The Top Tens, 2011: Best Live Shows


Just a quick note regarding people videoing shows with their smartphones and little cameras: I’m not against people filming a show (I do it professionally for a living) but I do feel like if you’ve paid to see a show, it’s always better to be present in the moment with the band and your fellow audience members than staring into a little screen. That being said, it is pretty cool to have clips of each and every one of my favorite shows from 2011 to share with you. So, I disclaim that these videos have piss-poor audio and video — I could’ve looked for professionally shot videos of each of these bands as examples of their live show from other dates and venues, but I thought it would be better to share a “user-generated” version of what it was actually like to be in the audience on the day of these shows.

10.            Agalloch @ le poisson rouge              March 22, 2011

The famously reclusive Portland black metal band Agalloch played a rare show at Manhattan’s (le) poisson rouge and, like their last brilliant album Marrow of the Spirit, it’s an experience that I’ve savored more with time. More cerebral that your average metal show but visceral in its own contemplative way, Agalloch earned the respect of their devoted cult audience.

9            Portishead @ All Tomorrow’s Parties              October 1st, 2011

This show was hampered by the cavernous sound of Asbury Park’s Convention Center and by my own long-gestating expectations. That being said, Portishead’s first American show in 14 years had plenty of spine-tingling moments. The selections off Dummy, with Geoff Barrow’s distinctive scratching and Beth Gibbons’ unearthly coo (not to mention the hauntingly apocalyptic video images behind the band), were everything I imagined they could be. And though some of the Third selections sounded a bit thin, the soaring “The Rip” and especially album- and show-closer “Threads” lived up to and even surpassed my unreasonable expectations.

8.            Portugal. The Man @ Bonnaroo                    June 11th, 2011

Despite playing a set in the blistering 100-degree Bonnaroo afternoon, Alaskan hippie-prog outfit Portugal. The Man absolutely wowed the packed crowed with their technical virtuosity and feel-good vibes. Its rare for a young band to amass such a devoted following based on gimmick-free, expertly written and performed rock music, but Portugal. The Man have made it look effortless. Portugal. The Man are my favorite new live band and, I suspect, a group just at the beginning of their popularity.

7.         The Roots @ The Intrepid                       September 29th, 2011

At first it seemed odd for Philly’s legendary Roots crew to take a daily gig as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, but the job has undeniably expanded the band’s repertoire extensively. On a spectacularly picturesque stage on the deck of New York’s USS Intrepid, the Roots stirred almost every genre – rock, hip-hop, metal, funk, soul – into their own deep catalogue of hits. And even the band’s more straightforward tunes – the swaggering “The Seed 2.0” and the furious “Here I Come” – were performed with the fire and flair of an already world class band taking it to the next level.

6.         Jens Lekman @ Music Hall of Williamsburg  October 9th, 2011

Playing on a Sunday night, touring behind a relatively minor EP with only himself, a drummer, and a loop pedal filled with canned pocket symphonies, there were a lot of things working against Jens Lekman at The Music Hall of Williamsburg. But the preternaturally charming Lekman took the opportunity to regale his fiendishly devoted fans with hilarious anecdotes and intimate versions of his most popular songs. Set highlight was the new track “Waiting for Kirsten,” a love letter to Lekman’s home city of Gothenburg – a yarn that manages to connect Lekman’s unrequited crush on Kirsten Dunst to the benefits of Sweden’s social safety net.

5.         My Morning Jacket @ Bonnaroo                    June 10th, 2011

It was particularly gratifying to see My Morning Jacket, possibly the best live band in the world, finally get a co-headlining spot on the main stage of Bonnaroo, a festival that in many ways defined them. And though the set was free of the offbeat covers that made their Bonnaroo overnight set a few years back so legendary, they still impressed with new tracks from Circuital, which predictably blew their studio-recorded counterparts out of the water – especially set highlight “Slow, Slow Tune.” The cinematic glow-stick explosion at the peak of their best ever rendition of “Steam Engine” felt like the home crowd anointing My Morning Jacket festival headliner status for life.

4.         Colin Stetson @ All Tomorrow’s Parties       October 1st, 2011

Colin Stetson’s early afternoon set at All Tomorrow’s Parties in Asbury Park was by far the most physically impressive music performance of 2011. Built like a professional athlete but still dwarfed by his bass saxophone, Stetson heaved his way through selections off his brilliant album New History of Warfare, Vol. 2 Judges, often playing for 10-15 minutes without pausing for a breath. The low-end rumble, the circular-breathing high register trilling, the beat box-esque puffing and key clacking – which he incredibly does all at once with no loop pedals – gives the impression of full band on stage. Judging from the long standing ovation he received, I’m guessing that I wasn’t the only one blown away.

3.         Philip Glass @ Avery Fisher Hall                  November 2nd, 2011

It would be hard for this show not to be near the top of this list, if only because of its incredible pedigree – this was the first time in years that Philip Glass performed the soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi with his ensemble, and the first time ever that the New York Philharmonic has performed any of the legendary modern classical composer’s groundbreaking pieces. With Godfrey Reggio’s haunting, mind-boggling film looming on a giant screen behind the orchestra, Glass’ ethereal composition – with its mechanical synth triplets echoed by booming choir chants – was humanized by the warmth of the orchestra and Avery Fischer Hall’s lovely sound.

2.         TV on the Radio @ Williamsburg Waterfront  September 8th, 2011

It’s been a tough year for Brooklyn art-rock breakouts TV on the Radio. First they released Nine Types of Light, a respected but not rapturously received new album (for the record, I think it’s much better than the overrated Dear Science). Then long-time member Gerard Smith passed away after a battle with lung cancer. The band has also had well-documented struggles translating its sound in a live setting (the oft-sited Masonic Temple show, Saturday Night Live, and even a private show I saw them perform at an Ad Weekly event at the boomy Terminal 5). But on their home turf at the Williamsburg Waterfront on a cloudy September evening, the band achieved near-perfection. The crystal clear sound allowed Jaleel Bunton and Kyp Malone’s funky bass/guitar interplay to cut through Dave Sitek’s distinctive wall-of-sound guitar squalls. Vocalist Tunde Adebimpe nailed both the hip-hoppy scatting of “DLZ” and “Repitition” and the soulful croon of “Will Do” and set-highlight “Young Liars.” The supportive atmosphere clearly rubbed off on the band, which thanked the crowd many times and left the stage to triumphant applause.

1.         Sufjan Stevens @ Prospect Park Bandshell  August 3rd, 2011

Perhaps a predictable choice for me – Stevens’ Age of Adz was my favorite album last year by a long shot. But Stevens, with his massive band and stage production, is simply working on a different plane than his indie singer/songwriter peers. Dressed in neon-striped clothes – and at one point, gigantic glowing angel wings – and surrounded by the art of album muse Royal Robertson, Stevens played (and, yes, danced to) almost every songs from Adz – a full sensory reminder of the album’s risk-taking, compositionally bedeviling brilliance. It rained the entire night – the falling drops illuminated by the stage lights and projections added a fourth dimension to an already visually explosive night. The show opened with a bombastic rendition of “Seven Swans” and wove its way through Adz highlight “Too Much” and “Vesuvius” in perfectly paced order. The album’s daunting, 17-minute finale “Impossible Soul” ebbed and flowed from folksy picking to psychedelic freak-out to full-fledged dance party and back again. And the predictable by triumphant encore of “Chicago” from the sanctified album Come on Feel the Illinoise sent the soaked crowd back into Prospect Park on a dizzying high.

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