| 10) 19th Annual Chicago Blues Festival (Grant Park, Chicago - May 31 - June 2)|
Alright, so some of the headliners, such as rock 'n' roll legend Bo Diddley, didn't exactly spell real Chicago blues for the thousands that flooded to the Windy City's lakefront festival. But with sideline talents like Delta legends Honeyboy Edwards and Homesick James performing their own harrowing country blues and a smoking gun reunion of the Muddy Waters Alumni Association, featuring Pinetop Perkins, Carey Bell, Luther Johnson, John Primer, Willie Smith, Calvin "Fuzzy" Jones and James Cotton, tearing up versions of "I Been Troubled," "Mannish Boy," "Forty Days and Forty Nights" and "She's Nineteen Years Old," it was apparent that the blues - and damn good blues at that- still has it's mojo working here in it's own backyard.
9) Zwan (Q101 Jamboree / Tweeter Center, Tinley Park, IL - May 18)
Chicago hometown hero and former Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan highlighted the Q101 Jamboree, a festival which also featured top names such as The Strokes, Tenacious D and Kid Rock, with his new band Zwan, consisting of former Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, bassist Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle) along with guitarists David Pajo (Slint / Papa M) and Matt Sweeney (Skunk / Chavez).
While Zwan made their Chicago debut at the tight confines of the Double Door just a month prior to this gig, their performance here helped further separate Billy from his former band. Not that the songs still didn't have a Pumpkins flavor (these still are Billy's compositions remember), but now, even more than their previous Chicago stint, the band seemed to start taking on a much stronger identity of their own, as Corgan, clad in a dark engineer's hat, led his band through crystal clear renditions of "Settle Down," "Glorious," complete with a barrage of shimmering guitars, and the emotional, atmospheric number "For Your Love," which saw Corgan tearing into a soulful guitar lead. Two of Zwan's crown jewels were the epic "Jesus I," which saw the band lock into a frenzied, hypnotic jam, and their finale "A New Poetry," a highly textured, introspective number which featured Sweeney's glassy guitar tones and a passionate, gut-spilling vocal delivery from Corgan.
The magic carpet ride of The Pumpkins may finally be over, but as Corgan proved, he's back at square one with a potentially great band.
8) Hank Williams III (Shank Hall, Milwaukee - March 21)
His granddaddy would've been proud. But then again, so would Marilyn Manson.Hank Williams III (grandson of country legend Hank Williams and son of Hank Williams Jr.) turned the cozy confines of Shank Hall on it's head, when the deafening jackhammer of speed metal forced the blood of old school country down through the floorboards. While it seemed unfathomable for these two musical foes to make peace on the same stage, it was even more inconceivable to find it was from the same act.
With crisp, good looks and yodels alike mirroring his granddaddy, Hank III ran through a healthy country set which showcased fine high-and-lonesome country numbers along with a holster-full of white trash, honky-tonk roof-raisers.
Just as soon as the crowd started getting cozy under the warm blanket of this traditional country set, however, Hank stripped back the covers and blow-torched the bed with a ferocious set filled with hardcore death metal, or, to be more appropriate, Hellbilly Metal. Not only was the music a mindbending juxtaposition of the earlier set, but Hank's own physical appearance seemed to have morphed from a cutting honky-tonk singer to Cousin It jacked-up on kitchen cleanser. With his cowboy hat nowhere in site, Williams came out with his black "666" t-shirt, whipping his long, stringy hair into a violent whirlpool as he thrashed his neck in time to the staccato metal power chords.
"Will the circle be unbroken?," questioned so many of country music's purveyors throughout the last century. Despite paying homage to the honest country music made before him, Hank III answered that question with a devilish grin and a pair of chain cutters. Damn straight, it's gonna be broken.
7) Ryan Adams (Riviera Theatre, Chicago - March 13)
With songs that weighed heavy from both his latest masterpiece Gold, as well as his previous effort Heartbreaker, this one time-Whiskeytown frontman played a long, varied set that ran the gamut of American roots music, albeit with an updated spin. Scorching blues, corn pone-country, foot-stomping R&B, shit-kicking rockers and even a touch of gospel and amphetamine-fed punk all worked their way into Adams' wonderfully broad mix. Not wasting a second the glassy-eyed Adams immediately ripped the joint with a barn-burning take of "The Rescue Blues" before rampaging straight into "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)," as well as a proud, loud, cocksure version of The Stones' "Brown Sugar," where Adams ditched his guitar and courted the infatuated crowd like a peacock in heat.
Quickly emerging as one of the most talented songwriter's of his generation, Adams unveiled a new rebellious star to his audience, as he gave a riveting performance that saw him ranting, snarling, crooning and cooing through much of his solo material. Looking like the new spokesperson for the Philip Morris Company, the boyishly good looking, but cooly unkempt Adams choked down smoke after smoke as if it was his last night on earth. While it was uncertain if the substance that he kept swigging from the back of the stage was anything over 80 proof, his silly patter in between numbers about chewing gum, chandeliers, songwriting robots and Stephen King passages, not to mention the repeated convulsing and groveling on all fours, seemed to answer any doubts.
In the press he may come off as a drunk, arrogant horse's ass, but with a show as magic as this, then you just gotta sit back and enjoy.
6) The Soundtrack Of Our Lives (Metro, Chicago - Nov. 13)
With a sound that's as refreshingly new as it is wonderfully dated, vocalist Ebbot Lundberg and his scruffy cohorts The Soundtrack Of Our Lives proved to a sold-out Chicago crowd that rock 'n' roll never really died. It was just waiting for a new prophet.
The rotund, bearded Lundberg, cloaked in a roomy black kaftan, along with T.S.O.O.L. guitarists Mattias Barjed, clad in a Union Jack coat, and Ian Person tore up the guitar god scriptures, lit them ablaze and proceeded to chisel out new six-string commandments on stage. From dueling buzzsaw guitars to indulgent '70s arena rock leads, these two drawn and gangly axemen flounced to their knees with guitars high above their heads, sprinted, duck-walked, pogoed and otherwise scurried around like a couple of high-strung street urchins in search of a morsel of food proved to be just that prophet as they led their followers to a veritable rock 'n' roll Zion.
Parting the audience as if flesh were water during their number "21st Century Rip Off," and commanding the entire crowd to be seated on the floor around him, Lundberg stood in the middle of his seated congregation as he stretched his arms out wide as if healing the masses. And for many that night, The Soundtrack Of Our Lives had indeed healed them, not with a baptismal by fire or holy water, but rather near perfect rock music.
5) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (Chicago Theatre, Chicago - April 26)
Just when his audience thought he might be mellowing out, Nick Cave brings along his longtime 7-piece band The Bad Seeds and shows that he's as dangerous as ever.
While the Bad Seeds, who haven't appeared in the States with Cave since 1994, added a quiet,velvet touch to somber numbers such as "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side," "We Came Along This Road" and the hauntingly beautiful "Lime-Tree Arbour," they also unleashed a cacophony of sonic mayhem and injected disturbing dynamics into others. Cave may have appeared possessed as he flailed and convulsed across the stage during the fierce endings of "Papa Won't Leave You, Henry" or "The Mercy Seat," but it was the thundering percussion and bombastic music from fellow Seeds that obviously fueled him to this heightened state of madness. With his back to the audience and hunched over his instrument, with legs desperately in search of dust to kick, Warren Ellis added his frighteningly fierce violin to the heart-stopping climax of "Oh My Lord," while Blixa Bargeld stood stoically erect throughout the evening, as he calmly peppered in scary strains of noisy feedback and jarring discord.
On his last couple of albums it may appear to the casual observer that Nick Cave, cofounder of the volatile early '80s punk act The Birthday Party, may be maturing gracefully, but judging from his fervent performance at the Chicago Theater this was a man who still possessed all of the power, passion and anger of his younger self.
| 4) Paul McCartney (Bradley Center, Milwaukee September 21)|
This was a show that I went into with the preconceived notion that it was going to be rather predictable and boring. Don't get me wrong, I love The Beatles, it's just that McCartney's own solo work, especially his more recent efforts, has rarely wowed me.
So when the recently knighted and still - at 60 years-old - boyish looking ex-Beatle took the stage for the first show of his second leg of his Driving USA tour in Milwaukee, it gave me a not only a sense of relief to say that this was a remarkable show, but also a renewed appreciation for the man.
Nevermind the breathtaking, state-of-the-art light and video show, because this concert was about great music - and lots of it. 35 songs, with no less than 22 Beatle compositions, expertly updated by a young, hot backing band, not to mention McCartney himself, who looked and sounded better than ever. Throw in two heartfelt tributes, one to fellow Beatle George Harrison ("Something" performed only by Paul with a ukulele) and the other to his wife Linda ("My Love"), who both recently passed away, and the mix between new and old, happy and sad, and Beatles and solo material was, at least for myself, the Zen McCartney was in search of back in '68 in Rishikesh.
Ending out this nearly three-hour evening, McCartney belted out his familiar wish, "we hope you have enjoyed the show," and some 35 years after he first sang it on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band it was still as enjoyable as ever.
Thanks for making us still believe, Paul.
3) Beck (Pick-Staiger Hall, Evanston, IL - Aug. 9)
It may have appeared as a reinvention of Beck, but it was really more of a return to his roots that made his performance at the tiny Northwestern University concert hall so mesmerizing.
Beck, better known for his groundbreaking use of cut-and-paste studio techniques, lo-fi productions, musical genre inbreeding and explosive live performances, left it all behind in favor of sitting quietly on a stage with hardly more than a few simple acoustic instruments. Shunning his alt-rock poster-boy persona, Beck instead emerged as a powerful American singer-songwriter with a captivating voice and knapsack full of songs to be reckoned with.
This may have seemed like a new chapter in his career, but it was actually these same type of songs that were some of his earliest musical inspirations. Rural songs from America's past from such artists as Hank Williams Sr., early Mississippi bluesman Skip James and material from folklorist Harry James' catalog were all intertwined within his own honest and simple compositions.
Even though casual fans of Beck - The Rock Star - may have been let down with the omission of songs like "Loser," "Devil's Haircut," and "New Pollution," those that either really knew what originally inspired Beck or those that were simply able to appreciate beautifully constructed songs, stripped down to their most soul-baring element, were treated to a very special evening.
Seating himself behind an old beat-up upright piano Beck explained, "This is a $200 piano...and I'm gonna play a $200 song," before leading into the stark and beautiful "Lonesome Tears," also from Lost Cause. Judging from the wealth of new music that he performed from his Sea Change album - introspective and reflective songs which hearken back to his more stripped down sounds from Mutations and even his early pre-Mellow Gold acoustic material, it sounded as Beck was chockfull of $200 songs that, in reality, are priceless.
2) David Bowie (Area2 / Tweeter Center, Tinley Park, IL - Aug. 8)
With the graciousness of not hoarding in on his host's prime headlining slot, David Bowie opened before Moby to a less than full crowd. Joined by longtime on-again, off-again band members Earl Slick (guitar), Mike Garson (keys) and Gail Ann Dorsey (bass), Bowie glowed through a refreshing set of his own standards, lesser known gems and newer material.
The rail-thin Bowie, looking healthier and happier than ever in a well-tailored suit reminiscent of his 1976 Thin White Duke period along with an age-defying haircut, updated old favs for the audience such as the dramatic "Life On Mars,' featuring Garson's beautiful flourishing piano, "China Girl,' where Bowie slipped in a little James Brown shuffle before Slick tore into a riveting guitar solo, and "Fame,' which was returned to its original Philly funk after his techno treatments of the song from recent tours. Likewise, on his newer hit "I'm Afraid Of Americans,' the band refrained from the heavy techno treatment of the original, instead adding a walloping muscular rock punch to the song. This may have seemed an odd time to change from techno to in-your-face rock - considering that many acts, especially on the second stage which featured techno and house DJs, were of the electronica genre, but Bowie and company worked it to perfection.
Perhaps what this 55-year old legend demonstrated better than any of his early contemporaries, such as The Stones, McCartney and The Who, is that his new music is more relevant than anything they've done in decades. Songs performed from his latest album Heathen, such as "5:15 The Angels Have Gone,' the ear-to-ear inducing smile of "Everyone Says 'Hi',' the ghostly "Heathen' and even the lively covers of The Pixies' "Cactus' and Neil Young's "I've Been Waiting For You,' all married perfectly with his older classic material.
Rather than just an all-hits show, however, Bowie also unearthed a couple of real gems for the jaded from his groundbreaking 1977 album Low. Tossing off his jacket the thin white one and band broke into a shattering version of "Breaking Glass,' before later revisiting the hopeful instrumental "A New Career In Town,' where Bowie joined his bandmates with the promising cries from a harmonica.
What was more evident than anything from his performance, however, was the fact that vocally Bowie has never sounded better. Maybe it's because he's recently given up his longtime affair with fags...er, cigarettes, that has given a broader depth to his pipes, but whatever it was, this man was on. After performing "Heroes' for the millionth time, his passionate, pleading voice made this old concert stalwart rise fathoms above so many rote versions performed in the past. Even the one-time MTV-favorite "Let's Dance,' which opened with Bowie doing a brief flamenco dance which lead into a soulful read of the song's intro before the band neatly blew the roof from the song's original dance-pop foundation, now seemed to sit quite comfortably next to some of his strongest work.
1) The White Stripes (Metro, Chicago - July 11)
From a live musical experience there isn't a band going that can compete with the raw, unbridled wallop that this Detroit minimalist rock duo delivers. Armed with nothing more than a guitar, spirited high-pitched voice and ratty pageboy haircut Jack White spat through his ridiculously short hour-long set with all the verve and passion of Jimmy Swaggart fronting the Ramones, while his 'big sister,' Meg, as he described her that evening, effortlessly pummeled away on her sparse drum kit.
During their frenzied show the twosome blew through fiery takes of songs from all three of their albums such as "Astro," "Jimmy The Exploder," "I Think I Smell A Rat" and "Truth Doesn't Make A Noise," which saw Jack alternating between his electric guitar and piano. They also tossed in a couple of covers, including a raw take on Dolly Parton's "Jolene" as well as Son House's "Death Letter," where Jack summoned up some mighty nasty spirits, as his soul-bartering slide guitar snaked it's way in and out of Meg's drastically altered tempo changes.
And while the charismatic Jack often seemed to steal the spotlight with his passionate vocals, boyish good looks and inventive, often jaw-dropping guitar work, it was the cute-as-a-bug Meg who was holding the match to this dangerous duad's powder keg. With long pigtails flailing, she conjured up not only the hypnotic droning beats of The Velvet Underground's Moe Tucker, but also laid down the Bron-Yr-Aur stomp of Zeppelin's late thunder-god John Bonham. Surprisingly though, this petite pounder somehow managed to channel all this primitive power, seemingly, without even breaking a sweat.
Sure their set, by any other band's standards, was ludicrously short, but with blistering rock music that matters as much as this does today, who really cares?