I let this list stretch a little long, but hey, I saw more than 80 shows this year and a hell of a lot of them were amazing.
Live music is what I live on, as much as anything else. I can’t count the times when I’ve gone out to see a show after a subpar day or few days and – pretty much no matter who was playing – was instantly removed from that bad space.
And that’s just the low end. At the high end, live music is at the core of some of my greatest experiences, year in and year out. Few things are greater than traveling for a great show experience, combining the camaraderie of great friends with a rare tour, or a uniquely enjoyable venue.
I was tempted to rank these, but that’s just too difficult, so I’m going with chronological order. I will, however, say this about what was probably my greatest show of the year: Mr. Chair, my longtime great friend and host in Denver, said he’d never seen me happier than when Okkervil River came out to join Wilco for an encore of “California Stars” on a gloriously beautiful July 3 night at Red Rocks. And he’s probably right.
• Elvis Perkins / Delta Spirit @ Club Congress, March 16
This was my first time seeing Perkins - whose record ended up as my best of 2009 - and the band was just so perfect. It's rare that seeing a band for the first time feels as comfortable as if you'd had their music forever, but that was the case with Perkins. (And his set at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in October was just as good.)
• Mike Watt / Garboski @ Plush, April 17
Sometimes you have to co-opt a little reverence. Mike Watt is my brother's favorite musician ever, and though it hardly meant as much to me as it did to him, seeing him play live was a treasure. Plus, he sits on the edge of the stage after every show, selling T-shirts out of a garbage band and signing whatever anybody wants. Now that's punk rock.
• Unwigged & Unglued @ Phoenix Dodge Theater, April 27
Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer could just sit on stage gabbing for two hours and it'd be worth seeing. Add in acoustic Spinal Tap and A Might Wind songs and it's two hours of high entertainment. What I love most about the trio's songs is how subtely the humor laces itself into the music. My full recap.
• SwedeFest @ Sport’s on Congress, May 3
Few things in life get better than getting several favorite local bands to play at a ridiculously self-indulgent 30th birthday celebration. Check out the full recap if you dare.
• Avett Brothers @ Rialto Theatre (and Bookman’s), May 7
Like I said at the time, every great show should be paired with an intimate afternoon performance that same day.
• Jonathan Richman @ Club Congress, June 5
Another one in which I borrowed some reverence from my brother... Richman is as great as they come and it's damn near impossible to believe that he's been recording music for 39 years already.
• Sunset Rubdown @ Plush, June 22
Early week summer shows in Tucson are notoriously under-attended, but still, this band deserved a lot more from the crowd. I don't think I would've fallen so much for Dragonslayer (my #2 record of the year) had I not seen it live first. Krug is definitely a musical genius.
• Wilco / Okkervil River @ Red Rocks, July 3
My aforementioned happiest moment... Read the full review.
• Outside Lands Festival @ Golden Gate Park, Aug. 28-30
Perhaps not as great as the previous year, with Radiohead, Tom Petty and Wilco headlining, nonetheless the 2009 Outside Lands was packed with great moments: Built to Spill, The National, Pearl Jam, TV on the Radio, Avett Brothers and Band of Horses, just to name a few, as well as the best tater tots I've ever had. Check the full recap.
• Bon Iver / Megafaun @ Oakland Fox Theater, Sept. 24
I wrote a feature on Bon Iver for the East Bay Express in advance of the show, and I'd seen the band before, so I knew what to expect: a gathering storm, if you will, of percussion and surging guitars all held together by Justin Vernon's singing, the high and often spooky howl that stamps his music with such a tremendous feeling of isolation. And they delivered. The hushed crowd developing a burning intensity as 4,000 voices came together for the chorus "What might have been lost."
• Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Oct. 2-4
From Steve Earle joining Tom Morello to sing "This Land is Your Land" on the first day to "Red Dirt Girl" in Emmylou Harris' closing set, this was once again a weekend for the ages. My full recap.
• Billy Bragg @ Great American Music Hall, Oct. 6
Billy Bragg had been my most coveted live act - the one I wanted to see most but never had - and I managed to see him twice in two days. One man, one guitar, two hours and throughout, I felt like one lucky sonuvabitch to even be there.
• Yo La Tengo @ Tempe Marquee Theater, Oct. 14
I couldn't have been more impressed with Yo La Tengo's seamless versatility. In a rare appearance in the Southwest, the band sent me from fan to superfan.
• Blind Pilot / The Low Anthem @ Plush, Oct. 25
Two quite different takes on modern folk music, Blind Pilot and the Low Anthem were a perfect pairing. Both bands feature excellent songwriters, but it was a cover song that blew me away the most:
• Dinosaur Jr. @ Tempe Marquee Theater, Nov. 3
I think J. Mascis is the best guitar player I've ever seen live.
• Calexico “Flor de Muertos” @ Rialto Theatre, Nov. 8
What a magical night: Calexico closing the festivities for the only-in-Tucson All Souls Procession, with extra great visuals for the filming of a live concert DVD. Amazing sound, great combination of mariachi, mambo and Calexico's unique blend of everything. And they did Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer." I can't wait for the DVD.
• Vic Chesnutt @ Club Congress, Dec. 2
It's tremendously sad that I can say I saw the third to last show Vic ever performed. What a uniquely captivating performer and songwriter - and what a loss for all his fans that he passed away on Christmas. In a review of the show, I wrote: "Live, Vic Chesnutt is a head rush, a grippingly emotional singer whose voice comes along like a raging windstorm. Some performers are great showmen – Vic is possessed." Check out the full review. And may you rest in peace, Vic.
Billy Bragg - Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key (live)
Blind Pilot - Two Towns From Me (Live Laundromatinee session)
Calexico - Across the Wire (live)
Vic Chesnutt - Flirted with You All My Life (live, final show)