Friday, December 20, 2013

On Warmer Music's 10 Favorite Concerts Of 2013

So I might have mentioned in a previous post how this year I started getting more than a little overwhelmed by the whole treadmill aspect of music writing. Though it can be hard to maintain that childlike joy at music when you're constantly having mp3s and deadlines dumped down your throat, the good news is that the same is harder to say about live performance. Sure, I don't get the same giddy feeling the whole day of a concert the way I did when I was in high school and, sure, it's a little easier to dismiss the mediocre opening bands that are sure to come your way without a second thought. 

But for me going to concerts has become like attending church or baseball games. You do it so often in your life that some of new apple shininess will inevitably wear off. But the deeper rituals make it even more rewarding to come back to. Being surrounded by people looking to lose themselves in sound and emotion is, when done properly, an act of communion with ourselves and each other. And, like baseball or even mass, there's always the possibility of something truly spectacular happening that will never happen again. No matter how many shows you've seen that week or how many times you've seen a great band, there's always the possibility that you'll find a few moments where everyone in a room transcends the everyday and loses themselves in something communal and life-affirming.

Fortunately for me, 2013 had more than a few of those moments and, if you'll permit me, I'd like to ramble off a few of the better ones for you.

Wavves, Fidlar, Subterranean, April 1st / Meat Puppets, The Empty Bottle, September 27th
I'm 27. Which, by most standards, is still pretty young. But as soon as you start strolling through your mid-twenties and into the "late" prefix, it's hard not to feel exponentially older than that, especially if you spend your time hanging around rock clubs. I included these two shows in my list not for their similarity but because they both were the kind of fast, loud, dumb rock n' roll experiences that I need every once and a while to remind me just how young music can make you feel.

I'm on record as being lukewarm about Wavves but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to cap a White Sox Opening Day full of suds with a nightcap of all-ages mayhem at SubT. My adventurousness was richly rewarded as there are few things more invigorating being amidst a mass of sweaty people going crazy to pop-punk. It was a also a night when I was glad that I had friends able to shrug off a chipped tooth from a kamikaze crowd-surfer and keep right on moshing.

The Meat Puppets show was slightly different as the crowd mad sure I had no delusions of being amidst the young and hip. Rather, finding myself drinking whiskey from the Kirk Kurtwood's glass at 1 am when I had to be up early to be in a wedding in the morning made me feel confident that even as I age, they'll always be a community of people willing to share in my irresponsibility. Plus, nothing makes me let go of regrets quicker than a surprise encore cover of "Sloop John B".

9. Janelle Monae, The Vic, October 21st
Speaking of feeling young, it should surprise no one that a hulking 6'4" 27-year-old bearded dude stuck out like a sore thumb at Janelle Monae's October appearance at the Vic, but there I was anyway. I've long felt that the audience reaction can add almost as much to a show as the performer and being in the middle of a thousand screaming Janelle Monae fans that night was electrifying. As one would expect, given the elaborate narratives in her work, the stage show was just the right amount of theatrical without detracting from the music. Being someone who admittedly leans towards the indie/D.I.Y./mumbly shows, it was refreshing to be treated to the kind of elaborate planned stage show that I got with Janelle. Of course, what really mattered was the music and Janelle did not disappoint. 

8. Screaming Females, Waxhatachee, Tenement, Lincoln Hall, September 25th
There are some large bills that just work and this fall's Don Giovani-sponsored trek was one of them. Wisconsin punks opened things up with the kind of scuzzy, howling noise that appeals to the inner jaded fourteen-year-old in all of us. Moving forward in terms of maturity, Waxhatachee was entrancing. I'd taken a flier on their first album but seeing them live, with Katie Crutchfield pouring her heart into the songs, was hard to resist. On top of that, her tales of the meanderings and groping for meanings in the morass of possibilities and (somewhat) cold realities that is your twenties spoke too me a little more directly than even I would have imagined.

Finally, closing things out was the Screaming Females, a band that I have managed to not see on at least four separate occasions, two of which I had even purchased tickets for. This Jersey power trio was my white whale and finally experiencing them live did not disappoint. Although I'd seen videos of them perform, standing a few feat from the front of the stage at Lincoln Hall, I was still blown away by just how small Marissa Paternoster is. Which is perfect because she is the heart of the Females' torrent of sound and fury and watching all that noise emanate from such a relatively diminutive source. Although onstage Paternoster is still relatively shy, her ferocious guitarwork and vocals did more than enough talking. Those close to the stage lost themselves to the music and, for a beautiful brief while, I was able to blend into a blur of bodies and jagged guitar chords. At every level, you couldn't have asked for more from a concert.

7. Divine Fits, JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound, Taste Of Randolph, June 14th
My love of JC Brooks and his fabulous soul punks, The Uptown Sound, is no secret. But honestly, I wasn't super impressed with their third album, Howl off the bat. It was until I saw them live, on the hulking stage in the middle of Randolph that I connected with the music. The massive, insistent basslines laid down by Ben Taylor were so undeniable in their mesmorizing charm that suddenly the records '70s/'80s soul/funk approach made all the sense in the world.

This, however, was just an appetizer as the Divine Fits provided the main music course. My similarly lukewarm reaction to THEIR most recent album proved for the second time that night that dance music is meant to be experienced live. Between them Britt Daniels and Dan Boeckner have made some of the best dance rock of the last two decades and, as the Divine Fits, they actually delivered what felt the like the best parts of a joint Spoon/Handsome Furs concert combined. Daniel's terse post-punk traded of wonderfully with Boeckner's electro-clash. 

Between the two sets I'd spent over 90 minutes by the over-dressed Big 10 alums who flooded the West Loop that night.

6. Neko Case, Superchunk, The Hold Steady, Hideout Block  Party, September 6th & 7th 
I first encountered the Hideout after winning tickets to the 2006 Block Party from my college radio station. At the time I was told that it was one of the homiest venues in Chicago, a place one would be lucky to feel at home at. Now, some (gulp) seven years later, I'm lucky to say that I truly never feel more at home musically than when I'm at the Hideout and I consider it's annual festival the official beginning of fall.

This year's block party was especially packed, with only a few acts that didn't absolutely delight, but there were two in particular that warmed the cockels of my heart. The first was Saturday's penultimate one-two punch of Superchunk and the Hold Steady. Though both bands were down one key member, it didn't matter. They're each so ferocious in their approach to live performance, each so full of life and absolutely punishing (by which I mean life-affirming) riffs that their back-to-back early evening sets seemed to blur together into one extended rock look at aging, exuberance and power chords after 40.

But the true high point of this year's fest was a set from the longtime Hideout favorite, Neko Case. I've loved Case's albums for more than a few years but, I have to admit, I'd found both previous live experiences with her to be extremely boring. I was assured by friends and well-wishers that this was a fluke and, fortunately, I believed them. For this time, seeing Case with her band just itching to set off on tour behind her stunning album The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, I was rightfully and righteously blown away.

Songs I'd not yet heard like "Night Still Comes" and "Man" sounded like old classics while "Midnight, In Honolulu" was already obviously a career-defining piece of empathy. But even as she mixed old favorites into the set, what made the evening was the sense of utter familiarity and ease. With Kelly Hogan singing in lockstep behind her, Neko breezed through her set in the way that makes the hearts of young men grow soft and music lovers weak at the knees. As always, being in that dump truck parking lot, listening to that music, made me ever more sure that the Hideout was the place for me.

5. R. Kelly, Run The Jewels, Pitchfork Music Festival, July 21st
I haven't had an honest-to-God, get out of town summer vacation in over four years. But I've always said that Pitchfork has become a pretty decent substitute. Despite being old enough to know better, there's still something about a music festival that enchants me. I love the idea of taking over a tiny little green patch of Chicago, filling it with art, food, beer and living outside with a bunch of filthy people who just want to listen to as much music as they can. As it happened, personal circumstances made it hard for me to really get into Pitchfork with my usual bon homie. Until, that is, Day Three.

The festival's final day was stacked top to bottom with a slew of heavy hitting hip-hop and R&B acts that, not only looked stronger than any other day on paper, but provided a thematic unity that weaved everything together. You can read my blow-by-blow account of the day over at PopMatters but there were a couple of moments that particularly stood out for me.

The first was Killer Mike's solo set which veered from powerful, ass shaking hip-hop to movingly personal audience interaction, with Mike pouring his heart out to the audience. It was the kind of personal connection that one rarely gets at a festival and it was clear to everything that this was more than just a rap show. Of course, what followed was nothing less than just a great rap show. After a few choice cuts from Cancer 4 Cure, El-P's proceeding set quickly became a Run The Jewels affair. Mike and El-P had the mischievous grins of boys playing hooky and could have done a better job contrasting the fun side of hip-hop with Mike's earlier set.

Finally, came the headliner. Although the more one reads about R. Kelly, the harder it is to ignore his personal life, I decided that there were times to take a stand and times to let those around you be your guide and this was the latter. Surrounded by women and girls who'd grown up on Kelly's bedroom R&B, it was impossible not be carried away by just how much this music meant to a generation. It was 90 minutes of love, sex, personal freedom and complete release. Kelly gave the crowd his white folks set, low on stepping, high on clipped songs and cheesy covers and they ate it up with a spoon. Surrounded by my deliriously happy friends dancing inappropriately in public, I was, for the first time during a personally trying week, lost in the moment.

4. BBU, Multi Kulti, March 30th
2013 saw Chicago's great BBU toy with our hearts by breaking up and reuniting no less than twice. Originally billed as their last show, their appearance at Multi Kulti at the end of March was supposed to mark the end of their time together and give everyone a chance to say goodbye.

If you've never been to Multi Kulti, imagine a post-college apartment party taking place within a performance art piece. Located on the fourth floor, above the old VFW, it's a maze of rooms featuring art displays, projections, people selling jewelry and a makeshift cash bar in the kitchen. The stage is barely a couple inches above the floor while behind the kitchen there's a second dance area setup with DJ's spinning. In short, it's the perfect community-oriented space for a group as consciously progressive and local as BBU.

And this "final" show was a blowout, starting with a host of local artists ranging from teenage punks to Frank Ocean-esque soul crooners, all playing to the rafters. Finally, sometime after 1 am, BBU took the stage and began tearing through a set of should-be hip-hop classics. The threesome tore through songs like "BB Who?", "C.H.I.C.A.GO", "Outlaw Culture", "The Hood" with equal parts playfulness and ferocity despite the three singers being reduced to two working mics. It was all, of course, leading up to the insanity that is "Chi Don't Dance", which brought the crowd to an ecstatic frenzy before sending them into the chilly morning with a subdued closer, "Jumpers".

Though I couldn't be happier to see BBU getting back together to make music, I know that nothing beats the excitement of seeing something when you think it'll be the last time.

3. Robbie Fulks, Laurie's Planet Of Sound, September 5th
Laurie's Planet Of Sound is everything a record shop should be - tucked away in a cozy corner of Lincoln Square, right near the el tracks, it's stuffed to the brim with great new releases, wonderfully cheap old 45s, books, videos, board games and musical brick-a-brac from time immemorial. I'd never imagined it as an ideal venue, however, until this fall. Given my ecstatic reaction to his most recent record, I'd normally never settle for a mere in-store from the man, but seeing as his show coincided with previously-purchased Hideout Block Party tickets, this would have to do it.

In the end, I couldn't have asked for a better experience. Packed in with thirty or so other Fulks diehards, I was treated to one of most intimate shows I've ever experienced. Joined by Jenny Scheinman on fiddle and Robbie Gjersoe on guitar, Fulks' trio handled these country songs (sans amplification) with a deftness and power that sent tingles down my spine. I stood mere feet from the man as he bellowed through "Long I Ride" or whispered the haunting "Imogene" so faintly that a rumbling train outside threatened to drown him out. With just three people harmonizing and playing acoustic instruments, it was a performance that could have taken place anytime in the past 150 years. And yet, you felt blessed to have been in that record store on that early-autumn evening because you know you just experienced something special.

2. Neutral Milk Hotel, The Canopy Club, October 15th 
I've seen Jeff Mangum before and when I did, I compared it to a religious experience. Thus, it should be no surprise that I found myself making a foggy pilgrimage down I-57 to see his reunited band on their first tour since the Clinton years. Though they'd announced Chicago dates since I bought my tickets for this Urbana show, the idea of traveling to see them felt appropriate. This would allow me to see Neutral Milk Hotel with a friend who'd been with me when I discovered the band. And besides, it felt right to say that one does not simply go to a Neutral Milk Hotel concert.

When I saw Mangum perform solo, he noted that he conceived and wrote most of his songs alone with a guitar. That may be true, and the purity of that performance was moving. But seeing Mangum's music performed with a full band behind it gave his words the impact of a true religious pronouncement. The brutally fuzzy guitars made On Avery Island material shimmer with mystical power while the mournful sigh of the singing saw made "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea" and "Engine" practically wrench the tears from your eyes. This was an early, tentative first lap of what is turning into an impressively ambitious reunion tour and it left little doubt that this was a comeback with a lot more to offer than simple nostalgia.

1. The Replacements, Riot Fest, September 15th
It makes sense that Riot Fest would be the group that finally got the 'Mats (sort of) back together. The festival mixed the overlap between Gen X and the Millenials to bring back the favorite bands of every resentful, underpaid employee who graduated high school in the past 30 years. Sure, it wasn't the full band, with only Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson remaining (Chris Mars was, by all accounts, not even contacted) but it didn't matter. These songs were so in the DNA of two generations of rock bands that anything even approaching the elan of the 'Mats glory years would be met with rapture.

And boy did they deliver. By the time the 'Mats took the stage, your narrator, already sick, had been standing around soaking wet for nearly seven hours, miserable. But as that first medley of Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash snot-punk classics, nothing else in the world mattered. Maybe all of us in the auidence just wanted it but the band was neigh perfect. The rave-ups buzzed by leaving scorch marks on the pavement, the anthems soared with the same anger and ragged glory as they used to and even the stumbles (such as the softer moment of "Androgynous") were endearing.

Paul Westerberg's songs register so deeply because he was able to give voice to the painful insecurities and truths that we all try to hide somewhere close to our hearts. He did this while also proving, if only through his talents, that us scared, lonely, fuckups were also capable of great things, even despite our baggage. Given that I was surrounded by thousands of shivering, muddy people who'd been standing in a fiend all day and were now singing joyously at the top of their lungs, I think his message had been taken to heart.

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