52 Weeks, 52 Concerts — Part II

January 2, 2017
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With the 2016 calendar finally closed, it’s becoming cliché to lament what was, by so many measures, an awful year. But I find that to be an over-simplification of the past 365 days. The year certainly contained many ups and downs, and in both positive and negative times, I tend to turn to music.

Somewhat serendipitously, I made a pledge at the outset of 2016 to take in as many concerts as possible, in an effort to fuel creativity and strike a healthy work-life balance. In all, I tallied 52 concerts over the course of 52 weeks, with “concert” defined as one ticketed show. (In other words, a day-long festival only counted once.)

Why am I sharing this? I’m hoping you might find something that piques your interest – a new album to stream, an LP to spin or a band to catch next time they’re in town. It’s not comprehensive, but I’m chronicling some of my year’s highlights over the course of several Peepshow posts – you can find the first one here, the second one below, and more to come in the near future.

Parker Millsap – Turf Club, St. Paul
Recent years have ushered in a revival of rootsy Americana music, and Parker Millsap is one of the young, up-and-coming artists that is helping carry the torch. Upon first listen, you’d never guess this mature voice and guitar work would come from a baby-faced singer in his early twenties, but keep an eye on this guy as he continues to carve out a place as a leading Americana songwriter of his era. Here’s a haunting tune that has really stuck with me:

Shellac – First Avenue, Minneapolis
Steve Albini is best known as a master producer, having recorded legendary records like Nirvana’s “In Utero” and The Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa.” In fact, I’ve read that the prolific engineer has his fingerprints on as many as 1,500 albums. But Albini has also played in several great bands – including Shellac, whose abrasive sound can be a bit divisive, but has attracted a legion of loyal fans. (Fun fact: Shellac drummer Todd Trainor lives in Minneapolis, across the Mississippi from Fast Horse headquarters, and can often be spotted walking his dog along the riverfront.) Live concert recordings are rare, but here’s a link to some audio from Shellac’s latest release:

Sturgill Simpson – First Avenue, Minneapolis
Speaking of Nirvana, did anyone guess that this year’s best country album would be a concept record written for the artist’s son, and featuring a cover of “In Bloom”? Well, it’s been an incredible couple of years for country music, if you look beyond the typical chart-topping CMT machine. Jason Isbell, Margo Price, Chris Stapleton — so many singers released breakthrough records, but it’s probably safe to say that Sturgill Simpson had the biggest year of all. On the heels of a couple of other incredible records, Simpson released “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” – a “country” record complete with the Dap-Kings’ horn section and the aforementioned Nirvana cover. It’s an ambitious project to say the least, and even to Simpson’s own surprise, it recently landed a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. Simpson’s sold-out First Avenue show was definitely in my top five for the entire year.

Jeremy Enigk and Into It. Over It. – Turf Club, St. Paul
The term “emo” elicits a lot of different responses, but even those who find it a derogatory term are quick to clarify: “I mean, of course I like good old emo music, like Sunny Day Real Estate.” Jeremy Enigk was the singer of that seminal band, which helped pioneer a genre of emotional (and often vulnerable) songwriting, and he has put out several great but often-overlooked solo albums, as well. He performed songs from throughout his career during an intimate Turf Club show. The opener was a younger performer named Evan Thomas Weiss, who performs in a band called Into It. Over It. and is often credited with helping lead an “emo revival” movement in our current decade. Here are tracks from each of those artists:

Wye Oak – Fine Line Music Café, Minneapolis
This two-piece band keeps consistently churning out their unique brand of atmospheric tunes, making them one of those groups that are easy to forget when the next shiny thing comes along. But they always put on a great show, and this year’s Fine Line gig was no exception. The following video is not a great intro to Wye Oak’s catalogue, but I also love the high-quality covers they contribute to the AV Club’s annual “AV Undercover” program, in which bands perform covers from wide-ranging artists and styles. Take this surprisingly captivating Pat Benatar ballad, for example:

Tortoise – Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
The Tortoise discography spans the sounds of spaghetti Westerns, prog, electronica, jazz and many other seemingly disparate genres that somehow all fit perfectly in this Chicago-based instrumental band’s sonic landscapes. They played a wide-ranging set at the Cedar, great for longtime fans and newcomers alike. Here’s a great live performance from a DVD series called “Burn to Shine,” in which bands played one final performance inside houses that are about to be demolished:

Fall of Troy – The Nether Bar, Minneapolis
My first and last trip to the now-defunct Mill City Nights venue involved ducking into their tiny basement bar. Fall of Troy – a rambunctious, technically proficient band known for insanely energetic shows and finger-tapping guitar riffs – went absolutely wild in what might as well have been a house basement show. If you’re in the mood for some frenetic guitar stylings and can stomach a bit of screaming vocals, give it a spin:

Father John Misty – Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis
Josh Tillman (aka “Father John Misty”) is one of those artists who meticulously builds – and painstakingly maintains – a sort of fictional persona, and at times you wonder if the whole psychedelic caricature thing is some sort of in-joke, with those of us in the audience being the punchline. Luckily, he’s also a talented singer, so despite your opinion on his stage antics, he’s a pleasure to listen to. Here’s a memorable Misty performance on Letterman, which is equal parts enchanting, satirical and unsettling:

Dream On Nilsson – Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Harry Nilsson is a visionary artist from the ’60s and ’70s who flew under many people’s radars, despite being a close confidante of John Lennon and often being referred to as “the fifth Beatle.” When you discover his music, it’s like winning the lottery, and I’d recommend learning more about his life story (which was cut tragically short) in the 2006 documentary, “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?” Anyway, several of my friends from high school, many of whom I once shared stages with, created an incredible tribute to Nilsson, called Dream On Nilsson. Here’s a clip from their album release show:

Wilco and Kurt Vile – Hall’s Island, Minneapolis
If you haven’t seen Wilco live, let me suggest you add it to your bucket list – particularly if there’s any indication they’ll be performing songs off “Sky Blue Sky,” a contemporary masterpiece featuring the inimitable jazz fusion guitarist Nels Cline. They put on a stellar show covering many of the albums from their repertoire during an outdoor summer show at Hall’s Island, and this song was in my head for weeks. Find a better guitar song. (Seriously – try.)

The Cure – Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
The Cure put on the second of two arena shows I saw this year (the first being Springsteen’s River Tour). Robert Smith, donning his trademark dark makeup, has very little in common with The Boss, but both living legends put on marathon shows – with The Cure’s set clocking in over three hours and spanning a solid mix of radio singles and deep cuts. They hadn’t played the Twin Cities in two decades, and the anticipation was palpable. In a year when we lost so many iconic musicians, The Cure’s show was a real treat. Here’s an ‘80s video that encapsulates the band’s distinctive vibe:

Helms Alee – Triple Rock Social Club, Minneapolis
This three-piece band is two-thirds women, and they produce blisteringly heavy tunes (which, admittedly, are not for everyone). Their amps created a relentless wall of sound from the Triple Rock stage, and I’ll look forward to seeing where this band goes next. Pro tip: Play this one loud.

Chance the Rapper – Rock the Garden festival, Hall’s Island, Minneapolis
Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current always pulls together an interesting lineup for their Rock the Garden event. This year included some festival mainstays like the Flaming Lips, along with a great M. Ward show and an energetic sendoff for local hip-hop stars, GRRRL Party. But Chance the Rapper stole the evening for me; even though I was only familiar with a few of his tunes, I was enthralled by the way he commanded the stage and the audience’s attention, and his live drummer and backing band brought a more authentic and raw sound than the typical Macbook that often provides backing beats for hip-hop shows. Chance has received a ton of critical and popular praise this year, and deserved it all.

More to come in future posts. In the meantime, I’m constantly looking to expand the old LP collection, and recommendations are graciously accepted.