I don’t usually rank my top 10 shows, but this year’s best show was so far above the rest, I decided to make it clear who was at the top: David Byrne. at The Civic. He played several other shows in the Bay Area that week, and I’m sure they were just as good as the one I saw at Bill Graham Civic. This was just the one I happened to photograph. David Byrne and crew made me reexamine my definition of a concert, band and even community. That’s no small feat for a performance. Here’s my attempt to explain why, as well as list my other nine favorite performances of 2018.
1. David Byrne at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium — Aug. 22
Barefoot with nothing but a shimmering silver chain curtain behind him and his talented crew of musicians, David Byrne and his crew stomped, careened and twirled about barefoot in matching gray suits for more than 90 minutes to the delight of the audience. The synchronization between musicians was breathtaking; it took three drummers in perfect timing to create the repeating arpeggiated drum roll in “Burning Down the House.” It was a delight be be constantly surprised by the performance as it unfolded through the evening. The cherry on top was the show-closing cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a somber rhythmic chant that simply, yet profoundly asks an audience to recall the names of the many people of color that have been lost to police violence. “Here was a protest song that doesn’t … preach at us,” Byrne said. “It simply asks us to remember and acknowledge these lives that have been lost, lives that were taken from us through injustice, though the song leaves that for the listener to put together. I love a drum line, so that aspect of the song sucked me in immediately. The song, musically, is a celebration and lyrically a eulogy. Beautiful.”
2. Young Fathers at The Independent — Nov. 11
This was the other truly memorable performance I saw in 2018. Young Fathers had been on my radar for the past six months, and I was even more tightly focused on the chance to see them live after they won the prestegious Scottish Album of The Year award in September. I loved how there were minimal physical instruments, and the three vocalists traded lead and harmonizing vocals, as well as splitting duty on synth, drums and keyboards. It is rare to see such complex lighting and production at a venue as intimate as The Indy. The other thing that struct me was the amount of physical contact and close proximity of the trio. It was an intimately collaborative performance that made me move, shake and think.
3. The Cure at British Summertime Fest at Hyde Park in London — July 7
This set was sure to be a winner from the moment it was announced in 2017 as The Cure’s only performance in 2018. The epic show was timed to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the release of the band’s first single. It was a particularly interesting lineup for the day as The Cure handpicked the plethora of talented musical artists to join them onstage for the big day, including Interpol, Goldfrapp, Editors, Ride, Slowdive, The Twilight Sad, Pale Waves and several others. I came hoping for some tight musicianship, but it was the sense of community within the audience and the camaraderie among the musicians that really set this show apart. The 70,000-strong audience had made a pilgrimage to London for The Cure’s 40th anniversary gig, and every one of us unabashedly sang along as Robert Smith and co. proved once more that they are not a legacy act, but at the top of their performing game.
4. Phoenix at The Greek Theatre in Berkeley — Sept. 8
Sometimes you forget how good a band is live. Then it performs and not only do you remember, but that band exceeds all your memories of previous shows. Such was the case with Phoenix. It’s a tight and well-oiled performing machine that exudes so much joy from playing together. Lead singer Thomas Mars isn’t afraid to get out and interact with the audience, and the show is so much better for it. He does it so much that the band even has special equipment for his forays into the recesses of the crowd, such as a 100-feet-long illuminated microphone cord. While not officially a member, drummer Thomas Hedlund has recorded and performed with the band since 2006, and I think he’s the best pop drummer around.
5. Florence and the Machine at Outside Lands — Aug. 11
I never forget how good Florence Welch is live. Her voice cuts me to the bone, and her energy as she twirls and whips about on stage is legendary. I’ve seen her perform live many times at smaller venues like The Masonic, Oracle Arena and Shoreline Amphitheatre, but this was the largest Florence crowd I have witnessed. What made this show magical is that it didn’t feel like a huge show. It felt very intimate and personal. Some of the best performers, such as Perry Ferrell, can hold an audience with their charisma and bling. However, Florence Welch holds an audience with her compassion and love.
6. Lizzo at Outside Lands — Aug. 11
Lizzo had the early afternoon audience at the main stage on Saturday eating out of the palm of her hand. If there was anyone who didn’’t know who she was at the start of the set, they certainly did when she was done. Her body-positive message of self-affirmation was a sassy celebration of feminist and LGBTQ positivity from she moment she hit the stage.
7. Shame at Treasure Island Music Festival — Oct. 14
Shame reminded me of what I love about young post-punk bands. They were cranked up to 11, and didn’t care about anything other than putting on a great show. At one point, frontman Eddie Green went crowd-surfing atop a hyperactive mosh pit, arching his back like a moon bridge and risking his neck.
8. U.S. Girls at Treasure Island Music Festival — Oct. 14
I’d heard some great things about U.S. Girls leading up to the Treasure Island Music Festival, but I was really blown away by their intense, theatrical-yet-subdued performance. There are a lot of performers in U.S. Girls. Watching them work together, share a set for keyboards, harmonize and move haltingly slowly together was a visual and aural treat.
9. Janelle Monae at Outside Lands — Aug. 12
I saw Janelle Monae twice in 2018, and had a hard time picking which performance to highlight for this list. In the end I chose her Outside Lands set because she performed with a horrible bout of food poisoning, but soldiered on without tipping her hat to her compromised state until the final song.
10. Rex Orange County at Outside Lands — Aug. 10
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. This is exactly what Alexander O’Connor (aka Rex Orange County) did when his tour bus broke down and his band and equipment wasn’t able to make it in time to the festival. Although he apologized profusely for the lack of band, there was really no need to as we were all treated to a rare solo performance that showed why he was so buzzworthy in 2018.