Best in Show
A friend "tagged me" to list my favorite concerts of all time after doing so himself. I'm not sure if I'm truly up for the challenge, because my memory is so shitty. (In fact, I'm finding 1997-1999 a total blank spot.) But regardless, I'll give it a shot.
I'm sure this is true for most people: Many of my favorite concerts happened during my formative years, living near Peoria, Illinois in the early-to-mid '90s. Oddly enough, most if not all of those concerts were also booked by another good friend. I actually recall more details about many of those shows -- even though many of them occurred a decade or more ago -- than I do concerts that I've attended in the past five years. I suppose I can chalk that up to youth, in that I had such a wild, uninhibited time (often not aided by alcohol) that the memories have stuck with me.
Unlike the person who tagged me, I can honestly say that I have not seen a majority of my favorite bands, in part because so many of them are from the '60s and '70s. So, this list hardly comprises my favorite bands, but instead my favorite and/or most memorable concerts. Some notables didn't make my list, including The Walkmen, Wilco, My Morning Jacket, Arcade Fire, Neko Case, Guided By Voices, Will Oldham, Magnolia Electric Co., The Flaming Lips, and Dead Meadow. Certainly, they all put on memorable shows ... just not as memorable as the following. Here's my list -- in order and subject to change the minute I click "publish post".
25. Jonathan Fire*Eater @ a house party, Peoria, 1995(?)
This show appears more due to circumstance rather than performance. Yet another friend actually booked this show -- his first and only attempt at such an endeavor. The show was supposed to be held in the basement of a house that hosted shows on a regular basis. But the landlord, reacting to numerous compaints from neighbors and the police, decided to erect a wall in the middle of the basement space just a couple days before the Fire*Eater show. The show ended up being held in the house's attic space, three flights up! After hauling all the gear upstairs -- and managing to avoid the massive whole in the floor, which had been covered up by a hardly-adequate piece of plywood -- the show began over an hour late. The three opening bands each got to do a full set, but just four songs into JFE's set, the cops arrived and pulled the plug. JFE were totally cool about the bizarre show, taking far less than their guarantee in exchange for a floor to sleep on. I saw them seven years later in Chicago as The Walkmen (before they got huge), and approached them after the show. Oddly enough, they remembered the gig vividly, saying they had discussed it just the day before on their drive across Illinois.
24. Oval @ The Highdive, Champaign, 2001
I'm not a big fan of abstract or experimental electronic music. I think I was simply scratching an itch when I went to see Oval. It was clear from the start that Oval -- playing to a nearly empty club -- was received as more of a curiosity than anything else. Playing by his lonesome, Markus Popp stood in front of a laptop and for 45 minutes produced some of the most intense, borderline-painful white noise I have ever heard. The funny thing is, after a while I began to dig it. It was almost as if Popp recognized that he was a curiosity, and got busy being curious (or just plain offensive). Needless to say, I don't think The Highdive has booked any more avant-garde electronic composers since then. But I for one was taken by Oval's brashness. Sure, Popp may have been simply wiping his hard drive clean, but the fact remains that he chose to say "fuck you" to the environment and forgo any of his more accessible material (like, say, with beats and structure) for the sake of aural destruction. That takes some balls, I guess.
23. The Cherry Valance @ The Highdive, Champaign, 2002
I’ve seen my share of “classic rock” bands perform live. It’'s sort of a surprise to me that Drive-By Truckers didn’t make my list. Maybe they should have, but their show was definitely not as good as North Carolina’s The Cherry Valance. Two drummers -- who are also the lead singers -- and a woman on lead guitar make for one helluva fun time, especially when the band is channeling The Pink Fairies and Blue Cheer. Man these guys were good.
22. The New Year @ The Highdive, Champaign, 2001
I never got to see Bedhead in action, but The New Year were the next-best thing. Their three-guitar attack is even more stunning in person, and they even dusted off one of my Bedhead faves.
21. Joanna Newsom @ Logan Square Auditorium, Chicago, 2004
Newsom opened for the Incredible String Band, and it was quite easy to tell who was there to see which artist. Newsom is probably my favorite discovery of the past few years (thanks WFMU!), and she did not disappoint one bit in concert. My first -- and hopefully not last -- time watching a harpist perform.
20. Jens Lekman @ Second Story, Bloomington (IN), 2005
Jens may be the closest I come to seeing either Beat Happening or Morrissey in my lifetime. Live, Jens wore a silly hat and brought a cellist along for the ride. His songs didn’t go over so well in a crowded, stinky indie rock club, but you wouldn’t have known that by looking at the faces of those in the first few rows.
19. DMS @ The Highdive, Champaign, 2001
This entry means little-to-nothing to anyone living outside of central Illinois, as you have probably never seen (or maybe heard of) DMS, which for the better part of their existence was a one-man-band fronted by drummer Steve Lamos. Steve’s live performance combined technical drumming with electronic samples and live trumpet playing. If it sounds weird, it was. But on stage, he was simply spectacular. One of the five best drummers I’ve ever seen.
18. Liars, Yeah Yeah Yeahs @ Empty Bottle, Chicago, 2002
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs were good, but on this night they were blown off the stage by the opening act, the Liars. This was the Liars before their original lineup dissolved and they became what they are today, more a curiosity than anything else. The intensity with which Angus Andrew and company performed caused flashbacks to my first Fugazi concert.
17. U.S. Maple @ the East Peoria VFW hall, 1996
Growing up in a town without a proper (or accessible) venue, I saw a lot of shows at what amounts to adult fraternities (VFWs and American Legion Halls). Those venues were each unique in some fashion, often times simply due to the fact that they weren't intended as live music venues. If memory serves, this VFW hall featured a very modest, foot-high stage thrown in the corner of the room. This was my first (and only) time seeing U.S. Maple, and I was hardly prepared for their intense show. Al Johnson was quite the actor on stage, and on the whole U.S. Maple seemed to thrive off of audience interaction. That is, they provoked the audience through their bizarre on-stage antics. At one point, guitarist Mark Shippy actually forced his way off stage into the audience, clearly violating the invisible stage/audience wall at the lip of the stage in a sudden fashion. He proceeded to play his guitar into my ex-girlfriend's chest -- with no regard for what he was doing, as if he was on another planet -- while she sort of stood there, confused. Anyway, I left that night with the impression that U.S. Maple -- through their seemingly improvised music and stage demeanor -- were as much a theater troupe as they were a rock band.
16. The Frogs @ Double Door, Chicago, 1997
Maybe this comes as a surprise to some, but I do have a soft spot for Dennis and Jimmy Flemion. Their live show and their songs are both so over the top, and that’s precisely what I love about them. On this particular night, they played “Adam and Steve” and brought the house down.
15. Jonathan Richman @ The Highdive, Champaign, 2002
I admit that seeing Richman perform wasn’t necessarily why this concert is on my list. That has more to do with the circumstances of the concert, and what felt like a date even though it wasn’t called such. But romance aside, Richman’s publicist wouldn’t grant me an interview prior to the show, which pissed me off as I was denied the opportunity to speak with one of my rock & roll idols. After the show, I talked to Richman, and he apologized for not doing the interview (and explained why), which made me feel all giddy and self-important in a way that most of my rock idols would never dream of doing. I had my picture taken with him, too, but I’ve no clue where that snapshot ended up.
14. Blur, Pulp @ The Vic, Chicago, 1994
Two bands that I don't listen to much anymore. But in 1994, I loved Parklife and His 'n' Hers. I remember three things about this concert: doing a congo line (of sorts) through the balcony during "Girls & Boys", watching Damon Albarn jump from the top of the speaker cabinets (he stole my speaker-leaping virginity), and Jarvis Cocker eating all kinds of fruit during Pulp's set, periodically tossing a banana into the crowd.
13. Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, and 5ive Style @ Bradley University, Peoria, 1996
The first time I saw Tortoise was probably a year prior to this date at the Metro in Chicago, and their performance that night was superior (and probably deserving of a spot on this list). However, the lineup on this night was just awesome. I don't really listen to any of these bands any more (at least on a consistent basis), but at the time these were some of my favorite bands. Seeing them all together was way cool.
12. Smog @ The Highdive, Champaign, 2002
The Clientele @ Schubas, Chicago, 2001
Put Bill Callahan and Dirty Three drummer Jim White in the same room together, and something good’s gonna happen to you. Enough said about that. The Clientele show appears here as a tie simply because I remembered it after I completed my list, and didn't want to nudge anything else off this list to make room. This concert's reservation on the list has as much to do with circumstance as it does with the group's performance. After my guest for the concert backed out at the last second, I reluctantly decided to make the two-and-a-half hour drive to Chicago by my lonesome. During the concert I ended up striking up a conversation with a gorgeous (and loopy) girl -- something that never happens to me at shows. We dated for a couple months before things fell apart, but she was quite the pleasant surprise. And the band was great, too!
11. Fugazi, The Make Up @ Expo Gardens, Peoria, 1995
In retrospect, I'm more excited that I got to see The Make Up, who actually stole the show on the stage. Off the stage, it was a whole 'nother matter. The Expo Gardens is essentially a large, empty room used for conventions. A make-shift stage was set up in the middle of the room, and the force with which the fans were moshing during Fugazi's set was causing the stage to move. That, combined with a few nasty punks in the crowd, had peaked Ian MacKaye's attention. (Ian is, of course, a pacifist at heart.) He stopped the show once to warn the crowd to settle down. A couple songs later, he demanded that the entire crowd be seated, or the show would not go on. So, there you have it: 900 or so Fugazi fans sitting down during a Fugazi concert. The oddest part of the evening was that prior to the concert I interviewed Ian for my fledgling fanzine -- and he predicted such an event. This was their first time in Peoria, and Ian was nervous about a young crowd that wasn't accustomed to a lot of punk rock shows of that ilk. The interview actually went over better than the concert -- not what I would have guessed as much heading in to the evening.
10. Archers of Loaf, Butterglory @ The Blind Pig, Champaign, 1995
I interviewed charming Archers’ guitarist Eric Johnson before the show, and that dialogue to this day ranks as my favorite interview. (Eric -- who looked and even sounded a bit like the Dana Carvey of Wayne’s World -- told me he preferred vinyl to CDs due to the “popcorn sounds”.) The Archers were spectacular, as one would expect of their Vee Vee era days. Butterglory was actually great, too.
9. R.L. Burnside @ The Highdive, Champaign, 2000(?)
Sometimes you just know you're watching a legend ply his trade, and on this night, it was certain. R.L. performed sitting down in a chair, backed by only a drummer. His take on the blues -- electric and distinctly rural -- was even more captivating in a live setting.
8. Dirty Three @ The Highdive, Champaign, 2003
Sometimes the best concerts are those that sneak up on you. I own not a single recording by Australian trio Dirty Three. But if they ever play in town again, I am so there. Violinist Warren Ellis is a brilliant performer, and of course having Jim White on drums (he’s the reason I went after seeing him perform with Smog) is to die for. The entire set was jaw-droppingly good.
7. Yo La Tengo @ Lollapalooza, Chicago, 1995
Yo La shared the second stage with the Coctails and Brainiac, among others. This was my first time seeing them live, and they’ll probably never compare favorably again. After all, this was Electr-O-Pura era Tengo (still my favorite period), when Ira Kaplan would get crazy on the organ and guitar, and the songs still rocked through and through. After the show, James McNew gave me his telephone number, and two weeks later I called him up to do my first-ever interview. He was great on the phone, but his band was better in person.
6. The Jesus Lizard @ American Legion Hall, Peoria, 1995
Another of several shows on this list booked by my friend Jon. This show was actually caught on tape in a documentary about the Chicago music scene titled Out of the Loop. (I know, sorta odd that the filmmaker would travel downstate to film a Lizard show, but whatever.) David Yow was up to all his usual tricks at this show, and prior to the concert I had an interesting exchange with bassist David Wm. Sims while he was shaving in the men's room. The best part of this show (other than the Lizard's outrageous rider)? Above the stage it read "For God and Country", and Yow made a point to continually reference the slogan throughout the show. Matter of fact, if memory serves, there was also a reporter at the show from Rolling Stone. For one evening, Peoria was the epicenter of the indie rock world.
5. Shellac, Brainiac, Melt Banana, Gaunt @ Fallout Comedy Club, Chicago, 1995
Shellac in their prime, when the "Fuck Canada" and "Fuck Wicker Park" jokes were still funny, when Todd Trainer being lifted off the stage while sitting on his drum stool was still fresh, when At Action Park was the best punk rock record I had ever heard. Steve Albini didn't seem so damn old in 1995. (Maybe that's because he had yet to work with Bush.) His band was in top form on this night; I shant forget their rendition of "Wingwalker", in which Trainer went bonkers on the cymbals. But the rest of the bill was interesting as well. This was my second time seeing Brainiac, who never disappointed in a live setting. I also recall the guitarist of Melt Banana have extensive trouble with his guitar strap. Several times during their set, his strap came unhooked, and twice he had to play the bulk of a song while laying on his back. Anyway, this concert trumps the time I saw Shellac open for Fugazi, solely because by the time of that amazing bill (at a roller rink no less!) I had already seen both bands on multiple occasions.
4. The Magnetic Fields @ Old Town School of Folk, Chicago, 2000
I consider 69 Love Songs to be among the five-best albums recorded in the past decade, so it should come as no surprise that Stephin Merritt's performance of his 69 songs -- done in order over the course of two nights -- is near the top of my list. The Old Town is a lovely, diminutive theater (where you can drink and sit in an assigned seat!). With his able backing crew of Claudia Gonson, John Woo, and Sam Davol, Merritt charmed the capacity crowd. But this concert was a bittersweet one, because I went to it with my soon-to-be-ex. We had both fallen in love with each other and The Magnetic Fields at about the same time. Our relationship, however, was on its last gasp at this time, and so it was somewhat disheartening (yet strangely accurate) to listen to Merritt's "love" songs while we were falling out of love with each other. We left the concert knowing that we were through, even if we didn't verbalize that sentiment till a couple months later. Oddly enough, Merritt's subsequent records (as both the 6ths and Magnetic Fields) haven't done much for me. Maybe I've chosen to subconsciously bury the Fields just as I've buried the ex?
3. Neutral Milk Hotel, Superchunk @ Lounge Ax, Chicago, 1998
I’m not sure why I drove to Chicago to see this considering the duo played in Champaign just two days later. It was a smart move in retrospect, as this remains the only show I got to see at the Lounge Ax before the legendary club closed it doors. Superchunk was typical: full of bounce, sounding and looking the part of the indie rock veteran, delivering the classics with all the verve one would expect. But I was there to see Neutral Milk Hotel, whom I did not think could possibly live up to the infamy of their recordings in a live setting. I was terribly wrong, as the ramshackle Salvation Army-esque backing band quickly charmed the audience and provided a perfect backdrop for Jeff Mangum’s otherworldly tales. It’s a shame that he’s faded into relative obscurity over the past six or so years. Maybe some day…
2. Dungen @ The Empty Bottle, Chicago, 2005
Hands down the best performance I have ever seen by a rock band. Sure, it was just a few months ago and maybe the proximity of the concert is affecting my judgment ... but I don't think so. Dungen is jaw-droppingly good on stage: Four amazing musicians playing -- to borrow a cheesy sports cliche -- as a team. Their between-song banter was humble and humorous, showing their true lack of concern for the rock star image they are owed. And they ended their set with an encore of epic proportions: a fifteen-minute jam that switched gears several times and included an amazing bliss-out on organ that was like "Whiter Shade of Pale" on LSD. The best way to summarize just how much I liked this band's performance: I absolutely fucking hate the flute. But when Gustav Ejstes pressed his lips to his flute, I sorta, kinda liked it. A lot.
1. Nirvana, Mudhoney, Jawbreaker @ some gym in Iowa City, Iowa, 1993
No concert will ever top this one, for a whole host of reasons. First, there’s the circumstances of how I ended up there: ditching high school and a mandatory marching band performance -- without telling my parents -- to drive the five hours to the concert. (Oh, and I got caught -- big time -- by both the school and my parents.) Then there’s the lineup. I had no idea who Jawbreaker was at the time, and honestly they were fine but merely kept the stage warm for Mudhoney, who tore apart my right ear drum. (I had a pleasant ringing in my ear for three days.) I still have my “Mock Cooter Stew” Mudhoney t-shirt, and wear it on occasion to M’s chagrin. Nirvana was brilliant. The setting -- a gymnasium -- was a little ironic, but Kurt was in top form on this night. Really, the performance is a blur, in a good kinda way. I won’t say that this concert changed my life, but the entire experience surely set me down the road I still find myself wandering along today.
So there you have it. I'll get back to posting mp3s shortly.