There's no such thing as too much live music


December 13, 2005


Readers often ask if I ever get tired of seeing live music. "Aren't there times when you'd rather sit home and read a book or watch a movie than see another concert?"

The answer, honestly, is no. I never go to a show expecting to have a bad time; I am always hoping for that electric jolt that comes from seeing a one-of-a-kind live performance, where the artist is truly in the moment and the audience pushes him or her to take things to a whole new level.

Call me a junkie. But I just can't get enough.

By my calculations, in addition to partial performances by too many artists to count, I saw full sets by 331 bands in 2005. That was down a bit from previous years, but hey, I was out of commission for about two months after surgery early in the year. (And no, it wasn't a lobotomy.)


The artists whose live performances let me down the most in 2005 all had something in common: I have seen every one of them deliver great shows in the past, including some that rank with my most memorable concerts ever. Sad to say, this time through, they seemed to be on autopilot, relying on reputation instead of real energy. In chronological order: 1. Paul Westerberg, April 15, Riviera Theatre
2. Weezer, May 4, Aragon
3. U2, May 7, United Center
4. Green Day, Aug. 10, Allstate Arena
5. Paul McCartney, Oct. 18, United Center


Here, then, is my annual list of the very best performances I witnessed in the previous 365 days, as well as my choices for the most disappointing. In chronological order:

System of a Down, May 3 at Metro: Gearing up for the release of the first half of its 2005 double album "Mezmerize"/"Hypnotize," the rap-metal-art rock-political-Armenian-Christian-L.A.-based rockers (the most hyphenated band in history) were on fire as they played one of 10 small club gigs designed to generate excitement for their new discs. It paid off with two No. 1 debuts and a sold-out arena tour later in the year.

Coldplay, May 6 at Metro: The sensitive English pop band tried the same trick as System in the same week, providing a rare treat for fans that will probably never see the group in a venue this size again. The Chicago show was especially memorable as front man Chris Martin lovingly serenaded his wife, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who sat in the balcony cheering wildly, just like everybody else.

LCD Soundsystem, May 19 at Metro: A red-hot producer on the dance scene (Britney Spears and Janet Jackson have both sought him out), LCD frontman James Murphy looks like exactly what he is: a frumpy, middle-aged recording engineer. But he was a riveting presence as he joked with the crowd, jumped around the stage and screamed the witty lyrics of his underground dance hits, including "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House," while his crack band deftly merged '80s art-punk and cutting-edge techno grooves.

Kraftwerk, June 4 at the Riviera Theatre: Thirty-seven years after its founding members came together and began to do for the synthesizer what Chuck Berry did for the electric guitar, "The Beach Boys of Dusseldorf" were still refusing to rest on their laurels, presenting a mind-blowing, futuristic visual display and delivering all of their most famous hits in new digital arrangements that proved to be more powerful than ever.

The Go! Team, July 16 at the Intonation Music Festival: Hands-down, Intonation was easily the best outdoor music festival I've ever attended, but if the vibe throughout was as good as it gets, the music didn't always measure up. The exception: the ultra-high-energy set by this English dance band, which found frontwoman Ninja dancing onstage with a group of young African-American girls from the surrounding neighborhood who wandered in after Union Park's pool had closed.

The Arcade Fire, July 24 at Lollapalooza: By far the best act at the summer's other much-hyped outdoor music fest, the Montreal orchestral pop band added a rhythmic intensity to the beautiful, melodic and sometimes fragile songs of its acclaimed debut "Funeral," adding a fury that the 2004 album only hinted at.

Saul Williams, July 24 at Lollapalooza: Though Lollapalooza was woefully short on hip-hop, the incredibly agile and piercingly political rapper sent a message to the festival's promoters, and I hope their booking next year will reflect it with much more diversity. Williams' performance was simply incendiary, and it included a cameo by Butterfly from the event's other token rappers (and another festival standout), the reunited Digable Planets.

The White Stripes, Aug. 29 at the Auditorium Theatre: Touring in support of its fifth album "Get Behind Me Satan," the Detroit duo added a few noticeable frills: a more elaborate stage set, some red-and-white tympani and a marimba. But in the end, it still came down to the strength of Jack White's songwriting, and the electric interplay between him on guitar and his ex-wife Meg on drums.

Beck, Sept. 21 at the Riviera Theatre: In danger of being declared passe after the release of the disappointing "Guero," the uber-hipster redeemed himself with two hours of passionately delivered, imaginatively paced and intriguingly arranged tunes from throughout his career. One of many highlights: a mini-set of semi-acoustic tunes that found his bandmates playing percussion on an amplified dinner table.

Kanye West, Nov. 14 at the UIC Pavilion: Not content with establishing a new paradigm for hip-hop production, Chicago's hometown hero set out to redefine the live rap concert with his "Touch the Sky" tour, and he pulled it off. Avoiding all of the trite live-hip-hop cliches, the two-hour set offered imaginative staging and visuals, challenging musical arrangements and tireless energy on the part of the star, whose talents more than back up his big mouth.

Next week: the best pop-rock albums of the year.