Friday, December 10, 2010


10) Guster, Beacon Theater, New York, NY 10/29
Here’s a good rule of thumb to determine the quality of a concert—if a ukulele is lowered from the ceiling for someone to play (twice!), you’re probably getting your money’s worth. That cheeky nod to big rock productions (and reminiscent of the Stonehenge sequence in This Is Spinal Tap) was one of many humorous moments that make seeing Guster a fun experience. It also helped that the two songs I requested via text—“What You Call Love” and “The Beginning of the End”—were on the setlist. Oh, and the fact that we drank a large amount of hugely overpriced Bud Lights. And that my voice had come back after losing it earlier in that week so I could sing along with the chorus of young women screaming the words to “Amsterdam.” Basically, there was a whole lot of fun happening on stage and off that night. As an added bonus, I only saw two people dressed in costume. That was a relief, because at the rate Halloween seems to have expanded over the past few years I’ll soon have to deal with idiots wearing Frankenstein masks on my birthday.

9) The Acorn, Littlefield, Brooklyn, NY 9/24
I saw this Canadian quintet twice this year and both shows were great. I’ve rated the second show a little higher because the crowd seemed much more responsive and in tune with what the band was doing. During very quiet songs you could barely hear a peep out of the crowd. When the band ramped up the volume, the cheers at the end of each song responded in kind. And even though I had been up since 5:30 in the morning, I was still able to make it through their entire post-midnight set without thinking “Gosh, I’d like to lie down in the corner during this nice ballad and just close my eyes.” Of course, the bottle of Coke I had at 11:15 p.m. might have helped a bit. And frontman Rolf Klausener’s sense of humor helped, too. The band’s music can be rather serious and, at times, somber. But Klausener offsets that with witty, self-deprecating humor. I recall saying something like, “Who knew we’d get some stand-up at this show?” to my friend Lynne during their set. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another three years before they return to our fair city.

8) Buffalo Tom, Mercury Lounge, New York, NY 5/21
Like The Acorn, I saw Buffalo Tom twice this year. Unlike The Acorn, I’d rate the first BT show just a bit better than the second. Everything I would expect from a BT gig was delivered at this gig: singer-guitarist Bill Janovitz singing as if his life depended on it on each and every song; singer-bassist Chris Colbourn adding great backing and counterpoint vocals to Janovitz’s songs and delivering passionate performances whenever he stepped up to sing lead; drummer Tom Maginnis laying down a steady beat that holds it all together; and Janovitz joking with the crowd about various topics (aging, baseball, the 90s), bringing smiles to the faces of his two bandmates. Both shows saw the guys debut material from their new album Skins, which is due out February 15th of next year. What I’ve heard so far has me excited that I’ll be starting my third decade as a fan of BT.

7) Pavement, Rumsey Play Field, Central Park, New York, NY 9/22
I’ve heard reports and rumors that by the end of this lengthy reunion tour the five members of Pavement were not on the best of terms. I didn’t see any evidence of that during the rain-filled night two out of four in Central Park. I do believe that I never saw them play as tight or focused at any of the five shows I witnessed during their ’90s heyday. Frontman Stephen Malkmus didn’t toss off the lyrics as if they were totally inconsequential. His singing was strong and he enunciated all of the words, giving them a heft that I suppose only age and wisdom can imbue in them. (Or, if I was to be a cynic, that only a ton of reunion tour cash can imbue in them.) He and Spiral Stairs played crisp intertwined guitar lines and multi-instrumentalist Bob Nastanovich was as enthusiastic as I’ve ever seen him. Giving that guy a wireless mic so he can run around screaming lines in songs like “Conduit for Sale” was a technical masterstroke. If they never get together again, that’s fine. At least I was able to witness a Pavement show that wasn’t a letdown in any aspect. (Even the rain came with an amazing lightning show, so props to Mother Nature as well.)

6) The Baseball Project, Solid Sound Festival, North Adams, MA 8/13
The Solid Sound Festival was Wilco’s baby. They picked the bands playing over the three days, all of their side projects performed and they did the longest show on the main stage (which was set up in the backyard of Mass MoCA). Yet The Baseball Project’s hour-long set was my favorite part of the weekend. R.E.M.’s Mike Mills filled in for his bandmate Peter Buck on bass, and seeing (and hearing) him tackle material that wasn’t his own made me realize that he’s one fine melodic bass player. I’ve known that, of course, for many years. But it was nice to get a little reminder of the man’s talent. And it was great getting to hear some new Baseball Project songs and to watch Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey (in stop action motion below) do some guitar heroics on Wynn’s “Amphetamine.”

5) Jenny Dee & The Deelinquents, Barrence Whitfield & The Monkeyhips, Union Hall, Brooklyn, NY 3/3
Full disclosure: my good friend Ed Valauskas plays in Jenny Dee & The Deelinquents with his wife Jennifer (a.k.a. Jenny Dee), so I’m obviously biased about their 60s girl group-influenced music. Each time I’ve seen them perform they deliver a level of musicianship and fun that seems lacking in other acts that mine the same rich territory. I went to this show with every intention of watching Ed, Jen and company play and then head back home since it was Wednesday night. Then I saw Pete Caldes walk into Union Hall and I discovered he was playing with the headline act on the bill, Barrence Whitfield & The Monkeyhips. Pete is the drummer in two of my favorite bands, The Gravel Pit and The Gentlemen, and I’ve been fortunate to see him display his talent with other bands as well over the past decade. So I figured I had to stay and see Pete play with this act I knew nothing about. After Ed got done playing I told him I’d never heard of Barrence Whitfield. He cocked his head to the side and said, “Oh man Reynolds, you’re going to have your mind blown.” Now if anybody else had said this me I would have discounted it as just typical hype. But I respect Ed’s opinion (and ears) very highly, so I sensed I might be in for something special. And holy crap, it was incredible. Whitfield—who is a highly respected old school R&B vocalist from Boston—has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. He can go croon in a low growl, stop on a dime and switch to a high-pitched wail. And the man has stage presence by the bucketloads. If it could be bottled and sold, there would be hundreds of singers half Whitfield’s age (he’s 55) clamoring to buy as much as possible. I left Union Hall 2 hours later than I expected—and with a shit-eating grin that was entirely surprising.

4) The Figgs, Fontana’s, New York, NY 5/14
The late booking of this gig meant that The Figgs were playing very early and only had a 45 minute slot. When they arrived on stage they decided to just play their new album The Man Who Fights Himself in order. I had seen all of the songs live in the past four years since their last album Follow Jean through the Sea, but it was fun hearing them all bunched together like that. Before the show singer-guitarist Mike Gent told me that his uncle had died and he'd have to travel up to Troy in the morning for the funeral. Just before the fifth track “A One Man Fiasco,” Gent told the crowd about his uncle and asked everyone to raise their glasses in honor of him. And every single person did. It was a very moving sight. And then when Gent got to the third verse, things got a little bit dusty in Chinatown:

“Maybe some sleep, will bring a little peace.
The saddest thing I've ever seen.
Family will come, and eventually
All will have to leave.”

It was the most emotional moment I've had at a Figgs show in probably a decade, and one that I won’t soon forget.

3) Wilco, Wellmont Theater, Montclair, NJ 4/3
It seems every year I have a Wilco on this list. I’m running out of words and phrases to describe how much I enjoy them. So I’ll just say that any time I can see Jeff Tweedy and company play 37 songs—and close their main set with two Big Star covers (“Thank You Friends” and “In the Street”) in tribute to the late Alex Chilton, I will totally go through the hassle of renting a car (and making a wrong turn in the swamps of Jersey) to go.

2) LCD Soundsystem, ACL Festival, Zilker Park, Austin, TX 10/9
Here’s a funny thing about the concert list this year—seven out of the 11 acts I’ve mentioned I’ve seen two or more times this year. So a lot of these artists have been competing with themselves. Hmm, weird. In any case, I was able to see LCD Soundsystem at two very different parts of their tour schedule. The first was back in April as LCD mastermind James Murphy was warming up the latest lineup of the band with two New York club gigs before they officially started their tour at Coachella. It was okay, but it was obvious throughout the night that Murphy was letting his perfectionist side take over as he kept going to various band members to critique whatever part they were playing. The second time was six months after that show just as the sun was starting to set on Zilker Park. The crew of folks I was hanging with at the festival all planned on seeing other acts at the time. So I focused on getting ready to enjoy what could be the last time I see LCD Soundsystem. (Murphy has made comments about retiring the band after this tour cycle is over, which would be a shame.) I got a couple of huge cans of beer and got up close to the stage. As showtime got close, I found myself next to a guy who was getting ready to film a few songs with a snazzy looking camera. We ended up talking about the band and other times we had seen them. I mentioned that I had seen their second warm up show and that they weren’t as tight as I expected. Then the band came on and played an epic version of This Is Happening opener “Dance Yrself Clean.” At the end of the nine-plus minutes the camera guy turned to me and said, with a huge smile, “Dude, I think they’ve gotten a bit together since then.” And he wasn’t kidding. LCD Soundsystem is the only band around that makes me want to dance during their entire set. And I’m no dancing fool, as Frank Zappa would say. Yet the mix of rock elements, vintage keyboards and phenomenal playing from drummer Pat Mahoney touches some part of my musical soul and I feel my body moving. It’s not a pretty sight, trust me. I suppose that’s why I’ve loved both times I’ve seen LCD Soundsytem at ACL—I got to dance around amongst the younger teeming masses and no one I know saw it.

1) Nada Surf, John Roderick, The Bell House, Brooklyn, NY 3/26
Nada Surf joined the “let’s play an album straight through” club with a three-night stand in Manhattan and Brooklyn early this spring at three different clubs. The trio did Let Go the first night at Bowery Ballroom, The Weight is a Gift at The Bell House the second night and Lucky at the Music Hall of Williamsburg the third. I was lucky (no pun intended) to see the first two nights, each of which was thrilling in its own way. Both albums have become huge parts of my life over the past six years and definitely would be listed in my fifty favorite albums of all time. (I won’t be writing that list this year. You’ll have to wait until the 25th anniversary or something.) The Weight is a Gift is the album I prefer, so I guess it’s not surprising that show was better to my eyes and ears. Yet what truly made the night special was the opening acoustic set by The Long Winters’ frontman John Roderick. He was side-splittingly funny in between his songs. And the man’s songs, goodness. His creative wordplay and knack for memorable melodies have made them one of my biggest discoveries of the past decade. Roderick was obviously honored to be sharing the stage with Nada Surf in their hometown, commenting “if [frontman] Matthew Caws wants me to open, I’ll fly wherever needed to do it.” Roderick’s set closer “The Commander Thinks Aloud” saw Nada Surf and their guest keyboardist Joe McGinty come out and slowly transform the song from an acoustic number to a full-fledged rock anthem. The joy in Roderick’s and Caws’s faces as the song built were total infectious. It was one of those rare moments of: “Wow, I can actually feel the hair standing on the back of my neck, seriously, it’s really doing that.” Roderick later returned the favor by reprising his studio role of singing on two Weight songs, “What is Your Secret” and “Your Legs Grow.” And while seeing Weight all the way through was a joyous and cathartic experience, Caws and company followed that up with a great set drawn from their other albums and their brand new covers disc If I Had a Hi-Fi. All in all, it was one of those nights that make me realize why I’ve devoted so much time of my life to seeing and listening to music.

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