It’s that time of year where I, like the past six years, count down my favorite musical experiences. I attended 56 concerts this year, up from 54 last year and 51 the year before. I gave up a long time ago on picking my favorite moments based on empirical evidence. Fun is fun, even though fun is also dumb sometimes. I’m no snob and can appreciate anything. That’s why I avoid terms like “best.” If you want to get technical, other RIFF staffers include more complex sounds like jazz or metalcore. For the most part, you won’t find that here.
That doesn’t mean I’m not picky, though. St. Vincent and Florence and the Machine, for example, put on pretty solid shows at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and at Outside Lands, respectively. Neither ended up on this list. Foo Fighters had me going at SAP Center in Jose until their solos became grating, and the results started diminishing. The National was good—but not great—at the Greek. In other words, simply having a large production didn’t give acts an advantage over artists who played small clubs.
Like in years past, I set a few rules for myself. Opening acts weren’t eligible to make the main list. Instead, they comprise a “special considerations” tally. Before, I had a personal rule that the musicians on the main list have to play at least an hour. I scrapped that for this year. I’m getting older and sometimes wouldn’t stick around for an entire show, anyway. Perhaps if I had, the list would look different. If I see multiple great performances by the same artist, only one can make the list.
All of the videos other than one are mine, and if you see a link, chances are either I or someone at RIFF wrote about or interviewed him/her/them. Here’s a quick breakdown: I saw the most shows in October (11). I only attended three in March and June, and December is shaping up to be my quietest in 2018.
2018′s special considerations (IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER):
Opening for Pale Waves at The Chapel — March 27
I wished London quartet INHEAVEN, making its first appearance in the Bay Area, could have played at least twice as long. The band shifted from ’90s alt-rock to a dense wall of sound. They did cover the majority of their 2017 debut album, so it was understandable, but a few covers would have worked for me. Highlights included “Baby’s Alright,” “Regeneration” and “Vultures.” The hard-driving earworms were matched only by the band’s exuberance. Here’s what I said back then: “INHEAVEN is blessed with two members—bassist Chloe Little and guitarist James Taylor—who each have the charisma to lead a band. But because they’re together, they can pick and choose their spots.”
Gang of Youths
At Bottom of the Hill — May 22
Here’s an example of a still-growing band—huge in its native Australia—that is playing small clubs in the U.S., but doesn’t treat them as such. The Bottom of the Hill may as well have been Oracle Arena for Gang of Youths, who blasted off from the very first notes. This publication had picked the act as a band to watch at SXSW, and I found out on this night that there was good reason for that selection. The songs recalled Bruce Springsteen, a glossier take on the Gaslight Anthem, and the Killers.
Frontman Dave Leaupepe swung his guitar over the heads of the audience, the veins in his face pulsating. It was easy to tell how hard he was working to give everything he had on that night. This performance just missed out the main list, and I’m partly to blame. I was feeling under the weather and took off a few songs early. I thought I’d get to see the band a few months later at Outside Lands, but that appearance was later cancelled. Count me in as “patiently waiting to hear and see more” from Gang of Youths.
At The Chapel — Aug. 29
I knew going in that this show was going to be sentimental. Bassist Sage Chavis had let me know a couple of days earlier that she was leaving The Regrettes, leaving just two original members in singer-guitars Lydia Night and Genessa Gariano. But I also figured it would make for a more subdued performance, and I was very wrong. The band, including new drummer Drew Thomsen, was more intense than in the band’s previous Bay Area shows, clearly having fun with each other for one of the last few chances they were going to get. Night nailed the verses on “Hey Now” and “Whatta Bitch.” New tunes like “Dress Up” and “California Friends” fit right into the flow of the show. Throughout, mosh pits morphed from one side of the floor to the other.
But a cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” for the first of two encores, figuratively blew the roof off The Chapel.
At Cafe Du Nord — Oct. 17
What were the odds that two of Sweden’s top pop singer-songwriters would perform in San Francisco on the same night? I had already seen Tove Styrke open for Lorde earlier in the year, so I kind of wanted to see Lykke Li on this night instead. But I’m glad I ended up at Cafe Du Nord, because as it turns out, Styrke only showed one of her sides at the arena show. Given her own stage, with her own fans, she put on a much more intimate and direct performance that felt more like a house show. The diversity of her songbook also shined, as she shifted among traditional pop, dance music and even a bit of Reggaeton. Finally, Tove Styrke made good use of her performance space, covering the stage with a few hundred light-up roses and coordinating outfits with her backing musicians. The production went above and beyond what was expected for the room.
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Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.