The Best Shows of 2023

Thu Dec 28 2023

As we approach the four-year anniversary of the world shutting down, I’m noticing that we’ve already forgotten that that happened. People just go to work, to the store, to shows, like nothing’s changed. Most amazing are the people coughing all over everyone at the shows. Did this always happen and I never paid much attention pre-pandemic? I really struggle to comprehend; it has officially toppled talking during shows as my chief gripe. Go ahead and chomp as long as you’re not fucking spreading disease! Just because your at-home covid test was negative doesn’t mean I want your virus?? Has the concept of FOMO hit such crippling heights? There will be other shows! I mean, I’m pretty sure there will be.

I fear the issue is that people have replaced hobbies with social media; thus, the only meaningful use of their brains occurs when they’re forced to interact with other humans face to face. Out in the world people are just people instead of hyperpolitical caricatures of themselves, not NECESSARILY judging every word out of your mouth. There’s a veritable exchange of energies going on. Even in instances where we’re so internally preoccupied that there might as well BE a screen between us. We know that something is lacking, something is driving us to leave our homes, hoping that an external force will jolt us out of our e-stupor. And live music might be the single easiest way to facilitate that jolt.

So we’re back to walking into the show without trepidation, without reverence. Back to having fun. Nothing inherently wrong with that and I hope it can continue indefinitely. Still, these ‘20s…not exactly roarin’ so far, are they? Or maybe I’m too old to experience the roar. In truth the pandemic may have changed the whole social experience permanently; I can only say I’m still not ‘back to normal’ and am beginning to doubt I’ll ever be. At some point you have to get used to the new you. But I suspect music is always going to get me out of the house; what an incredible blessing. To all the people in the world getting onto stages and performing music, you literally keep me going. Thank you!

Here are words about some of those people. My ten favorite shows from a truly outstanding year of live music, ranked out of habit perhaps, but I would hope each of these was somebody’s number one.

10. Nick Cave | Riverside Theater | 27 September

Most people would deem Nick Cave a fringe artist, an acquired taste. His solo performance at the Riverside suggested otherwise. Here was a dapper individual, sitting at a piano, entertaining us in a fashion that was utterly timeless. Linguistic trends aside, the show would’ve captivated any audience going back centuries and onward into our species’ doom. With de facto straight man Colin Greenwood on bass as his only companion onstage, it was less theatrical than a Bad Seeds show, yet no less powerful a show. Catharsis, excavation of corpses both real and made-up, these are Cave’s best-selling merchandise; those Bad Seeds were merely MIDDLEMEN. (Joking of course. My point is, Cave doesn’t need anybody else to peddle his wares effectively and next time he comes around, no matter who you are, go see him.) (original review:

9. Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade | Salt Shed | 18 October

What makes it Frog Brigade? Seems to be the songs, mainly, but for me, Skerik is a big part of it. He had to bow out of the initial reunion run; the Frog Brigade only flew from 2000-03 before disintegrating, and many fans would argue that none of Claypool’s subsequent ‘solo’ (i.e. non-Primus) bands have reached those heights. The reunion lineup is basically the Claypool Lennon Delerium with some significant reinforcements including Harry Waters on keys and Mike Dillon on percussion and the aforementioned Skerik on the saxophone—these latter two having been core Frogs. However the Brigade was never a set lineup so ruffled feathers about band definitions would be pointless, and the show they played at the Salt Shed in June was indeed rad; apparently Les liked the venue so much that he announced the fall show there…before he even played the first one! There’s no denying it, Skerik elevated the proceedings in October. It wasn’t so much ‘old times’ as it was shaking more dust off some excellent old tunes and this fresh group having a crack at ‘em. Back in 2002, Les was still getting used to the idea of being a jamband icon, truly fucking around; here in 2023 he can do whatever the heck he wants, and in some ways make those old songs better in the process. Or, hell, maybe even write some new ones…? (original review:

8. Yo La Tengo | Turner Hall Ballroom | 25 March

They have two settings: enchanting, and blazing your face off (not that the two are mutually exclusive). None of that in-between garbage, like ‘oh we’re BULIDING to this’ or any kind of detached or nonchalant attitude, no smalltalk getting in the way of delivering the message and the feeling of that moment directly to you the listener. When Shakespeare said ‘all the world’s a stage’ he wasn’t talking about YLT; they’re just up there telling it like it is, spectators at the head-bobbing performance that happens below while the truth spills out of them. (original review, sort of:

7. Liz Phair | Chicago Theatre | 18 November

Note that this concert was objectively not better than any of those previously mentioned; it was merely a 30-year pipedream-come-true for me personally and thus by sheer volume of tears produced it should probably be number one. EXILE IN GUYVILLE is an all-timer for me, right up there with QUADROPHENIA and THE WALL in terms of albums I’ve seen performed in full. One of those ‘I can die happy now’ experiences. It was also, objectively, the best performance I’ve ever seen by Liz Phair and her band, and I’ve never seen a subpar one. The imaginative arrangements combined with Phair’s ever-improving raw vocal ability and a setlist comprised of nonstop classics made for an absolutely perfect evening. (original review:

6. Mr. Bungle | Riot Fest | 16 September

AND NOW THEY’RE HEADLINING MILWAUKEE METAL FEST 2024??? You people don’t know what you’re in for. Hell I don’t even know. Odds are it’ll be a similar set to this one they played at Riot Fest, which was similar to the one I saw in San Francisco almost four years ago (, with a few key differences: 1) Rather than “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” they opened with the crucially mislaid “Grizzly Adams”; 2) In place of Seals & Croft’s “Summer Breeze” we got both 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” AND Spandau Ballet’s “True” (my dark horse pick for Metal Fest: “Careless Whispers”, come on! Or how ‘bout “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime”??); 3) Time constraints meant they had to cut most of the classic hardcore/thrash covers at Riot Fest, as well as their own “Sudden Death”, not that I necessarily felt slighted, but they did squeeze in Sepultura’s “Territory” for the encore; 4) THEY PLAYED “MY ASS IS ON FIRE”. Thus far that’s the ONLY song from any of Bungle’s three original albums they’ve played since ‘reuniting’ in 2020. Every time they actually show up for a gig is a gift I thought was beyond reach; any song they might pluck out of their memories to play is a miracle; every time you see them you can pretty much assume it’s the last time. But seriously bring back “Everyone I Went To High School With Is Dead” for Metal Fest you cowards!!!! (original review:

5. Spidora | Circle-A Café | 20 July

This was my final visit to Circle-A. I wanted to go back there every night afterwards until it closed for good. But I was too weak. I couldn’t go back. The only constant in growing old is losing the people and things you love. Of all the buildings in Riverwest I loved Circle-A the most. And nobody was going to top Spidora anyway. Nothing but love to Jennifer and Warlock for the countless memories and to Spidora for being the sickest band in Milwaukee (okay but tied with Rat Bath, ask me again in a month), and to Jeremy & The Drip Edges and Tyler Kieth & The Revelations for also rocking the shit out of that place one last time, and to every band that ever played Circle-A and every face I ever saw there.

4. Ween | The Sylvee | 10 September

Ween might get sold short in part because they’re hard to write about. How many ways can you talk about how much you fucking love this band? How they used to be a joke and now they’re one of the best live rock bands in existence? Because, you understand, they’re so good at…whatever it is that they do, playing these songs that…are really good? ‘THEY PLAYED THE ENTIRE STALLION SUITE!!!!!’, is that good writing? (original review, sort of:

3. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard | Salt Shed | 11 June

KGLW’s first stop in Milwaukee underwhelmed me. I’d heard too many good things; some people were even calling them The Next Phish! So I skipped their next visit, even though I remained enamored of their dizzying studio output; sure enough, they wound up giving that show an official release as a live album and I feel a little dumb now. I’m “glad” I didn’t dismiss ‘em completely, though, because this year’s three-night run in Chicago was revelatory. “Glad”, because the last thing I needed was ANOTHER touring band on my do-not-skip list! Tragically, now I’m going to have to see them every time they come around. The ‘next Phish’ aspect isn’t about musical style, after all; it’s about combining disparate elements in a unique songwriting voice with an ever-evolving live presentation that can sustain fans’ interest over consecutive nights, and a gradually coalescing (or…not) ‘conceptual continuity’ and/or group mythology that keeps drawing in more curious people. Above all, it’s the ability to confound and delight in equal measures; over time, when the delightful bits are this good, you learn to live with all of it. (original review:

2. Janet Jackson | American Family Insurance Amphitheater | 28 May

One way to look at this would be with regret. WHY, for instance, didn’t I BEG my parents to take me to see Janet on the RHYTHM NATION tour? And how many times has she been through Wisconsin since then? (At least seven!) She just played the Bradley Center in 2017—HELLO? The better way to look at it is that it wasn’t too late. She came onstage slowly, regally, and for a few agonizing minutes I feared she might be seated for a good portion of the show, finally taking a victory lap befitting a legendary diva. The 57-year-old queen was only teasing, though. She still had the moves as well as the voice, and when she threw off her robe, the crowd went nuts and nobody stopped moving the rest of the night. She has too many classics to play ‘em all but she squeezed in FORTY and still left us wanting more. (original review:

1. Phish | Madison Square Garden | 28 July

How good were Phish this year? So good that, as angry as I currently am with them for turning into an act that costs thousands of dollars to even see live any more, I still can’t lie to you, the reader, and suggest that anything else I saw this year was as good as Phish at MSG. So good that the excellent October Chicago run didn’t even cross my mind for this piece because the best shows of the summer were on a whole ‘nother level. The first weekend of their seven-night run at MSG was some of the best Phish I’ve ever caught, especially the first night. It was the type of show in which Phish excelled at all the stuff they’re known for and also defied a lot of the stereotypes that still (often deservedly) dog them, the kind of night I wish I’d dragged ALL my skeptical friends along. When you have a guiding principle of never doing anything the same way twice, the search for significantly new and different things becomes harder and harder, for the musicians as well as the fans. In the push to keep going year after year, never stopping, so much garbage inevitably gets through. This is to say that whatever else I ever say, I’m still here for the garbage, because there’s still nothing else on par with Phish on a good night. (original review:


I went to 71 shows in 2023, counting each day of a festival as one show. Even for me, that’s a lot of shows. Looking back and thinking about all of them is overwhelming. It would be far easier to simply mention the ones that weren’t great; that would amount to like five blurbs! Adding more entries to this list will only make me feel bad about everything I’ve still excluded. So I’ll just leave it at this:

Big Ears Festival | 30 March-2 April

Okay right, nothing was as good as Phish at MSG—as a full-blown communal experience WITH music. There isn’t a venue big enough nor a crowd single-minded enough at Big Ears to create that kind of experience. Obviously the music itself here, though: objectively wayyyy better than Phish. The guys in Phish, to put it bluntly, fuck up constantly, whereas at Big Ears, you’re not gonna hear many fuckups. We’re talking John Zorn and shit. To wit, the top ten sets I saw at Big Ears:

Pino Palladino & Blake Mills: Not that I was LOOKING for some kind of Phish surrogate but this quartet served up a bunch of modal jamming the likes of good Phish but without so much guitar wanking. Fun to dance to, that’s for sure.

Marc Ribot y Los Cubanos Postizos: The smart people stuck around for this whole set instead of rushing off to catch the rather underwhelming Cobra (which started a half hour late anyway!); Marc was shredding and the place was groovin’…at least right up until I left.

Theon Cross: At least ONE member of Sons Of Kemet made it back this year! Bowl-shaking dub-tuba earthquakes, transporting everyone completely out of the rather sterile environs of Jackson Terminal and into whatever intergalactic zen dream fit with their subconscious desires.

Gatos Do Sul: Legendary percussionist Cyro Baptista inspired the existence of this band and it was pure delight watching him up there with his impossible array of implements that all make sounds despite looking more like abstract sculptures than instruments. Pianist Brian Marsella, who composed all the music, led the impeccable ensemble through forty minutes of pure joy.

Algiers: When you have time to kill at Big Ears, you wander into a random show by some band you never heard of—RRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAUUUGHHHHHHHH this was nonstop intensity with a passion and a purpose, invigorating as hell. It felt like back in the day when we first heard Rage Against The Machine or something, only back then music as good as Algiers hadn’t been invented yet.

John Zorn’s Suite For Piano: Any chance you get to see Brian Marsella and drummer Ches Smith together, you must take it. For this performance it was bassist Jorge Roeder joining them, a thoroughly entertaining sonofabitch himself but with Marsella and Smith it’s music for the EYES as much as the ears. AND they’re two of the most skilled Zornists out there even with your eyes closed. Freaking sheer brilliance, this set.

Irreversible Entanglements: I knew what I was getting into, I was already overdosing on Moor Mother and couldn’t be satiated, and this band simply took the universe and infused each atom with extra alive-ness. Some peaks of intensity during this set were literally too much for my brain; it was the end of a long day and all but I’m a seasoned professional at this, my brain should be able to handle whatever music can throw at it. Ah well, as long as the EARS are working.

caroline: Listening to the superb new ‘doom-folk’ albums by Lankum and ØXN I was transported back to the raw, enchanting caroline set at Big Ears. How could this band have existed without my knowing? It felt like a little like the early days of Mogwai or Animal Collective before they became mired in the Type of Music they now write and play. I hope caroline always remain as undefined as they were. This set will always stick with me, it was like nothing else I’ve seen at this festival.

Lonnie Holley with Mourning [A] BLKstar: Yay, the first set I happen to make it to at this year’s fest, merely because another DJ at my radio station happened to play a song by Lonnie Holley on his show, is fucking mindblowing! At other festivals this time slot would be some 17-year-old shirtless hippie doing Bob Marley covers; at Big Ears it’s a 73-year-old legend in multiple artistic disciplines doing a purely improvised set fronting an incredible jazz assemblage featuring a ‘surprise’ extended guest appearance by Moor Mother. As my dad and/or Bob Dylan might say, ‘Normal day!’

Varispeed Collective: It’s probably too much to hope that this troupe would return to Big Ears and do Robert Ashley’s PERFECT LIVES opera AGAIN. I’m hoping for it anyway, because I only got to see two of the seven installments this year!! WHAT WAS SO IMPORTANT ABOUT THE BOOGIE WOOGIE?? No but somebody please perform this somewhere so I can see the whole thing. There’s video online but that’s not the same. Thinking about these two isolated acts of the opera now I still get shivers. Simply amazing and generous performers spanning the entire gap between classical and improv theater, bringing in local Knoxville artists for key roles, creating something impossibly invigorating despite my complete inability to piece its narrative together until after it was long over with. That was one hell of a magic trick. (original review:

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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