The best concerts of 2008

December 16, 2008


As another long year of clubbing and concert-going comes to an end, it's time to look back on the best moments of the 360 days just passed. Here is my tally of the most memorable shows I reviewed in 2008, listed in chronological order.
1. Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige at the United Center, April 26

The idea was obvious: Bring together the top talents in hip-hop and R&B for a triumphant arena tour that raises the bar for the concert experience in both genres, with one artist who really speaks to the ladies and another who all the fellas emulate. The Heart of the City jaunt with Hova and Mary J. Blige rolled into town for two nights at the United Center with exquisite staging, a kicking big band and the two headliners performing at the peak of their abilities, together and separately.

2. Flight of the Conchords at the Chicago Theatre, May 14

If anything, "New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a cappella-rap-funk-comedy duo" was funnier in concert than musician/comedian Bret McKenzie and comedian/musician Jemaine Clement are on their HBO TV series. But the most important factor making the evening a success were the brilliant songs expertly parodying everything from progressive rock by way of Peter, Paul & Mary ("Albi the Racist Dragon") to hip-hop ("Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros") to James Taylor meets Mott the Hoople ("Sellotape (Pencils in the Wind)").

3. Eddie Vedder at the Auditorium Theatre, Aug. 21

The Evanston native came home and surprised even longtime fans during two shows at the Auditorium Theatre by alternating electric and acoustic guitar for a gripping set of left-field covers ("Walking the Cow" by outsider artist Daniel Johnston, "Trouble" by the folkie formerly known as Cat Stevens), alternate versions of Pearl Jam songs (including a gorgeous "Better Man") and tunes he wrote for the 2007 film "Into the Wild." And there wasn't a dry eye in the house when he brought out Tomas Young, an army veteran paralyzed in Iraq, to join the crowd in a sing-along on the anti-war anthem "No More."

4. Nick Cave at the Riviera Theatre, Sept. 28

All mid-life crises should be as beneficial as the one that has propelled the 50-year-old poet, playwright, novelist and songwriter to deliver two of the best albums and tours of his career, with last year's self-titled Grinderman project and this year's "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!" album and supporting tour with the Bad Seeds. As a performer and as a tunesmith, Cave has secured his position as the punk generation's Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Lou Reed, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

5. Weezer at the Allstate Arena, Oct. 2

While the long-running alternative rockers were in danger of becoming an arena-rock parody of themselves over the last few years, this year's self-titled "Red Album" was an underappreciated return to form, and Rivers Cuomo and the band were better onstage while supporting it than they've been since the glory days of "Pinkerton." Swapping instruments, changing costumes and jumping on trampolines, they delivered a satisfying mix of hits old and new, building to a climax by trotting out 30 young contest winners to form an ad-hoc backing orchestra complete with oboe, accordion, melodica and didgeridoo.

6. Wire at Metro, Oct. 18

Dedicated opponents of nostalgia, the legendary English art-punks played a mix of new material and 30-year-old classics with a vitality, fury and passion that made it seem as if every gloriously noisy song had just been written during a sudden burst of inspiration at sound check. "We're always in the present," vocalist and guitarist Colin Newman said, and good luck to anyone who wanted to argue with him.

7. David Byrne at the Civic Opera House, Oct. 26

Although he was missing in the flesh, the spirit of former Talking Heads producer and Byrne collaborator Brian Eno loomed large on nearly every note, whether it was in the fluid and irresistible African polyrhythms of songs from "More Songs About Buildings and Food" (1978), "Fear of Music" (1979) and "Remain in Light" (1980) or in the gorgeous, melodic and spiritually uplifting "gospel-folk music" of the duo's 2008 album, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today."

8. AC/DC at the Allstate Arena, Oct. 30

Sometimes you just want to go out, bang your head and lose your mind with a throbbing groove, churning guitars and gleefully stupid lyrics. And even though guitarist brothers Angus and Malcolm Young and vocalist Brian Johnson are aged 53, 55 and 61 respectively, there's still nobody that does teenage rock 'n' roll any better.

9. Robyn Hitchcock at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Nov. 15

The psychedelic-folk troubadour spent two shows here revisiting the most haunting, introspective and beautiful album of his career, "I Often Dream of Trains" (1984). "Many years later, you thought you realized what your motives were," he said, and the songs fit him even better at this point than they did a quarter-century ago.

10. Neil Young at the Allstate Arena, Dec. 9

Finally, speaking of great rockers who never seem to age, this night's amazing if under-attended showcase of greatest hits and new material was as strong a show as I have ever seen the singer and songwriter deliver--which is really saying something, since I've seen him more than a dozen times, and he has never failed to deliver.