The Best Shows I Saw In 2009

Wed Apr 14 2010

I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a better year of live music than

  1. 2001 and 2003 were pretty much neck and neck before, but they were both missing one key ingredient: a revitalized Phish. I wish I could’ve squeezed Radiohead in there somehow, but aside from that, it was as if all my favorite live acts conspired to keep my mind blown for most of the year. And since most (if not all) of them will be touring again in the coming months, ’09 may not even hold the crown for long…but we’ll see. My rule for this list, as always, is only one show per artist; otherwise, there might have only been three bands on it.

(note: links in the headings are to my original reviews of these shows, where possible)

1. Phish: U.S. Bank Arena, 21 & 22 November

Ooops, broke my rule on the first doggone entry. I just couldn’t choose between these two shows, so I’m counting them as one. For the whole Summer Tour, I kept thinking to myself, ‘for a band that just came back from a five-year breakup, Phish is playing amazingly well.’ There were some triumphant moments throughout, moments that showcased a band that was better than it had been since the 90s. Through it all, I kept trying to come up with new words to describe the shows. You’d think I’d be out of things to say about Phish by now. But no other band does the things that Phish does when they are at their best. And at these two shows, they did every one of those things. I’ve never before looked back at a year of live music and come to the conclusion that anything was better than U2, but I have to give the nod to Phish this year; it was too incredible a year for the four boys from Vermont for even U2 to top.

2. U2: Soldier Field, 13 September
…I’m not suggesting by any means that U2 was not amazing. The 360 Tour is unlike anything that has ever happened. The feeling of seeing U2 live, for me, is something that nothing else compares to. But there were a few chinks in the armor on the first two nights of the U.S. tour. The power of the performance and the spectacle of it all made these chinks virtually meaningless, but it was a rare example of a U2 show that wasn’t perfect in every way. Bono’s reimagining of “The Unforgettable Fire” was just a little awkward at times; his falsetto was slightly weak. “Your Blue Room”, though a unique treat for me personally, was just a little shaky. But it may have been the best “Until The End Of The World” I’ve ever seen. Bono’s natural voice was better than it’s been since PopMart. “No Line On The Horizon” and “Magnificent” and “Unknown Caller” burst forth as monuments to the band’s continuing evolution, proving that the new songs are still highlights of the show. The remix of “I’ll Go Crazy” took that evolution even further. “One” with the added lyrics. “Ultra Violet” to remind us of the thread that runs through the band’s wild catalog. “Moment Of Surrender”, finally making sense to me in the final notes of the show. And The Spaceship. My God, The Spaceship.

3. Secret Chiefs 3: Summer Camp, 23 May

The set was even shorter than usual, and they didn’t even play my favorite song, but the 45-minute noon performance was worth the whole ticket price. Wait, I got in free. Anyway, it was the first time I’d seen drummer Danny Heifitz play since the last Mr. Bungle tour in 2000. I was a bit worried that he was getting old and couldn’t fill the large shoes left by Ches Smith; yikes, that was stupid of me. I stood ten feet from the stage amidst a smattering of fans as Trey Spruance and his cloaked companions completed an agonizingly long soundcheck and then made it all worthwhile. There’s just no comparison on Earth to Secret Chiefs 3. I truly hope Mr. Bungle never gets back together.

4. Sonic Youth: Ogden Theatre, 31 July

This had to be my biggest surprise of the year, although it probably shouldn’t have been. Maybe it was because Thurston and company seemed so lethargic when I saw them play Daydream Nation at the Pitchfork Festival a couple years back. Other than that, I saw them one other time, at Bonnaroo in ‘06. So this was my first really-o, truly-o Sonic Youth show. For many years I resisted even liking the band. But the new album is really good, and it dominated the set. “Anti-Orgasm” set the bar high early in the show, the closest thing to metal I’ve ever heard coming from SY, ten times more muscular than the album version. And then there were four Daydream tracks, which were unbelievable now that they were free of a strict, preannounced album setlist. Thurston and Kim were full of nasty passion, and plenty of glorious noise to show the kids what it really means to shred. Amazing songs and nonstop energy from start to finish, just like people always told me it could be.

5. Umphrey’s McGee: Summer Camp, 23 May

Somehow, I was still somewhat on the fence about UM before this festival. I think back on it now, and I wonder, how is that possible? I’ve seen the band an awful lot and never been disappointed. I’ve been very impressed with the band’s skill and versatility every time. I’d even been witness to some stellar fan/band synergy prior to Summer Camp ’09. I guess I was just waiting for these guys to show me something legendary, to elevate them beyond the collection of fun-loving but amazing musicians I already knew them to be. This was that show. For long stretches during this show, I couldn’t see six smiling, goofy faces onstage; I could only feel the visceral image that my head created as it experienced the extreme power of the heaviest performance ever put on at a hippie jamband festival. As moe. surely had already begun its anticlimactic closing set at the stage across the grounds, I felt as though this set anointed UM as the new gods of prog-jam, whether moe. knew it or not.

6. Dave Matthews Band: Alpine Valley, 19 July

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but my interest in the DMB had been seriously waning prior to this show. These guys experienced a career low point right around the same time as Phish (albeit without the long breaks), around the middle of the decade, when the new tunes just weren’t quite grabbing me and the jams seemed to peel identically off the cookie cutter every night. The loss of sax/flautist LeRoi Moore was a huge blow, but I had to admit that the band, augmented by Jeff Coffin on sax, regained my attention at Rothbury in 2008, after I hadn’t seen ‘em in three years. But there was still a bit of a prefab sheen at that show. It was scraped raw at Alpine Valley on my birthday in a performance that seemed to evoke all the grieving and renewal and celebration that the death of a fallen comrade demanded. Dave’s voice wasn’t perfect but it was passionately flawed, and the rest of the guys were getting heavy and experimental like I haven’t seen in years. And they were psychically pulling out all the songs I wanted to hear, including a setlist-deviation to cap the encore with a psycho “Halloween”. Best “#41” I’ve ever heard. Carter Beauford restaking his claim as possibly the best drummer alive. Three and a half hours of everything I needed to be excited about Dave again.

7. Wilco: UIC Pavilion, 18 October

I know a lot of people would say that I completely missed Wilco’s best years, that the Jay Bennett (RIP) years were the peak, etc. Even if Jeff Tweedy is becoming an elder statesman, he doesn’t show it when he performs. The guy’s just got an easy self-deprecating stage presence that endears him to his people, and he was spilling over with obvious gratitude in this hometown show that signaled a sort of graduation to the larger stage of the UIC Pavilion. Tweedy balances his humor judiciously with a passion in his playing and singing that seems to gain momentum as he gets older; the detachment and scoffery has been replaced by a genuine desire to convey something, even if that something isn’t blatantly emoted. Nels Cline emerged as Tweedy’s perfect foil, plying the underlying anguish and yearning through his electric guitar. Drummer Glenn Kotche continues to evolve the old songs even as he hammers home the new ones. Climaxes like “A Shot In The Arm”, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, “Misunderstood” and “Handshake Drugs” crackled with a grudging release of tension that it seems only Wilco knows how to convey. Maybe the old Wilco did it just as well, but that band didn’t have “Bull Black Nova” or “Sonny Feeling” or “One Wing”, performances that forced me to totally reexamine the new album and discover that I love it. Always a sign of a great show.

8. The Celebrated Workingman: Cactus Club, 22 August

Milwaukee’s best band experienced its ups and downs in 2009, but the highs were oh so high. On the heels of a somewhat exhausted performance on the Fourth of July, this set was a return to form and then some. It never hurts to know that the other best band in town, Decibully, is coming up right after you and will not falter. So frontman Mark Waldoch and crew played the best set I’ve seen out of them yet. New drummer Joe Kirschling had found his groove, adding a distinct finesse to the songs and instinctively feeling out the more loosely-arranged passages as if he’d been back there for years. CWM lives and dies by Waldoch’s performance, however, and on this night he was at his bombastic best, urging the rest of the band to ever-increasing levels of melodrama like Morrissey with an actual reason to cry. This isn’t a band to bother picking apart on a technical level; emotions are splattered across the room according to Waldoch’s ability to channel them, and the band swells and surges behind his conduction. If it weren’t for the perfectly-crafted, edge-of-prog pop songs and actual singing, these guys would make a great punk rock band, because it’s that barely-contained madness that propels you, and after nights like this, you emerge soaked and you wake up sore.

9. STS9: Summerfest, 1 July

This was the Tribe’s last show before heading to Rothbury, so we all figured it was going to be a family-friendly, try-out-new-shit, rest-up-for-the-main-event show, but hey, for the price of Summerfest admission, you can’t pass it up. Oops, I guess we learned the definition of the “sleeper” show. The guys came onstage early and played for over two hours, no holds barred, pulling out big guns like “Rent” and “The Rabble” and destroying them. It almost made me not jealous of the people who were going to Rothbury.

10.Animal Collective: Lollapalooza, 8 August

Sooner or later, Animal Collective may end up playing big, outdoor venues and regularly blowing people’s minds, but the group is not there yet. Yet for some odd reason, the band’s sound engineers have been pretending they’re in a big open field for a year or so, which doesn’t work in a club or theater, but here in Grant Park, well, it worked a little better, still nowhere near perfection. But the performance was pure magic. You had the majority of the people bitching that they didn’t play “My Girls” or “Summertime Clothes”, and the jaded hardcore fans bitching that the set was too similar to other sets of the tour. Then there was me, just constantly marveling at the rearrangement of familiar tunes (even since May), the drifting in and out of songs that hadn’t been released yet, the spasms of vocal creativity…after the unlistenable show at the Riverside, this was redemption for AC in my eyes. If this band ever gets every one of its components into high gear at once, it will change music forever.

Honorable Mention:

Bruce Springsteen: United Center, 20 September

It says a lot about how great a year it was that this show didn't make my top ten. I spent most of my life skeptical of The Boss, but I knew I'd have to see him live some day or risk a huge crack in my credibility. I can honestly say I was shocked by how good this show was. Maybe I don't know much about the rock and roll lifestyle, but I was under the impression that it runs a body down. Clearly, not so with Bruce. No 60-year-old I've ever seen has that much energy. Few 40-year-olds do. Max Weinberg is not a flashy drummer, but he is the perfect combination of nuance and power, and you just don't quite get that full effect from E Street Band records. Little Steven looks a little more worn-n-torn, but he rocks out just as hard as anybody, and the whole band rarely made a misstep, even when they were learning audience requests right on the spot. They even cut my favorite Springsteen song ("I'm On Fire") from the setlist, played my two least favorite Springsteen tunes ("Cover Me" and "I'm Going Down"), and I still loved every minute of it.

Grizzly Bear: Pabst Theater, 9 June

I first saw Grizzly Bear at a cramped, poorly-ventilated hole in the wall in Chicago, and it was effing amazing. The next two sightings were at festivals; still good, but just really not the proper venue for this band. So the show at the Pabst was exactly what I needed to start liking the new album in earnest, except the problem is that it's nowhere near as good as what this band does live. It's not like there's a ton of improv, or any real surprises, but somehow, Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen just sing so much better live than on record; it doesn't even make sense. And the band just pulls off a much more dynamic, emotional impact when they're right there in front of you, making the records seem a bit precious by comparison. The odd indie darling that actually lives up to the critical praise in the live setting.

Mogwai: Turner Hall Ballroom, 9 May
I was on a long Mogwai drought, and I admit, I was worried that they wouldn't be as good now, what with the lackluster few albums since 2003's Happy Songs For Happy People. Nah. As impressive as ever, and bringing new life to the newer ever. So many imitators out there, and they'll just never be as good as Mogwai.

Buckethead: Barrymore Theatre, 17 September
You might get tired of me calling him the greatest guitarist alive, but with apologies to Jimmy Page, nobody right now could stand up and hold a candle to Buckethead. Here he is at 40 years old, even though I saw some missteps at Summer Camp, playing with those impossibly long fingers as if each one is part of the guitar. The way that mask stares blankly into space makes you just feel stupid for not being able to do anything as well as this guy does what he does.

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