2009 Favorites (2 of 2): Shows

12 Favorite Shows of 2009

Made it out to tons of cool concerts this year, split between last days in San Diego and a humbling return to the Twin Cities. I’ve tried to actually rank my picks this time… should be noted, however, that since an average show contains a number of factors that make it (or fail to make it) a pleasurable experience, some of the shows are where they are on the list less because the music was especially memorable, but more because the room had a unique vibe, there was a had-to-be-there-moment, or it fell on my birthday. In other words, this list is highly subjective!

12. The Flaming Lips / Del Mar Racetrack / San Diego-ish, CA / Aug 15

Ticket was only $6 (GA admission to the racetrack) and there was a beer festival running for about three hours before the show… a nice little birthday treat! The stage was setup within the long track and music started when the races were over.  The Lips are highly entertaining live, but they get points off for performing essentially the same set I’d seen at the MN State Fair about three years ago.

11. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down / The Loft @ UCSD / San Diego, CA / Apr 28


Went in with low expectations after hearing the somewhat flat We Brave Bee Stings and All, but loved the band live! Thao is great guitar player and a charismatic performer, and the group of friends I went to the show with was pretty clutch. Also was a treat to check out The Loft, UCSD’s new art space, which is only going to draw better and better acts (budget permitting).

10. J. Tillman / Music Box Theatre / Minneapolis, MN / Nov 6

Can I say enough about how cozy warm this music sounded? We were in the Music Box Theatre, which normally houses the long-running schlockfest Triple Espresso: A Highly Caffeinated Comedy, so there was some leftover coffee for sale in the lobby, and I choked one down. Otherwise Tillman’s hushed acoustic gems would have lulled me all the way to sleep… (Check out my recent live review.)

9. K’naan / Belly-Up Tavern / San Diego-ish, CA / Jun 19


It’s the International Development MC! K’naan fled his native Mogadishu by the skin of his ass in the early 90’s  (as the Somalian government disintegrated), and taught himself English by listening to hip hop. Sure, this year’s Troubadour is padded with some dopey guests (Adam Levine, Kirk Hammett), but when K’naan freestyles about growing up making his own soccer balls or shouts “Fuck the INS!”, you’re pretty much right there with him. Show featured a dope rhythm section of Roots Crew B-squadders, plus K’naan had an entourage of fly Somali ladies cutting the line at the front door. “Wavin’ Flag“, the all-to-appropriate Bob Marley homage, was transcendent live.

8. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings / 4th & B / San Diego, CA / Jan 23

(pictured at top)

Sharon IS the female James Brown, and her Dap Kings ain’t too shabby either. January seems like ages ago, but I can still remember the dance she did in tribute to her many ancestors, miming the steps of the West African tribeswoman, the plantation slave, and the Cherokee. She also sang a heartfelt version of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, which I realize she sings everywhere she goes, but this was during the week Obama was inaugurated, and we were all still pretty buzzed over it that night.

7. The Books / Cedar Cultural Center / Minneapolis, MN / Dec 1

I’d been listening to the albums for years and never knew how large a role the visual played in understanding The Books music. They’ve got videos to correspond to every song, and only play the guitar and cello live. Show featured new material based on early 90’s hypnotherapy tapes! (And opener Baby Dee was really something special!)

6. m83 / Belly-Up Tavern / San Diego-ish, CA / May 21


Normally fearful of any and all rave-type situations, I wouldn’t have gone to this show without the assurance that Saturdays = Youth is actually a cohesive album of pop songs and not just a load of wanking electronica. They started with the song I knew best, “Graveyard Girl“, and continued through the rest of the album, which is deep with singles. “Skin of the Night” was my favorite, since it featured the scintillating vocals of Morgan Kibby, who was decked out in an 80’s tee and raccoon makeup. I was so worked up by the time of the encore that I actually closed my eyes and let the hypnotic groove of “Couleurs” (an instrumental!) transport my grad student ass.

5. The Decemberists / The Paladium / Los Angeles, CA / May 19

Just before the close of 2008, UCSD hosted Colin Meloy for an outdoor solo show during finals week that, I dunno, fifty people attended? Bad timing, but sheeeeit, I went, and I got to hear Colin preview some choice cuts from the upcoming Hazards of Love (including “The Rake’s Song“). Divine providence struck again six months later when I scored a ticket to the Hazards tour opener in LA. Great show! They played the rock opera in its entirety, then came out for a second set of fan faves, incl. “Eli the Barrow Boy” and “O Valencia!”

4. Dirty Projectors / Chop Suey / Seattle, WA / Jul 3

I recently reported on the DP’s show at the Cedar, but to come clean for a moment, I also saw them in back in the summer, during a trip to Seattle with friends. Hard to say which was the better performance, but I was a twinge more excited about this show, since it came first!

3. Lucinda Williams / First Ave. Mainroom / Minneapolis, MN / Sept 18


In contrast to many on this list, this was a show by an artist I had listened to for years without ever seeing. It had been growing increasingly unlikely, too, since I hadn’t been digging Lucinda’s recent albums nearly as well as the holy trinity of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Essence, and World Without Tears. Lucky for me, this show was kicking off Williams’ 30th Anniversary Tour, for which she had committed to playing two or three songs from each of her albums in chronological order! So I got to have my dose of “Out of Touch” and “Real Live Bleeding Fingers” live. Backing band Buick 6 kept things heavy and fun on older numbers like “Changed the Locks”. But the real reason this is #3: It’s not every day you get to see the headliner get married onstage during the encore!

2. Blind Pilot / The Casbah / San Diego, CA / Apr 10

Blind Pilot’s Three Rounds and a Sound should really be included in my 2009 favorite albums list since it’s an ’08 album I didn’t discover until this year, and I listened to it probably more than all those other ’09 discs combined. It’s a simple, singer-songwriter album that just instantly restores your faith in music. (Dig “One Red Thread” and “The Story I Heard“.) Ingenious melodies; parsed, evocative lyrics; leader Israel Nebeker’s heartfelt vocal performances; the understated production… it’s all there for the taking. (And the fact that Pitchfork never reviewed the album makes it that much more cherishable.) So then how did all that virtuosity and passion translate to the stage? Perfectly. Go see them now while they’re still playing dives.

1. Prince / Paisley Park / Chanhassen, MN / Oct 24

What more can I say? You had to be there!

3 Duds

3. Megafaun / Cedar Cultural Center / Mpls / Sept 15

Went in with high hopes after hearing Gather, Form & Fly, which had a great mix of straight folk and sonic experimentation. Had no idea that in the live setting, “experimentation” for Megafaun mainly consisted of a lot of wanky, splishy-splashy jazz drumming. Personally, I blame the example set by opener Happy Apple, a local group whose sax and drum tone poems were a-ight for the first fifteen minutes, then instantly crossed over into “nobody-enjoys-jazz-more-than-the-people-playing-it” territory. Case in point, the drummer (who is a local legend I really shouldn’t talk shit about… I saw him in a different, pop-oriented group a couple weeks later and enjoyed him much more) had a Todd from Flight of the Conchords face on the entire time. When they took the stage, Megafaun couldn’t help themselves in kissing Happy Apple’s ass, and showed it with their own pretentious rhythmic “explorations”. I’ll give Megagaun another try, but let’s try to keep it real, shall we?

2. St. Vincent / The Casbah / SD / May 30

A road that I fear Blind Pilot will encounter in the next year, St. Vincent is a singer who went from honest-too-goodness underground, word-of-mouth popularity to a Pitchfork Best New Music award and a New York Times writeup. In today’s indie culture, the tradition of the “Sophomore Slump” has been turned on its head, so that an act whose superb debut was overlooked (like Annie Clark’s Marry Me) will almost invariably be swarmed with overcompensatory praise the next go round (that would be this year’s Actor). A tour riding this kind of fleeting momentum is bound to underwhelm. The Casbah is a venue St. Vincent would have played two years ago, only this time the songs were more sonically expansive, requiring long breaks between numbers for shuffling and retuning. Fine enough if you’re a devoted fan, but the blog buzz-fueled, sellout crowd grew restless. And no slight to them, honestly: this was the act they were told to love!

1. The Avett Brothers / Belly-Up Tavern / SD / May 10

When the album I and Love and You came out back in June, I listened to a podcast review from The Current in which one of the DJs beamed that “[The Avett Brothers] are not speed merchants… Bluegrass [today] is less about feeling, it’s more about sound and speed. And that’s not what these guys are doing at all. This is more about feelings.” Dude, spend thirty seconds at an Avett Brothers show and tell me you still agree with this assessment. These guys are all about playing fast. And about screaming their supposedly sensitive, junior high puppy love lyrics. And let’s not forget winking to the girls in the audience. The Avett on the right with the long hair (not the one in the middle with the beard, though I know these features tend to change without notice) is the worst offender. I honestly can’t listen to an Avett Brothers song anymore and not remember that guy’s smug, Jim Carrey grin, slapped across his face the entire show. It’s one thing to be a crowd-pleasing band with cult following and tight harmonies. (I’ll even concede that “Salvation Song” is one of the more listenable Grateful Dead ripoffs). But when your art starts to depend on crowd approval this much, it’s a funeral, not a breakthrough.

One that both ruled and kinda sucked…

MBA Equivalent / onboard the Bahia Belle / SD / May 30

My grad program at UCSD put on a prom — on a replica Mississippi River paddleboat out in the middle Mission Bay no less — and my friends and I got to play it! I’d never really played electric guitar before, but when a classmate of ours took a job in Japan and sold us his off-brand Strat for $20, MBA Equivalent (an hilarious pun on the tragic unclassifiability of our Masters degrees) was born. Bought a bass off the back of a craigslist broker’s pickup (she was also selling massage beds), and called in a couple favors up in L.A. for amps. Rehearsing in the IRPS auditorium when the janitors were trying to clean up, we whittled potential numbers down to a tight set of six covers. I got to play bass on  “I Want You Back”, sing lead on “Crimson and Clover” and Bill Withers’ “Use Me”, and do the spoken-word breakdown on “End of the Road”, just like the deep voice guy with the cane from Boyz II Men! I know the band had a good time (made sure to start things off with a huddle out on the poop deck), but really I have no idea if we played well at all. Only one of our mics worked, owing to the fact that the DJ whose PA we were plugging into was held up during our soundcheck because he was in the drunk tank. Also, I think my guitar amp shut off completely during “Take Me Out”. When “Black or White”, our second of two creepily preemptive Michael Jackson tributes, came to a thunderous close (there would be no encores), we dispersed into the crowd. I think maybe three people commented the whole rest of the night, including at the afterparty, held at the aforementioned binge drinking DJ’s house. (And I think one of those people actually said we sucked.) But who cares. We do it for the music!

(Thanks Raka, Omar, Alex, and Danny!)


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