Saturday, January 03, 2009

Catfish at the Clubs (and Theatres and Parks...): Best Shows of 2008

In my rundown of the best shows of 2007, I didn't even try to give any sort of ranking, instead just going chronologically. But this year had such clear standout shows that I'm going with a ranked list, and letting the chips fall where they may.

I made it to about 65 shows this year - depending on how you count things (I tend to put multi-day festivals down for a show per day, no matter how many bands, because it's sort of like a show with several bands on the same bill). And that's even with a four-months stretch in which I hardly left my house because of staggering job obligations.

Once again, the shows that involve travel or road trips come out on top. It's simple really: driving or flying solely to see live music is a tremendous commitment of both time and money, and there are few living musicians who are worth going great lengths to see.

And once again my year was filled with fantastic local bands - I saw The Swim 11 times, Fourkiller Flats 8 times, Chango Malo 7 times, Calexico 3 times.

I also have to say that my thoughts on live music in general crystalized a bit this year: seeing a band play is an energizing, life-affirming force for me. It's something I need, something that lifts my spirits, flips my thoughts around and just generally makes the days better. The opportunity to stand there enveloped in a surge of sound, particularly a sound I love dearly, is one of the better things about being alive. And the following is the best of those moments this year.

1. Pete Seeger & Arlo Guthrie, Carnegie Hall, Nov. 29

Pete Seeger is one of the most joyous people ever to walk this earth. He also fought harder than most anybody for what he believed in. It's that combination of unwavering optimism and commitment that fuels his music - has fueled his music for some 70 years.

Arlo's accomplishments - including writing my favorite song of all time, "Darkest Hour" - might seem to pale in comparison, but trust me when I say that they share an equal bill. I'd just seen Arlo twice already and Pete was really the reason I flew to New York.

Despite being in the farthest back corner of the Carnegie Hall audience, the show was among the best I've ever seen. I could hardly sing along to "This Land Is Your Land" because I was so choked up. I left thinking that Pete Seeger is clearly the greatest person alive.

I wrote that he's an "89-year-old giant, surely in decline, but still driven by that same love of peace and humanity and music that marked his entire life." Pete Seeger, I wrote just in advance of taking off for New York City, "has been a crucial and wildly influential part of the culture, the very life and soul, of this country, for three of my lifetimes."

And I shared a night with him and Arlo and several Guthrie and Seeger children and grandchildren and just marveled in the continuation of the folk tradition.

Pete Seeger & Arlo Guthrie - This Land Is Your Land (live)
Pete Seeger & Arlo Guthrie - Live 1975-07-25 (zip file)

2. Tom Waits, El Paso Plaza Theatre, June 20

My other highly, highly anticipated traveling concert of the year, this would be at the top of any other list.

Tom Waits operates so far outside the realm of the modern commercialized and materialistic United States that it's a treat just to hear his music.

And he performs with such an impressive infrequency that even the first mention of a tour, and one that started with two Phoenix shows no less, had me plotting for all I was worth, fully committed to the idea that I could just no pass up any opportunity to see a show. Then Phoenix sold out two nights while I was aboard an airplane and couldn't even try to get a ticket. But some friends had designs on El Paso and I was in.

A shimmying and stomping scarecrow-come-to-life, Waits was everything I could have hoped to see in person. His well of songs is so deep and his showmanship so sharp that it didn't matter I knew less than half of the songs. They were great, every one.

Tom Waits - House Where Nobody Lives (live 1999 Storytellers)
Tom Waits - Storytellers 1999 (zip file)
Tom Waits - NPR broadcast, Live Atlanta, 2007-07-05 (2 hours 21 minutes, 130 mb)

3. Fleet Foxes, Solar Culture, June 30

Standing second row from the stage in the beyond intimate Solar Culture felt like being right in the middle of a speaker, with the Fleet Foxes intricate, enrapturing harmonies flowing right through me.

From listening to the band's Sun Giant EP I knew they sounded good, but live the music was so perfect it seemed to flow over the edges of my sense of hearing into the other senses.

On nearly every song, three and four singers weave their voices together, perfectly, into probably the richest, warmest and most inspiring human sound I've ever heard up close and first hand.

And the songs themselves have a certain ancient power, woodsy and warm. Asked by a BBC deejay how they created their "incredible vocal blend," the band simply replied: "Witchcraft." And that's probably the straight-forward truth.

Fleet Foxes - Mykonos (live BBC)
Fleet Foxes - NPR Broadcast, 2008-07-08 (1 hour 15 minutes, 69 mb)
Fleet Foxes - BBC, 2008-06-18 (zip file)

4. Outside Lands Festival, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Seeing Radiohead, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Wilco on consecutive nights is one of the highlights of my life, not just this year.

Throw in the fact that I stood beside my best friend while he proposed to his girlfriend in front of tens of thousands of people while Wilco played "Jesus Etc." and it's a weekend that will carry a profound personal significance until the end of my days.

It was my first time seeing Radiohead play, and I was so blown away I immediately took back every snide thing I'd ever said about what I once called their "mid-career techno period." This was one of the strongest bands in the world playing a rock music that drew on incredible intricacies of rhythm, tone and atmosphere like none other I've ever seen.

Night two was Tom Petty, and I've never had more fun singing just about every word of a concert. For Petty, music is fun, a party that he's never stopped being happy about even being invited, and he's been the host for 30 plus years.

Then Wilco, my favorite band, on the same stage I saw Jeff Tweedy solo just 10 months earlier. The bird machine was once again in full effect. And the moment was absolutely perfect.

The rest of the festival was plenty awesome too: Broken Social Scene, Bon Iver, Cafe Tacvba, Beck, Felice Brothers, M. Ward, Cold War Kids, Drive-by Truckers and too many more to mention.

Radiohead - NPR Broadcast, Live Santa Barbara 2008-09-08 (2 hours 6 minutes, 115 mb)
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - 2008-08-23, San Francisco Outside Lands Festival (zip file 205 mb)
Wilco - NPR Broadcast, Live Washington D.C. (partial) 2008-02027 (17 minutes, 16 mb)
Bon Iver - NPR Broadcast, 2008-02-19 (30 minutes, 38 mb)

5. Chango Malo, acoustic Don Jennings Tribute, June 1

Musicians tend to thrive within a certain comfort zone when they perform. Breaking out of the standard set list is never an easy thing. Abandoning everything that's been at the core of your live set for years and years is an entirely different matter.

Some shows are events more than anything else, a single night of music that will never be repeated. And Chango Malo specializes in that sort of time-capsule show.

Wishing farewell to a great friend and music institution in town, the band stripped down to an acoustic combo, trying out an accordion and adding horns and extra percussion along the way. Throw in special guests and perfect cover songs and it was an early summer night that held magic for everyone who was there.

Chango Malo - A Change Is Gonna Come (live Sam Cooke cover)

6. The Hold Steady, Rialto Theatre, August 2 (live 2008 Minnesota Public Radio)
7. Silver Jews, Plush, September 22
8. James McMurtry, Club Congress, July 20
9. Wolf Parade, Rialto Theatre, July 21
10. Kathleen Edwards, Club Congress, May 13

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