It’s funny thinking back on my teens and probably early twenties, when I would actively say things like “music is my life”. This part of my identity has become so self-evident that it seems like a silly thing to say. I have trouble imagining what people’s lives are like who wouldn’t consider music a part of their identity. Music, theater, film, literature; how else could a person possibly get through life? I’m bursting with gratitude for the countless people who’ve enriched my life over the past year simply through their own natural creative expression. I wonder if an artist ever comes close to understanding how much their art means to others. I would like to make it my life’s work to bring them closer to understanding.
As I’ve said before, numbers are virtually meaningless. I feel this especially strongly this year; particularly as I look at the top five shows on this list, I find it laughable to place one above another. I think all I’m really doing is counting. These experiences were all so different. They changed me as a person in mostly unrelated ways. I’d like to encourage you to allow yourself to be changed by some of these artists the next time they make their way into your vicinity. Fair enough?
(note: Original reviews are linked, where applicable, in the headings.)
In which I got to take my aunt Hannah to see her favorite album of all time performed live in its entirety. I didn’t expect much from these shows; they were thrown together somewhat hastily following last year’s sickening U.S. election result, which reportedly made U2 halt the release of their new album and rethink their lives. The constraints of playing The Joshua Tree removed most of what little spontaneity is still possible in a modern U2 performance, but being the incurable U2 nerd that I am, the mere fact that I got to hear “A Sort Of Homecoming” live for the first time was worth going to a second consecutive nearly-identical show right there. Plus, they played a brand new song that didn’t completely suck in the encore. Plus, they did play every song from The Joshua Tree, which is a fucking phenomenal album. You could feel U2’s relevance slipping away with each of Bono’s bits of banter, pre-composed in a desperate bid to cling to relevance. You could feel yourself slipping irretrievably into the phase of mortality that imposes nostalgia as your only remaining source of joy. It’s cool, though, because old senile me will be reliving every U2 show I ever saw and that will be awesome.
14. Kikagaku Moyo | Company Brewing | 5/13
Every dang year, a set from Milwaukee Psych Fest ends up on this list. Some years it’s a tough call as to what was the highlight, but this year it was no contest. I had to miss the first time this band came to town, so this felt redemptive. They took their krauty/proggy/folky compositions that I was familiar with, stretched ‘em out and injected ‘em with some extra heavy snarling guitar, plus a couple of hopped-up noisy rockers that fused a touch of punk energy into the otherwise sophisticated musicianship of these Japanese maestros. It was Sunday, it was late, I was exhausted, I’d been at the venue for nearly twelve hours, and Kikagaku Moyo played right up until the minute they had to kick us out of the bar and made it all worthwhile. (Mark the first weekend of May on your calendars, folks; next year's initial lineup is a doozy.)
13. PRF BBQ | multiple venues | 6/9-11
Sure, I’ll single out a few performances. The Cell Phones are fast becoming one of my favorite live acts around; seeing them perform in a multi-level blacklit neon jungle gym room (or something like that) was an experience that obviously words aren’t really gonna do justice. (Their set at Riverwest FemFest in January was equally as amazing.) The Glacial Speed played a handful of new songs that suggested they were evolving at a very non-glacial speed as songwriters; it’s weird having a huge lump in your throat in a dingy club hearing songs you’ve never heard before. Motherfucker was probably the highlight of the fest for me; such guitar tone! So drums! Much headbang! Did it help that I won a mountain of beer in the raffle? Maybe a little, but the main thing about this event was the palpable human connectivity and goodwill, flying in the face of this country growing shittier by the minute in a defiant celebration of community and inclusivity and love. Love! And noise. Sweet, sweet noise.
Generally speaking, I feel it’s best to avoid expectations as much as possible. It’s difficult to be disappointed without them. This King Crimson performance was a good reminder that there are two sides to the paradigm, however. The last time I’d seen the band, I tried to find out as little as possible about what to expect, but the side effect of this was that I wound up contrasting the show with the previous time I’d seen the band, back in 2000, and that default unfair expectation pretty well sabotaged my enjoyment in 2014. I mean, name one thing that Adrian Belew was ever in that was better without him. This year, I went in knowing there would be three drummers and no light show to speak of and basically zero movement from anyone in the band other than arms and fingers as they sat or stood in their formalwear, figuring that it would be less a band than a recital. Also, it must be said, this one was free instead of a hundred bucks. And I loved it. Even though 2014 was probably more of a dream setlist, they’ve been shaking things up more on this tour, including Discipline-era stuff, and unless my brain was playing tricks on me, the band was much looser and more geared towards improv than in 2014. The jams weren’t liable to wind up in free-jazz territory or anything but some of them were incredibly intense, and Mel Collins seemed to have free reign to do whatever he wanted at all times. His flute and sax excursions were transportive in a way that reminded me of mid-’70s Crimson, as in after his initial stint with the band, making me wonder why he ever left. Robert Fripp rarely took the spotlight but a highlight was his mathy guitar duel with Jakko Jakszyk in “Indiscipline”, and his soulful playing in “Starless” was a pointed reminder that his reputation for being overly cerebral belies an antiquated anti-prog attitude. I’m through hoping for a return of the Belew-infused rock band Crimson—I already caught that one, and they only played two pre-Discipline songs fer chrissakes. Luckily I came to my senses in time to fully appreciate what this new/old beast can do.
I can’t help it. Even though my interest in ever seeing this reunion waned hard over the years, even though I have little admiration for Axl Rose as a human being, even though his voice is a pale imitation of what it once was, even though this tour is the epitome of the soulless cash-grab it appears to be...[Darth Vader voice] IT WAS MY DESTINY. I had Summerfest duties when they played Soldier Field last year. I thought about going to Minneapolis in July but talked myself out of it. There was no excuse left to miss the Milwaukee date. Maybe I’d’ve assessed it as junk if we’d been stranded in the nosebleeds, but there we were in the posh seats, four songs into the show, staring dead at Slash while he tore open “Double Talkin’ Jive” with one of the most incredible guitar solos I have ever witnessed. These damn songs, they’re part of my DNA, and this dirtbag from Indiana who came to embody all the sleeze in L.A. is up there singing them and I really can’t relate to them at all and I know them all by heart (well not the ones from Chinese Democracy but still) and then they do “Black Hole Sun” and I just lose it. They played for almost three and a half hours and even if all I gave a shit about was Slash shredding, there was no way to argue that GN’R didn’t give their fans pretty much everything they could’ve wanted (well except for maybe “Locomotive”, dammit) and more. I have no desire to ever catch this act again, but hot damn, arm in arm with my wife singing “Don’t Cry” and “Patience” and rocking out to all the rest, it had to happen and I can die a little happier now than if it hadn’t.
10. Marielle Allschwang & The Visitations | undisclosed location | 10/18
This was a bittersweet night, as it maybe only hit me fully just how much this band would be losing with Visitations drummer Kavi Laud moving away to Texas, but he certainly couldn’t have hoped for a better sendoff. By now, you’ve either become familiar with Marielle’s wonderful debut solo album or you’re an idiot; it wouldn’t have made too much difference to your enjoyment of this show, though, as she played mostly new, as-yet-unreleased material that fairly well blew the doors off the older stuff in the sense that it is unmistakably built for a full band, mathy and atmospheric and driven by multiple electric guitars. It was also sweet to have an acoustic opening set by Old Earth, who I’ve rarely seen play an acoustic show but would highly recommend to anyone. If you want full disclosure, these people are all my friends, and I have so many talented friends, and when a bunch of them come together for a night like this, well, it makes you feel like the sky’s the limit for the future but the only important thing is the right now.
Overall I caught more amazing music at last year’s Arte Para Todos, but this year’s first night landed me in lots of right places at right times. A first exposure to the infectious energy of Shle Berry. High schools punks Gas Station Sushi gaining confidence and fans with each successive tune. Taj Raiden’s ferocious rap/punk hybrid bathed in the hyper psychedelic strobe of WC Tank’s light show reflecting off a dazzling Kristina Rolander diorama. Taj is probably the most underrated musician in the city and it’s hard to imagine her continuing to fly under the radar for much longer. It’s hard to choose a favorite between Taj’s set and the rare solo acoustic performance by Katie Lafond (aka Siren); the closer your ears can get to her clear, unadorned voice, the better, and this was one of those performances where you could glean a potential cult of personality forming around her. A luminous (in the darkest possible sense?) performance by Cat Reis as Pleasure Thief was another highlight of the night, and rounding out the ridiculously diverse evening were the quirky pub rock of Duckling and a seat-of-his-pants, freestyle-heavy set by Klassik, triumphant in the face of technological hurdles. One way or another, this festival always brings out the best in our city’s artists.
8. Patti Smith | Milwaukee Theatre | 3/9
There I was, in the stupid Milwaukee Theatre, seeing a living legend play her classic album in its entirety. Man I hate these kinds of tours, but this was Patti effing Smith, playing effing Horses, and it wasn’t really a tour, it was just a handful of dates, one of which was inexplicably at the stupid Milwaukee Theatre. I don’t know what more you want me to say. If you haven’t already had your own life-changing experience with this album yet, there’s still time.
7. Open Mike Eagle | High Noon Saloon | 9/20
My previous times seeing Open Mike Eagle were very loose, stripped-down affairs, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into with his first legitimate headlining tour. Actually it took until a few songs into his set before it dawned on me what I was seeing. Where was all the banter, the freestyling, the stalking of the stage? Why is that fourth wall still standing? This is a guy I’ve had conversations with—what is he, some kind of rock star now? whined the entitled little dork in my head. It felt a little stiff at first, and I was a little weirded out, and then it all clicked with “(How Could Anybody) Feel At Home”, the Eagle man’s vision coming through poignantly now, the trippy visuals and the beats crafting an incredible collage with the words. Then with “Idaho” it really all came together, like full-on cinematic drama and blazing vocals enough to set your heart pounding. And from there, it was like the full realization of the potential of so many of these songs I love, plus so many that I was just getting to know, and all these college kids who knew almost every word too, totally in the moment with us and feeling it all course through us. I can’t tell you what it’s like to be part of a whole room full of people all belting out “Qualifiers”; you have to experience that yourself. Probably never happen in Milwaukee because gee, an all-ages venue within walking distance of the university, WHAT A CONCEPT. But I wish I could’ve dragged a few more of you with me so you could see what this dude can do, and I’m telling you now I’m gonna do some dragging next time around so get ready.
6. St. Vincent | Riverside | 11/17
Annie Clark is God, there I said it. And with that, I eat the first words I ever thought about her, which were something along the lines of “wow is this boring”. She was a virtual unknown, opening up for The National at a very undersold Pabst Theater in 2007, alone behind a podium of gadgetry, and I could find nothing to connect with in her set. St. Vincent—why the hell? Oh, why bother, I’m sure this is the last I’ll ever see of her. Fast-forward ten years, she puts out her fifth consecutive superb record and tours once again without a band, only this time...you know, she didn’t even show off like she could have on the guitar; she did more of that on the last tour, and I did miss it a little, because she’s clearly one of those players for whom the ax is a part of her when she’s onstage, and this was perhaps even more apparent at this show for the lack of pyrotechnics. Every part of the stage was an extension of her being, and the whole performance felt both more theatrical and more personal than any other I’ve seen by her. She didn’t talk much, but we all walked out of there glowing, like what we got was a relatively deep glimpse into the mysterious Ms. Clark, like what she emanated still enveloped us. It still kinda feels like that when I think about it.
This show dealt me a bit of a head check, because I have this tendency to rag on certain musicians in certain other bands for not practicing their instruments enough to be able to play their songs competently, but in observing Herbie Hancock at age 77, it occurred to me that maybe this cat is just plain gifted and there ain’t no amount of practice that’s gonna get somebody else to this level. I go back and forth all the time, and I realize that it’s a combination of all kinds of factors, but seriously have you ever seen this guy play? We’re talking about a level of musicality and imagination and dexterity in the context of improvisation that is surely unequaled. Most guys his age will play MC and show off the talent of their young(ish) band, and this band, well go ahead and read my original review if you need some background, but this show was mostly Mr. Hancock tearing up the piano and grooving with the band like a psychic warrior; occasionally there’d be a sax solo. I walked outta there chagrined because it was one of those shows where you say ‘I guess I should see the old man at some point’ and spend the rest of your life kicking yourself for waiting so long.
The headliner at this show, in case anyone forgot, was the Mike Patton/Dave Lombardo hardcore project Dead Cross, and they were pretty great, especially considering every face in the crowd was already melted down by without a doubt the heaviest Secret Chiefs 3 touring incarnation yet. I saw SC3 headline the Beat Kitchen the following week, which was a longer, more varied set and augmented by Rich Doucette on sarangi, but this opening set in Milwaukee, probably like many others on the tour, showcased a band with something to prove. They went for the throat at Turner Hall, needing to win over a room full of headbangers, many of whom probably didn’t know SC3, and let me tell you they had the drummer to pull it off. The push and pull between Peij Mon (evidently this is his current nom de guerre?) and head honcho Trey Spruance, particularly during closer “Brazen Serpent”, was evil and otherworldly, and the band as a whole was as tight and fierce as I’ve ever seen them. Maybe a couple points docked just because they had no new material whatsoever, but who am I kidding—this is the greatest band on planet dirt and they once again vindicated me 100% for not shutting up about them.
3. The Necks | Constellation | 3/2
The drummer starts making some slow, repetitive noise. Or else the bassist does, or the piano player. After several minutes, all three of them are finally playing something, but certainly not what you’d call a song, or even a jam. It takes time for anything with any noticeable substance to arise from this purely improvisational endeavor; the anticipation will kill you unless you actually have some sense of what it is you’re anticipating. And that is a living, breathing organism of sound that will defy your eyes as they boggle at merely three men playing in real time somehow creating this din. It evolves slowly and naturally from nothing into an oscillating spiritual pulse that—at least for me, on this night, it elevated my mind into a space usually reserved for focused, quiet meditation. I was in that heightened state of awareness of the oneness of all things, the only thing reminding me of physicality itself being the incremental swells and shifts from darker, dissonant textures into benevolent, loving ones. The tension of the vibrations of strings and sticks and various other surfaces tethered me tenuously to reality until the moments passed and I sank back into my body. I will do anything I can to get back to that space again.
2. Phish | Northerly Island | 7/15
Oh, the mind games we Phishheads play, trying to predict which shows in the modern era will be any good. On one hand, Phish’s previous shows at this venue were more memorable for weather than for music, and the band hadn’t played a legitimately great show in Chicago since 2011, so do we resign ourselves to the trend of mediocrity, or do we tell ourselves we’re “overdue”? On the other hand, 2013, ‘14, and ‘16 were all relatively shitty Phish years, after a fairly steady improvement from 2009-12, so what could we reasonably predict for ‘17 in general? Well, since the quote-unquote summer tour was really just a handful of Midwestern shows except for the Baker’s Dozen main event in New York City, these Chicago shows would probably just be rusty warmup shows, realistically. Ah, but in hindsight, I should’ve realized the truth: Phish is making it a real challenge for most of their fans to even catch them live this year, therefore all the shows will smoke. Well, almost all of ‘em really were great, the Chicago dates almost shockingly so, being the first shows of the year, and most surprisingly of all, this Saturday show, a night that according to 3.0 precedent is usually the unadventurous rawk night, yielded a 27-minute “Simple” that destroyed basically anything they played last year. Unpredictable Phish, folks, is the best Phish, and 2017 may have taken the 3.0 cake so far. So I’m trying hard not to hazard any guesses as to what 2018 might hold. And then Trey announces a solo acoustic tour for February. We’re screwed.
But wait—what if all the 3.0 balladheads go to the acoustic shows and bring their “Miss You” and “Shade” signs and feel totally satisfied and Trey gets his fill of this garbage and decides to jam all twelve shows of the summer tour? Hmmmm…
1. Circuit Des Yeux | Lincoln Hall | 11/18
There are still radical new possibilities in music. There are still uncharted sonic realms. If you find yourself bored by music, if you feel that it’s an endless parade of sameness, you’re not searching earnestly enough. In March of 2016 I first experienced the music of Circuit Des Yeux (Haley Fohr), early in the evening of the Chicago edition of Levitation Festival. Her soundcheck positively floored me; her actual performance with her band almost brought me literally to my knees. This year was my first time seeing her since then, and I was a tiny bit concerned that the powerful spell she’d cast before would turn out to have been some sort of fluke. She had a tough act to follow; the opening set by Ka Baird was eerily analogous to my first impression of CDY, in that I’d never heard of her before and this first impression completely blew my mind. Amidst a swirling concoction of flute loops and electronic noise, she unveiled one of the most versatile voices I’ve ever encountered. I think there were words, occasionally, but beyond her captivating soprano (a brilliant contrast to Fohr’s arresting baritone), she displayed the sort of percussive vocal gymnastics you might expect out of Mike Patton or Pharoah Sanders, emotive and primal. The full impact of this music was both frenetic and meditative in a way I can’t really relate to any other music except maybe Death Blues. I can’t wait to see Ka Baird again. Then CDY, featuring a different band than last time I’d seen her, armed with an incredible new album, and... To be honest she needn’t even have deviated from the songs just as they are on the album for me to have been impressed. I sometimes lament to myself that all of the truly great improvisational bands are either purely instrumental or...should be. But Fohr has assembled a trio of Chicago ringers with a seemingly intrinsic dynamic sense who carried a couple of these songs—in particular, a far-reaching, ear-shattering rendition of “Paper Bag”—into what-song-was-this territory, and Fohr’s vocals were an essential element of the improv. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the band might jam. I can only hope that this tour was merely a beginning, because the show only left me wanting more. Like, hours more.
In an odd twist, I’d jokingly tweeted earlier in the week that in light of the daily revelations of sexual misconduct by men in power in this country, I was only going to see women perform from now on. I didn’t anticipate how literally the universe was going to take me. St. Vincent had performed solo without a band, and then the next night, this show, which featured Baird alone onstage, and for CDY, the men were obscured by translucent panels of light (except the drummer, hidden behind Fohr herself). I’m not sure if this stage setup was meant as a poignant commentary on the plunging legitimacy of our toxic patriarchy, but it functioned very well as such. I’d like to suggest that it would be a strong gesture of solidarity for any and all bands that feature men as members to start putting up obstructions onstage so that only women are visible during their performances. Y’know, until we can figure out what the hell is going on.
Yeah, musically it was a bit of a down year at Eaux Claires Troix, only because of the incredible standard that was set the first two years. Yeah, the weather was a pisser, especially how it wound up nixing a bunch of Saturday’s performances. It’s still the best damn festival going and highlights abounded: Music For The Long Emergency, a shockingly powerful start to the weekend that wound up being hard to top; a surprise pop-up Field Report acoustic set; a surprise Andrew Broder electronic set in a glowing cube in the woods; a surprise appearance by Swamp Dogg(?!?!!) during the John Prine tribute set (still can’t believe that happened); and the balls-out Wilco show that closed out the weekend. It was a down year for Wilco, too, but thanks to the boffo sound system at Eaux Claires and Nels Cline in beast mode, this set came off like the rager of the year. I can hardly wait ‘til Eaux Claires IV.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers | Summerfest | 7/6
If You-Phoria were the grammys, I’d (figuratively) hand Tom Petty a dumb little statue for Show Of The Year, because that shit is about old white dudes’ legacies rather than what’s important here and now, and Petty did more for me and more for rock and roll and definitely more for Summerfest in his lifetime than any of these other nominees. This wasn’t one of the best Petty shows I ever saw, but it was great, because his shows always were. When I think back over the years to all the times I saw him play and all the moments soundtracked by his music...I don’t know who I’d be if it hadn’t been for him. And I almost didn’t go to this one, so hats off to my friend Jim, the guy who relentlessly got me into Petty back in the day, for talking me into this last show. It really, really hurts to think that there won’t be any more. Rest in peace, Tom.