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My nine favorite shows of 2017

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:

  1. Maceo Parker, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  2. Joshua Bell with student orchestra, Musical Arts Center, Indiana University, Bloomington IN
  3. Joey Alexander Trio, Tarkington Theatre, The Performing Arts Center, Carmel IN
  4. Stevie Nicks (with The Pretenders), Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis IN
  5. Wu Man (pipa) with the Vera Quartet and the Indiana University New Music Ensemble, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  6. Garry Tallent (with Shun Ng), Acorn Theater, Grand Rapids, MI
  7. Indigo Girls (with Dom Kelly), Egyptian Room, Old National Centre, Indianapolis IN
  8. Buddy Guy (with Gordon Bonham Blues Band), Indiana University Auditorium, Bloomington IN
  9. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (with Joe Walsh), Scottrade Center, St. Louis, MO
  10. Kris Kristofferson, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  11. U2 (with The Lumineers), Soldier Field, Chicago IL
  12. Four Voices, Chicago Theatre, Chicago IL
  13. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (with Mountain Goats), PNC Pavilion at Riverbend, Cincinnati OH
  14. James Taylor & His All-Star Band (with Bonnie Raitt), KFC Yum! Center, Louisville KY
  15. Earth, Wind & Fire (with Nile Rodgers & Chic), Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis IN
  16. Robert Cray Band (with Jennie DeVoe), Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  17. Rory Block (with Austin Lucas), Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  18. U2 (with Beck), Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis IN
  19. The Elaine Dame Trio, Merrimans’ Playhouse, South Bend IN
  20. Rhiannon Giddens, Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  21. Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, House of Blues, Chicago IL
  22. Springsteen on Broadway, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York, NY
  23. Bob Dylan (with Mavis Staples), Indiana University Auditorium, Bloomington IN
  24. Ray Lamontagne (with Ethan Gruska), Indiana University Auditorium, Bloomington IN
  25. Born to Run in the USA (Eric Brown & the L Street Band), Buskirk-Chumley Theater, Bloomington IN
  26. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (with Chris Knight), Louisville Palace, Louisville KY
  27. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (with Ruston Kelly), Louisville Palace, Louisville KY

 

Related content: My Six Top Musical Moments of 2014 

 

 

 

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My Six Top Musical Moments of 2014

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.

  1. 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? 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.” 
  6. 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.

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Happy New Year!

2013

As I write this, there are fewer than 24 hours left of 2012. I’ve been mulling over a year-in-review post, but in some ways I don’t even know what to say about the year.

There were some incredibly good times this year. Lots of great time with family and friends, including meeting up with friends I don’t get to see often enough (and some that I met for the first time) at concerts. And those concerts! Five Springsteen shows (Atlanta, two nights at Wrigley Field, Louisville, and Kansas City) – five very different experiences, every one fantastic. And a bunch of other great shows: Carolina Chocolate Drops, Peter Frampton, Bonnie Raitt with Marc Cohn, Mary Chapin Carpenter with Tift Merritt, Jackson Browne, Richard Thompson, the Lotus Festival (most notably MC Rai, Hanggai, and Delhi 2 Dublin), Ani DiFranco with Pearl & the Beard, and Indigo Girls with the Shadowboxers. An embarrassment of musical riches, right there.

There were also some poetry readings, and although I didn’t get a lot of poems written in 2012, I did have a small handful of publications including diode, the Cossack Review, Bluestem Magazine, and Sweet (which gave one of mine a Pushcart nomination). Publication isn’t the be-all and end-all, and it isn’t why I write, but heck, it’s nice.

There were some hard times this year, too – which I generally don’t blog (or tweet or Facebook) about, for the most part – but enough hard times to make the year feel a little rollercoastery. My hard times are about like anyone’s. Family health issues, money stuff, the usual worries and woes that make me mutter “it’s hard to be a grownup.” Life isn’t all rock shows and fun with one’s friends, and it’s the weaving of good and bad times that gives life its rich texture. Well, let’s just say that 2012 was … very textured.

And so, on to 2013. I know that I have poems coming out in at least three journals next year, and I know that I have tickets in hand for three concerts already (Emmylou Harris, the Gaslight Anthem, and Josh Ritter). I’ll be going to a couple of work-related conferences (ACRL and Confab), and even though I’m not the biggest fan of that sort of thing in general, I’m really looking forward to both of these. Okay, I’m looking forward to ACRL as much because Henry Rollins is the keynote speaker as anything else – yes, THAT Henry Rollins, and yes, it’s an academic library conference – but still, it’s nice to be excited about work stuff. And I hope for some Springsteen dates here in the US (he’s already announced a bunch of overseas shows, including Australia and Europe), as much for the excuse to go to random cities and get together with really great people as for the music itself.

I think my biggest disappointment in 2012 was that I didn’t push myself to write more. I wrote some concert reviews and blog posts that I was pretty happy with, but I am sorry for not making more time and space in my life for poetry this year. I don’t do New Year’s resolutions, but I do want to read and write more poetry in 2013, for sure. And by “want to” I mean “kind of need to.”

So here’s to 2013. Here’s to rocking out with friends and finding peace with family. Here’s to reading and writing and dreaming. Here’s to good health and happiness for each one of you reading this – may the new year ring in grace, and wisdom, and something that feels a lot like love.

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