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The Ten Best Concerts of 2017

Just like an album or a song, a truly great live show can change your life. Unlike an album or song, live shows are a communal experience that only exist for a brief moment in time before they become a distant memory. That’s why it’s so important to be as present as possible when you’re at a venue or music festival, to keep that memory locked inside your brain instead of locked inside your phone. Of course I’m as guilty as the next person for taking photos during a show (see all the examples below), but I do my best to only take a few and then put the device away.

Having said that, 2017 marked my busiest and most exciting concertgoing year to date. According to calculations, I attended shows on 71 days this year, and that’s not including the insanity of multi-day festivals such as the Pitchfork Music Festival, Lollapalooza, and Riot Fest. When all is said and done, my best guesstimation is that I saw 167 performances total, which takes opening acts and festival sets into account. So yeah, a lot of live music. It’s not nearly as much as the 500+ shows NPR’s Bob Boilen has pulled off in recent years, but I’d like to think it’s a solid amount for somebody that also has to maintain an active work and social life (not saying Bob Boilen doesn’t have either of those, but he arguably has more…flexibility).

Needless to say, it was tough choosing only ten performances from 2017 to highlight. Then again, this list could easily have been the ten best live shows I attended at the Empty Bottle this year, since they hosted an incredible array of big name bands and artists vastly underplaying at their tiny venue in celebration of their 25th anniversary. Instead, things are just a little more diverse than that, focusing on the moments that really stood out to me for one reason or another. Some were emotionally moving. Others were genuinely surprising or fun. The thrill of discovering something new, and the pleasure of hearing a set list comprised of many of your favorite songs. There was so much to love, and it’s my sincerest hope that you are inspired by this list to check out more live music no matter where you live. After all, science says that regularly attending concerts makes you happier.

Pitchfork Music Festival 2015: Friday in Photos

Join me after the jump for a collection of photos that I took on Day 1 (Friday) of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Photos are arranged by set time. They are also available in higher resolution on Facebook. Check out my full recap of the day, as well as all the rest of the coverage, by going here.

Pitchfork Music Festival 2015: Friday Recap

Ah, the hallowed grounds of Union Park. How nice it was to return for yet another year, this time in particular to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Pitchfork Music Festival. Upon my entrance to the park I took a little tour, primarily to get the lay of the land and see what was new compared to years past. In short not much, though the smaller Blue stage has been angled a little differently this year, made a little larger and given a video screen. As a result of the small tweak, what was once a largely shaded area thanks to trees now has a bit more sun but also a bit more space to accommodate larger crowds. That aside, it’s everything in its right place. Here’s a recap of all the music I saw today, which was more a tasting portion of a lot of artists rather than full meals. Details after the jump…

Pitchfork Music Festival 2015: Friday Preview Guide

As we continue Pitchfork Music Festival Week here at Faronheit, it’s always a pleasure to offer a closer, more in depth look at not only the artists on the lineup, but some analysis as to the scheduling so you can make the most of your weekend. There are always inevitable conflicts with artists you might like to see, as well as times when it might feel like a dead zone where there’s nothing to interest or inspire you. Fear not! There’s plenty of fun to be had every hour the gates of Union Park are open, whether you know it or not. Sure, there may be some tough calls to make at times, but one of the best things about Pitchfork is that there are never more than two stages going at once. They’re also not that far from one another, meaning that if you really want to see pieces of different sets, it’ll be a five minute walk to pull it off. Minimum effort for maximum musical reward. So without further ado, please join me after the jump for an hour-by-hour look at what Day 1 (Friday) has to offer.

If you missed yesterday’s post featuring audio and video streams/downloads from every artist on this year’s lineup, you can find that post right here.

Set List: Wilco at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark [Geneva, IL; 7/8/12]

I’ve reviewed a few Wilco shows before, and I’m sure I’ll review a Wilco show again. Even though I was there, I won’t be reviewing this one. It was as good as almost every other Wilco show I’ve seen, even though I didn’t fully appreciate the sound system in the ballpark. Nels Cline is still killing it with those guitar solos, Jeff Tweedy’s vocals are sharp as ever, and there were some nice set list surprises at this show. That’s all I’m going to say about it. Here’s the full set list:

Set List
Dawned On Me
War On War
I Might
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Box Full of Letters
Handshake Drugs
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
Impossible Germany
Born Alone
Not For the Season (aka Laminated Cat)
Side With The Seeds
Say You Miss Me
Jesus Etc. (with Andrew Bird)
Hate It Here
Whole Love
I’m Always in Love
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Via Chicago
Art of Almost
Standing O
A Shot in the Arm
California Stars (with Andrew Bird)
The Late Greats
Hoodoo Voodoo

Listmas 2011: Wilco’s Incredible Shrinking Tour [5 Nights, 5 Chicago Venues]

In case you haven’t heard, last week Wilco ended their fall/winter U.S. tour in support of their new album “The Whole Love” by performing 5 shows in their hometown of Chicago. Dubbed “The Incredible Shrinking Tour”, each night built upon the one before it as the band started at the 3,500 capacity Civic Opera House and ended a few days later at the 500 capacity Lincoln Hall. Along the way, there would also be stops at The Riviera (2,300), The Vic (1,400) and Metro (1,150). While I would have loved to have attended all 5 shows, time, money and ticket availability reduced me down to only 3 of the 5 nights. Still, 3 Wilco shows are better than 2 or 1 or none, and I also happened to be in attendance at the last two nights in which the band played their smallest shows in years, probably over a decade. Each show I attended also had its own distinct vibe and set list, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to recap and review each one. Let’s go in order.

Set List: Wilco [Riviera Theatre; Chicago; 12/13/11]

For those that don’t know, Wilco is in the midst of a 5 night residency in their home city of Chicago at the moment. They performed on Monday night at the Civic Opera House for Night 1. I was unable to get tickets to that show (or I should say, rejected the option of buying very, very bad seats), but was able to make it out for Night 2 at the Riviera Theatre. This isn’t a show review, and I’m not going to write one right now for a couple reasons. The first being we’re in the middle of Listmas here and I’m buried in things I have to write. The second is that there are still 3 more Wilco shows to go before the week ends. I will be attending two of those three. Next week, once all the Wilco shows in Chicago have wrapped up, I’ll throw something together that essentially recaps all of them. For now, I wanted those looking for it to have the set list for the Riviera show. Naturally, the new album “The Whole Love” was (and will remain) the focus for the time being, however what I find most interesting are the choices made outside of the new material. Will the band try and attempt vastly different set lists each of their 5 nights in Chicago? The Riviera show featured plenty of changes from the Civic Opera House one, so we shall see. I must say that I LOVE how much attention “A Ghost is Born” got, and whipping out little-heard songs like “I Must Be High” and “Just A Kid” (from the freaking Spongebob movie soundtrack) was truly inspired. Overall a spectacular night, to the point where they even made the typically horrid sound system of The Riv work some magic. Must’ve been because I was standing next to the soundboard. Anyways, I’ll have more info and some additional set lists from the Wilco shows on Friday and Sunday nights as well, not to mention a full writeup/recap coming early next week. Until then, here’s the set list from The Riv show.

Less Than You Think
Art of Almost
I Might
Black Moon
Bull Black Nova
Side with the Seeds
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
Born Alone
You Are My Face
Open Mind
I Must Be High
I’m Always in Love
Capitol City
Handshake Drugs
Can’t Stand It
Dawned on Me
\**ENCORE 1**/
Via Chicago
Whole Love
The Late Greats
Just A Kid
Outtasite (Outta Mind)
\**ENCORE 2**/
Spiders (Kidsmoke)
I’m A Wheel

Album Review: Wilco – The Whole Love [dBpm]

Eight albums in sixteen years – that’s the rate at which Wilco has been releasing records since 1995. Like clockwork, you can virtually anticipate a new Wilco record every two years. The consistency in that is impressive, made that much more so when you consider only a pair of those are regarded as lackluster in quality (see “A.M.” and “Sky Blue Sky” for more information). One of the big things that has kept Wilco vital all these years is their dynamic sense of adventure. Evolving out of Uncle Tupelo, the first couple Wilco albums were very much in a similar alt-country vein, something that didn’t do Jeff Tweedy & Co. many favors when comparisons were tossed about. The strongly pop-driven “Summerteeth” was the first sign the band was emerging from that looming shadow, and their true masterpiece “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” confirmed it fully. Wilco has since evolved into one of the biggest bands in the world, to the point where they can create their own music festival and for the first time, their own record label. Yes, after finishing their contract with Nonesuch Records, Wilco is now officially “going it alone”, stretching their one wing and attempting to fly. Their label is called dBpm, and the first Wilco record released on it is the current one, “The Whole Love”. It’s also the third record in a row with the same band members, which is a good thing considering it’s also their strongest and most consistent lineup out of the many they’ve had.

The thing about consistency is that it breeds familiarity and creates patterns as a result. In spite of their brilliance, the last two Wilco albums have played things a bit safe. “Sky Blue Sky” was like a time warp back to Wilco’s earliest days, a subdued alt-country record that was almost the exact opposite of the immensely experimental “A Ghost Is Born” that came before it. Far better was 2009’s “Wilco (The Album)”, which was closer to a greatest hits record than anything else, with a collection of new songs that each sounded like they belonged on a different, older Wilco release. On “The Whole Love”, the band pretty much picks up exactly where they left off, though with a notable uptick in their more experimental side. That’s evident right from the start of the album, with the 7+ minute “Art of Almost”. Not only is it a surefire replacement for the band’s standard epic opener “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”, it might just be the best Wilco song since then as well. For those worried or disappointed that the band was simply cruising and might not be pushing themselves anymore, here’s a song that would seemingly suggest otherwise. The thing about it is, that off-kilter edge doesn’t last.

First single “I Might” shows up and puts the epic oddities on hold as it bounces around with some fuzzy, lighthearted pop energy. It is in many ways the antithesis of “Art of Almost”, but still fits well within the boundaries of the best of Wilco’s catalogue. It’s the sort of song that the band can do in their sleep, and there seems to be at least one of them on each of their records. That doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it overly familiar. There are a few tracks on “The Whole Love” that once again work from that same template. See “Dawned On Me” and the title track for a pair of strong examples. If you’re looking for some of those classic Tweedy ballads, this album has you covered on that as well. “Black Moon” and “Rising Red Lung” are two somber acoustic numbers that are sobering but inspired and beautiful. Meanwhile “Standing O” features the band at their most brash and rocking, heavy on the upbeat electric guitars and with some strong assistance from buzzy keyboards and handclaps. Nels Cline does some positively raw work on that along with “Born Alone”, among others. He’s by no means underutilized on this record, he just takes the back seat a little more often to let the spotlight shine elsewhere as needed. After all, the way that drummer Glenn Kotche and bassist John Stirratt work with one another as a rhythm section is more than dynamic in its own right.

If you’re looking for something a little more unique from Wilco, “Capitol City” has a quirky 1920s vibe to it, like it deserves to be played at a county fair with a gentleman selling nerve tonic nearby and posters of pinup models everywhere. It’s the bouncy bass line, mellow organ and brushed snare drums that truly sell the track. But like “The Whole Love”‘s auspicious and adventurous beginnings, the record is bookended with the 12-minute closer “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)”. With such an extensive length, the song has been given more than its fair share of breathing room and ample reserve to go off on whatever wild experiment the guys might have up their sleeves. What’s surprising is that it doesn’t do that. It remains firmly grounded and consistent – the pace never moves above a light toe-tap, and it’s the ideal sort of soundtrack for a road trip through open pastures. The acoustic guitar and xylophone, when paired with Tweedy’s sublimely relaxed vocal performance lends the song an intimacy and beauty that wraps you up like a warm hug from a close friend. It doesn’t need to take any tangents or try anything fancy to succeed, and in spite of the melody not changing much, there’s not a single dull moment over the course of those 12 minutes. That in itself is a big key to the song’s brilliance – that Wilco is ambitious enough to extend a single track to an absurd length yet remain content with a largely basic melody. Even the best jam bands never seem to achieve that same remarkable grace.

As with every Wilco record, one of the highlights are Tweedy’s lyrics. He’s a poet in his own right, even if we “don’t give a fuck”. There are always some puzzlers in terms of what he writes, yet the wordplay is never anything less than compelling. How one “assassin’s down the avenue” is irrelevant, save that it sounds cool. Tweedy has said himself that a number of his lyrics are developed straight from his own mublings, in which he’ll simply get the sounds out of his mouth and come up with actual words for those sounds later. So when he references “Slim Jim blood” and the Magna Carta in one single breath on “I Might”, we don’t have to worry what he means by that because it legitimately means nothing. But not every song is comprised of silly gibberish that has no context. “Dawned On Me” is about realizing you’re still in love with somebody you’ve already broken up with, “Open Mind” is about trying to convince your partner to broaden his or her horizons, and “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend)” is close to what the title describes – a confession to the titular author’s boyfriend about having an illicit affair with her. Does a song with a storyline or sensible lyrics make it better than one of the random word collections? In the end, not really – even the songs with no meaning keep it interesting in creating word combinations you’d never think to put together. So long as Tweedy isn’t diving head first into cliches, Wilco’s lyrics will always retain some semblance of brilliance.

Where “The Whole Love” puts Wilco is on the track back to their finest moments. After coasting for the most part on their last two albums, they’re showing a little more willingness to experiment and break from the patterns that have come to define exactly what a “Wilco song” should sound like. To put it a different way, they’re starting to regain the spark that fueled career highlight records like “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost Is Born” again. While this new album may not go down as Wilco’s best, it can certainly be regarded as falling on the better half of their catalogue. There’s not a single song to dislike on this album, even if it lacks a cohesiveness that the band’s best had. Whether it’s finally reaching a new comfort level or simply being bored with the ground they’ve already traveled, the more these guys can play with our expectations, the better. Feel free to take more chances, fellas. You’ve earned it.

Buy “The Whole Love” from Amazon

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