In 2012, I saw more than 100 concerts. Thanks to FP, record labels and my own wallet, I was able to catch life-changing live shows in Chicago, New York, and Milwaukee, and a handful of major music festivals (South by Southwest, Bonnaroo, Pitchfork and Brilliant Corners). Granted, my ears may not work as well as they did last December, but the opportunity to see every buzzworthy performer from A$AP Rocky to Zola Jesus in one year is one of which I have only dreamed.
Yes, it would be tedious for both of us if I were to attempt review all of these shows in one monster post. The following are 10 Best Concerts of 2012.
10. Conor Oberst @ Brilliant Corners (9/22, Chicago)
One of the worst concert experiences of my life was opening night of Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga (2007) tour in Milwaukee’s majestic Pabst Theatre. After that dreadful performance, my interest in Oberst and his music—which couldn’t have been any higher—certainly waned. It was not until this September’s Brilliant Corners festival did I finally understand his true live potential.
A well-dressed, attentive and possibly happy Oberst graced the stage under the big top at the Riverfront Theater, prepared to give teenage girls, their parents and me a show to remember. Playing many old favorites alongside newer material in sparse instrumentation, Oberst looked like the performer he always should have been. This sad nostalgia is just as I always hoped to remember it.
9. Radar Eyes/Bare Mutants/Outer Minds @ Empty Bottle (2/6, Chicago)
As evidenced by this list, and the many shows I’ve covered over the year, I love the Empty Bottle. The beer is cheap, the bathrooms are dirty and the patrons look just as lost as I feel. But the real reason why the Empty Bottle is my favorite small venue in Chicago—and perhaps the country—is for Christen and Brent, their booking team. No venue this size can promise a great, loud and mind-expanding show for cheap on any given night.
While it was not my first experience there, February’s Radar Eyes record release party that kicked off EB’s Free Monday series was when I knew it was a special place. All three bands killed it that night, showing the wide-spectrum of contemporary psych rock: Outer Minds with their San Francisco hippy, freak-out jams; Bare Mutants and their droll Velvet Underground-esque wash and Radar Eyes’ spacey dance punk. These are three of the hottest bands in Chicago’s robust psychedelic scene. On one bill. Four blocks from my house. On a Monday. For free.
Monday’s don’t suck when you live in Ukrainian Village.
8. Ceremony @ Borg Ward (4/14, Milwaukee)
This was the most violent concert I’ve ever attended. After releasing their latest Zoo on Matador Records at the beginning of this year, public interest in Ceremony grew beyond the extreme hardcore sub-genre to the encompass many less extreme listeners, such as myself. In a broken storefront at the DIY Borg Ward in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, the Bay Area punks egged the Midwestern hardcore crowd into explosions of hate and ferocity, while the rest of us (unsuccessfully) attempted to headbang in peace. Clinging to the walls, we dodged the fists of pogoing skinheads and fortified against flying bodies, allowing whoever was on the frontline take as much of the hit as possible. This happened as Ceremony frontman Ross Farrar screamed his discontent right into our faces. It was awesome.
7. Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire @ Hotel Vegas (3/17, Austin)
This video covers roughly half of eXquire’s performance at Brooklyn Vegan’s SXSW event. If you watch closely, you’ll see several handles of Jack Daniels, two members of FP Staff and one fresh fur hat. Best 10 minutes of my live music life. Maybe not, but you get the point. Huzzah!
6. Fucked Up @ Lincoln Hall (4/9, Chicago)
Yes, going to shows alone can be an uncomfortable experience. You may be glued to your phone during set changes. It’s likely you’ll nurse that cheap macro brew for two hours. Hell, take another spin by the merch table. No problem, because a great show will always alleviate the anxiety of being alone. Double points if the show is a 90-minute punk rock opera sing along with 300-pound bear hugs and even heavier guitars.
Fucked Up is without a doubt the most powerful and graceful active punk band. Their poignant Easter Monday performance of their 2011 masterpiece David Comes To Life (our #6 album of the year) proved that there is room for positivity and virtuosity in a genre that often looks down on both. Before, I never would I have thought I would fight through a crowd to be manhandled by a screaming, sweating, shirtless behemoth. Now, I can’t wait to do it again.
5. White Denim @ Lincoln Hall (10/28, Chicago)
Save perhaps Radiohead’s Bonnaroo blow out, White Denim’s intimate performance at Lincoln Hall was the most substantial show I attended all year. While their records are certainly strong (their latest D was our #1 Psychedelic Album of 2011), they do not accurately represent the talent of these dudes, nor do they hint at their ability to work off each other. This Austin four-piece is essentially the jam band to end all jam bands, employing music-school guitar techniques alongside foggy late-night explorations and King Crimson-esque time signatures. Their morphing, shredding sound is as tasteful as borderline-prog can be, and always with staggering clarity. No pithy jokes to make about this one, just damn great music and plenty of it.
4. The Men @ Elysium (3/14, Austin)
SXSW exists for the live music fan on the commercial bleeding edge. It’s close ties to the independent music and social technology scenes make it a breeding ground for surefooted bloggers, hungry artists and preying corporations. In other words, it’s not for everyone. But one thing is for sure: there’s a ton of music to see.
No band moved me as much as The Men did, closing out the excellent Sacred Bones Showcase at the industrial Elysium on Red River. They had just released Open Your Heart the week before, a more grounded follow-up to 2011’s searing Leave Home, and were ready to claim our greatest music festival as their own. Without a doubt the loudest show on this list (save Indian’s humongous set at the Empty Bottle, also free), The Men essentially rendered the rest of the fest obsolete, blasting Americana-tinged punk into the wee hours of the morning. At a fest where you have multiple opportunities to catch the same band, I’m honored to have caught their definitive performance that night.
3. Flying Lotus @ Metro (10/16, Chicago)
Steven Ellison is an enigma. His blotter sheet approach to production is without a doubt the most engaging and inspiring work in both electronic and hip hop music today. Because of his extreme talent and otherworld swag, the Flying Lotus experience is hard to describe.
While his records are an exercise in precision, creativity and dense concepts, a Flying Lotus show is much more of a celebration. In his hands, tracks of the somber Until the Quiet Comes (our #8 album of 2012) levitate in the venue, as the pulsing crowd moves to the beat, unconcerned with the album’s themes of loss and acceptance. And then he’ll flip it on you, and pull out a full bottle of Jameson, some TNGHT tracks and the hardest remix of Waka Flocka’s “Hard in the Paint”. I like my DJs schizophrenic.
2. Radiohead @ Bonnaroo (6/8, Manchester, TN)
It’s true: live music holds the power to change the very core of a person. The most influential band of the last two decades gave me the most emotional live music experience of my life. Some people always cherish their visit to the holy land, or the first time they laid eyes on “the one.” For me, I’ll always have the time I saw Radiohead with the ones I love.
1. Ty Segall Band @ Empty Bottle (7/14, Chicago)
What a Ty Segall Band performance may lack in life-changing emotional response, they make up for in raw power, consequence and community. Without any ounce of doubt, the Ty Segall Band is the best active touring act in the country, if not the world. His command over a venue and crowd is astonishing, whether it’s the 400-capacity Empty Bottle, or a sold-out Union Park for Pitchfork Fest. What cuts the Ty Segall Band experience apart from amazing performers like Radiohead or Flying Lotus or White Denim, is the feeling of being part of something larger at the ground level. With Segall, there’s no us and them, no performer and audience roles, no ‘let’s watch these guys do what they do best’ feeling, but a unified body ready to praise the power of rock and roll.
Picking a performer of the year was no problem. Thanks to Chicago’s stacked show listings and phenomenal venues, I had the opportunity to see Ty Segall and his band (Mikal Cronin, Charlie Moonheart and Emily Rose) play five times in 13 months, each time as mind-blowing, face-melting and blood-boiling as the next. What was no easy feat, was picking my favorite of the five. Based on considerations for venue, setlist and total fucking annihilation, their Pitchfork after party at the Empty Bottle narrowly tops the rest.
Honorable Mentions, in chronological order
Sharon Van Etten @ Lincoln Hall (2/16, Chicago)
Punch Brothers @ Park West (3/1, Chicago)
Titus Andronicus @ Mess With Texas (3/16, Austin)
Nicolas Jaar @ Metro (3/24, Chicago)
Tycho @ Lincoln Hall (7/6, Chicago)
Wilco/Andrew Bird @ Fifth/Third Bank Ballpark (7/8, Geneva, IL)
Dustin Wong @ Empty Bottle (9/10, Chicago)
Thee Oh Sees @ Logan Square Auditorium (9/28, Chicago)
Indian @ Empty Bottle (11/12, Chicago)
Tortoise/The Sea and Cake/Man Forever @ Empty Bottle (12/21, Chicago)
Peter Lillis is Managing Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He was actually unimpressed with A$AP Rocky and Zola Jesus’ sets, despite seeing both artists twice in 2012. All photos are his.