This week's question: What is the best live music show you've ever been to?
Do I have to say one? I can't just say one. I can't even count the number of shows I've been to over the years. I'm gonna narrow this down to two that stand out. I've probably seen Low 40 times, but I can't pick one out, so I'll skip them. So I'll start with Archers Of Loaf at Chicago's Lounge Ax in February of 1995. I was two months shy of turning 21, so I had to finagle my way in, which was exciting enough. But more important than that—if memory serves, which it rarely does—the band had just finished recording the Greatest Of All Time EP with Bob Weston in Chicago. (I think Weston even ran the sound that night.) In any case, it was a ridiculously powerful band at the peak of its ridiculously powerful powers, still insanely excited about playing the rockiest of rock musics. And they played the entire EP, which most fans agree is their greatest recorded accomplishment, that night—including the crazy guitar intro to "Audiowhore," and what may be my favorite Archers song ever, "Lowest Part Is Free!" But that was a band I already loved going in. The first time I went to see Jonathan Fire*Eater, I was only going at the behest of their publicist and because I wanted to see the headlining band, Stiffs Inc. But holy crap, I had never seen anything louder and more amazing than JF*E playing to about six people at the Unicorn in Milwaukee in 1996. (Smashing Pumpkins used to play the tiny basement club all the time.) Singer Stewart Lupton was absolutely insane, in the best way—imitating a gorilla on "The Public Hanging Of A Movie Star" and generally shooting for the rafters, even though there were no rafters. I caught a couple more Midwest shows on that tour, as did A&R; people for DreamWorks, which signed the band and released the floptastic (but still fantastic) Wolf Songs For Lambs. The band broke up not long after, but their live shows remain the stuff of legend. (Oh, and most of them eventually became The Walkmen, a band that also kicked all manner of ass live at a recent Metro show.)
I'm going to join my esteemed colleague Josh Modell and wimp out/cheat by singling out a smattering of the most awesome concert experiences I've ever had. At the risk of being controversial, it's hard to top Bruce Springsteen on the live front. The first time I saw Springsteen at the Bradley Center in, I dunno, the mid-'30s (my memory is a little fuzzy) he played for something like three and a half fucking hours. And this was no sitting-in-a-chair-gently-strumming-his-acoustic-guitar type gig. No, he was running, jumping, pole-vaulting, and performing back flips the entire time. I was getting exhausted just watching him. Bear in mind that Mr. Springsteen is over 100 years old and has been touring longer than much of his audience has been alive yet he still performed with an infectious, almost evangelical zeal. That was some transcendent shit.
Though he's not the world's most riveting live performer—it's hard to convey emotion or excitement when you're wearing a mask that covers your face—two MF Doom shows stand out. When he opened for Talib Kweli I was struck by the surreal incongruity of my favorite songs being performed by a fat dude in a T-shirt and sweatpants wearing a Gladiator-style mask. Instead of a DJ, Doom basically just punched a button that cued up a CD backing track for whatever song he wanted to perform. Kweli was amazing. He created an inclusive house party mood within the dispiriting corporate confines of the House Of Blues. On the train ride home I sat next to a bummy-looking fellow who offered me a can of cheap beer and played rinky-dinky reggae on a boom box. "It's my birthday! Who wants to party with me?" he enthused while everyone looked away. Nobody wanted to party with him. Well, I kinda did. It was definitely a night to remember. MF Doom later played the Abbey alongside Brother Ali, who blew him off the stage. Ali has a Springsteen kind of vibe about him, a gospel-inspired desire to not just entertain but to uplift and inspire. Normally I hate that kind of shit but Ali and Springsteen are charismatic and talented enough to pull it off.
For me, shows only seem to get better the further I get away from them, so while there have been a number of all-time-favorites in the last few years—including The Swell Season's Austin City Limits taping that I recently wrote about, a particularly revelatory Grizzly Bear gig way out in the middle of the West Texas desert town of Marfa, and the Walkmen show where the girl who eventually became my wife and I first realized we like liked each other (even though we were both there with different people)—I have to go with my first real rock show ever: Mudhoney, Trees, Dallas, summer of 1995. I'd just graduated high school, but because I'd been moved up a grade in elementary school, I was still only 16. Unfortunately, you had to be 17 to get into Trees, so I needed to do some fast forgery: I pulled out my old learner's permit and very carefully doctored my birthday using an X-acto knife and a ballpoint pen, then concocted a ridiculously detailed story for the bouncers about how my wallet was stolen, and how I only had this and my social security card for identification, and I was going to get a new one next week, but he could please let me slide this time, etc. etc. Fortunately it was so packed that the guy—incidentally, it was that same brawny douche who pummels Kurt Cobain in the infamous video from Live! Tonight! Sold Out!—waved me in without a second glance, and I instantly disappeared deep into the balcony in case he changed his mind. I was on a serious high already, but as soon as I got up there I really started freaking out: There were Mark Arm, Matt Lukin, and Danny Peters, members of my favorite band in the whole wide world at the time, playing pool just like regular people. I had my tiny tape recorder on me, and I immediately approached Matt and Danny to engage them in what turned out to be my first-ever "rock band" interview. (I still have the tape, by the way, and yes, it's sheer torture to listen to. At one point I actually ask them if they "have a big stash of drugs" backstage, and Matt Lukin very snidely says, "We've got some hash. Why, you want some?" Totally humiliating.) The set itself was a snarling blur of rip-roaring songs from Piece Of Cake and the just-released My Brother The Cow mostly, and while I definitely remember the amazing, nine-minute version of "In 'N' Out Of Grace," I mostly just remember getting bounced around in my inaugural mosh pit while grinning like a moony-eyed idiot. In all honesty, I'm not sure I've ever thoroughly enjoyed a show as much since. Although I have to say, every time I've seen Mudhoney in the intervening years, I've been instantly transported back to an age when watching music meant less critical wankery and more rocking the fuck out. It's good for calibrating the system.
The first show that immediately comes to mind is Built To Spill at Metro in Chicago 2001. Specifically, the fall of 2001, a period where every headline read like a further descent into misery. The show came not long after George Harrison's death and in the middle of an already excellent late night set, the band launched into a cover of Harrison's "What Is Life," turning it into a blistering affirmation that the world still had the potential for good in it. "Tell me, what is my life without your love?" goes one line. My soon-to-be wife was with me that night. So was some random guy I went to high school with I bumped into after not seeing him in years. For a few minutes there everything felt okay again. They played "Freebird" that night too.
I saw so many great shows in my 20s that it would be hard to pick just one, but in my 30s I haven't been as active a concertgoer, so those gigs tend to stand out more. In particular: Sloan at The Exit/In in Nashville, circa 2000, touring behind Between The Bridges. Though they were playing a mid-sized club—to a crowd of about 80-100—Sloan put on their usual Big Rock Show, with instrument-switching, organized chants, and a big lit-up "4" behind the drum kit. It was an arena-rock set at bar-band prices, and an effective reminder of the foundations of rock 'n' roll: a lively room, great songs, and four musicians who love to play.
Mine was Dead Can Dance when they came to Chicago in 2005. It was the final stop on their tour. (That show was later released as a limited-edition, now-sold-out vinyl package.) I'd been listening to their music since college, but I was completely unprepared for what a dense, lush, overwhelming experience it would be live. It was in the Auditorium Theater in downtown Chicago, a pretty lush, rich venue itself, where everyone has a padded, comfortable seat and getting up or moving around in the aisles is discouraged. So it wasn't a get-up-and-dance, crowd-the-stage kind of show, it was all about politely sitting still as if we were watching a play, and letting the music wash over us in heavy waves. Which it did—music so intense and layered and full that it seemed to fill up the entire theater like water. (I later saw Bjork in the same space on her Volta tour, and it was a similar experience, though more pounding and staccato than tidal.) I was sorry not to get the communal, participatory dancing experience, but it was worth the tradeoff to feel like the guy in that old Maxell ad, blown back in my seat by the sheer complicated, beautiful power of the music. I, um, cried during the opening number. I don't even remember what it was, just that it was gorgeous.
It owes as much to context as to the show itself, but mine is seeing Sonic Youth the night before taking my SAT in high school. It was during the tour for Dirty, at a strange warehouse-like pavilion in Atlanta. I don't remember too much beyond general swirls of noise, lots of strobing white light, and the way the bass and drums locked in during that cool breakdown in the middle of "100%." It was one of those formative shows where you start to imagine a world beyond the one in which you live.
Stiff Little Fingers at the Bluebird Theater in Denver, 1997. Boston's hardcore/hard-rock legend Gang Green opened. (Which was kind of hilarious, and a weird match for SLF. Why couldn't Beantown have sent Stranglehold—an '80s contemporary of Gang Green that was overwhelmingly inspired by SLF—instead?) I've got a beef with most reunion tours, but the thing is, SLF never really broke up, despite having taken a couple breaks here and there. I went into the show a little apprehensive: SLF had been one of my favorite punk bands since a buddy hooked me up with their first two albums—1979's Inflammable Material and 1980's overlooked but equally amazing Nobody's Heroes—when I was 17. SLF had gotten hung with the tag "The Irish Clash" pretty early in their existence, and leader Jake Burns didn't exactly downplay that comparison by covering Bob Marley's "Johnny Was" on their first album—a move that seemed to mimic The Clash's reggae covers. But SLF's later discs aren't anything to write home about, and I was afraid the concert would be a typical case of "too much new shit, not enough classics." Man, was I wrong. They opened their set with a lesser-known album track, 1981's "Roots Radicals Rockers And Reggae" (yes, Rancid jacked that). It also just so happened to be my favorite SLF song, and one I doubted they'd play at all. From there on out, it was fucking magic: They played all their anthems, from "Suspect Device" to "Barbed Wire Love" to "Alternative Ulster" to "Nobody's Hero," with just enough of their middling new material mixed in to enforce the idea that this was not strictly a nostalgia show. And did I mention that The Jam's Bruce Foxton was SLF's bassist at that point? Circa 1997 he still looked exactly the same as he did in all the old Jam videos, new-wave mullet and all. I've suffered all kinds of injuries at punk shows over the years, but few were as painful as the raw throat I woke up with the following day, after having screamed along at the top of my lungs in my lousiest, happiest simulation of Burns' hoarse, barking, impassioned wail.
I hate it when people use words like "magical" or "transcendent" to describe a live music experience, because it's almost always "You shoulda been there!" bullshit designed to make latecomers feel like they missed out on something that really wasn't that great to begin with. I've been to a lot of shows in my day, and even the really good ones were at least 20 percent annoying. Either there's some moron behind you who won't shut up, or the sound sucks, or it's too smoky, or there's something else rubbing up against my (admittedly) overly sensitive nature. But then there's the Guided By Voices show I saw in 2001 at Birdy's in Indianapolis. I still remember the exact date (December 8) because it was—I apologize in advance for this—the most magical and transcendent night of my music-loving life. I remember driving nearly 10 hours to the show with my drunken and stoned friends, and thinking that Birdy's looked exactly like the kind of bar that should not host a GBV show. (If you've been to one of the billion anonymous sports bars in your town, you've been to Birdy's.) But Birdy's turned out to be the absolute most perfect place to see my favorite band of all time. The beer was cheap, the people were awesome—I've never hugged so many short-term "show" friends since—and no matter how many times I went to the bathroom I always found my way back to the spot I staked out right next to the stage. As >for GBV, they sounded magnificent. Let me put it this way: I'll never get to see The Who in a small club, but I got to see GBV that night, and that's good enough. I went to a lot of GBV shows afterward, and punished my liver with too much beer and whiskey in a desperate attempt to re-create that one perfect night. I never got there again, but thinking I could was just greedy.
My freshman year of college, I took a road trip from Columbia, Mo., to Austin (where a bunch of friends of mine went to school) with a friend and my soon-to-be girlfriend to see my favorite band in the world, Face To Face. I was a massive fan, though I'd never seen them. Even better, it was with NOFX, whose best album, Punk In Drublic, had come out that year. Better still: I was interviewing Face To Face for this zine called Thora-zine, so I would get to meet them. I was beside myself with excitement, and it lived up to it: We ate Nutter Butters with Face To Face on their tour bus, and they gave us copies of their EP, Over It, on 10-inch green vinyl (not available in stores!). When they opened with my favorite song ever, "AOK," an amazingly catchy kiss-off song that I still love, my head almost exploded. I sang along (probably obnoxiously loudly) with every song, and I'm sure some fist-pumping was involved. It was a perfect combination at an ideal time in life: my favorite band, a college road trip, my high-school friends whom I missed dearly at my out-of-state school, the excitement of a budding relationship, yada yada. All was right with the world.