Favorite Shows of 2004: Staff Picks
A number of our editors and regular contributors wrote on their regular favorite shows of the past year. Here they are (jn random order)...
Favorite show of 2004? David Byrne. His set at Bonnaroo was alright, I suppose, but earlier that same week, on June 7, he played an upscale theater show in Harrisburg, PA and I sat in the sixth row, absolutely transfixed. The show was everything a good concert should be transcendent at all the right moments and completely present for the rest. Every note was intentional. Every sound distinct. Every beat in step. Nothing was wasted.
At the time, Phish’s break-up was impending and, therefore, fresh on my mind. After this show, I sat in my chair as the audience shuffled out and I thought to myself, "Of course! There will still be plenty of IT shows! Phish or no Phish! How could I have forgotten?" When you write about music for a living, that’s an important realization.
My other favorite show of 2004 occurred at the last possible moment on New Year’s Eve. Like Phish, the Disco Biscuits have had their ups and downs as a band, and 2004 was a very questionable year for them. I didn’t see the Disco Biscuits much in 2004, and friends who did often reported back that the band had lost some of their spark. I knew better. Still, some of the shows I witnessed made me wonder. Drummer Sam Altman announced in October that he was leaving the band soon. New Year’s Eve was, originally, going to be one of his last few shows. The run leading up to New Year’s was very strong, but New Year’s Eve itself just creamed everything the Biscuits had done in the previous 12 months…longer, even. It was as if a long lost friend returned from an unexpected journey. Here they were again. A band that I once thought capable of anything. And they were capable of anything, once again.
(Runner up: Neil Young, Giant Center, 3/16/04
Link to jambands review: http://www.jambands.com/ShowReviews/content_2004_03_16.00.phtml)
A year older, still just as indecisive. Once again, I’m proud to present my own little, typo-plagued award ceremony, The Mikey’s:
Best Aborted Breakup: The Disco Biscuits (12/31, New York, NY) A band known for its dyslectic songs and inverted runs, The Disco Biscuits never did anything the normal, or easy, way. So it’s fitting that drummer Sam Altman’s final show inspired yet another string of full-band performances. Stretching "Magellan" to its breaking point and dressing "Save The Robots" up like Baby New Year, The Disco Biscuits reminded everyone, including themselves, what Bisco sounds like.
Best Shameless Plug: The Jammys, (3/16, New York, NY): Sure we put it on, but that doesn’t mean it still didn’t rock, —-er jam—-harder than anything else last spring. A six-hour award ceremony without a red carpet, this smorgasbord previewed one full-scale reunion (The Black Crowes), another seemingly permanent breakup (Dickey Betts watching the Allmans from the sidelines), and one festival that never came to fruition (Lollapalooza). Plus, Kate Hudson smiled at me in that dorky, Almost Famous kind of way.
Best Michael Moore Moment: Head Count Benefit (06/07, New York, NY). Well, the election didn’t work out the way we wanted it to, but Andy Bernstein and Marc Brownstein still succeeded in bringing a Pharmer’s Almanac sense of excitement into the world of politics. And, if this evening proved anything, it’s that Mike Gordon, The Duo, moe., Michael Kang, The Disco Biscuits, Reid Genauer and a H.O.R.D.E tour of others can agree on something besides the fact that they don’t like being called jambands.
Best Eighth-Avenue Segue: Antibalas/MMW->JM2 (10/31, New York, NY) At times, New York feels like an urban Bonnaroo, overflowing with conflicting shows and overlapping asterisks. So, this Halloween, a club’s worth of fans trick-or-treated up Eighth Avenue, knocking on both MMW and JM2’s doors. And, yes, the equation Antibalas/MMW->JM2 does = 8hrs of music and 0hrs of sleep. Math. Now that’s spooky.
Best Use of the Jamband Blueprint: Umphrey’s McGee (6/14, Manchester, TN >12/10, New York, NY) Umphrey’s McGee are the perfect jamband. So it makes sense that this group’s show-length victories link together into a single, manic statement. Beginning with a full-band segue at Bonnaroo, and capping off with a guest-laden anointment at Irving Plaza, Chicago’s finest jamband summed up 2004 in two-letters: UM.
Best Use of A Rain Delay: David Byrne (9/4, Snowmass, CO): Sure his new solo album is elegantly excellent’ and, yes, his art possesses a surreal sense of irony,’ but, critic-jargon aside, David Byrne will always be that dude from the Talking Heads who doesn’t blink. So, after torrential showers stunted this festival set, Byrne left his strings on the side, offering forty minutes of tight, Talking Heads. As he says, "If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawn mower").
Best Hippie-Hipster Mixer: Wilco (10/05, New York, NY) Somewhere along Brooklyn’s grey-colored L train, hippie’s and hipsters began to mingle and Wilco’s new sound is the result: a carefully orchestrated mix of art-jams ("Spiders), tender songs ("Theologians") and jambandy novelties (comedian Fred Armisen’s encore appearance).
Best Parental Bonding Moment: Arlo Guthrie (04/04, Peekskill, NY) Like his father, Arlo Guthrie has aged gracefully into a nomadic wanderer, playing picnic-size festivals and historic theaters awaiting gentrification. And, like his father, Guthrie’s wisdom now parallels his age, seamlessly blurring the line between song and speech. A unique mix of traditional American-fare, ("This Land is My Land") and musical comedy (an abridged "Alice’s Restaurant"), Arlo Guthrie’s rebellious anthems have aged into national treasures.
And a new award:
The First Person: (for self-indulgence with a, hopefully, broad appeal)
Phish (6/19-20, Saratoga Springs, NY) For me, perhaps it should have ended here. Before the muddled-music, muddy fairgrounds and miles of traffic, Phish were America’s best amphitheater act, paying one final visit to my collegiate-hometown. My personal and professional memories are jumbled and slightly burnt like the perfect veggie burrito, watching old college friends come into their own, while hearing old-favorites, like "Piper," take one final flight ("the words I sailed upon").
Sometimes you have to end things to fully understand why you shouldn’t
even be thinking about ending them. That seemed to be the lesson of
two great days in the middle of June. Phish’s return to Saratoga was
nothing short of SPACtacular.
It’s hard to decide which of the two shows was better. June 19th was
all about the peak experience of the Piper. The 20th had the
wonderful flow of that amazing second set. Fortunately, we don’t
have to choose at all. For one last weekend, Phish delivered like
they weren’t a band in the process of breaking up. After the hell
that was Coventry, it can be hard to remember how good those shows were, but a listen will remind you.
Phish, Coventry, 8/15
At Coventry, I met up with a group of friends I hadn’t seen in years and, remarkably, it was as if no time had passed at all; the warm hellos and big hugs I had missed were everywhere I looked. And as I watched my favorite band break up, I was reminded that, just like my friendships with these people, my relationship with Phish’s music didn’t have to end just because I couldn’t see them anymore.
Antibalas, Central Park, NYC, 8/21
Carl, Ian and I showed up early to this free show and managed to score front-row seats (what a treat!). At the bottom of the bleachers, our neighbors stood up and began to dance; the three of us followed suit. When security told us to sit down for the umpteenth time, as they feared the folks behind us would be unable to see, those folks took one for the team: the entire section got up, and got down.
Xavier Rudd, Shelburne Falls, MA, 10/3
White boy got soul. Go see this guy.
Medeski, Martin & Wood, Hammerstein Ballroom, NYC, 10/31
Fourteen years in the game and these guys are still the best. There’s no where else I want to be on Halloween, ever.
John Patric Gatta
My favorite has to be the Bonnaroo Music Festival. The only major problem that weekend , more so than ankle deep mud that gave my hiking shoes a Manchester Tennessee stink for several months, was that I was not cloned. It was an amazing time that offered too many solid choices again and again and again. I mean, trying to decide between late night sets by Primus, Ween, Robert Randolph and the Family Band and Umphrey’s McGee just isn’t fair. One of my best moments was positioning myself just right in the middle of craft vendors area. Leaning one way or another and I could catch the sounds from three different stages! JPG
I didn’t get to see many large shows in 2004, but I still enjoyed lots of great little shows. One of my favorites was Victor Wooten at the Aladdin Theater in Portland, OR on 2/1/04. Not only was Vic’s bass playing amazing as usual, but his brothers in the band were even better than the last time I saw them. He added a charismatic female vocalist/bassist to the mix this time around, as well. Add the fact that Victor actually levitated a few feet off the stool he was sitting on while jamming, and this show was downright mind-blowing.
Another of my favorite shows took place at the same venue on 5/1/04. The Everyone Orchestra with Jon Fishma, Tony Furtado, and Kai Eckhardt was a great show for a great cause. The section of the show where Fishman and Eckhardt were jamming together was truly inspired. And the varied backgrounds of the musicians involved in this version of the Everyone Orchestra were particularly interesting. Some mellow acoustic tunes from Libby Kirkpatrick flowed seamlessly into some songs by Tony Furtado, which in turn flowed into sick guitar jams from Scott Law and the excellent rhythm section of Matt Butler, Kai Echkardt, Jon Fishman, and Damian Erskine.
Instead of droning on about my favorite bands in the scene Garaj Mahal and Umphrey’s McGee as I usually would, I’ll also mention a run of shows from one of my favorite new (to me) little bands, Moses Guest. These guys did a Northwest run in July 2004 and it was excellent. Graham Guest writes a great song, has unique and intriguing vocals, and is one hell of a guitar player. The band is not too shabby, either, and is fully capable of getting into the thick of some serious jams. Their sound is that of a southern-influenced jamband. I hope these guys keep at it and visit the Northwest often in 2005.
2004 was a roller coaster for reasons I’ve shared over the past twelve months and I won’t expound upon here. I can tell you that live music really colored those experiences, generally lifting me during both the nadirs and apogees. With that I mind, I offer up two categories…
Most intense: Phish, 8/15, set 2. Saw what you will about the prior day (at least one of my friends was literally foaming at the sloppiness) this set was why I was there and where I received my catharsis and closure.
Runners up: Sonny Rollins 4/10/04, Col. Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains 10/3/04, The Slip 10/30/04
All-out, flat-out fun: moe.down. Each year I worry that this’ll be the year that somehow this event loses it’s vibe. It hasn’t happened yet (then again I probably just jinxed it for 2005)
Runners up: Bonnaroo Music Festival, Agatsuma, Joe’s Pub 4/8/04, Allman Brothers Band 3/18/04
Favorite Live Moments of 2004
6. March 8, 2004: Primus at The Tabernacle in Atlanta, GA
Seeing Primus is an intense sensory experience, not just a rock show. The Tabernacle’s massive pipe organ was the backdrop for two giant white balls dangling over the stage showing projections of bizarre video clips. Les Claypool’s signature freakiness was in full effect. The Sailing the Seas of Cheese set was particularly inspired – "Jerry Was a Racecar Driver" whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Trippy, heavy and down right, almost-get-trampled-in-the-mosh-pit fun.
5. December 31st, 2004: Umphrey’s McGee at The Riviera in Chicago, IL
Carnies and confetti and three stocked sets of danceable, thoughtful, and at times hilarious, rock and roll. I think the spirit of a New Year’s Eve celebration heightens any concert experience but the particular setting (in their hometown of Chicago in a sold out venue of 2500+ people) took this performance to the next level. The horn section added such a festive element to a cornucopia of covers throughout the night. A "Jimmy Stewart" now known as "San Fran" showed this band’s growing improvisational expertise early in the first set.
4. September 17, 2004: The Fiery Furnaces at The Empty Bottle in Chicago, IL
Bands should be judged on many factors, but the top two criteria that have always weighed most heavily in my book are talent and originality. The Fiery Furnaces have both. The setlist on this night was a dizzying barrage of 20+ songs (many from their recently released, Blueberry Boat) arranged to flow without interruption. Eleanor Friedburger’s short dark hair and bright red dress highlighted her charismatic stage presence as she nailed intricate lyrics throughout the set. The music of The Fiery Furnaces can make even the most cynical and jaded of hipsters work to resist the urge to dance.
3. Every Monday since May, 2004: Monday Night Open Mic at The Store in Chicago, IL
This one’s a totally self-indulgent choice and aside from my own personal feelings and experience probably doesn’t mean much to you, the reader. But bear with me. I’d like to take a minute to encourage every music fan to go out and find your local open mic, if for no other reason than to appreciate the humble beginnings from which many of your favorite rockers have sprung. It’s a great place to talk music, knock back a few beers, and in the words of The Store’s open mic host and a mighty fine guitar player Rick LaCour, "for those 15 minutes that you’re up on stage, there’s no difference between you and your heroes. Of course, 2 dollar pints can make anyone feel like a hero, but that’s beside the point."
2. June 11, 2004: MC5/DKT (with Evan Dando, Mark Arm and Marshall Crenshaw), at The Metro in Chicago, IL
I have very natural reservations about reunion tours, particularly for bands that derived much of their character and sound from the time period in which they were writing songs. Poison, for example, is a band that I will always associate with the 1980’s and fluorescent spandex pant wearing rockdom. The same might be said for MC5, who, during the primal grunt of their brief career, seemed to capture the essence of early 70’s Detroit the grungy, dirty, nasty stuff of worn out, tore up Motor City rock and roll. There is also the inherent suspicion that the energy exuded by such a band, was a product of the youthful exuberance and exasperation of the times and thus cannot be recreated when band and audience members are now in their 50’s and 60’s. Add to that the absence of Rob Tyner and Fred "Sonic" Smith who were as fundamental to the band as milk is to cookies and you might understand how doubtful I was that this show would be nothing more than a nostalgia act a chance to hear the songs you love by a band you love, for the sole reason that you’ll never hear them live elsewhere. Boy was I wrong.
"Call Me Animal" joined the crowd and band in a collective foaming at the mouth early in the set. "Shakin’ Street" shook. It quickly became clear to me that though Rob Tyner could never be replaced, the music was equally vibrant and fresh with Mark Arm’s passion and versatility as a singer. Though they weren’t able to resurrect the old sound with perfection, they created a new multi-headed Dando/Crenshaw/Arm monster that had a life all its own. The Motor City might not be burning anymore, but MC5 smoked that night.
1. May 19, 2004: Wilco, Otto’s Dekalb, IL
It’s really hard to write about this show because it will forever top my list of favorite shows of all time, and to put in print that this was the best musical experience of my life is to negate all of the fantastic shows I have yet to see. And that’s sort of depressing. Nevertheless, there’s a myriad of reasons why this show is perfection personified. For starters, it was Jeff Tweedy’s first public performance since emerging from rehab. His eyebrows arched in unison with the curling of one side of his lip. His eyes danced unpredictably in their sockets, and gave off the impression of inebriation as he glanced out into the smoky, packed Otto’s. His shirt said, "Got Pills? Millions of American Don’t," perhaps an ironic nod to his recent stay in rehab. From "Ashes of American Flags" to "One by One" to "The Lonely One," Wilco performed with a veracity only developed during hard times. Tweedy, who played with the smile of someone who has been to hell and knows its colors and sounds, was focused and contented as he told the crowd, "It feels good to be back in the land of the living."
Otto’s holds a paltry 650 people at capacity. To be one of those 650 was a privilege. The intimate venue provided the sacred space necessary for a practically flawless performance. In the Chicago Reader, even Tweedy commented that the performance at Otto’s was probably the best Wilco had ever sounded. From tear jerking guitar solos to meticulously layered ambient sounds, Wilco nailed this performance and put a permanent peg in my right ventricle where all beautiful music resides.
Out of the 100 or so full shows I attended this year, these ten, in chronological order, stood out:
ERYKAH BADU @ Orpheum Theater, Boston March 6
Her enchantress mystique feels inaccessible at times and occasionally overpowers the music, but the spirituality and mysticism that the nonpareil Ms. Badu infuses into her neo-soul creates such a unique, soul-lifting live experience it’s impossible not to be totally enraptured. Hip-hop, R&B, electro-funk and crooning balladry are all fair game for her and her sumptuous, multifarious backing ensemble, and even though she came on nearly an hour late, all was quickly forgiven.
THE JAMMY AWARDS @ Theater at Madison Square garden, NYC March 16
A start to finish pleasure fest with plenty of eye-popping moments and aural delights, be them Oteil Burbridge and Victor Wooten shredding together as only they know how, Perry Farrell raising the roof with the Soulive horns and String Cheese, the mini-Black Crowes reunion at the end of Gov’t Mule’s set and a balls-out "Sometimes Salvation," or everyman Warren Haynes for once playing the junior musician and assisting the legendary Steve Winwood and ace band with "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys." The one that’ll stick with me, though, was Solomon Burke with the Derek Trucks Band I listen to the recordings of this set and every time ol’ Solomon announces that we’re in "church," with Susan Tedeschi about to kick into "Lovelight," the spine does that tingling, frisson thing.
THE DARKNESS @ Avalon, Boston April 3
More pure fun than any other show I saw in 2004. Pure rawk-star spectacle from start to finish, and such a refreshing "fuck you" to all pretentious indie rockers on both sides of the Atlantic who take themselves and their uninspired garage-punk-post-grunge-whatever way too seriously. As the fluorescent light show blazed, his band ripped it up and his brother Dan shredded ear-bleedingly loud Van Halen-like guitar codas, frontman Justin Hawkins bounded around the stage in absurd unitards, including a pointed, feathered one that made him look like a cosmic stegosaurus (or a member of P-Funk), pushing so-delectable-it’s-criminal songs like "Love On the Rocks With No Ice" into the stratosphere with his glass-shattering vocals.
VELVET REVOLVER @ Avalon, Boston May 29
Despite an uneven debut album, the Guns/Pilots hybrid project had more badass vintage G n’ R flavor in its first song of a too-short set than with the entirety of a show by some cover band Axl Rose brought to the Fleet Center in December 2002. The flamboyant Scott Weiland, dressed in aviator sunglasses and a cop uniform that made him look straight from the Village People, proved again that he’s almost as killer a showman as the aforementioned Mr. Hawkins, with Slash and his mighty axe cutting a predictable swath. The Revolver originals were fun and driving, but things got crazy in the five-song encore, which offered two from Pilots ("Crackerman," "Sex Type Thing"), two from Guns ("Used to Love Her," "Mr. Brownstone") and an earthshaking finale of Nirvana’s "Negative Creep."
WARREN HAYNES @ Town Hall, NYC June 9
There he was, our beloved Uncle Warren, alone and emotive, on stage at one of the country’s most beautiful venues just him, with the focus on his voice and music first, and guitar second, without any guests or any of the four bands he ballasts. Although he stirred our souls aplenty with well-chosen blues, Mule and Allmans originals, and solo nuggets over two and a half hours and two sets — not to mention knee-weakening versions of songs by Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, the Eagles, Ray Sisk and others — it was the second set closing "Soulshine" and then the haunting encore of "Stella Blue" that made the room so quiet and fraught with emotional tension you could hear every Warren breath and string caress. As Warren descended the final song’s second verse into "Stel-la Blueee," every old Deadhead in the room lost his shit.
CHRIS ROBINSON AND NEW EARTH MUD @ Pearl Street, Northampton, MA July 21
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t exactly sold on New Earth Mud’s two studio albums many of the songs sound like The Band on way too much pot. Expecting some able renderings of these songs along with a smattering of well-chosen Grateful Dead, Dylan, Parsons or honky tonk covers on a nondescript July night in Western Mass., I was instead blown away by a neo-folk, country blues assault courtesy of the ever-exuberant Robinson and the new New Earth Mud, bolstered by no-slouch virtuosos Rob Barraco and Audley Freed, with highlights that included Dylan’s "Forever Young" and a raunchy, roadhouse rip through Slim Harpo’s "Got Love If You Want It."
PHISH @ Tweeter Center, Mansfield, MA and COVENTRY August 10, 11, 14-15
So much has been said already, so I’ll keep it short, and recall that the vintage cow-funk feel of the Tweeter shows took me back to a fledgling time when I was first discovering improvisational rock music. And then the last (?) hurrah at Coventry: at times a mud-soaked nightmare and musically, not quite worthy of the all-time Phish pantheon, but every bit a piece of history I’ll keep with me always.
GOV’T MULE @ Roseland Ballroom, NYC September 13
Although other Mule shows from ’04 looked much more enticing on paper, this knockout was the assurance that Mule is no longer a collaborative, but a band again. A stunning, affirmative three hours.
WILCO @ Wang Theatre, Boston October 1
It must be tough to be Wilco. Like Radiohead, the inevitable backlash that comes when your band is tagged Saviors of Rock often obscures just how good you really are in the public eye. With now two masterpieces (2002’s "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" and 2004’s "A Ghost Is Born") under its belt, Wilco’s dichotomy the alt-country for which Jeff Tweedy and Co. made a name for themselves and the latter-day experiments with industrial and electronic shades has fused into one remarkably cohesive sound. Although there’s been some musical chairs in the lineup, the current art-roots meets electro-rock six-piece, the most fiery Tweedy has yet assembled, creates a live experience like no other you can hope to find, because you didn’t know it existed.
NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALL-STARS / DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND @ Paradise Rock Club, Boston October 14
Gospel blues was the common ground, and the two celebrated southern bands, along with the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band, chugged along for nearly four sweaty hours. There were so many cross-pollinations so frequently between the groups, it felt more like a revue than a tiered-bill, and when almost all members from all three bands combined for "Freedom Highway" near the end, there was soul shaking to spare. A religious and healing night of blues and roots.
In no particular order…
THE WHITE STRIPES EMPRESS BALLROOM, BLACKPOOL ENGLAND, 1/04
Launching into a murderous 26 song set veering from Dylan ("Outlaw Blues") to Son House ("Death Letter") to a Dolly Parton sing along ("Jolene") The White Stripes deliver a thesis in the potency of live performance by doing, quite simply, what they do, pressing their minimalist approach to astounding extremes and showcasing the raw power of their visceral, utterly personal tradition of the blues, dissecting it’s inherent dichotomy of primal rage and sly-eyed romance by means of Jack’s screaming, tourette’s syndrome virtuosity and his sister/wife’s elephantine drums. Collaborating with a manic, frenzied crowd, the band pushes the energy of this history-infused Liverpool ballroom to a boiling point. Whatever the White Stripes are, they are killer musicians and remain at the forefront of bringing the sound into the present millennium, a colossal two-piece straight out of Lester Bangs’ backyard that would have made him proud. All those for a late night set at Bonnaroo 2005 say aye. Aye.
GILLIAN WELCH, BOWERY BALLROOM
Outside of the dusky music halls of Nashville, where the object of my current musical fixation has recently been entrenched in a multi-week run, it’s difficult to conceive of too many venues more appropriate to Gillian Welch’s musical ethos- intimate, and sincere-than the Bowery Ballroom, which cast her vocals over the awed silence of it’s inhabitants like an enveloping shadow. Welch’s voice is a perfect representation of her songwriting, rooting itself in an austere, earthy normalcy and subliming into something more ethereal. Both are extremely effective in giftwrapping her yellowing photographs of Americana, filled with all the appropriate sanctity and damnation, convolution of identity and paralyzed possibility, all pivoting around the gnomon of an elusive God. These were the portraits which formed the heartbeat of a night decorated with guest appearances from Norah Jones, Ryan Adams, and opener Old Crow Medicine show, all of whom would unite in a culminating treatment of Neil Young’s Helpless. Welch is as compelling a storyteller as she is a performer, and the two run seamlessly together in forming her overwhelming on-stage presence.
TREY ANASTASIO BAND, BONNAROO MUSIC FESTIVAL, 6/04
Watching Anastasio conduct the Nashville Chamber Orchestra in front of a mud soaked psychadelic commune of 100,000 was a watershed moment in the jamband scene, a profound condensation of the qualities of listening and acceptance that one has in mind when they use that categorization without guilt or shame. Though Phish wouldn’t throw it’s official farewell party for another two months, it’s hard to think of a more fitting validation of the band’s legacy, of the psychological imprint of Anastasio’s welding of intricate compositional grace and rock sensibility, than directing an orchestral set in front of a sea of hippies who respond with the purified enthusiasm that began to be obscured in the haze of scene and analysis. It was a moment perhaps twenty years in the making, and Anastasio slipped into his role as conductor/composer with the same child-like ebulliance that infused the spaces of the bands sound. Yet he moved as seamlessly back into his alter-ego as virtuoso guitarist, anchoring a TAB set which included blistering renditions of "Mr. Completely" and "Sultans of Swing", as well as the festival’s climactic release in a take on "First Tube" set against massive fireworks exploding in the night sky. To put it simply, it was a performance worthy of closing a festival featuring the likes of Dylan, The Dead, Winwood, and Byrne, as well as a truly moving portrait of a truly wonderful musician re-discovering his sense of joy.
GOV’T MULE, ROSELAND BALLROOM, 9/13/04
Carrying my passed-out friend out of the Roselnad Ballroom on this particular night, I hear him mutter, just faintly and broken by dizziness and spittle: "You can’t go twelve rounds with the champ". "You can’t go twelve rounds with the champ!", he yells over his shoulder, his toes dragging against the floor as we hurl him into the street, "he’ll put you to the mat!" One reason, presumably, that Warren Haynes is referred to as a road warrior is that wherever the guitarist goes, he leaves a virtual battlefield of satiated, blacked-out music fans in his wake, hippie carnage of 60’s riot proportions. On September 13, 2004, Mule proceeds to play the entire contents of their new album, Deja Voodoo, front to back in the first set, juxtaposing it against a second half which predisposes itself with band staples ranging from a "Soulshine" opener to a closing take on James "Look on Yonder Wall", bookends which speak deeply to Haynes’ lyrical grace as well as to his encyclopedic command of the American songbook. Of Course Mule is not a one-man show, and this was one of the most important moments in a year which announced it’s new found purpose and swagger as perhaps our best straight-ahead rockers, guardians of a Rock pathos we thought was in it’s final death spasm.
To cull the best from a year’s of concerts requires decapitation of top-notch shows for argument. I saw Phish at Hampton Coliseum (first time seeing them call it a check on my list), rejoiced as Burning Spear opened Sunday at Bonnaroo and I took in a triad of bluegrass/country/jam legends all in a row (Del McCoury, Sam Bush and Doc Watson), caught Sonic Youth for the first time, etc… Final cuts exhume that show you wanted to see more of, not just encore more, but so much more that you could take a few more sets and be happy standing; you couldn’t dance because your gapped jaw was tripping you up, so you just swayed.
For me, that was the Praxis set at Bonnaroo. Bill Laswell, an extreme producer of world musics and dub forms, is a bassist who gathers unique groups of musicians to create with; Praxis is one of his side bands. Praxis is keyboardist Bernie Worrell (P-Funk), drummer Brain (Primus) and guitarist Buckethead (Guns N Roses hahaha…solo albums with Claypool, Bootsy Collins and others). If that squad sounds familiar, it’s because Les Claypool revitalized the idea by taking Laswell’s spot, creating a new band at Bonnaroo uno called Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains, a decade after Laswell originally created the guitar, keyboard and drum team.
In other words, what an honor! Praxis is one of those, "You saw them?!?" bands, because after a decade-plus, they simply don’t tour. I’ve referred to Laswell as a shepherd rather than a wolf (Claypool would be a wolf), because he paints thoughtfully airy backdrops, without ever encroaching. As Laswell turns corners of funk, reggae, hip-hop, etc… grooves, Brains diligent, exploratory drumming cradled Worrell’s classically trained, mothership honed, style, which wove with the "blip-bleep-bloops" and shreds from Bucketheads electric, creating unique and totally interesting musical forms I haven’t heard anywhere else. So many bands sound like someone else, and that is another thing making this one my favorite. I didn’t know what to expect, even though I have Praxis’ album from a decade ago.
I can predict too much at shows sometimes. Upbeat songs are in the process of being built upon or ready to be countered by some slow songs. "This song" will lead to an acknowledged string of songs containing "another song" or "that one"...you get the idea. And I just couldn’t do that with Praxis. There is too much virtuosity in the team to allow predictability. Out of the blue, a beautiful brunette electric violin master, dressed in a sexy boy-scout uniform (it was only sexy because she was in it I promise), took the stage, my ears and eyes; after a display of her skill that blew away any physical aspects she’s been bestowed, she flashed the crowd in a parade of feminist power.
With the select crowd (oh, but Ween is playing!...whatever) and the amazing glut of noise harmonies and disjunction I took in (and the beautiful guest), it’d be hard to top.
One of the most exhilarating experiences being a live music devotee is the feeling of wonder upon discovering a band so fresh and novel that you feel as if you are witnessing ground being broken right in front of your eyes. This is a rare opportunity; even rarer is when the band generating the experience is a thirty year old outfit that has performed only sporadically over the past two decades. However, watching Television, I was in awe of how a band who had not released an album in over ten years still managed to sound ahead of their time, the present time that is. I was awestruck. I kept thinking this is a band the jamband world must know about, no, this is a band that everyone needs to know about.
Television, has been described as the punk band that jammed, while not quite punk, they definitely got the jam part right. Watching the soaring guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd take flight was astonishing. The dual leads and the contrast in styles between Verlaine’s clean lyrical lines and Lloyd’s driving crunching notes gave their spiraling duels a genuine dramatic spark that is rarely seen even in the best improvisational music. Watching the duo stretch that spark over long compositions such as Marquee Moon and Little Johnny Jewel was as magical a moment as any I had seen on stage. The real friction that exists between the guitarists was evident to all in the packed house.
As Verlaine sings in the song Friction, "You give me friction, but I dig friction, I’m crazy about friction." It is clearly that friction which gives Television their magic. Watching the guitarists manipulate that tension and push it as far as seemingly possible, gave the music a distinct feeling of danger and the possibility hung in the air that anything could happen.
They were able to complement these mammoth tunes, with electric rockers such as Ain’t That Something and See No Evil. Verlaine’s superb song writing was displayed with the hauntingly lovely Venus. Television’s songs have a quality that is all their own, and while their albums are brilliant, seeing the band live is a dramatic experience unparalleled by most. They kept the audience standing on edge mesmerized for over two and a half hours, and did so without incorporating fancy lights or projections, their music was pyrotechnic enough.
It had been a long time since a band had run me over in concert, leaving me with a feeling of genuine amazement. Television managed to do it with their first song, and their assault on my senses only grew stronger as the show progressed. It is because of this that I can easily say that this was not only the best show I saw in 2004, but one of the best shows I have seen period.
The Pixies at The Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia on 10-14-04 like a monsoon rain ending a Sahara Desert drought. I had waited a long time for this, and I could not imagine a more majestic or picturesque setting than The Fox.
The Drive-By Truckers and The North Mississippi All-Stars at The Tabernacle in Atlanta, Georgia on 11-26-04. We had barely digested our Thanksgiving meal before being spoiled by this Southern rock smorgasbord. When Jason Isbell sat in with the hill country openers it was a righteous and electric sight- and it didn’t sound too bad either.
Willie Nelson, 2-15-04 at The Classic Centre in Athens, Georgia. The drinking rules were lifted for the occasion (meaning you could drink where you stood or sat, which ain’t the norm) and Willie brought his own bourbon…he played the same song twice- twice "Whiskey River" and "Beer For My Horses" made the set-list, and then made it again.
Nellie McKay wowed me at Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee on 6-11-04. After taking a jab at Chris Robinson’s anti-file sharing position during a panel press conference she caught my attention. I followed her over to This, That, or The Other Tent to catch the teenage pianist playing one of the most passionate sets of 2004.
Be it purely for nostalgic and self-serving purposes, my favourite show of 2004 was Phish’s swansong-esque Saratoga Springs, NY shows on their final tour. It was a magical evening; a night where all the signs align to prove that karma, in all its majesty, truly exists. After a wonderful first night featuring an extended, almost perfect Piper,’ my friend and I returned to the lot eagerly on Sunday morning, without tickets to the show. Having to be at work at 9AM Monday morning seven hours away in Canada, we decided it was worth the shot and opportunity to get hold of lot tickets and experience our final taste of Phish before driving through the night to alleviate any chance of being sacked.
After nearly six hours of aimless searching, fingers in the air and hopes perched in the positive, we were still out of tickets, ailing from a depletion of luck and energy. Luckily, while watching our struggles to find tickets that by my recollection did not exist, our saint of a lot neighbour felt our pain. He then proceeded to give us $100 in cash and told us to find a scalper, use the cash and pay him back after the show. Without the money to afford scalped tickets during the day, the true kindness of our scene shone its head up above the cannabis clouds and veggie burritos and gave us hope, the new fiscal alternative and most of all, a jolt of energy boosting karma (be it clichr not).
Long story short, despite never finding tickets, we made it into the show, returned the money to our incredibly kind friend and witnessed each of our first Reba’s’ as the opener. The rest of the show was fantastic as well; a spirited Gumbo,’ jaw-dropping YEM’ and other gems lit up SPAC’s gorgeous exterior, proving to be the perfect bittersweet goodbye I could have ever hoped for. Walking away from the venue just as the encore began was undoubtedly painstakingly emotional, but I was calm, content and thankful for whole night. Phish has helped shaped the person I am, and their message will continue to guide me towards the person I strive to become. Phish was and continues to be more than a band, and my experiences at SPAC reminded me of that. And yes, we did make it to work the next day.
Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band, Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival, Silk Hope, NC- 4/17
The best concert I saw all year was an all-night throwdown by Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band at the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival in Silk Hope, NC on the beautiful, warm Saturday evening of April 17th. Nothing else even comes close to touching this show. Zydeco is Louisiana dance music, a joyful celebration that puts the whole crowd on their feet and moving. If George Clinton was born in the bayou, he might have sounded like this. Accordionist Keith Frank, son of zydeco legend Preston Frank, combined Creole and Cajun sounds with massive elements of funk and soul, putting his own singular spin on a genuine American roots music and transforming it into a modern-day dance party.
Donna the Buffalo started the GrassRoots Festival 15 years ago in Trumansburg, NY to help raise money for various charities. In 2003 the festival expanded southward to Silk Hope, NC, and brought along the GrassRoots tradition of all-night zydeco dance parties. Various members of Donna the Buffalo were dancing around in the audience alongside the twisters and revelers, taking breaks to jump on stage and sit in for a song or three, including an ecstatic swamp boogie romp through Outkast’s "Hey Ya." They shuffled and frolicked through a bevy of hip-shaking originals, as well as songs by Bob Marley, James Brown, the Meters, and even Katrina & the Waves.
The genre is known as "nouveau zydeco," and no one does it better. Keith’s sister Jennifer Frank held down the endlessly funky bass lines, his brother Brad Frank kept the engines rolling on drums, while George "Goog" Lee cranked out a rhythm guitar groove that would make anyone get up and boogie. James "Chocolate" Ned rounded out the band with the percussive onslaught of the time-honored scrubboard. The band isn’t nearly as well known as they deserve, despite releasing 10 albums in the last 10 years and gaining critical acclaim on the international festival circuit.
The show was held in the Dance Tent, packed with just the right amount of people to create a furious energy without ever feeling crowded. The open sides let the air flow through as the entire crowd danced with all their might. The band unleashed an uninterrupted flow of positive, uplifting music, stretching the celebration till 6 am with huge grins and happy feet.
My top two live shows of 2004 were both festivals, but that’s all they have in common. To me they were a representation of why I love live music outside in the summertime. They epitomize each end of the festival experience, the big and small, the homespun and the gigantic. First, the small, the Jerry Garcia Birthday Bash August 6th-8th at Sunshine Daydream, in Terra Alta, WV. The scenic West Virginia mountains were the backdrop for a tight-knit and family oriented weekend of on musical treat after another. String Cheese Incident headlined, and filled the weekend with memorable musical moments like a Derek Truck fueled "Outside Inside" on Friday night, and an incendiary Saturday night Birdland with the aide of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Fleck, Trucks, and a solid supporting cast featuring Yonder Mountain String Band, Garaj Mahal, New Monsoon and numerous others delivered spirited sets that complemented the bright sunshine and sweet mountain air. More than the music though, it was the beauty of the scenery and the pleasantry of the hometown festival where it seems like everyone knows each other that provided the most memorable moments for me. It was the type of festival that felt like relaxing in the back yard with friends.
On the other end of the spectrum was the most intensely emotional show I’ve ever been too: Coventry. The drive, the traffic, the mud, and the music all at once teetered on the edge of a real good time, and too overwhelming to comprehend. The band turned in their final six sets and bowed out and no one within earshot was left unmoved. In the end what I remember is the raw emotion onstage that one rarely sees in any kind of art these days, usually hidden away under veneer and marketing gloss. Page’s struggles in "Wading in the Velvet Sea" seemed to echo the same feelings of many in the audience who struggled through merciless traffic and endless obstacles to come close the door on a chapter in their own lives. Today, Coventry remains in my memory as a series of vignettes each encapsulating the emotion of the moment. Finding friends assumed stranded miles away on the interstate, Trey handing out the trampolines, the final "Harry Hood" and blowing off some steam one last time. I won’t spend much time getting out the cds of the shows as they aren’t the easiest listen, but that’s fine.
It’s one of those moments that was so intense, that when it’s pressed into immortality it seems somehow stilted and awkward, the way picture never truly captures your memory, just gives you something to hang on too. In the years I spent chasing the next great Phish show I slowly came to realize that for all the obsessing and archiving and cataloguing that Phish fans like me are prone to do, it’s all in the moment, and the moment ends.