Recap of 2014: Best Live Shows etc.
It's pretty embarrassing that my last blog post was about the best shows of 2012. Huh. It's not like I didn't do anything in the two following years. 2014 was a good but in some regards challenging year. I took a new full time job (no one shoots music as a regular job unless your last name is Halfin, Mazur or Kravitz) that made my daily commute soar from 18 minutes to routinely 70 min each, sometimes more. So, late night non-Friday/Saturday shows became a lot tougher to swing. I also tore up my knee pretty good in March during a skiing accident, and that put a dent in some action, though I was shooting the Drive-By Truckers show just eight days later, sporting very limited mobility and a full leg brace. I also had a few highlights, including finally getting a photo published in Rolling Stone. I didn't shoot many festivals this year (no Solid Sound, and no All Tomorrow's Parties) but Boston Calling turned out to be a pretty nice and local event to cover.
Onto the action that unfolded. I saw about 235 sets this year (some bands more than once), so paring it down to an arbitrary 30 seems pretty unfair for a lot of the shows that were really excellent...just take a look at who missed the list: St Vincent, Om, Steve Gunn, Pentagram, Sharon Van Etten, Elder, Thurston Moore, Truckfighters, Down, Deafheaven, Kurt Vile, Kvelertak, Mastodon, High on Fire, Courtney Barnett, Jack White, Houndmouth, Charles Bradley, Mavis Staples, etc... not to mention the shows where I didn't have a ticket and only saw ~10-15 min of the show, like Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Wonder and Nine Inch Nails.
If you are more of a looker than a reader, here's a slideshow of my best shots of 2014. There is not too much overlap between either bands or specific photos shown below so feel free to check out both:
I've divided the shows into two categories... the top 10 which are in order, and then the next twenty which are not.
1 - John Zorn's Masada Marathon @ Newport Jazz Festival
The guy who was awarded the 'genius' grant (a MacArthur Foundation grant, worth 500K to do whatever they want with it) certainly deserves it, and in recognition of his 60th birthday, the Newport Jazz Festival honored John by reserving the 2nd stage on the opening day just for him and his prodigious Masada songbook. Ten different ensembles played, each one a carefully cut piece of the puzzle, all held together with a common sense of passion for playing music, and playing it extraordinarily well. Sometimes Zorn played sax along with them, sometime he acted as conductor, other times he just stood offstage proudly beaming at the craft on display. This was a true tour de force, and ranks among the best shows I've seen, anywhere. Ribot, Batista, Baron, Wolleson, Feldman, Cohen, Douglas, Mori, Dunn, Friedlander, Saft, Courvoisier, etc. This is what music is all about.
2 - Ty Segall @ Great Scott
Not counting last year's Fuzz show, it had been quite some time since last played Boston - about four years ago at a DIY show in Jamaica Plain with a different lineup. Which seems really unfair when you consider he'd constantly played NYC in the interim. The bonus of this wait is that he'd be touring on his high water mark to date, the amazingly strong Manipulator. It seemed a bit insane that he played Great Scott which fits about 75 people near the stage if you've got a big enough shoehorn, especially in light of the fact that before hit Boston, he played the 9:30 club in DC and two shows at Webster Hall in NYC, the first date of which saw the crowd surge so intense that it broke the security barrier in front of the stage. So I got there early, found a place of relative safety at the far stage left in front of Ty, and hung on for the ride. And what a ride it was.
3 - Slowdive @ Royale
Shoegaze reunions probably started in earnest with My Bloody Valentine's return in 2008, but Slowdive was the show that really blew me away. Which is sort of funny in retrospect, since I didn't follow them after the first trilogy of EPs and Catch The Breeze, until much after the fact and found used copies of Souvlaki and Pygmalion long after they ceased to exist. I was especially happy to see Rachel Goswell return to stage, since the final Mojave 3 tour had her sitting it out in England, unable to even travel due to a severe ear condition. I'd heard glowing reports about the show at Pitchfork, and a live broadcast of a Holland show demonstrated that they were not remotely interested in half-assing their return.
4 - King Crimson @ The Colonial
Apologies for the iPhone photo, but there was a strict no-camera policy due to Robert Fripp's utter disdain for photography in effect, so I took this after the show was over
Prog rock has a small niche in my collection, but I can't say that I am even close to approaching the Comic Book guy level of serious prog rock nerds. I've seen Yes a couple of times, Van der Graaf Generator once, and that might be it as far concerts go as well. Well, maybe Tool counts too. Anyway, the reason I got tickets the instant they went on sale is that 1) Belew was not in the lineup and 2) the material they were focusing on was the Red-era, a collection of fucking stompers if there ever was one. "Starless" was at or near the pinnacle of live show moments this year. Equally impressive was the trio of drummers, who didn't trip over their own dicks nor just play the same pattern. Pretty goddamn impressive all around.
5 - Sleep @ House of Blues
I've seen Sleep play about six times now though never w/ Hakius, and for once I didn't have to get on a plane to do it, or drive 5 hours into upstate NY, like the first time I saw them. This show also had the bonus having new material for the first time since they reformed, with "The Clarity" added to the set and sounding like a heavier OM. Pike was rocking the Goose Gossage 'stache, Cisneros had a full monk's beard (and he was pleased to be playing under the OM symbol that adorns the top of the stage lighting rig at the venue), and Roeder was pounding away with a heavy, precise hand. They were fucking around backstage before the show started, w/ Jason toying around with some sort of mixer/sampler plugged into Matt's guitar while he played it, but when the time came for rock, Pike stretched out before taking the stage and they were all business.
6 - The Damned @ Royale
Fun fact - when The Damned played The Channel in 1989 with Brian James playing the first set, both Hilary and I were at the show but wouldn't actually meet in person until later that year. James (to my knowledge) hasn't played with the band since that tour, but for me it's all about Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian... if either of them were to step out, the band would be over. Last time they played town two or three years ago, they did the in vogue 'entire LP' thing, doing the debut and the overlooked but excellent Black Album. The set list would retain some of those gems, including the hair-raising epic "Curtain Call." Sensible and Vanian are such a great and bi-polar pairing; Captain w/ his trademark beret, goofy smile and ramshackle humor while Vanian plays the debonair host to your murder. I will see this band play whenever possible. A few columns ago in The Big Takeover, Tim Sommer made the case that The Damned should have been bigger than U2, and I can see where he's coming from.
7 - The Replacements @ Boston Calling
One of the reunion crown jewels. Sadly they have yet to play a proper tour, preferring the pay day and ease of festival dates aside from two shows, and the one in Flushing really hopes that 2015 will have this on offer. That said, they took the 60 minutes they were allotted and stomped on the collective throat of Boston, grinning all the while. Not quite punk, not quite straight rock, not just posture and attitude...whatever combo they concocted has never quite been duplicated. And how great was that Jackson 5 cover?
8 - White Fence @ Great Scott
For anyone who digs what Tim Presley does with White Fence via listening to LPs or CDs, you don't quite get the full picture until you experience the psych-pop fury on stage. The Live in San Francisco LP definitely reveals some secrets, but until you are shoulder to shoulder in a packed, sweaty club with a beer in hand and singing "Arrow Man" at the top of your lungs into the next guy/stranger/new best friend's ear, well...you just haven't lived, baby. Bonus points for having Cate Le Bon in the touring band this go-round.
9 - Agalloch @ Great Scott
Third time seeing Agalloch, and they are another band who I'll more than likely make the effort to see them if they are in town. Tours used to be pretty scarce, and when they played the unlikely location of Bucharest Romania in 2010, that seemed to open the window for touring. Maybe getting signed to the excellent Profound Lore label also helped, but they've been in town three times in the last five years and that's something I can get used to. With the trademark incense burning in cast iron kettles atop stumps, leader John Haughm whipped his hair into action and the black metal band sprang to life. Equally anthemic, beautiful, and brutal, this year's [i]The Serpent and the Sphere[/i] was another worthy addition to their canon.
10 - Guided By Voices @ The Paradise
Another improbable reunion was Guided By Voices; sure they did the classic victory lap with the 'classic' lineup in 2010 onward, but who would have thought that SIX records would spring from the very fertile lobes of Pollard (and to a lesser extent, Sprout) in the following two and a half years. And while there is always some flotsam and jetsam to pick through to find the gems, they were certainly present (esp w/ Sprout's contributions, who really did a great job). The new material meant that new songs were pumped out in classic 1-2-3-4 fashion, a veritable rock hurricane that sweeps the room, with Pollard at the eye. Sweaty, boozy rock and roll. I'm surprised that according to GBVDB, they've actually played Salt Lake City twice; I figured that this much of a good time would certainly be banned in Utah.
The next 20, in no particular order:
Steve Malkmus @ The Paradise
The new record was a disappointment but the live show not at all. Steve was in a talkative mood, too, which always helps up the humor level. Add in a couple of classic Pavement songs and everyone went home smiling.
Rocket From The Crypt and Ex Hex @ Brighton Music Hall
Great double bill...Mary Timony's most recent rock project was firing on all cylinders, while John Reis and the mighty horn section of RFTC played a frat party worth attending.
Brand New @ Boston Calling
Have you ever seen a guitar thrown in the air about 20 feet into the air (check the upper right side of the photo)? How about the guy catching it and doing it again? I really didn't know anything about this band aside from their Long Island roots and an emo tag. Instead, they sounded like an updated Afghan Whigs, piss and vinegar flowing through every bursting seam.
Godflesh @ Royale
I'd seen Justin Broadrick perform as Jesu as well as White Static Demon but nothing was close to the power of Godflesh. Intense bass sound from this gig, so loud and clear. Streetcleaner has such an iconic cover and the music has the strength to back up the imagery.
Drive-by Truckers and Deer Tick @ Hampton Beach Casino
Second time seeing the Truckers this year... first time was very good but I was a week out from tearing my knee to pieces so I didn't quite enjoy it as much, or get the shots I wanted to. Hampton Beach was a lot better. It also helped that they were touring on their strongest effort in years, English Oceans. I went w/ my wife and my good friend Ted, and saw the usual Three Dimes Down crew at the rail. And while Blitzen Trapper was a good opening act in Boston, Deer Tick really brought it this night. Finally saw Cooley play the Flying V too! "The Night GG Allin Came To Town" was a 'tribute' to the man who was born a half hour or so from this venue. "Ronnie and Neil" rained down tears and bourbon. "Grand Canyon" is a superb closing track, a good way to say good night.
Spirit Caravan @ AS220
Last year The Obsessed played MDF and this year Wino brought Spirit Caravan to life. Can The Hidden Hand be next? This was a great gig but also a bit of a weird one... some sound troubles and occasional crowd action set both Wino and Henry off, with threats to kill the sound man and a final push of the drums into the crowd only offset by Dave Sherman playing good cop throughout the night (to the sound guy “I think you almost got it” while Wino threatened to strangle him), and sharing a joint w/ the audience in front of him. Still, it was great to hear classics like "Black Flower," "Courage" and "Dead Love/Jug Fulla Sun" at high intensity. Kudos to Greg Kelley for anticipating the crowd surge that started in “Black Flower” and stepping in to save my ravaged knee from further damage.
Mogwai @ Terminal 5
If I had to pick a favorite band of the last two decades, Mogwai would likely carry that banner. These Scots can really do no wrong...it's pretty rare for a band to continually turn out music that provokes such an emotional response. Though I've seen them plenty of times in the past (I think this show was number 10 or so, a pretty high number for someone who doesn't follow bands around on tour), the show still hit high points...I finally got to see Stuart sing with "Take Me Somewhere Nice"! According to my sound meter, the punishing "Batcat" made it the second loudest show of the year, hitting 103 dB. God bless Etymotic.
Swans @ Royale
...and this was the loudest show of the year, at 104 dB. Not surprising that Gira and crew were the top volume dealers, as they continue to punish and ultimately cleanse audiences with their sonic ritual. The Seer and To Be Kind are demanding listenings.... see them live to unlock the next level of consciousness.
Reignwolf @ Newport Folk Festival
It was nice to see a band bring a little bit of grime under the fingernails rock, a la Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, to the proceedings at Newport this year. I don't think it was a coincidence that before the show, the drummer came over to me and positively commented on the High On Fire shirt I was wearing.
King Buzzo @ Brighton Music Hall
Buzzo is well known as the leader of The Melvins, but he'd be flying solo for this tour... no band, no crushing Melvins songs via Crover et al pushing it through the audience. Nope, he was all on his own, with just a towel and a small amp on the stage. Acoustic Melvins? Could there be such a thing? After the opening salvo of "Boris," the answer was an emphatic yes. Bonus points for a much more talkative Buzzo, with a couple of really funny road anecdotes, especially the Mike Patton story.
Jeff Tweedy @ Newport Folk Fest
Dad rock is dead. Seriously, it gives me hives when I hear that derogatory term used in conjunction with Tweedy. Fuck That Shit. Bottom line, the guy is as generous, humorous, and creative as they come. This unannounced show in the tiny museum room (maybe fitting 100 seated people) was a hidden gem at the Newport Folk Festival this year, with a handful of covers, Uncle Tupelo songs and Wilco songs played with his usual aplomb. And funny shit too. After a ten year kid in the front row, wearing a Wilco shirt, shouted out a request, Tweedy said "Your parents dressed you today, didn't they?"
Alvarius B @ Johnny D's
The opposite of Dad Rock. "Six Kids Of Mine" will underscore that until there are splinters. Alan Bishop remains an uncompromising iconoclast, with searing wit always at the ready. Ask him what he thinks about globalists. His take on "Queen Jane Approximately" was sublimely perverse, as expected.
DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist @ House of Blues
Two turntablists, playing homage to THE pioneer, Afrika Bambaataa, by playing his record collection! Seriously, how great was this? It was like taking a trip through the Smithsonian.
Neutral Milk Hotel @ The Orpheum
Note: this is the back of my camera LCD of Mangum at Boston Calling... no photos allowed from the front, and discouraged overall
I'd seen leader Jeff Mangum a couple of times play solo at the ATP in Asbury Park a few years ago, but not the whole set and not with a band...and not so close. I can't count myself among the myriad acolytes whose lives were changed via In The Aeroplane Over The Sea but I cannot deny the emotional impact of this show, sitting in the 5th row in a dark room, surrounded by them. And finally hearing "Oh Comely." The show in the concrete canyon that is Boston City Plaza at Boston Calling was not nearly as successful.
Warpaint @ Royale
2014 was finally the year I saw Warpaint... back in 2011 I made the decision to see The Joy Formidable in the tiny Brighton Music Hall rather than seeing Warpaint at The Paradise, and while I do not regret that decision even slightly, I figured that Warpaint wouldn't wait to come back to town so long; in the same time frame, The Joy Formidable left Wales to play Boston four times. The Boston Calling show was good, w/ the Bowie cover a nice surprise, but a show packed with their fans and on their terms was much more satisfying. The set closer of "Burgundy" to "Krimson" set records for hair neck altitude.
Gruff Rhys @ Brighton Music Hall
Sometimes Boston (and I think US) audiences pisses me off, and tonight put that in on display in big, bright letters. Missing the tour opener in Philly due to visa problems, Rhys (Super Furry Animals main man) finally got approval and took the next flight from the UK and despite his hurried taxi drive, barely got on stage in time for the obscenely early start of 8 PM on a Friday (there was a local radio Country night following the show. Ugh). Rhys gamely put all his gear together under duress, but the turntable didn't work so "Shark Ridden Waters" had to go without audio samples. No matter, the visual projections worked and the American Interiors show was the main attraction, a compelling complete hagiography of the Welsh man who would settle the North American continent. This is a great record if you've not heard it.
Bob Mould @ The Paradise
Bob Mould, legend. What else is there to say? How about Beauty and Ruin being a worthy companion to his prior work, in both Husker Du and Sugar? Yep, it's true. And having Wurster and Narducy as your rhythm section is a surefire way to have your rock show locked and fucking loaded.
Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats @ The Middle East
The mystique of this band grew mighty quickly.... a barely released CDR that stirred the waters, a signing to Rise Above where Blood Lust made all your Sabbath dreams come true, and then Mind Control where the dystopian world became a complete vision. Yanked out of obscurity, they were the hand-picked opener for Black Sabbath on the European dates (us sad US fans got Andrew WK doing a DJ set....thanks, Sharon). Expectations of the sold out room were high, and the dimly lit band delivered the goods ten-fold.
King Diamond @ The Palladium
Never a big Mercyful Fate nor King Diamond fan (and I admit to giggling sometimes at the improbable falsetto), nevertheless I was very happy to see the first King Diamond shows in over ten years, and they pulled out all the Alice Cooper stops they could find, and found a couple more.
Mission of Burma @ The Regent Theatre
I hadn't seen Mission of Burma in five years. And they never really tour outside their homebase....What sort of asshole had I turned into? Luckily rectifying this and going out on a Sunday night, I was paid massive dividends by their normal, tightly wound sound and surprised when they paid homage to the anniversary of the Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan show by a couple of Fab Four covers. I'll never make that same mistake again.
Well that was fun. Let's do it again next year.
Keywords: Boston Calling Festival, Jeff Tweedy, John Zorn, Malkmus", Masada, Mission of Burma, Newport Folk Festival, Steve, Swans, The Replacements, Ty Segall, White Fence, best of 2014, live music, tinnitus photography
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