Musically speaking, I was a very lucky girl in 2014 – I saw some really terrific concerts, many without even having to leave my lovely smallish town. I tried, and failed, to come up with a Top Five Concerts of the Year listing – but how do you compare a teensy two-person show in a teensy dark little club in downtown Bloomington with a giant arena spectacular featuring approximately one billion E Street Band members and supporting musicians on stage? You really can’t, and yet that describes two of my favorite shows this year.
So I’m going to come up with a list of my favorite musical moments. Lots of great shows, but these were the moments that made my jaw drop, made me shriek with glee, made me hold my breath so as not to miss a note. These are in chronological order, because I can’t figure out how to rank them.
- Josh Ritter (at the Buskirk-Chumley in Bloomington), “In the Dark” With a small acoustic group, Josh Ritter gave an absolutely luminous performace for which I was lucky enough to be front row center. For “In The Dark” the stage and house lights were turned out and Ritter & band came out to the very edge of the stage to perform barely-lit and completely unplugged – risky, but an absolute goosebumps moment, stunning, filled with hush and echo. My first time seeing Ritter, and I was pretty well knocked out – does anyone else, short of Springsteen, perform with such an air of absolute joy?
- Bruce Springsteen/E Street Band (at the US Bank Arena in Cincinnati), “Lost in the Flood” One of the songs I’d never managed to hear live and had been longing for – had even brought a sign for it once or twice when I had a GA ticket. I’m grateful for the person who brought a sign for it on this night, and the song was just as ferocious and spectacular as I could have hoped. It transitioned right into “Because the Night,” a pairing perfect as any fine wine could offer. Honorable mention goes to “Dream Baby Dream” that same night, cellphones lighting up one by one in the audience till the arena was spinning with stars; honorable mention as well to Springsteen’s Nashville show, not so much for the show (which was excellent as usual, especially the darkest-encore-ever salvo of “The Wall”/”Point Blank”/”Born in the USA”) but for the spectacularly fun few days I spent with great friends there.
- Amanda Shires/Jason Isbell (at Schuba’s in Chicago), “Mutineer” I was lucky enough to see this absolutely gorgeous cover of one of Warren Zevon’s greatest songs twice this year, once at an Amanda Shires show with Jason Isbell sitting in with the band and once at a Jason Isbell solo acoustic show with Amanda Shires supporting on fiddle & vocals. I give the slight nod to the Schuba’s performance, partly because it was my first time hearing it, partly because I was with friends who appreciated it as much as I did. I just want these two to sing me this song every night before I go to sleep so I can float away on a little cloud of bliss – is that too much to ask? Honorable mention: Isbell’s appropriately loud-and-sweaty show at the Bluebird in Bloomington, where he performed with his band the 400 Unit and blew the roof off that little club multiple times. As a side note, though both Isbell’s “Southeastern” and Shires’ “Down Fell the Doves” came out in 2013, I listened to them about a bajillion times in 2014 – if I had to pick two studio albums as the soundtrack of my year, these would probably be the ones.
- Rosanne Cash (at Clowes Hall in Indianapolis), “Ode to Billie Joe” Again, I was lucky to see this multiple times – in South Bend, Bloomington, and Indianapolis. Rosanne Cash’s “The River and the Thread” shows, in which the first set consisted of the album played straight through followed by a set of other material, were a major highlight of my musical year. No, she hardly varied the setlist at all – but it was one of the most perfectly constructed setlists I’ve ever witnessed, so why screw around with a good thing? I’m sometimes skeptical of “album shows” but the album performed live creates a near-perfect journey, and then the second set pleased the audience with a number of Cash’s hits and old favorites. “Ode to Billie Joe” harks back to the landscape and themes of the album, and each time the audience initially responded with raucous applause as they recognized the familiar song – and each time, by the midway point of the song, the audience had gone absolutely still. Cash sings the song like it’s something she’s just witnessed and she NEEDS to tell you the story right now, and her vocal reveals the darkness and mystery at the heart of a song you’ve heard a billion times and maybe hadn’t really thought about. I give the slight performance nod to the Clowes Hall show only because that was the rowdiest audience so the transition to breath-holding silence was the most remarkable. Honorable mention to “Money Road” at all three shows, which closed out the first set with an unexpectedly ferocious – and entirely delicious – guitar rave-up.
- Pearl Jam (at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis), “Imagine” This was my first time seeing Pearl Jam (I know, I know, about time!) and I was appropriately blown away by the energy and passion both onstage and in the crowd. The first encore opened with an acoustic set, kicking off with Eddie Vedder performing John Lennon’s “Imagine” for the first time at a PJ show – just Vedder on guitar and vocal with Boom Gaspar adding a bit of keyboard. My initial expectation was that it would be a bit cliché, but in that sold-out arena with thousands of voices joining Vedder’s heartfelt vocal, it became a real goosebump moment. Honorable mentions from this show: “Footsteps” which is just a fantastic song and didn’t let go of me for weeks following the concert, and the absolute no-holds-barred kick-ass rock of “Porch.”
- Lera Lynn (at the Bishop in Bloomington), “Fire” Yet another cover makes my list. Lera Lynn was a favorite musical discovery this year; her album “The Avenues” has been making a lot of best-of-2014 lists for good reason. Her whole show at the Bishop was great and had that “you’re not going to be seeing this artist on a stage this tiny much longer” feel to it; I single out her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” mainly because it was not only a great cover (YouTube it; she does cool things with this song!) but because it was a real pivot point in the show – starting with this song the setlist went somewhat out the window and the audience interaction kicked into high gear.
So that was 2014 – lots of other great moments too, of course. 2015 is shaping up nicely so far; I’ve got tickets for Iris DeMent, Keb’ Mo’, Glen Hansard, the Gaslight Anthem, and a U2 doubleheader in Chicago among others. As always I’ve got my eye out for announcements from my favorite artists and venues; in particular, I’m hoping Nils Lofgren will make use of some E Street downtime to play some stateside shows after his UK winter tour. (The Midwest would be lovely, but I’ll get on a plane for this one if I have to.)
It’s been a crazy year in the world, with a lot of things that just make me want to hide under my blankets and never leave my house again. Music helps. Ann Powers hit the nail on the head with her essay accompanying some best-of-the-year album picks. There are probably more important things in the world than so-and-so musician singing such-and-such song and giving me goosebumps – in fact, delete that “probably”! – but those moments kept me alive, kept me getting up in the morning, reminded me that the world is worth holding on to. And you know, that’s not such a small thing after all.