Sure, we’ve already counted down our top 25 albums of 2014. But, we figured, why let the studio jockeys have all the fun? These days, music is much more about the live experience. So this week, while the live music landscape is still getting over its holiday hangover, we thought we’d run down our favorite live shows of last year. So, when one looks back at an entire year and dozens and dozens of shows attended, only the truly superlative stand out amidst the legions that were all perfectly fine on their own. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but there is a common denominator here: they happened everywhere from a old Western town to a tiny club to a minor league ballpark, but none happened at an arena. Check out the bottom of the page for some of photographer Katherine Gaines’ favorite photos from her favorite shows of the year.
The Coathangers/Apr. 20/Comet Ping Pong/Washington, DC
First up: the Easter night combination of The Coathangers and Chain and the Gang in the back of this pizza parlor in upper NW Washington, D.C.. This was a D.C. throwback show on so many levels, even as a relatively young band from Atlanta filled the headlining slot. It seemed that pretty much everyone in the D.C. music scene that matters was there that evening, and the night took on the sense of a reunion without ever lurching into awkwardness. The punk-ish overtones were strong, a spicy meat-a-ball on the spastic rock genius that came out of the kitchen.
The Julie Ruin/Nov. 6/The Troubadour/Los Angeles
Speaking of D.C., The Julie Ruin certainly has strong linkages to our nation’s capital. Their set at the Troubadour was pitch perfect, and hit so many perfect notes that they’re tough to catalog (we tried, though). The most perfect thing, though, is the personability that Kathleen Hanna continues to exhibit, amidst her personal health challenges and the fact that her fans can be more than a bit obsessive. I’m not sure if I’ll ever sport the sweet tank top she gave us (and many others who gathered to talk with her after the show), but the gesture was the cherry on the sundae of rip-tastic, visceral (and occasionally theatrical) rock.
Big Tony’s Birthday Celebration/May 5/9:30 Club/Washington, DC
Close behind in the capital city, or maybe ahead, was a trifecta of performances from Scream, Trouble Funk and Foo Fighters at 9:30 Club. Most music fans probably only know one of the three bands, maybe two if they watched Dave Grohl’s epic mini-series Sonic Highways. The show was billed a birthday party for Big Tony (of TF), with only some hieroglyphic clues on the poster revealing that the Foos were also on board. Which, of course, meant that the version of Scream that was playing was the one where that had a teenaged Dave Grohl was slapping the skins. And man, does that guy play a mean drum kit, swinging through the skins as if coached by a little league baseball coach. Go-go legends Trouble Funk then did everything but light the place on fire, leading more than one by-stander to comment that they wouldn’t want to follow that set. And then, Foo Fighters came out for a special treat, an arena band in a club, doing nothing but a primal embrace of rock music. They didn’t do anything fancy, they just blew the doors off the joint and left everyone wanting more, even after hours on stage.
Rich Robinson Band/June 8/The Hamilton Live/Washington, DC
Hiatuses for the Black Crowes have become more then norm than the exception of late, with brothers Rich and Chris Robinson each finding side projects that they clearly seem to enjoy more than the band they founded together 25 years ago. While Chris’s Brotherhood has gone fully down the Golden Road of jam-dom, Rich roots himself in early electric blues rock and open-tuned acoustics reminiscent of Led Zeppelin III. With the Crowes, he’s usually content to blend in with tasteful, Keith-style rhythm riffs. But as a lead player-cum-frontman, it should be said: the guy can absolutely rip on guitar. As if to underscore the point, he threw in two Clapton covers, Blind Faith’s “Presence of the Lord” and Derek and the Dominoes’ “Got to Get Better.” Wouldn’t you know it? The guy even has some charisma hidden in there.
Nikki Lane/July 4/Bandit Town USA/North Fork, CA
Speaking of beating drums, there’s maybe no artist we pimped more in 2014 than Ms. Nikki Lane. The Nashville-based artist worked 2014 James Brown-style, crossing oceans and rivers and woods and probably playing a grandmother’s house or two as well. Immediately after traversing the country, and one week after WE sat down with her before her late June show in D.C., we improbably ended up in Bandit Town USA, a formerly-abandoned “town” in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains about midway though California. It was July 4th weekend, and Nikki wasn’t even on the bill, really, at their “Family Picnic.” She hopped on stage during the more formal part of the program, and it was excellent. But the truly special and heart-rending memory is of the late night campfire sing-a-long, where Lane’s charismatic personality neatly organized a seemingly impromptu concert around a roaring bonfire as artist after artist joined in around the crackling logs. It is undoubtedly our most personal memory of 2014, symbolizing one of our editor’s move from east to west.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds/July 23/Daughters of the American Revolution Hall/Washington, DC
Wringing with sweat, Nick Cave stalked the stage like a feral beast, glaring and stabbing his arms into the audience, seeking some kind of manic connection. The Bad Seeds, perhaps the greatest assemblage of pure musicianship on tour today, provided moody, swirling accompaniment to Cave’s every sinister carnal urge on new material like “Higgs Boson Blues” and older crowd favorites like “Tupelo” and ”Stagger Lee” (where the crowd chanted along to every profane word). Even on slow numbers where Cave plucked dulcet piano notes on “Into My Arms” and “People Ain’t No Good,” he and the band took us on a shadowy journey to the End of the Blues. It’s hard to imagine that the Daughters of the American Revolution could ever have conceived that a force so dark and sexual would have descended into its hallowed halls, transporting the assembled masses through a primal crucible of the soul, where visceral passions are stoked and caressed. But don’t get us wrong — this was a consecration, not a desecration — one that put us further along the path toward true enlightenment.
Arcade Fire/Aug. 4/Santa Barbara Bowl/Santa Barbara, CA
There’s something innately unforgettable about the Santa Barbara Bowl, nestled as it is amidst mountains and presiding over the Pacific. But it’s only aided by the genius that is Arcade Fire (and, frankly, by the mind-blowingly succulent tacos at La Super-Rica). The cavalcade from Montreal have continued to blossom, and at this stage of their career are inarguably one of the best rock bands on the planet. Their capacity for entertainment continues to expand, with additional flourishes and visual accompaniment elevating the total experience to an entirely different plane of awesomeness from their previous tours. After The Reflektors, after the human disco ball, and after the Win Butler’s march through the crowd, the show culminated in an orgiastic release of enough confetti to occupy a clean-up crew for a fortnight. Five-thousand spent fans offered up thunderous approval as mutual compliments flew back and forth, nothing remaining in a holistically fantastic experience, save the cuddling.
The Replacements/Sept. 13/Midway Stadium/St. Paul, MN
This was maybe the homecoming show to end all homecoming shows — the first hometown Replacements concert in the Twin Cities since 1991. But, wondered the 14,000 in attendance, would they rise to the occasion or drunkenly self destruct as they had so many times in the ’80s? What they got was an expectedly nostalgic, but improbably tight, journey through the ‘Mats’ catalog, from early punk numbers like “Takin’ a Ride” to almost radio hits like “I’ll Be You” to actual radio hits like “Alex Chilton.” Through it all, they gave a nod to Hendrix‘s “Third Stone from the Sun,” they covered Chuck Berry, they panned their own songs (“Get a load of this piece of shit,” quoth Tommy Stinson). Overall, it was a Replacements show. But better.
Jack White/Sept. 15/Merriweather Post Pavilion/Columbia, MD
It’s getting near impossible not to compare Jack White and The Black Keys. From White and Dan Auerbach’s on-again-off-again feud in Nashville to the fact that their new albums this year dropped within weeks of each other to the fact that their respective tours touched down in the DC area within days of each other, they practically invite the comparison. So here goes: the reason Jack’s tour makes this list and Dan’s doesn’t comes down to one word: passion. Auerbach, Patrick Carney and their band play a great set of music. In fact, we’d stack Auerbach’s guitar skills against White’s any day. But White and his eclectic band of fellow southern eccentrics put on a performance. From the first note, you’re enraptured, confident that White’s band, much like, say, KISS or The Clash before them, wouldn’t rather be doing anything else than playing on that stage at that moment. And they carry it through 90 highly charged minutes.
The Replacements/Sept. 21/Forest Hills Stadium/New York
Six days later, the Mats continued their triumphant comeback with a “four on the floor” hootenanny in the former U.S. Open tennis stadium. As they did the weekend before, Brooklynites (by way of Minneapolis) The Hold Steady opened, and set the stage for a rollicking yet tight set by Westerberg, Stinson and company. Playing all the hits and a lot of the misses, this is the Mats show you always wanted to see… but never did. 2014 was the year when the band went from shabby nostalgia act goofing their way through festival slots to the full-throttled rock stars we’d always known they could be. We can only hope that 2015 will be the year they step on the gas, hopefully with new music. But knowing the Mats, they’ll probably crash and burn, laughing all the way to the drunk tank.
TAUK/Sept. 27/Gypsy Sally’s/Washington, DC
When last we caught Tauk, the Long Island four-piece was nothing if not great—at least when it came to their musical chops. But how far could they really go? They lacked a little in the charisma department, owing perhaps to their support role behind Robert Randolph and the Family Band, or perhaps to their lack of a vocalist. And hell, they’re a jammy, proggy funk-rock band. But a lot can change in a year of constant touring. Namely, their ability to flat-out own a room, as they did at certainly one of the loudest shows ever at this small D.C. room that normally specializes in acoustic Americana. Whether it was some of the more structured pieces from their new album Collisions, or an extended jam on The Beatles‘ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” or “The Immigrant Song” they grabbed the crowd and didn’t let go until 1am. And they still don’t need a singer–the crowd does plenty of vocalization.
Royal Blood/Sept. 29/The Troubadour/Los Angeles
Royal Blood doesn’t have nearly as many songs as the aforementioned musicians, but they play them all with verve, intensity, and practiced virtuosity. Their blend of two man band plus samples meets Zeppelin and Black Sabbath is considerably more complex than what more well-known two-man-bands are doing these days, and a heck of a lot louder. Their Hollywood show in front of a sold out Troubadour crowd was pretty remarkable for such a young band, and elicited gleefully controlled aggression and cathartic hand-wringing from the largely male audience. They’re going to be big.
Kasabian/Oct. 8/The Wiltern/Los Angeles
We’d seen Kasabian in a festival setting. That performance was incredible, but festival shows are almost never a fair judge of an act’s live capabilities. Quite simply, Kasabian crushed their set at The Wiltern. Unanimously loved and with the Angeleno audience’s undivided attention, the most salient point that can be made about the show is that the audience didn’t want to leave. As the house lights flared and postscript music blared, they stuck around, continually chanting part of the closing song. When physically implored to leave, they continued chanting out into the street. It was a surreal, fantastically communal experience, and the sort of adrenaline rush usually reserved for illegal (or at least illicit) activities. It was rock and roll ecstasy.
Ex Hex/Oct 12/The Echo/Los Angeles
When D.C.-band Ex-Hex dropped by The Echo in Los Angeles, we arrived as fans, not as writers. (Thanks to Merge Records for denying our press credentials.…a most unexpected treat ensued!) This show was both contemporary and contemplative, rocking and reminiscent. It was able to raise the specter of the best 90s indie rock bands while providing a much needed jolt in 2014’s musical landscape. There’s something about that sound that just does it, and the fun they have on stage is incredibly contagious – people got INTO it.
St. Lucia/Oct. 17/The Fonda/Los Angeles
St. Lucia, a melody-driven electropop band, bears little resemblance to most bands on this list. The continued growth of this band was apparent at their fall show at Hollywood’s Fonda Theatre, their third performance of the year that we’d been able to attend. Their continued growth was evident on many levels, from an enhanced light show to more finely groomed attire to a more finely-tuned performance. Charisma shown through the entire show as the pop-perfection of their compositions shined brightly, leaving a jam-packed room full of people with enduring smiles. St. Lucia brings happiness into the world.
Phantogram/Oct. 21/The Observatory/Santa Ana, CA
We’ve been on the Phantogram train for quite a while — and seen enough of their shows to have run out of phalanges to count — but the Upstate New Yorkers have now figured a way to reach bullet train levels of sleek, shiny perfection. They’re also an act that has continued to develop and refine their craft, adding little flourishes each time that elevate the overall enterprise. Their late fall performance at The OC’s Observatory was a truly fantastic show, amping up the entertainment level from those of a band that just a few years ago performed largely in the shadows, shoegazer-style. They’re bonafide cross-over stars, exploding in the pop music atmosphere and lightening our nasty, brutish, and short lives with their pulsing beats and healthy dosages of shrouded sexual innuendo. It’s so fulfilling to see a band that was really damn good evolve in a positive manner: they’ve become great, and if the linear improvement exemplified by that show is any indicator, whatever they do next will be spectacular.
The Rural Alberta Advantage/Oct. 29/The Roxy/Los Angeles
Toronto-band The Rural Alberta Advantage elicits endorphin rushes throughout their energetic performances. Drums stay struck. Guitar and keyboards provide structure, atmosphere, and balance. Vocals linger in your head long after their aural resonance has dissipated. As one concert-goer said as The RAA’s show at The Roxy in Hollywood concluded, “If every show was like that, I’d go to a show every night.” We can assure that concert-goer…they’re not all that good. Unless, perhaps, you take to the road and follow The RAA around North America.
Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires/Dec. 28/City Winery/Nashville, TN
Jason Isbell rocks. No doubt about it. But Jason Isbell with an acoustic guitar (plus his wife’s fiddle–more on that in a minute) is NOT a rock show. Not even close. This was the softer side of Isbell, the side that’s put down the bottle (and the bottleneck slide, at least for most of the night) in favor of a woman he loves. The side that walks on stage halfway through his wife Amanda Shires’s opening set to add some tasteful guitar licks and backing vocals. The side that has her out there for his entire headlining set to do the same for him with her voice and her violin. It only worked because they invest so much in it. Isbell’s songs are electric with emotion, whether he’s singing about he and Shires’s trip to Stockholm, or about his high school classmate who came home from the Middle East in a casket. He even told the story behind his Drive By Truckers favorite “Decoration Day”–that it’s actually about his uncle, who killed a man, but got off on the defense that some folks “just need killin’.” Certain musicians don’t need a band behind them.
And a few more photos…
While we were at it, we asked Weeping Elvis contributing photographer Katherine Gaines to share a few of her favorite live shots from the year, and some of her memories to go along with them. Here’s what she said: “I loved FKA twigs before knowing who she was. After seeing her live, I am totally in love. She is mesmerizing, powerful, and so seductive that I’m pretty sure she turned all the gay men straight (at least for one night). Zola Jesus at the Hirshhorn was the best combination of singer, arrangement and venue I have ever seen. The power of a full horn section and Nika‘s distinctive voice echoing around the brutalist museum was breathtaking. Generally, you either get Die Antwoord or you don’t. If the pictures don’t give you the sense that they are a highly entertaining show…you don’t get it. Devo played a few dates where they only played their pre 1980’s material as a tribute to their fallen brother (literally and figuratively) Bob (2) Casale, but it still served as a celebration of everything that Devo still is, all these year later.” (Other photos highlight shows from the aforementioned Phantogram / St. Lucia / Chain and the Gang / The Coathangers, Lucius, and Tegan and Sara.)
All Photos | Katherine Gaines
–Behrnsie, Sir Duke, Erik Huey, Katherine Gaines.