This year, I took in a lot of music including shows by a handful of legendary acts including Iggy Pop, The Cure, Black Sabbath, Television, and Booker T. Honorable mentions go to Heron Oblivion playing an opening set at Felton’s Don Quixote’s and Alfonso Ponticelli’s skilled acoustic playing at Chicago’s Green Mill with his terrific band. Here are 12 other shows from 2016 that I’ll remember far into the future.
|Imarhan at Henry Miller Library|
Ty Segall & The Muggers at San Francisco’s The Fillmore on January 18th
To complement the strange vibe of their Emotional Mugger material, Ty Segall and his new band emerged on The Fillmore stage decked out in giant, creepy baby heads. They were peeled off to reveal a stellar backing band including Kyle Thomas (a.k.a. King Tuff), Mikal Cronin, Emmet Kelly of The Cairo Gang, and Cory Hanson of Wand. Freed from his guitar, Segall proved to be a compelling frontman though his constant spitting and strange fixation on licking his hands got a bit old. The band sounded great though whether playing the twisty new stuff or the glam rock of Manipulator.
Iggy Pop at San Francisco’s The Masonic on March 31st
It’s difficult to not be overcome with excitement when Iggy Pop comes out onstage dancing maniacally to the opening drumbeat of “Lust For Life.” Backed by a killer band including Josh Homme, the 68 year-old frontman was in fine form from his canyon deep vocals to his constant onstage cheerleading. The set zeroed in on material from three albums: 1977’s The Idiot, 1977’s Lust For Life, and this year’s Post Pop Depression.
Songs from The Idiot were especially affecting including “Funtime,” which found the punk legend stagediving twice, and “Nightclubbing,” where Pop began seated on a stool before getting up to stalk the stage. Unexpected highlights included the unearthed punk gem “Repo Man” and “Baby.”
The main set ended with a stellar version of “The Passenger” and “China Girl,” the latter becoming an extended guitar jam. The night concluded with the tongue-in-cheek “Success” as Pop sang about attaining a car and a Chinese rug. With Pop working the stage like a closing salesman, there’s no other music legend that deserves his hard won fruits of labor than this performer.
Imarhan and The Mattson 2 at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library on April 20th
Having a pair of twin brothers from Southern California who play jazz combined with surf rock and a new band of refugees that are part of a movement of African bands revitalizing guitar music proved to be an inspired pairing. The Mattson 2 featuring Jared Mattson on guitar and Jonathan Mattson on drums played an intuitive set of sometimes transcendent, instrumental music with their pal Farmer Dave Scher on keyboards and a giant tube that he blew into at one point. (It was 4/20, but this instrument was not a bong.) One fun aspect of the set was watching the brothers communicate using hand signals, head nods, and an unspoken familial intuition to take the songs in new directions.
Featuring Sadam, the young, stellar touring guitarist of Tinariwen, Imarhan started their set heading down the same hypnotic, dusty trail traveled by the elder, more traditional Tinariwen. But, as the night proceeded, the young band hit the gas and went into funkier directions aided by Imarhan’s two percussionists—one using a unique half egg looking instrument called a tinde—and Sadam’s frequent blasts of wah-wah pedal inflected guitar lines. Both bands were able to take the audience into a rarefied headspace, a destination that only so many groups can reach.
|Black Sabbath at Oakland's Oracle Arena|
King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard at Santa Cruz’s Moe’s Alley on May 24th
This was the wildest show I saw all year. The Australian psych rock band King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have been hyped as one of the best live acts around, and this Santa Cruz show did not disappoint. Before King Gizzard hit the stage, The Murlocs, starring the headliner’s Ambrose Kenny-Smith on vocals and harp, played a strong, bluesy garage rock set that culminated with a couple of wild numbers at the end.
The crowd was primed, and when King Gizzard started playing in front of a projected psychedelic light show, crowd surfers spun above the audience like broken tops while the floor became a boiling stew of slam dancers. The band came out of the gates strong with songs like “Gamma Knife” off their latest album Nonagon Infinity, which is being billed as the world’s first infinite album due in part to recurring musical motifs sprinkled throughout the album. Live, the idea of sprinkling instrumental refrains during the set is a stellar idea. The crowd got clued in on the fact that certain repeating passages meant that the music was going to get faster and heavier.
After some rowdy audience members got kicked out, frontman Stu Mackenzie ordered that everyone who was ejected should be let back in. He then noted that if the audience didn’t break glass or hurt each other than “who cares” what else happens. It was probably for the best that the band then went into some jazzy, mellower material for a while after that. The night ended with the band stepping offstage to the crowd chanting “Lizard.” Though the band didn’t return for an encore, everyone in the audience appeared fully satisfied with what had been a wooly rock show.
The Cure at Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheater on May 26th
With Robert Smith’s unique voice fully intact and Simon Gallup’s bass lines girding their songs, The Cure sounded remarkably fresh for a band that has been around for 40 (?!) years. Though Shoreline is a big venue, the sound and lights were visceral even from the lawn.
An early highlight was an unexpected mini set of songs from The Head on the Door (“A Night Like This,” “Push,” “In Between Days,” “Kyoto Song,” and a heavily funky “Screw.”) The regular set also included a generous dose of Disintegration songs including a “Pictures of You,” where the crowd held up beaming smartphones.
The three encore sets included favorites like “A Forest,” “The Caterpillar,” and “Boys Don’t Cry.” A surprise came with the underplayed gem “Dressing Up” from The Top. After the show, it would be difficult for anyone to complain they didn’t get their money’s worth.
Get Covered Benefit Concert at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library on July 21st
This was the most fulfilling show of the year. I put together this festival with the immense help of the Henry Miller Library and a small army of volunteers. The idea was to have Monterey County’s best musicians perform a short set including a song by an act that passed away in 2016. All attendees who entered the library grounds to see the show had to donate a hat that would cover the local homeless population from skin cancer.
I overbooked the event causing all the acts to have just 20 minutes onstage. It ended up that the solo acts and bands whittled their sets down to just their best material and a cover. Being biased, I found every set wildly enjoyable from El Camino Sutra’s two-guitar attack to Keith Bruecker’s triumphant return to the stage to Jordan Smart’s closing songs including a killer take on Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.” More importantly, we raised $1,000 for local non-profit Spero Collaborative and received over 150 hats for Monterey’s homeless. I hope to do this again!
Avi Buffalo and The Isn’ts at Monterey’s Pierce Ranch Vineyards on July 23rd
There was a lot going on during this show. The Get Covered Benefit Concert had just wrapped up, and Big Sur was on fire. About as intimate as a venue can get, Pierce Ranch Vineyards can only accommodate an audience of 30 or so people. Those lucky individuals on this evening were treated to The Isn’ts (a stripped-down El Camino Sutra) performing with great local saxophone player Ben Herod followed by a passionate solo set from Avi Buffalo, an artist on Sub Pop Records.
The Mystery Lights at Santa Cruz’s The Catalyst Atrium on August 1st
This was an emotional high point. I wrote about The Mystery Lights before anyone else back in 2007. Since then, the band’s principal members Mike Brandon and L.A. Solano moved to New York City, got signed by Daptone Records subsidiary Wick Records, and released a damn fine self titled album. I’m pleased to report that almost a decade in The Mystery Lights have lost none of what made me love them in the first place including potent garage rock songs with a punk edge, killer guitar playing, and Brandon’s unbridled exuberance onstage. Brandon hopped around like a Roman candle during this show, pausing to enthusiastically thank friends and family including his grandmother for all of the support over the years. Meanwhile, Solana has gotten to be an even better guitarist. It was a superb homecoming and a real reunion of Monterey County and Santa Cruz County’s rock scenes.
Soberanes Fire Relief Benefit Concert at Monterey’s Golden State Theater on August 12th
This benefit for the Soberanes Fire Relief Fund drew some of Monterey County’s biggest music legends out of the woodwork. After pal and Henry Miller Library ringleader Magnus Toren came out in fire gear to kick off the multi-act show, the audience were treated to rare sets by Johnny Rivers, Al Jardine of The Beach Boys, and Mike Nesmith of The Monkees. Standouts included Rivers’ “Going Back to Big Sur” and Jardine’s “God Only Knows” aided by Sharon Van Etten and Meg Baird.
Black Sabbath at Oakland's Oracle Arena on September 15th
I was in the Bay Area on the day that Black Sabbath was supposed to play their last ever Bay Area show. It's always worthwhile to see legendary acts before they stop performing, so I bought a ticket hours before the show.
The evening began with footage on a giant screen that looked like a video game. The camera went into a dilapidated house and up to some sort of monster who started breathing fire. Then the first sounds of the band's self-titled single ran out.
They played their biggest hits ("Iron Man," War Pigs") and some deeper cuts ("Fairies Wear Boots," "Snowblind"). Ozzy's vocals sounded good but his constant pleas for the crowd to make some noise felt like they’d be more at home at a hip hop show.
That said, the band sounded great, especially guitarist Tommy Iommi who casually delivered monster riffs and stellar solos. The punky riffs of set closer "Children of the Grave" still sound fresh. If this tour is truly "The End" than Sabbath went out with a bang.
Ween at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on October 15th
Having seen Ween almost 10 times, the quirky band led by Dean and Gene Ween never disappoint live. Even the lesser Ween shows I have seen—mostly when the two frontman seemed to barely acknowledge each other onstage—have had their moments of impressive rocking.
The band broke up in 2012, but 2016 saw the return of the Ween with a number of shows in select cities. I didn’t see their first night in San Francisco, but on their second outing, they opened with a six song acoustic set that began with the gem “Birthday Boy” and ended with “The Mollusk.”
The plugged-in portion of the night kicked off with some of their strongest rock songs (“Transdermal Celebration,” “My Own Bare Hands,” “Buckingham Green”) that helped make the case that Dean Ween is one of the better guitarists working today. Later on, a lectern was set up for Gene Ween to deliver the spoken words of “Israel” and then the classic drive-through goof “Pollo Asado” while smoking cigarettes. The main set ended with a ragged, guitar driven “Tender Situation” that would make Neil Young and Crazy Horse proud.
The three-song encore set that followed ended with Dean Ween adding an amazing six-minute Funkadelic style guitar jam onto the end of the country ballad “Fluffy.” Welcome back guys!
Television at Santa Cruz’s Rio Theatre on October 23rd
Before Television came out onstage, a recording of solo piano played overhead as the room was bathed in blue/green lighting. The great twin guitar band opened with a song that kept the water theme going with “Prove It” and its lyrics about waves. Television then went headlong into “Elevation” with its twisting guitar lines adorning the song like a beautiful vine and then “Venus” with its playfully poetic lyrics.
A few numbers seemed to be jazz inspired and placed the quartet’s impeccable musicianship in upper realms. The set ended with the epic “Marquee Moon,” the best dueling guitar song of all time.
Before their sole encore number, frontman Tom Verlaine remarked that they were going to play a surf song since Santa Cruz is a surf town. It made sense. It also made me think that possibly surf rock instrumentals inspired the guitar interplay on their masterpiece album Marquee Moon?