Theatricality reigned supreme in 2013. It was a year in which the strongest performers let their personas shine above all else. Between the friendly chatter, heroic stage diving, remarkable wardrobes, chilling imagery, or mountainous effects, any number of personable touches left our hair raised, hearts aflutter, and vocal chords strained. It didn’t hurt that the music sounded great, too.
As we’ll say from here on out: another year, another five names off the marquee. Not surprisingly, it’s a real Sophie’s Choice whittling down a handful of top live acts, especially when consulting the few hundred names “killing it” over 365 nights. Still, we’re pretty confident of this particular crop, and we’d pay an arm, a leg, and our left buttock to see them again ASAP.
But hey, we know you’re just as avid a concertgoer, so please feel free to share your own choices in the comments below. Odds are your recommendation will get another pair of ears out to your local venue — maybe your future spouse. #Optimistic
Photo by Allyce Andrew
Remember when Daft Punk joined Phoenix onstage at Madison Square Garden for the last 15 minutes of their encore, and awesomeness found a new ceiling? I’d actually forgotten, until just now. That was just over three years ago, right when Phoenix reached the top tier of the headliner hierarchy, while touring in support of their fifth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – and when Daft Punk was REM stage-four in their six-year dormancy, their only other noteworthy activity being a quick Grammys cameo in 2008. Probably not by coincidence, 2010 was also one of the peak years of the mashup explosion: a dubiously legal movement in sampling that catered especially to the short attention-spanned (like me, apparently).
In retrospect, that moment may have informed this year’s Bankrupt! tour more than we could have thought – and not just because they pulled it off again at Coachella by somehow convincing R. Kelly to lay “Ignition (Remix)” and “I’m a Flirt” over their own “1901” and “Chloroform” in real time, thereby basically laying claim to the two highest profile live recreations of a mashup since mashup became a word. It’s because they witnessed the special kind of audience reaction that occurs when a live band pulls the rug out at the peak of an awesome song, revealing a completely different, but even more awesome rug.
Unlike their Wolfgang tour, Phoenix’s live shows this year were highlighted by medleys of their own songs, as if they hired an audience member to stand behind the curtain and press “skip” on them like it was iTunes, from “Too Young” into “Girlfriend”, “Love Like a Sunset” into “Bankrupt”, and “Trying to Be Cool” into “Drakkar Noir” into “Chloroform”. Where this could come off as kitschy for a guitar-loyal band, it’s actually perfect for Phoenix, because it’s in line with the balance they’ve always kept when at their best: an arena rock fan’s favorite dance group and a dance music loyalist’s favorite arena rock band.
Anyone who saw them this year, in one of their some-75 performances that covered the globe and so many major festival stages, was likely treated to each of those hybrid cuts on top of established stunners “1901”, “Lisztomania”, and closer “Rome”. They also saw one of the most visually arresting live shows of this day, complete with raining confetti, chromatic blasts of stage light, and a crowd-surfing Thomas Mars. It’s become so many things all at once that only one word feels right, and it could be an obsolete one by Phoenix’s next tour: Awesome. —Steven Arroyo
Photo by Frank Mojica
The musical landscape of 2013 is marked by contradiction, meta-levels of self-awareness, and a to-hell-with-it blurring of borders. We like our robotic house duos to collaborate with indie rockers and disco legends alike, and our latest pop sensation has topped the charts with a song that takes the rest of the Top 40 to task for their perpetuation of rampant materialism. It’s a strange and fascinating place, and with her Electric Lady tour, Janelle Monáe established herself as a prophet for our time.
Monáe dropped The Electric Lady back in September, featuring guest appearances from Prince, Miguel, Erykah Badu, and Solange, and continuing the adventures of her futuristic alter ego. As Cindi Mayweather, an android savior on the lam in a dystopic Metropolis, Monáe bends punk, glam, funk, soul, and hip-hop to her will while using Orwellian themes to cast a light on present day issues of race, gender, and sexual freedom and equality.
On the live stage, Cindi Mayweather visited 2013 in the form of an exhausting sensory overload that’s equal parts Motown-revue and acid trip, incomparable to that of other neo-soul singers. It all began with the electric lady herself being wheeled onto the stage on a dolly to join her already playing white-clad band, backup singers, and string and horn sections. Seemingly asleep and clad in a straight jacket, Monáe soon jolted to life and stormed through a set of raucous, genre-hopping dance-offs, smooth ballads, and even a couple of covers.
The only time of the evening where the hyperkinetic Monáe was immobile was during her Hannibal Lecter-inspired entrance. As an audience member frequently stopping to catch breath and wipe away sweat, it’s easy to wonder if she really is an android from the future and powered by a source of unlimited energy. Each night for nearly two hours, “the hardest working woman in music” channeled Brown, Jackson, and Prince with her fancy footwork, while her equally formidable vocal prowess never wavered. Near the set’s end, Monáe exerted full control over the audience, commanding shushes and uncomfortable levels of crouching before leaping into the frenzied crowd and being literally carried away by men in lab coats.
Spectacle and strict adherence to sci-fi themes can easily become shtick and novelty, especially when dance-fighting and straightjackets are involved. Or, at least they would in the hands of someone other than Janelle Monáe. What she has done through her music, and especially her live show, is capture the collective contradictory desires evident in our musical trends, specifically to channel the past as well as reach for the future. When Monáe smashes the boundaries between fiction and reality, she demonstrates that we really can have it all. —Frank Mojica
Queens of the Stone Age
Photo by Heather Kaplan
All they had to do was show up. With no new Queens of the Stone Age album in nearly six years and no shows in almost two, fans were grateful just to see the band at all. But whereas many of the best live acts of 2013 relied heavily on special effects and theatrics, the Queens needed nothing but themselves.
What truly made this year’s so special, however, wasn’t just QOTSA’s hiatus, or the comparative minimalism. It was the circumstances surrounding the new album, the morbid, spacious, yet still undeniably groovy …Like Clockwork. You’ve probably heard it countless times, but Josh Homme actually died on the operating table of what was supposed to be a routine knee surgery. That’s died, mind you. Not overdosed, not got divorced, not got into a car wreck. Dude actually fucking died. What’s more is that he doesn’t remember it. “I woke up and there was a doctor going ‘Shit, we lost you,'” he’s been quoted time and time again.
The experience could have made for creaky death-is-a-comin’-to-get-me performances—contemplative sets where Homme strapped on an acoustic and churned out graveyard ballads a la Bill Callahan. Instead, his temporary boogie from this mortal coil made for a spirited live show that spanned Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza, and even a mini set at the Letterman Show Studios. Homme lumbered like a drunken robot, Jon Theodore threatened to topple over his kit, Troy Van Leeuwen played maracas as hard as his guitar—you know the drill.
The only bells and whistles came courtesy of a projection screen that glowed with gleefully macabre imagery. Think Universal Monster movies as drawn by Frank Miller: decrepit hands reached toward the crowd, crows exploded over a sepia sky, the …Like Clockwork vampyre waltzed with a sleeping victim. Anyone who was genuinely freaked out needed only to look at the joy radiating from the musicians onstage, whether it was Dean Fertita’s Bob Seger keys on “Make it Wit Chu” or Homme converting “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire” from skeleton-throated lament into full-throated anthem.
In 2013, Queens of the Stone Age didn’t laugh in the face of death. They simply rocked it off. –Dan Caffrey
Photo by Ben Kaye
For much of 2013, Alana, Danielle, and Este Haim were one of the most hyped and talked about live acts around, and their band, HAIM, didn’t even have an album out. Days Are Gone would see its long-awaited, and often delayed, release in late September, but before that, HAIM became veterans of the festival circuit, taking the stage at SXSW, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and even Glastonbury. When they weren’t playing festivals, appearing on the Late Show with David Letterman, or headlining club shows, they supported big-name acts on tour, like Phoenix, Vampire Weekend, Mumford & Sons, and surprisingly, Rihanna.
Unlike her two sisters, lead singer and middle sibling Danielle has a lot of experience as a performer, having toured with artists like Julian Casablancas, Jenny Lewis, and even CeeLo Green. Este, the oldest and the bassist, is a born performer, complete with off-the-cuff and often hilarious stage banter — not to mention an endearingly awesome bass-face. Alana, the guitarist and keyboardist, admits she’s come out of her shell: “I’m the only one that gets breaks in between little parts of songs, so I get to jump into the crowd.”
Because festivals typically book months in advance, Danielle remembers not having the record finished in time, saying, “We were just playing a lot and hoping [the crowds] would remember us in the fall.” Fortunately, they did. Each time HAIM graced a festival, they were one of the most talked about sets of the weekend. Their summer highlight was Glastonbury, where they played two sets and were invited by Bobby Gillespie to perform “Rocks” with Primal Scream. “If you’re in a band, you just dream about playing Glastonbury,” says Alana, still in awe. “That’s the most epic festival.”
Growing up and playing in a band with their parents, the spectacularly named Rockinhaim, which largely consisted of playing soul and classic rock covers, the Haim sisters are no stranger to making other artists’ songs their own. For HAIM, they’ve used “Oh Well”, a banging track from Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, as a live staple, performing it nearly every set. Recently, the band made headlines by bringing out worldwide sensation Lorde to sing Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough”. Hearing the song on the radio in Australia, Danielle remembers saying with her sisters, “Oh my God, this is such a good song.” During a Lollapalooza after-show at Lincoln Hall, they brought up their parents to reunite the band and sing Mack Rice’s “Mustang Sally”, proving that with these sisters, family always comes first.
Catching their set at Lollapalooza, I was mesmerized by their charming and commanding stage presence as they went through their hits, “The Wire” and “Falling”, all before their record was even out. Though, it didn’t matter to the audience, who sang along to each song, including Days Are Gone showstoppers like“Don’t Save Me”. With their set bumped up at the wooded Grove stage because of Azealia Banks’ cancellation, they acted like headliners and were aided by a strong turnout, even though the “King of New York” Kendrick Lamar was playing just a stage away.
Though it seems like HAIM have just burst onto the scene, they’ve been a band for over five years, often playing various opening gigs, or shows just for their family. Alana jokes, “Back then our fans were like my little baby cousin, and my aunts and uncles, and they would come out of the city to see us play at some weird Valley venue.” Now, with an album and a prestigious Saturday Night Live appearance under their belt, HAIM are prepping a major tour in 2014, with several dates already sold out. Using tourmates Phoenix as a guide, they plan on adding a light show and grander stage setup, but as Danielle notes, “At the core of it, we’re a band. We don’t play a track. We’re just trying to play the best show possible.” —Josh Terry
Photo by Joshua Mellin
Throughout his extensive career, veteran rapper Kanye West has come to take on a variety of roles. These include, but are not limited to: a fashion-conscious artist, a wildcard on late night television, a button-pusher, a bard, a father, an unpredictable performer, an anomaly, a provoker, a visionary. Most of all, Kanye West is a believer.
Here it’s important to stress “believer” in the most unabashed, kneel at the altar, throw your hands up because you’ve been enlightened kind of way. Because, more than anything, West truly believes in the merit of his work, culturally and aesthetically. His confidence is so brazenly contagious it’s almost baffling. Often, he is coded as insane in the media for his stream of consciousness monologues, circling in alternating waves of self-deprecation and arrogance.
Yet for all of his decadence, raves and rants, is West’s alleged insanity really anything more than simply being different, pressing at the pre-fabricated folds, ripping the seams, and redefining “normal” and “popular” music? Isn’t that what some of the most decisive performance art in history, from Vivaldi to The Velvet Underground, has accomplished?
In the spirit of the avant-garde, last summer saw the release of West’s most polarizing record yet, Yeezus. The album is replete with dark rhythms and a particular abrasion rubbing itself like sandpaper on songs like “Blood on the Leaves”. Yeezus has not only polarized listeners and critics, but the themes themselves are hinged on extremes — graphic re-appropriations, a visceral focus on the proliferation of racism. No other rap star would project their single throughout the world in predominantly gentrified neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Bushwick, Chicago’s Wrigleyville, and Houston’s Montrose.
Several weeks ago, West kicked off the promotional tour for Yeezus at Brooklyn’s colossal Barclays Center. Pre-dating West’s Washington, D.C. performance on November 21st, social media lit up with towering man-made mountains and a stage design that rivals the set of 300. As the tour has trickled down south, guests including A Tribe Called Quest and Kendrick Lamar graced the stage, varying by night. If the screams were any indication, audiences at Washington, D.C.’s Verizon Center were wholly unprepared for the spectacle about to unfold in front of them.
The Yeezus tour is, in short, brilliant conceptual performance art. Lights form prisms and electrify an already electric room. A contemporary biblical feast is manifested through visual delights in accompaniment of the sonic. At various points, West invokes the power and destruction, fire and brimstone, a mountain shatters in two, religious ceremonies occur (not unlike Catholic processions), he dons four different masks, and encounters a leering wolf with scarlet eyes and Christ himself – at which point he discards the mask. The performance was refreshingly accessible for all, even those who don’t have a canonical knowledge of West’s work (but were ready to shell out $70 for a performance). It’s in a live sphere where West is in his absolute zone.
Yet, the true magic of this experience is how he interacts with these elements, allowing himself to be swept up by his own thoughts, physically by his 12 masked “disciples,” and spurred by the push-pull roars of his audience. He leaps, emitting blood-halting shrieks. Aggressive, cleverly punctuated rhymes get completely in your face, even if physically you’re seated way up in the rafters.
Photo by Joshua Mellin
One of the most spellbinding moments occurred when West dangled from the top of an inclined stage. Elevated to resemble a cliff, West laid prostrate, face up, not unlike Simba when Mufasa is about to let him slip, and sang. The variety didn’t disappoint, either – numbers ranged from “Runaway” to “New Slaves” to “Stronger”, each one performed with equal parts zeal, catharsis, and innovative showmanship. You can see how these songs affect him while performing – the involuntary response to clap hands and bob heads isn’t just limited to the listener. The man has faith.
A key shift in the performance also happened when West deconstructed his own title of “Yeezus”. Sure, it rhymes with Jesus, but the emphasis, he noted, was on “us.” He proceeded to give an inspiring speech – not unlike that of a preacher on a pulpit – the nucleus being, “Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not possible!”
Had the two-hour performance been longer, the divine invocation of “Yeezus” may have been overblown, but the length felt appropriate for the scope of this ambitious record. At this point, both in his life and career, West is in a reflective state. We see him ruminating out loud about man and God, repressed anger, the nature of appropriation and claim. Fittingly, the Yeezus performance is built on recognizing and subsequently tearing down those dualities. He wants you to scream at his show and still lie awake at night, internalizing, deconstructing the meaning of what you’ve been instructed to believe your entire life, and ultimately think, I can make things different. In matters earthly and otherwise, it seems Kanye West will make believers of us all yet. —Paula Mejia