The Best Live Music of 2009

December 9, 2009


In a high-tech world where virtual experiences are becoming ever more popular, you still can't beat the real thing: Sorry, but playing "Rock Band" is vastly inferior to playing in a rock band, or to having a band rock your world onstage.

No digital trip will ever match the intensity of being in a crowd at a great live performance, where the artists absorb the energy of the fans in the crowd, amplify it and reflect it back in an increasingly powerful feedback loop that ultimately creates a unique and transcendent experience.

On the first day of the New Year, here is a look back at my choices for the best live shows from the hundreds I witnessed in 2009. I look forward to seeing many more in 2010, and I hope to run into you in the clubs.

1. Them Crooked Vultures at Metro, Aug. 10

The world premiere of the new supergroup featuring Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Dave Grohl (Nirvana and the Foo Fighters) and the legendary John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) was yet another historic night for Metro to add to its storied legacy. Reflecting on that early-morning show several months later, it underscores that some bands just need to be seen live: It was precisely because this gig was so astounding that the group's self-titled debut album came as a disappointment in November.

The album suffers from Homme's relatively weak vocals and scattershot songwriting. At Metro, these were mere window dressing for the phenomenally powerful attack of Jones on bass and Grohl doing his best John Bonham imitation, pummeling the drums. Lucky fans felt the low-end rumble rattling their innards and left in the wee hours of a new day with their ears ringing, and life couldn't have been any better.

(My full review is here.)

2. The Jesus Lizard at Metro, Nov. 27

Chicago's noise-rock heroes of the '90s were very, very good at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July, but they were mind-blowing at their second hometown reunion show, where the confines of Metro focused the intensity of Duane Denison's acid-surf guitar and the fluid but ferocious rhythms of bassist David Wm. Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly. Then there was front man David Yow.

No, Yow in 2009 isn't quite as crazy as Yow in 1994. But as he channeled otherworldly demons with his vocal bleats and yowls, he did spend a third of the night atop the upstretched arms of the crowd, and he paid a price for his insanity. During the second encore, the crowd parted, he hit the floor hard and he left in an ambulance to be treated at the hospital for bruised ribs. So yes, rock 'n' roll still is very much a life-or-death proposition for one of the best bands this city has ever produced.

(My full review is here.)

3. The Feelies at Millennium Park, June 29

What separates the great reunions from the cash-in comebacks? Passion. Bands like the Pixies can reunite and play all the old songs the same as they did back in the day, but you can tell they're just going through the motions. Not so with New Jersey's frenetic art-punks the Feelies, who came to the city's most gorgeous outdoor venue for their first performance here in 18 years, building from a lush jangle early in the set to the undeniably insane grooves of "Raised Eyebrows" and "Crazy Rhythms" at the end, and prompting a mass rush of pogoing dancers to the lip of the stage.

(My full review is here.)

4. F---ed Up and Ponytail at the Pitchfork Music Festival, July 18

In addition to the always invigorating communal vibe, Pitchfork rarely fails to deliver a hefty handful of startling midday performances from bands who rise from merely intriguing on record to out of this world onstage. This year's highlights came on Day Two from two bands featuring one-of-a-kind vocalists. Toronto-based art-punk provocateurs F---ed Up are led by the outrageously energetic, bald, bearded and beer-bellied singer Pink Eyes, while New York's Ponytail is fronted by the much smaller but no less mesmerizing Molly Siegal, who jumped non-stop through a hyper set while evoking Yoko Ono and Bjork dueting on the B-52's "Rock Lobster."

(My full review is here.)

5. The NewNo2 and Ida Maria at Lollapalooza, Aug. 8

Surprises like Ponytail and F---ed Up are harder to come by at Lollapalooza because there are so many more non-musical distractions, but they can still be had, generally on the smaller stages early in the day. My highlights this year were the Chicago debut by theNewNo2, the swirling, psychedelic art-rock band led by Dhani Harrison, son of the late Beatle George, and Ida Maria, the Norwegian singer and songwriter who threw herself into indelible anthems such as "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked" and ended her show by flailing on the stage and out-Iggy-ing the head Stooge himself during a cover of "I Wanna Be Your Dog."

(My full review is here.)

6. The Dead Weather and Screaming Females at the Vic Theatre, July 28

Speaking of strong female singers, this was a night that gave us two of them, with the scary but sultry Alison Mosshart of the Kills moonlighting in Jack White's latest side project, sinister blues-rockers the Dead Weather, and Marissa Paternoster reviving the fierce but melodic spirit of Bob Mould circa Husker Du's "New Day Rising" with her galvanizing New Jersey trio, Screaming Females. Lady Gaga couldn't dream of being 1/1,000th as interesting as these women.

(My full review is here.)

7. Nine Inch Nails at the Aragon Ballroom, Aug. 28

At age 44, Trent Reznor retired one of the most influential bands of the alternative era with style and grace after a 21-year run, going out on top while NiN still was making some of the most inventive music of its career. "This isn't meant to last/This is for right now," Reznor sang early in the evening, then proceeded to deliver a two-hour, twenty-minute overview of one of the most diverse and rewarding catalogs in rock.

(My full review is here.)

8. Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theatre, May 5

The 74-year-old Canadian singer and songwriter followed the same script, stage patter and all, laid out on his "Live in London" album, but the lack of spontaneity was a quibble: Fans never expected to hear that rumbling baritone live again, much less during a generous three-hour show that embraced all of his most unforgettable songs, from "Bird on the Wire" and "Suzanne" to "Chelsea Hotel" and "Hallelujah."

(My full review is here.)

9. Lily Allen at the Riviera Theatre, April 12

It was Easter Sunday at the Riv, and 23-year-old English singer and songwriter Lily Allen was reborn, morphing from the sexy, sassy and cheerfully bratty bad girl of her 2006 debut "Alright, Still" to a deeper, more mature though no less challenging or funny presence on the more personal material from her sophomore effort "It's Not Me, It's You." Encoring with a cover of "Womanizer," Allen added layers to the song that Britney Spears couldn't find with a GPS.

(My full review is here.)

10. Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music Showcase, South by Southwest, March 21

When no less an authority than the President of the United States calls you "a jackass," it's time to reconsider the silly celebrity antics--especially when you're at the top of your game as a performer and a producer of stellar talent. West's star shone brightly in Texas as he interspersed stripped-down but undeniable versions of the best songs from his four albums with cameos from the performers he's championing on his G.O.O.D. Music label, including English soul singer Mr. Hudson, rappers Consequence, Kid Cudi and Tony Williams and fellow Chicagoans Leonard "GLC" Harris and Really Doe. Oh, and Common and Erykah Badu stopped by as well, providing the night's climax with a truly joyous version of "The Light." Even Taylor Swift would have been a Kanye fan if she'd witnessed all of that.