The Top Tens, 2012: Top Ten Live Performances

Top Ten Live Shows of 2012:

Honorable Mention:

Future of the Left – BrooklynVegan Showcase, SXSW: Wednesday, March 14th

Playing to about 50 people on a Wednesday afternoon at a bar in East Austin on an off day at SXSW, Future of the Left uncorked a blistering set featuring two covers (“To Hell With Good Intentions” and “Lightsaber Cocksucking Blues”) of front-man Andy Falkous’ previous band, Mclusky, that brought the roof down.

Menomena – Music Hall of Williamsburg: Friday, October 12th

The last time I saw Menomena, they seemed like a band about to burst apart at the seams. Since then, they shed a founding member and recorded one of their best albums, the deeply personal “Moms.” The now duo, sporting three supporting musicians, shocked me with their precise, intense performance and reminded me that they are one of the most underrated bands out there.

Colin Stetson – Glasslands Gallery: Tuesday, April 3rd

Watching Colin Stetson, the circular breathing baritone sax prodigy and sometimes member of Bon Iver, play is like watching a professional athlete excel in a sport you didn’t know existed. Vacillating between ominous low rumbles, percussive beat boxing, and twirling upper register arpeggios, often in the same song without taking a breath, Stetson was a force of nature at Brooklyn’s Glasslands Gallery.

Tame Impala – Music Hall of Williamsburg, Wednesday, November 7th

Tame Impala are a young band, but at a packed Music Hall of Williamsburg, riding high on the release of their acclaimed “Lonerism,” the Aussie psych band played with the confidence of veterans, stretching woozy instrumental passages to the euphoric limit between their Beatles-esque choruses.

Wilco – Prospect Park: Monday, July 23rd

Wilco’s only crime at Prospect Park on a rainy night in July was not pushing themselves into fifth gear. One of the best live acts in the world, who played one of my favorite live concerts ever at Keyspan Park in Coney Island, Wilco were merely superhuman at Prospect Park, digging deep for almost 2 1/2 hours of great songs from their formidable catalogue with incredible, and relaxed, precision.

The Top Ten:

10. Fang Island – Music Hall of Williamsburg: Thursday, August 30th

Generally, indie-rock is known for its ironic detachment or sullen shoe-gazing – outright positivity tends to be shunned like a disease. But Fang Island, using the unlikely building blocks of metal and indie-informed shout along harmonies, created a joyful racket of major key power chords and elastic guitar solos. As good as Fang Island was, their opener Adebisi Shank, a manic, prog-infused noise rock band from Ireland, nearly stole the show.

9. Radiohead – Bonnaroo; Manchester, Tennessee: Friday, June 9th

I actually saw Radiohead three times in 2012, which kind of hurt their standing on this list. The first time I saw then was from very far away with terrible sound while working at Coachella. Because of that, when I saw them at the IZOD Center in New Jersey, it was a terrific show but the surprise of their groundbreaking, moving multi-panel video setup had been blunted. By the third time I saw them at Bonnaroo the surprise was totally gone, but the setlist, mostly drawn from their newest rhythm-section heavy “King of Limbs” with some excellent older rarities, held the 80,000 plus crowd rapt for two plus hours. Plus they finished with “Paranoid Android,” which was unspeakably awesome – a highlight of my favorite Bonnaroo so far.

8. Glen Hansard – Pandora Lounge, SXSW; Austin, Texas: Thursday, March 15th

The funny thing about SXSW is that, for all the hype and the shows that are impossible to get into, it’s often the smaller shows that turn out to be the best. This year I managed to get into the Pandora showcase where Glen Hansard of The Swell Season performed a brief solo set. The “Once” troubadour was relaxed, playing songs from his solo record and some covers, including an epic version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night” with the late Clarence Clemons’ nephew on sax. Hansard finished his set with a warm, inspiring performance of the traditional Irish tune “Raise a Glass” to commemorate the passing of his father.

7. Meshuggah – Terminal 5, Wednesday, May 23rd

It’s amazing to me that Meshuggah, the Swedish math-metal pioneers, have found such a large audience. Music this uncompromising tends to thrive on rabid cult audiences, not enough people to fill the 3-level, appropriately spare and austere Terminal 5. But command an audience they do, simply, because they are some of the most gifted musicians in any genre playing these days. Drummer Thomas Haake keeps motortik rhythm, even as time signatures mutate into stranger and stranger fractions. Bassist Dick Lovgren and guitarists Marten Hagstrom and Fredrik Thordendal together hammer out chuga-chuga riffs that sound like the music the artsier robots will be listening to after Skynet becomes self aware in the future. Intense frontman Jens Kidman’s indistinguishable howls and growls convey just as much menace as the band he leads.

6. Mogwai – Webster Hall, Thursday, June 14th

What makes this Mogwai show even better is that it seemed like it was fated not to happen. The band cancelled a date due to visa issues, then another due to drummer Martin Bulloch’s illness. Then a third time due to illness. I didn’t exactly believe that Mogwai was going show up while I was waiting inside the hazy Webster Hall. But arrive they did, and they were just as powerful as the first time I saw them. Mogwai specialize in the creation and release of tension through repetition and volume. With a great mix of old and new tracks from their rich back catalogue, Mogwai proved again to be at the top of the pack of the post-rock genre that they pretty much invented.

5. Preservation Hall Jazz Band – Carnegie Hall: Saturday, January 7th

If this choice surprises you – what is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band doing on a list with Meshuggah? – it won’t when you see the guest list that accompanied the legendary New Orleans band at their 50th anniversary show at Carnegie Hall. My Morning Jacket and Trombone Shorty sat in on an intense version of “St. James Infirmary.” Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards added a smoky vocal to “Careless Love.” Mos Def led the charge in “It Ain’t My Fault” and Steve Earle played a goose bump inducing solo rendition of “This City” from the TV show “Treme” to illuminate the still struggling but proud people of New Orleans. Through everything, flanked by a who’s who in every genre of music and dancers in full Mardi Gras garb, the Preservation Hall Band played with such joy, looseness and fluidity that it made me hopeful for their next 50 years of work.

4. My Morning Jacket – Williamsburg Waterfront: Sunday, August 19th

It’s common knowledge amongst music festival fans that My Morning Jacket has ascended to the very top tier of live performers. The Kentucky band, playing a set entirely comprised of fan requests (fans apparently wanted a liberal mix of big hits, deep cuts, and monstrous epic jams) in a severe looking empty lot at the Williamsburg “waterfront,” put together one of the most astonishing sets I’ve seen them play in the many times I’ve seen them. They stretched old favorite “Phone Went West” and Z closer “Dondante” to nearly 15 minutes apiece. Aided by a spectacular light show, My Morning Jacket played long into the night, finishing with a blistering rendition of their most famous song “One Big Holiday” that left no doubt this band is only getting better with age.

3. Grizzly Bear – Radio City Music Hall: Monday, Sept. 24th

One of the Brooklyn indie-rock explosion’s finest success stories, Grizzly Bear has grown from a bedroom project of songwriter Ed Droste to one of the most acclaimed bands of their time – and on the heels of their latest knockout album “Shields,” the band headlined the legendary Radio City Music Hall for the first time. Radio City, with its high arches and undulating walls, turned out to be the perfect match for Grizzly Bear’s obsessively detailed and finely calibrated pocket symphonies. Playing in front of lanterns that rose and fell and pulsated like bioluminescent jellyfish caught in a tide pool, the band floored the audience with expanded renditions of old favorites like “Shift” and “Ready, Able.” But the highlights of the night were newer tracks: “Yet Again” climaxed with unexpected fury, while “Sun in Your Eyes” crested so mightily it got an ovation midway through and after its climax. During their encore, there was a sound mishap that rendered the first minute of “Knife” totally unplugged and a capella – that the song still sounded lovely bouncing off Radio City’s walls is a testament to the band’s raw talent.

2. Thee Oh Sees – The Well: Saturday, Sept. 22nd

You know you’re in for a great show when a band opens the show with your favorite song of theirs (in this case, “The Dream”) and then continues to top that song over and over throughout the concert. Such was the case with Thee Oh Sees, San Francisco’s psych-rock titans who I had always heard put on a great show but was unprepared for how transcendent their performance would be at the brand new outdoor venue in Bushwick, The Well. With apologies to Ty Segall, who played a fun, rain soaked headlining set, Thee Oh Sees ran away with the show in the opening slot, mutating their skuzzy surf rock songs into winding, relentless jam outs, fueled by lead guitarist John Dywer’s reverb-y yelps and manic, buzzsaw guitar solos. The entire crowd, from front to back, was jumping up and down and headbanging for the band’s hour-long set that, to me, could have easily gone on twice as long. Thee Oh Sees have been prolific underground heroes for years – based on this performance alone, I think they’re going to skyrocket to the next level of elite live bands in the near future.

1. White Denim – Bowery Ballroom: Friday, April 13th

Austin’s White Denim, a band I knew very little about just a year ago, has quickly ascended to one of my favorite live bands in the world. Intrigued by their excellent album “D,” which sounded kind of like King Crimson playing Allman Brothers covers, I since have seen them live four times. The best of the shows was at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, where, in the first of two shows that night, the band played nearly non-stop for two hours, tossing genres like blues, rock, Americana, soul, prog and more into a blender and emerging with one of the best shows I have ever seen, period. The band was constantly shifting tones and time signatures on a dime, but this was no mere jam-band noodling – White Denim knows their way around obscenely catchy melodies as well. Once an earworm settled in, the band would rocket into another direction, thrillingly. Something not apparently on their records is the band’s sheer energy, especially lead singer James Petralli, who unsheathed a soul-man howl several times throughout the show that had the audience applauding in the middle of songs. Toward the end of the set, during the maniacally catchy “I Start to Run,” Petralli laid his guitar down and sprinted around the stage like David Byrne in “Stop Making Sense.” This set, along with a Thursday night set at Bonnaroo where White Denim absolutely stunned the packed crowd, leads me to believe we’ll be seeing these guys for a long, long time.

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