In an effort to impress upon people who need these things explained the ultimate meaningless of the numbers involved in these lists I like to write, there is a tie for number one this year. The shows were so completely different and earth-shattering that I couldn’t possibly choose. BUT THEN NUMBER TWO SHOULD REALLY BE NUMBER THREE. Are you happy now?
I don't have a lot to add to what I've already said about Swans. Over the past few years they've been unstoppable, and while I missed out completely on the band's original run, I can confidently say based only on the three times I've seen them that they're one of the best live bands this country has ever produced. I probably enjoyed the previous two shows more, largely based on song selection, but this was another incredible barrage of Michael Gira energy, plus he snatched a cell phone away from some dipshit in the front row in the middle of the show, so that was an unexpected highlight. (read my original review here)
As I've mentioned elsewhere, Nick Cave has been all over Milwaukee the past couple of years, and he kind of owed us after ditching us for a couple decades, although we didn't come close to packing the Milwaukee Theatre so I can't blame him if he never comes back, but maybe that's the promoters' fault; what do I know? I'll admit I feared this was going to be either a watered-down, "respectable" version of Cave the performer or else unintentionally creepy, but as it turned out The Bad Seeds are an incredible band and Cave's creepiness was entirely intentional and effective—unforgettable, in fact. I can't properly express how thankful I am that I was able to finally see and hear this lunatic perform in person. (read my original review here)
Despite many repeat performers from the inaugural event in 2013, this year's MPF had a distinctly different feel. Last year's fest adhered to a narrower definition of the genre, and at only two nights it had almost no lulls. This year had a much wider variety of styles, and although locals Catacombz and Sleepcomesdown were sorely missed, the addition of Vocokesh and Space Raft plus a centerpiece-caliber performance by host band Moss Folk helped pick up the slack while the newly-christened Tapebenders (formerly Elusive Parallelograms) turned in a comparably excellent performance as well. The headliners might have been even more impressive than 2013's, though, which is saying something. On opening night, reunited shoegaze unit Loop put on probably the best single set of the weekend, another example of rich, raw guitar tone reigning supreme. The one-two garage-punk punch of Running and The Blind Shake to close out the fest would've been tough to top, though; they made for a very old-school-Cactus finale to the weekend. Blind Shake is one of the tightest, most blistering live acts that I've ever seen, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the amazing visual augmentation by Bread Mothers, which took this and many of the weekend's other performances to another level. I couldn't be more stoked for the 2015 edition. (read my original review here)
I really like Cold Roses. Otherwise I haven't found any Ryan Adams albums terribly interesting. Even Cold Roses I put on just prior to this show and was like 'eh, this is good but what could possibly make people so obsessive about this guy?' His new album I kind of hate, despite the fact that he has the self-awareness to acknowledge that it mostly sounds like Bryan Adams, a guy we can all agree sucks, right? Except the one Bryan song Ryan actually plays, "Run To You", I'm starting to feel like is actually a decent song, but deep down a part of me dies every time I think or type anything not derisive about Bryan Adams, except my mom liked him so fuck off. Um, anyway, this show ruled. Ryan's the complete modern singer/songwriter package, a smartass-dumbass rock star who's not actually that famous, but performs to the absolute fullest extent of his being while never being phony or even overly gracious, unless it's called for, which it was. I only knew a handful of songs (even fewer of which I genuinely like), and this band he's got is nothing special at all, but the guy radiates entertainment. I doubt I'll spend much time the rest of my life listening to his records, but I'll totally hope that this wasn't a fluke and go see him live again the next chance I get. Probably. (read my original review here)
I'd recommend seeing Old Earth in any incarnation, but this solo set at the Public House was my favorite of the five I saw in 2014 (although the A Wake In The Wells album release show at Garibaldi was a close second). Mr. Umhoefer was freshly invigorated with the dark, noisy All Kill record and seemed determined to take the material to its cathartic extreme. The waves of sound that rolled over us as Todd sang "This is how, this is how/I refill the well" were almost overpowering, and it crushes me that he'll probably never even perform this material again, if history is any indication. But maybe we'll get lucky and some day he'll be playing three-hour shows and he'll have to dig deep and play some of the old stuff for the fans who've been sort of obsessed ever since Out the spheres of The Sorrowful Mysteries way back in 2009. Of course, I would've preferred another hour of Old Earth instead of Ugly Brothers, who so far in my experience are not my thing at all, but this quick half hour or so of Umhoefer is going to stick with me as one of my favorites amongst the nine times I saw him play over the past two years, as well as a somewhat bittersweet reminder of the massive talent most of Li'lwaukee failed to recognize before he jumped ship for sunny San Francisco.
This year is kind of forcing me to rethink my opinion that reunions are lame. Generally speaking, your highest hope is for nostalgia thrills and chills, right? Well, I got much more than I bargained for out of Celebrated Workingman and Juniper Tar. To be fair, who knows if these bands are actually done for good or had technically broken up; it's often hard to tell these days. Neither band had played out in over a year, and neither showed signs of rust or fatigue, that's all I know. Sure, nostalgia was part of the joy of Milwaukee Day, the rush of memories from the Hotel Foster residency and all the other great J-Tar shows over the years, suddenly not seeming so distantly past. Nothing against Decibully, but their performance didn't quite recapture the old magic like J-Tar's did. Then, the band that should've been at MKE Day to complete my circa-2007 dream lineup (no offense to Whips—they were great), Celebrated Workingman, played its really-o truly-o supposedly-o final show to close Brady Street Fest, and what a way to go out. Waldoch (might as well give him mononym status at this point eh?) and his band have never been what you'd call 'reliable'; I've certainly seen some sloppy CWM shows, but when they were on, they were hands-down the best band in the city, and this set reminded me of every reason why. Since I missed their previous last shows ever, I would like to thank both these bands for giving us all one more chance to bask in their awesomenesses, and for years of music that set a ridiculously high standard for the local scene, helping to shape its direction and me personally in the process.
In some ways, this show was destined to be a mere echo of last year's incredible Pabst Theater show; you only get one chance to drown in a massive chorus of "SET SAAAAAAAAAAAAAIL" for the first time, and there wouldn't be much difference, musically, between that night and this tour finale at Turner. However, the surprise opening act (why don't more bands do this??) being Sylvan Esso immediately sprinkled magic into the proceedings, and everything about the setting and the capacity crowd and Volcano Choir performance ended up being perfect. Okay, maybe there were some technical glitches, but in an atmosphere such as this, these become memorable only as endearing humor. Plus, there was the added emotion of knowing that this could be the final VC performance ever as far as anyone seems to know. I'll come right out and say it would be a shame if it was, but there's always that urge to go out on top, which would certainly apply here.
Look, I know I said it was a lame old-man-prog exercise in overindulgence rather than a King Crimson show, and I stand by that. But it was also Robert Fripp and some other dudes playing the "Larks' Tongues In Aspic" suite, and "One More Red Nightmare" and "Pictures Of A City" and "Sailor's Tale" and "Red" and "Starless" and motherfucking "21st Century Schizoid Man". With my eyes closed, in between a bunch of three-drummer sterile nonsense, that was a King Crimson show. I got all I needed out of it and I never need to bother chasing my Crimson dreams again. Unless Adrian Belew rejoins the band of course. (read my original review here)
I'd seen her in the Pabst. I'd seen her in the Riverside. For the Pabst hat-trick, she put on the best St. Vincent show I've seen yet—and that includes a jaw-dropper at Bonnaroo 2012 and a solid showing at Pitchfork '10 as well. Where does she go from here? Although I don't love her new self-titled album quite as much as 2011's Strange Mercy, Annie Clark was at the absolute height of her powers as a singer, player, performer on this wicked night at Turner. She held every one of us in the palm of her hand. She's the new David Bowie, that's all there is to it, but the next step could be the crux of her career. Straight pop domination? I don't doubt she could do it if she wanted to. The low-key acoustic detour? That could work. The aggressive dark or weird left turn? Fingers...crossed? As good as they've all been, another album in the same vein can only be a letdown...right? I dunno, but this show was the perfect mixture of music and theatrics, and I fear an of Montrealish descent into self-indulgence (if not self-parody), but only a tiny bit. If an artistic misstep is inevitable at some point, I'd say we're still waiting. (read my original review here)
You can live your life listening to Led Zeppelin bootlegs and feeling a massive void in your life for never having seen the band live, or you can go see this band and sort of forget that there was ever a balls-out rock and roll band that was ever better than this. And since I never saw Zeppelin, I can't be sure they were any better than this. Setting the stage was a powerful set by Mind Over Mirrors, like being enveloped in pure pulsating sonic goodwill for a half hour. Then Forsyth came out with a band whose sound was a thousand times bigger than the tiny room we were in, and wordlessly plastered the walls with our faces. With my eyes closed I imagined them on a tall stage, broadcasting this rich guitar assault across a massive sea of humanity, shattering windows of nearby farmhouses. This was the new kind of rock that I'd been searching for, the kind that makes you not ashamed to call it rock, to call yourself a fan of rock music, the kind that even Gene Simmons would be forced to admit is alive. (read my original review here)
Conventional wisdom amongst jam-chasers such as myself has the Sunday show taking the cake on this Chicago stand, but Saturday had a lot of intangibles going for it that made it at least as fun for me. If I'm gauging the quality of the show by the joy felt upon completion, Saturday (which happened to be my birthday) probably wins. It wasn't as adventurous but it was pure fire straight through—impeccable playing (relatively speaking), teases galore and balls-out energy, plus a fantastic setlist for my tastes, an outstanding "Light" and a highly unorthodox "Harry Hood" with some debatable toying with Grateful Dead themes. It was the kind of show you could only pick apart for what didn't happen, which I try not to do. Sunday was the adventure: easily the most epic "Scent Of A Mule" since the 90s, the first type-II "Wedge" ever (with a jam based on either "Paradise City" or, God help us all, "Roll With The Changes"), and a magnificent "Ghost" that subsequently snuck its way into the "Weekapaug Groove" that followed as well. If you dig those smooth, spontaneous full-circle moments that Phish is stingy with these days, this was your bit of magic to send you on your way, capping the last Midwest show of the year (Phish is stingy in a lot of ways these days) in primo fashion.
All in all, summer 2014 was a pretty good tour for the band, with tighter playing and much less recycled improv and off-key guitar moans than last year but a confounding lack of Trey heroics and a ridiculously small rotation of songs, further hampered by the resounding awfulness of the new album, Fuego, and its failure to produce more than a couple of significant jams. The fall tour that followed, though, was a major regression (triumphant Halloween run excluded), and it honestly left me questioning my relationship with the band. It's a messed-up relationship to begin with, this obsessive listening to shows, analyzing, philosophizing, putting so much of my being into being a fan. Throughout my life I've felt that Phish put just as much thought and effort and passion right back into being this band, too, until the last two years. I still have a blast at shows, but I feel less in tune with Phish's reason for being than ever before. It might just be as simple as believing that if you're gonna be a singer and guitar player in a band, you should damn well put in the practice time to sing and play guitar competently most of the time. But I don't ultimately operate on such a logical plane. I hate all the second-guessing and attempts to glean Trey's intentions and motivations, but after all this time it's hard not to puzzle over these things. I can't accept this pervading attitude that he's just getting old and his fingers don't work any more, because I keep seeing other guitarists older than him playing with all the passion and precision I used to take for granted with Trey. All I know for sure is something has been lost in the mojo between me and Phish (and yes, I realize I did this same shit last year...). Maybe we'll recapture it some day, but it's tough when the conversation is one-way, and I do need to face the possibility that it's all slipping away. I'm gonna do my best to make the most of it while it lasts, though. We've always had to take our lumps with this band to reach the heights, but they're getting harder to swallow since the consistently inspired playing of 2011-12.
The past disappears when I'm at a show; it's only in the aftermath that the questions creep in. I'd say all this analysis was unfair to Phish, except they did this to me, dammit. They made me this way. I guess all in all, 3.0 has exceeded expectations. Maybe it's a good thing that those expectations have been drastically lowered again. (read my original review here)
I was figuring on the Cactus Club show in July being on this list, because at the time it was the most mind-blowing thing I'd heard from this project, and in those close quarters the way the sound pressed in on my brain and oscillated around the room in palpable waves is still an unparalleled experience for me. However, I think this homecoming show at the Public House featured a tighter performance musically, and also a more intense climax in the end with Jim Warchol's massive wall of effects-laden slide guitar bearing down on us. Jon Mueller's meditation on the inevitability of death and its implications on the now has been the most unique and inspiring force in Milwaukee music (and beyond) over the past few years, and this three-piece band has been its primary ambassador. If it ever emerges again for a show, I urge you all to not miss it.
Last spring I could rank the shows I saw entirely in terms of guitar tone, which is admittedly stacking the deck in favor of Justin K. Broadrick. I think he put a stop to Godflesh back in 2001 because his panic-stricken subconscious had a premonition: 'I'm gonna bring this back in like twelve years after I've found the perfect combination of electrons and metal and wood.' Nothing against the JKB tone from the 80s and 90s, but those years of Jesu brought in a richness that wasn't there before, so now that he's returned to a harsher style it's massive but still jagged and unfettered. At times, it made for a completely different feel from the icy thrashings of the old days, but every great band experiences bold evolutions in sound, and Broadrick and G.C. Green clearly put every fiber of their beings into this performance. The intensity of Broadrick alone is something I'll never miss an opportunity to witness. After this many decades doing this, few artists still seem so utterly possessed by the music they perform. I can't even think of this reunion in nostalgic terms. It's just Justin doing what currently obsesses him, which, as usual, is mind-blowing.
Oh gee whiz, my favorite band at my favorite venue, YATHINK? Putting it at number two is honestly absurd, but the competition at the top this year is sort of unprecedented; I have no further justification to express on the matter. Last year SC3 did a two-night stand in Chicago and played nearly every song in their arsenal, but I think this standalone show was even better. For one thing, drummer Kenny Grohowski has gotten even better, which made me pine for some of the older Ishraqiyun tunes that have filtered out of the rotation, just because he definitively changed the way those woozy rhythmic shifts play out, but he has transformed the overall dynamic of the band into something looser and more potent and made his mark on every facet of SC3's sound. I love the work of Danny Heifetz and Ches Smith with a passion; they have both been incalculably important to my musical journey, and Peijman Kouretchian was great as well when I saw him (and I honestly can't remember if I ever saw them with Matt Chamberlain...), but for this band, it's now clear that nobody touches Grohowski. For another thing, they resurrected "Lapis Baitulous" (in a radically more intense form) and "Horsemen Of The Invisible" (one of my holy grails). For another thing, "Saptarshi". Whatever Trey might claim, Ishraqiyun is the crux of the Secret Chiefs biscuit. It was the then-unknown "Brazen Serpent" that fucked my mind the first time I saw this band (2007). By 2011 or so, "Tistriya" had usurped it as the high priest of live mind-fuckery, and now, "Saptarshi" has supplanted them both as Trey's primary muse, finally coming into its own after three or four years in the rotation. And, we got all three of these tunes at Cactus. And the sound was bloody perfect. So I know last year I said nothing would ever top the Chicago residency, but whoops I was wrong. (read my original review here)
As much as I gravitate to great improvisational music, my brain normally appreciates some tokens of remembrance in order to "return home", those moments that make the journey supremely rewarding. But my brain wasn't exactly prepared for the caliber of musicianship and psychic connection involved when John Zorn, Bill Laswell and Dave Lombardo play together. Seeing Zorn live was a bucket list thing, but I had no idea how high on the list it ought to have been. I'd always thought of him as a composer foremost, which I now realize was a lopsided assessment. I think maybe when people devote their lives so thoroughly to their art, they come together and the communication is subconscious and inevitable. It may be a luxury or it may be torture, but here are three guys who do things no one has ever done better. Having only previously seen Lombardo in metal settings, he blew me away the most I suppose. I guess maybe now I think he's the greatest drummer in history; does that matter? I invite anyone to suggest a person who can play every style there is and switch between them so intuitively with two other people. A dozen conglomerations of musicians that I so badly want to form bands with Dave pop into my head, but I question whether any of them could quite keep up with him, except John Zorn and Bill Laswell. Forget this being my favorite show of the year, in a league with any show I've ever seen. This might be the best BAND that has ever existed. (read my original review here)
Going to see live music is pretty much my favorite thing to do. There's this thing that happens on rare occasions, with a handful of my favorite bands, that's kind of the reason I keep going to see them over and over again, just the off chance that this thing will happen. Before this year I wasn't sure Wilco was one of those bands that could do this thing, but on this 20th Anniversary Tour, they did it. They read my mind.
Wilco setlists, with few exceptions—the 2008 Chicago residency, their Solid Sound Festival sets, and surely a few scattered other events—get maddeningly predictable over the course of a tour, especially considering they could be playing practically anything from their sizable repertoire. Sure, they'll throw in the token rarity or two at plenty of shows, but I never got very lucky in my seven opportunities prior to this year. After a while, the various combinations of "Box Full Of Letters", "Casino Queen", "Outtasite", "Monday", "Handshake Drugs", "Heavy Metal Drummer" and "Walken" don't sound very fresh as endings to every show. I love Wilco and most of Wilco's songs, so I've had a blast at literally every Wilco show, but the cumulative effect was reliability over unpredictability. That all changed this month.
The Milwaukee show by itself would've landed high on this list. Thinking about the two shows as objectively as possible, MKE was probably the more impressive show, with more improvisational nastiness than I've actually ever witnessed at a Wilco show, and an individual performance by Nels that frankly puts into perspective the Trey's-just-getting-old (he's nine years younger than Nels) excuse. It's called focus and dedication, plain and simple, and it came through not only in Nels' technical wizardry but in the passion he exuded as well. All in all they didn't play many of my favorite songs (and I didn't care), but at the end of the first encore, they did play the one song I craved at their last Milwaukee show (2011, same room), the one song I crave at every Wilco show, "A Shot In The Arm". The catharsis of screaming "SOMETHING IN MY VEINS/BLOODIER THAN BLOOD" has no equivalent for me. And, they also did "Dreamer In My Dreams" to end the unplugged final encore, one of my favorites I'd never caught live before, although...I hate to nitpick, but without drums and piano (and ideally fiddle) it's not the rollicking barnburner it could be. Stupid thing to focus on after this killer show, but such is Wilco nerdlife.
The show was so good that I started to feel a burning need to hit one of the nights of the "Winterlude" residency at the Riviera. At the aforementioned 2008 residency, they had played every song in their catalog, and I missed it all. The thought of missing it all again was too much to stomach. The only nights that could possibly work were Monday and Thursday. I rolled the dice and decided on Thursday.
They played "Hotel Arizona" on the first night; naturally. Then Monday, "Sunken Treasure". Fuck. My holy grail. On Tuesday, they trotted out virtually every remaining Wilco song I'm nuts about that they hadn't played yet. Over four shows, no repeats, other than "alternate versions". Somebody posted a list of 25 remaining unplayed songs and things looked grim. It seemed like the best I could hope for was an all-covers set or some other nonsense on Thursday.
Instead, they opened with "Sunken Treasure". It's one of the few times I can recall when my night was made in the span of the very first song. I couldn't believe what was happening. As Tweedy sang "I am so out of tune with you", I was like 'no, you're really not!' Something greater was happening here, though. This was indeed an alternate arrangement, one they played on the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tour (and surely others; I'm not quite nerdy enough, yet...) that I'd forgotten about, a major-key version based in acoustic guitar, ending in a massive blissed-out build, sort of the polar opposite of the normal version in feeling, except knowing the song it still emits that very painful sentiment. It was driving home a much larger point for me, though. It has been a frustrating couple of years for me in relation to Phish, the band that has read my mind way more times than any other. While I've seen them play some incredible shows, in the larger scheme of where they're headed and how they're pulling it off, I've been so out of tune with them. It was leading me to question my own tastes, and whether I was doomed to eternal diminishing returns, and what if Phish was my last refuge, and what if I'd never establish that kind of connection with any other band?
At the Milwaukee Wilco show, I felt that connection again, in the way Wilco played, in the words Jeff sang, but in Chicago it blasted me in the face, as Wilco disregarded any no-repeats expectations and put together a show seemingly designed straight from my brain. A trio of More Like The Moon tunes! The debut of "Blasting Fonda"?? "Poor Places">"Reservations"! "HOTEL ARIZONA"!!!! And, the other song I'd be happy to hear at every show, "I'm Always In Love". But the encore, though. A rip-roaring electric "Hoodoo Voodoo" followed by..."Dreamer In My Dreams", balls-out electric, unreal. And while the acoustic final encore scarcely matters to me, there was really only one way this show could end, and that was with "A Shot In The Arm". I couldn't quite complete the series of "BLOODIER THAN BLOOD"s. I was too overcome with emotion.
I could go on and on about how a bunch of Tweedy's songs hit me in different ways over the course of these two shows, changed the way I think about them and about aspects of my life, but the point is that I emerged from the Riv on that Thursday night with a renewed lust for life. I think most people who would bother reading this probably get what I'm talking about. I hope everyone has an analogue to the experience of one of your favorite bands reading your mind. If not, I recommend opening yourself up to the possibility of it. Everyone loses faith in the things they hold dear, sometimes, but you hold them dear because deep down you know your faith will be restored. Which means you haven't really lost faith to begin with. Maybe all you need is a shot in the arm.
A FEW MORE THAT NEED TO BE MENTIONED:
Jazz fusion is not one of my favorite genres. There's its inception, Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, and then there's everything else, way, way below it on my radar. So much of what I've heard of the genre has been so odious to me that it has hampered my ability to seek out and appreciate the best of it. A lot of Pat Metheny's stuff really turns me off, but his foray into Zorn's Book Of Angels series forced me to revisit more of his catalog, and then his recent album with this Unity Group, KIN (←→), sort of bowled me over as incredibly not-cheesy and powerful, an impression that was only enhanced upon seeing the group play live. As expected, on purely technical merits, this band—particularly saxist Chris Potter and drummer Antonio Sànchez—was impeccable, but as a unit they produced a genuine emotional resonance that transcended the potentially sterile production. They put on a show, as individuals and as a group, that emanated a joy of collaboration over showmanship, and Metheny himself proved to be a captivating bandleader in addition to his unimpeachable skills on the guitar. All in all a much more moving experience than I was expecting.
It was a trip returning to the site of my first Mogwai show, one of the most transformative live music experiences I've ever had, thirteen years/a lifetime of music ago. We have to embrace change, but in some ways Mogwai has never been that good again, and yet this 2014 show reignited my passion for the band that started me off down the post-rock path. There was a bit of recapturing of the old mischievous, demonic noise, a bit of branching out into new territories with the electronic sounds, and a lot of bringing what might be called Traditional Mogwai Values to bear on the new material, and even the in-between material, making the transition into the modern world less jarring than I was figuring it would be. I went to the show for three reasons: 1) curiosity about how the new material would translate live; 2) a chance to meet up with an old friend; 3) because my last Mogwai show had been a relative dud (last-minute fill-in drummer and whatnot) and I'd passed on too many opportunities the last few years. I guess I felt they had something to prove. Whatever that was, they proved it. (read my original review here)
Breadfest. various locations. July 31-August 2.
It seems that our beloved Riverwest Fest is no more, but Breadfest has admirably filled that void, albeit minus the frigid temperatures. This thing was scattered, less a cohesive event than a bunch of DIY takeovers of various neighborhood spaces, less about showing off our city's best-loved artists than putting the spotlight on a ridiculous variety of performers of all styles and letting them fend for themselves. As such, it was more representative of Riverwest, actually, and although I didn't catch as much of it as I would've liked to, it was clearly the best festival the city had to offer this year. Favorite part: chilling in that decrepit "park" across the alley from the Public House in the blazing mid-afternoon sun watching Marcy and gauss attempt to shatter windows of nearby houses, then the stark contrast of Twin Brother and Caley Conway making music just as powerful but infinitely more subtle in that same spot. Now that's a fucking festival. Second-favorite part: discovering the awesomeness of Live Tetherball Tonight and then getting my face sledgehammered by Zebras all in the chicken-coop ambience of Bremen Cafe on the opening night of the fest. (read the original review by Tyler Maas and myself here)Gil Scott-Heron cover "We Almost Lost Detroit" above all—I have to be in the right mood to even dig their sugary nuggets. Yet they flat-out blew me away at Bonnaroo in 2012, and evidently I was in the proper mood for this Turner Hall show as well, because there were moments of sublimity I can scarcely find a frame of reference for. It's like they achieve these peaks of pop perfection that transcend what something so simple ought to be able to transmit in a live setting. I suppose it's largely those sweet vocal harmonies that they pull off so well, and the smart-alecky stage presence of Joshua Epstein is certainly part of the appeal, but there's more to it that I can't put my finger on. It was a mysteriously uplifting experience, this show. I can hardly wait for them to put out another decent album and tour again—hopefully shortening their name to Jr Jr by then.