31 December 2014

2014 Year End -- Favorite Shows

It's been another long and glorious year of live music. So much so, that I'm forgoing a NYE show this year which allows me to rest up for an already chock-full 2015 calendar with the side-benefit of being able to get my year's-best list done a day early.

The raw numbers:
175 different bands seen (78 totally new bands seen for the first time in 2014)
107 shows (here one show = one "ticket"... I've become aware that most people count differently, so consider this a conservative number)
220 "sets" of music (this is my liberal number of shows, either way, not too shabby for an old man)
83 nights/days out
41 different venues (in 10 different cities)

Tough to whittle it down, but here's my attempt at a list of my favorite 10 or so live music shows in 2014... with a little cheating, of course.

1. Phish, MGM Grand Arena Las Vegas, NV 10/31-11/2 (plus SPAC 7/4-5, Mann Music Center 7/8-9)
Phish is dead, long live Phish. Was it an off year for the band? Not from where I was sitting. Saw 4 spectacular shows this summer (@ SPAC & Mann (you can include these up here at spot #1 if you'll allow me to have 7 #1 shows in 2014)), but nothing topped the Halloween weekend in Vegas, quite possibly my favorite weekend of PH ever. The Halloween set was a masterpiece for the ages, the other 6 sets merely magnificent, highlights too many to name. Throw in a perfect venue and an amazingly fun weekend, and there you have it... best of 2014.

2. Newport Folk Festival, Ft. Adams State Park, Newport, RI, 7/25-27
Again, hard to call this one "show" when it was really dozens of tremendous stretching-the-boundaries-of-folk concerts all rolled into one. I've been to this festival numerous times, I think this topped all other years. A partial list of the bands that I saw kill it at the Fort this year: Ryan Adams, Band of Horses, Jenny Lewis, Sun Kil Moon, The Devil Makes Three, Lake Street Dive, Reignwolf,
Jack White, Nickel Creek, Kurt Vile, Deer Tick, Shovels & Rope, The Milk Carton Kids, Pokey Lafarge, Puss N Boots, Houndmouth, J Roddy Walston & the Business, The Oh Hellos, Willie Watson, Benjamin Booker, Jeff Tweedy, Dawes, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Lucero, Gregory Alan Isakov, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, Valerie June, Caitlin Rose, Ages and Ages, Leif Vollebekk. Damn!

3. The Bad Plus (play Ornette Coleman's Science Fiction), Skirball Center, 10/23 (plus Village Vanguard 1/1, Jazz Standard 4/23 & 4/27)
It's always exciting to see your favorite bands tackle new challenges... and then kill it. For the PH fans, consider this to be akin to the "Halloween show" for The Bad Plus. They covered Ornette Coleman (with 3 A-list horn players) and they made it their own and used it as a vehicle to elevate their already lofty standards. On top of all this, they were playing as part of the Joshua Light Show festival, which meant that the superlative music was in front of the best damn visuals you could imagine. Utterly sublime. (I saw 5 TBP sets in total in 2014, the other 4 were also tremendous and should be squeezed in here at #3 as well... (sensing a trend?)).

4. Woods, Skirball Center, 10/24 (plus Bowery Ballroom 5/16)
While we're talking Joshua Light Show, I caught one other show that week which was a late set from folk-psych masters, Woods. As previous posted, Woods were my "artist of the year" in 2014, hitting all the right spots for me and this show was a big reason why. The balance of killer songs and blast-off jams was perfect and perfectly matched by the JLS visuals. This one pretty much blew me away. The show at the Bowery in the spring was almost equally as awe-inspiring and featured a fantastic opening set from Quilt. That show is reviewed here.

5. Sarah Jarosz/The Milk Carton Kids, The Allen Room, Lincoln Center, 2/12
When you see a lot of great live music, it often takes something special to elevate a particular show above the rest. This night of folk & bluegrass took place in one of the more beautiful rooms in the city. Instead of the liquid-trip-out displays from the Joshua Light Show, though, the Allen Room is lit up by Manhattan itself: the Park, the lights, the traffic are its backdrop. In front of this, we were treated to three of the best sets of acoustic music I've ever seen. Jarosz proved herself to be a legend in the making, a pure talent and soul, and the Milk Carton Kids may very well be the most entertaining thing in folk music... Welch/Rawlings when they're playing, Steve Martin with the hilarious, deadpan between-song banter. The 3rd set was a combination of the two bands and was knock-your-socks-off good. What a night!

6. Jonathan Wilson, Music Hall of Williamsburg, 2/14
One thing that's been clear the past couple years is that the jam is back and better than ever. It's just that it's hiding in so-called indie rock. On this night in Williamsburg, the hipster den was transformed into a latter-day Wetlands, with Wilson leading his band through more extended jams than the room knew what to do with. A typical night at MHOW is an opener and an hour set from the headliner. I think Wilson doubled that, and each song was a spectacle of full-band exploration; not self-indulgent, not noodling... just expert, killer jamming out of expert, killer songs. By the end, everyone with a Valentine date had left and the room was sparsely filled with slack-jawed dudes either dancing or looking on in awe. If Wilson is not on your radar, fix that.

7. John Zorn Masada Marathon, Town Hall, 3/19
Twenty different songs. Played for the first time ever by twenty different bands. Sounds a little like a recipe for disaster, but that's the precipice upon which John Zorn has made a career. There was little doubt this was going to be a live music extravaganza worthy of neddyo acclaim. The evening did not disappoint, with styles ranging from a cappella to death metal with pretty much an entire planet's worth of genres in between. This was the kind of night that made you love music even more, a life's-love-affirming show... and Zorn'll probably top it with something even more absurd in 2015. Can't wait.

8. Umphrey's McGee, UMBOWLV, Capitol Theater, Port Chester, NY, 5/3
I was initially on the fence about hitting this local incarnation of Umphrey's annual throwdown. What a mistake it would have been to miss this one! The show is split into 4 "quarters," different sets with different themes: from fan-curated setllists to recreating and re-envisioning highlight jams from the band's history to a "choose your own adventure" style set that had the audience tweeting their choices as to where the band should go next. This was much more than a concert, it was an immersive, one-of-a-kind experience that put the live-action into live music in ways I've never witnessed before. Of course, that's nothing if the music isn't great and it was, oh, it was. Throw in a tremendous vibe and the best damn rock light show out there, and you have one helluva night.

9. Wayne Krantz/Keith Carlock/Nate Wood, 55 Bar 3/27 & 6/12
Wayne Krantz (+ Keith Carlock & Tim Lefebvre) at the 55 Bar on Thursdays used to be a neddyo institution. I found myself looking for my brain on the floor of 55 Christopher on many a Thursday back in the day. After a break in that action, I found myself back at the old place twice this year and rediscovering the true meaning of "mind blown." Nate Wood has proven himself to be more than willing and able to fill the bass player slot in the classic trio and, frankly, Krantz has never sounded better. To me there is nothing that's as quintessentially live-music-in-NYC as this show in this room and thankfully I was able to savor it a couple times in 2014. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen all that often any more, but when it does, do your best to get there!

10. Tame Impala, Beacon Theater, 11/10
While October rightly gets all the attention as the month for live music in NYC, my November was nearly equally as great with shows like this one at the Beacon. Tame Impala stands atop an entire genre of music right now, the kings of the neo-psych revolution with an extra dose of cross-over appeal. Of course, that could mean the product might start to suffer, but after seeing them destroy the Beacon like few can, I have little fear of that. It turns out, this music and this band was made for a theater like the Beacon with their orchestral-prog excursions and nerd-chic light show. Tame Impala has been quite good these last few years, but this was easily the best I've ever seen them. Here's my review of the show.

Honorable Mention (I'd honestly say that 90 of the shows I saw were "great" or better this year, but I'll keep the list at 25)

(links to reviews)

6/18 Goat @ Webster Hall
1/17 Bill Frisell, Buddy Miller, Carrie Rodriguez @ The Allen Room
3/1 Mike Gordon @ Webster Hall
4/11 Phil Lesh & Friends @ The Capitol Theater/12/29/2014 PhilRAD @ Capitol Theater

8/17 Trey Anastasio @ Brooklyn Bowl
9/16 Portugal. The Man and Grouplove @ Summerstage
9/11 White Denim @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
12/3 Yo La Tengo @ Town Hall
10/18 Sam Amidon @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
3/18 Bill Frisell's Beautiful Dreamers @ Village Vanguard
4/28 Kevin Drew @ Bowery Ballroom
6/15 Thee Oh Sees @ Death By Audio/11/17/2014 Thee Oh Sees @ Bowery Ballroom
10/9 Robert Plant & the Sensational Shape Shifters @ Brooklyn Bowl
10/12 Steve Gunn @ Rough Trade
4/21 Dustin Wong @ Bowery Ballroom

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