Since graduating high school, live music has been an essential part of my livelihood. Just the other night, in a very inebriated state at three in the morning, my friend and I went back to my house and ran downstairs to plug in my guitar for some late night drunken jamming. We traded on and off, playing riffs back and forth. I probably sounded awful. While my friend played, I sat there mesmerized as he simply strummed a couple simple chords. It doesn’t need to be complex. There’s something about hearing those tones swoon out of my semi-hollowbody electric guitar, through the amplifier and into my eardrums that sends a shiver through my limbic system.
Live music can be found anywhere. Whether I’m buzzing from a few beers at a local bar and hearing a couple kids play an open mic set to fifteen people or watching a legendary rocker electrify a sold-out arena, live music in all forms, like humor, is a universally connecting human experience. There aren’t many other places in the world where you can have a frat guy on your right, and a bonafide hippie on your left, both sharing the same joy.
However, not all live music is equal. And by this I don’t mean X guitar player is better than Y guitar player, or this artist plays to arenas and that band plays to empty bars. No matter the level of popularity, experience, or style of music, I believe one of the best metrics for judging live music is based on what the artist gives you – vulnerability, anger, sadness, excitement. It’s all the same. It’s passion. You can sense when a singer feels something through their music – crooning lyrics crafted from the depths of their life’s subconscious experiences. In contrast, you can also tell when a song was banally crafted by someone simply trying to make a catchy song, rather than truly expressing themselves through sound.
Take for instance a couple months ago – I was drinking with some old friends in a college house of some guys I didn’t really know. I saw a drum set, guitars, amplifiers and a microphone. As we drank more and more cheap beer we convinced them to play for us. The trio of drunk dudes who have never recorded or released a single song played us a creation of theirs. The song was raw, unpolished, but you could feel a flame of passion burning through every note as they played. The singer, holding a Miller Lite in one hand and reading the lyrics he wrote into his iPhone notes, sang and yelled with the joy to simply be playing what he wrote to anybody who cared to listen, even if it were only a couple drunk guys before going to the bars.
On the other side of the coin, you have the derivative DJ pressing play on a Macbook to signal the start of an unoriginal, bland poppy EDM song that the kids love to rage to. While at Bonnaroo the other week, my girl and I sat in the sand under some neon palm trees in the distance watching an “artist” who goes by the moniker of Snails stand in front of a computer screen as booming bass pounded and cliche “drops” threw all the kids into a fist-pumping frenzy. After five minutes, we stood up and power-walked as far as we could away from the atrocity. I will never understand it. But hey, different strokes…
Then there’s the rapper with three hit songs, who acts as his own hype man instead of actually rapping. Reciting half a line, then pointing the microphone at the crowd so they could rap/sing the lines for him. Only a fraction of the crowd knows the words to a fraction of songs. Yet they always do it. It’s the main reason why most rap shows are so cliched and boring. If you aren’t Kanye fucking West pointing the microphone to the crowd to rap a song that everyone knows a select few times during the show, rap your own damn lines. Guitarists and drummers spend all day practicing their craft so that they don’t miss a single note throughout a set, and you can’t even rap the majority of your own lyrics.
Also, I have no animosity towards the opposite side of the crowd. I don’t understand why rappers and DJs insist on screaming “left side make some noise! Now right side make some noise! Left side you can be louder than them!” I didn’t come to your show for a shouting competition with other concert-goers. Then there’s the classic, “ladies make some noise!” and then it turns into “if you’re lit right now let me hear you!” until they run out of demographics in the crowd to plead with to make their concert more exciting. Would not be at all surprised if I started to hear, “okay now everyone wearing a white shirt makes some noise!”, “if you have a rib tattoo make some mother fuggin noise!!” “If you’ve eaten ice cream this weekend, let me hear you scream!”
It’s so played out and corny, and typically a sign that the performer has to rely on cliche antics to get the crowd involved in the show, because their music isn’t quite doing the trick. Sure, stage banter has it’s place, and when done correctly, can add to the experience. But no one comes to hear a public speaking event intermission in your concert.
For example, I would put the first half of Kanye West’s show that I saw in 2014 in my top concerts of all time. I wasn’t even a huge fan, but when I was standing there waiting for Yeezus to take the stage and wolves started barking before he came out to “Black Skinhead” screaming and jumping around like a maniac wearing a diamond-covered mask, I thought, shit, this is fucking awesome. It was straight up villainous. The energy in the crowd was incredible. Then halfway through, it all ended. Kanye paused to take a solid 30-45 minute intermission to ramble about his fashion line, his takes on politics, and let us know that he is the Mozart or Walt Disney of our generation. I thought I was about to fall asleep. And when he returned to playing his music, the energy was zapped out of the crowd like we’d all been administered Xanax through the air. I couldn’t wait for it to end.
That said, I have seen some amazing rap concerts. Some “electronic dance music” shows have made me dance from start to finish. I’ve sang along to classic songs with tens of thousands of other people, and I’ve packed into small concert halls for intimate performances by up-and-coming artists. It doesn’t matter the level of popularity or genre, I am always yearning for that transcendent live music experience. Since I was 18, I’ve seen 100+ live acts, ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Nas to a random DJ called Clockwork.
After some hard thinking about my favorite live shows of all time, I’ve deemed it impossible to rank them in a list. Furthermore, the enjoyment of a live show is a very subjective experience, even more so than hearing a recording. I can see a band kill it one night, and you can see the same band be completely off another night. The right venue at the right time can elevate performances – some artists are better suited for small, intimate concerts, while other’s are meant to perform to enormous crowds at festivals. Sometimes artists give phoned-in performances at routine stops on the their tour, yet absolutely crush it at a festival, and sometimes it’s the other way around. I’ve seen it go both ways.
The experience is also heavily influenced by how much you like a band going in. If you’ve listened to all of their albums on repeat for years and know every word, you’ll obviously enjoy a band’s show more than a casual listener who knows two songs.
First, lets pour out some liquor for the shows that I was supposed to see, but either missed or only saw a portion of. Hearing Bjork in the distance but not being in the middle of the crowd for that otherworldly performance broke my heart. There was the time I was out of my mind and stumbled into Nicolas Jaar’s Darkside performing at 2 a.m.. There was a giant illuminated mirror onstage that when pointing at me, made me feel like I was being sucked into a wormhole to another dimension. I freaked out and left. Shame on me. Then there was the time I saw Blood Orange late at night – I stood there absolutely mesmerized by how good of a performer he was, but left because there was other stuff to see. To this day I still kick myself for only staying for a portion of D’Angelo and The Vanguard’s performance because the group I was with didn’t recognize the greatness and wanted to leave. Hopefully I can see each of them in full some day.
With that said, it’s time to recount some of my favorite live shows of all time.
The Surprisingly Amazing Small Theater Show: Father John Misty
Touring his first successful album Fear Fun, I saw Father John Misty play a small theater on a weekday. I knew the album, I liked the album, and I figured a cheap ticket to see the indie-folk rocker would make for a fun evening. What I did not expect was an insanely charismatic performer who could engage the small crowd of no more than 200 people from start to finish. His voice and backing band were immaculate. He gyrated and danced on stage. He chugged from a pitcher of some unknown alcohol concoction. His stage banter was hilarious. He was slowly seeping his way into the playlists of music lovers, but not yet “big” by any means. Playing unreleased (now) classics from his sophomore album and performing his “folk” music with a punk rock energy, Father John Misty walked like a rockstar, talked like a rockstar, and now, he’s a fucking rockstar.
The Emotionally Swooning Sunset Spectacle: The National
The sun was setting over the festival grounds, I had the perfect alcohol buzz, and The National took the stage. I knew all the songs. Knew all the lyrics. I sang along with lead singer Matt Berninger, who drunkenly crooned and screamed and jumped into the crowd. It was the type of show I described earlier where you felt the power behind the music and sensed the artist’s genuine passion for their music. Add to that, the audience was gifted with a surprise as the lovable Annie Clark of St. Vincent joined the band onstage to sing backing vocals for a powerful performance of “This is the Last Time”. There aren’t many shows I’ve enjoyed as much as this one. Everything was just right.
The Legendary 80,000 Person Sing-Along: Paul McCartney
Admittedly, I am not the biggest Beatles fan out there. But when you have an opportunity to see a legend like Paul McCartney perform, you take full advantage. Sir Paul McCartney gifted us with a three hour performance of solo cuts as well as a number of Beatles classics. Hearing over 80,000 people sing along to “Hey Jude” in unison is enough to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. His music is timeless, universal, and transcends generations. The closing encore of “Live and Let Die” erupted the crowd as an impressive pyrotechnic firework shows exploded above the stage. I will never forget this this show.
The Face Melting Rock-Out: Jack White
This dude is something else. I waited over five hours to get a prime spot up front for Jack White’s electrifying set, and it was worth every second. Jack White doesn’t simply play the guitar, he fucking abuses it. The man plays with reckless abandon as well as near technical profession, rifling through his deep catalogue of Detroit style in-your-face garage blues. He tore through song after song. And just kept fucking going long after the concert was scheduled to end. And you know damn well that when it came time for his anthem, “Seven Nation Army”, tens of thousands of people jumped up and down and chanted that unforgettable melody in unison. I had so much fun that I immediately bought tickets to see him again on his tour after that show. Jack White is one of the most talented performers alive.
The Show Where I Never Stopped Moving: Cut Copy
Bored at my school over spring break while my roommates were on getting drunk on the beach, I checked out upcoming concerts in nearby cities and purchased Cut Copy tickets on a whim after hearing a couple songs. The Aussie synth-pop band inspired by 80’s new wave put on one of the most fun shows I’ve ever been to. From the moment they played the opening song, the crowd could not stop moving. It wasn’t a choice. You had to dance. When the rhythms and melodies hit your brain, it was almost like some sort of hypnotizing mind control compelling you to dance nonstop. My legs were very sore the next day.
The Drunken Rap Show That Transcends Rap Music: Danny Brown
As I’ve stated before, I’m not a huge fan of rap shows. When I was a youngster, I was a huge hip-hop head and I saw many of my favorites before they lost their allure. Rap music simply doesn’t translate as well to live performances as other genres do. But Danny Brown is not merely a rapper, he’s a rock star. I think I’ve seen him almost five times, and each time he brings an energy unrivaled by his contemporaries. He maniacally screams and barks his drug-addled songs while jumping around like he’s possessed with the spirit of Iggy Pop and Dirty Ol’ Bastard after blowing an excessive amount of cocaine. He doesn’t need to point the mic at the crowd or rely on other corny hype tactics to get the crowd involved. His music and energy alone make him stand above all other rappers in terms of live performance. Now, it seems that dozens of other big rappers have copied his style and aura, but it’s just a testament to how influential and innovative Danny has been. If you see Danny Brown, I highly encourage drinking a decent amount beforehand, because you’re not going to a rap show, you’re going to a mother fucking party.
The Feel Good Sentimental Set: Glass Animals
The memory of seeing Glass Animals is still fresh in my brain from my recent Bonnaroo trip, and it was my favorite show of the weekend. Glass Animals is the rare new band able to use synthesizers and modern electronic recording techniques while also being able to craft compelling, well-written music. Some music makes you dance. Some music makes you sing along. Some music makes you think. Glass Animals’ music does all three. I stood towards the back of the crowd with my arms draped around my girl in front of me, dancing to the music under the stars and nighttime lights, feeling a genuine sense of love, empathy, and appreciation. Great music will have that effect on you.
The Show That Started It All: Radiohead
Ah yes, my angsty teenage favorites. I feel both lucky and cursed to say that Radiohead was the first real concert I ever attended, because it was life-changing introduction to the power of live music and also set the bar pretty damn high for everything I’ve seen since. I was stoned out of my mind, standing there hardly moving for nearly three hours, speechless as Thom Yorke & company hypnotized my teenage brain with their god-level music. I’m pretty sure I thought I was going to die as “Idioteque”‘s apocalyptic synth tones and spastic drums lit up every neuron in my brain. The sing along to “Karma Police” was just as glorious as it was in all the Youtube videos. And after that, I fell in love with live musical performances.
The Show That Made Me Feel Like I Was On Drugs: Caribou
Ironically, Radiohead wasn’t exactly the first concert I ever saw. Before Radiohead took the stage, Caribou opened for them, but I was too stupid to pay attention or realize that the opening band I’d never listened to would become an all-time favorite in the following years. I learned… It was Sunday of Bonnaroo 2015, my legs felt like jello, and I wanted a shower and a bed more than anything else. I was debating leaving early, but I stayed for Caribou. And God, I’m glad I did. Dan Snaith is one of the most talented working musical composers and has released a solid catalogue of experimental electronic psychedelic jams. But his live show is something else entirely. While much music that falls under the “electronic” title is bland bullshit played live through simply a laptop and speakers, Caribou’s live show housed half a dozen musicians playing a wide array of instruments. I was not on drugs. In fact, I was hardly buzzing from some beers I drank earlier in the day. I was running on minimal sleep and I had no energy, yet I simply couldn’t help but dance around like a freshly-rested 21 year old with a brain full of MDMA for the entirely of the set. I cannot wait to have the opportunity to see Caribou again.
The Nostalgia Induced Favorite: Interpol
I’ve seen Interpol play a daytime festival set as well as a more intimate theater show, and I loved both for different reasons. Interpol is one of my favorite bands of all time, so any time I am able to check them out, I will. Paul Banks’ voice isn’t what it used to be, their recent outputs have fallen far from their first two classic albums, and Carlos D is probably somewhere doing cocaine off on modernist paintings while Mozart plays in the background at this point, but there’s an immense joy I get in seeing New York’s sharp-dressed rockstars tear through a set of their icy nostalgia-inducing post-punk hits. I saw them drunk as hell in the afternoon at Lollapalooza in 2014. It was right before their latest album came out, and I was the only loser in the crowd who knew the words to the new singles. And I loved every minute of it.
The Late Night Psychedelic Party: Animal Collective
Before seeing Animal Collective, I’d heard for years and years how great they were, but I didn’t really get it. Their music was weird and inaccessible to my juvenile brain. But when I knew I’d be seeing them, I listened to their Magnum Opus Merriweather Post Pavillion a few times and liked a few of their hits. It was late night (or early in the morning), 1:30 a.m. I believe, and I stood in the center of a crowd of crazed fans as Animal Collective took the stage and kept the party going until three in the morning. I didn’t know more than a handful of songs, but there aren’t many more shows that were more fun than this one. Between Avey Tare’s croons, the electronic waves flowing through the air, and the triumphant sing alongs to “My Girls” and “Brothersport”, I’ve been obsessed with the band ever since.
The Show That Made Me a Believer: LCD Soundsystem
Ah, nostalgia… I remember listening to “All My Friends” one night while driving to meet up with some of my old, most cherished friends for a night of drinking. The song hit me in the gut and made me thankful for every night, every laugh, and every shotgunned Bud Light with close friends. Cheesy, yes. But that’s when I started to understand the allure and praise for LCD Soundsystem. When I found out that I was going to see them, I dug deeper into their discography. “Someone Great” is an all-time favorite song of mine. I loved a few songs, but most of their music didn’t really click for me. Until that night. I was completely wasted, in the perfect mood, and I LCD Soundsystem was performing. All the hype behind the reunion, the comeback tour, I had to see what it was all about. My memory of the show is actually a bit fuzzy from partying a little too much, but I remember… I remember how each and every song hit me like it was the best song I’d ever heard. I remember how the disco rhythms and beats made me dance and connected to the earth and everyone around me. I remember how loud I sang along to the words of “Someone Great” like I was a 13 year-old girl at a Bieber concert. I remember how stupid I probably looked, and how childish I may sound, but I don’t care. There was something special about that show. The music made sense to me, finally. James Murphy’s disaffected voice soaring through the air, coupled with the carefully crafted electronic rock compositions made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Dance music with sentimentality. Electronic sounds with soul. It was perfect. I am itching for the chance to see them again this summer, because LCD Soundsystem put on the best live show I’ve ever seen.
If you ever have the chance to see any of these artists, whether they’re on the bill for a festival you’re attending or stopping by your city, take full advantage of it. Oh, and remember – put the phones away. And dance.