any new material to back them up, my longtime favorite band delivered a routinely sharp and joyous headlining set, even marching into the crowd afterwards to cover the late-great David Bowie with New Orleans’ Preservation Hall  Jazz Band at one of the art installations.

After skipping Saturday with other plans (when you are there on a press pass you don’t have to feel guilty about it), I returned for one of the best triple-headers of live music I’ve ever seen, beginning with Run the Jewels.

The festival came just weeks after Bernie Sanders’ defeat in the Democratic Presidential primary race and Killer Mike, one half of RTJ, was a vocal and active surrogate for Sanders’ campaign. Many of the NYC fans at the show clearly sympathized with Mike’s ideology. There was a palpable energy in the air for the already-charismatic duo to harness.

“This feels like a political rally,” said my girlfriend.

It did.

“…but like the the best political rally ever,” she added.

Yup. Easily the best hip hop show I’d ever seen.

I expected RTJ to be great, but I was blindsided by the next act I saw. I had planned to use Sia‘s set to rest, eat, come down from a high and gear up for LCD Soundsystem’s impending dance party, but when I saw what appeared to be indie comedian Tig Notaro on stage using some glass ball to reflect light out at the audience, I was intrigued enough to chase after my girlfriend and check it out for myself.

I had been duped. While the video screens showed Tig sitting stoically in a chair shining a light on the crowd, the person on the stage doing it for real was just a dancer body double. I wasn’t upset. I was thrilled. As the set progressed, Sia repeated the routine with a myriad of celebrities — everyone from Kristen Wiig to Ben fucking Mendelsohn — who had recorded various performance art pieces projected on the screens with pristine cinematic lighting, but reenacted by anonymous dancers on stage. All the while, Sia stood motionless on a small platform behind the dancers belting from beneath her signature black and white wig.

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It is no understatement to say that the show altered my conception of what a live show could be. Gone was any pretense of the rock & roll-style frontman I had grown up expecting from a live music act. And while I have seen many bands shy away from the spotlight while playing and hide in ornate light shows (ahem, Beach House), I had never seen an artist, let alone a pop artist, take such a backseat to that kind of curated performance art experience at their own show.  It gave me a newfound appreciation for Sia’s artistry, incredible vocal chops and uniquely off kilter pop songs. It also introduced me to the genius Maddie Ziegler, who was an unexpected treat to see in person.

Then came the reunited LCD Soundsystem, a band I never thought I would see live after getting into them well after their infamously premature retirement. It was a surreal to be at a James Murphy dance party, even if I would have preferred a smaller, indoor club to festival grounds, and LCD managed to just about meet my high expectations. The highlight? My girlfriend and I breaking out into hysterical laughter in the middle of the bands’ 12 minute version of “Yeah.” Every time we thought the excessive jam was over, Murphy would come roaring back with a fresh round of “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeahs” leaving our fairly faded minds in giddy disbelief. It was so, so dumb and so, so good.

5. Twin Peaks – December 9 – Webster Hall

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I already waxed poetic about the joys of a Twin Peaks show in my Favorite Albums post, so I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say, if you have a chance to see these guys live, go. On this occasion I got caught in the middle of the biggest mosh pit I’ve ever been a part of. I generally hate those things and avoid them like the plague, but for whatever reason on this night I indulged. It was a wild show. I ruined a pair of brown leather boots, lost my friends and unwittingly spilled a full IPA on a poor, unsuspecting girl.

Honorable Mentions:

Chrvches was the highlight of my Firefly 2016 experience (one of many); The Dig continues to be one of the most reliable Brooklyn bands around and their set at Baby’s All Right in the Spring was a blast. I’m stoked for the new album and a new show next month; Slow Club, one of my favorites, redeemed a so-so new album with a stunning acoustic set at the never-disappointing (Le) Poisson Rouge (speaking of great venues/environments); Beach House was beautiful at the equally beautiful King’s Theater and I remained conscious this time, unlike a previous try at Webster Hall; Angel Olsen kicked ass at Webster Hall and ended in time for us to catch the end of the Georgia-Mizzou game.

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