The good, the bad--the 2001 concerts


December 21, 2001



By my calculations, I witnessed full sets by 165 artists in 2001. That was up from 161 last year, but short of 179 in 1998 and 205 in 1999. And none of those numbers take into account the many partial sets that I saw when arriving late or leaving early on deadline.

I relate the above statistics not to boast or to invoke your sympathy (I get enough of that from the ear doctor), but to underscore the fact that I see a lot of live music, and of a much broader variety than even the most ardent fan. The manic hip-hop head would never go to the Warped tour, for instance, and the R&B devotee probably skips Ozzfest. But I get to see it all.

Critics often are accused of becoming jaded because of the quantity and variety of art they're exposed to, but I'm still as addicted to the adrenaline rush of great live music as I was after I saw my first concert at age 14 (Jethro Tull, Madison Square Garden, 1979). I go out hoping that every show will pack some variation of that emotional wallop, even when the artist's recordings or previous concerts have been a disappointment. I am always surprised and let down if the experience falls short, and I'm thrilled if it exceeds expectations--just like you, except that I get to write about it.

While major, mega-bucks tours like U2, Janet Jackson and Madonna got most of the press this year, as often as not, it was the less-hyped and less expensive shows that delivered the goods--something that someone who paid $250 for Ms. Ciccone or $130 for the boys from Dublin might be reluctant to admit.

Here, then, is a tally of the best concerts I saw in 2001, as well as a list of the worst. If you had a great time at any of the latter--good for you! The point isn't to discredit your experience, but to stimulate discussion about it. Because, really, is there anything more fun to debate than music?


(in chronological order)

1. Erykah Badu, Auditorium Theatre, Feb. 23.

Touring in support of her second album, the self-professed "analog girl in a digital world" led a 10-piece band through a set that ranged from Billie Holiday torch songs to soulful rave-ups that would do James Brown and the Famous Flames proud.

2. The Fire Show, the Living Room, Austin, Texas, March 17.

Disgusted by a bum soundcheck and the ubiquitous hype of the South By Southwest Music & Media Conference, Chicago's reigning art-punks responded with an incendiary set of slashing guitar and looping rhythms--Can meets Wire and Television--while singer "M. Resplendent" hurled himself around like a man possessed.

3. David Johansen, Old Town School of Folk Music, March 31.

A great voice paired with classic material. The former singer of the New York Dolls claimed the tunes of blues giants such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Mississippi John Hurt, Clarence Ashley, and Doc Boggs as his own, inhabiting their tales of murder, lust, and betrayal as if he'd lived them himself.

4. Wilco, Petrillo Bandshell, Grant Park, July 4.

A great Chicago band celebrates the completion of the best album of its career, complete with horns and a strong opening set by the North Mississippi Allstars, on a sunny day, with a breeze off Lake Michigan, for free. Does life get any better than that?

5. The Area: One Festival, Tweeter Center, July 25.

Tour organizer Moby struck a blow for diversity (highlights included the Roots, Outkast, the Orb, and his own set) and threw down the gauntlet: From now on, big-bucks arena festivals will be measured against this quality package.

6. Radiohead, Hutchinson Field, Grant Park, Aug. 1.

Performing on a stage refreshingly devoid of corporate logos, the Oxford-educated art-rockers delivered pristine sound while upping the intensity of their recordings and challenging a mass audience with enigmatic soundscapes. And the Beta Band opened by snarling at promoters who hassled fans for bringing water or sandwiches.

7. The Strokes, Metro, Oct. 5.

Overpowering the hype with exuberance and attitude, the New York quintet tore through a dozen songs, eschewing an encore but leaving a skeptical crowd sweaty and sated as they were chased offstage by a seriously ticked-off bouncer.

8. Bob Dylan, United Center, Oct. 27.

Fronting the five-piece group that he correctly calls "the best band in the land," ol' Uncle Bob continued riding an incredible decade-long high that has found him consistently delivering the most gripping performances of his career. And "Masters of War" never sounded more appropriate.

9. Spiritualized, Metro, Oct. 31

The British psychedelic heroes were touring behind their slightest album, but they were never more gripping onstage, bolstering their dynamic crescendos with a 13-piece band that included five horn players and a percussionist on tympani and synthesized vibraphone.



10. Incubus, the Riviera Theatre, Nov. 3

Performing two sold-out nights at a relatively intimate venue, the nu-metallers distinguished themselves not only as the exception in a genre otherwise marked by cookie-cutter conformity and rampant boneheadedness, but as a great rock band, period.

Close runners-up: John Cale at the opening of Nevin's Live, April 20; the Business at the Tweeter Center during the Warped Tour, July 14; Roxy Music (despite the muddy sound) at the Allstate Arena, July 30; Jane's Addiction at the Allstate Arena, Oct. 21; the Isley Brothers at the Arie Crown Theatre, Nov. 9, and the reconfigured Wilco at the Riviera Theatre, Nov. 23.


1. Lucky Boys Confusion, Metro, Jan. 13

Officially anointed as The Next Big Thing, this Naperville/Downers Grove quintet played a sold-out show to celebrate its Elektra debut. But the music was a cipher--a pleasant but empty noise representing the regurgitation of a decade's worth of other unlistenable "alternative" hypes--and it was fitting justice that the record stiffed.

2. Sigur Ros, Park West, May 6

Underground hipsters loved it, but I found the Chicago debut by these Icelandic art-rockers pretentious (it featured a cameo by an opera star) and dreadfully dull as well as seriously unoriginal--My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive did it before, and better.

3. Janet Jackson, United Center, July 26.

We expected Britney to suck, but Janet usually delivers the goods. Not this time.

4. Oysterhead, the Aragon, Nov. 2

A real disappointment after the supergroup's debut album, "The Grand Pecking Order." Instead of that strange but inspired tunefulness, we got endless rampant wanking by Trey Anastasio, one of the least interesting soloists in the history of the guitar, while Les Claypool and Stewart Copeland were mostly bored and/or lost in the mud.

5. Britney Spears, the Allstate Arena, Nov. 28

Call me old-fashioned. Call me judgmental. Call me a stick-in-the-mud. I can't help it: I like to hear singers actually sing when they are performing "live in concert." Britney just ran around and posed on a series of Broadway-caliber stage sets while flashing her designer costumes and pretending to move her lips.