"It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o'clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,
slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream."
I’ve rarely regretted going to a live show. Conversely, there are plenty of shows I’ve regretted missing. Despite knowing that, I often find myself at home on the couch, sitting comfortably in smoking jacket and cuddling with my ferrets within the nurturing bosom of my Snuggie. Try talking yourself out of that scenario on a work night or when it’s cold or rainy outside, and before you know it you’re turning down invites to an exclusive all-access ticket to a one-night only Nelson reunion show. My solution to this prospective lethargy was to buy tickets in advance to any show that caught my interest. Being out of pocket for the price of admission would help motivate me to ditch the smoking jacket for my finest Ed Hardy shirt and a handful of hair gel. Here are the results of my adventures in 2010, from worst to first.
#39 – Connie Smith w/Robbie Fulks – Old Town School of Folk Music (OTS)
I was on the picket fence for this show. She was country, when country wasn’t cool. Which makes her cool. Great venue, so I decided to check it out. She still has an amazing voice, but the songs got a little monotonous. Dead dog, broken down pick up trucks, expired yogurt in the fridge and one lost love after another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another. Get the picture? Oh, and another.
#38 – Patty Loveless – OTS
I was on the fence post for this show. Patty still has a swell voice, but the show was about as charismatic as a chess tournament. Not that speed chess they play in the streets, but the kind with the Russian dudes who stare at the board for hours before each move. I guess I thought I was a little more country. A little more Memphis and Nashville. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But I didn’t love this show so. It picked up at the end a bit and she has an enthusiastic supporting band, but they need to slip some sunshine and ecstasy into Patty’s pre-show tea.
#37 – Detroit Cobras – Bash on Wabash
Their set overlapped a bit with Cracker, but I was intrigued and decided to check them out with about 25 other folks on Labor Day weekend. Unfortunately, the band didn’t seem as intrigued to be playing. You ever take a look at someone’s work ID and see how fresh and eager and excited they are to be embarking upon a new opportunity? And then compare that to their face two years later while they’re sitting in their cube and you barely see the resemblance? Yeah, that was the Detroit Cobras that night. Sure, I know life on the road for a struggling band probably isn’t the glamorous life Shelia E. made it out to be, but at least you aren’t sitting in a cube at 8 a.m. wondering if you really need health insurance that bad.
#36 – Santana w/Steve Winwood – World Twitter Bank Amphitheater of Tinley Park
I’ve turned into a bit of a music snob and do my best to avoid venues with more than 2,000 people and shows featuring bands that anyone might have heard of. But my uncle is a good dude and obsessed with Santana so I picked us up a couple tickets and made the trip out there with him. I don’t regret going – the music was decent, but after about an hour I got the idea and was starting to lose interest, especially being 40 rows back. Few people know that Oye Como Va means “I can’t believe I just paid $11 for a domestic beer.”
#35 – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club w/Band of Skulls – Metro
The show was good. The music was good. The crowd was good. Solid, but nothing extraordinary. Kind of like a burger and fries at Chili’s when you’re a regular at In n’ Out.
#34 – Cowboy Junkies – OTS
Another one I was on the fence post about. I like the vibe of their music, but was never a hardcore fan. But I’m a sucker for the venue, so I put on my ten-gallon hat, grabbed my baggie of black tar heroin and hit the show. Turns out they are not literally cowboy junkies, but instead a rather pleasant Canadian family band. Margo is very likable and still sounds great, but I think their music is best suited for home use during weekend breakfasts while enjoying four pounds of back bacon, three french toast and a beer. In a tree.
#33 – Robyn – Metro
I enjoy most types of music, most inexplicably bad 80’s pop and bad 90’s dance music. I remember Robyn from her hit Show Me Love in 1997. I figured she was a one-hit wonder, so I was surprised to see her on the bill for the Pitchfork Music Festival in July since it’s known more for newer or pioneering alternative acts. Well, since I haven’t been to a gay dance club since 1993 (but that’s a story for another time), I was unaware that she never left the scene and was making a remarkable comeback in the world of rainbow flags. Her Pitchfork set was impressive – high energy and with a good beat that was easy to dance to. I gave it a 91 and also bought tickets for my wife to see her when she came back to play Metro. Apparently the show sold out in one day and caused servers to crash throughout Boystown. I could have resold the tickets for double face value and a fabulous windowpane suit and seasonal colored knit vest. Instead I took my wife since her friends had conflicts and couldn’t make it. The breakdown: 95% gay males, 5% women, and me and two other straight guys (total does not add up to 100% due to rounding). I was a little insulted that I didn’t get hit on all night, but my wife told me it was because I’m obviously not gay. I’m still not sure whether to be insulted or flattered by that. My only complaint – gay guys don’t drink beer. But they do drink a lot of mixed drinks, which take considerably longer to mix than popping open a bottle of beer, leading to long waits at the bar. But I digress. Robyn was coming off an illness and there may have even been some lip-synching involved, but it was still a good time. Her show is like a hybrid of an aerobics class and 90’s dance club. Really better than it sounds. Or perhaps not, if you don’t share my eclectic taste.
#32 – Robbie Fulks – Hideout
I’ve got some friends who worship this guy as if he could change the free water cooler at the Hideout into Stella Artois. Yeah, maybe not Stella but it turning into a cooler full of Lone Star by the end of his set. Great skills and song catalog, impressive supporting musicians and another likable guy. I wish the Hideout was easier to get to and I might have made it to more shows.
#31 – Deanna Devore – Hideout
I discovered Deanna at the infamous 2009 North Center Ribfest, where she and her band not only killed it but where I also learned that Canadians are born without ribs. Timing on subsequent shows never seemed to work out as I spend a lot of the time during the year on the road selling shower curtain rings to major hotels. But I did catch her show at the Hideout and it did not disappoint. The Canadian-Brazilian influences combine in a mash up of hipster bossa nova goodness. I have no idea what that means. Just go check her out.
#30 – WC Clark – Fitzgeralds
Stevie Ray Vaughan learned some things from this dude, so I figured he might know what he’s doing. I walked in just as his set was starting and was the twelfth person in the bar. Have you seen the movie Ghost World? No? Go watch it, I’ll wait. Okay, so remember that part when Steve Buscemi’s character goes to see the old bluesman and nobody seems to care? It was kind of sad in the same way for a while. Eventually more people streamed in and the crowd maxed out at about 30. It didn’t matter – he was doing his thing, enjoying doing it, and appreciative of the people who were there. Between sets he wandered through the crowd on the way to his record label’s table, but he stopped on the way to shake my hand, ask me how I was doing and to thank me for coming. It just wasn’t me, either. I wasn’t so sad anymore.
#29 – Cracker – Bash on Wabash
I worked a customer service phone job once and got called a “rooster” in the same manner one might get called a “cracker”. I’m not sure if there’s a band called Rooster, but I was a big fan of Cracker in the 90’s. They haven’t lost a step and the songs are still as good today as they were over a decade ago. Unlike those stale Saltines in your cupboard. Go throw them out, you rooster.
#28 – Sleigh Bells – Metro
I skipped part of the headliner show at Pitchfork to hang out with the cool kids at a side stage to catch Sleigh Bells, who were more hyped at the time than the fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches at the Elvis convention. It was new, high energy and loud, kind of like sex 20 years ago. The set was also rather short, also not unlike 20 years ago. But I figured that Derek and Alexis might have come up with another song or two for their Metro date. I was wrong, but it was still a swell 35-minute show. Another record’s worth of material and they have the potential to move up the rankings faster than a grunting Russian on the women’s professional tennis tour.
#27 – Black Crowes – Chicago Theater
I took a pass when they came through town a couple years ago and decided not to miss them this time around. I like them, but I’ll confess that I don’t know their whole catalog. So maybe I should wait until the Victoria’s Secret models tour. Because while I appreciate their chemistry and proficiency, I found myself working on my grocery list during a couple of the longer jams with which I wasn’t familiar. That doesn’t sound like a glowing recommendation, but these guys do rock they delivered when I needed them to. Just like that Chinese place on a rainy night. Okay, so comparing them to crab rangoon doesn’t sound much better, but just trust me when I say these guys are the real deal.
#26 – Juliette Lewis – Reggie’s
You may be aware of my on-again, off-again relationship with Ms. Lewis. When I discovered her musical side she was working with The Licks, and they were garage rockers to the highest degree. Her star power carries over to music and the band could blow the rusted tin roof off a joint any day of the week. Unfortunately, she tried to take it to another level and it didn’t work for me. She fired The Licks and was talking of communing with the gods and her crowds were full of derby girls who idolized her for making a lame roller derby movie. I gave her another chance this year, because I’m nice like that. The band has gelled a bit and it seemed like she’s getting her swagger back. Must be those Dr. Scholl’s insoles.
#25 – Junior Brown – OTS
I’ve known of Mr. Brown since his quirky videos of the 90’s, but never truly realized his guitar badness until years later when some fellow Texans explained it to me. So when Junior came to town with my other Southern favorite Cowboy Mouth, I was all over it. Unfortunately the Cowboy Mouth crowd wasn’t quite there to see Junior so I was a little annoyed. Fortunately, he returned solo for a show at Old Town School and I was all over it again. For those who don’t know ol’ Junior, he’s an old dude who shows up in a suit and a ten-gallon hat like he’s interviewing for a job at the Grand Ol’ Opry. Then he whips out his homemade double-neck guitar, part regular guitar and part lap steel guitar. Now that he has your attention, he’ll blow you away by working every fret on both of those necks faster than a couple funny cars at Great Lake Dragaway in Union Grove, Wisconsin, under 16 still free with general admission, advance tickets at all Ticketrons, so bring the family for a day of thrills and excitement in beautiful southeast Wisconsin. But I digress. The songs are mostly irreverent country, with some blues and instrumental surf music thrown in to keep it interesting. It works. Thanks, Junior.
#24 – Dead Weather – Congress Theater
They made the top ten last year for their show at the Vic. They didn’t get worse, but they faced stiffer competition and they played at the Congress Theater. That’s like serving a filet mignon at a nice restaurant and then serving the same plate at Chuck Cheese and expecting a Michelin award. Jack and Alison still have the star power and stage presence to compete with anyone on this list. Yeah, even 69 year old Connie Smith.
#23 – Florence and The Machine – HOB
I heard Florence on the radio – Internet radio, y’know, because I’m cool like that. So I didn’t get tickets in advance to this show since I was sure there were few people cool as I. Yeah, turns out I was wrong. It sold out, but I managed to sort through the detritus that is Craigslist and found a nice young lady who was selling a pair of tickets to help fund her trip to Coachella. But I digress. Flo and her Machine sounded just as good live and I shan’t make the mistake of getting those tickets again.
#22 – Cowboy Mouth – HOB and some Old Town Fest
I moved to Dallas in 1992 and about a month after I got there I found myself solo on 4th of July weekend. So I did some exploring and headed down to an area called Deep Ellum which had a decent music scene. After some bar hopping, I paid $5 to get into a place called Club Clearview, which featured a band from New Orleans called Cowboy Mouth. There were only about 20 of us there, but they played like we were 20,000. At one point, the singer/drummer came out to the crowd and had us all sit in a circle on the floor with him, and we did a couple songs that way. Every show is dedicated to making sure that the audience has not a good time, but a ridiculously good time. Now imagine a New Orleans band playing a show on the eve of the Super Bowl featuring the Saints Cinderella season. Go see them. Bring a red spoon.
#21 – Semi-Precious Weapons – Subterranean
Yeah, frontman Justin is a little over the top, but he is fucking gorgeous. Sure, they’ve picked up some Lady Gaga fans after opening for her recently. But they write some damn catchy tunes and rock a lot harder than most of the crap littering the charts these days.
#20 – Dandy Warhols – Vic
I’ve liked these guys for a while but never made it to a show. Watching the documentary Dig! renewed my interest in the band this year and I got to their Halloween eve show. They put on a good show – played most of the hits, were very professional, and still seemed to be having fun. Or maybe it was just all the girls in slutty costumes.
#19 - Imelda May - Martyr's
A cute Irish lass with a killer voice and attitude doing rockabilly? Sign me up! I'll be her big, bad handsome man any day.
#18 – The Cult – Vic
One of my favorite bands from the 80’s. I can still listen to their CD’s start to finish without any Ritalin. But the ticket prices seemed a little steep for a band 20 years past their prime, so I was going to take a pass. I think a lot of people shared that sentiment, because two buddies both “won” free tickets. In retrospect, I would have paid. Ian has put on some “Bret Michaels” weight but still has the vocals, and Billy looks and sounds better than ever on guitar. Power chords are cool.
#17 – Los Lobos – Taste of Chicago
I saw them for the first time in 2009 at the CSO after hearing for years how awesome their live shows were. They were pretty awesome. So I went back to see their show at The Taste and they were good. I’d see them again, but I think they’re overhyped. Okay, barely overhyped. They probably knew I was feeling that way, so they brought out Robert Plant to sing the last song of the night. It ain’t Zeppelin, but it did push them into the top 20.
#16 – Suzanne Vega – OTS
This is the reason I get tickets in advance. I wasn’t sure about this show to begin with, and then I had trouble finding a date. That would normally discourage me faster than a chastity belt, but since I had tickets I hopped on the bike and made my way to OTS. And Suzanne was personable and had a much stronger catalog than which I was aware. It was one of those impressive shows in which I left a bigger fan than when I went in. Then I finished up my coffee, it was time to catch my train.
#15 – Taj Mahal – MAC
Did you know that the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum? Which is ironic because Taj Mahal the musician is larger than life and thoroughly enjoying his time on stage. I got interviewed on the way into the show by some dude claiming to be with some third-rate media,, and he asked me if I was a blues fan. I told him I used to be, but a lot of contemporary blues seem formulaic and I got a little bored with it. However, Taj was influenced by Caribbean and African music growing up and it comes through in his music and makes it more interesting than a 12-bar blues played by a white boy cover band influenced by Eric Clapton. Another indication that I enjoyed the show was that it seemed 30 minutes long, but when I checked my official Mousekateer Mickey watch it had been nearly two hours. Thumbs up from me and Mickey.
#14 – Monte Montgomery – Fitzgeralds
I never miss Monte when he comes to town and had the pleasure of catching him twice in 2010. Mind-blowing guitar work, but instead of just shredding he’s actually put together a good song catalog and has one of the tightest bands on the road today. Call it a man-crush – I won’t argue.
#13 – She & Him – Pritzker Pavilion
Zooey is adorable as hell, and M Ward lends some credibility to the duo. The retro sound is perfect for the pair, and I’d think I’d show up just watch them sing the alphabet. Yeah, I’m smitten. Now, make it a free show on a pleasant, summer evening in the beautiful Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park in downtown Chicago, buildings lit up to celebrate the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup victory, and it just doesn’t get much better.
#12 – Bodeans & The Duhks – Chicago Symphony Center
Way back in 1991, I got invited to a Bodeans show at the Riv by a female cop. Uptown was still a little rough back then, so I asked her if she brought her gun. She said no, and said I could protect us. Thankfully, her theory remained untested. She dumped me shortly thereafter, but I started a long-term relationship with the Bodeans. Simple, catchy tunes and always a good time. The acoustic show at the CSO was a workshop in song-writing and it was cool to see them in such a great venue. I haven’t mentioned a lot of opening bands, but The Duhks are a worth a mention. Easily the best Franco-Manitoban Canadian soul, zydeco, Irish, country string band I’ve ever seen.
#11 – Aimee Mann – OTS
I’ve been a fan of Aimee ever since she stormed my MTV with her rat tail and band til tuesday back in the 80’s. I even wrote a letter to then SunTimes critic Don McLeese defending her honor after he ripped her as the opening act for Tom Petty, saying her music didn’t have any staying power. Yeah, who won that battle, Mr. McLeese? I still maintain a little crush on Ms. Mann, and her show made me want to invite over and keep her as a houseguest for a couple weeks. Love her songwriting and self-deprecating humor. Drop by whenever. Just don’t bring Don McLeese.
#10 – Snoop Dogg – Metro
Believe it or not, I’m not much of a gangsta. The closest I got was renting a pinstripe suit for an old-time gangster themed party at a speakeasy. I can’t say I’m much into the rap or hip-hop scene, either, but when I had the opportunity to see someone of Snoop’s caliber at a joint (pun intended) like Metro, I had to go. The wait was interminable, but when he took the stage all was forgiven and he owned that place. I reviewed the show early in the year and let’s review Snoop’s Three Things You Need To Do Every Morning. 1) Brush yo teeth. 2) Thank God you’re alive to see another day. 3) Smoke some weed, motherfucker!
#9 – Ruthie Foster – SPACE
Ruthie sometimes stopped in to play a few songs at a little corner bar with my guitar teacher years ago in Dallas. She blew me away, and the last time I saw her before leaving Texas was when she did a chilling acapella version of Amazing Grace at my teacher’s memorial service. Fast forward years later, and I see that the world finally discovered the phenomenal Ruthie Foster. Solid guitar playing. History lessons in the blues and gospel. Fun, sincere banter. And a voice that still gives me chills.
#8 – Booker T & Eric Bibb – OTS
My favorite movie – the Blues Brothers. Not just for the humor and showcase of my favorite city, but for the soundtrack. I’m a sucker for the old soul and R&B stuff. Booker T not only has his own song catalog, but does an amazing job covering some of those old classics in a way that makes you feel like you were right there when it was still new. You’ve got to love the way the Hammond B-3 fills the space. Throw in some smooth blues from Eric Bibb to start the show and you got yourself a night to remember.
#7 – The Knitters – Fitzgeralds
Take roots guitarist Dave Alvin of Blasters fame and Exene Cervenka and John Doe of punk band X and you might not think there is any intersection if you were to place them in the same Venn diagram. However, what started as a small intersecting sliver called The Knitters, developed into a killer outfit that put forth a unique mix of folk country punk that probably influenced all those alt-country bands making the rounds these days. I was a fan of X back in their 80’s prime, and only recently discovered the greatness of Dave Alvin, so this show was one of the year’s highlights. People digging what they do and doing it well. I think they sleep well at night.
#6 – Carolina Chocolate Drops – Park West
Their cover of Hit ‘Em Up Style caught my attention, but I wasn’t sure I was enough of a fan to make an evening of it. So I skipped their show at Schuba’s the year before. After spending an evening with them at Park West, my foot is sore from kicking myself for not seeing them earlier. One of the more enjoyable nights of the year. An old-time string band with three members trading guitars, banjos, fiddles, harmonica, moonshine jug and even cow bones, making you feel like you’re hanging out on their front porch for a weekend jamboree.
#5 – Bettye LaVette – OTS
I’ll confess I never heard of her until I caught her on Letterman earlier this year. I’ve been a Letterman fan forever, but also confess I’m finding his show a little stale of late. But I’ll forgive him after finding Bettye for me. She’s an old soul singer who has found a new audience with an album of old British classic rock songs. Her interpretation takes some already good tunes, but let’s you hear them with vocals that have some feeling instead of sung by some 20-something Brit kid on dope. Be sure to check out her cover of Love Reign O’er Me. Then check out her old stuff. Then go see her live.
#4 – Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women – Fitzgeralds
I’m quickly becoming Dave’s biggest fan. I largely ignored him for 20 years, but doing my best to make it up to him. His work with the Guilty Women started when the disbanded the Guilty Men after the death of his long-time buddy and collaborator. I never got to see them, but I can’t imagine he’s missed a musical beat with his new line-up. Every member is solid (no pun intended) and plenty of opportunities for Dave to showcase his licks (no pun intended, really). It’s a high energy, fun and impressive set. Unfortunately, earlier in the year they lost fiddle player Amy Farris to suicide, and their tribute to her during this show was probably the most emotional moment of the year.
#3 – The Holmes Brothers – OTS
Two old brothers – Sherman and Wendell – and their buddy Popsy on drums laid down a mix of blues, soul, country, gospel and even some funk that took me deep into their world and gave me a deep appreciation for all they’ve experienced in their musical lifetimes. They moved effortlessly between styles and proved themselves the real deal. They’re getting a little older now, but haven’t lost a step. I just hope to catch them again. You should too.
#2 – Gogol Bordello – Subterranean
I had made it to my first Gogol Bordello show at the anus that is the Congress Theater and was still blown away by the live show. And that was even after going in with high expectations. Fast forward a few months and I find out that they are doing a Lollapalooza aftershow at Subterranean, a small Wicker Park bar that holds 300-400 people max and is the size of my living room. I cleared my schedule the day tickets went on sale, even putting my staff at work on the case, and managed to score a pair of the coveted tix. I felt like Charlie when he scored the golden ticket. It was like giving a band of gypsies your collection of punk records and a bag of coke and then telling them to meet you in your garage for a jam session. It was loud, hot, crowded and barely controlled insanity. I expected it to be the show of the year and I thought it sealed the deal when I left that night, but it was unexpectedly upended by…..
#1 – Meshell Ndegeocello – OTS
I had only heard of Meshell from her collaboration with another artist, but it was enough to register a spot in my pile of music still to be filed in my mental file cabinet. However, when I saw her on the roster of shows this year at OTS, she moved to the top of the pile and I eagerly picked up tickets. I guess the best description of her music that I’ve read is neo-soul. It was way outside my wheelhouse, but maybe that’s what made it so special. I felt way cooler just for being there. I need to find more music like this. Or maybe she’s unique in that respect. Just wow. Also what I consider to be an upset in the best show of the year.
Pitchfork Music Festival 2010 – Union Park
I wasn’t sure how to classify the acts I saw this weekend. It was definitely the highlight of the year for me – a three-day pass to one of the premier fests just a few miles down the road from me on a hot July weekend. Great, diverse selection of bands, well-managed event, and reasonably priced. I think my three-day pass was only $90. And with the extreme heat, the festival reduced the price of bottled water to only $1. Think that would happen at Lolla or any of your other favorite local venues? The vibe was positive all weekend, and I spent the last hour on Sunday night just wandering around and taking it all in as Pavement tore through a set of indie faves from the 90’s. Here are the bands I saw, both good and bad.
The Tallest Man on Earth – Solo acoustic set from a tiny Swedish dude. I liked it, but he was suited to the 45-minute set or else he might have grown tiresome.
El-P – I’m not into rap, but I’ll give it a chance now and then. I’m glad I did at Pitchfork that day.
Liars – Although I appreciated their singer’s ironic Men At Work t-shirt, most of the music was unlistenable and, well, just shitty.
Robyn – She was awesome. I might be gay.
Modest Mouse – Very cool. Had I included Pitchfork acts in my rankings they would have been top 20.
Free Energy – Catchy, pop tunes… proving there’s nothing wrong with that.
Sonny and the Sunsets – A nice retro vibe to ease into the day.
Kurt Vile – A mix between Dylan and Petty, but it works for him.
Titus Andronicus – Powerful stuff… I need to see them headline a club.
Raekwon – Cool with Wu-Tang Clan, but solo, not so much. At least not live.
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – He wins just for wearing leather pants on a 90+ degree day, but the music was wildly solid as well.
Wolf Parade – Not great, not bad. Just good.
Panda Bear – The craptastic award for Saturday. People listen to this shit?
LCD Soundsystem – One of the highlights. Warm summer night, packed park on the west side of Chicago at a party hosted by the premier dance rock band of the year.
Cass McCombs – Not bad to help start out the day.
Best Coast – One of the most hyped bands of the year – overrated.
Girls – I like real girls better. These Girls, not good.
Beach House – Boring
Lightning Bolt – Just as I was getting discouraged with the Sunday lineup, this band unleashed the most batshit crazy set I saw all year. Greatness.
St. Vincent – Annie is adorable, plays some nasty guitar, has some interesting songs and is fun to watch.
Major Lazer – I’m not into DJ acts, but these guys were off the chain and turned Union Park into a daytime rave, including Chinese dragons, ballerinas and acrobatics.
Sleigh Bells – Another of the most hyped bands of the year, but they delivered to the packed crowd who skipped Big Boi to see Alexis and Derek on a side stage.
Pavement – A great band to play us out after three great days.
Hey, if you made it this far and want to participate in 2011, send a message to me at email@example.com and I'll include you on my concert calendar listings.
Have a great year and support live music!