Best of 2011: Awesome music shows at both big and small venues
The Egg in Albany again excelled in quality and quantity of pop and rock shows this year, as it has over the past few years. But many other venues hosted shows that wowed music writers Michael Hochanadel, Brian McElhiney and David Singer. It wasn’t easy, but they narrowed down the top shows they saw to five apiece.
Shonen Knife at Valentine’s (Nov. 22). The Japanese punk rock legends earned their title as the “Osaka Ramones” this evening, the last show of their 30th anniversary North American tour. An encore set of Ramones classics followed the trio’s original set of such classics as “Banana Chips” and the sludgy rave-up “Antonio Baka Guy,” all delivered with spunk and joy. (Editor’s note: Okinawa-born McElhiney was probably the only reviewer at this show able to read the set-list in Japanese.)
“Weird Al” Yankovic at the Palace (Oct. 18). The master of the song parody proved just why his gimmick has stood the test of time (four decades and counting) with a show that featured as many costume changes and props as songs performed — and also highlighted Yankovic’s odd obsession with food. His top-notch band really made the humor pop, though, playing note-for-note renditions of songs by everyone from Nirvana to Miley Cyrus.
TV on the Radio at Skidmore College (Oct. 7). On record, these Brooklynites make challenging rock ’n’ roll infused with funk, hip-hop, electronica and a taste for the quirky. Live, they just rocked.
Before a thrashing, sweaty college crowd, the band transformed this year’s “Nine Types of Light” and choice cuts from their back catalog into a towering monolith of noise and furious energy.
Paley and Francis at Valentine’s (Sept. 7). The Pixies’ leader and an underground Brooklyn singer-songwriter teamed up to great country-rocking effect both on a new record this year, and at this performance — besting even the Pixies themselves. Black Francis, aka Frank Black, aka Charles Thompson, brought out his goofy side for this intimate show, egged on by Reid Paley’s equally powerful stage presence, as the duo romped through their entire album plus highlights from both artists’ solo careers.
Flogging Molly at Northern Lights (Feb. 20). The California-based seven-piece brought new meaning to the words “camaraderie” and “Irish drinking song” with a fearsome performance that lasted more than two hours. Previewing this year’s “Speed of Darkness” album, the band played with an exuberance and joy only hinted at on their studio recordings.
Lindsey Buckingham at The Egg (Nov. 2). More interesting without Fleetwood Mac than the band ever was, with or without him. A solo start displayed tremendous one-man-band chops, then his band unleashed his inner 15-year-old, replicating the booming heft of Fleetwood Mac songs and the precision of his solo album songs.
NRBQ at WAMC’s The Linda (Apr. 3). They jazzed up pop songs without distorting their concise jukebox power. Three years after making their debut at The Linda, this new version of perhaps America’s most beloved band showed off impressive mutual intuition so that even odd detours took on unanimous glee. They felt so good, and they made everyone feel good, too.
Rosanne Cash at MASS MoCA (May 28). Cash and husband/guitarist John Leventhal delivered classic songs with amazing depth, insight and musical command. Her confident charm warmed their duets, beyond just intimate and into a category of exceptional closeness. Her hands moved in such perfectly modulated gestures I almost hated to see her fill them with a guitar.
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings at The Egg (Jan. 22). Compact, fearless, charged with the energy of five regular people, she served up spicy barbecue, southern-soul style — propelling the precise Dap Kings rather than being propelled by them. Like the late-1960s Stax-Volt revues, they cycled short riffs, fast and smooth, like small gears in a big machine.
The Gourds at WAMC’s The Linda (Sept. 28). Looking like any five guys you’d meet in a truck stop at 3 a.m., plain as corncobs, the underrated Austin band played a high-impact but low-pressure rock ‘n’ roll show that slammed, soothed, seethed and sang. Familiar-sounding yet bracingly cliché-free, they earned comparisons to The Band, evoked the Stones’ bluesy grind and the zip-twang of bluegrass — but rockin’.
Jackson Browne solo at the Palace (Sept. 3). Browne never really needed a band for his best songs: “Late for the Sky,” “The Pretender,” “Running on Empty,” and so on. Solo at the Palace, the songs sounded just right: scaled down and bare-boned, aging as well as he has. It’s not a big deal to see Browne; he’s around often: But sometimes he connects, or you connect with him, and he achieves the thing that makes us all want to see live music.
Peter Gabriel at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (June 27). Gabriel gave more than a show at SPAC with a 54-piece orchestra and expansive screens stretching across the stage. It was an extravaganza, the grand spectacle expanding to larger than life dimensions the man, the music, and the message. This was the most massive and interesting effort I saw this summer.
10,000 Maniacs at Alive at Five (June 16). Not many bands can simultaneously dominate and soothe a crowd. 10,000 Maniacs never exploded the amphitheater or even delivered an unbelievable moment. Instead, it steadily gathered energy and intensity until every song hit its mark, creating a rare and memorable vibe at the Alive at Five show. The Maniac groove could do no wrong on that particular day.
Phish at Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center (May 27). I don’t ever play Phish on my own: that is, I never listen to their records — but they are the best jam-band in the world today, dead or alive. This was just another of a gazillion shows to prove it. They were far from perfect, but they had at least 10 amazing moments, the kind you hope to see maybe once a show with any other band. They seemed happier and healthier than ever.
Marshall Tucker at Alive at Five (June 9). If you are weak for good old Southern rock, then take the time to see these guys. Despite playing under the I-787 overpass, Marshall Tucker stretched hits out for 10 to 15 minutes. There was nothing corny or nostalgic about the show, their guitar work was on fire and their hits came at us strong and fresh from “Can’t You See” to “Heard it in a Love Song” to “Fire on the Mountain.”
— Brian McElhiney, Michael Hochanadel and David Singer write about popular music for The Gazette.