These concerts are from street fairs in Michigan and bookstores in New York City, porches overlooking downtown Detroit, and shanty-stages in Chicago. They’re from old firebrands playing what might have been their last tour, and bands who nearly imploded halfway through their set and broke up on the spot. They’re from earstraining quiet and earbusting noise.
Vic Chesnutt (featuring Guy Picotto, A Silver Mt Zion and Godspeed) (October 27th @ Music Hall Of Williamsburg)
Vic Chesnutt feels wise. The guy is a smart ass, lewd, and pessimistic, but the feeling he emanates is wisdom. So to say Chesnutt played the show he played to a half full crowd in Brooklyn like a baby might seem an insult to him. Quite the opposite; when someone has the lyrical brilliance and musical versatility of Chesnutt, the worst thing that could happen is that the lyrics are great, the songs are great, and the whole thing sounds glazed over. Chesnutt’s set that night tantrumed and bubbled and then got so quiet it seemed to be content whispering syllables to the ceiling. 20+ years into his career Chesnutt is still playing to extremes. Thank god for that.
X (June 17th @ Magic Stick, Detroit)
A day or two before this show, Exene Cervenka announced to the world that she had Multiple Sclerosis. This was X’s 30th anniversary tour; each member of the band is an essential element, and one of the four members announced she had a pretty extreme debillitating illness. And then, Cervenka came on stage and blew every fear and every expectation and every offered hand or look of sympathy away. She was clearly in pain for much of this show, but she barreled on, voice sounding just as good and just as wrecked as I’m sure it did in ’79. The other members of the band played deserve credit too. Billy Zoom balanced super sonic guitar playing with flirting with the rockabilly girls who kept taking his picture. John Doe’s sung steadily and playing the shit out of the same bass he’s used since Adult Books, and DJ Bonebreak still stands as one of my favorite drummers ever. Still, this was Exene’s night. This was so much more than soldering on; this was furiously ricocheting off the stage lights.
Chris Bathgate/ Lightning Love/Frontier Ruckus (October 22nd @ Spike Hill, Brooklyn)
I thought that seeing Chris Bathgate perform outside of the great state of Michigan would be akin to reading a Faulkner novel set in Connecticut. As I’ve said on this site before, the man is so connected to that place for me, and not being able to see him live once or so a month in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti or Detroit is one of the things I miss most about not living in Michigan any more. When Bathgate came to Brooklyn to play a CMJ set, he did something different than the myriad of times I had seen him in Michigan, he played almost entirely new material, with nothing from his 2007 album A Cork Tale Wake or his ’08 EP Wait, Skeleton. The new songs, play with a bagillion part band, were loud and confident, like finally making it through the winter straightjacket that Bathgate’s last two albums so beautifully described. Perhaps because free of all the expectations and weight of a hometown show, Bathgate tried something new. Nostalgia bloomed fresh with every new song.
Nomo (June 16th @ Top of the Park, Ann Arbor)
Even though Nomo no longer call Ann Arbor home, their concert opening up the wonderful Top Of The Park series of free summer events in the city has become a yearly tradition. A huge energetic tournout mirrored the energy pouring off the state. Whether they played this well because it feels like a homecoming show for the band, or whether it was the confidence that comes from releasing a great new album, the show was brassy, beat heavy, and one of the biggest dance parties i went to this year. The band’s set would have blown the ceiling off any venue that could have held them.
Frightened Rabbit (January 25th @ Blind Pig, Ann Arbor)
This show thawed me when I was neck-deep in Michigan winter. Sometimes it’s nice to see a young passionate band play no-nonsense rock songs to a sweaty beer-y packed crowd. This was one of those.
Mice Parade (May 3rd @ Pike Room, Pontiac)
There were so many reasons this show could have been terrible. Mice Parade played with a mediocre local band supporting them. The room was packed for the openers, and empty by the time Mice Parade started. This would have been demoralizing enough, but the band was also missing their drummer. A perfect recipe for a disastrous show, a good excuse to half ass it and blame it on mitigating circumstances. But from the moment they came on, the band the band were all smiles, almost treating the evening like a joke they were in on. When an audience member shouted “get behind the drum kit” to lead singer Adam Pierce, he obliged. When the band announced they were going to play one more song and I had really gone there to hear them play “The Last Ten Homes,” and so I shouted out “play ‘The Last Ten Homes,'” of course they did. I’ve said it before, post rock, music this delicate, intelligent, and technically brilliant, is not supposed to be fun. I’m happy to report that Mice Parade continue to buck that trend.
Greg Cartwright (June 28th @ Alley Deck, Detroit)
Talk about the perfect hangover cure. The Alley Deck, the porch on the side of the Magic stick was transformed into an outdoor venue, bar and sightseeing booth sundays this summer. The audience for Cartwright’s rare solo appearence felt as light as the breeze, slowly roasting in the Michigan summer. And, despite warning that his voice was worn out from the previous night’s Oblivians reunion show, Cartwright sounded great, playing two varied sets like he was sitting on a porch in the company of close friends. Which, I suppose, he was.
Magnolia Electric Company/Sally Timms/Elephant Micah (July 12th @ The Hideout, Chicago)
Jason Molina’s not a talker. He probably spoke 10 words over the course of Magnolia Electric Company’s set at the hideout. I don’t think this is due to stage fright, as much as a firm desire to let the music speak for itself. Which is bullshit, if you ask me. Molina has a strong, recognizable voice and personality. His lyrical conceits are original this side of 1940s Oklahoma or Nashville, and to say you’re just a vessel for the music or something seems pretty much like nonsense to me. But maybe it wasn’t that, it was that he didn’t want to take away from what, at this point has become a very solid and very democratic band. Guitar player Jason Groth and drummer Mark Rice both fleshed out every song and were able to make their presences known when the occasion called for it. Upon second thought, maybe Molina’s lack of stage banter was appropriate and better fitted the band than a thousand bad jokes and boring stories would have.
Elvis Perkins (September 2nd @ Housingworks, New York)
Roadside Graves/Parson Redheads (October 10th @ Lit Lounge, New York)
Two young bands start sprinting from the same starting line labeled “country.” The Parson Red Heads head off towards the driving kind, with voices spreading out like lane dividers and melodies blurring together like nighttime scenery. The Roadside Graves head towards the kitchen and start throwing things in a pot, then start throwing things on the floor just to hear the sounds they’ll make. Their common ground came in their half cocky excitement. Both bands played like they had something to prove to the tiny space they were filling that night. Both bands proved it.
Yo La Tengo (September 25th @ Roseland, New York)
It would be easy for a band like Yo La Tengo to get too humble, to get too used to playing a few nights at Maxwell’s and the occasional big free summer show. Sometimes both to reassure and to push themselves, they’ve got to try something big. Seeing Yo La Tengo at Roseland, probably one of the biggest non-free concerts they’ve ever played in New York, felt validating and important. Through a magical light show, a shockingly long and energetic set, and a touching romantic skeletal encore (including one of my favorite of their songs, “The Whole of the Law”) they showed they were as good as every member of the sold out crowd showed them they were. Whether they were proving it to themselves, to the critics or to their fans doesn’t matter, what matters is how seamlessly and entirely they proved it.