I can’t deny that STS9 in 2010 was hit or miss for me, but everything came together in this triumphant two-setter. There was an endlessly enjoyable “Aimlessly” and the always-welcome “Grizzly” in the first set, and the band went seamlessly from strength to strength in the second half, MVPs being the ever-blossoming joy of “Circus”, the fierce closer “EHM” and tough-to-beat encore of “Empires” and “The Unquestionable Supremacy Of Nature”. For a band that gets most of its love from the jamband community, you don’t get a ton of improv or mind-blowing instrumental virtuosity from STS9. In fact, I have a tough time putting my finger on what the hell it is that makes this band so awesome on its best nights, so I’ll fall back on the cop-out “group consciousness” tag and just say they make you feel good.
Among other things, 2010 was a terrific year for catching legends on the rebound. Lollapalooza alone featured great sets by Mavis Staples, Devo and this reggae luminary. I expected a feelgood runthrough of Cliff’s greatest hits, but this was much more. That was no haphazard collection of studio ringers with him onstage. It was a tight and passionate band with a singular vision to match Cliff’s own ebullient and powerful presence, melding aspects of funk, blues and reggae under an umbrella of pure soul, and even curious indie rock kids with nothing better to do were soon bouncing in elation. Jimmy Cliff doesn’t just sing about the oneness of all humans--he makes it happen. He turned a sparsely-attended evening set opposite Cromeo and the beginning of Lady Gaga’s headlining slot into a HAPPENING, and accidentally made a lot of the weekend’s music seem pointless and phony. (Read my original review here.)
My show total for Umphrey’s dropped dramatically from eight in 2009 to only two in 2010, but not because the band got any worse; the UMBowl in April was a truly unique four-set affair beyond what any other band has ever really attempted, and this unassuming Summerfest slot featured a monstrous second set and a jam that ranks near the top of my list even including all the Phish shows. “Nothing Too Fancy” is almost always a highlight, but the version on this night went way beyond the constraints of the song and spawned mutant creativity as the six musicians played as one entity. After a relatively safe first set, there was not a dull moment in the second; even tunes I don’t normally like were elevated by the band’s killer improv. Throw in Zeppelin and Nirvana covers and this show had everything I could’ve hoped for. (My original review of Summerfest 2010 is here.)
Here’s where the ranking gets almost stupid, because I’m sorting through seven sets of music that were all essentially flawless and floored me emotionally. PiL is unlike any other band, and I admit once again that I was only going to this show in hopes of seeing one of my heroes pull off a competent performance of songs I love. But John Lydon seemed to understand that the half-full theater was all diehards and not just peeping toms hoping for inflammatory sound bites, and he performed with a captivating mixture of heartfelt gratitude and the undiminished defiance still living and breathing in his songs. This was not Johnny Rotten, the aloof, fan-baiting Sex Pistol; it was the artist and human who created that character and no longer had any use for it, and the band he assembled lived up to every bit of the intensity the music demanded. I walked out of that room with a renewed faith in the resilience and sanctity of great artistry. (Possibly a more thoughtful assessment of the show can be found here.)
6. Arcade Fire: Lollapalooza, 8 August
I’ve only seen Arcade Fire at festivals, but this was the first time I saw them in the headliner slot. Final night, no more music after this, and Win Butler and co. played like they’d been living for that moment. Over the course of eight years and three albums, they’ve grown from indie darlings to stadium-size kings and queens of live rock and roll, but there was no doubt from the moment the world first heard “Wake Up” that arenas were their destiny. The band has taken a no-surprises, U2 approach to playing live, in a sense: they may not have any number one singles but they have hits, and they spread ‘em out judiciously and save the big ones for last. It may sound corny but I don’t care: the show ended with “Wake Up”, and the crowd spilled out of the festival grounds into the Chicago night still singing out the chorus, and it was one of those uplifting communal moments you think only happened in the 60s or in movies. Fleeting, but beautiful. (At the very end of this article you’ll find my original review.)
A lot of fans complain that Wilco doesn’t vary its setlists enough these days, as if Wilco needs to be Phish in order to be a great live band. Two years ago, the band played a five-night stand in its hometown of Chicago, over which every song in the catalog made an appearance. Maybe this overtly gracious gesture screwed Jeff Tweedy over, because now the almighty setlist appears to be all some fans care about. Yet under the noses of these folks, Tweedy and co. honed their craft to a peak of both juggernaut intensity and intricate nuance. How’d they do it? Lead guitar man Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche, who proved to me at this show that he is easily one of the best in the world. Nothing against the rest of the band, but these two guys cranking on Tweedy’s tunes is a wonder to behold, and in the crystal clear confines of the Overture Center we got all we could handle. The fact is that nobody follows Wilco around on a whole tour, so it makes more sense for the band to concentrate on a limited number of tunes and tighten them up night after night. If this show somehow didn’t satisfy you, you are a jaded fan who needs to take a break from Wilco, because it was spectacular. (Many more words about this show can be found here.)
The Iroquois is a boat, and one evening in July it floated down the Milwaukee River and into Lake Michigan, and as it bucked and pitched with the waves, the lucky folks aboard it got to experience one of the greatest shows The Celebrated Workingman has ever played. Hot off a triumphant set at the East Side’s annual Summer Soulstice Festival, CWM rode the wave out to sea for probably the longest show I’ve seen the band play, and even though the guys may have been pooped by the end they didn’t seem to want to stop. Something about that big open water inspired nonstop energy (okay, there was a short intermission, but still) and some of the best guitar work Nathan McNichols has in him (who saw the Iron Maiden tease coming?). I think the guys trotted out pretty much every song in the repertoire, including a choice cover of “Boys Don’t Cry” and some untested new material, and everything worked. Maybe part of it was that you didn’t have casual observers walking in off the street; we all paid for what we got, and willed the band to great heights with our knowledge of what CWM is capable of on its best nights. The best band in the city gave its number-one fans an evening we’ll never forget.
3. Atoms For Peace: Aragon Ballroom, 10 April
This is not to say that the rest of Radiohead is replaceable, but damn, Thom Yorke, you do have the Midas touch. I have to assume that this weird-ass supergroup went through some high-impact rehearsals to get as tight as they were for this tour. I gained a whole new faction of respect for Flea. I knew he was a master of funk and punk, but this alien gloom spazz music? But he and Yorke fit together onstage, a pair of extraterrestrial dance machines, and they were backed up by the outstanding percussion duo of Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco, the most overtly organic components of this cyborg band. I confess: I’m one of those obsessive Radiohead worshippers, and there’s no other band that delivers the essence of live Radiohead, but Atoms For Peace came closer than anybody else and I SWEAR it’s not just that voice. All I can come up with is that Thom has a gigantic spiritual presence that can unite disparate musicians and music fans in a shared feeling, not sorrowful, not joyous, not angry; bombarding us with stem cells of pure emotion, enhancing whatever we as individuals are searching for. (I went on and on about this show originally here.)
I’m not going to bother reviewing this show again; I struggled enough the first time. I can’t extricate myself from the fact that for much of my adult life, The Wall was my favorite album of all time. Getting to see it performed in its entirety by the guy who wrote it, even if there were gaping holes in the fabric of its construction, was a thrill that can’t be quantified or compared. Just not completely sucking would’ve been enough, but Mr. Waters put together something unforgettable. (If you still want to read my attempt at actually reviewing the show, go here.)
1. Pavement: Pabst Theater, 14 September
For most of the shows on this list, I knew every song. For a lot of them, I could sing almost every word. For this one, I was a jaded quasi-fan at the end of my rope with Pavement after a boring-ass set at Pitchfork that reeked of uninspired cash-grab. But knowing what Stephen Malkmus was capable of on a good night with his other band, and figuring there might not be a next time, I felt obligated to give the original slackas one more chance. The old cliché about the band is that some nights are ugly, but when they’re on, they’re on, and in two shows I got the two extreme ends of that spectrum. I don’t think I could go see them even if they do tour more for fear of tampering with the perfection of my memory of this show. (Yes, I already reviewed this one too: here.)
Almost on a whim, and largely because we had friends coming in from out of town for the show, I decided to check out these two bands with very limited knowledge of their music. The bands were listed in the other order on the bill, I suppose because Big Pink has that awesome song about dominoes that got quite a bit of radio play around here, but in order of more memorable to less, my order is better. Big Pink was good, but APTBS was uh-mazing. Oliver Ackermann reminded me of nothing more than a modern-day Kurt Cobain onstage--not with his singing, maybe somewhat with his guitar playing, but mostly with his possessed commitment to the music and noise he’s making and his belief in the destruction-as-catharsis art form. It was a mesmerizing set, and it may have been even louder than My Bloody Valentine. (Review: here.)
13 MarchI had several nights in 2010 of hitting shows at two different venues, but this one was probably the longest stretch of music, weirdest combination of bands and the most rewarding. Started off at the Borg Ward for a four-band bill topped by Young Widows. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: this is one of the most underrated bands on the planet. Can’t understand why only twenty or thirty people come to see them play; they are SO good. Plus, my introduction to a major, totally unique talent in The Phantom Family Halo and solid sets by two other bands I’d never heard of, MY DISCO and local band Maidens. After Young Widows’ too-short, earsplitting set, I took off to catch as much as possible of the show at the Miramar. Missed the opening acts (but heard rave reviews about Papadosio), but only the first couple of songs by Future Rock. Post hardcore to electrojam is a harsh gearshift; the two mindsets do not jive, and I worried I’d be too pooped or not at all in the mood, but Future Rock pulled me in through the sheer awesomeness of its music. Last time I’d seen the band was an afternoon festival set, not ideal. This time they blew me away with their energy and a kick-ass light show as well. Exhilarating/exhausting night.