As with my 2012, 2013, and 2014 Year in Review features, this feature looks back on a year of music with a summary of the highlights. This year, I attended about 50 shows, with hundreds of different sets of incredible talent and music to make sense of, not to mention trying to keep up with all of the studio releases from artists, new and old. This is my attempt to (subjectively) share my favorites of the year, from live shows to new songs and albums. You can also check out my Top 100 Concert Photos of 2015 in that separate article.
This is the first of my 2015 “Year In Review” articles. As with my articles in 2012, 2013, and 2014, I reviewed a sampling of my concert photos from 2015 and compiled some of my favorites and stopped when I hit 100 photos in total. Please also check out my companion 2015 Year in Review article, which covers my Top 10 Albums, Top 10 Songs, Top 10 Concerts and more. [Read more…]
“I was going to save this one for later… just like me, I’m too excited, and I just can’t wait!” Dave Wakeling of The English Beat, teasing the crowd and then finally throwing down with popular hit “Save It For Later” not even halfway through their lengthy concert at City Winery Napa on Thursday night. After finishing that song, toaster King Schascha exclaimed: “We could not be saving anything for later… after that, we officially want to welcome each and every one of you to the Dave Wakeling workout program. Just that seven minutes right there is the best workout you’ve had all week. And you did it while drinking alcohol. More calories than ever. All you need to do for this membership is come to a Dave Wakeling Beat show.” King Schascha is one of several line-up changes in the band since I last saw them live back in January, and this is definitely my favorite modern-era incarnation of the band yet. They absolutely killed it on stage, and sounded better than ever with amazing energy and chemistry pouring into the sold out crowd (many of whom did get a great workout through the night). If how good a performance makes you feel while it’s happening was the only criteria for ranking a live show, I would have to say that this English Beat event was the concert of the year, and definitely the best I’d ever seen them, from the energy to the sound to the venue and atmosphere to the crowd, it all just came together beautifully. I’m actually now worried about seeing them again in the future, as it would be hard to measure up to this one show. Outstanding.
“She looked out her window one day, and saw a dog chasing a butterfly…” An intro to the song, “Dog & Butterfly”, the title track of Ann and Nancy Wilson’s 1978 album, and one of those songs that they don’t play every show. Heart’s show at Thunder Valley on Friday night was my second in as many months, and as I mentioned in my review of that concert at Mountain Winery, they do change things up from show to show. It’s also a reminder of just how many decades that they’ve been recording and touring hit music – they’ve actually been active as Heart since the year I was born, 1973. With the other show so fresh in my mind, for me personally, it was all about comparing and contrasting the two shows. Crowds create context, and Mountain Winery vs Thunder Valley is kind of like the wine-drinking city crowd vs the beer-drinking crowd from relatively more rural areas. Different energy and momentum, I’d say the smaller stage and softer environment of the winery venue made for a more intimate show while the bigger, tall stage and spotlights at this show was more rocking. As with each time I’ve seen them, the show was amazing and each member of the band had moments to showcase their special gifts and talents. They are one of my favorite bands to see live, and growing up with their music, they have the ability to tilt that adrenaline in my spine with those special moments in those songs I carry with me, that take me back to touch points in my life and feelings of nostalgia as they transport me back in time.
“It actually wasn’t supposed to be on the album, but I’m glad we did it, because it’s one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time…” Daryl Hall giving an intro to their cover of the classic Righteous Brothers hit, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”. Along with his partner, John, Hall and Oates have so many hit songs that they don’t have time to get to in the span of a standard-length concert that it is the one rare cover song that they perform live, showing a respect and debt of gratitude to the record and artists that came before them. Playing to a nearly sold out crowd of many thousands at the gorgeous Ironstone Amphitheatre at Ironstone Winery in Murphy’s California, it was only fitting that they closed out their Summer Concert Series on such a high note. I tend to see them every year (and less than a year ago at Mountain Winery in Saratoga), and they remain one of my all-time favorite live acts. They are such a fantastic live band, their songs in concert tend to be even better and more vibrant than the familiar studio recordings. A full band of exceptionally talented musicians, they play so well together than little improvisational flourishes make it all fresh and immediate. As the most successful recording duo of all time, they at once exceed audience expectations yet leave everyone wanting more because they are just that brilliant on stage.
“I think we’ve been here like eight or nine or ten times before… you can tell we’re sort of a variety band…” Nancy Wilson reminiscing about past appearances with her sister Ann and band Heart at Mountain Winery, before diving into a stunning cover of “Mona Lisas and Madhatters”. I’ve been lucky enough to see Heart several times in the past few years (even a year ago at the same venue and two years ago almost to the day at America’s Cup Pavilion) and one thing that I’ve learned with them is that every show is a completely different experience. Slight but substantive changes to setlists and songs, different tone and attitude… they have so much range and talent and emotion, you never quite know what to expect. Maybe that feminine perspective brings a wider gamut of approaches and possibilities? Or the duo and their band have so much by way of musical gifts, they challenge themselves by expressing their art in a variety of ways? In any event, this show was exceptional, with each of the sisters – as well as their stellar band – having moments to shine and showcase their talents. The standing ovation following “Alone” was one of the most enthusiastic I’ve seen in a long time. Somehow, Ann can really nail that song in so many different ways it’s amazing. As has been the case in the past few years, Heart remains the caretakers of keeping Led Zeppelin music alive and well (along with Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience, who have toured with them as well), closing out the night with covers of the classic, beloved music. Real icons and pioneers in music themselves, they are one of the best live shows touring today, with a catalog spanning decades and reflecting different eras in not only music but pop culture and our times.
“Two words to introduce this next song! Two words! Two words to introduce this next song! Two words to introduce this next song!” Billy Idol getting the sold out crowd of nearly 3,000 screaming, fist pumping fans shouting “Rebel Yell” at the opening night of Grand Sierra Resort’s new Grand Theatre. I can’t imagine a better way to launch a high end new concert venue than having none other than Billy Idol kicking off a new tour of his own on the vast stage built on the $10 million dollar renovation of the live music space. Billy Idol has been building on his own career and accomplishments of late, with 2014’s awesome new album Kings & Queens of the Underground (the first in nine years) and bestselling Dancing With Myself autobiography. In the midst of a resurgent mainstream interest in all things Billy Idol, he seems to be as popular as ever. Alongside his incredible band, they’ve put together probably their best live show ever with this tour. It also clocked in as the longest show I’ve seen, at around two hours. I’ve always noted this band as one of my all-time favorite live shows, and I’d have to say that this was the best I’d ever seen them. I’ve always complimented Idol on his boundless and limitless energy and he seems to have reached a new high with this show and tour. He is at once an icon and an enigma, as he continues to evolve his style while retraining his trademark lip curl and tongue in cheek uncensored gestures, looks, and poses. And one can’t neglect to mention Mr. Steve Stevens on lead guitar, who could put the audience in a trance even if he stood alone on the stage – one of the best guitarists performing today, if not the very best. If you haven’t been to a Billy Idol concert lately, you haven’t seen him and his band at all, as they are better than they’ve ever been, and that is saying a lot.
“Remember baby, the lake may be cold, but the light at the end of the tunnel may be you…” The final words from the immortal Steven Tyler as he turned his back to the crowd and strutted topless down the ramp and into the bright lights glowing from the back of the stage, as “Bad To The Bone” played him out. Performing at Harvey’s Outdoor Arena in South Lake Tahoe as part of their Summer Concert Series two years running, the explosive live show by Aerosmith kept a sold out crowd on their feet for over two hours. In my own opinion, Aerosmith is not just the best live rock and roll band touring today, but maybe of all time. They do pretty much everything better than anyone else, and they have so many hits in their arsenal that it just builds and builds and builds all night. Steven Tyler was born to do what he does, and even at 67 years old, he does it like no one else (and last night appeared to be have more energy than any of the 7,000 people in attendance). As much as he is the ultimate front man and performer, he is absolutely beaming when “Joe Fucking Perry”, “on guitar for 40 fucking years” is beside him, bringing the familiar riffs to life in a way that seems to be equal parts passion and effortlessness. Their songs feel like they were made to be performed live, and maybe more than any other band today, they know how to put on a show that’s brilliant no matter where you are, from up close to far away in the bleachers. Even if you are not a dedicated Aerosmith fan, I would say above any other band today – if you are a fan of ANY contemporary music – you’ve got to turn out to their show at least once, just so you have a new benchmark from which to judge all other concerts. It really doesn’t get any better when you consider every critical element that goes into a live concert event. They’ve earned the title, “America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”.
“It’s so wonderful to be back in San Francisco. It’s wonderful to be back in America, because actually the title of the record – How Big How Blue How Beautiful – was inspired by the American sky. It was actually, in a text message… I sent – I don’t want to break the mystery of it – but I sent to someone I really cared about a lot. And this song was written about that time. And about just how everything seemed endless, and beautiful, and that the world was a magical place. And then if you hear the rest of the record, you may be able to tell that things got a bit… muh… but still, I feel like you come back to this feeling, always.” Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine, providing an introduction to the title song of the upcoming album due out in June. Playing two back-to-back shows at The Masonic in San Francisco, it was not only a set of concerts with new music, but seemingly a Florence with a bit of a different feeling. I was lucky enough to catch two of their shows in 2012 (at the Mondavi Center in Davis and at the Hollywood Bowl), and the Florence I saw performing this week encompassed what I came to expect (an intense and phenomenal performer), but with flourishes of more joy than I’ve seen previously. It made for even more captivating shows, as her and her incredible group of artists truly put on a masterful performance, with a mix of familiar and new. I obviously attend a lot of concerts every year, but Florence + The Machine is one of the very few that can give me that adrenaline rush and tingle down my spine throughout – a real feat. Being fortunate enough to attend both shows this week, while the set list was the same, the shows each had there own character, energy, and vibe. With the preview of the new album, and the quality of the songs, it would appear that the band hasn’t hit any ceilings yet in terms of their gifts, talents and abilities, and I expect them to continue to soar in that big blue sky that Ms. Welch is so fond of… in studio or on stage, they remain one of the top musical artists active today. [Read more…]
“I’m happy to live in the mystery…” One of a seemingly endless set of poetic and thoughtful comments made on stage at The Crest Theatre in Sacramento on Sunday night. Part of a solo performance by Colin Hay, best known as the front man, vocalist, and guitarist for the Australian, early 80s, Grammy-winning New Wave/Rock/Raggae band Men at Work. In 1983, the band had a number one album (Business as Usual) and a number one single (“Down Under”) and gained international fame with their music and quirky music videos. Here we are, 32 years later, and Mr. Hay has cultivated not only an interesting career but an interesting life with insights and experiences that continue to guide him. All this time later, there is no ego, no regret, and an incredible depth of self-awareness. He seems to have a vivid and real view of the world and how it works, and seems quite settled and comfortable with who he is and his role in life as not just a musician, but as a storyteller and philosopher, with much of the latter coming in the form of brilliant comedy. I’d been lucky enough to catch his Finding My Dance one man show in 2013, so I had an idea of what to expect, but his current tour supporting his latest album, Next Year People, was even better. He is one of the most entertaining and gifted artists touring today, and I can’t recommend enough turning out for one of his shows if you have the opportunity.