Every year I make a “resolution” to see fewer shows. And each year by September, I am reminding myself of this resolution. Unlike most years, I actually did better! While there were some repeats, I saw a lot of acts I hadn’t before. Most of this list is comprised of those.
Without further ado!
1. The Chemical Brothers – Bill Graham Civic Auditorium – May 17
The Chemical Brothers‘ visuals and light show are state of the art, and an Instagram clip reminded me why this was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Part of me wishes I had watched from further back to take it all in, but being front and center proved impressive. Life-sized robots coming alive to electronic beats created a lively dance party. Oh, and Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands were still at the top of their game.
While relying heavily on their latest LP, No Geography, their past hits and covers, including New Order’s “Temptation,” also made it into the set. It wouldn’t be a Chemical Brothers show without contributions from long-time collaborator Michel Gondry. His work serves the funky, bass-throbbing “Got To Keep On.” While Rowlands stayed behind the kit, Simons was out dancing, hands in the air. The duo’s mash-up of “Leave Home/Song to the Siren/C-H-E-M-I-C-A-L” into “Block Rockin’ Beats” was a sensation of vitality in the moment.
2. Brittany Howard – The Fillmore – Nov. 22
Brittany Howard commanded and worked her audience. From the moment she stepped on the stage with a glittery, sparkly cape, she was captivating. Her soulful vocals showed incredible prowess on “Georgia,” bringing her blend of soul and rock to life. The high notes brought chills and her band and back-up singers added an authentic gospel vibe—especially her organist. This is why tracks like “Stay High” felt like they were recorded years earlier.
The Nina Simone version of The Beatles “Revolution” was a fierce, growling call to action, while “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” was a soulful gem. The biggest standout was a cover of Prince’s “The Breakdown.” Standing up for those who need support the most, her hauntingly beautiful performance proved transcendently uplifting.
3. Holy Ghost! – The Independent – Oct. 30-31
I was not expecting to see Holy Ghost! on consecutive nights, but it happened. Nancy Whang of LCD Soundsystem set the mood on the first night with a DJ set. As the synths kicked in on opener “Crime Cutz,” Holy Ghost! created an intimate vibe. The group started a singalong punk frenzy amid the angular guitars of “Hold On.” Nick Millhiser and Alex Frankel used a full band to build up their sound. “Okay” was even more throbbing live thanks to pulsating drums over a four-on-the-floor disco beat. “Its Not Over” featured a drum solo that intensified.
The New York dance-punk band’s show on the second night proved to be even more memorable. Holy Ghost! wore costumers (it was Halloween) like Marty McFly from “Back to the Future,” a sailor and even a Daft Punk robot. With most attendees in costume, it was a really fun atmosphere. The band even covered the themes from John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and “Escape from Los Angeles.”
4. Just Like Heaven Festival – Queen Mary Park, Long Beach – May 4
This festival was one of the best I’d been to in a long time. The artists spanned the early to mid-’00s. Other than The Rapture sharing a stage time with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, there were few conflicts.
Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs reminisced about playing with Phoenix and spoke about motherhood. The band sounded as tight as ever. From “Gold Lion” to “Maps” and “Soft Shock,” her vocals pierced through the air. From the opening drum notes of “In The Grace of Your Love,” The Rapture was electrifying with distinct drumming and guitar playing, and Luke Jenner’s high-pitched vocals. Beach House sounded beautiful. The Faint honored “Star Wars” day with “The Geeks Were Right.” Frontman Todd Fink danced up a storm throughout the eight-song set, which included the knob distortion of “Paranoiattack” and the agro-dance anthem “Worked Up So Sexual.”
5. Drugdealer – The Independent – Aug. 2
I didn’t know how this collective would translate live as its album is filled with collaborations. I hoped Ariel Pink and Weyes Blood would make an appearance. Neither showed, but in the end it didn’t matter. Sasha Winn’s vocals filled in nicely for all the other singers, hitting plenty of high notes. Sounding as if the band stepped straight out of the ’70s, Drugdealer packed the stage with interments. They even pulled out a trumpeter for a cover of ELO’s, “Livin’ Thing.” Mastermind Michael Collins added beautiful keyboard melodies and back-up vocals.
“Fools,” off the collective’s new album, Raw Honey, effectively used the whole ensemble over the light guitars. “Suddenly” had Winn hitting some high notes and gyrating across the stage. The song’s swirling, sweet pop was infectious and fans sang along excitedly.
6. Racket Man – Winter’s Tavern – Nov. 7
I only knew of this Cleveland band one of its songs popped up during one of my Tuesday Tracks weeks. Racket Man inhabited a sweet spot between the indie pop of today and the ’80s. It wasn’t quite yacht rock, nor easy-listening—though both elements were a part of its sound. The quintet played mostly songs off its latest album, Recreational Magic. “D.e.r.p” featured a pure lush blend of Tommy Marx and Tyler Elwing’s vocals. As the driving bass of Chris Seaman kicked in, ’80s synth-wave keys topped of the mix.
A cover of New Order’s “Age of Consent” retained that synthetic feel. Marx’s vocals were reminiscent of Bernard Sumner’s and hit the upper register. Seaman gave the riff a breath of fresh air. The band ended with “Burt Stevens” underneath a spinning disco ball.
7. Sharon Van Etten – The Fillmore – Feb. 26
It’s not very often that you get to celebrate a singer’s birthday on tour with her. It made this Noise Pop show more special. Sharon Van Etten was touring in support of her new album, Remind Me Tomorrow. She came out in a green velvet blazer and leather pants. She seemed more assured and her voice was strong. She danced as she played “Comeback Kid.” Van Etten took to her red guitar on “One Day.” When the band joined in, it filled out the song’s feel even more. But Van Etten’s vocals were the story, filled with raw emotion that could be felt like a tangible object in the room.
When fans sang “Happy Birthday,” she beamed and talked about her day and her new life. The new album sounded amazing live, while the overall prominence of synths also made her older material stand out as well. I’ve seen Van Etten countless times, but this felt like a new person had come to life.
One thing I learned this year: if you get invited to a show at Bandcamp, you must go. It doesn’t matter who the artist is. They’ll sound phenomenal. This intimate space, around the corner from the Fox, fits maybe 100 people, and bands usually perform for 30 minutes. But it will be the most sonically beautiful 30 minutes of your life.
9. Friendly Fires – The Fillmore – Sept. 26
After an eight-year hiatus, Friendly Fires returned with their third album, Inflorescent. This very abbreviated tour included shows in only New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Sadly, people must’ve missed the memo, as the Fillmore was half-empty. Even so, the trio’s dance rock continued right where it left off, along with added brass and a Brazilian disco vibe.
“Lovesick” had Edd Gibson going strong on guitar and lead singer Ed Macfarlane sounding better than ever. Even with the physicality of his stage presence, Gibson never missed a note. More importantly, Macfarlane had not forgotten his signature dance moves. He performed as if this was the biggest concert of his life.
The band ripped through favorites like “Jump in the Pool,” “White Diamonds” and “Skeleton Boy,” and the funky “In The Hospital” triggered even more dancing. Macfarlane eventually jumped into the crowd.
10. Kurt Vile & The Violators – Hardly Strictly Bluegrass – Oct. 5
Playing against a backdrop of a hot pink sky and a setting sun as the day’s heat wave finally took a breather on the final day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Kurt Vile’s guitars echoed into the evening.
Vile mainly focused on his latest album, 2018’s Bottle It In. “Bassackwards” sounded like it was meant to be played in a glorious outside venue. His vocals filled the space and echoed into the beyond. “I’m An Outlaw” had a bluesy country sound. Vile gave a shoutout to Emmylou Harris, who was playing on another stage at the same time. The band ended with a cacophony of sound on “Freak Train,” from 2009’s Childish Prodigy. The guitars felt like they were coming at you from all sides of the field, creating a psych-rock symphony. The band jammed on as the sky turned dark, and it felt magical to be there in that moment.
11. Tie! Stereolab – The Fillmore – Oct. 17 and Babymetal – The Warfield – Oct. 4
I had been a fan of Stereolab since the ’90s and jumped at the chance to see the band when it brought its avant-kraut-rock, lounge act to The Fillmore. Drone-heavy minimalist synths supported Lætitia Sadier’s sugary vocals on “French Disko,” while the hallucinatory, psychedelic, driving jam “John Cage Bubblegum” got the crowd going. The 18-minutes-long “Jenny Ondioline” stayed true to its blend of shoegaze and haze with its use of the expansive motorik rhythm. The band was tight and all these years later it was amazing to finally see them live.
Babymetal was the exact opposite of Stereolab. J-pop meets metal—what’s not to like about that? The trio of girls sang over thrash metal riffs and danced choreographed routines in perfect synchronization with the bludgeoning music.
Stereolab’s fans were generally 40 or older. The Baby Metal crowd included 5-year-olds. During “Gimme Chocolate!!” kids and parents head-banged together. It was an unexpected experience and a thoroughly great time.