2014 was an incredible year for music and live performances. Photographers for The Way That He Sings covered over a hundred shows in 2014, from St. Vincent and The Black Keys to Queens of the Stone Age, Arcade Fire, The Smashing Pumpkins, Cage The Elephant, Foals, FKA Twigs, First Aid Kit…the list goes on. Here are our photographer’s favorite performances of 2014. (Check back in January for our favorite photos of 2014.)
St. Vincent stole the show in 2014, both on-stage and on vinyl with her sublime new album. If you put the regurgitated nostalgia acts aside for yet another year, some of the best live music of 2014 featured a potpourri of artists at their true prime; Arcade Fire, Jenny Lewis, Spoon, Ex-Cops, The Antlers, The Black Keys. These artists don’t need to look backwards for their hits; it’s happening right now with them. They’re the best of today and the most highly anticipated for tomorrow.
2014 was a great year for concerts. I went to 36 shows and saw 58 artists. I saw several bands whose careers I’ve followed for 20 – 30 years, caught up with established bands who continuously put on an amazing shows, and discovered several new artists, or at least artists new to me. So here they are, my Top 10 live shows of 2014 with a few honorable mentions thrown in.
Sylvia’s Top Ten
1. Augustines: There really are no words to truly describe an Augustines show. Really, you can’t just read this short review of their show. No. I’m sorry to tell you, you have to be a witness to the event. Billy McCarthy, Eric Sanderson, and Rob Allen transformed the small, poorly-lit stage at the Soda Bar into a platform from which they transmitted their energy, their joy, and their heartache straight into the audience. I loved their performance so much in February that I was ready to jump in my car and follow them to Arizona for their gigs later on that week. Instead, I made plans to see them towards the end of the first leg of their North American tour. I flew out to Denver in March and was lucky enough to see them one last time in September at The Troubadour in Los Angeles. What I loved best about all of the Augustines shows I attended was the band’s unique ability to fully engage the audience, to make us all feel as if we are all old pals, a family. Seeing the Augustines live is something I HIGHLY recommend to those who love good, good music and good, good people.
2. Owl John/Scott Hutchison: My 2014 obsession with Indie Scottish bands began after seeing Scott Hutchison perform at The Casbah in June. I had loosely followed Frightened Rabbit’s career, but about a month prior to Scott Hutchison’s performance I dusted off my Frightened Rabbit CDs and played them non-stop. Day and night. In the car, at home, at work. I did realize that Scott was touring as Owl John and that perhaps I wouldn’t get to hear any FR songs. That was fine by me, Scott is known to be not only a dynamic frontman, but also a very funny guy – I knew the night would be a treat either way. As it turns out, because the album wasn’t completed in time (Owl John was finally released in August), I got to hear all the Frightened Rabbit songs I could have ever wanted! I don’t know how Hutchison did it, I really don’t know how he was able to pull off the enormity of sound that is embedded in Frightened Rabbit songs, how he managed to impart the same emotional content of the songs without his other band members in tow. But he did just that – Hutchison had no trouble delivering a huge sound. This shows that the right artist and the right songs can still carry just as much weight solo as on a well-produced recording. The setup also forced a camaraderie between Hutchison and the audience, a connection that rarely occurs — and isn’t easy to pull off. Scott promised he’d be back to play in San Diego if the album was well received, “I only live two and a half hours up the road now, fuck yeah!”
3. The Twilight Sad: Hooray for the Scots, again! What an amazing set they put on at The Irenic in November. They were opening up for another massive Sottish band, We Were Promised Jetpacks, and my only regret of the show is that their set wasn’t longer. Nine songs is all we got that night. However, James, Andy, and Mark will begin their headlining tour in support of their third studio album, Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave, in early 2015 and will make it as far south in California as Costa Mesa before heading to Austin for SXSW. So, fill up your gas tanks, get on the 5 freeway and meet me there. The Twilight Sad’s sound is massive, swirly, dynamic, dark, epic. How many more adjectives can I use? These three guys sure make an amazing amount of beautiful noise. James Graham, as the frontman, is more of a conductor of electricity – every note, every riff, every beat swims through his body, through his fingertips, through his feet, through his eyes. He then hurls all of this energy at the crowd along with his deep voice that carries his weighty lyrics. Don’t miss these guys in 2015, they will literally knock you off your feet.
4. Paul McCartney: What can I say? He is a Beatle. Okay, moving on to the next short review . . . No, but seriously, Paul McCartney is talented, a true professional, an entertainer, and a former Beatle who at the age of 72 can still play for almost three hours and deliver an incredible performance. I saw Paul McCartney for the first time at Outside Lands in 2013, and that experience is indescribable. I’m a huge Beatles fan, so to hear him sing and play those songs that I grew up with and know by heart was an incredible thrill. McCartney is charming and funny. Aside from the music, the best part of his show are the stories he tells of his time with John, George, and Ringo. When I saw him for the second time this year in September, I was actually a little shocked and heartbroken that he told the same stories, he delivered them in the same way, he had the same punch lines. But you know what? Let’s just let Paul McCartney do whatever he wants. His stage show is a well-oiled machine complete with flames and fireworks and lights and video. His singing is still solid, even if it did take him two or three songs to warm up. At an average of $150 per ticket, I think it is better that Paul has his shtick down instead of “having a bad” night and flubbing up on stage. Let’s just let Paul do what Paul does.
5. Arcade Fire: Aside from McCartney, this was my one other big stadium show of the year and what a stadium show it was! Arcade Fire knows how to throw a party! On the concert ticket they invited audience members to don their finest attire or at the very least wear a costume. San Diego is perhaps a bit too casual for formal garb – only about a fourth of the attendees were able to pull off the polished look. The rest of us wore jeans and flip-flops. Arcade Fire were like a moving jigsaw puzzle, the 13 musicians on stage contributed to a multitude of instruments. The band twisted and wove through their catalogue with great ease making each of their songs sound more powerful, vibrant, and personal than their already iconic recordings.
6. Cage The Elephant: Oh, those crazy, energetic, and very talented guys of Cage the Elephant. What a joy it is to see them play in San Diego ALL THE TIME! Well, maybe not all the time, but it sure feels like it. I saw them twice this year, first at The Belly Up in April, and most recently headlining 91’x Wrex the Halls. They take the stage and all you can do is brace yourself and hope that Matt Shultz doesn’t land straight on your head when he stage dives. Or maybe I have that all wrong? Maybe you DO hope that Matt Shultz lands on your head when he stage dives.
7. Royal Blood: From Brighton, England this duo puts on a massive, massive sound. How do they do that? How can one drummer and one bassist create such an immense sonic landscape? And how can Mike Kerr play the bass and make it sound like a guitar? Can someone explain it to me? Royal Blood opened up for The Pixies at Humphrey’s By The Bay in September and were the highlight of the show. That’s saying a lot, you know, they eclipsed The Pixies. Don’t miss them next year when they tour with the Foo Fighters.
8. Bear’s Den, Dan Mangan + Blacksmith, and Christof: I feel like I’m cheating because I’m nominating three artists for the #8 spot. But I just can’t split them up, they formed such a perfect little trio of beautiful sound. All very unique in their own way and all blending together their sounds for a perfect night of gorgeous music.
9. The Soft White Sixties: The San Francisco band played San Diego four times this year in support of their first full length album Get Right. Each time I saw their show they sounded even better than the previous performance. Keep your eye on these guys and put on your dancing shoes next time they play in town.
10. Nathaniel Rateliff: My list ends with this wonderful, powerful, yet quite performer from Denver. Rateliff played the Soda Bar in May and treated us to an intimate set of soulful and moving songs off of his new album, Falling Faster Than You Can Run, and his debut album, In Memory of Loss. Rateliff’s voice is a masterpiece – he cries out, he growls, he whispers – and his face is nearly as expressive. Each wince, scowl, and grimace gives more weight to his enormous voice and the song being played.
Honorable Mentions – Three other bands that I will see any day of the week:
Sam Roberts Band: Canada has great bands and SRB, from Montreal, are one of my favorites. They toured in support of their excellent album Lo-Fantasy