This year has been one of the greatest ever for live music based on the sheer number of amazing rock concerts I was privileged to witness. Many milestones were hit – Kate Bush performing 22 sold out shows in London 35 years after her first and only tour – Stevie Wonder doing all of Songs in the Key of Life – his masterwork from which had never played more than 3-4 numbers – Fleetwood Mac with Christine McVie back after 16 years absence from touring – Yusuf / Cat Stevens, back in the U.S. 38 years since his last appearance here. To top it off, Sir Paul McCartney, playing the final event at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the site of the last Beatles concert some 50 years prior. So quite a few firsts, which may become “lasts” – one never knows.
Special mention this year goes to the “progressive rock cruise” called Cruise to the Edge. On that journey my lovely wife joined me and we saw Steve Hackett, Yes, UK, Tangerine Dream, Marillion, and most importantly for me, Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM, from Italy) and Three Friends (Gentle Giant’s guitarist Gary Green and drummer Malcolm with full band of hired help). Both of these shows were absolutely fantastic – both celebrating 70’s progressive rock and keeping it alive with surprising precision and power.
Hard to pick a top ten out of these, but here goes:
- Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo Theater, London
This was one of those “Once-in-a-lifetime” experiences as we witnessed the third of what were 22 highly anticipated Kate Bush concerts she staged after 35 years absence. As the night’s proceedings and the accompanying media frenzy proved, this long absence was a terrible shame. Focusing on The Hounds of Love (1985) and Aerial (2005) irked some fans, but it gave her the chance to perform two acts of the best rock theater ever staged – heights only reached by the likes of Pink Floyd and Genesis. Absolutely brilliant – here’s hoping they filmed it as well!
- Three Friends (Gentle Giant), CTTE
Because I had not been able to see Gentle Giant until their last ever show at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles, I had not seen them perform many of their complex classic works live. Gary Green (guitar) and Malcolm Mortimore (drums) hired a band of crack musicians calling themselves Three Friends and changed all that on the cruise as they tore through almost all of the third Gentle Giant album, Three Friends (1972) along with something from almost every record made between their debut and Interview. Early in they played “The Moon is Down” – one of four tracks they would include from Acquiring the Taste (1971). They perfectly nailed this dense composition going beyond all expectations. For this fan the whole experience was true nirvana.
- Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM), CTTE
PFM was Italy’s answer to the British progressive rock invasion of the ‘70’s. Their records were unique, beautiful, and completely original. We had been able to catch them early in this millennia at a prog rock festival, but the shows on the cruise beat that, as the band covered lots of tracks from their first five releases, along with a few more recent, including one from PFM In Classic – Da Mozart A Celebration. A highlight of the show was their performance of “Promenade The Puzzle”, an early classic with brilliant lyrics by former King Crimson lyricist Pete Sinfield. It was a truly rare treat to witness these maestros perform live, and to interview them for Gonzo Weekly as well!
- Yusuf / Cat Stevens, Nokia Live Theater, Los Angeles
Cat Stevens has been absent from the stage in the U.S. for 38 years. The first concert I ever attended was his last – the Majikat tour in 1976 with my sister Sue. My 7th grade Social Studies teacher had us reading and interpreting his lyrics in class, focusing on his seminal album Tea for the Tillerman. At that first concert, in my 15th year, I discovered the amazing impact seeing an artist perform live could have on a heart. “The Wind” was the first song on the set list back then, and again when Yusuf / Cat Stevens came to the Nokia Live theater in December. What was surprising and gratifying about this show was that he chose songs from his whole career, including the Foreigner suite, Days of the Old Schoolyard from IsItSo, and others. His voice is aged like fine wine and the show was superb.
- Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life Tour, Oakland Arena
Unbelievable, fantastic, heartwarming, tear jerking joyous show in which one of our finest artists played his entire masterwork from 1976, sounding like he’s never aged a day since. Joined by 30 musicians including a 10 piece orchestra, 6 piece horn section, three keyboard players, three drummers, numerous backup singers, bass, and guests, each track was played with it’s perfect accompaniment, whether that meant Stevie alone, as on “If It’s Magic” or all 30 as with the anthemic finale “As”.
- King Crimson, Warfield Theater, San Francisco
This progressive rock juggernaut brought their seven-man supersonic distortion machine to the states for a series of highly anticipated concerts. These were epic events for King Crimson fans. For the first time in what seems like forever, leader Robert Fripp agreed to dust off older tracks like “Pictures of a City” from In the Wake of Poseidon (1970), “Sailor’s Tale” and “The Letters” from Islands (1971). Given he had winds genius Mel Collins in the band they were able to reproduce those rare treats with surprising ferocity, particularly “The Letters” which was just stunning. The three-man drum assault was legendary. I’ve never seen Robert appear more happy and excited to be addressing his followers!
- Elbow, Fox Theater, Oakland
Elbow played one of the top shows we’ve seen this year. Singer Guy Garvey led the group through a lengthy set that included much of the latest album, along with highlights from their catalog of recordings. What was really impressive is how this singer emotes and connects with the audience. At times the languid pace threatens to overstay it’s welcome, but this band can meander between slow and soulful to more medium paced bits, building the dynamics of a song until the audience can be swept up in the emotion and joy of their beautiful melodies, their meaningful lyrics, and Guy’s silky smooth vocal delivery. In this way I would compare them to The National – one of the other great live acts seen last spring.
- The National, Greek Theater, Oakland
The band were in fine form this year, supporting 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, driving their slow burning moody compositions to lovely crescendos – punctuating dark passages with horns and carefully placed guitars and keys to enliven the procession. Matt is a baritone and as such inhabits the sound spectrum at the low end, spilling out his unique lyrics, huddling over his mic, or stalking the stage to accentuate the sound of their work. This time out, the band backed the volume down during key passages, allowing Matt to be heard clearly and gain additional dynamics in the mix – a clever way to help connect him and the band to the audience. The show was a wonderful demonstration of their wares – the best yet for this viewer.
- The Eels, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
This American alt-rock band played the best and most impactful show I’ve seen them deliver here in the city. Since so much of singer-songwriter E’s music does tend toward dark and painful subjects (he calls it “soft bummer pop”), his work in large quantities can threaten to depress. However on this night, the crack band of musicians aided the man, teetering perfectly between the melancholy and happy, quirky sides of his catalog, peppering the sadder tracks with the upbeat. Notably, E sang several covers, including lovely renditions of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” (okay small tears were shed) “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis and “Turn on Your Radio” by the similarly underrated and wonderful Nilsson. Friends of soft-bummer pop unite!
- Fleetwood Mac, Oakland Arena, Oakland
The Mac is back! They rolled into the town for the “On With The Show” tour featuring the return of Christine McVie – singer, songwriter and keyboard player who left the band to retire some 16 years ago. The audience greeted her with rapturous applause. It was wonderful to hear the band whole again, back to their 1975 lineup, which endured for so many years producing mega hits on the albums “Fleetwood Mac” (1975) through Tango in the Night (1987).
Honorable mention goes out to other amazing artists we caught this year including Paul McCartney, Yes, UK, Steve Hackett (on his Genesis revisited tour), Kraftwerk, Queen (with “glambert”), Tom Petty, Neil Finn, Midlake, Daniel Lanois, America, Erasure, Elton John, Tears for Fears, Adrian Belew, Paula Frazer, The Musical Box and others. Thank you to Artina for being so open minded and musically inclined, and for taking so many of the best photos we shot during the year. I will have to renew that resolution to catch more new artists this year – we are starting in January with Ty Segall. Happy New Year, everyone….