My 2018 in live music

2018 was, as they tend to be now, a … difficult year. Fortunately, I live in a city where we want for little when it comes to top-quality live music options. And since going to a show is one of the ways I like to forget about my (and the world’s) troubles, you better believe I saw a few.

Though the year is technically not over, and I do have tickets to one more show—Lee Fields & the Expressions at The Chapel, which is a New Year’s Eve show that will not end until 2019, and so I will include it in next year’s wrap-up—I nevertheless present you with a list of all the shows I saw in 2018, in descending order of awesomeness.

All venues are in either San Francisco or Berkeley unless otherwise indicated:

  1. X and Los Lobos (The Fillmore)
  2. Fleet Foxes (The Greek)
  3. Calexico (Great American Music Hall)
  4. Southern Culture on the Skids (Slim’s)
  5. Mipso (Freight & Salvage)
  6. Bombino (The Independent)
  7. Elvis Costello (The Masonic)
  8. George Clinton & P-Funk (The Independent)
  9. Yukon Blonde (Hotel Utah Saloon)
  10. Mipso (Lincoln Theatre, Raleigh NC)
  11. The Pretenders (The Masonic)
  12. Rodriguez (The Warfield)
  13. Robyn Hitchcock (Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival)
  14. Toots & the Maytalls (The Fillmore)

With the exception of the very last entry, this list wasn’t easy to put together. That’s because that Toots & the Maytalls show was the only actively bad show I saw all year. The gap between, say, #12 / #13 and #14 is pretty wide, because Rodriguez put on a very low-key but still highly engaging performance. In a different year, he would have ranked much higher. But unfortunately for him (and the Pretenders, for that matter), I caught a lot of great live music in 2018.

By contrast, the selection of best show of the year wasn’t nearly as easy. It was always between X / Los Lobos and Fleet Foxes, but the fact that X has long been one of my favorite bands AND they brought Los Lobos—a hugely fun band that is still more than capable of headlining on their own—along with them are the two factors that tipped the scales.

Still, that Fleet Foxes show was pretty incredible. Here is a short video clip I shot; my old iPhone SE had a shitty low-light camera so the image is terrible, but the sound is what’s important here anyway:

There is something about the simplicity and haunting honesty of their performance that just hit me square in the heart.

Seven of the bands on this list are acts I had seen before; in fact, it was my third time seeing both Elvis Costello and George Clinton & P-Funk, and my fourth seeing Robyn Hitchcock. Elvis was as solid as he always is, and he did a full three-hour set with no opening act; considering how he almost died (apparently) earlier in the year, that’s pretty impressive. George gets points for his outrageous stage show and for the fact that his classic cuts are still so strong, but his set itself wasn’t as tight as I would have preferred. Still, it was a much better performance than when I saw him at Stern Grove a couple years ago, in an outdoor amphitheater at two o’clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

I doubt I will be able to top this list next year, but you never know. The 2019 slate starts, as I mentioned above, with Lee Fields & the Expressions, and will also likely include Richard Thompson and Judas Priest (though not on the same night).

What standout shows—good or bad— did you see in 2018? Tell me about them in the comments!

These Are My Records: “Yellow Submarine”

If there is a Beatles album that could be described as “non-essential,” or “disposable,” or “give me my money back,” it’s Yellow Submarine. Consider—and then quickly dismiss—the entire second side, which is just a series of short orchestral compositions by George Martin for the soundtrack to the animated film of the same name. This leaves us side one—a handicap, but not a fatal one; there are plenty of worthwhile albums out there that have one really good side and one that’s best ignored—but the two famous songs on that side (the title track and “All You Need Is Love”) weren’t even new when this album was released.

The original plan was apparently to release the other four songs on side one—you know, the actual new-in-1967 ones—as a standalone EP. Had they done so, it almost certainly would have gone on to be held in higher regard than Yellow Submarine ever was. These tracks are mostly pretty good: George’s two turns at the mic act as bookends, first in the passive-aggressive, floating-dream-state dig at his bandmates’ business practices that is “Only a Northern Song” and then on the psych-pop masterpiece “It’s All Too Much;” in between, Paul the ditty-meister leads a few back-porch jug-band verses of what basically amounts to a goofy childhood nonsense song (“All Together Now”). It’s fine, if somewhat uneven, work.

But the track that would have held that EP together—and the one that works the hardest to redeem this disc—is “Hey Bulldog,” a four-four stomper with a tough-guy piano riff intro and some absolutely screaming guitar tone in George’s solo. It also has Paul and John barking like dogs for reasons that are unexplained (and probably best left that way). If you follow that link, be sure and listen to the way the slight echo in the snare hits in the chorus adds tension and forward motion, but is something you probably wouldn’t even notice unless it was pointed out to you.

Ever since I was a little kid (we had a lot of Beatles albums in my house growing up), I’ve been able to put “Hey Bulldog” on a loop and just let it repeat for half an hour or so. Too bad it doesn’t get the support it deserves from the rest of the disc, but if you happen to spot this in the bargain bin at your local record shop, it’s probably worth a couple bucks on its own.

These are my “records:” Juliana Hatfield, Sleater-Kinney and the End of History

Juliana Hatfield: Only Everything (1995)
Sleater-Kinney: All Hands On the Bad One (2000)

It’s easy to forget now, but the 1990s were supposed to be the End of History. The threat of sudden nuclear obliteration arriving and raining down on us faster than Domino’s could bring us a pizza—one that we Generation Xers had lived with our entire lives—was suddenly just gone, and in the ten-year interregnum between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Twin Towers, we never quite managed to figure out what we were supposed to do with ourselves now.

Juliana Hatfield wasn’t singing about the end of history on her 1995 album Only Everything, but I’ve always thought it neatly captures the overall feel of the moment: Mostly confident but still tentative in places, looking inward instead of out at the broader world, trying to shed the cynicism that by then had come to define her (and my) generation. Her Continue reading “These are my “records:” Juliana Hatfield, Sleater-Kinney and the End of History”

These Are My Records: True Stories

Talking Heads: True Stories

Imagine if, in 1985 or so, all four members of the Talking Heads were abducted by aliens who accidentally erased their memories, and then their A&R guy at EMI Records found them wandering in a pasture somewhere, so he loaded them into his Beemer and played the entire Talking Heads back catalog for them and said, “now go back in the studio and make the record that that band would make.” True Stories would be that record: an album made to be a TH album by people who know what it should sound like, but nonetheless misses the mark. The single from this one, “Wild Wild Life,” was all over the radio station I listened to growing up, which may explain why I was so late in developing an appreciation of the general greatness of the Talking Heads.

These are my records: Mingus at Carnegie Hall

Charles Mingus: “Mingus at Carnegie Hall”

There’s always been a current of beautiful disorganization running through Mingus’ work, and the structure of this record really helps bring that out. Consisting of one track per side, the “extended jam” format works especially well for “C Jam Blues,” where everything builds up over eighteen minutes or so to a sort of joyful chaos before collapsing into the frenetic honking of George Adams’ and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s saxophones for several minutes at the end. More like this, please.