Welcome, once again, to my annual countdown of my most entertaining music experiences of the year. I attended 54 concerts this year, up from 51 last year and 41 the year before. In compiling this list, I’m not trying to scientifically list the best or most technically proficient concerts from the ones I saw. Some of my favorites included mistakes that an artist successfully talked into the flow of a show. I’m not attempting to list the “best” or the most technically proficient. Guidelines are too subjective, after all, and everyone has their own opinions. That’s why this is a list of “favorite” performances.
Like in years past, I set a few rules for myself. Opening acts weren’t eligible to make the main list. Instead, openers and non-headlining performances at festivals can make this “special considerations” tally. Additionally, the performer needs to be on stage for at least one hour. If I see multiple great performances by the same artist, only one can make the list.
Cutting the list down to 10 simply wasn’t quite as challenging as in years past, though a few acts just barely missed the list, such as Prince’s old band, The Revolution at the Fillmore and future diva Dua Lipa at Great American Music Hall, as well as the double-bill of Rural Alberta Advantage and local rocker Travis Hayes at Bottom of the Hill during Noise Pop. A few other concerts actually surprised me for being so far from the top 10: Green Day at AT&T Park in August comes to mind.
I’ll share my favorites over the next few days, including a video from the performance, if possible. If the artist’s name is linked, either I or someone at RIFF wrote about or interviewed him/her/them this year, and you can read the story. Here’s a quick breakdown:
I saw the most shows in February and August (seven; counting each day of Outside Lands as its own show). I only attended one concert in November and only two in July.
2017′s special considerations (IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER):
JULIEN BAKER at Great American Music Hall – Feb. 23
It was Julien Baker’s second consecutive year selling out a venue for Noise Pop Music Festival. The difference was that the previous year, the venue was the tiny Bottom of the Hill, and this year it was the above-1,000-capacity Great American Music Hall. Could the small-statured Baker carry the much larger room? No doubt.
The Memphis singer-songwriter kept the crowd on pins and needles for more than an hour with songs from her acclaimed debut record, Sprained Ankle, as well as a few new songs and a terrific cover of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To the Moon,” that was all her own. She hit all the high notes, and her silences also spoke volumes about the pain and heartbreak of her songs.
THE REGRETTES at The Chapel – Feb. 25
The Los Angeles quartet made a couple of Bay Area stops in 2017, but this was the only one I was able to catch. I came away impressed because this band, while still young, seemingly find news ways to improve each time I see them. This time, it was singer-guitarist Lydia Night’s skill as a frontwoman. As the band played fan favorites like “Hot” and “A Living Human Girl,” crowd surfers twice the band members’ age came hurtling across a sea of mashing bodies. It was impressive, not only because of the sheer volume, but because the Regrettes were not even headlining on this night.
“Night’s deft, brazen stage presence was absolutely electrifying,” RIFF reported. Night was constantly on the move, and the rest of the band more than held their own, showing that despite the singer’s presence, this band is more than the sum of its parts.
JAPANDROIDS at The Fillmore – March 15
I attended the first of two nights at the Fillmore. The second show was the first to go on sale and sold out. The first show was added later, and lacked the same energy. But while the attending crowd was relatively mellow at my show, without much of the customary moshing and swaying to which the Vancouver band is accustomed, you wouldn’t be able to tell based on the performance on stage.
Singer-guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse were all energy and building angst, working the full length of the stage. The two performed all but one track from their new album, switching back and forth between new and older material over the 90-minute performance.
JUDAH AND THE LION at BottleRock Napa – May 27
Just because the Nashville band, known for break-out single “Take It All Back,” has a banjo player, it doesn’t make it another Mumford and Sons. If anything, compare Judah and the Lion to the Beastie Boys. Frontman Judah Akers played the part of Tasmanian Devil, spinning, running around, interacting with the first few rows of fans and running down the aisle splitting the main stage floor. But his bandmates, Brian Macdonald, Nate Zuercher and Spencer Cross, didn’t let him have all the fun. On one song, the four broke out into an in-line rump-shaking dance routine set to a hip-hop beat and AutoTuned vocals. On another, all four pulled their shirts over their heads, revealing a lot of pasty skin, and kept on performing. But their performance was not just a fun show. It was a technically skilled musical demonstration.
PRINZE GEORGE at BottleRock Napa – May 27
If Stevie Nicks led the xx, you’d get the same sound dynamic as this Maryland trio. Singer Naomi Almquist was all cool, with effortless delivery, while drummer Isabelle De Leon provided a firm structure and guitarist-producer Kenny Grimm the texture. The two women wore white hospital-like gowns, smiled wide and danced like they had just broken out of an asylum.
CHARLES BRADLEY at BottleRock Napa – May 28
It was too good to be true: The legendary Charles Bradley, so alive and so thankful at this music festival, praised his fans for helping him beat stomach cancer. The love and the intensity were palpable. The BottleRock performance was one of his first times on stage following his cancer remission. No one could know, back then, that it would also be one of his last times. He passed away just four months later.
An emotional Bradley teared up as he said the cancer victory was for his fans. Then he shook, evocatively slithered his hands down his body, spun in circles with sensual joy and even danced a bit of the robot. Bradley wore a rhinestone encrusted shirt and pants and at times a cape, like a superhero returning.
SWMRS at BottleRock Napa – May 28
The Oakland pop punk quartet of Cole and Max Becker, Joey Armstrong and Seb Mueller put on one of the festival’s most emotionally raw sets. Singer-guitarist Cole Becker, wearing a woman’s sundress, played the role of true rockstar, commanding a packed, moshing audience to dance, sing and jump. His brother played a more restrained foil, focusing instead on his guitar chops. Bassist Mueller looked the part of Green Day’s Mike Dirnt, with a mop of blond hair and a red and black checkered suit. During “Uncool,” Cole Becker demanded his fans not buy into the media definition of how the world works. On one of the band’s newest tracks, “Miley,” about pop singer Miley Cyrus, he attested he wouldn’t judge anyone who hates her, nor would he judge anyone who loves her. Then he presented both sides of the argument.
PACIFIC RADIO at BottleRock Napa – May 28
What this Los Angeles quartet accomplished at BottleRock still confuses me months after it all went down. The band played a bunch of powerful pop punk in the style of ’70s hair rock while dressed like characters from a Chris Farley movie (or Joe Dirt). Bassist Joe Stiteler was dressed in a denim vest and denim cutoff shorts. Vocalist Joe Robinson sported women’s tights emblazoned with a starlit galaxy and a CHiPs mustache. The tights allowed him to kick high in the air. “Did I mention we’re gonna be up here having a party?” he asked at one point. “You should join us.” The band concluded a perfect set with “Katie,” a worthy, unrequited love follow-up to Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.”
GORILLAZ at Outside Lands – Aug. 11
The electronic, animated project of Blur’s Damon Albarn did not disappoint with a nearly two-hour set of new material, classic cuts and guest stars galore. Albarn and his large band did a masterful job of blending live performance with visual concepts. The musicians and singers were easy to see, though sometimes bathed in shadow. The vocals, much of which are supplied by others on the record, came in the form of guest rappers and singers like Kali Uchis, and screen projections; the coolest being Mavis Staples. Other guests included Pusha T, De La Soul and Yukimi Nagano of Little Dragon.
The animated counterparts would sometimes appear to sing along to the songs. Other times, animations told stories within the songs. But the focus was on the Humanz on the stage. More than half of the set consisted of new songs, from 2017’s Humanz album. The crowd, packed shoulder-to-shoulder nearly halfway across the polo field, ate it up as much as “Feel Good Inc.” and “Clint Eastwood.”
LAWRENCE at Outside Lands – Aug. 12
The brother-sister combo began the second day of Outside Lands with a bang. Their six-piece backing band, including a three-member brass section, not only had the chops but the showmanship with creative interplay and some choreography. Lawrence started with a modest 30 or so festivalgoers at the stage, but that number grew past 300 within 40 minutes. The secret was 24-year-old Clyde Lawrence’s ability to sound like a much more mature Motown singer and Gracie Lawrence’s amazing pipes. With their parents and 13-year-old brother in town to catch the gig, the duo ran through an assortment of original material and also covered Sean Paul.
LORDE at Outside Lands – Aug. 13
The Australian pop diva, backed by four dancers, played a set that was evenly split between debut album Pure Heroine and the newly released Melodrama. And here’s the magic sauce: The new songs were even better than the old ones. “Magnets,” her song with Disclosure, as well as “Homemade Dynamite,” “Sober,” “Supercut” and “Perfect Places” all went over really well. The most touching moment came when she was introducing the song “Liability,” and began to tear up as she talked about the loneliness and having friends tell her that she “is a bit too much.” Friends she thought were there for the long haul had moved on from her. The ballad, performed with just her voice and a piano, was written as she was moving out from her parent’s home and also breaking up with her boyfriend. She learned how to properly be alone, she said.
Another highlight came when she invited earlier performer Jack Antonoff onto the stage. The two carried on a conversation about their relationship (he was instrumental on Melodrama), which included a lot of shooting the breeze, before the two sat on the stage and performed an acoustic version of Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” She finished off with “Green Light,” the best song released this year (so far). “You have to summon the spirits for this one,” she warned in advance.
REBIRTH BRASS BAND at the Maple Leaf in New Orleans – Sept. 12
I don’t get to travel often, but when I do, I make a point of looking for the local traditions and favorites. Such was the case with my discovery that the great Rebirth Brass Band of New Orleans has a regular Tuesday night residency at a small, tin-roofed club on the campus of Tulane University called The Maple Leaf. I came at the advertised time only to discover that at this club, a 10 p.m. start-time means 11 p.m. So instead, I got to chatting with a few of the regulars and watched the band funnel in one-by-one with the instruments. Once they had all assembled, there was roughly 15 minutes of sound-checking and rehearsal before, all of a sudden, the members kicked into high-gear. Through two one-hour sets, the band members took turns soloing on their instruments, providing each song, or parts of various songs, with unique flare. Truth be told, I only identified a few of the songs performed, and sometimes could not tell whether a song was an original or a cover. But that speaks only to my lack of jazz and blues knowledge. The show was fantastic.
MUNA at The Independent – Oct. 18
I mentioned, above, that my rule for multiple great performances by one band is to include only the best one. Here’s where I get to mess with those rules. I saw Muna three times in 2017, and I already knew which one of those shows was my favorite, until the Los Angeles trio broke out a dance cover of U2’s “With Or Without You.” That completely sold it for me. This show also featured an outstanding cover of Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen,” a new track called “In My Way,” reworked versions of several existing songs like “End of Desire” and a ton of emotion.
From the opener, “Promise,” to dance-alongs “Loudspeaker” and “I Know A Place,” the Prince-like guitar solo at the end of “If U Love Me Now,” and the deeper cuts on debut album About U, like “Crying On The Bathroom Floor” and “Winterbreak,” the sold-out crowd collectively sang along to every word. The band, vocalist Katie Gavin and guitarists Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson, definitely noticed the attention. Gavin remarked early in the set how quickly MUNA has grown in less than a year from playing at Rickshaw Stop to selling out the Independent.
CONTINUED AT PART 2 (SOON)
Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.