By Tony Bonyata
But despite these older established artists contributing to the lion's share of the $2.4 billion in concert business last year, many of the best shows of 2003 were, instead, by artists - young and old - whose total revenues proved little more than a piss in a bucket.
From reunited old-school punks and one legendary country star to garage-spawned rock (both from home and abroad), bad seeds and bands touched by aliens and angels alike, many of last year's strongest live shows had little to do with bilking Benjamins from loyal fans and everything to do with sheer entertainment at a value.
10) Merle Haggard
(Hemmens Cultural Center, Elgin, IL. - April 26)
Despite his approaching years, 66 year-old country music legend Merle Haggard and his seven-piece western swing band The Strangers, performed a healthy, heartfelt and often raucous 19 song set that saw him in an upbeat and good-natured mood throughout.
Smartly dressed in a cobalt blue fringed suit with cowboy hat, boots and sandy gray Paul Revere ponytail, Haggard wowed his audience with many of his greatest hits from a career spanning over four decades. From rabble-rousing country numbers ("Swinging Doors," "Get Along Home Cindy" and "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink") to touching, introspective songs ("Silver Wings," "Footlights" and "Sing Me Back Home") and southern-flavored rockers brimming with Hee Haw-ian humor ("Ramblin' Fever"), Haggard and his tight band delivered a rich, varied collection of not only some of Haggard's best material, but some of country music's finest as well.
"After 20 years of pickin', we're still alive and kickin' down the walls. Tonight we'll kick the footlights out, and walk away without a curtain call," Haggard defiantly sang at one point in the evening. And while it's actually been well over 40 years now that's he's been pickin', the rest remains the same - ol' Hag's still alive and kickin' just as hard as ever.
9) Jeff Tweedy
(The Vic, Chicago - January 6)
"I wish I could fuck you like he thinks he does, before he falls asleep. But I've never been that tired." These were the first words uttered from Jeff Tweedy's mouth for the first of his three sold-out hometown shows in Chicago, and it was this type of humorous candor, along with his own raw and often humbled performance that captivated the packed house at The Vic last January.
Wilco's leader ran through a mesmerizing two-hour set all by himself that encompassed some of his strongest material from not only Wilco, but also from his groundbreaking alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, Billy Bragg on their reworkings of Woody Guthrie material, and a handful of new tunes, including the opening number "Millionaire," from his Loose Fur side project with Jim O' Rourke and current Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche.
Without the rich musical lushness of Wilco to pick up some of the slack, Tweedy's less than accomplished guitar work and occasional sour vocal notes, not to mention a few botched lyrics, were laid naked for all to witness. But with an honest, soul-baring delivery and a freight train full of beautiful, earthy compositions, he also proved, just as Dylan has before him, that the smoothest voice and most technically proficient guitar playing is not what necessarily makes a great singer / songwriter. And with so many strong numbers performed as if it were a basement party with a group of close friends, Tweedy proved to be nothing less than a great singer / songwriter - quite possibly one of the best we have today.
(Marcus Amphitheater, Milwaukee - July 11)
and Foo Fighters
(Marcus Amphitheater, Milwaukee - June 30)[tie]
Okay, so the resurrected Lollapalooza festival was only a mere shadow of its former self. But even if Perry Farrell and Jane's Addiction couldn't wield their magical alternative wand anymore, the band Audioslave more than made up for it.
Although not the headliners for the festival, Audioslave proved to be the one act that embodied the spirit of the old Lollapalooza while still progressing forward. Spawned from two of the more influential bands from the alternative nation's glory years (singer Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, and guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk from Rage Against The Machine) the band erupted with an amazing set that embraced both the volatile nature of Rage Against The Machine as well as the aggressive rock edge of Soundgarden, while still creating something refreshingly new.
Tearing through numbers from their self-titled debut album, such as "Gasoline," "Set It Off" and "Shadow of the Sun," as well as the more introspective numbers "I Am the Highway" and "Like A Stone" (the latter which Cornell dedicated to the late Jeff Buckley), the band, and Morello in particular, were absolutely on fire. Realizing that the state of hip, underground music now comes from the garage, Audioslave even broke into a pounding version of The White Stripes' hit "Seven Nation Army" to the delight of the somewhat surprised crowd.
With a new name and newfound energy, Audioslave proved to be the perfect embodiment of what Farrell's resuscitated festival could, and should, have been.
Also emerging from the shadows of a more famous former band (Nirvana), Dave Grohl brought his band Foo Fighters (also featuring drummer and secret weapon Taylor Hawkins, bassist Nate Mendel and guitarist Chris Shiflett) to the same venue and tore through a high-octane set of raunchy rockers and familiar alternative hits for the sold-out crowd.
(Alpine Valley Music Theatre, East Troy, WI - August 23)
With expectations running high, Radiohead's overall performance last August at Alpine Valley lived up to them all - except possibly their choice of songs. That's because this Oxford, England-based band's 23-song set weighed so heavy on their latest (and quite arguably weakest) album to date Hail To The Thief . Half of the entire show featured these new songs - many engaging, captivating and spiritually uplifting, while a couple of others ("Scatterbrain" and "Myxomatosis") just went on a little too long. But in defense of this show, the band themselves incorporated all of their groundbreaking work - from guitar-fueled Britpop swelling with majestic melodies to atmospheric computer driven electronica with twisted jazz sensibilities - together for a well-textured and engrossing show.
Adding interest to one of the newer tracks, the band created a palette of bubbling industrial undertones to "Backdrifts," while the perverted drum-and-bass and ominous rhythms that invaded "The Gloaming" whole-heartedly embraced their Kid A deconstructualist philosophy. This made for the perfect segue into their masterpiece "Idioteque," which, with it's vertebrae-snapping beats hiccuping and percolating throughout, drove Yorke into a frenzy as he finished out the song madly running in place and speaking in strange bloodcurdling tongues. The lead singer then hunkered down behind the upright piano again as he pounded out some sinisterly sour keys for "We Suck Young Blood," a dark, foreboding dirge that could quite easily act as the second coming of Goth rock. On the percussion heavy version of "There There," the first single from their latest album, guitarists Ed O'Brien and Jonny Greenwood added their own primal beats on their small upright kits along with drummer Phil Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood's invigorating rhythm section, while Yorke proved his own salt on guitar before Jonny cut in with his axe and tore it to shreds.
Even if the show did ultimately weigh a bit heavy on newer material (which, in all fairness, they were on the road to promote), it was still a magic night of music in the Valley with one of the most magical bands in the Land.
6) The Soundtrack Of Our Lives
(Metro, Chicago - April 2)
It was only a little over four months before this April show that the Swedish rock band The Soundtrack Of Our Lives took Chicago by storm, but, quite thankfully, very little had changed.
TSOOL's lead vocalist Ebbot Lundberg was still as large and hypnotic as a house on fire. The dueling twin guitars of Mattias Barjed and Ian Person were still as dangerously out of control as ever, and their songs; prototypical examples of classic rock that can be found occasionally slumming through the seamier streets of Detroit, sit as comfortably next to The Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Who as they do with Iggy & The Stooges or Nirvana.
The exaggerated stage shenanigans of the two guitarists; preening, jumping, galloping and flouncing to their knees, made for an unintentional, yet immensely entertaining, comical foil to the larger than life, anchoring presence of Lundberg, who - clad in a roomy kaftan and hedgerow beard - mesmerized the crowd with vocals that turned from sweet sincerities to angst-ridden cries on a Swedish krona. And for those who may not have been immediately enraptured, the hefty frontman helped drive his point home when he later labored into the crowd and converted any doubters with his in-your-face message of "rock 'n' roll will save you (or at least, ours will, by God)."
"Yes we're taking over, and we might as well blow you away," Lundberg cried at one point during the show, and by evening's end there wasn't a person in the house able to argue with him.
(U.I.C. Pavilion - June 11)
Beck has always been a complex artist with many different facets to his music, and his Chicago performance last June not only showcased many of these complexities, but also career highlights and musical strengths, as well -making for one highly entertaining live package.
It was all here; his early Jagger-meets-James Brown shuckin'-and-jivin' foot work, the hip-hop street beats (albeit the latter now created from the band's own lips on the number "Hot Wax," rather than two-turntables), the big alt-rock hits, such as "Devil's Haircut," "Loser" and "Where It's At," as well as his white-boy funk slathered in hot oils and love butters ("Mixed Bizness," "Get Real Paid" and "Milk & Honey"). But more than anything, it was the harrowing material from his most recent effort Sea Change that left the most lasting impression.
Rather than delivering these newer numbers in their original bare-boned acoustic format - as he did for his wonderfully intimate performance the previous year in the tiny confines of Evanston's Pick-Staiger Hall - Beck brought along a new band of musicians that added a bit of sinewy muscle to many of these sad yet achingly beautiful songs. But even though Beck allowed his musicians the freedom to add some meat to the bones of these once sparse songs, the essence of the originals were still fully intact with the singer's deep, longing moans, poignant acoustic guitar, rootsy vignettes of harmonica, along with an acreage of honest, earthy vocals.
4) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
(Chicago Theatre, Chicago - June 21)
"Babe, I'm on fire!," screamed the slender frontman in the razor thin black suit at the top of his lungs. It wasn't screams of elation either, but rather a plead for somebody - anybody - to put him out. Maybe if the gathered mob at the Chicago Theatre last Saturday wasn't starring agape as if witnessing a public execution, they might have actually been able to help the possessed man.
It was this pleading, often antagonistic stage persona created by the enigmatic Nick Cave that made this powerful performance with his seven-piece sonic assailants The Bad Seeds so mesmerizing, thought-provoking and, at times, even downright frightening.
Even more than their last stint in Chicago a little over a year ago, the band and their leader were much more explosive, agitating and dangerous this time around. Maybe they felt the need to make up for the loss of Blixa Bargeld's guitar (Bargeld who, after nearly twenty years with The Bad Seeds, recently made an amicable split from the band). Maybe they missed some of the sordid lust of their past. Or maybe they just finally came to the realization that there's no redemption waiting in the wings for rock 'n' roll sinners.
Whatever the reason, it didn't seem to matter, as the band blazed through gothic sonnets, shadowy ballads and powder-to-dust rockers alike. If Bargeld's deconstructionist approach to guitar was missed, the band, and, in particular, Warren Ellis with his blistering and often unorthodox approach to his violin, along with the fallen-Saint Nick himself, more than made up for his absence. As Cave blew through nearly as many cigarettes as he did songs (half a pack at last count), he played out his pulpit-pounding frontman role more than ever. Even on some of the more poignant, heartfelt numbers, such as "Hallelujah" and "Still In Love" he stood his ground, front and center, eschewing the silent cries from his baby grand piano during these moments, in favor of inflecting them with his lone rich, baritone voice.
With dynamics that went from heartbeat to heart attack at the drop of a hat, The Bad Seeds still proved to be one of the nastiest bands for one of the nastiest frontmen in rock.
3) The Polyphonic Spree
(Metro, Chicago - October 7)
Their name is The Polyphonic Spree and they are - as described by the band's charismatic leader / prophet Tim DeLaughter (formerly of Tripping Daisy) - a choral symphonic pop band. A very accurate description to be sure, but after witnessing this riveting performance the good Rev. Tim also forgot to add a few adjectives such as heavenly, majestic and spiritually uplifting.
With an unheard of 23 members for a touring rock outfit, this Dallas-based band - all clad in long flowing white robes, each with a different color trim at the bottom - slowly filtered out and cast a cleansing white over the entire stage. It became immediately apparent when bandmembers took their positions behind the likes of a harp, viola, vibraphones, french horn, timpani and, yes, even glockenspiel, that this wasn't going to be a normal rock show, but rather something more akin to that multi-ethnical gaggle on the hill who wanted to buy the world a Coke back in the '70s. And not unlike the sweet, syrupy soft drink those youngsters were cleverly hawking, this bubblegum chamber pop ensemble also proved to be the real thing.
2) The White Stripes
(Eagles Ballroom, Milwaukee - November 10)
It only took two postponed shows for those two enfant terribles of the rock world, The White Stripes, to finally arrive in Milwaukee to promote their latest platinum-selling album Elephant. (The first was due to a scheduling snafu and the second because singer / guitarist Jack White broke his finger in an automobile accident in his hometown of Detroit). But with all of the spontaneous combustion that this cute minimalist duo managed to muster up, the wait was well worth it.
Playing to a sold-out crowd at the Eagles Ballroom last November, Jack and ex-wife / drummer Meg White strapped their audience in for a raucous rollercoaster ride of primal rock 'n' roll, metal-morphed blues and simplistic songs that showed just how truly sincere and, quite often, innocent these two young Detroiters really are.
Although Jack had only been back on the road for a little over a month since his broken finger had healed, there were absolutely no signs of affliction, pain or inability to perform. With blistering extended leads on "Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine" and "Let's Shake Hands," along with his feverous slide work over Meg's devil's backbone beat on "Death Letter" and even some impressive keyboard swapping during a couple of numbers, his playing only seemed to have improved from his ten-week healing hiatus. Maybe not by the leaps and bounds blues legend Robert Johnson was said to have improved after a certain 'deal gone down,' but surely there must've been some type of crossroads chicanery for this miraculous recovery and jaw-dropping display of raw talent.
As everything continues to grow around this band (press, fanbase, record sales), the one thing that remains the same is that Jack and Meg White are still just two people immensely connected with their music, their audience and, most importantly, each other. And it shows.
1) Iggy Pop and The Stooges
(DTE Energy Music Theatre, Clarkston, MI - August 25)
This wasn't music for the weary, weak or timid, but rather rock 'n' roll in all of its purest, most explosive, aggressive, unapologetic glory. This was the reunion of the most influential punk band of all time - Iggy Pop and The Stooges, featuring original members Ron Asheton (guitar), Scott Asheton (drummer) and Steve MacKay (sax), along with Mike Watt (bass); a reunion that many fans have been eagerly awaiting ever since the band self-destructed thirty years ago from drugs, bad management moves and inner turmoil between members. This was also the first time since 1973 that The Stooges would all grace the same stage in their hometown of Detroit.
The Stooges' August performance at the DTE Energy Music Theatre was actually rescheduled from August 14th, when the nation's largest blackout forced the postponement of that show. There may not have been any power for that show, but the reunited band more than made up for it. Now, more than ever, it seemed that this band of men in their middle fifties had something to prove. And prove it they did, as Iggy hit the stage like he was shot out of a cannon for their opening number "Loose," a snarling, sexy stomp, if there ever was one. As Iggy jumped, yelped and agitated the swarming, frenzied crowd, Ron Asheton, with goatee and U.S. army shirt (his Nazi outfit from the early '70s must've been at the dry cleaners) stood stoically as he effortlessly delivered some of the nastiest, foundation-loosening rhythm guitar known to man or beast. Brother Scott Asheton along with Mike Watt, with slacked-jaw and a deer-in-the-headlights glaze on his eyes (probably in amazement that he's actually part of this legendary band), not only did justice to The Stooges' early material, but actually helped up the ante, providing rafter-rattling rhythms which taunted and spurred on their animalistic frontman.
At one point during the show a fan jumped up on the stage to get closer to the band, when Iggy told the surrounding security guards, "Let 'em up here!" This immediately prompted nearly a hundred fans to storm the stage as they convulsed and shouted to the band's simplistic punk anthem "No Fun." It was this reckless abandon and high-voltage connectivity between both artist and audience that made this night go down in history as, quite possibly, the greatest rock 'n' roll reunion of all time.
It's almost thirty-five years later, and Detroit's still burning...white hot, motherfuckers!
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