Now that the dust has settled on 2013 it’s time to look back on the live shows. This is the most subjective list of them all, which is especially fun for me to write because it’s pure self-indulgence. It’s safe to say that 2013 was the best year of my life, at least musically-speaking. While this year didn’t have the heavy-hitters like Radiohead and Roger Waters of 2012, I saw more music that I ever thought was possible and a whole lot of it was pretty fucking awesome. I wanted to make this list a top 25, but over the course of charting my year I realized that a better cutoff was a top 15. These are the shows that really, really stand out for me.
It’s crazy how many amazing shows didn’t make this particular list: I got to see the best STS9 show I’ve seen in years, The Main Squeeze burst onto the scene with an insanely rowdy show at Double Door, I finally got to see Consider The Source and it was opening for UV Hippo at Bell’s Brewery, there’s the ENTIRETY of Hyperion Festival, Umphrey’s at Red Rocks & Chautauqua, the best Umphrey’s ‘Brendan & Jake’ show I’ve seen yet at Cubby Bear, I got to rage at the top of the fucking Sears Tower, every time I saw Greensky Bluegrass and Snarky Puppy, I got to see Souls Of Mischief & I didn’t even think they were still a thing anymore, and then there’s all the incredible Chicago festivals… Simply put, there’s too much to even mention briefly in list form. On second thought, 2013 was the best year of my life. Period. Here’s a little glimpse at the music that made it so great.
15) October 10th – Zappa Plays Zappa at Copernicus Center
Roxy & Elsewhere was my first Frank Zappa album and continues to be my favorite one. I know all the words to Dummy Up and I’ve tried to do the Be-Bop Tango in my living room. I think we’re pretty lucky to have Dweezil Zappa out there fanning the flames of Frank’s music and he’s doing a damn fine job of it as well. On the 40th anniversary of Roxy & Elsewhere they played it cover-to-cover at Copernicus Center, my first time at this gorgeous venue and it was everything I wanted out of the show. It’s hard not to have expectations when it comes to a thing like this and I’m excited to say they were easily surpassed. Zappa Plays Zappa is the shit.
Original review: Zappa Plays Zappa at Copernicus Center
14) March 28th – Alt-J at Metro
[Photo by Heather Ahrens]
The moment I discovered Alt-J I was hooked. As were a whole lot of other people. When your first show ever in Chicago is at Metro you’re doing something right, and when it sells out months prior to the show that’s what you call blowing up. I had their debut album An Awesome Wave been on repeat for months leading up to the show and I was as excited as possible for seeing a band for the first time. I decided to invite another photographer to the show so I could leave my camera at home and plunge myself into the center of the crowd with no responsibilities aside from soaking in the music. And it was glorious. It went exactly to plan: as they played “Fitzpleasure” I was swamped in the sea of people, in the perfect position to plug into that crazy electricity that only happens at a transcendent concert like this.
Original review: Alt-J at Metro
13) December 12th – Lettuce + The Nth Power at Concord Music Hall
Twenty thirteen was the year of the funk revival in Chicago. I’m not saying it wasn’t here in previous years but holy shit was there a lot of it this year. And when I look back at the entire smorgasbord of funk as a whole, the last show of the year was the crown jewel of them all. I’ve been saying Lettuce is the best funk band in America for years and they were fucking incredible once again. Lettuce’s performance on its own likely would have good enough to land on this list, but it’s The Nth Power opening set that made this show especially awesome. These guys blew me away — Nick Cassarino might be the best guitar player that no one knows about and Nikki Glaspie has officially reached the upper echelon of drummers in this realm of live music. I knew they were soulful & funky but I had no clue about their penchant for aggressive jams, which absolutely stunned me as they happened over and over again. The Nth Power is about to blow up and I’m stoked I got to see them before it happens.
Original review: Lettuce and The Nth Power at Concord Music Hall
12) April 13th – Atmosphere + Brother Ali at Metro
I’ve seen Atmosphere many times over the years — they’ve always been one of my favorite hip hop acts and I will try to see them as often as I can. That said, I’ve left a few shows seriously craving more. Not this one. This was the Atmosphere show I’ve been wanting to see for a long damn time. Slug was especially weird on this night, in the best possible way. His slightly disturbing sense of humor one of the things I love most about Atmosphere. Metro was packed and the energy throughout the show was at 11 — Slug had the crowd in the palm of his hand and definitely chose a perfect cross-section of material to play. Then to top it off they brought out Brother Ali and some of the rappers from the opening acts and had a massive freestyle battle where Ali completely stole the show. I’ll take a lot more of that, please.
Original review: Atmosphere, Brother Ali, and Evidence at Metro
11) April 20th – Bonobo at House of Blues
After releasing his fantastic album The North Borders, Bonobo went on tour with a live band and took his music to the next level. His music is already amazing, but played with live instruments and vocals it went to a very special place. This show was overflowing with energy, but completely different kind of energy than what you’d expect at a “sold out electronic music show.” This show had a unique kind of energy, a ‘swoon-rage’ of the likes I’ve never felt before. The music was so beautiful in so many ways, the strings and vocals and lush productions, but the whole time there’s that BASS that just moves your body involuntarily. An entire show of music that gave me the tingles. It was controlled aggression, as dirty as sparkling clean gets, and it was unlike anything else I saw all year.
Original review: Bonobo at House of Blues
10) November 13th – Pelican at Bottom Lounge
Now this was a fuckin rawk show. Fresh off the release of their latest (and best) album, Forever Becoming, Pelican returned home to Chicago and played a show befitting of the stature of their album. It’s so awesome to see these guys transition so well with a new guitarist — Dallas Roberts feels right at home. It was awesome to hear so much of the new material, but they sprinkled in some older stuff as well. There are few bands as visually stimulating as Pelican, especially guitarist Trevor de Brauw, and their energy was off the charts. Maybe the best thing about Pelican is that their crowds, while rowdy, aren’t the mosh pit madness that follow other bands of their ilk. This show was the best kind of controlled violence.
Original review: Pelican at Bottom Lounge
9) August 2nd – SBTRKT at The Mid (Lollapalooza After-Party)
While Disclosure might have been the money-maker on this bill, there was no question who dominated this night. Disclosure is definitely better at the live production thing than DJ sets, and I thought SBTRKT was the same way. But after this show I’m not sure anymore. SBTRKT is on another fucking planet in all realms on music playing & production, but what he showed me on this night is that there is nobody on Earth who plays a DJ set like this. I was extremely fortunate to be able to watch this guy from behind the DJ booth and I was entranced by what he was doing. With a massive Traktor controller setup it was like he was the pilot of a dance music machine that only he knew how to drive. He played a great blend of other artists and his own material — including the filthiest “Wildfire” ‘remix’ ever. But it’s not like this was a straight DJ set, nearly everything was live remixed somehow to have that distinctive SBTRKT flavor. And when he did that shit to Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools” and Chance The Rapper’s “Good Ass Intro” I nearly lost my mind. After being blown away by his live show multiple times in a row, I suddenly find myself fiending to see another one of his DJ sets — there is nothing else like it in the world of live music.
Original review: none
8) October 10 – Herbie Hancock Quartet with Zakir Hussein at Symphony Center
By far the weirdest show of 2013. There’s no way to describe the terror of Herbie Hancock’s ego taking over one of the most transcendent musical experiences of my life and turning it into horrifying funeral music. This show could have possibly been number one on this list had this not happened. What guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke did just before Herbie’s outburst was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. He pierced the time/space continuum with a combination of distorted guitar and African lyrics that was mind-boggling. Then Zakir Hussein came out to join him and took the jam to an even crazier place. Speaking of Zakir, getting to see him play with Vinnie Colaiuta was unbelievable. Colaiuta instantly became the best drummer I’ve ever seen, his skills are on a completely different level than what I’m used to seeing. Despite the fact that Herbie went on to chase off 75% of the crowd — a crazy sight to behold at a venue like Symphony Center — with a 40-minute solo section that was nearly intolerable, this show contained so much unhinged musical brilliance it still lands this high on my list. Remember the names Lionel Loueke, Zakir Hussein, and Vinnie Colaiuta — they are three of the most talented musicians on Earth right now.
Original review: Herbie Hancock Quartet with Zakir Hussain at Symphony Center
7) August 26th – Bone Thugs N Harmony at Double Door
Nearly 20 years after buying my very first copy of E.1999 Eternal I finally got to see my favorite rap group of all time. And right around the corner from my apartment at Double Door to boot. I’m so stoked that this show happened at Double Door, I can’t imagine a better place to finally see my first Bone Thugs N Harmony show. The place was packed and sweltering and they made us wait an extra hour but oh man was it all worth it. They played ALL the hits, a huge medley of their collabs with 2pac, Biggie, and Eazy E, and the one song I wanted to hear more than any other, “Crept And We Came.” But the best part were seeing Bizzy and Krayzie live, who completely destroyed my expectations of their live abilities — they were both ridiculously sharp and nailed every last bar. I’m so stoked I got to see this show when I did because Bone is no longer touring or recording as the full five-piece group. Got this one in jack in the nick of time.
Original review: Bone Thugs N Harmony at Double Door
6) October 24th – Disclosure at House of Blues
I’m pretty sure 2013 was the year of Disclosure. These kids blew up in every conceivable way and deserve every bit of it. I can’t stress enough how important it is to see some truly talented musicians rise to the top of the EDM world. At a time when talentless, formulaeic, and just plain trashy EDM is all the rage, to have Disclosure as a counterpoint in the game is huge for music lovers like me. These kids are the truth. Seeing them perform their music live is everything you could possibly want in live electronic music. Their material is already engaging enough, but when they polish every sound up with live percussion, synths, bass guitar, and vocals it launches their music into the next orbit altitude. This was definitely one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at House of Blues, it was completely packed and the crowd hung on every note. When you wear out an album like I did with Settle it’s easy to let your expectations get out of control. Disclosure’s live performance on this laughed in the face of my expectations and made their ceiling seem higher than I could have imagined.
Original review: Disclosure at House of Blues
5) May 11th – Snarky Puppy (Night 1) at Reggie’s
I will never ever miss a Snarky Puppy show in Chicago as long as I live here. Over the past few years there is no band that has impressed me more than these guys. It’s one thing to watch their DVDs and study their ‘studio’ releases, but seeing them live is a completely different monster. They generate an energy inside of me that is impossible to explain and their genreless style continues to boggle my mind every time. I’ve seen them maybe ten times over the past few years but this show at Reggie’s, the first night of a two-night run, is the best I’ve seen. For one thing, there was a crowd around the corner at Reggie’s, which I’ve never seen before, which meant that the place was jam packed. But not only that, this crowd was absolutely on fire the entire time. Apparently Snarky Puppy makes a lot of other people lose their shit too, because this easily the most energetic Snarky Puppy show I’ve been a part of. The “Binky” they played was legendary status and the debut of “Shofukan” might be the single sickest song I saw the entire year. Snarky Puppy is the next level’s next level. I cannot get enough of this band.
Original review: Snarky Puppy Two Night Run at Reggie’s
4) November 1st – Umphrey’s McGee at Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee, WI
It wasn’t if I was going to gush about Umphrey’s, but when… Granted, it’s very tough for me to place Umphrey’s amongst everything else I see, they’re just in a different realm of fandom & obsession than everything else. So I settled on #4. Whatever. I saw Umphrey’s a whole lot in 2013 but there’s no question that this show was the best I saw all year. They were on a serious upward trajectory in 2013 and they finished the year playing out of their minds. Every single detail of this show was the ideal Umphrey’s experience for me. For one, Riverside Theatre is THE SHIT. Easily my favorite place I’ve ever seen Umphrey’s. But what really stands out to me, naturally, is the level at which they improvised. There were numerous fantastic jams throughout, but each set had one jam that completely destroyed me. Even beyond those “Wait, what the fuck song is this again?” moments that I love about this band and into the “Holy fuck is this actually happening right now?” zone. The first set’s “Sociable Jimmy” is about as dark & weird as it gets, and the second set’s “Wappy” is what dreams are made of. I want to go back right now.
Original review: Umphrey’s McGee Halloween Three Night Run at Riverside Theatre in Milwaukee, WI
3) July 20th – Fameus Lounge on the Spirit of Chicago yacht
This is a weird one to place. No doubt this was some of my favorite electronic music of the year — I’ve always wanted to see Orchard Lounge with live drums and there is no one better suited for the job than Allen Aucoin. This set was magic. But c’mon… this was more than just a concert, this was the fucking party of the year. It doesn’t get any better than partying on a YACHT with a crew of nothing but awesome people. Otter Presents is onto something really special here and for their first major show of 2013 they hit a grand slam. There really isn’t much else to say, this was more fun than should even be possible to have.
Original review: Otter Presents: Fameus Lounge on the Spirit of Chicago Yacht
2) May 20th – Janelle Monae with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Center
[Photo by Todd Rosenberg (courtesy of Chicago Symphony Orchestra)]
As far as live music goes seeing someone as talented as Janelle Monae backed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is as special as it gets. When I think about this show the only word that comes to mind is special. There were moments when I had tears in my eyes. There were moments when I wanted to jump of my seat to dance like an idiot. And there were moments that, as corny as it sounds, pretty much took my breath away. I don’t think there is a better singer alive right now than Ms. Monae, and the arrangements the Symphony built around her music were stunning. I’m undyingly grateful to Symphony Center for appreciating what I do and allowing me to witness such amazing things at their venue. This show was one-of-a-kind and I’m still shocked at how lucky I am to be able to experience it.
Original review: Janelle Monae with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Center
1) June 30th – Nigel Hall Band at Electric Forest Festival
The best set from the best festival of 2013. Super funk throwdown at 3am in the middle of Sherwood Forest… COME ON! This environment combined with a stage full of some of the most talented funk musicians on Earth created the perfect storm of live music. Time stood still for this set; it was happening, it was awesome, it would certainly come to an end eventually, but for those 90 or so minutes there was nothing else happening on Earth — this was the peak of existence. The best part of this set was the fact that nearly all of the friends I knew at EF were all right in front of the stage, the epicenter of funk drew all of us in. Looking back on this year, there’s no doubt this is the live music memory that will always define the insane amount of fun I had in 2013.
Original review: 2013 Electric Forest Festival