5 – Taylor Swift
With Camila Cabello and Charli XCX at Levi’s Stadium — May 11
This has been a tumultuous year for Taylor Swift, facing both a backlash to her purported actions behind the backs of her former friends (or frenemies), and even for taking a stand before the Midterm elections last month. But she’s such a talented performer that she can spin pretty much anything in her favor. On the Reputation tour, she played up the evil image others tried to force on her, and it worked. And then she would revert back to her sweet, folky girl next door, and that worked, too. She switched back and forth while simultaneously playing a ringleader amid a cadre of dancers, a stadium-sized production with movable screens that were several stories tall, inflatable snakes, and a snake-shaped gondola.
Complementing Tay Tay, Camila Cabello and Charli XCX each performed extremely entertaining sets of their own. The Santa Clara tour stop showcased a diva on the rise (Cabello) as well as one who was in the middle of reinventing herself (Charli XCX) as an alt-pop icon.
4 – Rebirth Brass Band
And John Brothers Piano Company at Bimbo’s — April 13
If I’m being honest, I felt a little bit like an outsider at this concert. A good portion of the crowd seemingly used to live in New Orleans, and while waiting for Rebirth Brass Band to take the stage, fans were comparing how many times they’ve seen the band live. They could also tell the song being played from the first few notes. My ears aren’t tuned to jazz and brass music, and I couldn’t identify a song right away. But I had seen the band the previous year in New Orleans, knew a bit of what to expect—and that I would appreciate the songs out of context. As I wrote, the band’s “cyclone of horns, trumpets, trombones, saxophones and cacophonous percussionists, creating a blend of jazz, island and Latin grooves, can inspire the most cynical to shake their hips.”
Here’s what I wasn’t expecting: a Bay Area band of street performers opening the show would blow me away as well. John Brothers Piano Company mixed jazz, classical, swing, Gypsy folk and Bossa nova. The musicians switched between piano, clarinet, bass, trombone and drums, proving each of them to be talented and exciting song-to-song.
3 – Matt & Kim
At the Warfield – April 3
If some of the other concerts on this list are by “serious” artists whose performances veer political, or, simply, “adult-oriented,” Matt & Kim are the opposite. Their show at the Warfield was a sugar rush of fun, confetti and inflatable sex toys. And because it’s like that from start to finish, you have no time to really escape and think that, yes, there’s a a giant penis heading in your direction and you should probably get out of the way. From the review of that night: “Matt & Kim … incite fans to run into each other at full speed, remove their shirts and dance uncontrollably. The married couple’s sense of self-deprecating humor awkwardly invites fans right into their personal life. ‘I wanna start this off like Kim likes it in the bedroom, which is really fast and really hard,’ Johnson declared as he introduced second song, ‘Let’s Make a Mess.’” Did I feel a little dirty afterward? Maybe. But in the moment, you just want to be in Matt & Kim’s bedroom.
2 – Bruno Mars
At BottleRock Napa Valley – May 27
I mostly did a bunch of running around at BottleRock. I saw many artists perform an amazing two or three songs before I had to move on to see someone else. In fact, I didn’t watch anyone perform a complete set, other than Bruno Mars. I got lucky because he and his band turned in a nearly flawless blend of heartfelt soul with enough firepower to start another Gulf War. Bruno Mars’ strategy was clearly to shock with fireworks and awe with jammy ballads and fun choreography.
Take it from Mike DeWald, who reviewed the performance: “It’s easy to forget that Mars is also a musician, but he had the opportunity to show off his soulful guitar playing. He left little time to rest, mixing in dance breakdowns between his own vocal lines. His performance was akin to that of a Prince or Michael Jackson leading a young Earth, Wind & Fire.”
His set also introduced this rich quote, which many have been dissecting since May: “I’m at BottleRock; you know, the fancy Coachella!”
1 – U2
At TD Garden in Boston – June 21
Out of four U2 concerts I saw in 2018 (two in San Jose and two in Boston), this was the most interesting. There wasn’t particularly anything out of the ordinary about this night’s setlist. In San Jose, I got to see the debut of infrequently played “Red Flag Day,” which was not really a highlight, and on the second night in Boston, U2 played deep cut “The Ocean.” But the band seemed to have it more together on the first night in Boston, with the daily songs like “Beautiful Day” and “Desire” getting a more concerted effort. The older songs sounded tighter, while some of the less-popular songs from U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience, brought fresh energy to the second half of the shows, which have a tendency to lag sometimes. “Get Out Of Your Own Way” and “Love Is Bigger Than Anything in Its Way” were particularly high points. Finally, and I know this has been said in every U2 review published in 2018, but having Achtung Baby cut “Acrobat” finally played live on this tour was worth the price of admission by itself.
Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.