The Best Shows Of 2013

Sun Dec 15 2013

Enough has probably been said already about that one thing my wife was in, right? Because that was my favorite live music event of the year/coolest thing that has happened in Milwaukee possibly ever, but even on my own blog, I probably won’t write about that band much any more. After today, that is; there was a performance prior to my wife joining the band that I don’t feel guilty mentioning, and from now on you can just assume that the Altos are still my favorite band in town and everything they do is awesome, until they break up or kick my wife out of the band. Mmmkay? So not counting the Film Fest, here are my favorite shows of 2013.

1. Secret Chiefs 3: Schubas 5/21 & Township 5/22

I already wrote about these shows, but just to reiterate: They played two sets each night, becoming a different satellite band for each set, jammed a ton and basically fulfilled every musical wet dream I ever had (except for SOME DAY PLEASE BRING BACK "JABALQA/JABARSA" PLEASE TREY!!) concerning my favorite band in the world. It was one of those I-can-die-happy-now things. It'll never be eclipsed, unless I can some day make it to New York to see them at The Stone and Eyvind Kang and Trevor Dunn rejoin the band or something. I didn't even go see them open for Goblin in October because really, why? Thank you, Trey, Timba, Toby, Matt and Kenny.

2. Paul McCartney: Miller Park 7/16

No use denying I've been on a major McCartney kick all year. His NEW album wasn't out yet when he played Milwaukee, but it is at least three-quarters amazing and I wish he would come back, like, now, so he could play some of those tunes, and I also wish he'd play more stuff from the last Fireman album because that is about 92% amazing and people have this silly idea that because Sir Paul is an old man his songs can't possibly be good or relevant in the modern world, and I'd prefer it if he would stubbornly keep trying to show them how wrong they are at shows as well as on record. I know it's impossible to go into the process of music-listening without preconceptions, and I know that mine are that Paul is a god, but I'm telling you, people, that his songwriting and performance prowess, though he's had bad phases throughout his career, are nothing short of magnificent right now. My only real complaint about this show is that he refuses to play "Mull Of Kintyre" in the U.S., so I guess I'll have to see him in Canada or Scotland some day, because "Mull Of Kintyre" would be another I-can-die-happy-now thing. There'll never be an experience that tops the first time I saw him (Paul: Hi, I'm a Beatle, right in front of you singing Beatle songs! Cal: [uncontrollable weeping]), but in any measurable sense, out of my four McCartney shows, I think this was my favorite.

3. Altos: Lake Michigan, 8/2

Boat shows are the best. This was only my second one, but there's something about being trapped on a floating vehicle with no accessible dry land that creates a unique band/fan communion. Plus the Altos played some new, untested material that was amazing, and I was surrounded by an unusually large collection of my favorite people, an increasingly rare feat to pull off. It was one of those perfect evenings that give me warm chills just thinking about 'em, when music and camaraderie are at matching peak levels.

4. Ceramic Dog: Constellation 5/28

Years of pining for Marc Ribot to turn up in Chicago on a date I can get to the show finally ended, and it was everything I always hoped it could be. You can read more about it if you really want to towards the end of this lengthy piece.

5. Phish: Dick's 8/31

This was the weakest year since 2009 for Phish, what can I say. A part-time band that struggles mightily to come up with a single decent original new song, they still manage to concoct a monstrous piece of improv every once in a while and for the most part play their instruments exceedingly well despite clearly half-assing at least half of every show. All I can really say is I felt they were more focused and passionate last year and the year before, and they came up with more inspired jams that I still love listening to on those tours. There's been endless debate about it and no consensus, which is probably part of what makes Phish so consistently captivating, even though the people who claim Phish 2013 as a new career high point are fucking batshit. Regardless, although I honestly had more fun enduring the epic monsoon weekend of #phishfork, this Saturday night show in Denver was practically flawless and featured two highlights of my Phish-seeing career in "Bathtub Gin" and "Chalk Dust Torture", songs I've heard hundreds of versions of but not like these. Even though the weekend and summer overall left me a bit apathetic about the band (and the summer was significantly better than the abysmal fall tour), I know deep down that the possibility of shows like this one will reignite my excitement again as soon as more dates are on the horizon.

Okay, hold on; I'm going to let Phish hijack this roundup for a minute. When I first got into this band in the 90s, there was a rabid desire amongst fans to get cerebral about the band's music--to geek out. I've been trying to do that this year within a community of online diehards, but there's almost no useful discussion to be had. Either Phish is currently better than ever in history and the greatest band of all time (with the POSSIBLE exception of the Dead), or you're a hater; simple as that. The oppressively Phish-positive attitude is certainly preferable to the only other option--relentless snark and vulgarity like the internet at large--but it is tedious when you're trying to spark actual critical consideration of the music. Lots of Phishheads like to say things like 'if you didn't feel that, I feel sorry for you' and pretend that their criteria for musical greatness are the only valid ones, so after being told enough times that by analyzing the band's music I'm "doing it wrong" by people who don't like Lou Reed, I've basically given up on the discussion. The chicken and egg are this annoyance and the band's playing, which lends itself less and less to analysis.

The simple fact is that Trey and Page in particular rely mainly on recycled licks and riffs these days, whereas in prior periods, Trey at least was coming up with interesting new ideas night after night. Even the best jams of 2013 are based on extremely simplistic grooves and combinations of elementary chord progressions. There are simply no risks being taken; even when something glorious emerges, it succeeds on rising pitch, increasing volume, layers of loops and effects and crowd-baiting, none of which requires the sort of mad creativity this band has showcased in the past. I'm talking about the kind of spontaneous originality and intensity that you can use to blow the minds of people who know something about music. The way Phish plays now, you have to be a hardcore fan to appreciate the nuances within their diminished overall creative dynamic. I still dig it, but I wouldn't put any recent recordings on the stereo at home to show people what I love about Phish.

I'll go even further: I feel a tad disrespected as a fan by Trey. For one thing, I can no longer even consider the notion that nobody has told him he sounds like shit most of the time when he leans on that whammy pedal. So, either he's deliberately antagonizing the people in the crowd who can discern correct pitch, or he's so loathe to actually rehearse prior to tours that he either can't master the technique or just uses it as a crutch because he has no worthwhile ideas. He also took the notion of inciting "WOO"s from the crowd way too far this year, substituting this onerous cop-out of fan interaction for group improv and spoiling several otherwise promising jams. I guess I have to assume that the people who were so astounded by it during the Tahoe "Tweezer" just don't go see other bands, because this shit has been happening increasingly at lots and lots of shows that feature any kind of half-assed improv for years now. I get that as musicians get older, all they care about is adoration; I just didn't think Trey was that old yet. Have you heard the pauses in "Divided Sky" lately for chrissakes? I know I've said this before, but Trey knows now that all he has to do is hold a relatively high note and the crowd will go bonkers. I'm past the ability to judge the crowd for this; it should be the band that pushes in a creative direction rather than play to the lowest common denominator. That used to be a core tenet of Phish, I swear. Then there's this whole issue about this being the celebrated 30th anniversary of the band and all they could muster were twelve dates on the East coast for a fall tour. Really?

The kicker for me, the more I thought about it, was the setlist prank from Dick's this year. Spelling "most shows spell something" in reverse suggests a) Trey thinks it will be incredibly difficult for us to decipher the joke if it's not painfully obvious, and b) he thinks we might be dumb enough to start poring over old setlists looking for hidden messages that are obviously not there. It was admittedly fun sleuthing out the message in real time, but what happened to Trey's motto of getting out of the way of the music rather than thinking so much? Whereas last year's Fuck Your Face show necessitated extended jams due to fewer letters, this year's gag intrinsically hamstrung the improv in more ways than one. I like antics and the having of fun! Shit, I was giddy as hell during "Harpua" in Chicago, as unhip as that is. But when the joke robs an entire show of its spontaneity and jams, it's a punch in the dick. And it makes it seem to me like Trey has a pretty low opinion of his fans, that they'd be so impressed by any of this. Or he just doesn't give a fuck.

The fact remains, though: Nobody else does what Phish does. I keep going back because even putting forth the limited effort they do now, they are the only guys who seem to be able to make this kind of music. It would seem strange that no other band has stepped up to grab the mantle, but it's probably true that no band is willing to put in the time and energy that Phish did when the guys were at their best. That was the behavior of insane people, and a perfect storm of ridiculous talent and intent and musical climate that might never happen again. I wholeheartedly support the band members' relaxed approach, concentrating more on having a life outside the band in order to stay sane. But it hurts the music, that's all there is to it, and it seems ludicrous that acknowledging it is such a faux pas.

What people don't seem to understand about my arguments is that I love going to Phish shows. Are you people seriously all unable to love something while recognizing its shortcomings?? There is a legitimate reason for the fanbase to be falling all over itself this year. It's called a group consciousness overflowing with love. The band is happier and more grateful than ever before, and they're letting that reality gush from the stage, and the fans only amplify it. It's a very beautiful thing to be a part of. This shit that I'm writing about is more of a geek-after-the-fact thing; being in the room is usually as much of a thrill as it ever was, due to the massive conspiracy of goodwill and faith. But the geekery is a big part of why I got into Phish, and not being able to listen back and still be blown away robs me of the activity that brought me into full-on obsession. Ah, heck, it's just one year, right? Prior to 2013, the band improved significantly each year since the return, and this summer there's no denying that both Fish and Page were playing better individually than they had since the 90s. Unfortunately the Phish I love best lives and dies by Trey and his ability to spontaneously create amazing shit that doesn't sound like anything he's done before. Hopefully he'll put in a little more effort next year. I'm gonna have a blast either way.

6. Atoms For Peace: UIC Pavilion 10/2

There was actually one time--Lollapalooza 2008--when Thom Yorke disappointed me, though it was hardly his fault. He was recovering from a well-publicized illness that had forced Radiohead to cancel its surprise pre-festival show the night before, and based on his feeble voice and almost nonexistent stage presence for this set, I think if it hadn't been THE reason most people were at Lolla in the first place, they could've justifiably canceled that performance as well. Other than that, Thom has never failed to utterly captivate me. I believe he has shamanistic powers that bewitch me when I'm in his presence, and they were in full effect at this show. But also, WHAT A BAND. Tighter and looser and more wildly dynamic than the first time they toured, the alt-rock supergroup blew away even the last Radiohead show I saw. On one hand, Thom clearly feeds off the ego-juice of writing all the songs and being in complete control; on the other hand, the room was half empty and his name didn't appear on any posters or marquees. Is the age of obsessive fandom of actual vital artists over? Half the people who did show up stood around like they were waiting for "Karma Police" while the rest of us danced feverishly. No clue why the turnout was so small but Thom was up there laying it all out like a hungry kid with everything to prove and having a blast, and the dual percussion attack of Mauro Refosco and drummer Joey Waronker combined with the irrepressible Flea on bass produced wave after massive wave of intense, dark grooves. If this band would just tour once a year I swear I wouldn't care if Radiohead ever reconvenes.

7. Death Blues: Cactus Club 5/4

The best news I think I've gotten in the past few weeks is that Death Blues is not, in fact, finished. I've probably written too much about the project already, so here I'll just say that when I think about September-ish of 2012 through April-ish of 2013, I remember Tame Impala and Death Blues and otherwise prefer not to think about that period too much. As music is wont to do, it got me through, and this whole Jon Mueller conceptual thing about being fully present in the current moment of your life wasn't a brand new idea for me by any means, but sometimes you need that blatant reminder to snap back into reality. During this show I was just gushing joy, and my head has mostly been in a much better place since.

8. Animal Collective: Riviera 10/17

Now that I think about it, almost all of my favorite bands piss me off on a periodic basis. Animal Collective definitely falls in this category. When I first heard Feels in 2005 it was like a new world opened up in front of me, and that is no exaggeration. Then they put out Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2009 and were poised to become the best band on the planet. Since then they seem to be doing everything they can to not live up to their potential; touring with a clueless sound engineer, releasing a bunch of unpalatable and frankly forgettable music, engaging in dubious crowd-sourcing endeavors and canceling tours. Then when I finally get to see them live they completely blow me away almost every time. I suspect nothing will ever touch my first AC show (Logan Square Auditorium in '06), but this one was probably the next-best. It had the seamless flow of Lolla '09 plus the monstrous dynamics of Pitchfork '11 and a bit of a return to the old tribal madness of the early days. But what made it for me (shockingly!) were the jams. Extended atmospheric intros to "Lion In A Coma" and "My Girls" rendered them slyly nebulous leading to their eventual rapturous climaxes. The crackling danceathon ending to "Moonjock" was absolute insanity. "Brothersport" achieved "Antelope"-esque peak intensity. And the encore of "The Purple Bottle", I don't even know what to say. Sure, they still piss me off; as happy as I am that they're still inspired by the Fall Be Kind material, it's criminal that they only play one pre-Merriweather track. They ought to ditch the play-the-hits mentality, mix up the setlists into a much broader rotation, and become a band I want to see multiple times per tour. Then again, if I went to an AC show and they didn't do "Brothersport" I might be crushed. And besides, my favorite bands never seem to operate according to what I think they should do, and they're still...yeah.

9. Tame Impala: Turner Hall 3/3

My love of Lonerism is well documented. You could say that this show was highly anticipated. I needed it badly to get past a certain phase of my life and move on into a new one less preoccupied with unhealthy and unproductive thoughts. In some ways Lonerism was my life support during the fall of 2012; I hid in that music and it allowed me to keep functioning day to day. I don't know how to explain it any better. But it became a crutch, and I needed to see Tame Impala live to break free from it. Again, there I was, surrounded by my best friends, with these songs that had become my life washing over me like an ocean, finally knowing that it didn't matter that everyone was oblivious to what I was going through. I put all this emphasis on the event, and it probably didn't matter what actually went down in Turner Hall that night; I came out the other side, filled with gratitude, and that was what mattered.

10. Leonard Cohen: Milwaukee Theatre 3/15

In a hilarious twist of fate, I could have leveled a few of the same complaints against Mr. Cohen as I did against The Moody Blues, now that I think of it. He did, after all, rely far too heavily on material from his early-90s comeback period than I would've preferred, and he leaned on the talents of some younger women to energize (and sometimes cheesify) his performance. But these aspects of the show were easily downplayable when considering the quality of Cohen's songs and his self-effacing and gracious presence on the stage. Plus, none of the songs from his catalog are anywhere near as bad as "Your Wildest Dreams" or "I Know You're Out There Somewhere" (Okay, "Dear Heather" is pretty awful but he didn't sing that one thank God!), and Cohen wasn't up there physically gesturing for more applause and basking in it for minutes at a time (see, I could've been much meaner to the Moodies, seriously). Of course, I'd pay just about anything to see Cohen alone on a stool with just an acoustic guitar playing material from his first four albums, but just seeing him onstage having fun, giving his all for close to three hours, and getting to hear "Suzanne", "Famous Blue Raincoat" and "Hallelujah" was plenty amazing enough. I think he only did about four of his hundred or so songs with the word "naked" in them, but something tells me he's not quite done performing.


Field Report: Turner Hall Ballroom 2/14  ...  This sort of triumphant homecoming show was everything anyone could've hoped for. Amazing opening set by Old Earth, the unveiling of a new Field Report video and the headliners primed for the stage after traveling around the country.

Milwaukee Psych Fest: Cactus Club 4/19-20  ...  Two days of psych rock might be overkill if it weren't for the variety of sounds encompassed by the genre. This weekend featured some of the best international acts under the umbrella as well as showcasing the fact that some of the best psych rock bands around are in fact from Milwaukee. Can't wait for next year's edition.

Anathema: Reggie's Rock Club 9/21  ...  I spent over a decade waiting for Anathema to return to the U.S. after I first saw the band (Metalfest 2001), and the show was way too short to live up to my ridiculous expectations, and predictably, I didn't particularly care for the setlist per se, but damn, I just love this band.

Umphrey's McGee: Riverside Theater 11/2  ...  A bunch of cheesy-as-fuck lyrics. Ridiculously extensive song rotation. Focused intent to blow minds for two full sets. A guitar player that can shred so hard he makes you forget there's anybody else in the room. These used to be descriptions of Phish. Nowadays only that first one fits. But they all fit Umphrey's McGee.

Umphrey's took a lot of what they're good at from Phish. The rest they pretty much got from Rush and King Crimson. That's a good combo for my tastes, lemme tell ya. The funny part is that with the cross-pollination of fans, we're getting fans yelling "WOO" during rhythmic pauses at Phish shows, which meatheads have been doing for years at Umphrey's shows. But Umphrey's has always thrived on cock-rock excess, so that dumb WOO shit makes sense at their shows, where if you spend any time in the restrooms, you'll hear the word "bro" thrown around casually even more frequently than Phish hipsters spout it ironically.

The two fanbases are a complete twilight zone to me at this stage, I'll admit it. The Phish fanbase is either unwilling to admit or unable to hear that the leader of its band has been playing very, very badly on the just-finished fall tour, resulting in a situation where any sort of direct criticism of Trey results in being branded a hater. We're talking about a community that blossomed via internet on a culture of obsessive debates and critical consideration of the band's music.

Umphrey's online discussion is much less diametric, but equally blunt; a show "raged", or it was "meh", and there's no consensus or any sort of specific criticism leveled. Take any individual UM show, and there will be folks who loved it and folks who wear their jadedness proudly like a badge. There's still the mocking tone on both sides, but at least with UM fans there's a sense of acceptance of the subjectivity of it all based on taste. Some fans are more into metal, some more into funk, some only care about jams, some like Brendan's cheesy lyrics, some only pay attention to Stasik or Jake.

At this Riverside show, for instance, I paid a lot of attention to Jake, which only made me think about how Trey used to be able to play like that. I can't help it; I like a band with a lead guitarist that can take over completely when he wants to, and Phish doesn't have that lately.

A lot of Phishheads are talking about Trey "laying back", which may be a part of what's happening, but anyone with ears should be able to recognize the constant mistakes his fingers are making throughout the show. These are the same Phishheads who only care about extended open improv; for them, it's perfectly fine for Phish to go through the motions for 75% of the show, totally acceptable for the leader of the band to fuck up constantly, as long as they get one or two 15-plus-minute jams in the second set. It doesn't even matter if those jams sound nearly identical to multiple other jams that happened earlier in the year; again, either they can't tell, or they don't care. It's also taboo to bring up the past; it's invalid, they'll say, to compare different eras of Phish, and if you do this, you're "living in the past". But the fact is that as recently as last year, Trey was picking his notes cleanly most of the time and dreaming up unique bits of improv frequently. He has certainly managed both of these feats occasionally this year as well, but not nearly as consistently as in the previous two years, and compared to the 90s, it's not even close.

I don't really listen to Umphrey's shows except when I'm at them, but unless I'm just hitting all the wrong ones, they don't put as much emphasis on open improv as they used to, preferring more to wow their audience with technical skill, smooth segues (also completely foreign to Phish in 2013) and tight but contained jams. There's nothing wrong with that, but obviously, they're taking fewer risks than Phish. What Umphrey's attempts in terms of improv isn't generally even on the same level of creativity as what Phish attempts. However, the many things that Umphrey's are known for and intend to do, they succeed at most of the time. The things that Phish has historically been known for, the things that only they can do, they have a pretty low success rate at these days. Sure, it boils down mostly to Trey, but given the more exploratory, no-rules format, the band members seemed to have gotten to a point in 2011 and 2012 where they were listening to each other and trying to merge their random impulses. In 2013, for the most part, they've been falling back on well-worn motifs (the happy rock jam, the mess-of-loops-and-effects, the lullaby, the ambient fade-out) and occasionally striking out in a seemingly fruitful direction only to have their mates stick belligerently to the established path or just trail off. Once again, they're not listening to each other. And that's the core skill that made Phish who they are.

So, Phish just wrapped up their weakest tour since probably first leg of summer 2010. Many fans proclaimed it the best tour since the 90s. That's cool; being at the show, on drugs, feeling the compounded energy of thousands of good-willing spirits plus the four human conduits onstage, you're going to lose the capacity to compare The Moment to the past, unless you're doing it wrong. All I'm saying is you don't need drugs or thousands of people to be blown away by recordings of Phish's best shows. Phish has, in the past, done entire tours playing two full sets of top-notch music nearly every night. Not the case this year at all. In fact, there hasn't been a single show this year that featured two full sets of top-notch music.

Umphrey's is still doing it, though. The third show of the Riverside Halloween run, which some fans called the best of the three and others called "meh", was impressive and passionate music front to back. I'm not suggesting that I like Umphrey's more than Phish now. I've tried for ten years, averaging four or five UM shows a year for a while now, and I've come to the realization that they're never going to move me the way Phish does. Phish and I have too much history, and at their best, Phish are too damn good. But as of 2013, even lacking the kind of astoundingly unique and powerful improv I recall from a few years ago, UM is playing way better than Phish.
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