The Cure, May 2016 (photo: Rob Goodman)
Year after year, I’m reminded that among all the chaos in the world — especially during this tempestuous time in the United States — there is one oasis of jubilation, one place to go to pause, to thrash, to meditate, or just…listen. Shows bring people together on a level you rarely feel in any other setting.
There were times this year when I had hoped for a greater level of protest from the artists I admire most, but we’re only human, after all — processing the present the best we can. In retrospect, maybe creating the context to just take a break from the noise of cable news, Facebook feuds, and tweetstorms to be aurally transported elsewhere was just about the best gift musicians could give.
Now, maybe more than ever before, it’s critical to support the arts and the press, and I can’t think of a more fun way to do that than plunking down some cash to rock your fucking heart out.
My favorite concerts of 2016 were also some of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life, and although the list is stacked with well-established acts, I was lucky enough to see a slew of incredible bands, at all different points in their careers, here in San Francisco this year. So honorable mentions go out to: DIIV, Conspiracy of Venus, Annie Hart, David Bazan, Day Wave, Sunflower Bean, Thao Nguyen, Miss March, The She’s, Hot Flash Heat Wave, Mark Kozelek, and Frankie Cosmos. And I can’t leave out shows by two of my favorite artists, Nada Surf and Greg Dulli. Last, but not least: Dave Chappelle at The Chapel in April and Louis C.K. at the Nourse Theater in June were monumentally riotous moments of glee.
But, without further ado, here are six of my most memorable show moments from 2016.
Thursday, January 7
I could hardly see frontman Maynard James Keenan when Tool took the stage at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium back on Thursday, January 7, and it wasn’t because of tall dudes obstructing my view. Keenan stood toward the back of a darkly-lit stage dressed in post-apocalyptic military attire. The frontman has always preferred to let the band and their brilliant music and suggestive visuals (world-renowned music videos, piercing light transmissions, and/or gigantic animations like the ones that filled the auditorium during this performance) create the spectacle that has defined Tool throughout their 25-year career.
My friend Jen and I were tightly packed into the crowd, surrounded by fans, headbanging along to every single room-shaking groove as the band played countless hits and deeper cuts for hardcore fans. This was a brilliant way to kick off the year.
Thursday, May 26
When The Cure released Wild Mood Swings with lead single “Mint Car” in the mid-’90s, I was unimpressed. Kicking around summer camp in New York, I remember talking to my friends about whether or not to get tickets for the band’s upcoming tour. “I would have loved to have seen The Cure back in the day, in the ’80s when they were in their prime. I’m not going to see ’em now.”
They say the ones that get away hurt the most. And the years have shown young Rob was sorely mistaken. Many moons later, with the release of Bloodflowers and their self-titled album, I saw the error of my ways.
The Cure gave such a spectacular performance at Shoreline Amphitheatre, it may have made up for all that lost time. The band played for nearly three hours, the set list loaded with 35 tracks, for a sold-out crowd of believers. It’s hard to pick a highlight from this career-spanning set, but I did especially love hearing “Burn” from The Crow Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, having a dance party to “Why Can’t I Be You?,” and generally being dazzled by Robert Smith’s perfect, unchanged vocals and a band who still sound at the very top of their game. It was the show of a lifetime. So I guess it’s OK I had to wait a little bit longer until I was ready for it.
Friday, June 3
At The Drive-In broke through and then broke up right at the turn of the millennium. I had always loved this band since being turned onto them by my hardcore-loving friends in school. I even got the chance to see them at an Irving Plaza showcase during CMJ 2000 with Tenacious D and Granddaddy. The band broke up the following year, but my fandom continued unabated as I followed along with the often brilliant, boundary-pushing musical splinters of ATDI: The Mars Volta, Sparta, Omar Rodríguez solo projects, and Antemasque, among others.
When At The Drive-In’s reunion tour finally came to San Francisco this summer, there was an explosive energy in the air. The group lashed around on stage with the ferocity of a band who had something to prove, hand-delivering a gift to all those long-time fans who never got the chance to see them perform live. After all, there never was a proper tour for their seminal album, Relationship of Command.
Though Cedric Bixler’s vocals (and high kicks) didn’t quite reach the heights of the band’s earliest incarnation, the blunt force of the music and lyrics still delivered a bone-crushingly transcendent experience for all those in attendance. The band raced through a hammering set, and the crowd ate up every note. It took me 10 days to get my voice back, but it was worth every scream.
Thursday, September 22
Age is only giving Jenny Lewis more time to perfect her brilliant instrument — her voice. Jenny brought together her old band, including The Watson Twins, at The Masonic for a 10-year anniversary tour of her debut solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat. I had seen Jenny at Town Hall in New York City after the album was originally released, and have been lucky enough to see her at least a dozen times with Rilo Kiley and Nice As Fuck, as well as on her many solo voyages. For the Masonic show, longtime Lewis friend (and bandmate from The Postal Service) Ben Gibbard opened the evening with an acoustic guitar and a set full of lovely renditions of Death Cab for Cutie songs and solo tracks. Jenny, The Watson Twins, and their band took the stage shortly after and ran through the entire Rabbit Fur Coat album. It was a jaw-dropping performance, as Jenny explored the stories that brought her first album to life, punctuated by a band so happy to be back together. The group then took five and came back for a second set stacked with tunes from Jenny’s now-extensive back catalog.
Jenny’s musical journey is just as fun to follow as it is to listen to at home or among thousands of her fans. These days, she is in the studio with Ryan Adams, who is helping orchestrate another round of magic following his role as producer on 2014’s Voyager.
Sunday, October 16
My first visit to Treasure Island Festival was a challenging one. As all those who were in attendance can attest, downpours consistently sidelined sets, as show-goers were forced to run and take cover. In spite of Mother Nature’s best attempts to dampen the mood, the festival was chock full of colossal performances that gave every attendee a great excuse to get their mud dance on. Sylvan Esso, Purity Ring, and Mac DeMarco were all standouts, but the highlight of my weekend was Sigur Rós. The otherworldly Icelandic band gave a breathtaking show to a somewhat smaller (diminished by the storm) but die-hard crowd on Sunday night. Seeing and hearing Sigur Rós live is unlike any musical experience I’ve had before. (The band played as an array of colorful lasers took command of the stage and live, animated video feeds translated their human forms into beings of light on the big screens along the sides of the stage.) It’s the closest I’ve felt to being spiritually moved by live music. This one stands out for 2016 and for always. You can bet my ticket is already firmly in hand for their return to the Bay Area in May at The Greek. Go get yours.
Sunday, August 28
OK, there is one show in the mix that I actually didn’t see in the Bay Area. But I contest that had I made it to Julien Baker’s Bottom of the Hill show back in February, she would still be showing up on this list.
I rolled out of bed early that Sunday morning on a mission to finally see Julien. I had heard so much about her, and for some reason had gotten it in my head that I would wait to see her live before listening to any of her music. Unable to convince my friends to wake after a late night at FYF Fest with Kendrick Lamar, Tame Impala, and Air, I made my way over for the first performance of the day to finally see Julien in concert. She played to a packed tent, the closest thing to a club atmosphere the festival offered, and seemed truly taken aback by the crowd that had amassed on a hungover festival morning to hear her heart-wrenching brand of folk music. The audience was hushed for every guitar strum and, every ponderous note Julien forced through her lungs, while explosions of applause welcomed the last chords of each song she shared.
I’ve never seen someone like Julien before. The songs she performed, most of which were featured on her debut album Sprained Ankle, are so beautifully raw and cathartic there is barely any boundary between performer and audience. It’s the musical equivalent of hearing a dear friend share their heartbreak over a coffee or glass of whiskey. There are a lot of superlatives on my show list this year, and every year brings its own kind of special show moments, but I’ve never been so emotionally gripped by a performer as I was by Julien Baker. Give her a listen and please be sure to see her come 2017.
I’d love to hear about your favorite shows this year. Leave a comment or come at me on Twitter at @therobgoodman. Here’s to an even better 12 months of music ahead.