The best of times, the worst of times


December 26, 2003


Of course, I also have to sit through some very, very long nights. (Thankfully, 'N Sync is no longer touring and Britney Spears isn't coming until next year.) But no job is perfect,

Here are my choices for the best shows that I saw in 2003, as well as a list of some of the worst (in terms of being shows that I expected to be much better than they were -- and I never attend any concert hoping or expecting to have a bad time, even 'N Sync).

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. There's nothing that's more fun than debating music that matters, except, of course, listening to it. With that in mind, see you in the clubs in '04!



THE 10 BEST CONCERTS OF 2003 (in chronological order)




1. Paul Weller at the Vic Theatre, Feb. 15

The night after Valentine's Day, the former leader of the Jam and the Style Council delivered a heartfelt performance that underscored his position as author of some of the most mature, romantic and subtly nuanced love songs in rock today. Fronting a tight and versatile five-piece band, Weller gave the packed crowd an ultra-high-energy, 26-song tour through his impressive catalog, emphasizing his solo years (including the recent album "Illumination"), but also reaching back for a surprising sampling of tunes from his past, among them rollicking versions of "In the Crowd" and "That's Entertainment," and an all-too-timely cover of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On."


2. Spoon at the Abbey Pub, March 30

One of several bands that made noise in 2003 by reaching back to the New Wave era of the late '70s, the Austin, Texas, quartet emphasized songs from its latest and best album, "Kill the Moonlight," during the first of a two-night stand at the Abbey. No band that writes songs as strong as "The Way We Get By," "All the Pretty Girls Go to the City" or "Paper Tiger" can be dismissed as mere revivalists, especially when its distinctive sonic colors and imaginative arrangements are so unique. Spoon dished out one beautifully crafted, sharp and angular musical vignette after another.


3. Tom Petty at the Vic Theatre, April 13

Petty kicked off the first show of a sold-out five-night stand by covering Muddy Waters' classic "Baby, Please Don't Go." It set the tone not only for this ambitious 2-hour, 45-minute performance, but for the entire intimate small-venue run, which the Heartbreakers used to illustrate their roots in early rock 'n' roll and the sounds that preceded it -- from Alvin Robinson's "Down Home Girl" to JJ Cale's "I'd Like to Love You Baby," and from Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue" to Chuck Berry's "Carol." This was a rare opportunity to see one of the best arena acts in rock up close and personal, stretching out, jamming and taking chances that it could never take in the enormodomes.


4. The Deftones at Metro, May 11

A week before the release of its self-titled fourth album, one of the most inventive bands in the so-called "nu-metal" or "rap-rock" genre set itself apart from a sorry pack that includes the likes of Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park. The Sacramento, Calif., quintet moved from its earlier, more straightforward material to the more intricate and layered songs from "White Pony" and "Deftones," and by the time frontman Chino Moreno hurled himself about the stage while roaring through the single "Minerva," it was impossible not be swept up by the band's passion and energy.


5. Love with Arthur Lee at the Park West, June 3

The 59-year-old legend of the psychedelic era reclaimed his finest album, the 1968 classic "Forever Changes," onstage with the inspired backing of a group of young Los Angeles acolytes in the band Baby Lemonade, plus an eight-piece horn and string section imported from Europe. As with Brian Wilson performing "Pet Sounds" in concert a few years ago, it was something that fans never thought they'd witness, and it was every bit as brilliant.


6. Rocket from the Tombs at the Abbey Pub, June 4

A footnote to a footnote in rock history, "The World's Only Dumb-Metal Mind-Death Rock & Roll Band" justified its status as the first American punk group as veterans David Thomas (Pere Ubu), Cheetah Chrome (the Dead Boys) and Craig Bell (the Saucers) joined some top-drawer hired help (including Richard Lloyd of Television) to tear through timeless songs such as "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," "Final Solution" and "Sonic Reducer." Nostalgia never kicked so hard or seemed quite so vital.


7. Lou Reed at Skyline Stage at Navy Pier, June 15

On tour to support his sprawling double album, "The Raven," Uncle Lou played with a postmodern chamber group (guitars, bass and cello, no drums) and delivered an intense, 2-1/2-hour set that found him digging deep into his back catalog to pull out songs that fans haven't heard him play in years, if ever. In the process, the curmudgeonly godfather of punk showed that he is every bit the giant in his field that the subject of "The Raven," Edgar Allan Poe, was in his.


8. Neil Young at the United

Center, June 17

Another grouchy old legend (and just as artistically perverse as Reed), Young disappointed some fans by playing the two-hour entirety of his concept album, "Greendale," and only offering a handful of his signature tracks with Crazy Horse during the encore. But open-minded fans were rewarded with a truly unique spectacle and some of the hardest-grooving and most fiery music that he's made in years.


9. Wire at the Double Door, June 25

Looking back, 2003 was certainly a great year for musical legends eschewing nostalgia and moving forward in invigorating new ways. Contemporaries of the Clash and the Sex Pistols, the art punks in Wire turned to 1977's "Pink Flag" to provide the blueprint for the sounds of their third incarnation, but they focused on the most searing and starkly minimalist songs from that album and upped the wattage even more. When their pummeling and unrelenting set was over, open-mouthed fans were left scraping their brains off the floor.


10. The Strokes at the Aragon Ballroom, Oct. 19

The New York City quintet performed a week before the release of its second album, "Room on Fire," and it justified the hype by playing with a furious precision, unleashing a rapid-fire barrage of 17 songs in less than an hour. Like a subway train hurtling down the tracks at top speed, the Strokes play with considerable intensity, but they were always thoroughly in control, crafting each interlocking instrumental part for maximum melodic effect.


Pop Music Critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions," the world's only rock 'n' roll talk show, at 10:30 p.m. Sundays on WTTW-Channel 11 and from 10 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at or visit him on the Web at

Reviewing live shows is both the best and the worst part of my job as pop music critic. Every year, I am privileged to witness an incredible number of truly outstanding concert performances, and of a much broader variety than even the most ardent fan of any particular genre. 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.





Days I forgot: The five worst concerts of 2003

1. Pete Yorn at the Riviera Theatre, May 1

One of those all-too-eager sellouts who want to appear hip while pandering to the lowest common denominator, "Pete Yawn" peddled his obvious formula (Americana roots-rock a la Wilco and the Jayhawks meets Pearl Jam-style arena-alternative) without conviction, soul or much discernible talent.


2. Daniel Lanois at the Old Town School of Folk Music, May 30

The producer and ambient musician doesn't tour often, and now we know why: Masterful at emphasizing other artists' strengths, Lanois doesn't know how to edit himself, and the two-hour show rapidly devolved into a boring endurance fest.


3. Pearl Jam at the United Center, June 20

With too few exceptions during a 2-1/2-hour set, this once galvanizing live band was just another slick, well-oiled arena-rock cash machine -- fundamentally no different than its slavish imitators in Creed, though without the gushing geysers of flame.


4. Blur at the Congress Theatre, July 16

This 80-minute set found the restructured Blur battling a horrible sound system and alternating songs from its impressive back catalog with material from its uneven recent effort "Think Tank." It was an awkward and unsatisfying mix that only reminded longtime fans how far the psychedelic popsters have fallen.


5. R.E.M. at the United Center, Sept. 26

Reneging once more on their longstanding pledge to play smaller theaters, the favorite sons of Athens, Ga., tromped through the arenas again. The subtle instrumentation of their quieter ballads (piano, melodica and mandolin) and Michael Stipe's velvet baritone were lost in the muddy, bass-heavy rumble, and the tired trio at the heart of the band went through the motions with rote professionalism.