Top 10 Shows of 2011
Here we are at the very end of my extensive 2011 year end coverage. Among many other things, I saw more live shows in 2011 than ever before. Naming just ten of my favorites was painfully difficult for me, as I’ve seen so many fantastic shows this year, so I’ve included an honorable mention section at the bottom. The top ten are in descending order of preference. Special thanks to Manic Productions for making the majority of these shows possible. Connecticut wouldn’t be the same without them.
The original review for each of these shows is linked in each title, for the ones that I actually reviewed. I’ve also attached links to see more photos at the Lewis and his Blog facebook page when applicable.
WHY?’s show at The Wadsworth Atheneum happened only four days ago, well after I already started putting together my lists, but after I attended it I knew that it deserved a place here. The band debuted new material from their forthcoming record, which sounded great, and interspersed it with classics from their 2008 LP Alopecia and its followup Eskimo Snow. Recent Anticon-signee Serengeti opened, with help from WHY? multi-instrumentalist Doug McDiarmid.
View more photos HERE.
Low’s show back in April at Daniel Street was definitely one of the most surreal and eerie concerts I went to this year. The band played in almost total darkness, and the audience was seated in front, which was an unusual arrangement for the bar/venue. Low brought out songs from their 2011 LP C’mon, and also dug into their archives to play songs like “Sunflower” from Things We Lost In The Fire. The performance was heavy and emotional, but the band didn’t lose themselves for one moment. Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk’s distinctive harmonies never sounded better.
I’m not completely positive about this, but I’m pretty sure that I saw Okkervil River play in my hometown this Summer on the exact day that I got out from school. If that’s the case, I couldn’t have thought of a better way to kick off summer 2011. Although I love Okkervil River, I was just as excited to see opening band Titus Andronicus again, whom I had just seen exactly a week prior at B.O.M.B. Fest in Hartford. Titus ruled as usual, but Okkervil River tore the house down, playing for well over an hour and a half and performing many of my favorite songs of theirs.
View more photos HERE.
Sharon Van Etten’s free show at BAR was one of the first of a long-running series of Wednesday night shows that Manic Productions hosts at the downtown New Haven pizza joint, and also one of the first shows I saw in 2011. The more I think about it, the more I realize that it was also one of the very best. It’s amazing to me how vividly I remember it; the intimacy, the atmosphere, and especially Van Etten’s beautiful vocals resonate in my mind with just as much power as they did on that day almost a full year ago.
As I wrote in my original review, this was a show that I never would have predicted I’d be seeing if you asked me about it at the beginning of 2011. But with his accommodating demeanor and beautiful music, Jeff Mangum transported everyone in the New England Conservatory Jordan Hall in Boston that night back to 1998. Mangum may have gotten older, but you wouldn’t have noticed it if you had been there. Like his songs, it seems like Mangum will last forever.
View more photos HERE.
5. The Antlers live at The Space, Hamden CT - 6/17/11
I actually did take photos at this show, but through some mishap or another I lost the files on my camera’s SD card. In retrospect, I’m pretty upset about that, and definitely disappointed that I was too busy to review this show after I saw it. Anyway, someone recorded audio from the show and took the photo above. The entire show can be downloaded over at Connecticut Recordings. Oh look, there I am in the Sebadoh shirt right behind Peter Silberman. You can actually hear me singing during the “encore” performance of “Two.” Crazy. Immediately after the show, I caught Peter Silberman before he could bolt off the stage, and got a copy of the setlist, which is now hanging on my wall.
My last.fm charts inform me that after The Mountain Goats, Bright Eyes is my most listened-to artist of 2011. Could you have guessed? I’ve been a little obsessive over Conor Oberst in this past year, and that obsession came to a head at the end of the Summer, when I took the train down to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Waterfront to see Bright Eyes on The People’s Key Tour. Oberst and company did not disappoint, playing a lengthy set of songs culled from many of the band’s past albums. The highlight of the night came towards the end, when they played the epic closer to 2002’s Lifted, “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved).” Openers Real Estate and Dr. Dog were also stellar.
View more photos HERE.
3. My Heart To Joy live at Madison Arts Barn, Madison CT - 5/14/11
As sad as it may be to admit this, 2011 will probably go down as a year of breakups, both on local and national levels. On the local level, the year’s hardest breakup for me was that of My Heart To Joy, who announced their disbandment in February. Thankfully, they decided to go out with a bang, enlisting an army of the best bands in the Northeast and Midwest punk scenes and playing a generation-defining final show at the Madison Arts Barn in May. More than anything else I did this year, attending this show made me truly proud to be from Connecticut. I wore that orange wristband for months afterward.
2. LCD Soundsystem live at Madison Square Garden, New York City NY - 4/2/11
If My Heart To Joy’s breakup was the saddest local disbandment, LCD Soundsystem’s was the saddest national one. This was a band at the peak of their creative output and potentially on the verge of massive commercial success, and they gave it all up for reasons that are still unclear to me. Thankfully, I got the chance to see their last show at Madison Square Garden, which, if anything, showed exactly how much this band mattered. The show sold out months in advance, and was anticipated with bated breath as everyone waited to see if an independent band could pull something this extravagant off. LCD Soundsystem proved that this was absolutely possible, and if they needed to break up to show just what an indie rock band could do, perhaps it’s worth it after all.
Although it wasn’t as big or as extravagant as LCD Soundsystem’s final show, Sufjan Stevens’ two night run at Prospect Park in Brooklyn holds a place in my heart as undoubtedly the most personally significant live music event of the year for me. In many ways, the two shows (both of which I attended) felt like the culmination of all of Sufjan’s previous efforts. It was a cataclysmic declaration of his creative voice, and a stunning indication of his ability to exercise that voice, with well over a dozen musicians, electronic light displays, and a focus on music from the highly conceptual Age of Adz LP from 2010. And yet, perhaps because the show took place in a venue that Sufjan called “his backyard,” the shows also felt incredibly intimate and personal. Sufjan Stevens deserves the credit for being the first artist to “get me into” modern independent music, and with the Prospect Park shows in August, I felt like my musical interests had finally, truly been validated.
View more photos HERE.
The Guru live at The Space, Hamden CT - 6/11/11
Frank Turner live at Heirloom Arts Theater, Danbury CT - 9/20/11
Hostage Calm live at The Space, Hamden CT - 9/24/11
Thank you to everyone who read and enjoyed any of my 2011 lists. This has been a very enjoyable ordeal for me, and I’m really satisfied with how everything turned out. 2011 has treated me very well musically, and all I can do is attempt to give back in some way. Now that I’ve finished covering 2011, I’m going to set my sights on 2012 and hope for the best. Thanks for everything.
Video: Bright Eyes - “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved)” (Live at Williamsburg Waterfront. Brooklyn NY. 8.31.11)
A Youtube user named Img0 recently put up a number of videos of Bright Eyes’ show at the WIlliamsburg Waterfront in Brooklyn last Wednesday, including a video of the night’s best moment. This video captures all 8 minutes and 26 seconds of their performance of “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved)”, which is my favorite Bright Eyes song. Hearing this live was one of the definitive moments of my show-going experience, and watching the video gives me some serious chills. Check out the performance above.
I reviewed the full show HERE.
I am SO jealous. I saw Bright Eyes 3 times this tour each time I was like GOD I hope they play Let’s Not Shit Ourselves. Did you take a video?
I thought about it. I brought my little HD camcorder but I only ended up recording video of one song (“Hot Knives”). I was too busy dancing and singing during the rest of the set, and I didn’t want to compromise that. I’ll upload that video soon though.
BRIGHT EYES Live at Williamsburg Waterfront. Brooklyn NY. 8.31.11
Conor Oberst brought his long-running songwriting institution Bright Eyes to the banks of the East River on Wednesday night for a show at Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Waterfront. The show was part of a lengthy tour behind the group’s most recent studio album The People’s Key, released on Saddle Creek in February.
Oberst & Co. brought their tourmates Dr. Dog along as support, in addition to New Jersey’s Real Estate, who opened the show. Real Estate took the stage just as the sun was beginning to hang low in the sky over New York City, delivering their blissful summery surf pop to the growing crowd that was beginning to trickle in through the gates. It was a scorching hot day when I arrived at the Waterfront, but as soon as Real Estate began to play, it immediately felt as though a cool, localized breeze had descended on the venue and its patrons. Real Estate didn’t have much of a draw among the Bright Eyes crowd, but people seemed to enjoy them nonetheless. Perhaps they had foresight about this, as they took the opportunity to perform a set comprised almost entirely of unreleased material from their forthcoming sophomore album Days. Amidst all of the other Days songs, their jangly new single “It’s Real” sounded especially fantastic.
While I had seen Real Estate perform once before at B.O.M.B. Fest back in May, I had never seen Dr. Dog before, nor had I given them much of a serious listen. To be honest, up until this show, I had dismissed them as just another fairly inoffensive, middle-of-the-road indie rock band. Needless to say, I was pretty surprised and impressed when they began their set. They reminded me of a more clean-cut, less hackneyed version of bands like The Gaslight Anthem, with admirable musicality, a loose, jam-friendly easiness, and a little psychedelic pop for flavor. It’s an interesting package for sure, and the audience was really into it. I’ll definitely be giving this band more listens in the future.
Anyway, both opening bands got the crowd suitably warmed up for the headlining act. By the time the band took the stage, the cries of swooning teenage girls and disaffected teenage boys (along with those of some people who used to be teenage girls and boys) did not die down for at least a few solid minutes, provoking a particularly adorable looking Conor Oberst to sheepishly grin at the crowd as he and his bandmates were setting up. It was the first and possibly only time he or any of the other touring Bright Eyes members slipped up that night, which is remarkably impressive in retrospect, considering the scope and ambition of the show itself.
In total, the band performed 21 songs, including three encores and a lengthy band introduction segment, in which Conor played hype-man to the likes of his “main man”, trumpeter Nate Walcott and his “brother”, multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, whom he also stated was the best record producer ever. “Fuck Dr. Dre,” he said afterwards.
Many previous shows on the tour have seen the band open with “Firewall”, the dramatic opening track to The People’s Key, which was initially shocking to hear on record both for its bizarre spoken word introduction by Denny Brewer and for its cold atmosphere, which hangs over most of The People’s Key as a whole. Instead, the band chose to open with “Four Winds”, the countrified standout track from 2007’s Cassadaga. This choice makes sense on one level — “Four Winds” was a big hit for the band and is one of their definitive songs — but the track itself is pretty far removed from the direction that Bright Eyes seemed to be heading in with their latest album. In fact, the band didn’t even play a People’s Key song until five songs into the set. They pulled out gems from Lifted, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, including a peculiar slowed down version of “Bowl Of Oranges,” which became a great singalong in the live setting. When they finally did try a song from the new album, they pounded out the high-tempo electrified rocker ”Jejune Stars” with tenacity and unprecedented energy. The band seems to have come to terms with the new material over the course of the tour, and It was clear that while Oberst’s older work would forever have its place in the Bright Eyes canon, the new songs could be really fun too. I understood this as soon as I heard the blistering opening drum beats of “Jejune Stars”, and the crowd seemed to get it fairly quickly too. Actually, people got even more psyched up about The People’s Key’s “Shell Games” than they did about the song that came immediately before it, the hyper-emotive Lifted classic “Lover I Don’t Have To Love”. It was great seeing such a dedicated fanbase react to change in such an accepting way.
With some clever setlist choices, the newer tracks were incorporated into the set pretty smoothly. In order to help ease some of the transitions between gentle folk songs like the gorgeous “Landlocked Blues” from I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and the electronic-tinged People’s Key numbers, a healthy number of Digital Ash In A Digital Urn cuts were incorporated into the set. On a strictly musical level, The People’s Key has a lot in common with Digital Ash, and hearing the synth-led Digital Ash single “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” immediately before “Jejune Stars” really made those similarities stand out. “Lover I Don’t Have To Love” flowed into “Shell Games” pretty nicely too, since both songs are based around similar keyboard arrangements.
I mentioned earlier that I was impressed with the focused energy and the tightness of Conor and the band, but I’ll reiterate it here. This was easily the most professional sounding show I’ve ever been to, with not a single discernable musical error, mistake, or awkward moment. Every one of the band members played their instruments brilliantly and charismatically, sometimes (in the case of Mike Mogis in particular) switching up instruments between songs or even in the middle of songs but never sacrificing the quality of the songs themselves.
This is not to say, however, that the band was “professional” in all senses of that word. Between songs and while performing, Conor Oberst was endearingly boyish. He acted out his own songs with hand motions in between guitar strums, danced on top of the monitors, and came up with lyrical ad-libs on the fly that just happened to be funny or poignant enough to work. In “Hot Knives”, he threw the crowd for a loop by changing the very singable line “Yeah I’ve made love, Yeah I’ve been fucked, so what?” into the more amusing “Yeah I’ve made love wearing handcuffs, so what?”. During “Landlocked Blues”, Oberst threw in some much needed profanity to the fifth verse (“And that little fucker shot me dead!”). If I hadn’t known better, based on my impression of him at the show, I would never have been able to guess that he was actually 31 years old. Of course, people who actively dislike Bright Eyes might take this as a negative criticism. Ever since he first started Bright Eyes as a teenager, people have been telling Oberst to act his age, but for those of us who appreciate Conor and his distinctive personality, this playfulness was something to celebrate. It was just so damn cute.
One of the great things about seeing a band with such a deep and varied discography as that of Bright Eyes is that you never really know what you’re going to get. Sure, you’ll hear some hits (in this case, “Four Winds”, “Take It Easy”, and “Lover I Don’t Have To Love”) and some new songs (“Jejune Stars”, “Shell Games”, “Approximated Sunlight”), but beyond that, it’s up to whatever the band feels like playing. Conor definitely threw some surprises into the setlist on Wednesday night, most of which were incredibly rewarding to hear. The middle of the set was heavy on surprises, starting with the fantastic Four Winds EP track “Cartoon Blues”, which Oberst prefaced with a jab about Williamsburg hipsters. Immediately afterwards, touring keyboardist and backing vocalist Laura Burhenn stepped out from behind her synthesizer to sing lead vocals on the first verse of a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Wrecking Ball”. A couple songs later, the band surprised everyone by playing the eerie, southern gothic Fevers and Mirrors cut “Arienette”. They would later go on to play “The Calendar Hung Itself” from the same album, which was incredibly cathartic to shout along to even if it did feel a bit ridiculous at times.
Of course, if you were following my facebook or twitter feeds at any point between tuesday night and wednesday afternoon, you probably knew what I was really hoping to hear that night. The night before in Providence, Rhode Island, Bright Eyes played their 10 minute+ Lifted-closing masterpiece ”Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And Be Loved)” live for the first time since 2002. My friend was there and said that it was basically the most amazing thing she had ever heard in her whole life as far as shows go. From the moment she told me about it I knew that if they played that song at the Brooklyn show, I could probably just die right there and be happy about it. Well, imagine the look on my face when I saw that one of the drumsets that was wheeled onstage had a gigantic timpani drum attached to it. I knew that the timpani drum could only be used for one thing, and that it was only a matter of time before they played my favorite Bright Eyes song ever.
The band exited the stage after the somber “Ladder Song”, only to return for an encore about fifteen minutes later with smiles on their faces. “Can I get a goddamn timpani roll?”, Oberst asked the drummer in a manner that was much calmer than how he sounds on the album version. I half expected him to say “please.” But once the band launched into the song — this amazing goddamn song — I had no doubts about anything. The only thing I can compare the experience to is the first time I heard Titus Andronicus’ “The Battle of Hampton Roads” live in July 2010, but even that seems to pale in comparison to just how important this performance was to me. I went absolutely crazy, shouting along to the lyrics throughout the entire duration of the lengthy song, and nearly everyone around me did the same. It was inspiring and intimidating but incredibly meaningful and real. After it was over, the rousing I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning closer ”Road To Joy” and the cheesy but endearing The People’s Key closer “One For You, One For Me” flew by in a daze. Pretty soon the band had left the stage, and I was still left wondering what the hell just happened to me two songs ago.
In the car on the way back, I got into a conversation with my cousin, who went to the show with me. I was talking to him about my relationship with Bright Eyes’ music, and how I felt that in just a few years, I may not be able to appreciate it in the same way anymore. Well, I’ve heard murmurings that The People’s Key is supposed to be the last Bright Eyes album, so perhaps if I ever do grow up and fly away from the musical nest that this band has crafted for me, they might not be around when I do. If this is the case, I certainly feel lucky to have seen them when I did. I know that it’s still going to be quite a while before I say goodbye to Bright Eyes (and probably even longer before I move on from Conor Oberst in general), but when and if that time comes, I think that I’ll be ready for it, having experienced this show. Until then, I’ll probably just keep reliving the moment when Conor Oberst told me that he made love wearing handcuffs. And most of the other moments from that night too.
Setlist - 8/31/11
- 1. Four Winds
- 2. Bowl Of Oranges
- 3. Old Soul Song (For The New World Order)
- 4. Take It Easy (Love Nothing)
- 5. Jejune Stars
- 6. Landlocked Blues
- 7. Lover I Don’t Have To Love
- 8. Shell Games
- 9. Approximated Sunlight
- 10. Cartoon Blues
- 11. Wrecking Ball (Gillian Welch cover)
- 12. Hot Knives
- 13. Arienette
- 14. Arc Of Time (Time Code)
- 15. I Believe In Symmetry
- 16. Another Travellin’ Song
- 17. The Calendar Hung Itself
- 18. Ladder Song
- 19. Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And Be Loved) (Encore)
- 20. Road To Joy (Encore)
- 21. One For You, One For Me (Encore)
Check out the full set of photos from Wednesday night HERE at the Lewis and his Blog facebook page.
Photos: Bright Eyes live at Williamsburg Waterfront. Brooklyn NY. 8.31.11
Bright Eyes played in Brooklyn last night with support acts Real Estate and Dr. Dog, and I was there. Be sure to check out these photos and more, along with photos of the two opening acts, over at the Lewis and his Blog facebook page HERE. A full review of this show is coming early tomorrow.
edit: Click HERE to read my full review of this show.