Photo by Paige K. Parsons
Last year I predicted I would never see as many concerts as I did in 2013, and I was right. Having two kids can do that to any guy, even a music journalist. From 64 shows the previous year, I was only able to attend 40 in 2014. That number will probably drop again next year. In judging what I enjoyed most, I decided to grade based on my favorites rather than the “best.” This is a subjective list, so I’m not going to try to decide who performed best.
As in previous years, I set a few rules for myself. Opening acts don’t count – though as you see below, some opening sets earned “special considerations.” Neither do non-headlining performances at festivals. In order for a concert to count on my favorites list, the performer needs to be on stage for at least one hour, or be a headliner. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- I saw the most shows in February and April (7; before my kids were born) and the fewest in January, May and June (1).
- The month with the most “rated” shows was February (4), and all but two of my top 10 were prior to May.
- All of my special considerations were in August or later in the year.
The special considerations, in chronological order:
KACEY MUSGRAVES at Outside Lands – August 8
Musgraves stole the day with two separate performances – her own set as well as a tribute to Janis Joplin earlier in the day. Country music doesn’t always translate well after the festival grounds at Golden Gate Park reach near capacity, but someone forgot to tell Musgraves. Had either set lasted an hour, this would be in my top 10 for the year. From the moment she performed Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz,” Friday night’s other acts would have a standard that couldn’t be matched.
JENNY LEWIS and IMELDA MAY (and LYKKE LI) at Outside Lands – August 10
Li had my favorite set at the music festival, but she appears later in my list, so I’ll focus on May and Lewis here. May had the last-minute responsibility of saving the final day for hundreds of fans who bought tickets only to see Chvrches. They camped out in front of the main stage for hours just to get the announcement that the band missed their flight to San Francisco and wouldn’t perform. May stepped onto the stage a short time later and did more than enough to appease those who remained. She’s still an unknown quantity in America, but her combination of rockabilly, blues, punk and rock really got people to move around.
Lewis played to a no-standing-room-remaining crowd, picking up the energy from May and delivering one of the most memorable performances in Outside Lands’ seven years. The performance incited a couple to try to jump the barricade, which led to a an interesting pursuit by security, which Lewis incorporated into her lines and mid-song banter. Still, she was on stage for 55 minutes; five short of my requirement.
JESSIE WARE at The Chapel – October 21
Ware’s performance at the Fillmore was one of my runners up in 2013. And here she is again outside my top 10, this time because the show was just under 60 minutes. Very few fans even knew the show was happening, and it was advertised only on Ware’s Facebook page. It was one of five album release gigs worldwide for “Tough Love,” her sophomore album that made many best-of lists this year. There was no opener or distractions that took away from the material being presented, as well as a couple of older tunes. The intimacy and Ware’s sharing the stories behind the new songs is what made this show special. Also, there may not be any other performer out there today who watches her fans as closely as Ware. This adds to the closeness of Ware’s connection to the crowd.
ALT-J at Live 105’s Not So Silent Night at Oracle Arena – December 13
The English band’s musicality has never been in question. They write and perform songs as interesting and complex as any mainstream artist. The problem I’ve had with them in four previous Bay Area performances was their lack of any stage presence. It was like watching a band rehearse without an audience. Now they’re touring a new album that’s as terrific as the first, and improvement in their performance was measurable. Drummer Thom Green, the one who makes this band’s song possible in a live setting, is a main attraction, encircled by 270 degrees’ worth of digital and traditional drummer apparatus. But lead vocalist Joe Newman, who used to make eye contact with only his guitar or the bar at the back of a room, is now making a concentrated effort to be a frontman. Had they played an hour, Alt-J would be looking at a possible spot at the back of my top 10.
The Top 10 List
10: JACK WHITE at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium – August 23
There’s not enough successful rock-driven guitar bands left, and I certainly didn’t have my fill of them in 2014. I was on my way to see Royal Blood this month when I was hit by two cars, leaving me stranded on the freeway for more than three hours. Perhaps that show would have replaced this one on the list. White’s performance wasn’t flawless and he was nursing an ankle injury that limited his mobility. But that meant that he spent more time interacting with the audience, which made the show feel like a more personal experience. In the video below, White talks about introducing your children to music, advice I’ll take to heart, now that I have two of them.
9: THE NATIONAL at the Greek Theater in Berkeley – April 26
This is a biased list (all are), but this may be an even more biased selection. I’m not sure. The show came three days before my daughter was born, so I was a bit emotional the whole time. The fate of the show in my memory was sealed forever with their touching performance of “I Need My Girl.” Even remembering it now makes me tear up. This band is so great at making you feel a range of emotions.
8: LORDE at the Fox Theater – March 27
It took me a while to hop aboard the Lorde bandwagon. I skipped her first few Bay Area performances and didn’t see her for the first time until December 2013. Her vocal delivery, gyrating stage presence and smart lyrics made me a fan where before I thought she was too young, too inexperienced. Well, she is young, and in one instance , I didn’t like her story about feeling like a grownup for hosting a party while her parents were away (grownups don’t do that, kids). But that was only one instance. The rest of this tour-closing Bay Area stop was stellar.
7: THE SOFT WHITE SIXTIES at the Chapel – February 28
The Bay Area has many great bands currently vying for the next opportunity to break it big. The Soft White Sixties are very deserving and showed why at this Noise Pop festival show. By combining soulful vocals with the blues, garage rock and strong stage presence, these guys deserve your attention.
6: LYKKE LI at the Fox Theater – September 21
She had my favorite performance at Outside Lands, and one of my favorite headlining shows of 2014. It’s not just that voice, which radiates from haunting to playful; the vocals, which shift between introspective and conversational; to her persona, a mix between innocent and world-weary. It’s that Lykke Li can make a concert in a 3,000-plus hall seem like it’s just for you.
Before I get to my five favorite shows, here are some of the concerts I attended that didn’t make my Top 10: Bastille at the Warfield, The Cure at Bottle Rock Napa Valley, Foster the People at Live 105’s BFD, Tom Petty and Macklemore at Outside Lands, Chvrches at the Fox, Fleetwood Mac at Oracle Arena and Weezer at Slim’s. I list those to show that there was a lot of competition, and I didn’t treat the “all-stars” better than other acts. And it took more than a fancy production to make my list.
5: AUGUSTINES at the Independent – February 10
Three guys and a roadie (who, really, should just be made an official member of the band) who wear their hearts on their sleeves and give everything they’ve got to each verse, song and gig. They may be too sincere to gain the hipster vote, but they’ve got mine.
4: HAIM at the Fillmore – April 9
I finally got to interview the Haim sisters this year, and it was one of my most interesting conversations with musicians. This Fillmore show (and reportedly the second one the following night) was one of the most buzzed-about shows of Fauxchella. Haim flew through most of the songs in their repertoire, pausing briefly only to joke about their experiences growing up and the excitement they were feeling. From the opening number to the appearance the gals’ parents in the encore, my ears are still ringing.
3: ST. LUCIA at the Independent – February 6
I saw both of St. Lucia’s two shows at the Independent and while the first show would have found its way somewhere lower on this list, the second night felt more cohesive and celebratory. For someone so new to the pop stage performance world, Jean-Philip Grobler is very convincing as a frontman.
2: FRANZ FERDINAND at the Fox Theater – April 28
Had I been a complete homer I would have called this my favorite show of the year because they’re my second-favorite band and I didn’t see U2 in 2014. But no, the No. 1 band impressed me more. But what Franz Ferdinand showed on April 28 was that they don’t care what the music industry considers success, because they want something else. They have no intention of changing just to get another radio hit. Instead, they produce heavy angular guitar rock, song after song after song.
1: BIFFY CLYRO at The Great American Music Hall – February 12
A band I’ve never seen live before (no expectations!) and knew little about before preparing for an interview earlier this year took the top slot in my list. Whether they’re performing a driving rock song or a bittersweet ballad, Biffy does it with a strong connection to its audience . . . while shirtless. They’re not as popular in the U.S. as overseas, where they fill stadiums, but you have my seal of approval to check them out the next time they pass through.