2016 In Live Music

Thu Dec 29 2016

Believe me, I realize this is partially a case of rationalization, but 2016 was the year I learned to stop being aggravated that most of the touring bands I love are gonna keep skipping Milwaukee, because almost all the live music I’ll ever need is already right here. Plus, I do relish an evening in Chicago whenever I can make it happen. It's no use getting hung up on this issue, I keep telling myself. There are plenty of negatives to focus on from 2016, if that's your bag. Personally, I can't keep it up. Music lives on, and this current moment right this second is all that’s even real anyway. But if I were to live solely in memories of local shows, I'd want to pull a good percentage of that life from 2016.

Musician friends, I love you all, and your shows were all amazing, and ranking shows is silly and I apologize for doing it anyway. It’s just a thing I do. It doesn’t mean anything.

15. Abby Jeanne with Foreign Goods | Company Brewing | 4/1

It might’ve been New Boyz Club who actually topped this bill; I’m not sure, but it was Abby Jeanne & co. who finished the night, and this was definitely the night I knew that this Foreign Goods band has got it together. They don’t always; sometimes they’re a little sloppy, sometimes the innumerable sonic elements that make up their style don’t come together in a thoroughly satisfying manner, but when they do, it’s really something to experience. As a person who seeks transcendence in the meeting place between dance and experimentation, I find the current Riverwest music situation to be a goldmine, and Foreign Goods take the big risks and achieve the big payoffs, and know how to keep a groove flowing for ages. Abby Jeanne’s not with the band any more, but I do hope her days of collaborating with them aren’t necessarily over; they’re a perfect fit for a lot of her best songs. And this set came after one of the best New Boyz sets I’ve seen, and this night was also my first time seeing SistaStrings, who only played like three songs but completely blew me away. It was the kind of night that can wipe away stress and worldly concerns, and your spirit is lifted well into the next day.

14. Wilco | Breese Stevens Field | 8/19

This portion of the Wilco tour cycle was when they were playing the same songs every night, basically a bunch of Star Wars material plus some greatest hits, and playing them like the world’s greatest rock band. I hadn’t looked at any setlists so it just seemed like balls-to-the-wall Nels Cline heroics on the oldies and the new stuff beginning to evolve, and I hadn’t heard any of those songs live before, so there were no bones to pick whatsoever. Sure, I generally prefer my Wilco shows with some deep cuts and general weirdness, but it was a beautiful night and the astroturf in this lil’ soccer stadium in hippieville was great for dancing. Tided over until the next edition of the Winterlude.

13. Ani DiFranco | Turner Hall Ballroom | 4/8

It had all the red flags of a subpar show: The sound was muddy, the crowd was chatty, I’d never heard of the drummer before, and it was an election year in a state run by one of the Republican party’s most deplorable idiots. Sure, I line up with Ani on most ideological fronts, but I have to admit that it’s her more personal songs that have tended to move me more than her political rants. Well, I basically had one song left on my Ani bucket list—“Grey”—and she played it, and I cried, and what can I say, everything else was gravy (and that drummer, Terence Higgins of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, was frikkin great). There wasn’t much political banter, really, and Ani was in top form and clearly enamored with the room. Even the inattentive buzz of the crowd couldn’t sabotage this one for me. (original review here)

12. The Puff Puff Pass Tour, Part 2 | Riverside Theater | 12/22

What can I say, there was a time when Snoop Dogg and Bone Thugs and DJ Quik and their various associates made up the core of my music-listening, and however bad-nostalgia-trip this show might’ve ended up being, it was gonna be a fun night for me. Even though Quik, as it turns out, isn’t even on this leg of the tour, which was a bummer since I’ve never seen him live, but maybe now I can hold out hope for a Quik/Suga Free tour some day coming to the area, yeah right. In Quik’s place was Twista, who I’m guessing has more to offer as a performer anyway, all things considered, and who was a key figure in my life during the aforementioned era as well, so I couldn’t really complain. Now, I can’t help but lament the missed opportunity of Snoop not joining Tha Dogg Pound for a rendition of “Some Bomb Azz Pussy” (among many other potential collaborations!); that’s one bucket-list item I reckon I’ll never get to cross off, barring a Dogg Food 25thanniversary tour in 2020. I was pretty impressed with Warren G’s ability to get the crowd up and grooving, and the copious amounts of Nate Dogg throughout the evening proved to be surprisingly cathartic after all this time. I have to say that my previous experiences seeing Bone Thugs were pretty deflating for various reasons, so having all five of them onstage and sounding honestly psyched up and on the same wavelength was a very long-time-coming thrill, although my heart went out to all the friends I wished I could be sharing these moments with. Fuck it, though, nostalgia is just as potent when you’re feeling very alone in a sold-out theater, right? For his part, Snoop took it beyond nostalgia with his set. In the past I’ve seen him treat his performances like a joke, but on this night he seemed to actually give a shit. Not like it was the defiant young gangsta from the ‘90s; his attitude was relaxed but he also gave off a ‘yeah-see-we-were-right-all-along’ vibe, and it would be tough to argue, honestly. For this cat to somehow reach rural Wisconsin white kids there had to be something more to his words than escapism, and while he can’t dodge charges of misogyny and violent imagery, it was very clear at this show that his underlying message now actually is one of peace and togetherness. Respect for God and for departed legends. And, yes, weed. Get over it, bitches. (original review here)

11. Deerhoof | Mad Planet | 8/6

How dumb am I for never going to see Deerhoof before? I’ve loved ‘em since The Runners Four; they were a big part of my personal Indie Rock Awakening, and I’m pretty sure in the decade since then I’ve squandered plenty of [friend] opportunities. They even named an album after my favorite Madonna song, for crying out loud! Well, maybe if I’d been going to Deerhoof shows all this time, I’d have justified skipping this one, thereby missing their is-this-real-life cover of “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. There, now I feel better. (original review here)

10. Phish | Wrigley Field | 6/25

Was this the worst Phish tour of all time? Yes. Yes it was. Why? Let me tell you, I can forgive their failing voices, which were significantly worse than at any point since 2004. And Trey’s guitar playing has been worse at times than it was this summer, but especially coming off a banner 2015, he was really sloppy this year, and to make matters worse, he spent more time dicking around with pedals and gadgets than actually playing guitar, at least where the jams were concerned. Speaking of jams, they were scarce, and usually very brief and unimaginative when they did arise. But the worst factor was the horrible crop of new songs, and the frequency with which they were played. I can’t lie, the future of Phish looks grim at this point. But did I enjoy a Carini>Piper>Fluffhead>Tweezer>Steam>Harry Hood second set? Did I revel as they blew the roofs off Wrigleyville with that “I Am The Walrus” encore? Did I dance my ass off with my three oldest friends and have a transcendent and joyous experience? Yes. Yes I did.

9. Chelsea Wolfe | Thalia Hall | 3/12

Finally. I had been pretty obsessed with Chelsea Wolfe’s 2011 album Ἀποκάλυψις, but I missed a handful of opportunities to see her live, and then I felt a little underwhelmed by 2013’s Pain Is Beauty album and lost touch with what she was up to. Cue 2015’s incredible Abyss. It was this new unabashed metal persona who emerged onstage at Levitation, which I could’ve anticipated, but what blew me away was her guitar playing. It doesn’t come through on her records, but the art and finesse of distortion and feedback was the show, even more than Wolfe’s voice or the songs themselves. She was like a shaman harnessing electrons for the benefit of the songs, and of all of us in the audience. I think I'm a member of her religion now, I'm not sure. (original review here)

8. Jon Mueller/Old Earth | Inspiration Studios | 6/2

Inspiration Studios is one of many wonderful institutions that’s probably never going to get the kind of support it deserves, because the dwindling number of people who actually give a hoot about art don’t have all kinds of time and money to throw around, and we’re all going to be battling to hold onto whatever semblance of success we can cling to as the oppressive cloud of Trumplandia rolls out over the country for the next four years or more. On this night, anyway, those of us who made the trek to West Allis were treated first to an immaculate solo Todd Umhoefer performance of his then-latest album, Lay For June, in its entirety, a one-time-only proposition that fit perfectly into this particular performance space. Then, a visually and sonically mind-bending strobe-and-drums assault by Jon Mueller. As usual with Mueller, I went into the performance not knowing what to expect and left not being quite sure what I had experienced.

7. Umphrey’s McGee | Orpheum Theatre | 1/28

As Costanza would say, every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in. This time it was an announced all-improv second set. I have a history of catching first-ever Umphrey’s happenings, and there was no way I was missing this one. I mean I’d rather see Phish do this, but since they will not (‘surprise’ pinnacle-life-experience late-night festival sets notwithstanding), I had to see what Umphrey’s could pull off. I braced for the worst, and the band made me eat my expectations. In a way, the set-long jam didn’t exceed my hopes so much as nail them. I feel like I know full well what this band is capable of, and with all the stops pulled, they murdered us for an hour straight. Plus, the first set, while containing really none of the tunes I crave (actually, zero songs I could’ve even named), struck that weird balance between aw-shucks bro-feelings and nerdy pan-genre versatility. The heartfelt “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” encore was, I’m pretty sure, the first time I was ever genuinely moved to choke up at an Umphrey’s show. They’re just not that kind of band for me, if for anyone. The show was a crazy combination of guts and vulnerability the likes of which I’d never witnessed from these guys. Even if most of the other UM shows I’ve seen tend to blur together, this one will always stand out.

6. Listen Up! Volume 1 | The Lindsay Building | 12/10

This event was a benefit for Planned Parenthood, Milwaukee LGBT Community Center, Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, and The Coalition for Justice, and as such, also a fuck-you to this country’s president-elect and everything he stands for, and I can’t think of a better single-day multi-artist lineup of local talent. I wasn’t aware of this building prior to this event but I hope to get back here; it sounded good and was spacious and welcoming and also felt like it could get shut down by the cops at any minute, which also ended up being a sort of bittersweet nostalgic thrill even if purely imaginary. It was the kind of night when I wish everyone could play for twice as long but at the same time it was paced perfectly and inspired all of the artists to pack every ounce of energy they had into it. Highlights? Nearly everything. I mean when are Zed Kenzo and Dogs In Ecstasy not a highlight of anything they’re a part of? Platinum Boys struggled with some equipment issues but they were still awesome, particularly the punk rock “Dead Flowers” cover. This was my first Pleasure Thief live experience, and she did not disappoint. And surprise headliner WebsterX, in his first local show in ages, had the crowd jammed up against the stage and raging. But I’d have to say the most memorable set for me was Siren’s. She never holds back onstage but damn, she had some extra fire behind her voice on this night. Maybe it was the cause, or the coming-together of the community, but you couldn’t not feel the emotion coming off that stage.

5. Paul McCartney | Summerfest | 7/8

I think I’ll just leave my original review alone this time. I’ll just add that getting to bring my mother-in-law to basically her first concert ever was a unique honor and joy, and unsurprisingly, she loved it. (original review here)

4. Circuit Des Yeux | Thalia Hall | 3/12

I don’t have much to add to my initial reaction—i.e., never in my life have I been so blown away first seeing someone perform whose music I’d never heard before. Even before her set started I heard her singing during soundcheck and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Since the show I’ve checked out her recorded output, which yields a declaration that her voice is unique, but it doesn’t touch the experience of her in-the-flesh presence. I want desperately to find out if this was an outlier night, because if she’s like that every night, if she’s even better some nights, she’s bound to end up being one of my all-time favorite singers. I need more live Circuit Des Yeux ASAP. (original review here)

3. Death Grips | Riot Fest | 9/18

After I don’t know how many missed opportunities, finally getting to see Death Grips was fully worth a one-day ticket to Riot Fest. (Misfits with Dave Lombardo also didn’t hurt.) Of course the relief that they actually showed up was a shot of serotonin all by itself, but I’ve never seen another band come out with that much energy and maintain that level nonstop for an entire set. Truly psychedelic, unrelenting mindfuck rap that had the entire crowd seething and thrashing. And then they busted into “Hustle Bones” and we really lost our minds. I was thinking they’d never live up to my expectations live and I was gonna be happy just to notch this up. But nope.

2. Arte Para Todos | 4/21-23

I’m a recovering festival junkie, I admit it. The early days of Bonnaroo, the pre-übercommercialization Lollapaloozas, even having to smuggle beer into Summer Camp year after year, packing as much live music into a weekend as humanly possible—I was hooked. But the sense of community disintegrated and the various fests' lineups all started to look the same, and yes, I aged. I started to wean myself off. As I was doing so, the Wisconsin music situation started taking off in ways I could never have imagined. On the smaller scale, our city and my neighborhood in particular blossomed into this steamroller of activism and fundraising, and the artists who have spearheaded all of this have the creative gifts to match their spirit of goodwill. That spirit elevated everything about Arte Para Todos, but that’s not to take away one bit from the greatness of the performances. From Marielle and Waldoch and Ruth B8r Ginsberg and Lex Allen on opening night, to Old Earth/Scrimshaw/New Boyz/Altos/NAN (ARE YOU SHITTING ME) on Friday, and then the Center Street Saturday whirlwind of Von Alexander>NO/NO>Gauss>Mortgage Freeman>Painted Caves>Klassik>Midnight Reruns and capped by a ferocious Lorde Fredd33 set at Club Timbuktu that ranks among if not atop the list of the best rap shows I have ever seen in my life. I don’t know, there’s every reason to think 2017 will bring an even better APT or some other event to top this, but I personally can’t fathom it. (original review here)

1. Eaux Claires | 8/12-13


2. Senyawa

3. Sarah Neufeld

4. My Brightest Diamond

5. Vince Staples

6. Cornelius

7. Jon Mueller

8. Erykah Badu

9. Fog

10. Shabazz Palaces

...I could go on! Are you fucking kidding me? Just when I think we’re living in a world where most festivals are gross swarms of gabby wastoids pretending to be freaks half-paying attention to the same mediocre superstars that play every other festival. I didn’t even mention Bon Iver debuting their entire new album live. (Because I’m just not that into Bon Iver.) But how effing cool is that? It was the kind of thing you’d have to get a charge out of even if it sucked (and I must say it did not suck). How many ideas like that remain in the music industry for someone to think of? My gratitude towards Justin Vernon for creating this thing (among other things)—and making it even weirder and better for its second year—knows no bounds. And even though the Day Of The Dead thing was pretty...boring, hats off to co-curator Aaron Dessner as well. I cannot wait to see what they put together in 2017. (original review here)


Andrew Bird | Riverside Theater | 4/18

April was an insanely good month of live music in Milwaukee. Believe it or not, Andrew Bird is another artist who became a full-blown obsession of mine for a while. I’ll admit it’s lost a little luster over the years, but his 2001 album with the Bowl Of Fire, The Swimming Hour, bowled me over, as did the only Bowl Of Fire show I managed to catch before Bird dissolved the group. I’ve since been occasionally underwhelmed by both his albums and his live shows, but more frequently, I’ve been impressed and moved. Over time, I’ve come to scoff at writers’ accusations of pretension, because as a music writer you thrive on pretension, if you’re any good. Writers like to appear as though they’ve caught a musician in the Act Of Pretense—look at me, look what I noticed. Geez I’m sure I’ve done it dozens of times, and specifically in regards to Bird, because I could glean the pervading critical assessment. Which is pathetic ‘cause I’ve talked to the guy a few different times and he always struck me as a true artist, earnestly searching and musing and analyzing his own motives and evolving, and I was reminded of all of this at this Riverside show, and he was back to being really into the violin and not so much the guitar, so that was a plus, and then the fantastic acoustic encore with the “Harvest” cover, man this was a great show.

Q The Sun & Friends | Company Brewing | 7/15

I didn’t even catch this whole thing. All I can really say is I’d just come off a disappointing Phish run and got to witness Angie Swan shred circles around the guitar player of Phish, utilizing every technique and genre he does and more, bouncing ideas off Q and Chris G like they were a seasoned full-time band, like several different bands combined into one, actually. And I was trying not to focus on how many hacks are out there in the world getting paid (BY ME) who couldn’t hold a candle to this woman, but life ain’t fair, is it. And ultimately I walked away feeling satisfied rather than bitter, no longer starving for improv and guitar heroics.

Anderson, Rabin And Wakeman | Chicago Theatre | 11/5

This was basically the prog equivalent of the Puff Puff Pass Tour, Part 2. Since I am way more of a Yes nerd than anyone you know, forgive me, but: I would’ve preferred a bunch more Big Generator and Union material over hearing the same ‘70s Yes songs I’ve seen a bunch of times already with the guitar player who actually played on those songs, and I’m a cheesy bastard who loves the Trevor Rabin era of the band. I mean Rabin hasn’t done a Yes-related tour since 1994, unless I’m mistaken, and guys, I realize the critics hated that stuff, and a lot of the classic-era fans hated it, but you did sell a lot of records in those days, come on. Couldn’t you at least do “Big Generator” or “Shoot High Aim Low” or “Love Will Find A Way” for fucksake?? I suppose it’s too much to ask to bring back “Holy Lamb” so I could die happy?? Then there’s the optimistic side of things: Rabin has still got it, even on the Steve Howe tunes, not the flashy wanker of the ‘80s and ‘90s even but respectful of the source, precise and bursting with enthusiasm. Jon Anderson, likewise, has got it, and the surviving dipshits of the ‘official’ Yes prefer to carry on with a dude from a tribute band, okay. Rick Wakeman, well, you could not in any sense have mistaken him for a younger version of himself, but he can still play, and occasionally even impress, but he’s not going to blow your mind like in the old days—all the more reason they should do more Rabin tunes because they’re way easier to play! Anyway this show was just a blast, and in all likelihood, the last time I’m gonna pay money to see any incarnation of Yes. I’m cool with that.

Scrimshaw | Circle A Café

Although a part of me really wants to see Scrimshaw at Cactus Club again one of these days…all I can say is that my wife has once again joined one of my favorite bands, and they’ve sort of made this bitchin bar a few blocks from our house into their home venue, and every time they play there, it’s something you really want to be there for. But I’m biased; what the fock do I know.
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