Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best Shows of 2019

Due to overwhelming interest—specifically from my pal Mike in Michigan—I am resurrecting this list of the most memorable concerts I saw all year. Flipping through my phone, I realized that I saw a bunch of great concerts from local bands in Monterey (The Silhouette Era! Shoobies! Lovers and Strangers!) to world touring rock music juggernauts (the one and only Rolling Stones). Also, I saw concerts all over California in 2019 as well as some in New York City and Detroit.
Here’s my nine best for 2019.

Fantastic Negrito at Carmel Valley’s Folktale Winery on April 30th
It was a real treat to see Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito do his surreal take on the blues in such an intimate venue. Songs including “Lost in a Crowd” were rushes of lyrics and emotion. Even his onstage banter was memorable. At one point, he made the observation that Europeans view America in the Trump era like they would a supermodel farting.

The Church at Santa Cruz’s Rio Theatre on May 10
I’ve been a fan of The Church since high school but never got to see them live until this year. Though on their Starfish30th anniversary tour, Sarah and I came late and missed them playing their super hit, “Under the Milky Way.” Thankfully, we did see them do “Reptile” along with some great songs off their other albums. The highlight by a mile was “Tantalized” from 1985’s Heyday that built from a gathering storm of early U2 like ferocious guitar strumming to a powerful liftoff.

The Mekons at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library on July 23
A trio of great pals from all over the U.S. converged for this outdoor show under the redwoods at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library, which helped make this concert so special. While The Mekons have a truly sprawling discography, the band’s 19 song set was relatively concise and touched on all their different variations: the gentle pop of “Ghosts of American Astronauts,” the fractured art dub of “How Many Stars,” and several country rock stunners. It all ended with the pure rock and roll rush of “Memphis, Egypt.”

The Rolling Stones at Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium on August 18th
It seemed like this one wasn’t going to happen. Mick Jagger unexpectedly underwent heart surgery this year, which postponed this show for months. Then, the night before the show, I found out Ticketmaster had not only sold my extra tickets on their resale site, but ALL of my tickets. What was almost a disaster turned out to be a blessing when Ticketmaster’s replacement tickets put us just 10 rows away from the band’s acoustic stage.
Having never seen the legendary rock act, they exceeded my expectations. Throughout, Keith Richards colored their hits with slashes of guitar, while it seemed like an on-fire Jagger was still celebrating his successful heart surgery. The song selection was stellar as well. Two Exile on Main Street songs—“Tumbling Dice”! “Rocks Off”!—in the first half hour! A moving “Sweet Virginia” played just a matter of feet away from us! A dynamic vocal duel between Jagger and female backing singer Sasha Allen on “Gimme Shelter”! Despite the price of the tickets and all of the work it took to make this one happen, The Rolling Stones more than rewarded us with a stellar stadium show. 

Yo La Tengo, Kevin Morby, Mattson 2, and more at Big Sur’s Fernwood on September 21st
Initially, this multi-day music festival anchored by Yo La Tengo was supposed to feature a performance by David Berman’s Purple Mountains. Having released one of my favorite albums of the year, it was beyond disappointing to learn that Berman committed suicide a few months before this gig. Thankfully, singer/songwriter Kevin Morby did a trio of Berman’s Silver Jews songs as a tribute at this bucolic outdoor mini-festival including “Random Rules.” In addition, his set, which included a couple numbers sung with Waxahatchee’s Alison Crutchfield, closed with a superb “Harlem River” where he unleashed some searing guitar. 
The centerpiece performance of this very fun weekend of camping and music was done by headliners Yo La Tengo. The show began with a few minutes of improvised noodling, which made me wonder if this was going to be some sort of avant garde performance. Instead, it was a master class in slow burn build that culminated in songs including “Double Dare.” 
The two short encore sets included a cover of the Beach Boys’ take on “Sloop John B” and Big Star’s “Take Care.” Then, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan simply stated: “You have a nice place here. Thanks for having us.”

Fontaines D.C. at Los Angeles’ Gold Diggers on September 26th
Like The Rolling Stones show, this performance was a case of great fortune coming out of something that looked like it was going to be a great disappointment. Sarah and I drove down to Los Angeles to see the great new Irish rock act Fontaines D.C. To say that we were bummed when we were greeted with a hand drawn sign cancelling the show outside of the Teragram Ballroom would be an understatement. Anyway, the night went into a different direction when we (Sarah, Ed Mullins, and I) gave up and ended up in Jumbo’s Clown Room where country superstar Sturgill Simpson was celebrating the release of his new album, Sound and Fury.
Anyway, a quick peek on my phone in the bar’s restroom alerted us that Fontaines D.C. were doing a free makeup show at a bar called Gold Diggers, just a mile away. So, instead of seeing the band in a 600-person room we were treated to an intimate performance in a room that could hold 150 people max. 
It ended up being the most explosive show I saw all year. In just an hour, the band played most of their debut album Dogrel. The whole room exploded after they did “Sha Sha Sha” and started slamming, jumping, and yelling along to “Hurricane Laughter.” At one point, the band’s singer made his way into the crowd—I believe it was during “Too Real”—as the band built up to an incredibly driving racket. It was a performance that I’ll never forget. 

Idles at San Francisco’s The Fillmore on October 10th
This was a tough ticket to score. Having sold out quickly, I finally found a reasonably priced resale ticket for my pal Geoff and I. It was worth my effort.
The British post punk/punk act Idles puts on a combustible show. With both lead vocalist Joe Talbot and guitarist Mark Bowen acting like crazed frontmen, there was a lot of energy and a lot to see. Also, it was revelatory to see how they utilized repurposed rubbish from pop culture’s scrap heap in the show including Bad Finger’s “Without You” and more. 

Mudhoney at Detroit’s El Club on October 15
Over the years, I’ve learned that some of the most ferocious performances can be from once popular bands that have continued to toil fruitfully past their time in the spotlight. Mudhoney’s Detroit show proved that though they are decades past their “grunge days” they haven’t lost their biting sarcasm and ability to create pummeling rock. Songs like “Touch Me I’m Sick” still deliver blows, but the last four songs of their encore set—all classic punk covers including a standout “The Money Will Roll Right In” by Fang”—produced the knockout punch.

Built to Spill at Santa Cruz’s Rio Theatre on November 21st
After many missed opportunities, I finally saw the great guitar rock band Built to Spill on a 20th anniversary tour celebrating the release of their classic album, Keep It Like a Secret. They didn’t have the legendary three guitar lineup I’d heard they’d had a few years back. Instead, this incarnation of Built to Spill was essentially Doug Martsch with a new band backing. 
The show scrambled the setlist of Keep It Like a Secret and added a few surprises including a glammy cover of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” and the inclusion of tracks from other albums (“Strange” from Ancient Melodies of the Future, “When Not Being Stupid Is Not Enough” from their 1995 collaborative EP with Caustic Resin.) 
Martsch was in fine form vocally and on guitar throughout. The highlight was an extended jam on “Broken Chairs.”