The Best Shows Of 2008

Wed Feb 04 2009

When I started brainstorming this list, I was thinking “who the heck did I even see this year besides SC3?” As it turns out, as I’ve perused the archives, that’s due to the dominant awesomeness of SC3 and NOT the lack of good shows this year. I had a brutal time trying to decide what meant more to me than what else, but here’s how it all shook out…

1. The incomparable Secret Chiefs 3 (Turner Hall Ballroom, July 26th) have made me, an incurable list geek, finally and irrevocably decide that I will not rate live shows on an all-time best-to-worst ratio any more. This show was at least as heart-rending, memory-burning, mind-boggling as any U2, Radiohead, Nirvana or Phish show I've ever been to, and that's saying...well, fine, let’s just say I now have five (or so) favorite shows of all time, okay? I’d seen the Chiefs in Chicago in ’07, so I expected awesomeness, but they’d played about six or seven songs I didn’t even know, songs that couldn’t possibly have such a huge impact the second time…I was so wrong, and they also played more songs, improved arrangements on old ones, expanded and stretched out on tunes I already loved, allowed Trey Spruance to just wail in whatever direction he pleased, and ended with the indescribable “Brazen Serpent”, which again shook the foundations of the building. “Incomparable” really just means there’s nothing similar to compare the group to. That’s only one aspect of what set this show above almost everything else I’ve ever seen and heard.
...Oh, and Wooden Robot (opening band): once again, you kicked ass! How about putting out an album already? Or playing more than two shows a year?

2. Only when you play a style of music that no one else plays, as does Primus (Rothbury, July 4th), can you coast on the same songbook you were drawing from twelve years ago. Only through musicians the caliber of Les Claypool, Larry LaLonde, and Tim Alexander can these songs keep evolving and blowing minds in the 21st century. LaLonde’s performance on this night ranks among the most incredible guitar wizardry I’ve ever witnessed. Les is the most iconic bass player of all time in the loosely-conceived “rock” domain, and he rarely shows any signs of slowing down despite years of rock-star partying. No artist since Frank Zappa has combined politics, offbeat humor and second-to-none musicianship into such a captivating display of unique composition and dizzying feats of improvisation. Everything Claypool dips his fingers in seems to turn out amazing, but it’s hard to believe that Primus, after not performing in over a year and a half, could be this good. Yet at the most incredible festival of 2008, this was the best set of music.

3. …And Sound Tribe Sector 9 (I don’t care, I like spelling it out) was a close second to Primus at Rothbury (July 5th), another late night set (which were the overwhelming highlights of the weekend). Even missing the first few songs, it was like settling into a complete event in itself. The band debuted five new songs and played for close to four hours, and somehow, the music kept us going the whole time. It was reminiscent of Medeski Martin & Wood at the second Bonnaroo, an all-instrumental blowout where anything could happen and nobody knew when it would end. For a lot of people, the absence of Phish left a huge void in the world of live music. For some, even the reunited Phish left a lot to be desired. There is a certain symbiosis that Phish created with its fans, and STS9 creates a similar experience with its fans. It’s something I’ve never been able to come up with any good words for, but I know when it’s in the air, and it was there at Rothbury on this night.

4. I didn’t know a single song that Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks played at their Lollapalooza (August 1st) slot opening for Radiohead, and sometimes that’s the best way to see a band. I’d been on a slight Pavement kick, but Malkmus’s solo acoustic slot at Pitchfork in ’07 had bored me to tears. But I also knew that the stupendous Janet Weiss was now a Jick. Her drumming was phenomenal throughout the set. This woman would have been a better choice for a Led Zeppelin reunion than Jason Bonham, honestly. I’d never known Malkmus as an amazing guitar player, either; that’s not what he’s generally praised for, but his playing had the latter-day-Jimmy-Page thrill of “you can tell I suck some nights, but tonight I’m ON”. The whole band was incredibly loose but instinctively aligned, crafting some adventurous, dynamic jams. I was shocked to realize when the night was over that the Jicks had completely upstaged Radiohead. Malkmus’s voice was angelic (just kidding).

5. I saw Yeasayer twice in ’08, first opening for Man Man in April, but I never really absorbed the album (2007’s All Hour Cymbals) until the summer, so I was more primed for the Turner Hall show (August 29th). It was one of those shows that takes songs you really like and turns them into songs you love, and you look at the band in a whole different light. They had these huge, glowing spheres onstage instead of the generic trippy projections from the earlier tour, and the performance, which had been dynamic in April but almost desperately psychedelic, was more about letting the songs speak for themselves. The excellent vocal harmonies were intact, but the musicianship was much sharper. The climaxes of these songs on the album are generally pretty subtle, but here they sometimes brought my heart into my throat, and the lyrics had never hit me so hard. Set-closer “Red Cave” was like one long tidal wave of emotion, ending with these amazing lyrics that encapsulate my whole philosophy on life: “I'm so blessed to have spent the time/With my family and the friends I love/In my short life I have met/So many people I deeply care for”. You just can’t walk away from that without a lump in your throat.

6. This is where my objectivity really gets called into question, because with The Cure (Allstate Arena, May 17th), I can only tell you about the impact it had on me. It was almost like seeing Paul McCartney for the first time; I just didn’t realize how powerful it would be to hear these iconic songs being played live, songs that resonated so deeply in my memory, almost as far back as first contact with the realities of life. Robert Smith was such a striking presence, a vital avatar of the musical essence he’d created decades ago, a godfather still in control. He made so many of today’s eyeliner-clad pop kids seem utterly irrelevant and phony, and the band nailed every song even without a keyboard player. I suppose to the faithful, the encore of songs from the first album was predictable, but this was my first Cure show so it floored me. I have nothing to compare this show to, so I don’t know how it could’ve been any better.

7. This was one of those amazing triple bills (Cactus Club, November 15th) where I knew the last two bands would rock my socks off, but the opening act, Canyons Of Static, set the bar high when I expected very little. Then psycho noise beasts IfIHadAHifi played a nonstop spazz set; dizzying, loud as hell, almost scary at times but tons of fun with every beat and yelp. Then The Celebrated Workingman: it was only the second time I’d seen them, and when Mark Waldoch started off with a little a capella Catherine Wheel quote, I was already googly-eyed. This was the tightest set I’ve seen them play, which is still kinda sloppy at times, but the passion, people, is what it’s all about, and these incredible songs they’ve created. And when they bring it all together in a climactic rush, it’s an absolute spectacle of sound.

8. Gee, do ya think Wilco would put on a good show, headlining Lollapalooza in the band’s hometown of Chicago (August 2nd)? Jeff Tweedy & co. definitely went all out on the threads, and they played a stunning set of music to match. They busted out a brand new song that turned into one of the night’s best jams. Nels Cline, previously known more for free jazz than rock, continues to drive the improvisation of the band further afield, yet somehow his guitar playing is jiving perfectly with Tweedy’s straightforward Neil Youngishness. Out came the Total Pros horn section to blast the Windy City air for the last four songs of the set. I felt like I was among neighbors, and we were watching hometown heroes we’d seen dozens of times before, playing all our favorite songs. It was a potent figment, considering this was somehow the first time I’d ever seen Wilco. It won’t be the last.

9. Lollapalooza had its share of disappointments, but the headliners at the north end can’t be counted among them. Nine Inch Nails (August 3rd) had to compete with hometown hero Kanye West on the final night, and while I can’t technically say who won, I can say that the 43-year-old Trent Reznor simply out-performed every twenty-something upstart I’d seen at the fest. I hadn’t seen the man play since the Fragility tour of 2000 because frankly, he’d been putting out crappy music since then, but 2008 was a renaissance for Reznor, although I don’t doubt that his performances have remained strong the whole time. He even made forgettable duds from With Teeth and Year Zero blaze with newfound intensity, and guitarist Robin Finck’s return to the band put all the pieces into place. Everything was strained through Reznor’s ever-evolving vision, so even “Head Like A Hole” sounded fresh. If you weren’t already exhausted by the set, a moving tribute to Johnny Cash (via “Hurt”) in the encore drained the last of your energy reserves. Truly beautiful.

10.It was The Onion’s annual “5 Lbs of Christmas” show (G-Daddy’s BBC, December 13th), and I didn’t win any door prizes, but we were all treated to Quinn Scharber and the 5 Lbs of Lube (that was actually one of the prizes as well as the tonight-only band name). Scharber’s voice was a little gravelly, but it leant him a Brucey air, perfectly suited for his folksy, working-class laments. Scharber is Milwaukee’s resident stripped-down rock singer/songwriter; the next band, John The Savage, is our kitchen-sink circus-madness ensemble. It’s always a trip to the nuthouse with this band, and tonight’s performance started a little shaky but by the end everybody in the audience was involuntarily moving random body parts. But it was the headliner, Decibully (this bill couldn’t have been more disjointed; “good” is about the only adjective all three acts have in common), who stole the show. Drawing heavily from the unreleased, excellent new album World Travels Fast, the band post-rocks you into submission one minute, delicately serenades you the next, all behind the versatile vocals of William Seidel. It’s a blessing just to experience this band in a small club; Decibully seems destined for arenas, if only it can jack into to the right promotional machine. I’m still trying to decide if I’m rooting for that to happen or not…

Rothbury organizers threw the indie kids a bone by scheduling of Montreal (July 4th) in between Widespread Panic sets; tough luck for somebody like me who wanted to catch both, though, as the overlap meant I wound up missing some of each. The first time I saw of Montreal was at Pitchfork in ’07, and the spectacle of it blew the doors off most performers that weekend, although I’d been underwhelmed by the music. The Rothbury set was the opposite. Kevin Barnes can’t be expected to leave his theatricality at home, of course, but the stage was almost devoid of props, the costumes were minimal, and the music was absolutely stunning. It made me wonder what would happen if they all just wore jeans and t-shirts and stood still…okay, that’s going too far, but it was worth missing some ‘Spread just for the melodramatic rush of “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” that ended the set; the small crowd was in rapture as Barnes left the stage. It was impossible to sink back into the old-timey Panic groove after that, but I wouldn’t have traded it.

I went to Lollapalooza suspecting that Radiohead (August 1st) was the only act capable of surpassing Secret Chiefs for live show of the year; after all, all prior performances I’d seen were on a separate level from other bands, and this was a return to the field I’d first seen the band on, six years ago to the date. Radiohead had always managed to outdo itself before, but on this night Thom Yorke and the boys didn’t seem ready to go. Thom’s voice was weak, and the band just wasn’t rallying enough gusto to compensate. Maybe Yorke was still suffering from whatever ailment had caused the band to cancel its warm-up show that was supposed to happen the night before. Maybe it was just first-show-of-the-tour kinks that had to be worked out. There’s no denying that I expect a lot from this band, and for the first time, I was not thrilled or amazed or moved. For anyone who’d never seen Radiohead before, this was probably a phenomenal show; my brain just can’t let the biggest band in the world off the hook just because it is what it is. I’m glad I got my sub-par Radiohead show out of the way. Those guys are human, after all.
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