2009 Concert Roundup.

And there I was, thinking I had somehow slacked off on my concert-going this year. (Movies are relatively low-impact nights out.) But in a few days I’m off to see my 20th concert of 2009 (Ben Kweller, who’s playing at a PTA fundraiser for Izzy’s elementary school), then Simian Mobile Disco again, and one more to go after that — The Gossip (!), with Passion Pit (!!) opening — which puts me on track with 2008 (22, my page reminds me), but nowhere near the insanity of 2007 (see my blog entry entitled Best Concert Year Ever).

But quality always beats quantity, which makes me think that 2009 may be my real Best Concert Year Ever — some, in my mind, positively historic; some with bands performing at the height of their careers; some with revelatory performances. None of these bested my single favorite stage lineup, from last year at Outside Lands (Stars / Andrew Bird / Broken Social Scene / Wilco — I mean, come on), but 2009 was stellar nonetheless.

Highs and lows, in chronological order (This Charming Band, Wilco / Okkervil River, and the Felice Brothers not included):

1. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings
The Warfield, 1/28/2009

I started the year off with one of the best concerts in recent memory (and there are more to come below) — eight men and one force of nature. These folks really know how to put on a show — not just involving people staring at their ratty sneakers or hunched over their laptops, but an exuberantly unrestrained experience, with full-gospel belting and horns blaring in a frenzy. Though I gotta say my favorite moment (other than their show-stopping version of “This Land Is Your Land”) was seeing my former student Jocyl suddenly get up on stage and dance with Miss Jones. So jealous.

2. The Philip Glass Ensemble
Davies Symphony Hall, 2/16/2009

Like Mark E. Smith, Philip Glass digs repetition. Certainly more than the former, I figure. The occasion was a heroic, marathon performance of Glass’s landmark Music in Twelve Parts from 1974, with Glass himself on piano — over three hypnotic hours of unspooling musical lines, variations slowly weaving into each other. Valerie called it “monomaniacal” — sure, but in a good way.

3. Cake
Fox Theater, 2/21/2009

Perhaps in the grand tradition of Radiohead not playing “Creep”, or the Clash not playing “Train in Vain”, or the Pixies not playing “Here Comes Your Man” (not true anymore, which is a good thing), Cake didn’t play “I Will Survive”. Or maybe we were just unlucky that night. I suppose any band might be a little resentful if one of their biggest hits happened to be a tossed-off cover song (albeit a great version), but still.

But this at least marked my first visit to the Fox Theater, which, as Kim Deal described, a little later in the year, “This place is fucking beautiful.” Indeed.

4. Masada String Trio
Yoshi’s, 3/11/2009

I’ve seen John Zorn perform four times, and each time, as William Vollmann would put it (in his novel Argall), my mouth was filled with gawp-seed. (Masada’s 1998 performance at Temple Emanu-el is still the only concert I’ve seen that I would describe as a religious experience.) This Masada String Trio concert, part of Zorn’s week-long residency at Yoshi’s — oh, if only I had money and time, and could go to every show — didn’t exactly have Zorn performing, but he conducted Mark Feldman, Erik Friedlander and Greg Cohen through pieces from the Masada songbook, and the results were nothing short of staggering.

5. Simian Mobile Disco
Mezzanine, 3/15/2009

Simian Mobile Disco, San Francisco, March 2009

Says it all.

6. Dengue Fever
Castro Theatre, 5/5/2009

Not exactly a concert, but part of the San Francisco International Film Festival’s yearly indie-band-meets-silent-movie event — in this case, Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World, from 1925. Woozily beautiful psychedelic music, broadly entertaining adventure film with some very cool stop-motion animation (the Pixar film Up pays homage to it), but they don’t exactly play well together, and it’s a little disconcerting, no pun intended, to have Chhom Nimol’s singing in Khmer — a legible and living language, after all — be stirred into the primitivist exotica of Hoyt’s film. (I know, I know, the film is about dinosaurs, and not jungle savages, but still…)

I’ve always liked these yearly marriages of music and film, even if it’s the sort of radical recontextualization of the material that I usually find disquieting. But I’m hoping for music that’s more intertwined with what’s on screen, and not just, say, Yo La Tengo jamming on a single groove the length of a Painlevé short film (which I loved, don’t get me wrong). What I’d love to see is someone like John Zorn doing elaborate sound cues for every minute of a film, but I figure that’s the sort of commissioned soundtrack whose costs would get prohibitive really quickly.

7. Little Dragon
The Independent, 5/20/2009

Good show, but see the November date below. (And a rude observation: why does Little Dragon always seem to be saddled with the most mediocre opening bands ever?)

9. Thao Nguyen
Make Out Room, 6/8/2009

Even more special not just because my musician crush was playing two feet in front of me, but also because my good friend Barb read her poetry during the same event (at the first Monthly Rumpus).

12. Joe
The Fillmore, 7/12/2009

The best part (musical): it was perhaps a couple of weeks after Michael Jackson’s death, and the almost-obligatory MJ medley — here, “Rock With You” and “Human Nature”, with Chico DeBarge — just felt absolutely right.

The best part (non-musical): my date and I were elbowed by some drunk who crashed his way to the front of the stage. A few minutes later, Joe literally stops mid-song (and so does the band) and says (I’m paraphrasing here), “At my shows, women are treated with respect, and you sir, are not doing that.” Then he pauses to let the bouncers strong-arm the drunk guy out of the venue, and only then does he start singing again. A true gentleman.

Second-best part (also non-musical): how Joe would react when the women in front of the stage would hand him their business cards. Joe would take the cards and, without skipping a beat, hold them up between his index and middle fingers and an assistant would run in from the wings and file them for future reference. Dude.

13. Bob Dylan
Greek Theatre, 10/10/2009

Well, I was warned. I guess we all were. And of course Dylan in ’09 would never come close to Dylan in ’69. But those 90 minutes of mumble-and-slur were a bigger letdown than I expected, the only consolation being in the company of my friends (hey, that’s a lot, and ultimately it was a fun evening nonetheless) and hearing the really, really hardworking bar band backing him up.

Random assessment #1 (from Randall): “He seemed pretty spry for a man approaching 70.”

Random assessment #2 (from Keith): “I finally figured out he was singing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ when I caught the phrase ‘like a rolling stone’.”

Then again, all I wanted was just to be in his presence. I guess we all did.

14. Mos Def
The Independent, 10/19/2009

What an amazing concert. Mos Def smashed it like an Idaho potato.

Of all the Albums-In-Their-Entirety concerts I’ve seen (Sonic Youth, Built to Spill, Slint, Liz Phair, and see two more below) this was hands-down the best of the lot. Performing the unimpeachably brilliant 1999 album Black on Both Sides album from start to finish, Mos Def circumvented the built-in predictability of the setlist with the musical interludes in between each track — basically, whatever the guys on the decks would throw on: a Latin groove, a fragment of old-school hiphop, the entirety of proto-punk band Death’s track “Freakin Out”.

And therefore, the element of surprise: Would he lipsync a bit? Would he lead the crowd on a singalong to “Umi Says”? Would he dance? Would he freestyle? Would he crack jokes? Would he do the robot? Would he mime playing the vibes on “May-December”? Did he have a huge, goofy smile the entire time? Yes to all of the above. Probably my favorite concert of 2009.

(I figure this was my friend Melissa’s favorite concert too, because she was one of five people he was shaking hands with at the end. You should have seen Melissa jump up and down. Anyhow, I can’t link to Melissa’s photos because they’re on Facebook, so I’ll do the next best thing: a link to the concert photos by the woman standing in front of me. That’s how close we were.)

15. Echo and the Bunnymen
Fox Theater, 10/22/2009

Hmm. And there I was, honestly prepared to weep during the last minute of the song “Ocean Rain”, but no. What was billed as the Ocean Rain album in its entirety “with orchestra” was something of a letdown: a too-long break between encores, poor acoustics (oddly for the Fox), which made Will Sergeant’s Scouse even more difficult to understand, plus the “orchestra” turned out to be what was more or less just a conductor, a string quartet (though there might have been more), and a percussionist (who was drowned out by the real drummer anyhow).

16. Built to Spill
The Fillmore, 11/1/2009

Doug Martsch must be the calmest guitar soloist in indie rock. He can break a sweat, that’s for sure — halfway through the set, the combination of perspiration and running his hands through his hair with the tufts standing willy-nilly made him look like some demented scientist — but the effortless way he sends his guitar lines soaring over the crowd is almost uncanny. I’ve seen Built to Spill maybe five times now, but this was surely the best I’d seen them play, even if they didn’t perform “I Would Hurt A Fly”.

Random observation #1: If the Dylan concert had the most heads of gray hair in the audience, BtS had the most facial hair on stage.

Random observation #2: I haven’t been to a concert with that many teens in the audience since Oasis in 1996. Very strange.

17. Little Dragon
The Independent, 11/4/2009

I think my tweet from the concert — it’s odd revisiting real-time tweets to recall states of mind — just about sums it all up. (It was actually a rather inarticulate “Holy crap Little Dragon are ON FIRE tonight”.) This was my fourth time to see them (and, I’m pretty sure, their fourth time to visit SF), but I was unprepared for their sheer energy this time — fueled, I’m guessing, by an enraptured audience cheering and yelling every time Yukimi Nagano rocked that tambourine of hers. (Indeed, she was swinging it so hard during the encore that she fell down on stage — and, without missing a beat, continued to hammer the tambourine on the floor.) Part of the joy of watching them live is seeing the lead singer get lost in the music, dancing with a seemingly complete lack of self-consciousness; you will, too.

18. Pixies
Fox Theater, 11/8/2009

Oh, what a great time. They played the Doolittle album from start to finish, and really, how could you go wrong with that? Highlights: Frank/Francis/Charles completely shredding his lungs out on “Tame”, the goofy footage playing behind “Here Comes Your Man” (an echo of its video), the crowd shout-along to “Hey” (Chris pronounced it “absolutely fucking genius”), Un Chien Andalou playing on the LED screen before the band walked on stage, and the best surprise of all — the UK Surf version of “Wave of Mutilation” during the encore.  When they gathered together in the middle for their final bows, messing about with each other, they looked so — dare I say it? — happy. (p.s. Don’t quit your other band, Kyp!)

19. Buraka Som Sistema
Mezzanine, 11/15/2009

The exemplary ability of Buraka Som Sistema to drag you onto the dancefloor stems from a simple combination: vocals (in Portuguese) spat out like a weapon, steel drums and whistles and stabbing horns, simple choruses that demand either call-and-response or just plain old yelling along (at some point they even sample Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction” just for the hell of it), and an unflagging, irresistible techno thump. And if it’s a venue with acoustics as good as the sound system at the Mezzanine, even better. My dancing for three hours — “with uncharacteristic abandon”, I noted on Twitter — was made even sweeter by the fact that I had been in a leg immobilizer and knee brace and a Kaiser-issued cane for most of the fall of 2009. Praise the baby Jebus, I can dance again.


And once again, a shout-out to all the good people who didn’t mind me bugging you about buying tickets and the late nights and spilled beer and pushing our way to the front and standing in five feet of cubic space with me, some of you more than twice. Thanks to, in concert-chronological order, Courtney, Joey & Lynn, Valerie, Sue, Jeff H., Xochitl, Frank, Laurel, Barb & Oscar, Jens, Jeff L., Lisa, Patrick, Keith & Margaret, Melissa, Chris, Randall & Robin, Dawn, Shaylih, Izzy, Jane, Romeo, Jake, Heinzel, & Monch. Here’s to 2010.


My Bloody Valentine, The Concourse, San Francisco, 9/30/2008.

My Bloody Valentine was punishingly loud — louder, perhaps, than the SUNN O)))) or Merzbow concerts I’ve attended. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, even if I do enjoy the sensation of my ribcage and my nasal bone rattling the entire length of the concert; inevitably you’ll have to wear earplugs, and if they’re cheap Flents like mine, you run the risk of submerging MBV murk into non-trebly murk.

And at a venue much like an airplane hangar like the SF Design Center Concourse, it’s diffused non-trebly murk, but Jane and Xochitl and Jens and I were about a fifth of the way up front, so it probably sounded better for us. And it then becomes hard to make out the thick layers of guitar, like the wobbly choral ocean bed to which “To Here Knows When” is anchored. (On the other hand, the guitar motifs are practically burned into your head: I woke up this morning and could still hear that ten-note riff from “When You Sleep” ringing somewhere back there.)

But nonetheless, this means that one could still enjoy the live My Bloody Valentine experience on a purely somatic level, your body vibrating in sympathy to the speakers and to everyone else. Add to this a whole array of flash strobes so bright you can see where the lights are attached to the ceiling through your closed eyelids — well, you can see what I mean by “somatic”. You could have been asleep and the music would have still burrowed through you.

I can’t really provide a setlist — Jens said he recognized songs from both albums and both EPs — but as one can imagine, most of “Loveless” made an appearance. (“Loomer” was fantastic; MBV opened the set with “I Only Said” — you know, it’s the one with that repeating chirp — went on for what felt like a blissful ten minutes.) They came on a little after 10:30, and finished right at midnight — and as expected, around 11:35, “You Made Me Realise” began, culminating in 20-odd minutes of a tsunami of churning guitar feedback. One of my best concert experiences of 2008, in a year filled with them.


The Police / Elvis Costello and The Imposters, Shoreline, Mountain View, 7/14/2008.

At some point in your life, Dear Reader, you must have said to yourself — and you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog if you didn’t — you must have said to yourself, This is my favorite band. That band was The Police, back in 1983, at the tender age of [don’t even ask], when I saved up my allowance to buy my very first album on cassette, Synchronicity, which was followed by a voracious rifling through their back catalog, beginning with Outlandos d’Amour. In hindsight I can see, even back then, the obsessive quality of my consumption: it wasn’t enough to get the five studio albums; I had to go buy a bootleg Synchronicity T-shirt, and even that volume of The Secret Policemen’s Ball, on vinyl for crying out loud, where a solitary Sting sings “Roxanne” without his fellow band members. (But my incipient critical faculties didn’t cling to The Police for too long, fickle as they were; they were supplanted, in too-quick succession, by Talking Heads, U2, and The Cure (1984, 1985, and 1986 respectively) as my Favorite Band Of All Time, but no matter: The Police were the very first.

Just a few hours ago, with Son and Eloise, I finally fulfilled something of a lifelong and impossible dream of mine: to see The Police in concert. It feels odd to report that the highlight of the concert was Sting making a surprise appearance to sing a duet with Elvis Costello on “Alison”, but the element of surprise gets me every time. (Costello also played “Pump It Up”, “Radio Radio”, “Watching the Detectives”, “Everyday I Write The Book”, “Clubland”, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”, and I swear they were playing “Accidents Will Happen” during the soundcheck, but he didn’t play it.) But again, no matter: The Police gave a fantastic concert from start to finish, with my brain completely fried from what was technically 25 full years of waiting.

So, the setlist, as far as I can remember, below:

  1. “A hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore.”
  2. “I hope my legs don’t break.”
  3. “I’m a walking disaster.”
  4. “Echoes things that you said.” / “Same tape I’ve had for years.”
  5. “Just like that old man in that book by Nabokov.”
  6. “Shame wells in my throat.”
  7. “I shake like an incurable.”
  8. “I resolved to call her up a thousand times a day.”
  9. “I will turn your face to alabaster.”
  10. “And no one’s jamming their transmission.”
  11. “Looking like something that the cat brought in.”
  12. “And my LP records and they’re all scratched.” / “Rio riay riayo.”
  13. “I won’t share you with another boy.”
  14. “There’s a skeleton choking on a crust of bread.”
  15. “I always play the starring role.”
  16. “I keep crying baby baby please.”
  17. “I sold my house I sold my motor too.”

Stevie Wonder, Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View, 7/6/08.

One of my earliest childhood memories ever — come to think of it, this is the first time I’ve seen this clip from Sesame Street in color, since I watched it back in the day on a small black-and-white TV. I don’t think it gets any funkier than this.

Three decades later, I finally saw him live for the first time at the Shoreline, just over the weekend with Joannie and Luna. An amazing concert all around — not quite as tight a band as in the vintage video above, and with an audience a little more sedate than the kid in the red shirt, but with massive amounts of goodwill radiating outward from the stage, it wasn’t hard to be swept up and feel overjoyed. (Despite the odd sequencing, at times: the crowd on their feet with “Higher Ground”, only to sit back down with an extended jam on Chick Corea’s “Spain”. A great reminder, nonetheless, of Wonder’s place as a titan of American popular music, one not “limited” to funk and soul.)

And I can’t pick from my favorite 1-2-3 combos: was it the “Isn’t She Lovely / Ribbon in the Sky / Overjoyed” combination halfway through, or “Signed Sealed Delivered / Sir Duke / I Wish” two hours in? Nevertheless: an unassailable selection of songs, a fantastic concert.


Thao with The Get Down Stay Down, Rasputin, Berkeley, 4/12/2008.

Thao with The Get Down Stay Down played for about 30 adults — and one little girl dancing — at Rasputin Records earlier this afternoon, and I hope you were there because it was fantastic. “I’ve never played at this level of heat before,” Thao Nguyen told the audience. It was 74 degrees out on Telegraph this afternoon and possibly just a little hotter inside. But no matter — their particular brand of witty, literate folk-pop, beatboxing and all, was perfect for an afternoon that felt an awful lot like summer.

The setlist, I think:

1. ? [new song, maybe, or something from Like the Linen?]
2. Big Kid Table
3. Swimming Pools
4. Beat (Health, Life and Fire)
5. Feet Asleep
6. Bag of Hammers
7. Violet
8. Fear and Convenience

Full album review of the band’s Kill Rock Stars album We Brave Bee Stings And All coming soon on this blog, but if they’re ever in your neighborhood (though the last show of their tour with Xiu Xiu is tonight at the Bottom of the Hill) do check them out.