For me, this year proved that “Rocktober” really is the month to see some great concerts. My editors asked me to write about the shows I enjoyed most this year. While I don’t usually pick a hands-down favorite, this year was an exception. The following list isn’t in any sort of order, except for the very first one. Two months following The War On Drugs’ show at the Greek in Berkeley, my friends and I are still talking about that gig. It’s not only my favorite show this year, but it falls into my top 10 over the last 20 years combined.
THE WAR ON DRUGS at The Greek Theatre – Oct. 7
The War on Drugs was a band I had always wanted to see. The band was in town for their latest album, A Deeper Understanding; it was my favorite album of the year, so perhaps I was biased.
The show was plagued with sound issues to start, and lead singer Adam Granduciel had to start and re-start songs. This went on for a couple of songs, and the crowd was nervous and talking. Guitar techs rushed on stage, and Granduciel apologized, clearly a perfectionist. Would we ever get past “Holding On,” or would we be stuck here all night?
And then, magic happened. The band hit that sweet spot, and when they did, it was the tightest musicianship I have ever possibly seen. Their music soared through the open nighttime air. It filled the Greek.
The band was clearly channeling Tom Petty that night, who had recently played there and had just passed away, with ’80s Americana songs like “Pain” and “Nothing to Find.” The guitars all came together with extended jams, amazing guitar solos and tight drumming. Granduciel’s vocals were pure emotion, such that you felt every lyric.
As The War on Drugs ended the night, the band hit the singles, “Red Eyes” and “Under the Pressure.” The fans were immersed in the music, dancing and singing together, and enjoying every last minute. If the show ended then, it would have been amazing, but they had to come back and end with “Tangled Up in Blue” (with the harmonica no less) from Bob Dylan. Pure perfection!
YEAH YEAH YEAHS at The Fox Theater – Oct. 30
Yeah Yeah Yeahs were only performing four shows for this mini-tour celebrating the reissue of seminal album Fever to Tell, which was released 15 years ago. It was a band that I knew at best through the likes of other garage rock bands in the early 2000s. They all had a similar sound, but no one else had Karen O. And there was no way I’d miss this show.
The band started off with a documentary from their European tour in 2003, which led right into the show kicking off with “Modern Romance.”
Karen O had not lost any of her signature moves like spitting water, shedding of clothing and holding the mic in her mouth. The way she moves, she could still tear up the stage performing on her knees with knee pads on. The seductive sultriness of her vocals on songs like “Soft Shock” left fans clamoring for more of her. On “Maps” she showed off her still recognizable primal scream. No one can command a show quite like her.
Plus, Nick Zinner, an absolutely bad-ass guitarist, really showed off signature chords on “Y Control.” Then add in Brian Chase on drums, who tore it up on “Gold Lion.”
As the show ended, Yeah Yeah Yeahs played “Heads Will Roll” and turned the floor into a dance pit with confetti falling from the ceiling; the venue became a total party. The set was like a “best of” Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and who could really ask for more?
MIDNIGHT OIL at The Fox Theater – May 27
My high school self couldn’t have been more thrilled for Midnight Oil, and the band was on my list of must-sees. The band did not disappoint after all these years. The setlist was amazing, as they were able to go through their expansive collection that went back to 1980. The crowd sing-alongs were massive, drowning out the theater. Peter Garrett could still hit his well-known scream, as well as play the harmonica like nobody’s business.
The band was just so excited to be playing to a packed house with fans who had waited years for the band to come together again. From “Dead Heart” to “Beds Are Burning,” the hits kept coming, and it seemed the night might never end. A second encore with “King of the Mountain” finally culminated the set, and it was nearly impossible to hear the band playing over the loudness of the fans singing together.
BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE at The Fox Theater – Oct. 26
Broken Social Scene, the Canadian supergroup, hadn’t released an album since 2010. It was unknown if the band would continue to perform after a five-year hiatus, but then Hug of Thunder was released. Like an old friend, it was so nice to have them back.
Kevin Drew and his band were as tight as ever, from the gorgeous harmonies to their ever loud guitars filling the theater. Their prog rock, huge anthems filled the building with never ending guitar jams.
Brooklyn’s afrobeat band Antibalas was in town and playing next door, and Antibalas’ opener, Strike Iron, surprised everyone (including the band) by joining in on the second half of the set. At one point, there were 22 people jamming away on stage.
Ariel Engle was the “new” female of the band, replacing the likes of Feist, Emily Haines and Amy Millan. Her vocals blended beautifully into the band; add Andrea Lo (lead singer of opener The Belle Game) to perform “Anthem for a Seventeen Year Old Girl,” and it became perfection.
The band ended the set with the fans choosing which song to play. As the crowd was so loud, and no one wanted the show to end, they agreed to play both “Lover’s Spit” and “Cause=Time.” And the ending was ferocious, with Kevin Drew dancing in the crowd, everyone singing along, and the band tearing it up like there was no tomorrow. I knew at that moment why I never miss them if they’re in town.
STEREOPHONICS at The Fillmore – Nov. 29
Welsh band Stereophonics always were a favorite. So, it was great to see that Kelly Jones, lead singer, and Richard Jones, bassist (no relation), were still holding it down. Kelly Jones has not lost his vocal prowess. He is by far the greatest singer I’ve ever had the chance to see live.
The band performed for two hours straight with no opener and treated fans to nearly everything that one could want from their collection. While their newer material didn’t have the same punch, by the time they got to their third song, “The Bartender and the Thief,” the audience was ready for it. And it was at that moment the band really hit their stride.
Fans sang along, recorded songs on cameras and phones; no one could get enough. As I stood directly in front of Richard Jones, he never stopped smiling. The more excited the crowd was, the bigger his smile was.
With a tribute to Tom Petty (who had also played at The Fillmore) to “Have a Nice Day,” which was written in San Francisco, the band gave us everything. Stereophonics ended the show with “Dakota,” and Kelly Jones screamed out in his raspy vocals. With all their energy spent, the band finally walked off the stage. Even two hours still wasn’t enough for the fans.
SLOWDIVE at The Fox Theater – Oct. 28
English band Slowdive won my award for the loudest show of the year. The shoegazers did not let us down with their loud, fuzzy guitars and ethereal vocals. Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead came together with the dreamiest of vocals, as their voices blended together over the swirling guitars. It was loud; it was beautiful.
Images filling the screens behind them, the show felt as if it were a dream. It was hazy at best from all the colored lights and smoke. As images of pills filled the screen during “Sugar for the Pill,” it seemed as if we all might have taken something before going in. It was the first time seeing them and just as I had imagined, it felt like I had floated away that night.
BANKS & STEELZ at the Independent – April 20
One of the more unlikely pairings to have formed is Paul Banks (Interpol) and RZA (Wu-Tang Clan), to form Banks & Steelz. The pair was actually a natural fit. With Banks on guitars and vocals and RZA on keyboards and rapping, they created the perfect mash-up of hard hitting raps and indie rock guitar riffs.
As the band performed on 4/20, there were plenty of jokes about pot and why more wasn’t being smoked at the club. The duo performed tracks off their new album Anything But Words. “Ana Electronic” and “Speedway Sonora” were some of the more high energy tracks that got the crowd dancing.
RZA worked the crowd and looked the part as expected, and even sprayed champagne on the crowd before pouring small cups to everyone at the show. Paul Banks is as great as ever, and his vocals shined on “Giant” as RZA joined him rapping on the song. It was a beautiful collaboration, and the fact that I could now say I had been this close to RZA was well worth it.
CHAIN OF FLOWERS at Hemlock Tavern – March 25
Cardiff, Wales band Chain of Flowers (not to be confused with The Cure song) is a band I had randomly come across. It was a surprise to see this new band would be in town for their first-ever U.S. tour. The band played to a crowd of maybe 30 excited fans and put on a really tight, short set.
Chain of Flowers played a gorgeous combination of the goth pop sounds of The Cure, mixed with incredible guitar riffs of the Stone Roses. The band gave us an incredibly loud, guitar heavy, dance-y set. Josh Smith, lead singer, who may have been Ian Curtis reincarnated, had the same spastic dance moves along with the wrapping of the mic cord around his neck.
As I walked out of the show that night, a sweaty mess, I told my friend, “This will be that one show that everyone talks about like Joy Division.” If you were there that night, you were at the right place at the right time.
SHOUT OUT LOUDS at Great American Music Hall – Nov. 15
Stockholm, Sweden indie pop band Shout Out Louds brought the Great American Music Hall to life with a night of fun music. The band’s infectious pop music right away had fans singing along and dancing with the band.
Lead singer Adam Olenius thanked the fans and joked about them not being at LCD Soundsystem. He started to sing, “where are your friends tonight?” (from “All My Friends”) before going into crowd-pleaser “Very Loud.” The fans really got into the song and Olenius fed off the energy.
The band kept the show upbeat, dancing as they played hits off their earlier albums. With catchy, soaring choruses, fans knew the lyrics to all their songs and sang along. As Olenius reached for the cowbell, everyone knew to expect, “Tonight I Have to Leave It” and excitedly sang and danced along. The band was in such great spirits, and everyone left with a smile that night.