February 8, 2018
For those following along, I attended 52 concerts spanning seven states in 2017, and I’m sharing some highlights. Dig in if you’re on the constant hunt for music (as I am). Read the first post here, and check out the second (and final) installment below.
Big Thief at The Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
I’ve long been drawn to introspective, thought-provoking songwriters, and Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker is among her generation’s finest. And I can’t help but smile at the fact that Big Thief signed to Saddle Creek Records, which released so many of the most formative albums of my high-school years. While they may at first seem subtle, Lenker’s soft, meandering vocals, backed by the quirky, retro sound of guitarist Buck Meek, suck you into Big Thief’s engrossing stories. Here’s a gorgeous video of Big Thief playing in The Current studios right here in the Twin Cities.
MewithoutYou at The Fine Line, Minneapolis
The first time I saw MewithoutYou vocalist Aaron Weiss flailing around, pouring every ounce of his energy into screaming his poetry into a microphone, it was on a tiny festival stage and I was in middle school. MewithoutYou has been one of my favorite bands ever since. Their sound has evolved over the years, bringing Weiss’s poetic lyrics to the forefront. But in some ways, they moved away from the energy that made me fall in love with the band in the first place. Luckily, in 2017, they played the Fine Line and commemorated the 15th anniversary of their debut album, “[A–>B] Life,” by playing the full record, cover to cover. The crowd was instantly transported to the past, but it was more than sweaty nostalgia: it was confirmation that MewithoutYou was — and is — one of my all-time favorite bands.
Pinegrove at 7th Street Entry, Minneapolis
Pinegrove’s “Cardinal” topped my list of 2017’s best albums. So, needless to say, I was stoked to finally get a chance to see them – in as small a venue as 7th Street, no less. (I had tickets to an earlier show, but Pinegrove dropped off while singer Evan Stephens Hall went home due to a death in his family.) The band’s unique melodies, and their ability to seamlessly weave words like “solipsistic moods” and “ventricles are full of doubt” into their catchy lyrics, set them apart from their peers.
Converge at Warsaw in Brooklyn
Converge is not only one of the most legendary hardcore bands ever, but they remain the standard bearers of heavy music today, nearly 30 years after forming. I’ve seen countless concerts over the years, but I routinely cite Converge as my favorite live band of all time. You might not fall in love with on first listen: Vocalist Jacob Bannon’s mostly indiscernible screaming, the crushing percussion, the thick, distorted guitar riffs…Converge is the polar opposite of “easy listening.” But their passionate performances, full-body-workout stage antics, and consistently excellent albums have formed the most loyal and rabid fan base I’ve ever seen. Every time I see Converge they push the envelope even further — and seeing them at Warsaw in Brooklyn was among my favorite performances I’ve seen.
Below is a video of a full Converge concert from last year’s tour. If you choose to check it out, buckle up. It’s a wild ride.
Julien Baker at The Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
At just 22 years old, Julien Baker looks like an unassuming kid when she steps onstage, typically playing solo and toting nothing but a sparkly Telecaster and a loop pedal. But when she plays the first note, a hush immediately sets over the crowd, and the seemingly timid singer unleashes some of the saddest, most haunting and most beautiful songs you’ll ever hear. Her debut album was particularly stripped-down, and on her latest release, “Turn Out the Lights,” she maintained her powerful minimalism while adding more instrumentation to fill out her sound. If you watch the following video, watch it until the end — the last quarter of this tune is one of the most moving songs you’ll hear all year.
Vagabon at the Triple Rock, Minneapolis
I heard about Vagabon just a few days before they came to the Triple Rock, and boy, am I glad I did. The project is helmed by Cameroon-born multi-instrumentalist Laetitia Tamko, and you’ll be hearing a lot more about her soon. (Pitchfork called her “an indie rock game changer,” and she was listed alongside some of my other favorite new artists in this New York Times’ piece about how women are making today’s best rock music.) Despite its brevity, Vagabon’s debut album is filled with many different sounds. One of my favorite tracks is below.
Tyler Childers at Colectivo’s Back Room in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
When I heard that Tyler Childers new record was produced by Sturgill Simpson, I was immediately intrigued. And since it was released, I’ve essentially worn it out on my turntable. There has been a major resurgence in true country music, and Childers is certainly one of the best in the scene — and it’s clear that his career is only beginning. I saw Childers play at both 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis and Colectivo in Milwaukee last year, and I couldn’t help but raise a drink and sing along both times. Don’t forget your dancing shoes if you get a chance to see him live.
Mitski at the Triple Rock, Minneapolis
Mitski’s “Puberty 2” is one of the boldest and most original records of the past several years. The Japanese-American singer is paving her own path. Having studied at the SUNY-Purchase Conservatory of Music, she’s a sophisticated songwriter, but she keeps you on edge, infusing experimental sounds, jarring shifts in style (and volume), and some of the most vulnerable lyrics I’ve heard in years. I was engrossed by her entire Triple Rock show, even though I didn’t know at the time that it would be among my final trips to the now-defunct punk club.
Paul Cauthen at the Turf Club, St. Paul
Friends and fellow country revivalists like Margo Price call him “Big Paul,” and I saw why when watching Paul Cauthen at the Turf. He’s a startlingly tall dude who commands the stage and the microphone, and he gets the crowd singing (and dancing) immediately. His low voice conjures Johnny Cash and many early country greats. His sound is a unique blend of classic country and gospel, and if you’re a fan of either, you have to check him out. Conversely, if you’re turned off by the word “country,” take into account that Cauthen seems to hate modern country too. As he told Noisey: ““You don’t have to write about tan-lines and flip flops and cold beer and the sand every f*ckin’ day… Write about your feelings, for once.”
Kamasi Washington at First Avenue, Minneapoils
It’s not every day that a jazz saxophonist composes a three-hour album — named, with no hint of irony, “The Epic” — and receives both critical acclaim and what can safely be described as “crossover” success. Kamasi Washington is a force to be reckoned with, and he has quickly built a massive fanbase consisting of people from a vast array of musical tastes. After proving he could create a captivating three-hour record, he did a complete 180 last year, releasing the tight, concise “Harmony of Difference,” proving he could also masterfully pack the same punch at a much shorter run time. His band filled the entire First Avenue stage and had the whole audience grooving.
James McMurtry at the Turf Club, St. Paul
I was undoubtedly among the youngest fans at the James McMurtry show, which simply made me wonder how he has managed to miss the radars of a younger generation. The son of acclaimed novelist Larry McMurtry, James McMurtry has been writing piercingly sharp, increasingly political, often angsty, and frequently funny lyrics for decades. And I’d argue that his latest album, 2015’s “Complicated Game,” includes some of his best and most mature songs to date. Here’s a great track from that album, performed solo.
Wilco at The Palace Theatre, St. Paul
Speaking of dad rock, I also had the honor of seeing Wilco at The Palace Theatre this year, and it was one of the most epic, theatrical shows I’ve seen in years. To be fair, I would pay an exorbitant amount of money to watch Wilco’s lead guitarist Nels Cline play guitar for hours on end, in any setting. But this truly was a special show for Wilco, who have been alt-rock legends for decades. They played tunes from across their entire catalogue, and The Current aired the show live so even people who couldn’t score a ticket could experience it from afar.
Here’s the full performance. (If you want just a taste, I’d advise fast-forwarding to 1:13:30 for my favorite guitar solo of all the guitar solos, ever.)