My Year in Concerts: 2011

Craig Finn of The Hold Steady gesticulating wildly in Cleveland, Ohio, one of my favorite 2011 concerts

Less Than Jake @ The Rave | Milwaukee, WI 2-5-11
With Mike

It is bittersweet seeing a Less Than Jake concert, more than 10 years after my first show. Mostly everything on the stage is the same; it is the crowd that has changed; we are less in number, though more of us are consuming alcohol. Besides a few diehard ska lovers, skanking has pretty much gone by the wayside. I spent most of the concert outside of the pit, just watching, rather than mixing it up in youthful revelry. The songs are the same, LTJ dutifully avoids playing a lot of their new stuff, sticking to their classic albums, ‘Losing Streak’ and ‘Hello Rockview.’ Those songs still get the crowd the most pumped up. Still, I marvel that when I listened to those songs, then, as an 18-year-old, they are about people who were the age I am now. How they haven’t transcended that spectrum and become even more meaningful to me is a mystery. Maybe we just tire of music eventually. Eventually, when we come back around again, these familiar anthems comfort us, bringing us back to a time where things were simpler, but also more complicated. These thoughts, coursing through my mind, while the beer coursed through my veins, didn’t allow me to fully live in the moment at the show, but there was something comforting about seeing LTJ again.

Streetlight Manifesto @ Turner Hall | Milwaukee, WI 2-17-11
With TJ

Being the veteran of more than 100 concerts, most of them with TJ, I think we both thought we knew what to expect on a crummy, late winter-weekday night. We expected a small crowd, after all, Streetlight Manifesto plays a style of music that is no longer popular, of which they aren’t the foremost practitioners. TJ and I were both blown away to see Turner Hall completely packed for the show. The band met the crowds unflappable enthusiasm with a rousing set of favorites, played at their familiar breakneck pace. They played evenly off of their two original albums and heaped in a nice helping of Catch 22 tracks and a few covers and left me wondering if they receive the same reception everywhere, or if somehow Milwaukee is particularly kind, yet behind the times, for this excellent ska band.

The Hold Steady @ House of Blues | Cleveland, OH 4-2-11
With Adam, Brendan, Cindi, Diana, Michelle and TJ

Cribbed from my account of an epic Hold Steady road trip to Cleveland, here are my notes:

Surrounded, engulfed by hundreds of bodies, lights flashing, the taste of warm PBR on my lips, a million smells congealing into one, dank and sweaty. And in a moment of spine-tingling transcendence, pleasure even; these things melt, melt, melt away…

I close my eyes, I let the music, Tad Kubler’s wailing guitar, overtake every other sense. I feel joy, my spine tingles continuously; I’m close to tears. But all too soon, my mind takes over, realizing that I’ve achieved that moment.

(I’ve spoken to many avid concertgoers about what I’ve dubbed “The Feeling.” Although every person I’ve talked to described it differently, essentially, they were all talking about the same thing; the act of being, in your own way, swept into the music. I’ve also met people for whom this concept seems totally unreal.)

I start to look around at the friends who flank me. I wonder if they felt it too. Unwillingly, mournfully, I return to reality… hoping this isn’t the last time this music, these songs, transform a moment into pure joy.

I realize a number of things after the moment, that feeling, ends… chief among them that I am in Cleveland…

Adam was drumming along to the songs on his beer can. I started to notice the crowd around me. The genuine plastered smiles on the faces of those who weren’t singing along. I started to feel the joy that Craig always talks about, a prelude to The Feeling.

“We Can Get Together” is a song that I guess you could call a ballad. Its about loving music and loving people and the fact that the latter isn’t always simple. When Craig sang, “they sang love is the answer and I think they’re probably right/let it shine down on us all/let us warm us from within,” my spine began tingling. When Tad launched into the (live only) guitar solo, I was overcome, a full blown version of the feeling. Everything evaporated, senses fell away, it was wonderous. It is something to live for.

I remember telling TJ at some point, “this is what it’s all about.” We exchanged a knowing glance and I knew he knew exactly what I meant. In our own ways, we all did.

And luckily, the rest of the show was punctuated with more moments, more Feelings. We threw our confetti in the air. I put my arm around Michelle, I put my arms around my friends. All that mattered was the moment. We shouted along until they finished with “Killer Parties.”

Before the song, Craig always tells the crowd about the joy he experiences on the stage and thanks the crowd for being part of it. Then they play their wailing, shout-along anthem. My favorite part of that song is the end, a part that is ad libbed and a little different every show, but the sentiment is always the same… “We are, but more importantly you are… and we all are The Hold Steady!”

We even got to hang out with some members of the band after the show, but that is a different story for a different day…

Win Butler fronting the most important band in the world!

Arcade Fire & The National @ UIC Pavilion | Chicago, IL 4-25-11
With Adam, Cindi, Diana, Michelle and TJ

I called Michelle on the phone, telling her The National was playing Chicago. Asking if she was interested in going. “I guess,” was all she could muster. “Oh yeah,” I said, almost as an afterthought, “they are opening for Arcade Fire!” My slight of hand was a success, Michelle was as speechless as I was when I saw Arcade Fire would be playing a series of shows in Chicago. Adam and I worked hard to ensure that we could get floor tickets, and with those in hand, we headed to Chicago to see Arcade Fire, it was easily my most anticipated concert of my lifetime! Prior to the show, Win came out and signed some autographs, he even signed my ticket! The National, as I suspected, proved to be an excellent opener, relatively new to the band, I was pleased that they played mostly off their most recent record. I loved hearing “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Fake Empire” and “Terrible Love,” but Win joining them for “Start a War,” was probably the highlight of the set. The guys from The National were cool, lead singer, Matt Berringer even traded a bottle of wine for a sign that a fan in the front row who seemed intent on holding up the entire show, winning many kudos from the crowd. I waited eagerly and Arcade Fire brought everything they had. Eight multi-instrumentalists making a beautiful, foreboding noise. They satisfied my wildest dreams, playing all four songs I wanted to hear, “Tunnels,” “Wake Up,” “We Used to Wait,” and “Suburban War.” It was easily one of the most surreal concert experiences I’ve had, having watched hours of these guys on television and YouTube, before seeing them less than fifty feet from me. I can say that it is the greatest single set by a band I’ve ever seen. Arcade Fire played evenly from their three wonderful, breathtaking albums and left me stunned and grateful to be there, surrounded by my friends, taking it all in.

Everyone in this frame, besides the people onstage, is an idiot...

Manchester Orchestra @ The Metro | Chicago, IL 5-4-11
With Adam, Cindi, Diana and TJ

I was excited to see Manchester Orchestra on the strength of just one song from their knew album, both called “Simple Math.” What I should have known is that simple math states when you have around 1,150 drunken Chicago buffoons in a room, it will ruin your experience (just kidding, Illinois friends, well kinda). Although they soldiered through the antics of many members in the crowd who were yelling for something faster during the slow songs, throwing things and menacing each other, the show ended up as flat as the rest of the new album. It was fun to hear some of the songs off their first album, and they are a tight, powerful force, but mostly, this show was a let down.

(((Amps for Buddha))) @ Shank Hall | Milwaukee, WI 5-12-11
With Matt

My buddy Mario’s band, Amps for Buddha, headlined this benefit show at Shank Hall. It was my first time at this historic Milwaukee venue. Despite a small crowd, Mario and his drummer brought it through their entire set. Amps for Buddha’s style of rhythmically constructing tracks that build on themselves and dissonance of Mario’s wailing guitar. It was fun to watch the passion and desire of all the bands who played that evening, trying, each in their own unique way, to grab the crowds attention and, for that moment, make it.

A couple of hoopsters and some hipster ladies...

The Head and The Heart @ Millennium Park | Chicago, IL 6-6-11
With Cindi, Diana, Michelle and TJ

How could this beautiful summer day in Chicago go wrong when it was started at Portillo’s with an Italian beef sandwich? With the summer sun beating down and our cooler full of beer and snacks, we enjoyed a day on blankets in Millennium Park. It was really cool to hear both bands (Iron + Wine played too) soundcheck. Eventually, The Head and The Heart played their beautiful, harmonic pacific-northwestern indie rock. Though we couldn’t see too much from where we were seated in the uber-crowded, hipster-filled park, our ears feasted on the sounds. “Lost in My Mind” and “Down In The Valley” were excellent, but the female-fronted, powerful second half of “Rivers & Roads” really stole the show.

If you look close, you can see TJ, Adam and Cindi in the front row...

Florence + The Machine & The Black Keys @ Marcus Amphitheater | Milwaukee, WI 7-6-11
With Adam, Brendan, Cindi, Emily, Jason, Michelle and TJ

I’m not a huge fan of either band, or Summerfest for that matter, but with Michelle paying, I said I’d tag along. I was blow away, first, by how big the crowd was. To me, both bands were just emerging. All of our friends were seated in the first few rows, and Michelle and I were back a way, with two head-bobbing teenage boys in front of us. They alternately annoyed and charmed me with their antics. Florence’s voice was powerful and the Keys’ garage rock was impressive, and I had fun, despite hardly knowing any of the songs!

Intimate show, just Steve, Craig and Tad...

The Hold Steady @ The Pabst Bar | Milwaukee, WI 8-24-11
With Adam, Shannon and TJ

I’d seen The Hold Steady 13 times before this day, but by the time the next day begins, I’d have seen them twice! First, they were playing a free show in The Pabst Theater at the bar at behest of a radio station. Sure, they only played three songs, but this scaled back version of the band delivered some excellent acoustic tunes and some fun between song radio banter. There was even free beer! It was great to take off work, meet up with my friends in the middle of the day and enjoy my favorite band doing something different! Here is an awesome performance of ‘The Weekenders’ from this magical little midday gig:

THS rocking Milwaukee!

The Hold Steady @ Turner Hall | Milwaukee, WI 8-24-11
With Adam, Cindi, Matt, Michelle, Mike, Nick and TJ

We had a big group together later that night to see The Hold Steady headline Turner Hall. At this point, Hold Steady shows kinda blend together for me. I remember them playing a lot of songs I like, I remember our confetti raining down on everyone around us and I remember walking out of the place with the smile plastered on my face that is always there after seeing the band. They’ve really come into their own as a five piece band, sans piano, and as much as I love the keys, their true guitar rock power was apparent.

THS rocking Chicago!

The Hold Steady @ The Metro | Chicago, IL 8-25-11
With TJ

The next evening, TJ and I were in Chicago to see The Hold Steady again. Surprisingly, it was the first time we’d be seeing the band at the Metro. The highlight of the night was probably a cover of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love,” which I recorded at the show and is closing in on 1,000 views. The boozy rendition was soaked in the spirit of The Hold Steady. Tad’s guitar work came through in a big way. I can’t imagine how the whirlwind of seeing them three times in 48 hours could come close to being eclipsed!

The Head and The Heart @ Turner Hall | Milwaukee, WI 10-6-11
With TJ, Michelle and Shannon

Finally, the chance I’d been waiting for, to both see and hear the band I’d been listening to non-stop for months, up close. The Head and the Heart did not disappoint. They were incredible. Standout tracks were ‘Josh McBride,’ ‘Lost in My Mind (which turned into a multi-band, hipster sing-along),’ ‘Down in the Valley,’ and ‘Rivers and Roads.’ What makes their music so beautiful is their vocal harmonies paired with the folkie/indie rock vibe, and they had the entire room singing and bobbing along.

The Civil Wars @ Turner Hall | Milwaukee, WI 11-8-11
With Michelle and Matt

My friend Matt puts it really well:

@TheGreatWebber He sings. She sings. They sing together. These two people share one voice. Their eyes meet, yes, but their bodies cannot. They’re married to the music, and to people far offstage. She looks away. The crowd. The lights. He strums his guitar. His wedding ring gleams. Even when whispered, their wishes sound screamed, loud enough to rattle the voyeurs in the balcony, all of whom toss back their own deferred dreams. What if…? Are they…? Could I…? Why? The concert of the year, the speculation of a lifetime, an album that reveals, and conceals, so sweetly.

Besides all that, Milo Greene was an excellent opener and The Civil Wars played an incredibly interesting cover of The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Disarm,’ which I’ve included below:

Reel Big Fish yawning through their set...

Reel Big Fish & Streetlight Manifesto @ The Rave | Milwaukee, WI 12-7-11
With TJ

I ended the year as I began it, seeing a ska band I loved when I was younger. I wouldn’t have gone if Streetlight Manifesto hadn’t been there, and again they brought their best. Reel Big Fish, on the other hand, seemed to be going through the motions. TJ and I couldn’t even manage to stay for their entire set. It, for me, was an anticlimactic, unfitting finale to a wonderful year of friends, drinks and live music…


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