My Year in Concerts

by Ethan Reis

Dead & Company, Hartford, CT 9/5/21 (Photo: James Reis)

It seems almost ironic that perhaps the last artist I went to see in 2019 was Laraaji, who provided a supremely relaxing and communal indoor musical experience. I had tickets in Spring 2020 to Hinds (cancelled) and King Krule (delayed, then cancelled), not knowing it would be well over a year until my next show. 

I didn’t know I would miss the feeling of live music so much, but in the second half of 2021 I saw more shows than any other year in my life. This was also the year I finally became obsessed with the Grateful Dead, fulfilling a decades-old prophecy inscribed in my DNA. Good timing allowed me to see Dead & Company in four cities. With a prime John Mayer and a grizzled Bob Weir at the helm, they kicked off my concert season (or “COVID tour” as friends called it) in Philadelphia, where rain, heat, and the electric groove of “Franklin’s Tower” created a psychedelic soup. 

Being a newly inducted Deadhead, I gravitated towards performances with guitar. I wrote about this year’s fantastic Pitchfork Fest (in brief: Animal Collective blew me away), where the skies were sunny and the people were happy. Faye Webster’s steel guitar (as heard on I Know I’m Funny haha, one of my favorite albums of the year) reverberated in my dreams, so after Pitchfork I saw her band a second time in Philadelphia. Shoutout to Matthew Stoessel, who played that steel which made me feel so good.

I think, above all else, I must recommend Big Thief for their live show. Catching them on night one of a sold-out two-night stint in Philly, they absolutely knocked my socks off. Adrienne Lenker was doing some Hendrix-level shit, riding waves of feedback and searing minds with her shredding while freaking us out with her intense vocal performances – “Black Diamonds”! “Not”! “Shoulders”! The tight-knit foursome bunched their bodies together on stage and, like a musical Voltron, formed a singular behemoth of sound. They’re at the top of their game.

Torres rocked an intimate show in Austin, MIKE radiated way more positivity than you’d expect from his albums, Pat Metheny played like 6 different guitars. Bob Dylan leaned all the way into his newest album, Rough & Rowdy Ways and hobbled into the middle of the stage like an old ghoul to resounding applause. In a late-season highlight, Caroline Polachek and Oklou stood back-to-back on a rotating platform for a “Teardrop” (Massive Attack) duet, perhaps the closest I’ll ever get to seeing Cocteau Twins live. Finally, I caught Alex G in Lancaster, where he solidified his spot as probably the most consistently great live performer I’ve seen.

As things continue to get weirder and scarier, I feel like I caught a window of live music that’s now closing. While I can’t speak for everyone, I felt very safe at these shows and experienced quite a bit of magic, making for some unforgettable memories. More than the album, the live show was my gateway to musical transcendence this year, and now all I can really do is relax and stay optimistic.