In a pretty lousy year, music was my most reliable refuge. I’ve written before about how live music saves me – and that was true in 2017 more than ever before.
I’m grateful to have seen some exceptional shows this past year. I can’t pick out just one as the “best” – how do you compare a teensy venue in Grand Rapids, the elegant restorations of the Chicago Theatre and the Louisville Palace, giant stadiums like Soldier Field and Lucas Oil Stadium, and the intimate Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway? Very different experiences. So I’ll just list a few of my favorites with a quick note about why they were special. (I’m leaving out some great ones, too! Musically, if in no other significant way, it was a terrific year. Also, these are in chronological order.)
April 27, Garry Tallent (with Shun Ng), Acorn Theater, Grand Rapids, MI.
Unexpected fun. I enjoyed Garry Tallent’s first-ever solo album, Break Time, but didn’t really know what to expect from his show. Since Grand Rapids is not too far from my mom’s, it was convenient for me to catch him there, and boy am I glad I did. His brand of roots-rockabilly translated very well to the live stage, and Tallent proved to be an eminently likeable, grin-inducing frontman. Great band, too. Bonus: guitarist Shun Ng’s opening set was unique and terrific, and the Acorn was just a great little venue, cozy and friendly. (I reviewed this show for Blogness on the Edge of Town.)
June 4 and September 10, U2, Soldier Field (Chicago) & Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis).
Big big shows. I can’t decide which of these two shows on the Joshua Tree 30 tour I enjoyed more, so I’m lumping them together. In Chicago, I splurged on a Red Zone ticket and was right up at the smaller “tree” stage – a fun vantage point, though I wished the band had spent a little more time playing to the back of that stage where the Red Zone folks were (for that kind of money, much of which went to the band’s anti-AIDS charity, you’d think they would have given us a little more face time – the Edge came around a couple of times, and Adam Clayton strolled around and posed for us a bit). It was a great spot for the amazing big screen, though, and the moment during “Streets” when the red screen goes white and gives way to the desert road was roller-coaster perfection. In Indianapolis, I had a very good seat, and I think musically the band was a little better that night – plus we got the tour premiere of “You’re the Best Thing About Me,” which was fun. I’m not a fan of stadium shows generally, but U2 knows how to put on a show big enough to fill that space.
June 11, Four Voices, Chicago Theatre
Elegant, gorgeous, stunning. I had high hopes for this collaboration among the Indigo Girls, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Joan Baez, and those hopes were exceeded. I haven’t found myself that speechless at the end of a show since maybe the Springsteen show in St. Louis (August 2008). The respect and admiration (as well as the sense of just having fun!) among the musicians was clearly evident, the song choices were generally great, and those voices – those voices! Even though we were up in the balcony, I was utterly transported. After the show I said it might have been the best concert I’ve ever seen; looking back on it now, I’d still peg it as top-ten at the very least. I wish I could bottle up that night’s rendition of “The Water Is Wide” and carry it with me forever.
July 1 & December 14-15, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, PNC Pavilion at Riverbend (Cincinnati, OH) & Louisville Theatre
At the peak of their powers. Touring in support of his latest & best album, The Nashville Sound, Isbell’s shows are so damn consistent that I just can’t choose a favorite among the three I saw. I loved the Cincinnati show because the band is always best when Amanda Shires is on board, because the new songs were completely fresh (the album had just come out), and because they did a cover of “Whipping Post” that melted my face. I loved the Louisville shows because the Palace (a new-to-me venue) turned out to be a TERRIFIC place to see a show, because a two-night stand meant lots of different songs got played (19 songs each night, 10 were repeats), because I fell head over heels in love with night 2 opener Ruston Kelly’s music, and because of the sheer joy that exploded from the audience when the band kicked into “American Girl” to close out the stand. (If Isbell doesn’t put out a Record Store Day EP of Tom Petty covers, he’s missing a big opportunity – the 400 Unit absolutely nails ’em.) I’m seeing Isbell & Co. again in January, and I am so looking forward to it.
October 8, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, House of Blues, Chicago.
Unmitigated rock & soul joy. If anyone in this world is as committed to spreading the gospel of rock & roll as Steven Van Zandt is, I’d sure like to know about it. This was a big show in a small room, and it was probably the most flat-out fun I had at any show this year. Van Zandt is one of rock & roll’s best songwriters, and with his album Soulfire and the accompanying tour he made the case for his body of work over the past few decades – along with a few well-chosen covers (opening with Tom Petty’s “Even the Losers” was brilliant). Can’t say enough about the band, too; this year’s version of the Disciples of Soul provided just the right kind of big sound to showcase the songs perfectly. Little Steven believes that good music can save the world, or at least your soul, and a show like this makes me think he might be right. (Pete Chianca reviewed the Boston stop for Blogness on the Edge of Town.)
October 24, Springsteen on Broadway, Walter Kerr Theatre, NYC.
Genius. What can I say about this show that hasn’t already been said? It’s a thoughtful, carefully-crafted, very personal piece of work that is entirely different from anything Springsteen has done previously in his long career. I felt so, so fortunate to be there to witness it. Plus, thanks to my good friend Deb who not only managed to score tickets but also offered crash space at her parents’ house and drove me all the hell over New Jersey and NYC, I finally made it to the Jersey shore for the requisite Springsteen pilgrimage – Asbury Park, Freehold, Colts Neck, Belmar. (Having just seen where Springsteen grew up made the stories he told on Broadway even more vivid for me.) And even though there were only 900-some people at the show, I had enough friends in the house to have a rollicking pre-show meetup (special shout out to Sue McD, who I hadn’t seen in way too long, and Dennis C, who I somehow hadn’t managed to meet in person before) as well as a pre-pre-show visit with the indefatigable Holly – making friends online and then meeting them in person is pretty much my favorite thing about the Springsteen community. Anyway, this show was a once-in-a-lifetime for me, and gave me a lot to think about – as evidenced in my review of the show on Blogness (it’s full of spoilers, so consider yourself warned).
Like I said, I’ve left out a lot of really excellent shows here. I saw 27 shows in 2017 and every one had at least a little something to love – some far more than a little. (Shout out in particular to Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples, both technically opening acts but the main reason I went to both of those shows.) Here’s the full list:
- Maceo Parker, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
- Joshua Bell with student orchestra, Musical Arts Center, Indiana University, Bloomington IN
- Joey Alexander Trio, Tarkington Theatre, The Performing Arts Center, Carmel IN
- Stevie Nicks (with The Pretenders), Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis IN
- Wu Man (pipa) with the Vera Quartet and the Indiana University New Music Ensemble, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
- Garry Tallent (with Shun Ng), Acorn Theater, Grand Rapids, MI
- Indigo Girls (with Dom Kelly), Egyptian Room, Old National Centre, Indianapolis IN
- Buddy Guy (with Gordon Bonham Blues Band), Indiana University Auditorium, Bloomington IN
- Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (with Joe Walsh), Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO
- Kris Kristofferson, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
- U2 (with The Lumineers), Soldier Field, Chicago IL
- Four Voices, Chicago Theatre, Chicago IL
- Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (with Mountain Goats), PNC Pavilion at Riverbend, Cincinnati OH
- James Taylor & His All-Star Band (with Bonnie Raitt), KFC Yum! Center, Louisville KY
- Earth, Wind & Fire (with Nile Rodgers & Chic), Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis IN
- Robert Cray Band (with Jennie DeVoe), Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
- Rory Block (with Austin Lucas), Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
- U2 (with Beck), Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis IN
- The Elaine Dame Trio, Merrimans’ Playhouse, South Bend IN
- Rhiannon Giddens, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
- Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, House of Blues, Chicago IL
- Springsteen on Broadway, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York, NY
- Bob Dylan (with Mavis Staples), Indiana University Auditorium, Bloomington IN
- Ray Lamontagne (with Ethan Gruska), Indiana University Auditorium, Bloomington IN
- Born to Run in the USA (Eric Brown & the L Street Band), Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
- Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (with Chris Knight), Louisville Palace, Louisville KY
- Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (with Ruston Kelly), Louisville Palace, Louisville KY
Related content: My Six Top Musical Moments of 2014