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.

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Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in Buffalo

A sample of the messages Sam received from First Niagara Center yesterday:

<3<3 (during “Two Hearts”)

MY LOVE WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN!!!!!

It’s so loud in here holy HELL

OH MY F****** G**

EEEEEEEK

WEEEEEEEEEE

So yeah–it was a good night, as good as (and in some places better than) the self-proclaimed “best Springsteen concert I’ve seen” a couple weeks earlier.

buffalo

Set:

  • Meet Me in the City

The River:

  • The Ties That Bind
  • Sherry Darling
  • Jackson Cage
  • Two Hearts
  • Independence Day
  • Hungry Heart
  • Out in the Street
  • Crush On You
  • You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
  • I Wanna Marry You
  • The River
  • Point Blank
  • Cadillac Ranch
  • I’m a Rocker
  • Fade Away
  • Stolen Car (my highlight of the night; I love, love, love this song)
  • Ramrod
  • The Price You Pay (my other highlight of  the night; sides three and four of The River really are incredible, aren’t they?)
  • Drive All Night
  • Wreck on the Highway

Set (continued):

  • The Promised Land
  • It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City
  • My Love Will Not Let You Down
  • Because the Night [Patti Smith] (it was deafening inside the arena after these three songs; the stretch between “Saint” and “Thunder Road” was as good as anything I’ve seen at a Springsteen show)
  • Lonesome Day
  • The Rising
  • Thunder Road

Encore:

  • Detroit Medley (it was here that Sam received the OH MY F****** G** message)
  • Born to Run
  • Dancing in the Dark
  • Rosalita (at this point I was grinning so broadly my face literally started huring)
  • Bobby Jean
  • Shout [The Isley Brothers]

It’d be difficult to describe what happened during “Rosalita” without the aid of visuals…but I’ll give it a go. Someone in the pit threw a Kermit the Frog hand puppet on stage, and it wound up in the hands of Steven Van Zandt–who in turn put it on and held it in front of the mic, trying to throw his boss off. He succeeded wildly: Bruce was laughing so hard, laughing to the point of tears, that he literally couldn’t sing the last verse of “Rosalita.” The puppet then found its way back to the pit, where it was swaying in time to “Bobby Jean.”

Next up: the Greatest Band of All-Time, finally, in Toronto.

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in Toronto

That might’ve been the best of the eleven Springsteen concerts I’ve seen. Just a setlist (with lots of songs bolded!) for now. (And hey: welcome back, Patti Scalfia! This was the first time I’d seen her with the E Street Band–a group of which she’s ostensibly part–since 2003. I’ve seen Springsteen seven times since then! The perks of being the boss’ wife, I suppose.)

Set:

  • Meet Me in the City

The River:

  • The Ties That Bind
  • Sherry Darling
  • Jackson Cage
  • Two Hearts
  • Independence Day
  • Hungry Heart
  • Out in the Street
  • Crush On You
  • You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
  • I Wanna Marry You
  • The River
  • Point Blank
  • Cadillac Ranch (first time since my first Springsteen concert, December 5, 2002)
  • I’m a Rocker
  • Fade Away
  • Stolen Car
  • Ramrod
  • The Price You Pay
  • Drive All Night
  • Wreck on the Highway

Set (continued):

  • The Promised Land (“Cover Me” was on the original setlist; I like “The Promised Land,” along with every other song off Darkness on the Edge of Town, but at this point I’ll almost always take a song I’ve never heard over one I’ve heard–let’s see–five previous times. On a related note: you know I’ve only heard “Born in the U.S.A.” once? Strange but true.)
  • She’s the One
  • Candy’s Room
  • Because the Night [Patti Smith]
  • Brilliant Disguise
  • The Rising
  • Thunder Road

Encore:

  • Badlands
  • Born to Run
  • Dancing in the Dark
  • Rosalita
  • Shout [The Isley Brothers]

Next up: Springsteen again, this time in Buffalo!

8-24-12

On 8-24-12 I had a decision to make: see Bruce Springsteen or check myself into hospital.

I chose Springsteen–but five days later, after coming back to Calgary and trying desperately to resume a normal life, I took a leave from work, flew home, and entered therapy. It’s the best decision I ever made. The best, and also the hardest. But it saved me. Tonight, in honour of the occasion, I’m going to start writing a book. It’s going to be called Music Can Save Your Mortal Soul, and it’s going to be about how family, friends, cute blonde doctors, overweight cocker spaniels, Rob Bell books, and rock n’ roll records can pull you out of the abyss and back into the light. A year ago the Springsteen show felt like the end of something; who knew that it was really the beginning of the rest of my life?

(Video by Jack Schwartz)

Ten-Year Avenue Freeze-Out

Ten years ago today I saw my first Bruce Springsteen concert. That night–night, might, whatever–I learned more in three hours than I ever learned in school…or something like that. This wasn’t the show that solidified my Tramp-dom; that came four-and-a-half months later in Ottawa, but this was a pretty good way of introducing me to Bruce and the E Street Band.

Set:

  • The Rising
  • Lonesome Day
  • Candy’s Room
  • No Surrender
  • Night
  • Empty Sky
  • You’re Missing
  • Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
  • Cadillac Ranch
  • Worlds Apart
  • Badlands
  • She’s the One
  • Mary’s Place
  • Countin’ on a Miracle
  • If I Should Fall Behind (solo piano)
  • Thunder Road
  • Into the Fire

1st Encore:

  • Dancing in the Dark
  • Ramrod
  • Born to Run

2nd Encore:

  • My City of Ruins
  • Born in the U.S.A. (this, remarkably, is the only time I’ve heard “Born in the U.S.A.” live)
  • Land of Hope and Dreams
  • Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town

As with my first-ever Phantom, if only my parents knew what they were doing when they allowed me to hear “Born to Run” in an arena.

Bruce Springsteen in Hamilton

I promise not to post every Bruce Springsteen setlist from this leg of his Wrecking Ball tour. In fact, I’ll leave it with this one. I might’ve been there. Might’ve.

Set:

  • My Love Will Not Let You Down
  • Out in the Street
  • Hungry Heart
  • We Take Care of Our Own
  • Wrecking Ball
  • Death to My Hometown
  • My City of Ruins
  • Spirit in the Night
  • Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street
  • Jack of All Trades
  • Trapped (sign request)
  • I’m Goin’ Down (sign request; the sign read, “HEY BRUCE. I JUST GOT DUMPED. I’M GOIN’ DOWN.)
  • She’s the One
  • Because the Night (sign request)
  • Working on the Highway
  • Shackled and Drawn
  • Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
  • Terry’s Song (sign request; there’s a really moving story attached to this one, and honouring Grace Mahler’s request was a beautiful gesture by Bruce)
  • The Rising
  • Badlands
  • Land of Hope and Dreams

Encore:

  • I’m a Rocker (sign request)
  • Born to Run
  • Rosalita (especially great, goofy version)
  • Dancing in the Dark (at the end of which Bruce tripped on the front lip of the stage and faceplanted on top of his guitar; this led to Jack Clemens of all people taking the lead on the “hey, baby!”s)
  • Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out 

    Bruce Springsteen in Ottawa

    I would’ve loved to have heard “Drive All Night” live. This bodes well for the rest of this incredible tour.

    Set:

    • The Promised Land
    • The Ties That Bind
    • No Surrender
    • Hungry Heart
    • We Take Care of Our Own
    • Wrecking Ball
    • Death to My Hometown
    • My City of Ruins
    • Spirit in the Night
    • The E Street Shuffle
    • Jack of All Trades
    • Prove It All Night (with the ’78 intro)
    • Candy’s Room
    • Darlington County
    • Shackled and Drawn
    • Waitin’ on a Sunny Day (featuring not one but two kids)
    • Drive All Night
    • The Rising
    • Badlands
    • Thunder Road

    Encore:

    • Queen of the Supermarket (Bruce solo) (N.B.: of all the songs to bring a sign for, Carolyn Ouellette–of all the songs. There’s a reason it’d only been played live once before.)
    • We Are Alive
    • Born to Run
    • Glory Days
    • Dancing in the Dark
    • Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

    I’m still flabbergasted that someone even made a sign for “Queen of the Supermarket,” let alone that Bruce actually played it. I wonder how it sounded…