As part of our best of 2019 coverage, this week we’re asking:
What’s the best live show you saw in 2019? This includes concerts, stand-up, musicals, plays, performance art, etc.
Not sure what I was expecting before seeing Six at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre this summer, but I immediately fell for the pop-rock musical devoted to the wives of Henry VIII. It’s like if the Spice Girls performed an English history version of Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango” alongside some P!nk-worthy pop anthems. All six of the wives brought truly impressive pipes and unbridled feminist enthusiasm to the surprising smash-the-patriarchy musical. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who loved it: Chicago’s production of Six won three Jeff awards, including Outstanding Production–Musical. But my fave critic was my tween daughter who accompanied me; she downloaded the soundtrack the next day and now wants Philippa Gregory’s six-volume Boleyn series for Christmas.
U.S. Girls crammed at least 10 people on the Empty Bottle’s tiny stage when they passed through frontwoman Meghan Remy’s hometown of Chicago in June. Drums, hand drums, keys, bass, guitars, percussion, saxophone, lead vocals, backup—the crowded yet dynamic collective played mostly in support of U.S. Girls’ sharply political and eminently danceable 2018 LP, In A Poem Unlimited. I appreciate a performer who maintains her persona by not engaging in any stage banter, and Remy only spoke twice in between songs: once, to serenely proclaim, “What a night of music,” and then to ask someone for a hair tie. The club was full, and everyone was hot from dancing.
I can usually count on Riot Fest to offer up an experience that feels custom-made for me, whether it’s splashing in the mud with the middle-aged children waiting to hear “Alex Chilton” at The Replacements reunion in 2015, or ending up in a group hug with strangers listening to Jawbreaker’s “Want” in 2017. This year, that bespoke moment was dancing under a full moon to Bloc Party’s full-album performance of Silent Alarm. Nostalgia is a huge part of the appeal of any Riot Fest lineup, but since this was my first time hearing Bloc Party live, there was also an element of novelty. The autumnal equinox was only days away, but the heat that Kele Okereke and co. generated among the crowd, who stomped along with “Helicopter” and swayed to “This Modern Love,” made it feel like summer would last forever.
Looking back over my notes from this year, it turns out that I was a complete and utter homebody; outside a few comedy shows (most notably a pretty great Nicole Byer set recently) and a podcast festival that I helped put on, I didn’t much leave the house for anything live. Still, there was one big and very fun outlier: Catching The Mountain Goats’ regular swing through Portland back in September. Seeing John Darnielle and his team tear through his vast catalogue always gets me hooked on at least one song I wasn’t previously crazy about; this year, a wonderfully raw version of “Cry For Judas” slipped irresistibly into my veins.
I’m deeply disappointed in myself to report that I failed in my new year’s resolution for 2019: I did not see a live band every month, even though I often saw multiple artists within a month. I will chalk it up to the vagaries of having a one-year-old; that little bastard has kept me from many an event. Nonetheless, despite some great shows, including the Bikini Kill reunion at Riot Fest that made teenage Alex the happiest he’s arguably ever been, the best show I saw this year has to go to The Beths at Lincoln Hall. The New Zealand band was so good, and so skilled at exhorting the crowd to embrace the good vibes, that everything else fell by the wayside while they absolutely transported me to the sunny world where everyone knew the singalong refrain to every one of their powerfully addictive pop songs. God, they rocked, and with any luck, they’ll be back to rock you (and me, you better believe I’ll be there) soon enough.
Out of the litany of live performances I’ve seen over the years, few experiences have resonated as deeply as the one I had watching K-pop livewires NCT 127 at the Rosemont Theatre in Chicago back in May. The Neo City: The Origin tour was their first world-trotting effort, and the energy even before funneling into the 4,400-seat venue was unspeakable. I had anticipated a particularly emotional night—Chicago is the home of member Johnny Suh—but the vivacity of the band merged with the unrelenting love and support of the audience to create an inimitable atmosphere. Scream-singing “Superhuman” until my voice buckles will always bring kind memories of wild visuals, sharp choreography, and a sea of neon green light sticks.
I am an avid concertgoer, and I saw more great shows than I can count in 2019. But last spring my years-long quest to catch Maria Bamford live finally came to fruition, and her intimate set at Chicago’s Den Theatre will go down as one of my favorites of all time. She was as riveting as in her comedy specials—sharp and self-deprecating, hilariously physical and musical; her stories littered with outrageously good impressions—but the vulnerable tension in her performances is even more powerful live. I’ve already got my tickets for her return in 2020.
It’s hard to explain to people why I love seeing ambient music live, expect to say that it’s more of a meditative experience than an active one. From Stars Of The Lid and Loscil to Grouper and Gas, live ambient’s always been a transportive experience for me, one that abolishes time and encourages reflection. My favorite ambient orchestration, however, is one I never thought I’d get the chance to see live: William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops. The artist’s haunting chronicle of deteriorating tape loops has previously been transposed to live instrumentation, but performances are exceedingly rare. I was overjoyed, then, to hear that the Chicago Philharmonic was bringing it to life at Pitchfork’s Midwinter festival this past February. Head here for my full thoughts on the performance, but, in short, it was everything I’d hoped it’d be—soothing, mournful, cathartic, and unforgettable.