As we wind down 2018, our best-of coverage continues with the following question:
What was the best live show you saw this year?
When David Byrne billed the American Utopia tour as “the most ambitious show I’ve done since the shows that were filmed for Stop Making Sense,” it came off a little hyperbolic. Six months after catching the tour’s Chicago stop, I think he might’ve been underselling it. Barefoot and clad in matching gray suits, Byrne and band worked through a set that ran from Talking Heads’ Fear Of Music all the way up to his 2018 solo release, a sometimes turgid recording whose songs found new degrees of energy and movement when played by a band whose members were all strapped to their instruments. The performance struck that very David Byrne balance between de-emphasizing elements that might distract from the music (three long curtains of what appeared to be chain mail accounting for all the set dressing) and constantly saying “Hey, look at this cool thing we did!” (again, those curtains, which factored heavily into the choreography and provided the backdrop for some incredible, “What A Day That Was”-style giant silhouettes). I went into the night expecting to see one of my favorite musicians (and the driving force behind my favorite band) put on a show that would maybe, just maybe, live up to one of my favorite movies. I left having cried every last tear in my body, and with the conviction that I need to get a tattoo of the “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” lamp.
Oh, hey, it me: The guy who’s been to way more podcast tapings over the last 10 years than live music shows. (In my defense, the feeling of profound human connection produced by attending a concert with other people thoroughly creeps me out, while the blissful alienation of a room full of comedy nerds is exactly my anxious speed.) Even then, I only made it out to one show this year, but it was a good ’un: a taping of my favorite podcast, My Brother, My Brother And Me, at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Having been a fan of the increasingly ubiquitous McElroy brothers for years—I was even there for their very first live show, at a much smaller venue in Chicago once upon a time—I knew I was in for a good show. But it was still a delight to see Griffin, Justin, and Travis legitimately crack each other up in front of a packed house of advice seekers. We even got a Haunted Doll Watch, the best of the brothers’ recurring segments of internet nonsense—don’t at me, Munch Squad folks.
The best show I saw this year was also the only show I saw this year, but fortunately, it was a good one: Radiohead’s tour opener at the United Center in Chicago. I’ve seen the band a few times before, and firmly believe that their best creative work is behind them, but it was a great reminder of the enduring power of their entire discography, as well as the band’s on-stage chops. But let’s not belabor the point: There’s something reassuring about being a part of a crowd of people howling “Bring down the government / They don’t speak for us” in 2018, even if it is in the context of a song about resignation and apathy. As always with Radiohead, it’s a reminder that you’re not quite as alone in your anxieties as you sometimes think. And, of course, the light show kicked fucking ass.
I saw so many great shows this year: Janelle Monáe, Kelly Lee Owens, Princess Nokia, plus all-time favorites like Chaka Khan and Beach House. But none of them quite beat the experience of seeing Fever Ray bring the neon bacchanalia of her 2017 album, Plunge, to life. Karin Dreijer’s approach to touring eschews traditional band hierarchies, sharing creative decisions and staging equally with her collaborators. On this tour, the musicians joining her were an uncommon sight: all women, most around 40 with kids, from all around the world. Each cast with a distinct alter ego, they resembled a gang of superheroes more than a band, and I followed them religiously on social media for months before and after their spring show in Chicago, inspired by the distinct sense of community fueling their travels. Like Plunge, the show itself was a barrage of beats and kink, a space meant to center and celebrate transgression, and Dreijer embodied it in her bald sexy-baby getup, gently twirling the pink strings of her bloomers as she sang about queer sex. Dreijer is such a rarity, in both her talent and the frequency of her output and touring, that it just felt extremely special to get to see her. And everything sounded fantastic.
The obvious pick for me would be the Springsteen On Broadway show I saw with my mom, which was intimate, emotional, and nearly three hours in length. And in a normal year, that’s what I’d be picking. But this was the year I saw The Armed, the Detroit “band” that might be a collective or might be an art project or might be one big ruse, who’s to say? Packing 10 people onto a small stage, they didn’t look like any band I’d seen before. Sure, there were people holding instruments and microphones, but there was also a table in the middle of the stage, where vocalist Cara Drolshagen and some guy dressed in a ghillie suit fucked around on their phones for the bulk of the set. The Armed played with no lights on in the room, save for the intense strobes they brought along, and with the added distraction of fog machines, it was impossible to see anything that was happening. That allowed The Armed’s frontperson, known only as Randall, to spend the entirety of the set off the stage, using the band as a diversion so he could sneak up behind people and corral them with the cord of his microphone, that is, when he wasn’t just grabbing audience members by the face and pushing them into one another. There were no introductions, no banter, and no purpose other than for The Armed to spread their simple mission statement: Only Love. It felt like being indoctrinated into a cult, and nothing I’ve ever experienced, before or since, has ever felt that way.
Having escaped the cult induction David experienced, I’m free to write about Springsteen On Broadway. I’ve been to a lot of Springsteen concerts over the last 15 years, but this one was nothing like those legendary, bombastic extravaganzas. Instead of a dozen musicians and crowd sing-alongs 50,000 fans strong, Springsteen spends the intimate show mostly by himself, at the piano or holding a guitar or just standing at a lonely microphone, deconstructing the myth of the artist to a few hundred people. It’s a brilliant, vulnerable performance, mixing songs old and new with simple storytelling, and it packs a wallop because he masterfully exploits your preexisting relationship with him and his body of work. For me—and I imagine plenty of other people in the audience—songs like “Thunder Road” and “My Hometown” are deeply rooted in my youth. Most Springsteen fans have been fans for decades, whether you’re 29 years old or 60. So when Springsteen deconstructs writing his most well-known and beloved songs as a young man, examining where he was in his tumultuous early life, he brings a whole new context when he performs them. It made a bunch of songs I already loved take on a newer, deeper meaning.
I wanted to do something special for my wife’s birthday this year, so instead of waiting for Neko Case to come play our town, I thought we could go out to Colorado and make a trip of it. I miscalculated a bit by choosing a show where she performed as the opening act, and having never gone to a show at Red Rocks before, I was unprepared for how much effort it is just to get to your seats. Even after driving up the hills and parking, there still remains a holy pilgrimage’s worth of stairs to climb before reaching your destination. So we could already hear the beginnings of her set as we huffed our way up to our seats. And maybe it was the lack of oxygen affecting my brain, or maybe it was the ambient cloud of marijuana smoke that now hangs over the entire state of Colorado like a London fog, but even arriving late to a truncated opening act, hearing Case perform live was a singular experience. Her voice is so elemental and so strong; it cracked out along the walls of the canyon as sharp and hard as daggers.
My 2018 best show was going to be the same as my 2015 best show: the Foo Fighters at Wrigley Field. Then last week, I was lucky enough to catch Rufus Wainwright at The Vic. He had more costume changes than Liza Minnelli but more closely channelled her mother: It was like seeing Judy Garland at the peak of her considerable audience-winning powers. The set consisted primarily of his first two albums, with a talented backup band knowing perfectly well when to drop out behind him and let Wainwright take over on piano, pouring out a flood of emotions over the keys. But he stood up for his cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” a song I don’t even remember liking before, as I usually found the ice cream castles and circus crowds pretty cloying. But I was soon surprised to find that my cheeks were wet, flummoxed by my salty discharge like in that Seinfeld episode, and looking around, I wasn’t alone. Post-song, we leapt to our feet en masse to give Wainwright a mid-show standing ovation, a first: I don’t ever remember seeing one before and I’m sure it will be a long time before I see one again. Possibly at my next Rufus Wainwright show.
After seeing John Carpenter in concert twice, I had to admit to myself that I am the type of person who will spend a not-insignificant amount of money to watch an old guy with a ponytail playing the keyboard with one hand, as long as said old guy is iconic enough. I expected something similar when I bought tickets to see Giorgio Moroder perform live, and that’s basically what I got: Moroder, now 78 years old and still sporting a luxurious mustache, spun live remixes of his most influential disco (and, to a lesser extent, soundtrack) hits from behind a set of turntables. No live band, no singers, just Giorgio. Here’s the thing, though: Giorgio Moroder’s signature hits are all bangers. And experience does count when it comes to working up a crowd, which Moroder, who barely spoke a word during his set, was able to do by simply raising one finger in the air. And when he lifted both arms and dropped the melody for a moment? The whole room went apeshit. It’s the most fun I’ve had at a show in ages, with a crowd that included people of many different ages, races, and gender expressions, all looking to get sweaty and get loose on the dance floor. It was so much fun, in fact, that I slept through my alarm and missed a flight the next morning.
I’m a huge proponent of big, ambitious, weird, live theatrical and/or musical experiences—attending Sleep No More a few years back was a life-altering artistic experience—but ultimately, the thing I treasure most is still the everyday experience of seeing a little band in a little venue, giving it their all for 30-40 minutes in hopes of achieving something extraordinary. And the best experience I had in that department this year was watching Ratboys perform at Schubas here in Chicago. It was a frigid winter night in January, the bill was absurdly oversized (my kingdom to never again endure a five-band lineup outside of an all-day event), and Julia Steiner, Dave Sagan, and the rest of the group were the first ones up, factors that stacked the deck against a memorable show. Instead, from the opening count-off to the first song, the band delivered an engaging, endearing, and ultimately moving set, leaning hard on the more energetic and hard-charging tracks that have become Ratboys’ forte, which has the perverse effect of making the more infrequent slow-build anthems and quiet ballads that much more powerful. It was an emotionally rich show, one I treasured the entire subsequent 11 months of 2018.