Tuesday, December 30, 2008


10) Letters to Cleo, Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY December 11th
Perhaps it’s seeing that dreaded age of 40 coming up in less than 11 months, or just acting more like an adult this entire year that has made me a fan of reunions. The latest reunion I had to was Letters to Cleo. The band hadn’t played together in over a decade (and I hadn't seen them in over 11 years), so I was rather excited when their gig at Bowery Ballroom was announced. I let my old roommate and fellow LTC huge fan Joe S. know immediately and we grabbed tickets. This was a reunion that did not disappoint. Kay Hanley might just be a better frontperson now than she was a decade ago. Her voice has a warmer tone nowadays, which made songs like “Co-Pilot” and “Awake” sound better than I remembered them. She seemed to work the crowd more easily, which she might have picked up having to entertain thousands of kids as one of Miley Cyrus's backup singers. (Um, and she has gotten hotter in the past 10 years too.) The rest of the band (minus original bassist Scott Riebling) now plays with more confidence in their own abilities and material. Drummer Stacy Jones (who happens to front a great band of his own called American Hi Fi) is just a monster behind the kit. And it wasn’t just the great performances that made the night so much fun. It was the chance to reveal in the memories the band’s music brought back (their album Go! was in heavy rotation at 288 5th Avenue in 1997) and to catch up with some of the band’s friends (like Jed and Pete from The Gravel Pit). Yeah, I guess getting old can be fun sometimes. I’d like to give LTC guitarist USA Mike (Michael Eisenstein) the last word on the Bowery show with a post he left on the Kay Hanley message board: “What a great night. I haven’t done an official ranking, but that was in the top 10 (maybe 5) Cleo shows of all time.” I’d have to agree.

9) Nada Surf, Terminal 5, New York, NY April 11th
So why does this Nada Surf show stand above the other four I’ve seen this year? Well, I’d have to say it was a certain part of the crowd at New York’s latest shitty venue. (The sound at Terminal 5 is NOT meant for rock shows. No freaking way). I went with Moria the concert pal, and we were convinced that the show was made better by these three kids (it was an all ages show, they might have been 21) in front of us who knew every single word—even the songs from the relatively new Lucky—and danced around and took pictures like they were having the time of their young lives. Heck, they probably were having the time of their lives. Their enthusiasm was infectious and made me enjoy a show that under normal circumstances wouldn't make it onto my Top 10 concerts for the year. An added bonus was how they pissed off this snooty couple in front of us. They both looked as if they swallowed a box of sour balls. Screw them if they can't have fun.

8) Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, ACL Festival, Zilker Park, Austin, TX September 27th
I knew that the Bright Eyes frontman was staying away from doing songs from that catalog on this solo tour, yet I didn't expect his hour-long set to be focused almost exclusively on his self-titled solo album. It’s apparent that escaping from the Bright Eyes name has freed up Oberst. He seemed very relaxed on stage. For once I didn’t expect him to throw a tantrum. He looked like a guy just having fun playing with some friends. That relaxed attitude went well with the one tremendous cover in the set—Paul Simon’s 1973 solo hit “Kodachrome.” I started chuckling as Oberst sang the opening line and I wondered if any of this mostly under-30-looking crowd had even heard the song. There were a few pockets of people dancing and clapping—and I was pretty sure those folks were definitely my age or a bit older. No matter, we old folks and Conor had fun, and that’s all that mattered.

7) Big Dipper, Southpaw, Brooklyn, NY April 25th
I stupidly missed Big Dipper when they played at The Haunt in Ithaca 18 years ago. I wasn’t going to miss my chance this time when they did a few dates in support of the anthology that the always great Merge Records released this year. (Even if I did get food poisoning from a pre-show catfish burger, yuck.) These four guys looked a whole lot older, but played just as well (and as loud, my left ear thought for about 36 hours) as they did back in the day. The next to last song in the set, "Ron Klaus Wrecked His House," was still stuck in my head a few days after the show. One can only hope we don't have to wait another 18 years for a Big Dipper show here in New York.

6) Neil Young, Wilco, Madison Square Garden, New York, NY December 16th
Eight years. Yes, it had been eight freaking years since I had seen Neil Young play an entire show (I did catch his Farm Aid set at New York's Randall’s Island in 2007) without the baggage of CSN on stage. It’s not that I haven’t had the chance to do so. I boycotted the 2003-4 Greendale tour with Crazy Horse as there was no way I was spending money to watch him perform his worst album ever. And the ticket prices for last year's theater tour behind Chrome Dreams II were just too pricey. However this time the temptation to go was great with the bonus of Wilco as the opening act. I hemmed and hawed about going until my dearest friend April (who was tired of the hemming, hawing and complaining) finally said, “I can buy tickets for you as a birthday present.” Since she had never seen Young, I felt okay letting her buy seats that were really expensive. Wilco did a great opening set, with Jeff Tweedy bringing out his son Spencer to play drums on “The Late Greats.” It was the younger Tweedy's birthday, which certainly must have made that appearance the best birthday present ever. Then Young came out with his Electric Band (made up of a cast of characters from throughout his career) and cranked out a decent version of the Ragged Glory gem “Love and Only Love.” As Young continued playing the hits I've seen many times before (“Hey Hey, My My,” “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere”) I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. I kept thinking “Crazy Horse did these songs better, I wish Crazy Horse was here.” And then these opening lines rang out: “Look out mama, there's a white boat coming up a river." Instantly my doubts went away. I mean, I was seeing Neil freaking Young! Dude, this is fucking “Powderfinger!” This is awesome! The rest of the show was fantastic. It clocked in at over two and a half hours, which is the longest Neil show I’ve ever seen. And to prove that he's got some life in him yet, he mixed in nine new tunes. Alas most of them were subpar, yet it was great seeing an artist I respect taking a chance by performing what basically was an entire unreleased album. It reminded me of the Neil shows I saw in the late ’80s and early ’90s where he would play songs that would end up on his next album. And considering the nostalgia trip I’ve been on during this trying year that was alright with me.

5) The Figgs, Knitting Factory, New York, NY, August 29th
What makes this Figgs gig different than the rest of their shows I saw this year was the element of surprise when they broke into a cover of Neil Young’s “The Loner.” I didn't expect it at all, which made it even more incredible. It had to be one of the Top 5 moments I've ever experienced at a Figgs show. (And there have been over 80 shows now.) Mike Gent, Pete Donnelly and Pete Hayes just rocked the hell out of it, while keyboardist Scott Janovitz absolutely nailed the keyboard parts that Young discarded after he recorded the song for his 1969 self-titled solo debut. I don’t know what else to write. It was one of those rock moments that can probably never be duplicated.

4) Wilco, McCarren Park Pool, Brooklyn, NY August 13th
Wilco + Brooklyn + outdoors on a beauty of a summer night + the horn section The Total Pros, on 11 songs = fucking magnificent.

3) Okkervil River, ACL Festival, Zilker Park, Austin, TX September 28th
Okkervil River + Austin + outdoors as the sun is starting to sink in the Texas sky + a raucous group of hometown supporters = fucking magnificent.

2) David Byrne, Paramount Theater, Austin, TX September 25th
When the Austin City Limits Festival was announced, I was intrigued by the listing of David Byrne “playing the songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno.” My Austin friend (and place-to-crash supplier these past three years) Stacy is a huge Talking Heads fan and was excited by this prospect as well. Alas, when the schedule was released Byrne’s set was on the first day of ACL, which of course was the day Stacy couldn’t go. About a month before the festival a bunch of aftershows were announced for various Austin venues and Byrne was one of them. So we decided to take the plunge and get tix for this ACL aftershow...that was the night before ACL. Huh? In any case, it was a very wise decision. Byrne’s latest collaboration with Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, is his strongest album in years and was the centerpiece of a set consisting only of songs he wrote with Eno. (Or, in the case of the Al Green cover "Take Me to the River," Eno produced.) I am a huge fan of the Jonathan Demme-directed Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which takes simple staging and brings it to another level. Byrne’s show that night felt like an extension of all of that. The entire band was dressed in white and supplemented by three dancers. And these dancers were tremendous. The choreography during the songs (I’d say about 75% of the set featured the dancers) adds an extra dimension to the old Heads classics and the strong new material. In times of rising ticket prices, it’s good to see someone who can put on a true show without having to resort to 800 video screens and autotuned vocals.

1) R.E.M., Madison Square Garden, New York, NY June 19th
It’s rare when I can say this about a band, especially an act that I’ve been a devoted fan of for 23 years: this was the best R.E.M. show I’ve ever seen. Ever. You might ask, “Why do you feel this way after 20 years of seeing them perform?” Well, I would reply that the set list was about as diverse as I’ve ever witnessed. The band finally seemed comfortable without Bill Berry behind the drum kit. (Bill Rieflin is the second best Bill the band has ever had.) Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck looked like they actually enjoyed each other’s company and were having a terrific time going through their past (“Harborcoat?” “Disturbance at the Heron House?” OMFG!) and their present (“Living Well’s the Best Revenge” from the great Accelerate is a quintessential set opener). My friend, fellow baseball fanatic and longtime R.E.M. touring guitarist Scott McCaughey was his typical cheery on stage self. And they played “Ignoreland.” “Ignoreland” has always been the stepchild of the mostly downbeat Automatic for the People. It’s got loud guitars, a funky clavinet part and sounds distinctly out of place next to “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and “Star Me Kitten.” Stipe spits out the lyrics about the Reagan/Bush 1 era as co-producer Scott Litt makes Stipe’s voice sound as if it’s being broadcast over distorted speakers at the world’s largest political rally. It’s a song that would fit snugly on Life’s Rich Pageant or Document, yet the band never played it live until this tour. And my oh my, it really was a treat to see and hear. Lastly, I must admit there are times where I am way past my job being cool. Having someone the R.E.M. office calling me two hours before showtime to offer a last-minute pair of free tickets that ended up being eight row? Holy shit, that was fucking cool.

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