Friday, December 19, 2008

Best rock shows I went to last year

I'm gonna give my top 5, but first, a few comments. First, many of the best shows I saw last year were by groups who were acts on the bill of other groups that I'd gone to see. Moral of the story, don't show up late, make sure you catch the opening act! Second, the true measure of great show is not how much you enjoy it at the time, but how it sticks in your mind afterwards. An finally, I love stage banter. Fuck the music, I want to hear the performers make awkward jokes in between songs.

5. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists at the Metro (Chicago):

The act immediately before Ted was a local group called the Immortals. They were doing this kind of weird, really dubbed out, Fugazi sort of thing. The audience wasn't exactly appreciative, and eventually a "Ted Leo" chant broke out, and the Immortals left the stage kind of downcast. When Ted and the Pharmacists rolled out to perform, Ted was visibly pissed, and said into the mic, "This is for all the shitheads who were chanting "Ted Leo" during the Immortals set!" The band immediately launched into a roaring rendition of 'Sons of Cain,' and the rest of the show maintained the spirit of violent, angry punk.

4. Titus Andronicus at Webster Hall (NYC):

I'd gone to see Man Man (see later), but was thoroughly blown away by the openers. It was a joyous, high-energy set, in spite of the audience's general apathy. The group fed off this indifference to its performance, with the singer saying, at one point, with a wide grin on his face, "I look forward to reading about how much we sucked in the Brooklyn Vegan tomorrow!" I'd never heard these guys before, but when they tore into their eponymous song with a searing harmonica solo, my heart was stolen.

3. Frightened Rabbit at the Do-Division Street Festival (Chicago):

On a tip from my brother, I showed up to the festival at 3 pm to check these guys out. When they came out onto stage under the midsummers day sun, they were all drinking PBR's, and clearly drunk. They also brought out about a dozen stuffed animals (which they'd won from crane games while touring) which they spent the rest of the show tossing into the audience. Their inebriation actually enhanced the emotional poignancy and sincerity of their tunes, especially on "The Twist," which Scott Hutchinson performed solo (after which he slurred "Whae naeds emotional attachment when yae got foockin' crane game taes?") The show ended with group members filing off stage as drummer Grant Hutchinson finished off a powerful solo, which concluded with him hurling his drum sticks into the audience. One of them hit the young woman next to me in the ches, but she immediately snatched up the stick when it fell to her feet. Some people get all the luck.

2. Man Man at the Logan Square Auditorium (Chicago)

So, I went to see the opening act Yeasayer, with little inkling of this "Man Man" band save their Philly origins. I was tired, and nearly left before their set, but decided to stick it out for 15 minutes. What I saw changed my life. War paint, multiple drummers, instrument swapping, costume changes, key jingling, pouring water into a mixing a bowl, a 30+ minute encore. This show had everything. After it was over, I was thoroughly convinced it was the best show I'd ever seen. I saw them again in September, and the whole show was nearly identical the second time around, which unfortunately diminished the magic of the first one in my mind. No denying though that, on paper at least, these guys are the best live act out there.

1. Fleet Foxes at Schubas (Chicago)

I know, the big band of '08, what an original pick. However, I have the feeling that my experience at this show was kind of unique. I had come to the show directly from a funeral, and had not had time to go home and change, so was dressed in somberly formal attire. The venue, Schubas Tavern, is quite small, and the Foxes weren't even headlining (this was before their album dropped). The setting, however, was perfect. The foxes, it turned out, had been on the road for a while, and lead singer Robin Pecknold was suffering from the flu. Nonetheless they put on a soulful, emotional performance, interrupted every so often by feverish musings from Pecknold (at one point he began trying to explain the NPR show 'Radiolab' by calling it "like This American Life, but better." He immediately recognized his faux pas by insulting the Chicago based show, and spent the rest of the night intermitently apologizing profusely). The most memorable part of the show was probably Pecknold's solo performance of of 'Innocent Son,' which was occasionally interrupted by him stopping to cough up his lung. 

After the show I stuck around for about half of Blitzen Trapper's set, but left because I was feeling worn out. As I was walking along Belmont towards the 'L' stop, I noticed Robin Pecknold coming towards me from the other direction alone with a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee in his hands. As we crossed paths I stopped and sort of mumbled at him, "Hey man, great show." He looked at me with an expression of genuine gratitude and replied "Hey, thanks a lot."

Honorable Mentions:
Jeffrey Lewis and the Jitters at The Empty Bottle
Phosphorescent at Schubas

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