My Favourite Concerts of 2016

2016 was a good year for me and live music. In fact, there’s a reasonable chance it’ll end up being my best year ever. Among other things, I saw each of my big three (Pearl Jam, the Who, Bruce Springsteen) at least twice. I saw a band about whose potential reunion I once wrote, “This could still happen; then again, pigs could fly.” I saw a show whose opening act was 20 minutes of lucha libre. And I saw the Hip five times, including what might have been their final concert.

How to rank all this? Simple: I can’t. So here’s an unranked top five for you instead:

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, 2/1 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. I’m not a fan of this recent trend of bands touring old records. In the case of Bruce Springsteen, for instance, I’d much rather see him do a regular show than perform a thirty-five-year-old double album in its entirety. Except…it’s The River, and this tour (which I also saw in Buffalo) made a convincing argument that it’s his unvarnished masterpiece. And when he got to the hits, I got to stand next to Sam when she heard “Born to Run” live for the first time. (We also witnessed an incredible fistfight during “Born to Run,” which put a weird bow on the experience.)

Video by Brian Gay

Pearl Jam, 5/12 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. I hadn’t seen Pearl Jam since late 2013; it was a deliberate break, a chance for me to recalibrate my relationship with my favourite band, and by the time their 2016 tour rolled around I was ready to have them back. The second Toronto show, which got bumped back by a day to accommodate a Raptors’ playoff game, was actually my least favourite of the three I saw–that’s obviously a relative statement–but I’m putting it here anyway for a, being Sam’s first Pearl Jam show; b, us (including Sherkin and Pearl Jam Heather) having GA; c, the Oceans/Inside Job/Breath sequence; and d, Ed’s bizarre mid-“Better Man” rant about a Miami limo driver that was awkward at the time but that now seems remarkably prescient.

Video by Len Anaquod. Watch through till the end!

The Hold Steady, 9/18 at Toronto Urban Roots Festival. I’m not a fan of this recent trend of bands touring old records. In the case of the Hold Steady, for instance, I’d much rather see them doing a regular show than perform a ten-year-old album in its entirety. Except…they absolutely killed Boys and Girls in America. Their set was the highlight of TURF for Sam and me (a weekend which also included, among others, the Hives, the Dropkick Murphys, Whitehorse, Julien Baker in the rain, and the New Pornographers in the blazing heat). Plus, the mini Boys and Girls tour brought Franz Nicolay back into the fold. The Hold Steady are so much better for it.

Video by The Low Lifes

The Who, 4/27 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. The Who’s “final” Toronto appearance (I bet it wasn’t!) got postponed not once, not twice, but three times: from October 21 to December 1, 2015 to April 26, 2016, and then, thanks to the Raptors, April 27. I wasn’t sure how I’d react to seeing “my” band for potentially the final time. I needn’t have worried: I was too busy screaming along to every single word to feel sad. Plus, when the final two songs are “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” it’s hard to feel anything other than euphoria.

Video by Dave Olsen. No relation!

The Tragically Hip, various arenas across Canada. I saw the Man Machine Poem tour five times–once in Calgary, three times in Toronto, and, thanks to years of good ticket-buying karma, Kingston–and it’d be impossible for me to separate the shows from each another. The fact the band even toured this year was miraculous; that the shows were as good as they were made the Man Machine Poem tour something the likes of which we’ll never see again.

Actually, I can separate one from the pack. The Kingston concert was, along with Pearl Jam in Thunder Bay, one of the two most special shows I’ll ever see (and I can’t imagine a third that’d take its place alongside them). A lot of you watched the broadcast–according to CBC at least a third of Canada tuned in–yet while the overriding impression among those who watched it on a screen seemed to be how sad the concert was, those of us who were lucky enough to get a ticket experienced it much differently. This was rock n’ roll. Yeah, there were parts that were difficult–the line “it’s been a pleasure doing business with you” at the end of “Scared” hit all the feels–but for the most part it was much less wake and far more triumphant homecoming for a band that’d spent the past three months walking through hell and come out the other end with heads held high. It was celebratory. It was raucous (I’ve never sang/screamed the words to “Fifty Mission Cap,” “Twist My Arm,” and especially “Grace, Too” like I did that night). And it was moving…moving, but very rarely sorrowful. None of us knows what’ll happen to the Hip next. I went into the Kingston concert thinking for sure this wasn’t “it.” Now I’m pretty sure it was, because how on earth do you top that? One thing we do know: if there’s one band that can, it’s the Hip.

Black Sabbath in Toronto

I haven’t been around a computer much these past couple weeks, which means that Hip/Kingston write-up’s still percolating someplace. I’m hoping it’ll come this weekend–but in the meantime, here’s the setlist from another “farewell” concert. Black Sabbath’s “The End” tour rolled into town Monday. I’d seen them in Calgary a couple years ago, on Easter Sunday of all days; that night still ranks as one of the great, unexpected pleasures of my life as a music fan. Monday…does not. I’ll get to the why in a second. First, the setlist:

Set:

  • Black Sabbath
  • Faeries Wear Boots
  • After Forever
  • Into the Void*
  • Snowblind
  • War Pigs
  • Behind the Wall of Sleep
  • N.I.B.
  • Hand of Doom
  • Rat Salad
  • Iron Man*
  • Dirty Women
  • Children of the Grave

Encore:

  • Paranoid

Note the asterixed songs. Sabbath tunes its songs down; I’m assuming it’s to accommodate their singer’s diminishing range. Ironically, though, Ozzy had a lot more trouble hitting the low notes. “Iron Man” and “Into the Void” (the latter’s probably my favourite Sabbath song) sounded awful. There were places where Ozzy wasn’t anywhere close to being in tune. He gets away with it because he’s Ozzy and he misses his notes while doing Ozzy things…but if you forget that for a minute, and consider instead the fact you’ve paid $60 to stand on a grass hill surrounded by tweekers from South Oshawa and listen to a 68-year-old zombie struggling at the bottom of his vocal register, it becomes a lot more difficult to stomach. I felt embarrassed for him, actually.

His bandmates are great, and Tony Iommi remains one of the best live guitarists I’ve seen. But it’s tempting to say they’d be better off performing with that Ronnie James Dio hologram. (And I haven’t even mentioned losing Sam, first to a washroom line-up and then to the crowd on the lawn, from “Black Sabbath” until “Hand of Doom.” That’s what data overages do to you!) I feel bad for saying this because, again, it’s Ozzy. The man’s a legend. And, well, it might be a blessing that that which stands before him now is retirement.

The Tragically Hip in Kingston

Let’s just see what tomorrow brings.

Set:

  • Fifty Mission Cap
  • Courage
  • Wheat Kings
  • At the Hundredth Meridian
  • In a World Possessed By the Human Mind
  • What Blue
  • Tired as Fuck
  • Machine
  • My Music at Work
  • Lake Fever
  • Toronto #4
  • Puttin’ Down
  • Twist My Arm
  • Three Pistols
  • Fiddler’s Green
  • Little Bones
  • The Last of the Unplucked Gems
  • Something On
  • Poets
  • Bobcaygeon
  • Fireworks

1st Encore:

  • New Orleans is Sinking
  • Boots or Hearts
  • Blow at High Dough

2nd Encore:

  • Nautical Disaster
  • Scared
  • Grace, Too

3rd Encore:

  • Locked in the Trunk of a Car
  • Gift Shop
  • Ahead by a Century

More later.

That (Third) Night in Toronto

Quoth the Gord: “The next time we play here,” and it was the best moment of the tour this far.

Set:

  • Blow at High Dough
  • New Orleans is Sinking
  • Opiated
  • Boots or Hearts
  • Machine (Gord sang the song–and, indeed, has been singing most songs on this tour–with an expression someplace between grim resolve and pathetic mime; by the way, if you haven’t listened to the album Man Machine Poem yet, it’s time you got on it)
  • What Blue
  • Ocean Next
  • In a World Possessed By the Human Mind
  • Streets Ahead
  • We Want To Be It (54 “drip”s this evening)
  • Man Machine Poem
  • At Transformation
  • Gift Shop
  • Flamenco
  • Springtime in Vienna
  • Ahead by a Century
  • The Last of the Unplucked Gems
  • Three Pistols
  • Twist My Arm
  • Long Time Running
  • Little Bones

1st Encore:

  • Escape is at Hand for the Travellin’ Man
  • Poets
  • Bobcaygeon (Gord flubbed “that night in Toronto”)

2nd Encore:

  • Daredevil
  • Grace, Too

I’ve long been of the opiniong this tour isn’t “it” for the Tragically Hip: I don’t think they’ll do large-scale tours anymore, but I’m hopeful they’ll play one-offs as long as Gord Downie’s health (or that of any of its other members, for that matter) allows. Gord’s line reinforced that. It might’ve been off-the-cuff. It might’ve just been a typical Gord-ism. It might’ve been a cancer patient keeping his head held high in the face of unimaginable circumstances. It might’ve been a combination of all of these things. If this is it, these shows were a worthy coda; Friday’s was one of the absolute best concerts I’ve ever seen. But the band that walked off the stage at the ACC last night didn’t look like one that was walking off into the sunset. It looked like a band moving on to the final dates of its latest tour–Hamilton tomorrow, Ottawa Thursday, Kingston Saturday–and promising, to the best of its ability given the circumstances, to see what tomorrow brings.

That’s what I choose to think, at least.

I’ll be at the Kingston show Saturday: years of good ticket-buying karma came home to roost in the form of a single ten rows from the stage. I have no idea what to expect. I’m excited; I’m nervous. No matter what, I’d imagine it’ll be one of the most special nights in my life–not just as music fan, but in general.

That (Second) Night in Toronto

As a music fan, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to experience a night like this. I say that unreservedly and unabashedly, 30 songs into my Tragically Hip concert career.

Welcome to the pantheon, Toronto #2.

Set:

  • Courage
  • Locked in the Trunk of a Car (!)
  • Eldorado
  • At the Hundredth Meridian
  • In a World Possessed By the Human Mind
  • In Sarnia
  • What Blue
  • Machine
  • The Dire Wolf (!!!)
  • Use It Up (I hadn’t heard this live since 2002!)
  • It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken
  • Throwing Off Glass
  • Grace, Too
  • Greasy Jungle (whither La Gusenza?)
  • Scared
  • Nautical Disaster
  • Membership (white whale alert!)
  • Bobcaygeon
  • Something On
  • Fireworks

1st Encore:

  • New Orleans is Sinking (this, incredibly, was my first time hearing “New Orleans is Sinking” in five shows; Sam, meanwhile, has never heard arguably the band’s biggest hit, but she has heard “Tired as Fuck”)
  • Boots or Hearts
  • Blow at High Dough (everyone on their feet)

2nd Encore:

  • Gift Shop
  • Ahead by a Century (again, everyone on their feet screaming every single word)

One more night in Toronto to come. Then it’s Kingston.

Frozen in Their Tracks

Be warned: you’re about to be inundated by Tragically Hip blog entries. Some of them will be lists that almost no one will care about; those who do, though, might care quite a lot. This is one such list: the Hip songs I’ve heard live one time and one time only. By my count (excluding covers, and with three shows left to see on the Man Machine Poem tour) there are 27 of them.

  • From the EP/Trouble at the Henhouse: 0
  • From Up to Here: Opiated
  • From Road Apples: The Luxury
  • From Fully Completely: Pigeon Camera
  • From Day for Night: Scared, Thugs (argh), Yawning or Snarling
  • From Phantom Power: Save the Planet, Thompson Girl, Membership
  • From Music at Work: Freak Turbulence, Wild Mountain Honey, Sharks, The Completists, Train Overnight
  • From In Violet Light: All Tore Up, A Beautiful Thing
  • From In Between Evolution: One Night in Copenhagen, The Heart of the Melt, Are We Family
  • From World Container: Last Night I Dreamed You Didn’t Love Me
  • From We Are the Same: Now the Struggle Has a Name, Frozen in My Tracks
  • From Now for Plan A: Goodnight Attiwapiskat, Take Forever
  • From Man Machine Poem: Tired as Fuck, In Sarnia
  • From Yer Favourites: No Threat

Couple observations:

  • I’ve never heard a song from the EP. This does not at all make me unique.
  • The five Music at Work songs I’ve only heard once were all played at one of my first two Tragically Hip concerts.
  • So far this tour I’ve got eleven songs I’d never heard before; I’ve already got four of them a second time, including “So Hard Done By”

That (First) Night in Toronto

Set:

  • The Luxury
  • Little Bones
  • Fiddler’s Green
  • Three Pistols
  • In a World Possessed By the Human Mind
  • Tired as Fuck
  • What Blue
  • Machine
  • My Music at Work (…which was the first Hip song I heard at the ACC; in fact, it was the first Hip song I heard live, period)
  • Lake Fever (…which I used to vehemently dislike; what ever was I thinking?)
  • Toronto #4 (…which I’d heard live once previously: at my very first Hip show!)
  • Puttin’ Down (…which was surprisingly tolerable last night)
  • Gift Shop
  • Springtime in Vienna
  • Flamenco
  • Ahead by a Century
  • Fully Completely
  • At the Hundredth Meridian
  • Wheat Kings
  • Fifty Mission Cap (Oddly, the 1951 Stanley Cup banner was missing from the rafters. On the other side of the arena the only player banner that was hanging yesterday was Bill Barilko’s, which MLSE restored to the rafters for the three Hip concerts. Presumably it’ll be given to his family after the shows are done.)

1st Encore:

  • Grace, Too (As Sam remarked, we got the full Gord for this one; this included a resurrection of the man vs. microphone stand battle whose outcome remains undecided.)
  • So Hard Done By (You know what they say: you wait 28 shows to hear a song once and one show to hear it again.)
  • Nautical Disaster (tour debut, surprisingly)

2nd Encore:

  • Bobcaygeon
  • Poets

That (second) night in Toronto is tomorrow!