The Best Shows I Saw In 2012

Sun Feb 03 2013

When I started looking back on 2012, I definitely felt like it was amazing for records but not so amazing for live music.  If that’s true, it’s only because every year is great for live music, and 2011 will always be tough to beat.  And in terms of the Milwaukee scene, 2012 was easily the best year yet that I’ve been a part of, even if some of my favorite local bands (cough cough ahem CELEBRATED WORKINGMAN) virtually went into hiding.  Many highlights from unexpected bands, and of course some reliable greatness from perennial faves, make up this year’s list.  Read on for those highlights.

1. Phish, Alpine Valley, 7/1

Not many of my absolute favorite bands on Earth toured this year, but it was the best year of Phish I’ve ever participated in.  That’s more due to quantity than quality--as good as the band has gotten since the return, I’m resigned to the fact that Trey will simply never again play guitar as well as he did in the 90s.  But over the six shows I saw in 2012, as a unit, the band was practically untouchable; any complaints I can dish out are the nitpickings of an overly obsessed Phish dork.  In terms of a front-to-back, two-set ordeal that gives me almost everything I’m hoping Phish will do, this Alpine show was as good as any I’ve attended.  It sits up with maybe a dozen other shows I could never possibly rank, except to say they were all better than all the other shows.  So, what are all those things I’m hoping Phish will do?  Here are six of them, just in case Trey is reading.

1. Open with “Soul Shakedown Party”.  Aside from the Las Vegas disaster of 2004 that nothing could’ve saved, shows that opened with this tune--indeed, virtually all the shows it has appeared in--have been instant classics.  Nothing sets a more promising stage.

2. For the love of God, jam in the first set, and 3. jam out songs that don’t usually get jammed out.  These worlds collided as the outro of “Fee” turned into a spontaneous melodic bliss-out in one of the top jams of the entire tour.

4. Go in a direction you’ve never gone in before, like you did in “Ghost” on this night.  It’s not even necessarily one of my top moments of the show, but there’s not another Phish jam anything like it.

5. That version of “Light” you played.  Yeah, everything about that, including the part where you start playing “Frankie Says” but nobody feels like singing it apparently so you just keep jamming.

6. Encore with “Meatstick”.  Barring the option of a 36-minute epic à la UIC ’11 or a huge jam of some sort (a pipe dream in this era of Phish), send us off happy with this nugget of quintessential Phishyness.

2. Juniper Tar, Hotel Foster, multiple dates

My list rule is one date per artist, but there’s no way to reasonably separate the four nights of the “Last Waltz” residency.  It was one of those events that, as it unfolds, you begin to feel it ought to some day achieve legendary status, but of course it’s just a bunch of guys from your hometown who have day jobs and happen to also make time when they can to sing amazing three-part harmonies together and write and play these incredible songs, and as much as you’d like to spread the word to the world, suddenly a month of Wednesdays is over with and most of the walk-in patrons of the tavern spent each of them gabbing loudly to each other, barely paying attention.  Try as you might, few people outside of Milwaukee will ever know that this happened, that as Levon Helm was spending some of his last precious minutes on the Earth, a boisterous crowd of Brew City musicians and fans were belting out “I Shall Be Released”--it just happened to be the predetermined finale for each night, but it turned into a crazy tribute to Levon that nobody who was involved in could ever forget.  And that was just one of many unforgettable moments.

3. Les Claypool & The Dead Kenny Gs, Summer Camp, 5/25

It was a most epic of festival days, really, all bookended by these cats; Dead Kenny Gs by themselves were the first act we saw (mind-boggling), Primus closed the festival proper (a cut above the average Primus set, including a “The Other One” jam with Bob Weir!) and then it was this one-off (but not really) combination for the separate-ticket Red Barn late-nighter, nothing but incredible music in all three of these sets.  I sort of lump the three separate incidents into one extravaganza to make one perfect festival day, but this barn show took the cake.  For one thing, this was the closest I’d been to watch Les play since Primus in 1995, so just watching the baddest bassist on the planet grooving ten feet away was a thrill, I’m not at all ashamed to admit.  For another thing, this was basically a Fancy Band reunion, like 2005 all over again (minus Gabby La La, not necessarily a good or bad thing), which equals funky jams on all the expected Les solo classics I don’t get to hear much lately (“Booneville Stomp”, “Precipitation”, “Riddles Are Abound Tonight” and “Up On The Roof” were all amazing), plus The Brown Note!  Yep, we all shat our pants.

4. Fiona Apple, Lincoln Hall, 3/18

As hard as it was to get a ticket to this show, as much hype as there was surrounding it, and as antisocial as Fiona Apple is supposed to be, disappointment was practically guaranteed.  Lucky for me, I didn’t really know what to expect.  What I got was an impeccably tight and creative rock band fronted by a powerful woman in one of the most emotionally charged performances I’ve witnessed by a singer, ever.  The subdued, minimalist new album The Idler Wheel… wasn’t out yet, so nobody knew yet that we were being treated to radically different versions of “Anything We Want”, “Valentine” and “Every Single Night”; I didn’t even know all the old songs.  All I knew was that the reports of an emaciated basketcase were way off; she was a maniacal ball of energy, funny and charismatic and, sure, maybe a little nervous but it just added to the dynamic tension.  One hour, and I don’t really care if I ever see her again.  And not giving a shit is bliss.

5. Fanfare Ciocărlia, City Winery, 9/25

I’m pretty confident that this was the only show I’ve ever attended where Romanian-Americans may have outnumbered Caucasians.  It’s no surprise that few people in this country are aware of this band; its closest brush with fame was an appearance on the Borat soundtrack, although fans of Secret Chiefs 3 will recognize the Fanfare staple “Ciocărlia si Suite” from the live album Eyes Of Flesh, Eyes Of Flame, which is (obviously) how I discovered these masters of Romani brass.  I don’t doubt that there are other groups out there just as good or better at what these guys do, but this happens to be the one I’m aware of and the music is really unparalleled in my experience.  The performance bordered on a religious revival; as the night went on, more and more well-dressed Midwestern Americans were coaxed out of their chairs to join in the mass of gyrating bodies.  It was the type of event where unmatched instrumental skill pales in comparison to the communal spiritual celebration, as people of all cultures surrendered to an overpowering expression of joy in musical form.

6. Jack White, Lollapalooza, 8/5

I admit I was down on Jack White going into Lolla.  Fine, break up The White Stripes; I get it.  Fine, do this pretentious, backwoods bluesman act in It Might Get Loud; it’s your image.  Fine, release all these limited Ebay-bound records only your most privileged and wealthy fans will ever see; at least you’re feeding your own mystique.  But your first solo album is mediocre; there are two or three great songs on there and a lot of fluff.  It would take one hell of a live band to make something exciting out of that material.  Luckily, Jack has two.  Bathed in pale blue light à la the Blunderbuss album cover, the all-dude band (The Buzzards) came out and ripped through a bunch of Stripes classics and breathed fire into a few of the new tunes.  Then following a stark spotlit duo of “Love Interruption” between White and Ruby Amanfu, the stage lights revealed that the all-chick Peacocks had replaced the men, and this second half of the evening was even more impressive, particularly Jack’s searing, brain-scraping guitar work in “Ball And Biscuit” and “Seven Nation Army”.  He’s by no means the most precise technician, but in terms of visceral creativity he proved on this night that he is among the most captivating guitarists on the planet.

7. Neurosis, The Metro, 12/30

When this show was announced, it dawned on me in a rush that holy shit, I’ve never seen Neurosis live, how is that possible?  Sure, I was oblivious to the band for its first 15 years or so of existence, but once I heard 2001’s A Sun That Never Sets I never looked back, and I’ve loved every album since.  Neurosis doesn’t tour much, but there have been missed opportunities.  So yes, I may have been longing to be in Madison Square Garden when this night began, but I didn’t think about Phish for a second as soon as…well actually, as soon as The Atlas Moth started playing; this Chicago prog combo put on a terrific opening set, and although middle band Bloodiest wasn’t exactly my bag, all was forgotten when Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till walked onstage.  I know a lot of folks lamented the fact that the band’s longtime visual art compatriot Josh Graham had just left the fold, but I honestly have my eyes closed most of the time if the music is good enough, and it was.  This had to be the best the sound has ever been in the Metro for a show I’ve seen there.  The setlist was of course heavy on material from the last two albums, and nobody’s complaining, but damn, “Through Silver In Blood” as the final song was easily the highlight, pretty much the most mind-melting performance of the year.

8. Atlas sound, Lincoln hall, 3/3

I can’t deny it: I basically hang on whatever Bradford Cox does now.  I’ve seen him play twice with Deerhunter and this time by himself as Atlas Sound, and the three performances could scarcely have been more different from each other.  Since I was still kinda fresh off his Serious Badass Rock Band persona from Pitchfork the previous year, it was cool to get the talkative smartass fuckaround dude at Lincoln Hall.  Not that he was slacking on the music; he proved to be impressively adept with the whole looping thing, turning his minimalist studio musings into one-man shoegaze jams.  But his personality is a major aspect of his appeal, and his occasional jokes and rants spoke to the loner/outsider nature in all of us.  Freaks gotta flock together, y'know.

9. Radiohead, Bonnaroo, 6/8

Six years ago, Radiohead showed up at the best Bonnaroo ever and put on the performance of a career.  It would have been next to impossible to top that one, but Ponytail Thom and company still did not disappoint.  Radiohead routinely breaks the cardinal rule of being a successful live band: If you have classic albums, YOU PLAY THE SONGS FROM THOSE ALBUMS.  It’s a real pisser for old school fans who came up on The Bends and OK Computer, but the good news is the band’s new material turns out to be superb fodder for live interpretation by this electro/rock/whatever entity Radiohead has become.  Nearly all the highlights were from The King Of Limbs and the “The Daily Mail“/“Staircase” single, with particular emphasis on the latter two songs and also “Morning Mr. Magpie”.  The only clunker was “Karma Police”, one of only two pre-Kid A tunes played (“Paranoid Android” was sweet as shit, duh), so I guess we can stop pining for the old days and ride the futuristic wave into whatever Radiohead has planned next.  (But please, Thom, play “Bishop’s Robes” next time I see you.)

10. Mission Of Burma, Shank Hall, 9/26

This band has a weird parallel with Pavement for me (and, as it turns out, Yo La Tengo): totally missed out on the original run (okay, I was in grade school in this case, but still), then saw them headline Pitchfork and was not overly impressed (in Pavement's case, sorely disappointed), then got the opportunity to see them indoors in Milwaukee and was totally blown away.  I went from being in a sour mood sitting on a stool at the bar dejectedly to rocking out right in front of the stage by the end of the show.  Kinda crazy to think, but aside from the Juniper Tar residency (and it's hardly fair to compare that extravaganza with any single show), this was the best show I saw in Milwaukee last year, and I probably only knew a third of the songs.


Umphrey’s McGee, Riverside Theater, 10/25&26

It was a tough decision between this and MoB, but ultimately MoB struck me more deeply probably because my expectations were lower and it was like a hundred times better than I expected.  We could hardly have asked for better Umphrey's shows, only it being a Halloween run and all I confess that I was really hoping for some much heavier, crazier, eviler shit, which UM is certainly capable of, but although there were some great jams and the mashups were frikkin amazing, they kept everything pretty family-friendly from my perspective; particularly since Phish has essentially abandoned its intent to freak me out, I’ll always prefer to get freaked out by bands that can freak me out.  And although it’s not really fair, I hold Umphrey’s to a higher standard than most other bands; they can play a great show in their sleep.  These were certainly much better than great.

Altos & Brokeback, Cactus Club, 12/15

Perhaps the most telling testament to the magnificence of an Altos show is that by now I know almost entirely what to expect, yet I still get a massive rush from their music, a spiritual booster shot, which I sorely needed on this particular night.  As an added bonus, they played a new amazing piece of music I'd never heard before, a rare treat.  I mean, the record release show at Stonefly in March was probably just as good, and it included the premier of the video for “Sing (For Trouble)” plus an amazing solo acoustic set by Chris Porterfield.  Their Summerfest set as well was mind-blowing.  There’s simply not a better band in Milwaukee.  To say that Brokeback was just icing on the cake might sound ridiculous, but it's true.  But also, Brokeback was ridiculously good, basically all the best rockish tendencies of Tortoise honed into a most satisfying blend of hooks and western-tinged atmospheric tension/release jams.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. & White Denim, Bonnaroo, 6/7

First time to the farm since 2006.  Getting in and setting up was a breeze, the weather was perfect, short walk to Centeroo and all the great memories from 'roos past came flooding back.  We posted up at The Other Tent for the evening.  Caught a terrific set by EMA, and then as the sun was setting, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. came out.  I had heard good things (thanks Gösser!) but WOW.  Serious musicianship, amazing live vocal harmonies, including on a totally wild cover of "God Only Knows"; I was SO hoping somebody had taped this set but no dice.  I felt like I might already have seen the best set of Bonnaroo.  Then out came White Denim.  I'm not sure the music ever fully stopped the whole time this band was onstage; songs blended seamlessly into each other like they were written as one long suite.  Did not want it to end.  First time seeing either act but no chance it's the last unless they break up, in which case I'll be crushed.

Tame Impala & Twin Shadow, Lollapalooza, 8/3&4

I had heard "Elephant" once prior to the Tame Impala set at Lolla, and I had enjoyed Innerspeaker for a while when it first came out; it ended up on the backburner as Beatles-worshipping psych-lite in my memory, but I definitely figured there was potential for a good live show.  The scorching heat had apparently melted one of Kevin Parker's pedals, so the guitar sounded cleaner and less layered than it was supposed to, but it turns out he's a pretty mean straight-up guitarist underneath all those effects, so while it may not have been the psychedelic wonderland he envisioned, it was a superb set, with "Elephant" and "Mind Mischief", the only two new tracks, being the clear highlights.  And still I resisted Lonerism for weeks, almost gave up on it...Twin Shadow the following night was one of my most anticipated sets of the weekend, although I didn't know really what it would be like.  I had envisioned possibly a dj, but there was no dj.  Instead George Lewis Jr. came out and rocked.  The way he wailed on guitar and belted out these dancey soulful pop songs struck me as a next-generation Prince, and he had a band that lived up to his powerful songs and presence.  It was painfully brief, as the delayed start time meant only about a half hour of music, but maybe it was better that way, all killer, no filler.  When he sang "Please leave us alone when we're dancing" I think I found my new festival mantra.

Death Blues


Sat. Nite Duets, every time I saw them

This is a total cop-out; I can’t pick one.  Sat. Nite Duets were pretty much the band of the year.  My first show of 2012 was their record release show at Turner Hall, which included top-notch sets by The Fatty Acids and Catacombz too, basically a perfect night.  Of course, Andrew Jambura added some Sat. Nite flava to The First Waltz.  The insane Milwaukee Day show with Northless and Across Tundras where they played a set every bit as intense as two of my personal favorite live heavy bands in the world.  The Summerfest show on the 4th of July when they tore up “Fortunate Son”.  The rip-roaring Riverwest Fest headlining slot at the Uptowner--I don’t know if this was really the best one or if it’s just the freshest in my mind.  Hell, I’ve seen them seven times in two years and every time has kicked ass.  Still waiting for a letdown of a show.  It will happen some day, but I’m not holding my breath.
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