Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Best Shows of 2014

I saw dozens of concerts all over California and beyond this year from burly metal bands in a Las Vegas dive bar to a surf jazz duo in an old Venice Beach speakeasy. Of course, most of the shows I caught were in my local area, which is the greater Monterey Bay region. Here are the dozen standout shows from 2014 that continue to reverberate in my mind. They are listed in chronological order. Below this list are snippets from the shows and links to a few, fuller concert write-ups that I did this year for Relix Magazine.

Pixies at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library on April 15th

My younger self would have been blown away to learn that decades after almost wearing out a cassette of the Pixie’s timeless 1988 debut Surfer Rosa I would see them perform to just a few hundred people under the redwoods on the California Coast. With Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle, The Entrance Band) filling in as touring bassist for the recently departed Kim Deal, the still ferocious quartet began the evening with “Bone Machine” before ripping into classic tracks including “Gouge Away.”
The star of the show was perennially underrated guitarist Joey Santiago who manhandled his instrument and its electrified amplifier cord on a wild and wooly “Vamos.”Black Francis had played the library a couple of times as a solo artist, but the frontman didn’t acknowledge those performances or address the crowd in any way except for uttering “one more” before ending the evening with a suitably noisy “Planet of Sound.”

DIIV at Santa Cruz’s Catalyst Atrium on April 30th

DIIV’s Santa Cruz performance was a total revelation. Led by diminutive frontman Zachary Cole Smith, who appeared to be dressed in a graduation gown or tunic, the Brooklyn four-piece bettered the songs off their superb 2012 debut Oshin. Though the songs on Oshin have a shoegaze sound, Smith and fellow guitarist Andrew Bailey played the songs with a contagious enthusiasm that caused them to move all over the stage on highlights like “Doused.”
Their set also included a handful of surprises including a few unreleased new songs that sounded as great as anything off Oshin and a hypnotic cover of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” The biggest surprise came during the encore when pop starlet (and Smith’s girlfriend) Sky Ferreira joined the band onstage to sing Cat Power’s “Nude as the News.”

The Cure at Napa’s BottleRock Napa Festival on May 30th

The Cure doesn’t make it over to this country often, so when they hit these shores, it’s worth it to hit the road to see them. Performing in the Friday headlining slot at the BottleRock Napa Festival, Robert Smith and company treated the crowd to a generous 33 and a half song set. (More on that half song later.) The show balanced the band’s pop hits (“The Caterpillar,” “Friday I’m in Love”) with darker material (“One Hundred Years,” “Give Me It”). Impressively, Smith himself pulled out several stellar guitar solos throughout the evening.
After the first encore of “A Forest,” the band launched into a parade of hits including “The Lovecats,” “Hot Hot Hot!,” “Freakshow,” “Close to Me,” and “Why Can’t I Be You” before the plug was pulled on the latter song due to the festival’s strict curfew. With so many timeless tracks performed over the two and a half hour set, the band’s performance easily warranted the several hour-long drive to the festival.

Guided By Voices at Santa Cruz’s Rio Theatre on June 10th

Known as low-fi indie rock pioneers, Guided By Voice played like a full-fledged, arena rock band at this Santa Cruz show even though they didn’t have an ocean of fans. Frontman Robert Pollard swung his mic around like a ninja between swigs of Miller Lite, while guitarist Mitch Mitchell did guitar windmills as a cigarette dangled from his mouth during their rocking set.
The band was in Santa Cruz to support three albums: 2014’s Motivational Jumpsuit, 2014’s Cool Planet, and the 20th anniversary of their classic 1994 release Bee Thousand. The crowd ate up favorites from the latter including “Tractor Rape Chain,” “Echos Myron,” and “Ester’s Day.” Just three months later, the band announced that they had broken up for good, meaning that this stellar group will never have a chance to play to a stadium of fans.

Paul McCartney at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 14th

Who was going to join one of the last living Beatles at his special show to shut down the San Francisco sports stadium Candlestick Park? Neil Young? Carlos Santana? Once, McCartney took the stage and began playing “Eight Days a Week” with his great backing band the questions of possible guest stars vanished. A living Beatle was onstage, and there was pretty much no one on earth who would be able to steal the show.
The nearly three hour, 40 song set was essentially a victory lap through one of rock’s best catalogues. It included “Blackbird,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Yesterday” along with entertaining stories about Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, and John Lennon. The evening ended with a run through a section of Abbey Road’s second side suite including “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End.

Beck at Monterey’s First City Festival on August 23rd

The last time I saw Beck he underwhelmed with a set at the 2008 Outside Lands Festival. With a back injury healed and a stellar comeback album, Morning Phase, Beck was a different beast when he performed the First City Festival’s Friday headlining set. It all began with a high energy “Devil’s Haircut” and took a breather in the middle with mellower material including a bold “Wave” done with footage from space playing in the background.
An unexpected highlight was a trio of tracks from 1999’s Midnite Vultures: “Get Real Paid,” “Sexx Laws,” and “Debra.” The celebratory show ended with an extended jam on “Where It’s At” that made detours into a few cover songs including the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You.” Welcome back Beck.

Monterey Jazz Festival at Monterey’s Monterey County Fairgrounds on September 19th-21st

Every year, the Monterey Jazz Festival is filled with revelatory performances, and this year was no different. Friday night’s highlight was the Robert Glasper Experiment’s set that launched off into space when saxophone player Casey Benjamin started doing otherworldly vocoder-assisted vocals. Throughout it all, drummer Mark Colenburg did some mind-bending work.
Saturday afternoon stretched the boundaries of jazz with sets by Booker T and Gary Clark Jr. It was a real treat to see Booker T lay down the ridiculously funky “Green Onions” on organ and also strap on a guitar for a cover of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” Though Clark is touted as the next Hendrix, he didn’t touch his “Third Stone From the Sun”/If You Love Me Like You Say” mash-up. The set was more scattershot than his October 2013 performance at Oakland’s Fox Theatre, but his gutsy guitar flight on “When My Train Pulls In” was one of the best songs I saw played live all year long. Saturday ended with a barrage of hip hop from The Roots that rankled a few jazz purists. It included a medley that dipped into Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” which was a daring maneuver at this long running and prestigious festival.

Thurston Moore Band and Sebadoh at Santa Cruz’s Catalyst Atrium on October 9th

A tour featuring two of my favorite acts: the underrated indie rock act Sebadoh and Thurston Moore, formerly of Sonic Youth? There was no way I was going to miss this one. Sebadoh’s set was a blast of nostalgia and noise with the trio generously dipping into many of its gems from 1994’s Bakesale. Songwriters Lou Barlow and Jason Lowenstein switched back and forth between guitar and bass on songs that ranged from heartfelt to barrages of knotty indie rock.
As for the headliner, the new quartet led by Thurston Moore did the near impossible feat of playing most of their new album The Best Day to a mesmerized and engaged crowd who had never heard it before. (It would be released two weeks after the show.) Part of the new band's power came from the interplay between Moore and his new guitarist James Sedwards. While Moore contributed punky riffs and slabs of noise, Sedwards would add a killer straight ahead guitar solo to standout songs in the set including single "The Best Day." On other songs, the impressive improvisational nature of the band shined strong like when the seven minute long instrumental "Grace Lake" was stretched and twisted into an unexpected 20-minute epic. This amazing night of music showcased indie rock at its finest.

Tinariwen at Big Sur’s Loma Vista Gardens on October 30th

This band of rebel musicians from Mali played music that was somehow both familiar and wholly exotic at their intimate, outdoor show in Big Sur. The familiar element was the group’s hypnotic guitar grooves that recalled the rough around the edges primal blues of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. These killer grooves were topped frequently with chants in the North Africans’ native language. The crowd in Big Sur couldn’t understand the lyrics but the band’s powerful music elicited excitement and created a real connection between the group and its audience.

Hiss Golden Messenger at Santa Cruz’s The Crepe Place on November 10th

After seeing a superb show by Hiss Golden Messenger at Big Sur’s Fernwood way back in 2007, I have always kept an eye on this superb band led by Californian turned North Carolinian M.C. Taylor. Returning to the West Coast for a fall tour, Hiss Golden Messenger’s show at the intimate Crepe Place made many compelling cases for me to keep following this band far in the future.
Led by Taylor with valuable assists from bassist Scott Hirsch and guitarist/organist Phil Cook, the group brought songs from their newest album Lateness of Dancers to life with a serious groove. Surprisingly, they didn’t play the upbeat “Saturday’s Song,” but Hiss Golden Messenger did find time to do their own take on Waylon Jennings’ classic “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean.” The show ended with Taylor doing a stunning version of Lateness of Dancers standout “Drum” while in the crowd.

Angel Olsen at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall on December 1st

Dressed in a glittery orange dress, singer/guitarist/songwriter Angel Olsen and her band had a large San Francisco crowd enthralled as they performed a set that included dips into country, folk, and indie rock. Her band was great especially the guitarist, but the most arresting section of the show occurred when Olsen performed without her backing band. The highlight was a goose bump inducing “White Fire” where Olsen’s voice and guitar kept the giant crowd captivated and dead quiet.
Though a situation kept me from seeing all of opener Kevin Morby’s set, some of the songs I heard evoked both Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground. I’ll be sure to further investigate music by this former Woods bassist.

Relix Pixies in Big Sur Article:

Relix Guided By Voices in Santa Cruz Article:

Relix Monterey Jazz Festival Article:

Relix First City Festival Article:

1 comment:

  1. I feel privileged to have enjoyed many of these concerts with you. You captured the details of every show outstandingly. I hope to read more about artists, albums, songs, videos (you know, music) on your site.