Top Ten Live Shows of 2014
I ended up missing almost as many shows as I made in 2014 – in a year where I got married, moved apartments, and DP-ed nine episodes of a television show, created and directed over a dozen episodes of a music webseries, there wasn’t much time left to see shows as a fan. That being said, as usual, there was some amazing live concerts this year in New York City and beyond. Here’s my Top 10, including a YouTube Playlist of amateur videos at the show, with a couple of pro videos thrown in.
10. Nine Inch Nails – PNC Arts Center, Holmdel, New Jersey
After a disappointing, bloated initial run supporting the new record Hesitation Marks, Nine Inch Nails made amends by going back on tour as a lean and mean four-piece, supported by an astonishing, Stop Making Sense inspired visual spectacle of light, shadow and moving video panels and a smart setlist of old hits and new favorites.
9. Earthless – Saint Vitus, Brooklyn, New York
Earthless sound like a guitar nerd took all of his or her favorite classic- and stoner-rock records, edited out all the verses and choruses, and only left “the good stuff.” Their packed show at Saint Vitus was an absolute clinic in hard charging, technically masterful, downright asskicking fretwork.
8. Sleep – Stage 48, New York, NY
Stage 48, a former high-end dance club, became a mecca for beardos and long-hairs eager to catch the recently reunited stoner-rock legends Sleep. After years of getting used to the core members’ great side-projects, Al Cisneros’ mantra-like OM and Matt Pike’s traditional metal High on Fire, seeing the duo merge their sensibilities as Sleep was like watching a stoner All-Star Game.
7. Future Islands – South by Southwest, Austin, Texas
This show was right after Future Islands blew David Letterman’s mind, but before everyone else had caught wind of normcore posterboy Samuel Herring’s arresting stage presence. Playing for a small crowd of weekday revelers loosened up by free booze, Future Islands played one of the most purely enjoyable sets I saw in 2014. Backed by an almost comically calm rhythm section, Herring danced until he was soaked with sweat, pounded his chest righteously and dragged his voice from a bedraggled croon to a death metal howl and back again.
6. Diarrhea Planet – Bonnaroo, Manchester, Tennessee
Boasting a line-up of drums, bass and four guitars, Diarrhea Planet churn out Weezer-esque power-punk with a fair share of proggy guitar noodling stashed around the edges. Playing the smallest stage at Bonnaroo, the show had the feel of a packed club show – all the better for the band’s high-energy rock. There was more per-capita crowd-surfing at this show than any other I saw in 2014, including two of the guitarists, one of whom wrapped his legs around the lighting rig and hung upside while shredding.
5. Farewell to 285 Kent – 285 Kent, Brooklyn, New York
It’s no secret that Williamsburg has changed enormously, but 2014 felt like a tipping point – no less than four indie rock clubs have closed in the last four months. But while I didn’t get a chance to attend any of the final shows at Death by Audio, Glasslands, or Spike Hill, I did pay my respects at the final show at 285 Kent. Aside from being a stellar rock show – co-headliners Diiv and Fucked Up were both the best I’ve seen them – it was a strangely emotional night. I left exhausted, covered in beer and other peoples’ sweat, feeling like I had just said goodbye to a neighborhood that drew me to Brooklyn in the first place over ten years ago.
4. Skrillex Superjam – Bonnaroo, Manchester, Tennessee
I may be biased because I had the pleasure of working on a behind the scenes documentary of this show. When I was hired, I had no idea when to expect from a Skrillex Superjam at Bonnaroo – I figured it would be Skrillex DJ-ing with some MC special guests. Boy was I wrong. This was an epic, genre-spanning bonanza – EDM, rock, R&B, hip-hop and soul. Not only is Skrillex actually a great guitarist, he’s also a hell of a bandleader – he assembled a truly mindboggling list of special guests from Lauryn Hill to Damien Marley, from Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead to Robbie Krieger of The Doors, from Mystikal to Janelle Monae. I watched this amazing show take form over a few days – the crowd at Bonnaroo experienced it all in one three-hour burst. Watching an enthusiastic audience have their perceptions of Skrillex shattered was almost as much fun as the show itself.
3. The War on Drugs – Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York
Slave Ambient suggested The War on Drugs could become America’s next great classic rock band – the group’s newest, Lost in a Dream, cemented it. And they’ve quickly become an elite live band – translating the Tom Petty-at-the-bottom-of-a-swimming-pool aesthetic of their records into immediate, widescreen, shimmering Americana. On their Dream victory lap, frontman Adam Granduciel and his ever-growing band let the record’s jammy tendencies run their course. The result was a show full of needle-in-the-red awesomeness, recalling contemporaries My Morning Jacket and Wilco, not to mention snare-on-the-two E-Street driving beats, while adding plenty of their spacey, drifting personality.
2. Swans – Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York
The career of Michael Gira and his project Swans defies expectations. Not only is the band doing their best work twenty-plus years into their career, after years long hiatus, but the sixty-year-old band leader gets up on stage and absolutely schools frontmen a third of his age in both theatricality and musicianship. Not content to rest on their laurels after this year’s magnum opus To Be Kind, Gira and his team played most new tunes, or older tunes mutated past the point of recognition. And while that could spell disaster for lesser bands, Swans proved they are no ordinary band – their one straightforward Kind cut, “A Little God in my Hand,” strutted like Nick Cave’s noisy cousin, but the show’s real highlights were new tracks still being workshopped. Show opener “Frankie M” was a hypnotic, 20-minute plus build from nothing to immensity, and closer “Black Hole Man” somehow found extra gears of pulverizing loudness to the previous two-plus hour show. Swans are powerful, exhausting, exhilarating, transcendent.
1. Neutral Milk Hotel – Bonnaroo, Manchester, Tennessee
Neutral Milk Hotel recorded one bona-fide masterwork, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and then vanished from view for about two decades. In spite of this absence, or maybe because of it, news of a reunion amongst indie-rock fans approached religious zeal. Could the reunion possibly live up to pent-up expectation? As I witnessed at Bonnaroo, the answer was “yes, and then some.” I don’t know if I have ever seen an audience more excited to see a band play – the entire 90 minute set was greeting with massive cheering, crowd surfing, and deafening sing-alongs that even seemed to catch the band’s bearded leader, Jeff Magnum, by surprise. Of course, all of the Aeroplane material – from the quietly introspective “Two Headed Boy” to the surprisingly rockin’ “Holland, 1945” – went over like gangbusters. But it was the more esoteric selections from On Avery Island and some of the band’s lesser-known EPs that gave me the impression that, shit, this is a great band that has much more to offer than one classic album. That element of surprise, the band’s brilliant performance, and the audience’s feverish reaction all contributed to the very best show I saw in 2014.