I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with whomever will pay attention to me about the state of “touring” in 2019, and a bunch of things finally clicked into place the other day. I think I’ve got it all figured out now. (narrator: He did not have a damn thing figured out.)
Here’s the quandary: If making records is no longer profitable for the average musician, and touring is the only way to make a decent living…then why don’t people tour? Why do established and up-and-coming bands book a handful of shows on the coasts and call that a tour? Why don’t they get in a van or on a bus or whatever and do a couple months across the country and make connections and make a name for themselves and revitalize non-coastal fans’ enthusiasm? If streaming doesn’t amount to jack squat for revenue, and “nobody” is buying records, shouldn’t bands be touring more instead of way, way less?
It was a quote from Sammy Hagar that brought things into focus. The quote doesn’t matter; how could anyone possibly care what Sammy Hagar has to say in 2019? Why would any major music outlet publish a single thing about Sammy?
Anyway, that’s when it hit me. The music industry, like every other thing there is, is cyclical, and we are in a phase right now in which boomers have ruined it. It’s not their fault, really! There are literally zillions of nice, progressive, intelligent boomers who also don’t give a shit about Sammy Hagar. It’s simply the fact that there are too many boomers. Their oblivious parents kept cranking them out like idiots because of religion. Catholicism is at fault for the mess we’re in, when you get down to it. That’s the religion that says you mustn’t copulate until you’re married and even then you mustn’t use any forms of contraception. So just when Western society was waking up to the possibility of enjoying sex, they were still tied to these ridiculous religious rules, resulting in a plague of babies who grew up and consumed everything in sight without regard for the future of the planet. And also, rock and roll.
Music became a big business, rock stars became celebrities, and suddenly there were thousands of them. And the zillions of boomers worshipped them. In the early days of rock, these celebrities would often die or their bands would break up, but by the ‘80s, not nearly enough of them had. New bands, by and large, were unable to dethrone these dinosaurs. Finally, in the ‘90s, a new generation shoved all the has-beens into fairgrounds where they belonged, but it wasn’t sustainable. These new celebrities started dying, bands started breaking up, before a new order could be established.
Then, the unthinkable started happening. The dinosaurs who’d already faded away started coming back. Page got back together with Plant. Sir Paul started making decent music again. The Who resumed touring. Then The Dead started doing stuff again. Before we knew it, hair metal became re-legitimized somehow. And that was really the end of the road. In 2019, Mötley Crüe and Poison should be playing the state fair if they’re lucky; instead they’re selling out Miller Park. The one thing we as gen-xers thought we had accomplished was undone. (note: I realize gen-xers bought a lot of those damn Mötley Crüe tickets. That’s a whole other essay. At least the essential members of these bands are still alive.) And boomers barely had a gap between longing for their youth and pumping their money into nostalgia.
Because that’s who has all the money, and they’re not gonna give it to new artists. Young people, who have no money, are now tasked with supporting 100% of their local scenes, which are more crowded than ever, as well as propping up 100% of relevant artists under 40 years of age. And that’s when the podcasts and reality tv stars swoop in and say ‘hey kids, wouldn’t you rather just shut your brain off and laugh for a couple hours? And by the way, you might even hear yourself shouting WOOO on our next episode!’ Well, fuck a duck.
Now, there aren’t many relevant young artists idolizing hair metal bands, who still tour relentlessly and probably make more money now than they did when they were, uh, relevant. Young artists are more likely to chase after a paradigm like Radiohead, where you create insane demand by satisfying about 10% of your fans every three years or so. Our only hope, they think, is to create enough buzz playing occasional shows, festivals, making each performance a special event, and then building incrementally on the buzz each time. And that seems delusional to someone like me, who just wants to go see live music, until you realize that an artist’s only hope of actually making a comfortable living out of music is to get to superstar status. Now, Radiohead got to that point by relentless touring in their younger days, but back then, young people could afford to go to shows, the field wasn’t anywhere near as crowded, and the dream of superstardom, the one that my generation ostensibly rejected, was nevertheless still attainable through hard work (and yes, gifted songwriting). I don’t think it is any more. A complete fluke of suddenly capturing a moment and then quickly finding a way to ride it out seems to be the only way forward now.
So, it’s not that bands are lazy, it’s not that they don’t want to tour, it’s that there’s no money out there to even be made via the only way to make it, especially in a dinky market like Milwaukee. We post-boomer generations have been utterly screwed, but only for a little while longer. Soon all these hair metal dudes will finally die. Even sooner, The Who will actually hang it up, as will the Stones and possibly even the Dead. And since my generation didn’t really make a dent in the industry and the millennials will all be dead from vaping, today’s children should be able to remake the entire system however the hell they want to. Of course, human society will most likely be finished by then, but you never know!
Anyway, here is a list of good concerts I saw this year. Last year I had a lot to say about musicians I love and the shows they played. Twenty-nineteen was a bit lacking in terms of artists I can go off on for a full article of their own. I also just didn’t get out to as many shows as I wanted to this year, particularly where it comes to local artists. Oh dear, it’s happening, my peer group is aging and going to shows becomes a much lower priority. There’s nothing wrong with that. With our memories starting to falter and our late-night stamina waning, we’ll be put out to pasture soon, lucky if we can even remember the name of the last band we saw live. I feel like it was maybe the name of some kind of animal, only they spelled it wrong or something?
Wilco | Chicago Theatre | December 18th
Wilco and I have gotten to the point where I’m so entrenched in their music that I’m going to love and hate bits of every show, almost like with Phish or U2, and where my attitude towards Jeff Tweedy factors too much into my appreciation of the show. That said, this show surely belongs in the top ten of the year but I had this piece basically finished last month so I’m copping out of ranking it. Here are some persnickety bullet points about this third of four Winterlude shows, the only one I made it to: -I really dig the new album, Ode To Joy, so I was delighted that they played almost all of it, which normally isn’t the case in regards to a band that’s been around this long. -As my dude Joel mentioned on twitter, every successive touring version of Wilco is significantly different from the previous ones, even though the personnel is the same. This one was kind of on the quiet-but-feisty side, given to anarchic noise even though it’s a largely acoustic affair (except for Nels Cline of course). -As such, why not play “Common Sense”??? Oh right, because of the rule that says you ignore the previous album when you tour on the new one. I sometimes hate that rule. -They don’t get enough credit for the song “Random Name Generator”, the only song they played from either of their previous two albums. It’s like the only true dance-party song Jeff has ever written and I wish he’d write more. -Very onboard with the return of “Side With The Seeds” to regular rotation. This version ripped. -Very sick of “Impossible Germany” and the super predictable/deflating way they end the jam nowadays, but I felt that Nels elevated on this one, making it the most tolerable rendition I’ve heard in years. -I don’t have specific recollections to back this up right now but I felt that Pat Sansone had an absolutely stellar night, seemingly more focused on piano in the current iteration of the band. Was it during “How To Fight Loneliness” that he floored me with his piano solo? I think that was it. -Why must they play “Box Full Of Letters” every single night? What on Earth is it about that song? Every Wilco album has at least a couple songs on it I’d love to hear any night, and even AM has plenty of good, easy-to-play material to cycle through, yet it’s always this. See also: “I’m The Man Who Loves You”, “The Late Greats”, and if they play fucking “Dawned On Me” at The Sylvee in April I’m going to throw my shoe at Jeff. (I’ve always loved “California Stars” but damn I am getting sick of that one too.) -Jeff was still very annoying during the love-me love-me singalong end portions of the set but not as gratingly as at the 2017 Winterlude shows. As always, I love his banter and I’m going to get used to his more Bono-esque tendencies, it just might take a few years. -Sharon Van Etten’s solo opening set was revelatory. She began by playing a bunch of old songs from when her voice wasn’t quite fully developed, but her increasingly slickly-produced albums have tended to mask that development, so I sort of hadn’t realized what a mind-boggling pure singer she had become until this night. Then she played stripped-down versions of her newer songs and holy shit, it was almost like hearing Kurt Cobain demos for the first time. I’ll never be able to hear “Comeback Kid” the same way again. Breathtaking. And she came out to sing backup harmonies on “Radio Cure” as well as the night’s finale, “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)”, I mean come on, how could Impeachment Day possibly have ended more perfectly? All in all it was an upper-echelon Wilco show for the first three-quarters, and then again at the very end, even lacking most of my very favorite songs. My basic philosophy still stands: if you have a chance to catch Nels Cline and Glenn Kotche playing together, why would you not do so?
As I’ve mentioned, Pitchfork’s Midwinter festival was both awesome and terrible. I hope they don’t do it again in 2020, or I hope the lineup is way shittier if they do, because I do not want to be tempted to go through that again. Still, even though we probably missed as many great sets as we saw, I don’t regret going. I mean, Panda Bear is an extremely part-time job these days, and since 2011’s Tomboy album there’s only been one album I can think of that he’s put out that I even liked, but his set at this festival way more than justified my dogged paying of attention to his every move. Also, I could’ve just as easily made this about Deerhunter, who also brought the museum down with their set at this festival. Oh and Tortoise. And Haley Fohr. And Marissa Anderson. Shit.
9. “Weird Al” Yankovic | Miller High Life Theater | July 27th
No, this did not come close to the thrills of the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, nor is anything else ever likely to. If anything, it was the nail in the coffin of my “Chicken Pot Pie” dreams; if he’s not gonna play it when he’s got a full orchestra behind him, what hope is there? However, he did play “The Biggest Ball Of Twine In Minnesota” so of course I cried. Sitting next to me was a girl who was maybe ten or eleven years old; at first I assumed that her dad had dragged her to the show, as I would if I had a kid, so she’d have something to grab ahold of when she’s in her forties and realizes not everything her parents liked was crap. But no; from the first note, this gal was completely unable to sit still, arm-dancing and blurting out lyrics to every song, the only person I’ve ever encountered in a Weird Al crowd more animated than me. I had been having a rough year, folks. I went into this show feeling pretty dismayed about the state of the human race. I left feeling like it desperately deserved to be preserved after all.
8. Mudhoney | Green Bay Distillery | May 24th
I saw Mudhoney open for Nirvana in 1993 and I thought they were okay, but my first Jawbreaker experience had just blown my mind and, well, my favorite band in existence was up next. I saw Mudhoney open for Pearl Jam in 2011 and I thought they were okay; I knew their songs better by then but I’m not sure Alpine Valley is the ideal venue for this band. I saw Boris The Sprinkler open for Mudhoney this past May because Boris was theeee crucial band for me and my friends in our late teens and early twenties and they’d been mostly broken up since, what, 2002? They had a new album on the way but this was really supposed to be a nostalgia trip, get together with old friends and yell along to “Gimme Gimme Grape Juice” and “Drugs & Masturbation”. And it was fun. And then Mudhoney came out and laid waste to the goll dang Green Bay Distillery. I’d listened to their new album but nothing had prepared me for the full-on righteous rage of Mark Arm. Dude was on an absolute tear; what happened to gen-x sarcastic apathy? What’ve I been missing all these years? When Mudhoney comes around we can no longer say to ourselves ‘oh I’ve seen them’ or ‘oh I’ll see them next time’; the time is forever now. There might not be a better garage-rock band operating today.
7. Paul McCartney | Lambeau Field | June 8th
I went to two shows in Green Bay this year, my biggest tally at least since the Concert Café went belly-up, and they were both stupendous. The one at Lambeau, I already knew was going to be amazing. It was my first Lambeau concert, my sixth Paul McCartney show, and it’s getting hard to rank McCartney shows any more. I’ve only seen one that was sub-ridiculous: Bradley Center ’05, even though the setlist was the most unusual of any time I’ve seen him; his voice wasn’t up to par and I felt like the show was a little lacking in energy because of it, which subsequent performances have tended to support. On the mild down side, the setlist at Lambeau was awfully similar to his incredible Summerfest performance three years prior, with just a couple songs tossed in from last year’s Egypt Station album, and not a couple of the better ones, I might add. On the plus side, everything else. Standing next to me was the guy who more than anyone was responsible for my rabid McCartney fandom, a Florida resident these days, so it’s rare I ever get to see any shows with him, let alone our hero. The memories from Summerfest were powerful, as that was the last concert I’d ever see with my mother-in-law, whose passing was way too fresh in our hearts and whose spirit was extremely felt. As for highlights, I’ll just mention two: “From Me To You”, which he’d never played before this tour (at least not since the ‘60s); and “Maybe I’m Amazed”, which he belted out like the fucking superhero he is, a rendition that makes all the previous versions you’ve heard pale, a tune you take for granted until that moment that it won’t let you. I will usually keep going to see old geezers until the show when I feel like they’re starting to tarnish my memories of their glory days. That still hasn’t happened with Sir Paul.
I’m giving the nod to electric Neil at Farm Aid for one very simple reason: Whatever combination of wires and gadgets he has combined with that beat-up old black guitar, that’s the sound I need more of, Neil pulverizing those strings. It wasn’t Crazy Horse but for my first Promise Of The Real experience, damn that band knows how to play Neil Young-style. I hadn’t seen a full-band Neil show since Bonnaroo 2003 and what the hell is wrong with me. This was just a quick hit, eight songs, Neil starting on piano for “Are You Ready For The Country?”, doing an acoustic interlude for “Harvest Moon” and “Heart Of Gold”, then letting loose and shredding gloriously through “Throw Your Hatred Down” and “Rockin’ In The Free World”, ending with “Roll Another Number” because why not. And let me tell you, even after a long day in a constant drizzle, I didn’t need this to be that good, because for one thing I’d already seen Neil earlier in the year, solo at the Riverside, and he was incredible there too, but for another thing, it had been a pretty great day of music already—Margo Price, Jamey Johnson, Bonnie Raitt, Dave & Tim, all superb in their own way, and we still had a delightful Willie Nelson set to go. But it was high time I realized that Neil’s always going to be the highlight of whatever day of your life he appears in, and I need to make more of these days happen before it’s too late.
I don’t have any sort of classic-rock bucket list. Over the years, I’ve seen everyone I need to see who’s still alive and active in music. (Pending Bill Bruford’s hypothetical un-retirement of course.) Never in my life have I felt a burning desire to see Heart; however, Ann and Nancy Wilson were the undisputed queens of the power ballad in the 1980s, a fact which came into clear focus when I created my ultimate power ballad playlist earlier this year. As far as I’m concerned, there are three of these gooey cheese bombs that crush all others: Def Leppard’s “Love Bites”, REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You” (their one and only tolerable song), and Heart’s “Alone”, which I realize they didn’t write but have you heard the original, come on. So when the Fiserv nabbed Heart, I decided what the hell, Joan Jett is opening, I absolutely love seeing shows at the Fiserv (despite the woefully inadequate restroom situation), and surely they’ll play the biggest hit of their career. The best part about this music-writing gig is not the pay, and it’s not the free concerts, either—it’s the concerts you go into with zero expectations and end up with tears in your eyes. A lifetime of being a music history ubergeek is almost useless, but it does provide me with the confidence to go into an assignment like this without having done a shred of research; “Magic Man”, “Barracuda”, blah blah blah, I tell myself. Decades of male music criticism drilled into me suggested that the Wilson sisters were simply Zeppelin-worshippers who happened to be good-looking, coasting on the novelty of being women who could actually rock. By the time I started making memories in the world, they’d already transitioned from classic-rock icons to pop divas; by the time I started to think critically about music, that transformation had been universally deemed selling out, particularly following the release of “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You”, Mutt Lange’s absolute nadir as a songwriter. So how was I to reconcile my love of “Alone”? I’ve lost the memory, if there was one, of what or whom I connected the song to in my own experience or fantasies; it’s simply the pinnacle of lovesick melodrama in song. And once I gave up on the whole notion of “credibility” as a writer, I was free to embrace all the cheesy songs I might’ve otherwise dismissed as guilty pleasures. That apparently wasn’t enough to get me to a Heart concert, however, as they’ve played Milwaukee five times now in the past ten years. In the back of my mind, I suppose I always figured I’d have a chance to pop in when they were playing some Summerfest ground stage, just to catch “Alone”, like I did years ago with REO, and that would be that. But hell, if someone wants to pay me…
They opened with a song I don’t think I’d ever heard before, a pretty bold move if I do say so: “Rockin’ Heaven Down”, and I was immediately transfixed; this is an incredible song. (As it turns out, Bébé Le Strange is an incredible album; who knew?) “Magic Man” and “Love Alive”, which the tour is named after; no surprises there. Then they sang the following lines in immaculate harmony: “I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day, so satisfied, I’m on my way”, and I just lost it. Why on Earth are they doing that? ‘Cal’s here, so we’d better do a Yes cover’??? Next I suppose they’ll cover my favorite Simon & Garfunkel song or something. Well, that actually happened after “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” segued magically into “Straight On”, but seriously you gotta be kidding me. Now, maybe Heart’s canon is fairly derivative, a hodgepodge of everything that came before. It’s a fair assessment, and not necessarily a criticism, and here they were, paying tribute to their influences. In fact, they have been doing so their whole career; I just never realized it. They’ve been playing Zeppelin covers since day one, zero bones made, zero fucks given. What slowly dawned on me at this show, though, as well as during the binge through their catalog that followed, was the impeccable craftswomanship that went into their music, especially from the ‘70s era. They played hit after hit and whoops I guess I love all these damn songs. I always was entranced by that acoustic intro of “Crazy On You”, the song that ended the set, but the biggest revelation of the show was the one before that, “Mistral Wind”, also unknown to me before this night. It was like a lightning bolt straight into my prog-nerd soul, and it didn’t really sound old. It sounded like it could’ve appeared on the new Opeth album, creepy, brazenly epic.
I think it’s time we acknowledge that Heart has been influential beyond just breaking down barriers for women. I’m not here to lay down bullet points; I’ve only had a few months to process the idea. I’m only here to tell you that you should make it a priority to see Heart live the next chance you get. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to look up Ann’s age if I weren’t reviewing the show, but I can tell you that my jaw dropped. She needs to be venerated as one of popular music’s greatest singers of all time, not this Rolling Stone bullshit about Bob Dylan being #7 and Ann not even making the top 100, if you want another reason to stop paying attention to RS. The show that this band put together really wasn’t flashy or extravagant; it was just a tight, well-produced, arena-worthy performance, right down to a spot-on “Stairway To Heaven” to start the encore, with two bona fide legends front and center, catering to their long-time fans’ classic prog sensibilities. And yes, “Alone”. And no, never ever “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You”, they hate that song too.
4. Makaya McCraven Trio | Jazz Estate | April 5th
I don’t go the the Estate nearly enough. Many years ago I briefly dated a woman who hung out there a lot, and that may be subconsciously hampering my desire to see shows. It’s barely recognizable, but yet, the shape of the room hasn’t changed, so it still gives me vague I-don’t-know-whats when I’m in there. It’s not fair; I think I’ve seen two shows at the Estate since the ‘90s, and they were both unbelievably good. One was Andy Milne’s Dapp Theory, featuring Kenny Grohowski, whom I considered at the time probably my favorite drummer on Earth. Then I saw Makaya there, and my favorite drummer changed. I should’ve written about the show right then; I could’ve given you more specifics about what makes his style so original and what made this show with his trio so mindblowing. He was up there like an established master, flowing through the set like these incredible feats of percussion were second-nature, and maybe that’s the way it is when you have that kind of ability. I always liked how Neil Peart claimed that he never got sick of playing “Tom Sawyer” because night after night it was a challenge; I couldn’t imagine anything being particularly challenging for Makaya, and the players he had with him worked fabulously together. The solos, the group improv, everything just flowed like most of my favorite jazz tends to do. No frills, no attempts to reinvent any wheels, just sick, sick music.
3. Sunn o))) | Rockefeller Chapel | April 19th
This show was a very necessary experience during these dark days. Catharsis, healing, transcendence. I had never seen Sunn o))) so I didn’t quite know what I was getting into, and now I can say that they might be the only band I know of that everyone should see live regardless of whether or not you like their music. The effect of the earth-rattling sub-bass, for me, was to be transported almost instantly into a state of deep meditation, which lasted almost the entire performance. I didn’t know that was possible; normally it takes a lot more time and effort to get outside my body and head. I experienced a vision of my mother’s spirit delivering a message to me that I’ve been pondering ever since. Yes, this was in a church. Yes, the smoke machines filled the whole place with a dense fog. No, I don’t hardly ever listen to this band’s albums, but I did buy the vinyl because they deserve the support. They created an experience utterly unlike any other I’ve had, lifted me out of a darkness that I needed a brief respite from, and helped me to face that darkness with a renewed sense of purpose and vision for the longer term. Seriously don’t hesitate, if you’ve ever had an inkling, to catch this band the next time they come around.
2. The Comet Is Coming | Sleeping Village | June 14th
Here’s where we can talk about some wheels maybe being reinvented. A lot of times I go to a show and it makes me revisit the artist’s albums with renewed interest, but it takes something truly stunning like this band to make me go ‘…uh their new album that I really liked is actually kinda shit compared to what I just saw’. And believe me, I do indeed trust in the lifeforce of the deep mystery, but I also fear that this band will cease to exist before it can ever reach its full potential, which is no less than improvisational music’s greatest entity, because one or two or all of these guys will want to seek other adventures rather than focus on one project, and Shabaka’s Sons Of Kemet has already garnered more hype even though it’s a relatively formulaic band compared to The Comet Is Coming. Of course people want things they can easily categorize, and musicians gotta eat, even the geniuses. I’m just saying based on this one performance, this is the best live band I know of on planet Earth, if it’s still a band, and I should’ve quit my job and followed them around the country because who knows if they’ll ever be back. (Also the opening act, Shazah, was perfect and beautiful and glorious.)
What am I gonna say about this show that hasn’t already been dissected on a hundred podcasts? I honestly don’t have any motivation to try and convince more people to give Phish a try. If you’re out there doggedly denying yourself the pleasure of going to Phish shows based on some particular artistic or social hangup, good! Please do stay home. If you’re telling yourself that the band is obviously way past its prime, that you’ve missed the (big) boat, that it’s too late to start now—you’re correct! Rest assured that most Phish shows are nowhere near as good as this one. Just ask my wife; it wasn’t until this year that she experienced the show, where they’re playing like they know you’re there, and she discovered Phish before I ever did. Naturally, she missed this one, where they were playing like they knew everybody was there, but it’s a crap shoot; these ones are soooo rare. Your odds of catching something legendary these days are miniscule, and the very idea of “legendary” when it comes to Phish is preposterous given their status in the greater public consciousness as little more than goofy Dead wannabes. Go ahead, say it: Every minute I’ve spent writing about Phish has been wasted. Cheers! Phish sucks, they can’t sing worth a damn, Trey can barely play guitar any more, and their fans are annoying as hell. Your mind is already made up anyway; why bother? America.