If I have any perennial list-readers here, most of them probably sighed preemptively as they imagined what would top my list this year, and they’re all correct: U2 (really impossible to choose between the two shows I saw), Phish (night one at UIC being the best of the seven), Secret Chiefs 3 at the Empty Bottle, Animal Collective at Pitchfork, and Paul McCartney at Wrigley Field. Oops, ya got me: I have favorite bands. I know music critics aren’t supposed to reveal those, but there’s no sense keeping it a secret. But rather than blather on about them yet again, it’s probably more productive for me to mention the top ten non-my-favorite-band shows of the year. So here goes. (To keep it interesting, I’m going to gloss over other obvious big names (Wilco, Pearl Jam, Primus, STS9), since they’ve all been covered plenty.)
10. Ween: Lollapalooza, 6 August
Lolla was full of memorable moments this year, but few of them were thanks to the awesomeness of the big-name acts. Yeah, Foo Fighters were heroic in the rain, and A Perfect Circle was awesome, but most of the best performances happened in broad daylight. Ween pulled out a virtual greatest-hits set (in defiance of the fact that they have no actual hits) and it was light on improv but heavy on outlandish perfection. Songcraft is what put these wise guys on the map, and this was a grand display of it, a career-spanning hour-long tribute to the quintessence of Ween.
Normally, a performance like this one will cause a person to revisit the band’s catalog with renewed vigor and appreciation, but if anything, I just feel more confounded by The Kills’ studio output. No other band this side of Phish gets this much better live—as in, to the point of making their records almost completely inessential. Sure, there are all those great songs, but they don’t begin to capture the sultry/wicked presence of Alison Mosshart or the energy generated by the chemistry between her and Jamie Hince. In under an hour, they produced a heartbreaking narrative without even trying, epics in minutes via beat, guitar and vocal. 8. Russian Circles: Cactus Club, 2 December
In a rare instance of hype living up to reality, Russian Circles rolled into town on their tallest wave of critical acclaim thus far and pretty much blew away a sold-out (at least?) Cactus crowd. It helped that they brought along Young Widows, that band I’m always calling the most underrated band in the country and probably jinxing from ever getting huge. Loud and richly satisfying guitar riffs all night long. 7. Sat. Nite Duets: Riverwest Public House, 25 November
Watching this band grow is one of the most exciting pursuits possible for a Milwaukee music nut. You perpetually get the sense that, as great as they are, their trajectory is bent on something truly amazing. At the beginnings of their shows, I always get worried; they seem sloppy, this might turn out badly. By the end, I’m screaming along at the top of my lungs “WE’LL BE HERE! ALL NITE LONG!” And not just because of alcohol. In fact, the sheer number of folks singing along exuberantly to a large portion of the songs was enough to make you giddy with anticipation. Yes, the songs are that good, and the January 14 album release party at Turner Hall is a must-see event, but so far I have never been even slightly disappointed by a Sat. Nite Duets show. The alien human hybrid standup/snakecharming collective known as Crappy Dracula was also awesome. 6. Group Of The Altos: Club Garibaldi, 29 July
My inclination lately is to say way too much about this band, but that would be a misuse of my time and yours. The problem is it would take too long to try to summarize the various influences I hear in GOTA’s music, and by the end of the list you’d be thinking ‘no way all those things together produce something cool.’ The crazy part is how uncluttered and single-minded this performance was, because they haven’t always been, and the ambitious nature of the 12-ish-member band looks really bad and paper, because similar things have been attempted plenty of times before and resulted in too-sloppy or too-busy or just-plain-nonsense almost every time. Well, this one isn’t any of those things, and I had one friend turn to me incredulously and say, “You saw these guys before and didn’t like them? How could you not like this?” Oh, and Chicago’s A Lull was also amazing. 5. Agalloch: Reggie’s Rock Club, 27 March
We arrived here to the depressing news that there were no tickets left, but ended up getting in for free, thanks to the charisma of Swatty and a serendipitous encounter with a guy from Record Breakers out for a smoke. Lesson learned: always assume the Agalloch show will sell out and buy tickets in advance from now on, especially based on how incredible this show was. It helps that the band’s latest album, Marrow Of The Spirit, was one of the best albums of 2010. The show was a triumph beyond the songs, which drew from all across the band’s impressive catalog; we got a sense of the mysterious spiritual thread running through all of Agalloch’s work, and the performance was utterly captivating in all respects; the hazy image of Don Anderson with his guitar held aloft triumphantly at the end of the show is forever burned into my memory. 4. Decibully: Cactus Club, 2 April
Easily the bittersweetest show of the year. Joe Crockett’s opening set felt appropriately grave (and beautiful), but Decibully managed to keep the mood celebratory somehow. It really didn’t feel like any kind of ending until it was actually over; it just felt like an especially exuberant and lengthy Decibully show, featuring a bunch of songs we’d never heard before and might never hear live again. That alone made it one of my favorite shows of the year; it’s those joyous memories that will last, not the nagging feeling that something you love is about to end. 3. Deerhunter: Pitchfork Music Festival, 17 July
At first, I was confounded; there was Bradford Cox, dressed in normal human attire, not speaking, just standing there, singing and playing his guitar. Before long, it became clear that this was a statement, whether for this tour or this show or this band: We are a kick-ass rock band and we will blow you away. It’s been another best-ever year of live music, and right near the top on the list of most incredible moments is when “Nothing Ever Happened” morphed into Patti Smith’s “Horses” at this show. I felt like my pants had fallen to the ground. But it was just my jaw. (ouch) 2. The Danglers/Alpha Transit/The Hue: Mad Planet, 7 May
I’m a progger for life, and I actually had a hand in putting this bill together, so it was no surprise to me how frikkin awesome this night of music was. Plus, I’m a total sucker for three-band bills where you can be blown away by all three, and this one also featured Fibonacci Sequence, who didn’t quite blow me away but was a solid opener nonetheless. It was three of the prime categories of prog: metallic instrumental (The Hue), jazzy improv (Alpha Transit), and wild experimentation with drums, double bass and electric violin (Danglers). If only we could’ve gotten Yes to headline (but only if Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman came back. Or at least Tony Kaye, come on.). 1. Katatonia: Peabody’s, Cleveland, 25 September
Kind of cheating, ‘cause Katatonia is one of my favorite bands ever, but it doesn’t get mentioned nearly so often here as the others. In fact, this was only the third proper U.S. tour the band has done, and it was only the second show I’d seen (a couple songs at Metalfest XIV doesn’t really count). I don’t know if the band has ever toured enough in the past to get to a point where the show is this well-rehearsed and powerful. But obviously, the tenth anniversary of Last Fair Deal Gone Down has been an inspiration, and the band’s performance of it on this night was nothing short of mind-blowing. Toss in a couple b-sides and at least one song from each album, all sounding renewed and urgent thanks to Jonas Renkse’s better-than-ever-before vocals, and you’ve got pretty much the greatest Katatonia concert possible for this obsessive fan. Well, except if they’d played Tonight’s Decision instead…maybe for its 20th anniversary?