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What bands do you think absolutely must be seen live to be properly appreciated?
I had to ask my co-workers and the readership this question this week because I recently saw The Dresden Dolls at the Vic in Chicago, and was a bit thunderstruck by how different they are live than on record. Not just because of the usual considerations—where some of their studio-recorded sounds sound hushed and confessional, they turn into raw, painfully screamed excoriations in the ultra-energetic, heart-on-sleeve live versions—but because of the duo’s sheer physical fearlessness. For the encore, Amanda Palmer launched herself into the Vic’s steep, narrow balcony (which always feels like a fatal accident waiting to happen) and hung bodily over the railing, singing Caberet’s “Mein Herr” to the rapt crowd below, then slid into the laps of several audience members, caressing their hair and singing into their faces from an inch away. (Usually while their grinning wives or girlfriends filmed the whole thing from two inches away.) No knock against their albums, which are a separate kind of addiction, but the live show has an anything-can-happen feel of reckless, naked improvisation. (Also, at their next gig, Palmer hid tiny plastic penises all over the theater and gave prizes to people who found and photographed them. Tell me that isn’t worth the price of admission.)
This is a question that elicits immediate, passionate responses—the first thing I did when I saw it was to type “Built To Spill” as fast as I could. It’s partly because my first experience with them was in concert: in 1997, at the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle, between Sleater-Kinney and Sonic Youth, then and now two of my favorite bands ever. Built To Spill, seemingly with a shrug, blew them both off the stage; I think that would have been the case even if Sonic Youth hadn’t been playing the abstract instrumentals of their SYR series. Most BTS songs gain real traction and heat in concert, largely because of Doug Martsch’s guitar. He’s an epic soloist who never stops playing rhythm; in person and up close, its enormity is an all-body sensation that you simply can’t reproduce on heavily cranked headphones or a really good system. And the songs-qua-songs are ones I want to sing along to without getting looked at funny.
Back in 2002, some friends invited me along to see a show featuring one of their favorite bands. I don’t remember who that band was, because the opening act was Hella, who put on a performance so reckless, so intense, so alarming, so downright jaw-dropping that nothing else could possibly have equaled it. I’ve seen Hella about six times since then, and each time, it was just as astonishing. Its uncategorizable blend of electronic music, free jazz, and spastic noise is compelling enough on record, but live, it simply blows you away; watching the band is actually physically exhausting, so downright physical and energetic is the performance. The best way to see Hella is in its original (and current) two-piece configuration rather than the full-band setup it toured with for much of the late 2000s; Spencer Seim’s jaw-dropping blend of neckbreaking guitar-chord changes and free improvisation can hypnotize you if you’re close enough to look at his hands, and his face is even more riveting. His mouth forms an incomprehensible silent language, as if he’s talking himself into a musical trance. Zach Hill, one of the most talented drummers alive, plays at the speed of a hurricane, thrashing manically over a small, simple kit that seems like a toy and inevitably breaks down under his continuous pummeling. He’s so physical that he looks like he might literally drop dead at any second; it’s unimaginable that he does this every night for months at a time. They’re also an amazingly good band that mixes straightforward performance and improvisation, so your ears are engaged as much as your eyes. Very few bands I’ve ever seen seem so otherworldly, almost possessed, while delivering such great music.
I’m a near-irrational champion of Retribution Gospel Choir, almost entirely on the basis of the band’s live set. It has two self-titled albums with good songs on them, just not the same piles of sonic momentum. Of course, RBC includes Alan Sparhawk and Steve Garrington of Low, whose live set is a different version of greatness. RBC is their Mimi Parker-less, harder-rocking outfit, but its live set really shows how they’ve carried Low’s finesse into that. It’s the kind of thing that makes me annoyed when people tag it as a side-project, even though that’s still accurate. It’s also the kind of thing that makes words like “dynamics” sound not so wanky—there’s a great balance between the mounting volume and the taut control of the playing, even as Sparhawk veers off into noisy guitar solos and plays around with stuff that’s more like dub than rock. The band has a promotional bio that says something like “they play loud and sing in key,” which is sort of what keeps it interesting.
Strobes, drones, lasers, cosmic saxophone: I didn’t know what to make of Spiritualized the first time I saw them. It was 1992, and I’d been a huge fan of Spacemen 3—Jason Pierce’s godlike pre-Spiritualized band—since seeing the low-budget, mind-blowing video for “Revolution” three years before. Spiritualized, though, quickly staked out its own territory, and when I caught Pierce and company opening for Curve and The Jesus And Mary Chain during the band’s first U.S. tour, I had to go up to the balcony of the rickety old theater (the Gothic in Denver) to fully sit back and absorb the enormity of what I was seeing and hearing. At that early stage, Spiritualized hadn’t figured out what it was doing—but the next time I saw them, they were touring behind their 1997 masterpiece, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. By then, Spiritualized had nailed its symphonic, narcoleptic gospel, and the show was blistering loud, bright, hot, and hypnotic. I caught the band once more in the early ’00s, and Pierce had so many lights and instruments and musicians onstage, I thought I might slip into a seizure at any moment. On record, Spiritualized is able to cultivate a trancelike, hymnal euphoria—but the group’s albums, as good as they can be, are in no way ample preparation for the simultaneously head-crushing and soul-lifting vastness of their live shows.
I love Richard Thompson’s recordings, by and large, but live, the man is a force. It’s like watching a man pen another chapter in a lifelong romance with the guitar, and everything a guitar can do. It’s always in the service of the songs, never indulgence for its own sake. Those acerbic, observant, heartbreaking songs.
Thanks to a middling studio discography and an easily stereotyped fan base, there’s a tendency for music fans to not take Phish seriously. But Phish was never meant to be appreciated for its studio output. Sure, it has some solid LPs—Hoist and Farmhouse come to mind—but songs on official studio LPs rarely exceed five or six minutes. These songs are meant mostly as blueprints for the live shows where the band stretches them to, yes, Grateful Dead lengths, the improvised jams lasting anywhere from 10 minutes to, in the case of the legendary “You Enjoy Myself,” upward of half an hour. Sometimes the jamming is self-indulgent, bordering on aimless, but when the band clicks into its groove, it can result in some pretty great music that you don’t even have to be tripping to enjoy. Besides the band’s well-known Halloween cover shows, ranging from the classic Beatles White Album set (so widely bootlegged that the band eventually put together an official release) to The Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, they also welcome well-known guests to the stage. Catch them in Nashville, and you’re likely to see them perform with any number of bluegrass royalty (Jerry Douglas) or country stars. (Wynona Judd once guested on a version of “Freebird.”) And, yes, there are those fans. From the truly granola hippies bumming around without a ticket to the trust-fund kids who hit up a few shows in BMWs paid for by mom and dad, Phish shows don’t lack for people-watching. Plus there’s the entertaining crowd interaction with the band during shows, including the famous glowstick/glow-ring wars. Snark from non-fans runs rampant, but it’s misguided; sitting in an amphitheater’s lawn section on a warm summer night, watching hundreds of glow-rings fly overhead while the band belts out “Run Like An Antelope” to the noodle-dancing masses, it’s hard to suppress a genuine smile, even if it’s one of bewilderment.
Though they’re currently no longer with us, the reunion rate for ’90s alt-rock outfits is nearing 93 percent, so I’m going with Rocket From The Crypt as the No. 1 band you have to see to believe. Sure, they put out some excellent (Circa: Now! and Scream, Dracula, Scream!) and creative records (Cut Carefully And Play Loud forced you to use a razor blade to separate the vinyl from the sleeve, and Hot Charity was vinyl-only and out of print for years), but onstage, the San Diego group really burned and shined. Speedo’s hilarious banter (“Give it up for the band, ladies and gentleman. They’re pretty good,” was a familiar refrain) and the matching outfits certainly played an integral role in the fun, but the horn section always seemed to take things to the next level. Proof of that can be found when Speedo plays with his new Night Marchers, a fine band that’s about a quarter as exciting as RFTC. Oh, and the band also let everyone with a Rocket tattoo into shows free, so diehards, don’t get them removed—I anticipate a reunion tour in 2015 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Scream.
The best live band I’ve ever seen is Guided By Voices, a belief that was confirmed in October when I caught the reunion of the band’s “classic” lineup in Chicago. But while I think GBV brings something special to the table in a concert setting that doesn’t always come across on its records, I feel like I’ve already stumped enough for the greatness of this band on The A.V. Club. So I’ll write about a band that’s regarded in some AVC circles—I’m looking at you, Kyle Ryan—as sleepy-time boring music for soft-rocking “cool” parents. I’m referring, of course, to Grizzly Bear, a group I was slow to embrace after its 2006 effort Yellow House became a critical favorite. When 2009’s Veckatimest was released to similar acclaim, I still felt a little lost amid the group’s complex pocket symphonies. That all changed after I saw GB at the gorgeous Pabst Theater in Milwaukee soon after Veckatimest came out. Live, the band’s quietly virtuosic musicianship was plied with a welcome helping of grit—much of it courtesy of Daniel Rossen’s thunderously clanging guitar—but the band’s stunningly recreated four-part harmonies really bowled me over. I don’t know about you, but hearing breathtaking songs performed by fantastic players and singers tends to impress me. Suffice it to say, I walked out a frothing-at-the-mouth GB fanatic.
Brother Ali puts out damn fine, refreshingly consistent and tight albums, but it’s impossible to appreciate the truth, force, and power of his presence outside the context of a live show. Live, Brother Ali transforms every smoky bar and nightclub he plays into a sacred cathedral of sound. Brother Ali’s live shows owe a great deal to the black church experience; he excels at playing the passionate preacher bringing his flock to great heights of spiritual and musical rapture. Brother Ali doesn’t just want to entertain. He doesn’t just want to edutain or enlighten. He wants to save your soul.
There’s plenty to love about Fugazi’s studio recordings, particularly 1993’s massive In On The Killtaker, but it’s impossible to get the full experience without paying your five bucks and watching one of the greatest live bands in history just lock in with each other. The band never wrote set lists—they’d just decide what to play on the spot, based on what felt right. In theory, that should have led to awkward between-song pauses and weird segues, but it never did. Watching Fugazi command a stage was like watching some sort of precision-crafted rock monster. Plenty is made of the band’s admonishments to the audience to treat each other right, but those were just in service of letting people experience the combination of fury and joy that made their shows so special.
I like live music in general, so my initial response to this was, “Well, everyone. Except MF Doom. And Pavement.” One of the perks of this job is frequent guest-list access, and one of my ongoing resolutions is to fight the social apathy that accompanies your mid-30s by going to more shows. I’ve done okay—what is it about the DVR-sofa-cocktail combo that’s so damned enticing?—but I almost never regret going once I’m out. (That’s what I tell myself when my gym motivation flags, too.) If that sounds like a copout, how about this: I never miss Converge when it comes through town. I don’t listen to a lot of hyper-aggressive hardcore/metal/etc., but I love the insanely intense way Converge plays it. Those guys are ace musicians, and frontman Jacob Bannon couldn’t be a more intense stage presence. Watching his wiry, heavily tattooed frame bounce around the stage is a joy, and his posi-core messages between songs—“This song is about how you have no one in this world to count on but yourself!”—keep my inner punk happy, as does watching the crazy pit that breaks out during Converge’s sets. Seriously, the band rules. You should check out Jane Doe while you’re at it.
Since I, by rough calculation, spent the majority of my 20s in gloriously dank and sweaty rock clubs, my head is filled with potential answers. But if I have to limit myself to one, the answer is Yo La Tengo, hands down. I realize mentioning them in these virtual pages verges on cliché—for the record, I have never worked in a record store—but in my estimation, they’re the best live band on the planet, and have been for years. I stopped keeping track of shows long ago, but by rough estimate, I’ve seen them on the order of 50 times, beginning when they played my college in the May I Sing With Me era. I didn’t know it then, but they’d only recently congealed into what would become their definitive lineup, after James McNew became the last in a Spinal Tap-like succession of rotating bass players. I don’t remember much from that first show, although I know they played “Big Day Coming” from the following year’s Painful, but I remember the sight of Ira Kaplan getting lost in a feedback frenzy, dropping to the stage and flailing around on his back before calmly reaching over and flicking off his distortion pedal. I’ve had many opportunities to see them since, and taken most. (It doesn’t hurt that their home base of Hoboken, New Jersey is 90 minutes up the turnpike on a good night, and they play there all eight nights of Hanukkah more years than not.) The Deadhead adage that no two shows are the same certainly applies, especially to the Hanukkah shows: one year, an old man in a tweed jacket climbed onstage for the encores, and it wasn’t until he turned from his amp that the crowd realized it was Ray Davies; I have a recording of the show, and you can hear an audible gasp run through the crowd. But more than the special guests and the band’s nigh-endless repertoire of cover songs (Devo’s “Gates Of Steel” being a personal fave), that unpredictability extends to the songs themselves. The trio—I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw in a nod to Georgia Hubley’s hypnotic drumming—are capable of tearing a song down and rebuilding it without ever losing a grasp on its essential structure, so that it feels like the audience is in the center of a musical big bang. The feedback storms of “Nowhere Near” or “Blue Line Swinger” give way to a clear and fragile dawn, more beautiful for the chaos that preceded them.