The Best Shows Of 2006

Wed Mar 21 2007

Yep, 2007 is well underway. I really don’t give a damn. It’s still worth it to me to sum up last year in live music, even if it isn’t worth it to anybody else to read the summation. I notice that the live list always holds more big names than the album list, and I think this is because it generally takes a band a long time to develop the essential subconscious connection as well as the technical skill to pull off a great live show. There’s no editing allowed, no overdubs, no remastering; its a one-time statement. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, obviously, but bands that get a reputation as a great live act have usually earned it (easy there, String Cheese Incident). Still, there are a few surprises every year, and thankfully, a few acts that cease to exist or become irrelevant, or I’d be flat broke. So, heres what I enjoyed the most in 2006:

1. Radiohead: Bonnaroo, 17 June
It was my third time seeing this band, and it’s one of those bands that you never think is going to ever get better than the last time you saw it…but it does, every time. Eventually, Radiohead will hit an apex, maybe. Or maybe the group will go out at the top of its game; I suppose it has happened before. A festival like Bonnaroo has such a high reputation that its headliners are expected to blow minds, and I felt that wind all around me during and after this set. The festival had finally allowed a non-jam band to take a headlining slot, and it turned out to be the greatest set I’d ever seen on those grounds. It was just sheer intensity of emotion from beginning to end; no more words could do it justice.

2. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers/Pearl Jam: Summerfest, 29-30 June
I’ve got to lump these two mammoth evenings together because they really comprise one Big Event; not just in terms of music, but history as well. Tom Petty’s summer tour was billed as the last big summer outing he and the Heartbreakers will undertake; sure, we’ve heard that before from lots of mouths, but Petty picked his opening acts like a man wanting to go out on top. The man always puts on a good show, but his last few Summerfest appearances had been a bit underwhelming (as was his Bonnaroo set), and I honestly expected Pearl Jam to blow the Heartbreakers away. On the first night, it nearly happened; Eddie Vedder & co. played such an explosive, breakneck set that it almost felt like the headliners were reeling a little bit when they emerged. Maybe Tom took Eddie aside afterwards and asked if they could tone it down a bit for the following night, because PJ’s set was much more subdued, although still flawless and with a mind-bending “Rockin’ In The Free World” to close it out. But then Petty came out and showed us why he’s the king of Milwaukee (and yeah, he finally played “Honey Bee” for the first time in years of visiting brew town practically every summer!). I hadn’t seen him and the band in this fine of form since the Dogs With Wings Tour of the mid-90’s. The jam that came out of “It’s Good To Be King” was hypnotic and powerful, and it was great watching Vedder grinning like a little kid when he joined the old men for “The Waiting” and “American Girl.” All in all, a magical two-night stand.

3. Trey Anastasio: Vic Theatre, 19 October
This was the fourth time I’d seen Trey this year, amidst rumors of “Trey is back” coming from the Phish-faithful stragglers, but the first time I’d seen him with his solo band and no other big-name collaborators. I never really go into a show that features Trey expecting anything less than at least patchy brilliance, but there was a case to be made for his 2006 resurgence. I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that the whole show was brilliant; it shone exceptionally bright when it needed to, though, from the jaw-dropping “First Tube” opener to a four-song second set that showcased a full-band synergy as well as drummer Jeff Sipe’s incredible versatility and energy, and several spine-tingling explorations via the fearless leader’s six-string. There was no sign of fumbling or lack of inspiration; it was spontaneous creative power, commanding presence and rare precision, everything Anastasio is known for on his best nights. It’s nights like this, when you know he’s taken you places you can’t go without him, that remind you there’s still so much left for this man to do, with or without his old band.

4. Primus: Eagles Auditorium, 18 November
Les Claypool is another man whose touch can elevate virtually any group’s performance to a higher level, and it was a testament to his virtuosity and versatility to see that, even though Primus has not been anywhere near his main focus in the new millennium, the band was as tight and smooth as I’d ever seen. But it was really guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde who lived in the limelight on this night, a feat that’s nearly impossible when you’ve got the Evel Kneivel of bass guitar onstage with you. Claypool has taken his increasing jam band sensibilities along with him into Primus, but this group has always known how to jam; LaLonde and drummer Tim Alexander just seem to have evolved along with Les, opening up wider vistas for sonic exploration while still retaining the incomparable Primus sound. This band truly exists now in the upper echelon of live acts who, upon seeing them play, one never knows exactly where a given song will go, and tonight “Those Damned Blue Collar Tweekers”, Frizzle Fry, and particularly a heart-stopping “Southbound Pachyderm” showcased three musicians urging each other on to greater and greater heights of intensity. Ler’s playing in particular was more inspired than I’d ever heard before. Surely, Claypool will be off on all kinds of other adventures, but here’s hoping he never leaves his bread and butter behind for too long.

5. Animal Collective: Logan Square Auditorium, 25 February
Here was the first big surprise of the year. Based solely on the two Animal Collective albums I’d heard up to this point, I expected this show to be interesting; I hadn’t realized it would be astounding. The group treated the stage like a pagan ceremonial ground, and the sounds that emanated earned equal billing with the visual cacophony of the band members. I half expected fur and feathers to be flying into the crowd at any moment, if not blood. The lighting was eerie and minimal and ever-shifting, the participants appeared as spirit priests, and it was difficult at times to discern whether the myriad shrieks, hums, and growls were drawn from man or machine, yet it was an ecstatically organic din, and as each song faded or bled into the next, it felt almost calming when I’d recognize a song before being sucked back into the fevered frenzy of the beat. This was a carefully orchestrated breed of chaos, though, and when it ended in the glorious orgy of “Banshee Beat,” it all seemed dreamlike, but it was a fantasy that felt so welcoming, an alluring insanity that was missed as soon as it was gone.

6. Buckethead: Shank Hall, 8 April
Buckethead is a man whose sheer talent could carry a two-hour set; he is a guitar hero in every sense of the word, a prodigy who defies anyone who loves the sound of the instrument to call what he does masturbation; it’s pure delight, technical skill and passion to an extreme degree. This set was with a full band, but there’s never any doubt as to who the star is. No guitarist of the past couple of decades has pushed the boundaries of what the electric guitar can do as far as he has, and his studio experiments and innovations are expanded onstage by the pure thrill of his energy and palpable emotion at creating mind-boggling crescendos of excitement through sound. Just watching his fingers move is amazing in itself, and it’s frightening to think about how long he’s been playing at the level he’s at, but if he were to burn out tomorrow, I’d be more than grateful for the giddy experiences I’ve had watching and listening to him play.

7. Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon & The Benevento/Russo Duo: Bonnaroo, 18 June
Technically, this was billed as the fifth annual Bonnaroo Superjam; it was to the surprise and delight of the crowd that it was also the debut performance by this jam scene supergroup. As debut performances go, it’s hard to imagine a better one. In fact, I saw this collective again later in the summer and it seemed they’d lost some steam; on this night, there was so much excitement in the air that the performers had to have felt it and fed off of it. Bonnaroo headliner Phil Lesh joined the group early on for Grandpa-Simpson-esque takes on a couple of Dead classics, but the set really got rolling with a relatively concise but supercharged ”Mr. Completely,” followed by some heartwarming (if a little bland) new Anastasio/Gordon tunes. Duo staple “Something For Rockets” had a sort of yearning intensity all its own, and Anastasio’s “Spin” was a slow-burn sleeper that raged out of control by its end. The weakest moment was “Let Me Lie,” which clearly had not found its sea legs; it was awful. The quartet made up for it with the arena-ready “Mud City” and an encore of “Drifting” that swerved in and out of chaos stunningly, four mad scientists of sound barely keeping their experiment under control. It’s jams like this last one that can leave you breathless; in this case, they made an up-and-down show shine with some of the greatest musical explosions of the year.

8. The Liars: Pitchfork Festival, Chicago, 29 July
Moving on to a Midwestern festival that proved even hotter than Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, the Liars made it possible to forget the sweat dripping from every pore for 45 minutes or so. Frontman Angus Andrew stalked the stage like a Cro-Magnon transvestite, towering over the crowd and occasionally showing off his underpants. His massive visual presence made the Liars’ tribal din even more primitively epic, especially when he’d swing his guitar through the air like a club. Tribesmen Aaron Hemphill (percussion, guitar, synth) and Julian Gross (drums) leapt from implement to implement, building on the rhythmic basis of the group’s songs and throttling any semblance of familiarity out of them, never seeming to even acknowledge the presence of an audience. It all made for an incredibly propulsive, disconcerting, mesmerizing set, filling the steamy open air much more thoroughly than any of the other club-weaned indie acts at the festival. It was frequently and pleasantly shocking how an anarchic clanging would determinedly develop into a compelling groove, creating a dynamic that I’ve never heard the likes of from another band. Definitely the most unique and exciting set of the weekend.

9. Schlock: Back Bar, Janesville, WI, 30 September
The news that Schlock was reuniting last year after a ten-year hiatus brought a lot of old fans out of the woodwork, and anyone who had seen the group in its mid-90’s heyday geared up for flying carcasses and toilet demolition. The first reunion show in January couldn’t live up to the hype, and tensions within the band eventually ousted bassist Richard Smith, but the band developed momentum all summer and by September, newcomer Otis Coulthard was firmly entrenched at the low end. The group’s triumphant set at the Back Bar proved that time had not softened the impact of classics like “Cankersorper” and “Look At Me,” while the sludgy metal of “Runt” and “Who’s Next” had been updated and revitalized, thanks in large part to lead guitarist Jason Bold’s technical dexterity and superior sense of melody. Bold’s mastery of the theramin added a new dimension to many of the old tunes, and his solos were thrilling. Vocalist Kibitzer had become much more of a presence on guitar as well, making way for some thick, exploratory jamming on “Playing In My Johns” and beefing up the overall sound of the punk/pop crowd favorite “Aliens.” Drummer Eric Perkins, never one to play a song the same way for very long, showcased his explosive power and unorthodox rhythmic fills, challenging the rest of the band to keep pace with his energy all night. The highlight of the night was unquestionable, though: guest violinist Joe Dever came onstage at the end of the set and the band performed an impressive version of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” ( la Unledded) as the crowd looked on in amazement. It was a performance that lifted everyone out of the confines of a small Midwestern bar and onto a plane where only great music can take us.

10. Umphrey’s McGee: Barrymore Theatre, Madison, WI, 3 November
Flook: Old Town School Of Music, Chicago, 24 March [TIE]
Rounding out the best shows of the year are two groups whose complex compositional skills and exceptional musicianship on record raise the bar of expectation for the live experience, and neither group came close to a letdown. This was the first full Umphrey’s show I’d actually seen, after catching bits and pieces at festivals and hearing some recorded shows, but it was a thrill to see the great interplay between guitarists Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger, serious technicians who have more fun than most. The group’s second set boasted a transcendent communal moment during the emergence of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” from “Ringo,” and an encore blast through the proggiest material the jam band scene has to offer, the guitar duo sounding like Thin Lizzy on 78 RPM. These guys can improvise, no doubt, but at this point they seem more intent on taking the technical ecstasy of Rush and King Crimson into the new millennium.
Traditional Irish music has a virtually undisputed champ these days in Flook, a band that has taken the baton from the Chieftains and kept well ahead of the pack. I first discovered this quartet at Milwaukee’s Irish Fest four years ago, and the group’s onstage charisma and outstanding playing won me over instantly. It was an even greater thrill to see the foursome play a full set in an intimate room, and with some great new material under its belt as well. Flook’s music becomes increasingly challenging, both to the norms of its genre and in pure musicianship, with each album, and watching flutists Sarah Allen and Brian Finnegan play these intricate, intertwining parts so flawlessly and fast makes me wish I knew how to play so I could understand just how difficult it actually is. But it’s really all about the beautiful sounds they make, and these musicians have created tunes that are instantly memorable, a rarity in the murky stew of modern Celtic acts. They have developed a chemistry that melds their unique talents into one cohesive force, and their set combines the amazing music with endearing personality and humor for a heartwarming and breathtaking experience you just can’t shake. Don’t pass it up the next time Flook comes to town.

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