Being the talkative person I am and one who always holds a notebook at a concert (in keeping with my duties to report) I often get into conversations with fans of all genres regarding what makes a concert to cherish. Over the last year, I've met some who find stock in an act playing all of their old hits and sounding better than ever while others look to the quality of their new material and its interplay with those classics.
Then there are concertgoers who are most intrigued with the setting, from the awe inspiring, stadium filling lights, sound, and production to the scaled back dynamics of a club, a much more natural artistic environment. I take all of the above into account when reviewing a concert, along with performers' character, charisma, singing and songwriting ability, and instrumental proficiency. Having checked out no less than 197 concerts this year, I've seen everything from flat out disappointing duds I'd place at the bottom of the barrel to those that matched or even surpassed my expectations. Here's a look at the top 5 shows that stuck out for me in 2002, along with the factors that made them so unforgettable:
5) The Who and Robert Plant (Tweeter Center, Tinley Park, IL - August 24)
Considering the passing of bassist John Entwistle on the eve of this tour, The Who's Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend could have very well phoned in this performance but instead turned in a marathon career spanning set violating the venue's curfew. Both aging musicians looked incredibly healthy and spirited, considering the grief they'd recently dealt with, and both were dedicated to preserving The Who's legacy. Following an opening three-piece suite of early hits "I Can't Explain," "Substitute," and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," The Who jumped ahead to a decade to deliver a stirring rendition of "Who Are You?," complete with Townshend's monstrous guitar riffs and Daltrey's manic microphone chord twirl. The duo also played off each other's trademark characteristics during "Bargain," traded brash chants and power chords on "Baba O'Riley," and took turns on vocals for "5:15" along with many other past standards.
The former Led Zeppelin front man opened with cover material from his Dreamland solo project, giving nods to the Jimi Hendrix Experience ("Hey Joe") and Bob Dylan ("One More Cup of Coffee") amongst others. Plant's stone cold wails were ever present on Zeppelin tunes like "Going to California" and "Since I've Been Loving You," while the vintage build up of "Celebration Day" was especially absorbing before the 10-minute finale jam "Whole Lotta Love."
4) Zwan (Tweeter Center, Tinley Park, IL - May 18)
Ex Smashing Pumpkins members Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain still have a great creative chemistry, and based on a mid-year performance, their latest collaborative effort is bursting with jubilant pop sensibilities and hypnotic melodies. No longer stifled by the legacy of his former band, Corgan appeared refreshed and ready to re-build from the ground up, previewing songs from the group's Warner/Reprise debut, slated to hit stores in the first quarter of 2003.
Unlike most concerts where bands struggle to earn audience's attention towards new material, most everyone sat watching on the edge of their seats as Zwan unveiled many cuts for the first time ever. For additional leverage, longtime friend Marianne Faithfull showed up to help christen Corgan and company, a favor the bald headed front man returned in town later that year when she performed at the Park West.
3) Jammin' For The Kids Benefit (The Vic Theatre, Chicago - December 5)
In the tradition of the city's ongoing Hopefest charity concerts, Jammin' With the Kids provided a lengthy roster of legendary blues, gospel, soul, and classic rock players. Everyone from Buddy Guy to Bo Diddley to Mavis Staples to The Fabulous Thunderbirds turned out on the chilly winter evening to benefit Chicago's Lawrence Youth Services. Sugar Blue opened the show with a brief set of spirited blues followed by the blonde haired sax man Edgar Winter's leaning on soulful rock and roll, paving the way for Mother Soul Mavis Staples, who took the crowd to church with several gospel tinged numbers.
Further exemplifying the bill's diversity, The Fabulous Thunderbirds followed Staples with their trademark brand of hell raisin' southern fried blues rock in the tradition of Stevie Ray Vaughan. However, it was Guy who stole the show with his fiery blend of down and dirty blues and the best surprise guest of the evening in the form of keyboardist Pinetop Perkins, a longtime Muddy Waters session man who's still performing in his 80s!
2) David Bowie (Tweeter Center, Tinley Park, IL - August 8)
The Thin White Duke took to Moby's Area 2 Tour in full stride, mesmerizing the genre-bending brigades' annual crowd with his dashingly dapper looks and royal rapport. His performance may have been somewhat abbreviated given the festival setting, but every moment was utterly satisfying, including presentations from '02's Heathen disc, on which Bowie returns to his classic experimental rock heyday. (The '90s have seen Bowie step outside those parameters to deliver the dark and deeply personal Hours and the electronically driven Outside.) "Heathen" standouts included the mysterious "Afraid," the ethereal "The Angels Have Gone," and the Pixies cover "Cactus."
Bowie plotted his set list very well, cutting to the chase with the less familiar and left plenty of time for the classics. "Heroes" was golden, "China Girl" was enticing, and "Fame" was hot and funky. "Let's Dance" featured a waltzy introduction and slamming guitar solo, while "Ziggy Stardust" brought the 80-minute set to a raging finale. Hail King David and please come visit us again soon!
1) Paul McCartney (United Center, Chicago - April 10)
After several years away from the touring spotlight, Sir Paul came back with a bang, packing in over 30 solo, Beatles, and Wings songs in nearly three hours. I don't recall the living legend taking even one sip of water throughout the endless hit parade, and whether joined by a four-piece band or simply entertaining by himself on acoustic guitar or electric piano, I'd never seen an arena seem so intimate. When it came to career periods and peaks, McCartney was clearly at his prime come 2002.
Not only did his list of classics (from "Let It Be" to "The Long and Winding Road" to "Hey Jude") and the current (including "Freedom," "Lonely Road," and "Heather") make for the perfect set list, but the utilization of corresponding screens, images, and effervescent lighting showcased excellence all across the board. It may be a stretch to hope this tour will return to Chicago for yet a third leg in '03, but as the excessive applause in between songs proved, area audiences would warmly embrace it. If you missed it for yourself, consider checking out the tour souvenir Back in the U.S. on CD or DVD.