How To Dress Well, November 5th, 2012, XOYO – London
Tom Krell’s music is so intimate and personal that before heading in to see How To Dress Well for the first time I was under the assumption that I was going to see a one man show. I could not have been more wrong. He came with a band that featured two other musicians on-stage, beautifully bringing to life the various sounds that form the canvas for Krell’s confessional lyrics, testing the XOYO sound system with everything from the violins that glide across certain tracks to the pulverising sample that underpins “Set It Right.” Added to this were the images and colours projected onto the stage and its players by the unseen fourth member of the band, making it more of an involving experience for everyone. Though, of course, Krell was the centre of attention and I could barely pull my eyes from him all night. Wielding nothing more than a microphone (and sometimes not even that) it was gut-wrenching to see the genuine feeling written in the wrinkles of his face as he angelically emoted his way through each song, with all the tension brought crashing down when he broke into broad smiles as the crowd screamed the house down in appreciation between songs. The ultimate cap on the night was the encore, for which Krell reappeared solo and sang a cappella to a room that remained vacuum-silent throughout, letting each peak and annunciation be heard by every set of ears in the packed room, only for it to be turned inside out at his final breath into the loudest and most well-deserved collective fits of praise that I’ve ever heard.
– Rob Hakimian
Justice by Philip Cosores
Mac DeMarco, November 28th, 2012, Scandic Malmen – Stockholm, Sweden
After honing his work in Vancouver for a couple of years with Makeout Videotape, Mac DeMarco has certainly risen to indie fame this year, in large part due to his reputable live show. Mac DeMarco live is nothing if not a performance, in part an excellent rock ‘n’ roll show and in part a weird act – there’s plenty of evidence of that on YouTube and in interviews if you’re so inclined. During the gig I witnessed myself DeMarco mostly stuck to the rock ‘n’ roll formula, and delivered a confident and exciting gig, with added banter of a creepy middle-aged bar performer. He also managed to work material from both the more personal 2 and the freakier Rock N Roll Night Club into the set, showing two completely different sides of himself — and somehow making it work.
– Johan Alm
Mac DeMarco Band by Sam Clarke
The Magnetic Fields, April 14th, 2012, Variety Playhouse – Atlanta, GA
For a guy who’s been notoriously transparent about how much he detests touring (“a cynical ploy to sell t-shirts”), Stephin Merritt and the rest of the Magnetic Fields put a lot into their shows. Perched on stools and entrenched in instruments throughout their set, the band comes across less like an indie rock group than a small orchestral ensemble, complete with sheet music stands and all – a stately pop quintet. And like any proper quintet, the Magnetic Fields’ performances are well-practiced and exquisitely executed. Credit some of the success to the sheer quality of the songs – after all, Merritt has the kind of back-catalogue that would allow him to tour with nothing but a ukulele and fill massively satisfying 3 hour sets – but live is really where the rest of the Fields get a chance to shine. Instrumental specialists John Woo (guitars) and Sam Davol (cello) are key players in each of the songs’ live arrangements, and Claudia Gonson acts as de facto leader of the group. It’s Shirley Simms, however, that’s my personal pick for MVP – hearing her distinctive delivery in person is something else.
The band pulled gratuitously from every era of Merritt’s songwriting history – in the case of many cuts from Love at the Bottom of the Sea (especially “Your Girlfriend’s Face”) the stripped-back live arrangements revealed them to be some of Merritt’s best-written songs underneath the gaudy production. But the most well-received performances, of course, were those of old favorites, and with good reason. The band’s reserved, humble performance of “The Book of Love” noticeably moved several audience members to tears, and, when they unexpectedly launched into my all-time favorite song, “Plant White Roses”, I was right there with them.
– Ryan Stanley
Man Man by Michael Do
The Men w/ Destruction Unit, June 26th, 2012, The Smell – Los Angeles, CA
During the summer I had the luxury of seeing The Men in LA at legendary venue The Smell to a sold out crowd. The line-up went from your standard couple of opening bands to a group that, prior to this evening, I had never quite paid attention to: Destruction Unit, a band that originally held Jay Reatard and has since been fortressed by other founding member Ryan Rousseau. The band arrived on stage, Rousseau decked out in sleazy dress wear and the other members looking significantly more representative of the music they were about to play, and when you’re right there seeing it happen, it’s something else. The band loses control of their bodies, witnessing how loud their music is and almost ignoring the real heaviness of it all in a really taunting way, flailing their guitars and legs all over the place. At some point, guitarist JS Aurelius climbed up onto the suspended stage-right speaker and persisted to violently bash his guitar into it. It was pretty bonkers.
The Men, the initial draw for most people in The Smell, had the crowd in the palm of their hands, kicking off with a brand new song right off the bat. This became a trend in their set, which equalled out to two songs from Open Your Heart (“Turn it Around”, “Open Your Heart”), two from 2011’s Leave Home (“Bataille”, “Night Landing”) and six new ones from the album slated for early 2013. More than half of those were fronted by bassist Ben Greenberg, and after seeing his material it’s safe to say the hardcore element that wasn’t seen too much on their last record is going to be in full swing on 2013’s. Energetically, they were pretty pristine, going as hard as they possibly could with each song and never turning back. Each guitar motion was filled with interest and a free-willed love for rock and roll that you can’t really find in that many other bands like you can with The Men, especially in a live atmosphere.
– Andrew Halverson
Merchandise by Sam Clarke
Bon Iver, April 14th, 2012, Coachella – Indio, CA
It’s hard to tell during a music festival like Coachella just how amazing some of the sets are, because the sheer quantity of acts playing throughout the week can somewhat numb you to all the music. It usually takes me a few days after the festival ends to fully realize just how great my weekend was. But on Saturday night of Week 1, as Bon Iver got ready to perform, every single person in attendance had a very strong sense of just how special this set was going to be. It was a cold windy night, and, as soon as the first few notes of “Perth” began to sound out through the desert in Indio, CA, Justin Vernon had the entire crowd wrapped around his finger. He and his band played through the highlights of Bon Iver, Bon Iver as well as some classic favorites such as “The Wolves (Act I & II)” and “Skinny Love.” As the wind blew through the torn sails that hung from the Coachella Main Stage, it became quite apparent that no other band could have played this set. No other band could have preceded a live Radiohead show in 2012 and still have been able to leave such an impression. But Justin Vernon’s flawless falsetto, along with the backing of the full Bon Iver live band, was something so profound that thousands of people were physically and emotionally connected to the stage for the entirety of the performance.
– Eric Arredondo
Phantogram by Autumn Andel
Radiohead, June 8th, 2012, Bonnaroo – Manchester, TN
Hands down my favorite concert experience this year was seeing Radiohead at Bonnaroo. My favorite band headlining one of the world’s biggest music festivals. It’s a no-brainer.
I’ve seen the band quite a few times in the past year or so, including a stunning performance at Roseland Ballroom last September. But this, this was something else. Music aside, the presentation was second to none. The band was accompanied by the the most impressive light-show the festival had to offer with panel displays set up surrounding the Bonnaroo sign at the top of the stage and more hovering just above the band, adjusting to various heights depending on the tone of the song. The two main displays on the sides of the stage were also split to look as if they were composed of another six panels each. These screens bombarded the audience with a wide array of trippy imagery, often cutting in to shots of the band on stage, giving the panel viewers some insight into what was going on onstage even if they couldn’t see it themselves in the crowd of hundreds of thousands of people.
The setlist was nothing to scoff at either. Although new material from The King of Limbs and successive singles took up a good chunk of the set there was plenty of representation from all their albums besides their first two — Kid A‘s title track cut into the audience just three tracks into the set, Amnesiac‘s “You and Whose Army” and “I Might Be Wrong” were played with studio-like tenacity, OK Computer‘s “Karma Police” was played, and “Paranoid Android” closed off the show.
Perhaps what most helped Radiohead stay so tight was the addition of second drummer Clive Deamer, but what further complements the band is their new use of looping and layering rhythm parts, allowing the band to jam and improvise a bit more over their tracks. God knows if you want to be in a band for more than 20 years you need to innovate.
This show most certainly took the cake for me this year, and, although I plan on going again to Bonnaroo next year, I’m almost certain that nothing there will top this performance. At this rate they’ll play Tennessee again in another six years in 2018 (seeing as they played in 2006 and 2012), but if they promise to deliver a performance of this caliber I’ll give them 12.
– Evan Kaloudis
Radiohead by Chris Alvarez
Sepalcure, March 16th, 2012, SXSW – Austin, TX
Anyone who’s been to SXSW will tell you part of the fun is not really knowing what you’re in for when you enter any given venue. Bands are allotted about a minute to set up and soundcheck, many if not most the venues aren’t really designed to put on music-related shows, and SXSW as a festival isn’t really about mainlining all the hyped bands anyway. Sepalcure at the Madison was either the most SXSW show or the least SXSW show depending how you look at it. The location was way off the beaten path (relative to the hub of the festival), the room looked more like something out a Jean-Pierre Melville movie, and hardly anyone in the audience seemed to know what the hell they were doing there. By the time Sepalcure rotated in though, it was damn well obvious if you were in the room, your purpose was to effin’ dance. The duo turned the place from a smokey, ice-cold lounge into a cramped throb of bodies and the space usually reserved for tables into a beer soaked dancefloor. The duo cycled through their 2011 self-titled full-length, squeezing every extra ounce of juice from the sounds. Praveen Sharma looked like he was having the time of his life. After the show had concluded my colleague, Rob Hakimian and I stumbled out of the club back into the Austin night, dispelling words to the effect of “What in the hell was that?”
– Will Ryan
Pop 1280 by Nick Pereslugoff
Swans, September 10th, Regency Ballroom – San Francisco, CA
There was a lot on my mind going on my mind prior to this show, mostly having to do with how Swans really works out a live show at a magnitude comparable to The Seer. The opener was Xiu Xiu, a solo act I quite admire because of its humble and minimalist nature, but even the maddening yelps and screams from a chair-perched Jamie Stewart weren’t enough to prepare me for the live deliverance of Swans. Their entry onto the stage was a trademark-Swans build-up, but within a single instant the sound traveling throughout the venue lifted to angel-touching amounts of force. I was looking at these guys–it didn’t make enough sense that humans could create these intricacies in powerful music, it’s not every day you hear something as immense. I lost the overwhelming shock eventually and learned that whatever I’m witnessing just needs to be accepted. So the set goes on, and Gira has this grateful poise in-and-between every song. “The Seer” hits, which I recall went on for about 45 minutes, but time becomes something of a non-factor to them–the band just basks in each direction by Gira for as long as he thinks it should, burst after burst. Swans finished their set with “The Apostate”, the oh-so-fitting album closer, and, after it was all over, Gira thanked everyone and stated that they would not be doing an encore set because of the draining (both timely and physically, I’m sure) nature of their show. However, it wasn’t the last of Gira’s interaction with the audience. He showed up to the merch table to meet and sign things for people and I was fortunate enough to be able to express my appreciation to him directly with one word: “damn.”
– Andrew Halverson
Chairlift by Sam Clarke
Starfucker, May 29th, 2012, Burnside Skate Park – Portland, OR & Sigur Ros, November 5th, 2012 New Laugardalshöll Arena – Reykjavik, Iceland
Out of all the concerts I’ve caught this past year, two apparently dissimilar shows emerge as unique experiences. The live performances in this case, Starfucker and Sigur Rós both took place in their hometown; but the similitude ends about there. Yet the two events share that intangible experience – the ability to transport the audience away from mundane reality.
Having been a resident of Portland before the genesis of Starfucker, it seems unlikely that the first concert I ever caught by the quartet was an off venue/outdoor/ free show this past May. The band announced the details of their Memorial Day “secret show” via Twitter and Facebook the day before the event. In the cool breeze, under the late afternoon sky, the young and the restless, as well as the overworked and weary fans gathered at the Burnside Skatepark, located by the Willamette River with a view of the downtown. It’s always a treat to experience shows in the open air but what made this happening even sweeter was the nonchalant atmosphere. No big fuss was made about Portland’s prominent electro-pop band. There was no security, no age limit, and opened beer cans casually swayed along with the crowd. For a brief moment on that day, conventions were suspended and freedom rang true.
Five months later, I found myself far away from the “City of Roses” and was walking along a street of brightly colored houses in Reykjavik to catch my biggest concert of the year. Unlike the casual setting of Starfucker’s Memorial Day show, one had to wait in a long line, show an ID to get the ticket, and crowd into an austere stadium, where the breeze was supplied by the frequent sighs from over 6,000 anxious fans who had each waited two hours to get here. This was my third Sigur Rós show and turned out to be the most elaborate. The light design and projected imagery against the giant panoramic screen was just as beautiful as their majestic post rock, even if it fringed on gratuitousness at times. The Icelandic musicians’ sheer dedication to their craft transcended any material nuisance that plagued the hours before they came on stage.
Starfucker and Sigur Rós recognize how important their fans are, and these bands’ appreciation shines through their performances. And there is something about playing in one’s native place – more intimate connection and a subconscious urge to make the show extraordinary. So what does all this mean to me? Memorable shows are not based on the size, production, nor location, but the connection you feel with the performer and their ability to suspend you from the commonplace.