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Best Rock Concerts of 2016

Best Rock Concerts of 2016

In a year that saw the sad loss of so many musical artists, entertainers and sports heroes, there was concurrently much to celebrate, as go on we must. For this patron, there were more than two-dozen amazing classic, progressive, or goth/new wave rock concerts by legendary artists, along with some fantastic shows from more recent bands that carry the torch of rock in all of its forms.

More than half of these bands can be found in my new book Rockin’ the City of Angels which I am happy to say is now available on Amazon here.

For this patron, the best of the year:

ARW (Anderson Rabin Wakeman), Yes, Rick Wakeman

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These are a holy trinity of artists that together comprise most of the core members of Yes. First up, Mr. Wakeman absolutely nailed his one-time performance of the King Arthur album redux at the O2 earlier this year, with orchestra, choir and narration. Then, the Steve Howe / Geoff Downes led version of Yes arrived to faithfully play renditions of half the double album Tales From Topographic Oceans paired with Drama, which sounded fantastic live. But the capper was seeing ARW who played Howe and Rabin era Yes music with a fever that brings a new appreciation to the work. It was a heartwarming, wonderful experience to see Jon Anderson so happy, and sounding as good as any night I’ve witnessed in over 20 years. This topped the year off in style.

Rockin’ the City of Angels during the Relayer/Solos tour:

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Steve Hackett, Sting/Gabriel

In the Genesis camp, while we wait for Phil, Mike and Tony to put something together, we always have Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel as working musicians – the former working often, the latter not so much! Hackett has been absolutely on fire, both during his Genesis Revisited performances, and with his solo work. The night we saw him here in San Francisco at the Warfield was by far, and I am not padding here, the best show I’ve seen from him since Wind & Wuthering. His renditions of classic songs from the Genesis catalog, along with his first four albums, and newer work from Wolflight, have never been bested. He is my true prog hero. Gabriel went out with Sting this year, in a fun and pleasant show – different for him – I think both better on their own, but it was nice to see the camaraderie. Chills when Sting teased us with the first few bars of “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight.” Chills.

Rockin’ the City of Angels during the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour:

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The Cure

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The Cure on this year’s tour played crowd-pleasing set lists that changed each night, with a core of consistent selections from their most popular mid period work. The band played several tracks off Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987), Disintegration (1989), which included career highlights “Lullaby,” “Fascination Street” and “Pictures of You,” about which my daughter says “If you wanted to play one song to someone who did not know The Cure’s music, this would be it – so sad but beautiful.” Truer words. The other featured album was Wish (1992) from which the band pulled off a most unexpected pleasure, set closer “End.” Leader Robert Smith’s uncanny way of putting words to music, making the sum of the two something more than its parts, awakening dread, a cry for help, and ultimately survival, even transcendence is unparalleled. And, fortunately for us, he is a survivor and, as seen this year in concert, he continues to thrive, in apparently good health and surprisingly strong voice.

Watch for The Cure in my next book, should this sell out!

 

David Gilmour

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Witnessing Gilmour rock and roll at the Hollywood Bowl was absolutely perfectly awesome (in the 70s we would have said, “bitchin!”) The lighting and sound was fantastic, the film projections, which were programmed to the contours of the stage’s bowl shaped awning, were amazing. And we had close up seats and the pleasure of attending with great company, photojournalist Armando Gallo and his wife Cheryl, which will forever be a special memory. On this night, Gilmour seemed on fire, grinding out his brand of searing guitar solos gracefully, matching his alternately gravelly and silky smooth voice. He absolutely owned the stage, and the moment, blowing away this crowd of Angelinos, young and old alike.

Rockin’ the City of Angels during The Wall tour:

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Photo (c) Brian Weiner / The Illusion Factory

 

LCD Soundsystem

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This band performed at San Francisco’s Outside Lands, August 5th, 2016 to an anxiously awaiting crowd, once again taking their place a the top of the electro-funk pantheon, delivering an explosive concert consisting of 14 tracks that were also played at their “farewell” concert five years ago at Madison Square Gardens, chronicled in the exceptional film Shut Up and Play the Hits (2011) and the live album Live at Madison Square Gardens. The music as presented was incredibly tight, each musician playing his or her part with aplomb. Their songs progress, contrapuntal lines are drawn, the beat is intensified, bass, guitar or treated electronics are added, until the drone or melody comes clear and captivating, and Murphy adds vocals, working his rich baritone, ultimately building into ecstatic abandon. This is the main recipe for the band, and it’s done wonders for space rock, afro funk, new wave and alt/indie bands past and present. See this band in 2017 if you possibly can.

 

ELO

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Seeing ELO last September 10, 2016, on the second of three sold-out nights at the Hollywood Bowl was like stepping back in time, as Lynne, band, and orchestra faithfully replicated every note of the original ELO compositions, along with a few newer tracks from Lynne’s most recent album. At around 80 minutes, incredibly, nearly every track on the set list was originally a hit or at least massively popular FM radio staple for ELO, including “Evil Woman,” “All Over the World,” “Livin’ Thing,” “Telephone Line,” “Turn to Stone” and on through seventeen songs, ending inevitably with “Roll Over Beethoven,” which as one would expect, highlighted the immense contribution of the Hollywood Bowl orchestra let by conductor Thomas Wilkins while fireworks lit the night sky.

Rockin’ the City of Angels during the Out of the Blue tour:

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Coldplay

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Coldplay brought their A Head Full Of Dreams Tour to our 49ers (Levi’s) stadium in Santa Clara, south of San Francisco this year, and they will be back in 2017. It was an amazing night of lights, confetti, stagecraft, and music, courtesy of Chris Martin and band. Followers of Coldplay take no issue with their often-sentimental lyrics and gut-wrenching delivery by heartthrob Martin. I’ve read some number of critics who are dismissive of this band and their music exclaiming, “There’s no crying in a rock concert!”. Fair enough, Coldplay’s songs veer towards “adult contemporary,” with few gritty guitar licks, in favor of acoustic guitar and piano. This is, after all the man who very publicly decided to undergo a “conscience uncoupling” with ex-wife Gwyneth Paltrow, then penned a song called “Fun” featuring the lyrical refrain “Didn’t we have fun” to honor what they had together. Very adult…and, excellent!

 

Adele

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We saw Adele this year, yes we did! It was truly amazing – what a talent. Her voice was in perfect shape. The songs she close spanned her catalog sounding as good as or better than the original studio versions. Adele generally stood in place, whether main or b stage, swaying or turning a bit while her image was projected on front and rear stage screens to get everyone in the audience a great view. What was unexpected for this uninitiated punter is just how personable and funny Adele is. She greeted fans warmly, even pulling one couple on stage for selfies. She told stories from different points in her career, often in a self-deprecating way that was very endearing. There was a lot of this between song chatter, but it never wore thin, particularly since so many of her tracks are melancholic, a fact Adele herself pointed out, admitting that a lot of her songs are depressing. Yet there were enough upbeat songs in the playlist, and between those and the banter, there was a celebratory air in the room.

 

The Who

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We caught the most recent, maybe last tour, of the Who, one which comes at the heels of the seminal band’s 50th anniversary, and wherein they ”play the hits.” The Who, after a delay a several months, made it to the Oakland Arena here in the San Francisco Bay Area last week on May 19, 2016. The delay was due to health issues with singer Roger Daltrey, which involve his voice, limiting his ability to sing on consecutive nights, causing quite a logistical challenge during the tour. The show was fabulous. Daltry is still in fantastic shape, a real inspiration for clean living and fitness! Townsend still hits his vocal marks and his guitar technique is immaculate. Though he understandably does not leap into the air as in times past, he still executes his windmill-arm attack on the frets mightily. And he has attitude to spare. We were lucky recipients!

Rockin’ the City of Angels during the Tommy tour:

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Photo (c) Neal Preston

 

Alice Cooper

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Of the many rock groups in the 70s that strove to stage a theatrical performance, Alice Cooper stands among those that invested significant time and energy in the pursuit. “We were trying to create something that hadn’t been done. And what hadn’t been done is nobody took the lyrics and brought them to life…. you use the stage as a canvas. It’s all vaudeville and burlesque” according to Cooper. The man brought his crack band, stage props, dancers and costumes to San Francisco this year. While much of the stagecraft has been presented consistently throughout the years, the show is amazingly well rehearsed yet still fresh — a sonic and visual success. Musically, this was a straight-on hard-rocking show, highlighting the chops of the band’s three guitarists, most notably L.A. resident Nita Strauss, whose searing solos and flowing blonde hair punctuated many of the most metal-laden tracks. Cooper sustained his own still-intact gravelly vocals from start to finish, enthralling the crowd as the well-fashioned master of macabre ceremonies. The set list was peppered with some deep cuts and many hits like “I’m Eighteen,” “School’s Out” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” along with encore “Elected” during which Cooper made a fairly good case for his election to U.S. President, as a third-party candidate fronting the “Wild Party.” If only he had actually run and won!

Rockin’ the City of Angels during the Welcome to my Nightmare tour:

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Bad Company

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Bad Company is one of the most important rock bands of the 1970s. They topped a hard rock core with silky smooth yet gritty production values, hooks galore, and pedigree in each musician. They are a band I had to, regrettably leave out of my upcoming book Rockin’ the City of Angels. The omission is due in large part to a few issues – most importantly that the book is a celebration of the outstanding concerts of the ‘70s including classic rock and prog bands, and I did not get to see them in concert until recently. This show, which included opener Joe Walsh, was absolutely amazing. Importantly Paul Rodgers has kept himself and his voice in perfect shape, and the band is as tight as ever, pinned down by Simon Kirke’s “rock steady” percussion. Catch this band while you can!

 

Roger Hodgson

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Roger Hodgson performed again this year in the states to audiences of adoring fans. Our show down at Coachella was a heart rending, spiritual journey through a bit of Hodgson’s fine solo work, topping a generous helping of the songs he wrote for the band Supertramp. Hodgson was in fine voice, still able to hit all those soaring high notes, and also waxing philosophical between the hits and deep cuts, which included four from my favorite, Crisis? What Crisis? He spoke plainly and warmly about the meaning of these songs, to him and to others, sometimes reading notes he’s received from fans or sharing his thoughts about how music can bring back memories, and heal troubled spirits. Truer words.

Rockin’ the City of Angels during the Breakfast in America tour

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Styx

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Styx is a Chicago based rock band that released nearly a dozen records from the start of their most enduring lineup in 1972, through 1983’s Kilroy Was Here. Three multi-talented singer-songwriters Dennis DeYoung (vocals, keyboards, accordion), Tommy Shaw (vocals, guitars), and James Young (vocals, guitars, keyboards), backed by brothers John Panozzo (drums) and Chuck Panozzo (basses) penned a dramatic blend of rock and pop that placed them in league with stateside brethren Kansas and Journey. This author caught the group on tour supporting the Pieces of Eight album on January 27 1978 at the Long Beach arena. It was an exciting, powerful presentation, featuring a tight performance that showcased the soaring vocal prowess and instrumental credentials of each principal musician. As of the time of this writing Shaw and Young represent Styx on annual tours while DeYoung tends to his solo career. We saw the Shaw/Young band this year and several times this decade and every time they were absolutely fantastic!

Rockin’ the City of Angels during the Pieces of Eight tour:

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Ambrosia

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The band Ambrosia was founded in southern California in the early 1970s. Today they would be best known for their most popular albums Life Beyond L.A., and One Eighty each including a mega-hit single, respectively “How Much I Feel” and “You’re The Only Woman (You & I).” These hits highlighted the group’s more melodic tendencies. However, their first two albums, and much of their unjustly overlooked fifth and final release Road Island would be best filed under the progressive rock heading. Ambrosia was back on tour this year, and we caught their exceptional show in Pleasanton, California on Saturday January 23rd. Last year we caught cofounder David Pack who also continues to perform solo shows amongst many other pursuits in the music business. These musicians remain at the top of their game, and it’s been amazing to see them perform again.

Rockin’ the City of Angels during the Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled tour:

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Special mention goes to Ian Anderson’s multi-media concert about the original Jethro Tull – very innovative use of filmed sequences which help with the vocals and storyline – and, I finally got to meet Ian, one of my musical heroes! Jethro Tull of course features in my book as well, focusing on their 1973 epic, A Passion Play!

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Other shows this year that were similarly fantastic included Bryan Ferry, Radiohead, The Specials, X, Ra Ra Riot, American Football, Beach House, St. Germain, Album Leaf and Steven Wilson, who made a final victory lap in support of Hand.Cannot.Erase. All in all a big year for live music!

 

American Football Plays Again

AmericanFootball_band_lp_coverOne album and an EP, active for just three short years, absent for fifteen. Not exactly a recipe for enduring fame. But, against all odds, it worked for the band American Football, formed in the late 1990s in Illinois. Founders Mike Kinsella (vocals, guitars, bass), Steve Holmes (guitars, Wurlitzer) and Steve Lamos (drums, trumpet) released a self-titled EP in 1998 on Polyvinyl records. A full-length debut album followed this in 1999. While the record did well on college radio stations at the time, the band broke up as members moved away from the college town of University of Illinois and went on to other pursuits. Since that time, it has become a cult classic.

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Influenced by a range of artists including Steve Reich, the dreamy sound of American Football is an amalgam of alt-rock, emo and jazz, with varying time signatures and polyrhythmic interlocking guitars. Lyrics are simple and confessional, sung in a loose manner that brings to mind the confusion and alienation that can inflict high school and college aged students. It’s music with and about feelings. Kinsella called their musical ideas “noodly and meandering” yet the songs are carefully built with precise counterpoint. While rooted in emo and math-rock, listeners may notice the influence of bands as diverse as King Crimson, and Radiohead hidden in these songs. They are unique, and comprise an album that was and remains a classic, must-have record. Even the cover art adds to the whole, featuring a photo of an iconic Midwestern home near the University, taken by Chris Strong, used ever since as their defining iconography.

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After the band decided to revisit the work and to reunite for some live tour dates in 2014, the album was reissued as a deluxe edition with extra tracks, and a music video directed by Chris Strong for the lead-off track “Never Meant” was released. Apparently Polyvinyl’s website crashed under the weight of traffic, such was the pent up interest in this band, and their only full length record. New live shows that have been staged in the U.K. and USA feature Kinsella’s cousin Nate on bass, and occasional percussion by, to this writer, an unknown band tech.

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The Set List…

The band made their way to San Francisco as part of the Noise Pop music festival last Saturday night, February 27, and the Regency Ballroom. It was a fantastic show that as one would expect featured nearly their entire debut album, along with a many new and rare tracks. Among these were “Tamborine,” “Letters,” “Emotional,” “Leaving Soon,” “New Song,” and “Five Silent Miles,” the leadoff track on the set list. Lighting was simple and tasteful, illuminating a full size image of their only album’s iconic cover photo. The show ended as that album began, with the first track from their debut album, “Never Meant.” It was a fantastic concert, attended by fans and newcomers alike, heaping praise on this multi-talented band.

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Asked if there were any questions before they played the final encore, described as “the last song we know how to play,” one audience member asked if they would go on another long hiatus. Kinsella mused, “We’ll be back in another 15 years when I’m 54. I’m going to keep these jeans and wear them again!” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that….

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Dungen Groove at The Chapel

Dungen_EjstesGustavssonThe Swedish band Dungen takes it’s name from the word meaning “the groove.” Their music is an adventurous strain of Indie rock that veers towards the psychedelic and progressive, as though played in a garage with a jazz drummer! Fans of Midlake, Radiohead, Ragnarok, Tortoise and The Flaming Lips (without the performance art) would warm to Dungen’s beautiful, organic and oft mysterious sounds, and the vocals of founder/composer Gustav Ejstes, all sung in Swedish, his native tongue. Dungen was recently on tour to support their imaginative new album Alla sak and we caught the show in San Francisco October 23rd at The Chapel.

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Dungen_FiskeMulti-instrumentalist, composer Ejstes apparently plays the majority of instruments on their studio albums and is a clear point of focus of their live performances. His pleasant airy vocals grace most tracks, while he alternates between piano, flutes, and guitars. Occasionally the band launch into longer instrumental pieces, which tend to be more on the psychedelic side. The band that accompanies him is a muscular, brilliant ensemble. Reine Fiske uses
his guitar less for discernable rhythms and lead solos, more for coloring the melodies with labyrinthine sounds and effects. When he does lead, his evocative riffs and improvisational excursions might bring to mind jazz-fuDungen_drumssion virtuoso Alan Holdsworth. Bassist Mattias Gustavsson delivers a fitting bottom end, sometimes leading the down-tempo melodic structures. Best of all, skilled drummer Johan Holmegard focuses on lots of deep, jazzy toms, and skip beats on snare, often using brushes and
soft mallets to vary his sound, which stands out or comes to the fore on nearly every track. All the band members sing, and their backing vocals create harmonies that are often dissonant while building and resolving to more uplifting major tones. It’s often pretty, earthy music with an edge of menace.

Dungen_band2The band’s sound has softened over the years since the debut in 2001. Since it’s music that’s hard to describe, it’s best to listen to a few tracks. Check out this video for “Akt Dit” which sports an intro and melody reminiscent of French duo Air. Or for an earlier more challenging psychedelic track try “Högdalstoppen” from the album Skit I Allt (2010). While the majority of songs are more pastoral and melodic, each show has at least one long instrumental “freak out” such as “Högdalstoppen.” Best to salve the dissonance with a typical follow up track such as “Satt Att Se” which sports a nice animated video. As if to confirm the difficulty one has describing their sound, front man Ejstes explains on their website that the 2010 album Skit I Allt “is about a certain feeling: you’re with your friends and mates, all hanging out till 6 in the morning. You’re the last one left at the party and you call this person that you want to be with. They’re asleep, but they still say, ‘Ah, fuck it, come over.’ It’s that feeling.”

Dungen_EjstesThe concert did run late into the night, allowing the band to cover more than twenty tracks spanning their eight albums. It was a generous helping of indie rock from this talented artist. The tour is now complete, but here’s a recommendation to watch for them to come again, say “fuck it” call some friends and mates, and attend!

Elbow Transcends at the Fox

P1010130The British band Elbow started their career under that name in 1997.  With their first studio album in 2001 through their most recent release this year, they have charted a course of alternative rock music that is at times melancholy, soulful, and celebratory.  They have always been popular in Britain – with strong album sales, awards and recognition, and a spot playing at the 2012 Summer Olympics closing ceremony in London.  The band have claimed influences from early Genesis (with Peter Gabriel), to Radiohead and Talk Talk.  In fact recording for their latest album The Take Off and Landing of Everything (2014) was initiated at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios in Bath, and they contributed a track to his “scratch my/your back” music exchange project.  The new album is a triumph for this talented band, debuting at number one in the UK, and gaining them new fans in the states.

P1010125At the Fox theater in Oakland they performed in what was 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.  The staging and lighting was simple but elegant and the music was amazingly well interpreted for the show.  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 this spring.

P1010131Prior to the encore and leaving the stage for the first time, Guy asked audience members to select a song to sing to the band while they rested back stage.  After several suggestions, we lit on “Fat Bottom Girls” by Queen.  Guy asked those close to the front for help remembering the first set of lyrics, sang us through them and let us know to start after they were off stage for about 5 minutes.  Sure enough, at that point, everyone started singing “Fat Bottom Girls” and as the band reassembled, Guy helped us deliver a jubilant final chorus.  This was great fun and something I’ve not seen a band do before – this kind of interaction made the show just that much more special.

The set list was:

Charge   (The Take Off and Landing of Everything (2014))
The Bones of You   (The Seldom Seen Kid (2008))
New York Morning   (The Take Off and Landing of Everything (2014))
Real Life (Angel)   (The Take Off and Landing of Everything (2014))
The Night Will Always Win   (Build a Rocket Boys! (2011))
Fly Boy Blue / Lunette   (The Take Off and Landing of Everything (2014))
The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver   (The Seldom Seen Kid (2008))
Great Expectations   (Leaders of the Free World (2005))
Scattered Black and Whites   (Asleep in the Back (2001))
Mirrorball   (The Seldom Seen Kid (2008))
(Guy dedicated this to a couple of fans who were on a first date)
The Birds   (Build a Rocket Boys! (2011))
Grounds for Divorce    (The Seldom Seen Kid (2008))
My Sad Captains   (The Take Off and Landing of Everything (2014))

Encore
Lippy Kids   (Build a Rocket Boys! (2011))
One Day Like This   (The Seldom Seen Kid (2008))

the last one being a perfect message to send us all home with the lyrics:

Throw those curtains wide
One day like this a year would see me right

After the show we had just witnessed, truer words could not be said.