As I prepare to attend tonight’s Portugal. The Man/The Lonely Forest concert in Chicago, I realized that this will be my first show of 2012.
How can that be? Last year was by far the busiest of my concert-going life. I went to 10 shows in addition to attending three great festivals.
But now, as I ready myself for hopefully another solid year of concerts, I look back at my top 10 (actually 11) favorite shows from the past decade.
10. (tie) Northern State (Grog Shop, Cleveland, 2008)
10. (tie) Lovers (Beauty Bar, Las Vegas, Jan. 29, 2009)
It’s impossible for me to think of one of these shows and not suddenly recall the other. Both bands are all-girl trios, and I attended both shows with my pal, Sean. The first was during our first Great Lakes rendezvous after I moved to Indiana. It included an Indians game and a trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But the highlight for me was still this show. Neither of us new anything about Northern State other than that they were supposedly a rap group and their name was a reference to a highway in Long Island. What we experienced was a really fun show, full of old-school rhyming from a bunch of white girls who went to liberal arts college. It was one of the first shows on a tour supporting their new album Can I Keep This Pen? and they put on a great show, highlighted by crowd-pleasers such as “Mother May I?”, “Sucka MoFo” and “Better Already”. We ended up buying their CD and talking to the band members for a bit.
The more recent show came during a vacation to Vegas. Again, we knew nothing about Lovers other than that they were playing a bar about a block from our hotel. We showed up early and didn’t have to pay a cover. We sat at the bar and played various games, including Break the Ice and Connect Four. (Turns out Sean had never played it and was quite horrible.) While at the bar, I’m pretty sure we actually were sitting next to a couple of the band members, but I can’t be positive. As it turned out, we had landed in an absolutely perfect spot. The venue was very small and quite narrow. After turning around in our barstools, we were only a few feet from the stage. And from our vantage point, we were able to soak up the amazing sounds coming from lead singer Carolyn Peck. Every song was amazing, but the highlights were “Igloos For Ojos”, “Tonight” and “Wrestling Horses”.
9. Those Darlins (Off Broadway, St. Louis, March 5, 2010)
This is one of two shows on the list that I attended solo. I was in town for the Missouri Valley Conference basketball tournament, and rather than go to some games one night, I chose to go to this concert. I had downloaded Those Darlins’ self-titled debut album before my trip and listened to it about four times on the way there. So, by the time I arrived at the venue, I knew every song rather well. Also, since I was by myself, I ended up sitting off to the side by the bar and getting rather loaded. Once the main act appeared on stage, I was in a very festive mood and ended up doing more dancing at show than I have at all my other concerts combined. The band, another all-girl trio, seemed to be having a great time, and it really came out in the music. I enjoyed every song, but the obvious highlight was “Red Light Love”.
8. The Rural Alberta Advantage (Radio Radio, Indianapolis, April 23, 2011)
This was a bonus concert for me. My friend, Drew, and I were already planning a trip to Indy to see the New Pornographers an The Walkmen, the I saw that this show was going on the next night. The venue is in an area of town called Fountain Square. It seems like a pretty cool neighborhood that is in that pre-gentrification stage. Anyway, I already wrote about the show here, but to condense the evening, it was just a lot of good music from a trio of Canadians and some fun discussions afterward. Lead singer Nils Edenloff has a great voice, and one that I could listen to for hours.
7. Pearl Jam (Verizon Amphitheatre, Noblesville, Ind., May 7, 2010)
During my first trip to Indianapolis, I managed to get stuck in a 2.5-hour traffic jam and missed the opening act, Band of Horses. I was rather bummed, but the main act managed to lift my spirits. As Drew noted at the time, it showed how much power Pearl Jam has that they were able to open the show with such a slow song as “Release”. The rest of the night is just a blur of awesome songs from an awesome band. It was the first time I’d ever been to a show with multiple encores, one of which included one of my favorite covers that they do, The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly”.
6. The National (Riviera Theatre, Chicago, Sept. 26, 2010)
This was the one and only time I’ve ever hung out with my good friend Mary Kate in a city other than South Bend. She took the train into town and I met her for some tasty Thai food before heading to the show. I don’t remember a great deal about other than that we were in the last row of the balcony, next to some decrepit seats. Oh, and the fact that we had a great time grooving out and singing along to one of our favorite bands.
5. The Decemberists (Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, July 25, 2011)
This was the second time seeing the Portland group. The first came a few years prior with my boy, Sean, in Norfolk, Va. Both shows were pretty similar in quality, but I picked this one only because the band had more songs to choose from and played several from my favorite album of 2011, The King Is Dead. I was familiar with enough of the songs that it was rather enjoyable. Adding to the fun of the evening was that my friend, Scott, and I had just taken in part of a show across town featuring Ted Leo + The Pharmacists. We ended up leaving early, hopping in a cab and showing up at the Aragon just in time for The Decemberists.
4. Arcade Fire (Bonnaroo, Manchester, Tenn., June 2012)
This is the lone festival show on the list. I feel confident including it since the band was one of the headlining acts and played a lengthy set. The whole thing was like one big greatest hits concert, which shows how many great songs have been on their three albums. I’d spent most of the day dealing with the aftermath of eating a “magical cookie” and by the time the show started, I had regained most of my faculties. Adding to the aesthetics was that right before the show, some dudes in hang gliders or something dropped thousands of blinking LED lights from the sky. By the end of their descent, it was if the stars were falling to the ground.
3. Neko Case (Starr Hill, Charlottesville, Va., 2006)
This was the other show I attended by myself. I was still rather new in town at the time, so I was often going to shows at what turned out to be a pretty great local venue. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Neko Case, other than that she came highly recommended by a friend of mine whose taste in music is usually rather divergent from my own. Despite this fact, I purchased a ticket anyway and hung out at the back of the medium-sized venue while sipping my beers. But that was perfectly fine, as Case’s amazing voice filled every corner of that room. I was immediately entranced by her and have been a fan ever since. That show was in support of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, still my favorite album of hers.
2. Death Cab For Cutie (Fox Theater, Detroit, July 28, 2011)
This is the band I still proclaim as my favorite and the one I’ve seen the most times in person. Although, of the four shows, two of those were at the less-than-ideal setting of Lollapalooza. The first time, they were drowned out by another band, and the second, I think left early to go swimming in the lake. But the most recent time was last summer following a great day with my friend, Gabrielle. We attended a Tigers game, walked around downtown, went to a bar, then showed up at the venue during the first or second song of opening act Frightened Rabbit. I didn’t realize it beforehand, but this venue was much swankier than the other I’d been to in Detroit (see No. 1). We eventually moved from our filled section of the balcony to a nearly sparse section to the side. Then we proceeded to groove out to the sounds of Death Cab. Gab wasn’t very familiar with either band, but she definitely had a great time. I wasn’t especially fond of their latest album, Codes and Keys, but they thankfully played a lot of old stuff as well. There were at least two moments in the show that I wanted to hug my companion — including during the show closer “Transatlanticism” — but that would’ve been weird.
1. Rise Against (The Fillmore Detroit, 2008)
I’ve seen these Chicago boys thrice — all with Sean — and each show was memorable in its own right. The first was in Norfolk, but I spent most of that show hanging out at the back, while Sean battled it out in the pit. The most recent was in a less-than-desirable theater where we were stationed among many rows of seats and didn’t have a great deal of space to get rowdy. But the show was in Canada and afforded us the opportunity to take a road trip through Wisconsin and Minnesota.
But the middle show was by far my favorite. Rise Against was the last of four bands to take the stage. During another of our Great Lakes rendezvouses, Sean and I met up in Detroit and arrived at the show in time to see opener The Gaslight Anthem. They’d just released their debut album and put on a great show. We weren’t quite as interested in the next two acts — Thrice and Alkaline Trio — but we watched them a here and there. Then came the headliners, and once they started thrashing on their first song, Sean made a beeline for the mosh pit. This time I decided to join him, and it was great. I mostly remained on the edge of the fray, but I occasionally jumped in there a bit. But I definitely managed to let loose and get swept away by the energy of the show. As Sean has said, this band is carrying the torch for modern punk, and they’re doing it while holding true to their core beliefs, which just makes them that much more fun to watch.
I wouldn’t be surprised if someday this concert is transplanted from the top of the list, but it’ll take a pretty amazing show to do so.
For the most part, I deemed performances at festivals ineligible for this list, since most aren’t full sets. But there were a few I saw during SXSW last year that I feel deserve a note.
This was the first show I saw during my first full day in town. From the time I walked into the air-conditioned barroom, I was immediately transfixed by the two performers on stage. While not romantically involved, they looked about as love with each other as two people possibly could. It was just a great set.
This was one of the bands I was really looking forward to seeing, and I was not disappointed. The group of about six or seven people piled on to the tiniest stage I’ve ever seen and just had a rollicking good time. It was such an intimate performance, and, at one point, they gave the tambourine to a dude in the front row who did a pretty great job with it.
- Wye Oak (Swan Dive, March 18, 2011)
This was during our last day of actually going to shows. It was the first day when the weather actually became something of an issue. And I’ll never forget standing in a crowded little bar, with no fans or air conditioning and watching the two band members sweating their balls off right along with everyone in the audience. You could tell those two had been at this game for a long time and really knew what they were doing.