To say 2018 has been a challenging year would be an understatement. But, as always, live music was what kept me going.
I saw 24 concerts in 4 states, 7 cities, & 14 venues, plus one music festival (the Lotus Festival), one live theatre performance (Fun Home) and one comedy show (Tig Notaro) this year. I’ve had years with more concerts, but considering Springsteen wasn’t touring (and I didn’t have the wherewithal to get out to NYC to see “Springsteen on Broadway” again – though I was lucky enough to experience it in October 2017), it was about as high-quality a year in live music as one could ask for.
Most frequently-visited venue this year: the Buskirk-Chumley Theater here in Bloomington, Indiana. (Love that place and finally this year became a donor!)
Artists I saw for the first time this year (some as opening acts, some at the Lotus Festival where I caught all or part of their sets): James McMurtry, Matthew Ryan (& the Northern Wires), Paul Luc, Valerie June, The War & Treaty, Birdland All-Stars, Gracie & Rachel, AHI, Tyler Childers, Terence Blanchard (& the E-Collective), Colter Wall, Emily Barker, Gus Moon, The Rails, St. Beauty, Raye Zaragoza, Jupiter & Okwess, Rio Mira, Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Aar Maanta & the Urban Nomads, Hawktail, Jarlath Henderson Trio, Hoven Droven, Fleetwood Mac, The Lone Bellow, Robert Ellis
Artists I’d seen before and saw again this year: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (twice with the full band plus one acoustic trio show with Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, & Sadler Vaden), Ani DiFranco, U2, Patty Griffin, John Prine (twice), Shawn Colvin, Michael White, Jackson Browne, Mary Chapin Carpenter, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Carrie Newcomer, The Pretenders, Joshua Bell, Janelle Monae, IUSB Jazz Ensemble, Aimee Mann, Amanda Shires (though I hadn’t previously seen her with her current band), Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul
And now a few highlights:
Jason Isbell – I’ve seen him a bunch of times, and in 2018 I saw him thrice: once at the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis, where I found myself behind a tall and broad dude and couldn’t see a damn thing until the nice couple next to me moved over a bit and let me share their space; once at the famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, my first time visiting that phenomenally gorgeous venue; and once at the EKU Center for the Arts, in acoustic trio format with Amanda Shires & Sadler Vaden – I love and adore his band, the 400 Unit, but it was special to see something a little different. Isbell & his band never disappoint.
U2 – I was only able to make it to one show on this tour, but I had a fantastic seat and it was a well-designed show in every way. I loved the narrative arc of the show and the way they used the big screen to add to the experience. I loved the surprise (it was early in the tour and I had purposely not been reading recaps of previous shows) when The Edge walked right past me, not three feet from my seat, to take his spot in front of the first row of the section adjacent to mine for “Pride.” I loved that the show began and ended in mystery, with the MRI images on the big screen to open and “13 (There Is a Light)” to quietly close. It was a show designed to make the audience think and feel. After the hugeness of last year’s Joshua Tree stadium tour, it was a riskier show in many ways and I love that U2 still wants to take risks after so many years.
John Prine – I was lucky enough to see this national treasure of an artist twice this year. Basically the same show both times, but I loved it both times. His still-newish album “The Tree of Forgiveness” is an absolute gem, his band is phenomenal (really love the addition of Fats Kaplin, who I last saw playing with Garry Tallent in 2017), and the songs – what can you say about Prine except that he is the songwriter other songwriters wish they could be? He seemed to be having a blast on stage, too – just check out the way he dances offstage at the end of “Lake Marie.”
Mary Chapin Carpenter – I’d seen her once before, but as I recall that was a solo acoustic show. This time she had a full band with her, and what a great time she was having! She’s known for her beautifully-written, introspective folk songs and for her country rabble-rousers, but what you forget sometimes is that the woman can ROCK. She covered Springsteen’s “My Love Will Not Let You Down” which was a big thrill for me – she’s such a big Bruce fan, and she covers him so well. (See also her beautifully sad version of “Dancing in the Dark.”)
Janelle Monae – In some ways this was my most anticipated show of the year. I saw Janelle some years ago right after “The Archandroid” came out – for FIVE BUCKS, with fun. opening (right before they hit it big) – and it was a phenomenal, high-energy show that won me over completely. (I knew very little about her going into that show; I’ll go see almost anybody for five bucks. The gamble hardly ever pays off as big as it did that night.) And I’d been fairly obsessed with her new album “Dirty Computer” since its release – it’s an incredible album that moves your mind, your heart, AND your booty. In fact on the way up to the show I found myself thinking that I kind of wished she’d just play the whole album in its entirety, even though I normally am not a huge fan of “album shows” – it’s just such a great piece of work as a whole. As it turns out, she sort of did that; she performed every song from the album, in order I believe, but interspersed older songs in a way that worked really well. Her band is absolutely killer. I was especially impressed with her guitarist, Kellindo Parker (who I JUST THIS MINUTE found out is the great Maceo Parker’s nephew!) – at the end of “Prime Time,” while Monae hopped offstage for a quick costume change, Kellindo ripped out a “Purple Rain” outro that was (and this is high praise) nearly as good as the original, and had me in tears. Prince was, and continues to be, a huge influence on Janelle Monae and her music is just as unclassifiable as his – funk, soul, rock, rap, jazz – and the crowd was just as diverse, with all kinds of people represented (some of whom went to great lengths to dress up – something I don’t see at most of the shows I attend, and it was so fun!). The show built to a sweaty climax with “Cold War” and “Tightrope” – then the encore of “So Afraid” and the glorious “Americans” was pure emotional triumph and catharsis. (This review from her Minneapolis show captures a good bit of how it felt.) This was one of those shows and moments in time that you just feel privileged and fortunate to have been able to experience.
Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul – Having seen this incarnation of the Disciples last year in Chicago, I pretty much knew I was in for a good two-plus hours of joyous rock, soul, and blues. If anything, the band has improved over the months of touring, and the fact that I managed to be on the front rail pretty close to center just made it even more fun. (Yes, it is kind of a scam that the venue charges 15 bucks for early entry, which – their website doesn’t explain clearly just how it works – just means there is a separate entrance for “Fast Lane Pass” purchasers, and they open that door at the designated “doors” time & don’t open the main entrance until the “Fast Lane” line gets in. But I don’t regret the splurge, because when you’re 5 foot 1, the difference between “on the rail” and “two people back from the rail” often means the difference between seeing everything and seeing practically nothing.) It is also really, really cool that the shows on this tour included a free professional development opportunity for teachers (all grade levels), showing them how to use the TeachRock curriculum to increase student engagement – the teachers even got into the show for free, which is so cool since teachers generally aren’t exactly rolling in money. (The ticket price for paying customers was still a bargain – the ticket plus the early entry plus the $12 beer was still less than what I pay for a lot of shows!) Overall it was a joyful, celebratory, LOUD, and wonderful evening that left me feeling thoroughly energized. Just the medicine I needed.
The Lone Bellow – This show was part of the band’s “TRIIIO” acoustic tour. I went into it essentially cold; TLB has been on my “I should check these folks out” list for a while now, as some of my friends with great musical taste are big fans. And I fell head over heels in love as soon as they opened their mouths. It was one of those shows where you don’t know quite what to expect (sometimes that’s the most fun of all) and you start grinning halfway through the first song and you don’t stop until an hour after you get home. I didn’t know any of the songs, the band members’ backstory, nuthin’. (Give me a break. I don’t have TIME to be a superfan of every great band! And sometimes it is really fun to be new to a body of work and not know all the things yet.) The camaraderie among the three band members, the great songs, the HARMONIES (oh dear lord the harmonies) – and most of all, the way they all three seemed absolutely joyful to be on that stage and making music together. So much fun. (If there’s one thing that guarantees I will love a concert, regardless of genre, it’s when the performer(s) are completely into it and fully committed and obviously loving what they do.) And I have to say that Kanene Donehey Pipkin’s voice is my new favorite thing to put into my ears. After the show I immediately hit the merch table and bought all three of their CDs, and they threw in a download card for their acoustic EP, “The Restless” – and then hightailed it out of there because I knew if I hung around to get the CDs signed I would just fangirl all over them in an embarrassing sort of way. I have to say, I’ve listened to all three CDs and watched a bunch of YouTube videos, and nothing even comes close to the live experience – and I really kind of like the acoustic trio more than the full band thang. (Which is unusual for me. Normally I’d rather have a full band anytime.)
I’ve had that sense of discovery a few times before – going to see a band or a performer because maybe I’ve heard a song or two and liked it, or because friends I trust recommend the show, and it’s close to home & reasonably priced and, well, why not. It happened with Janelle Monae that first time, and with Ruston Kelly when he opened for Isbell last year in Louisville. It happened with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and with Glen Hansard, both of whom I saw at the same venue where I saw the Lone Bellow (the Buskirk-Chumley Theater). And it might be my favorite feeling on this whole entire planet. Yes, I still love going to see Springsteen, or the Jukes, or the Disciples, or Jason Isbell – it’s so great to be able to sing along to practically every song, and to feel like I’m home in a sense. Knowing what to expect, and having your expectations met or maybe exceeded. But there’s nothing like that first feeling of falling in love with a band. That feeling of “where have I been, and where have YOU been, and why am I only NOW experiencing this, and can I just stay right here in this place forever?” This is why I never skip the opening act, even if I’ve never heard of them. This is why I spend good money to see performers I’m not necessarily that familiar with. It doesn’t happen often, maybe once every year or two (and that’s for me, who sees a LOT of concerts compared to normal people) – that’s why I don’t usually take the financial risk of traveling out of town and paying for a hotel for bands I don’t already know I love (although, again, don’t forget about opening acts). But when it happens… it’s the BEST.
Upcoming in 2019 (so far!): Kacey Musgraves, RENT, Ruston Kelly, Milk Carton Kids, Los Lonely Boys, Over the Rhine & Carrie Newcomer, Lotus Festival, Elton John. There will be more… you can count on it.