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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Pearl Jam in Toronto, Night Two: PJ1/PJ41

PJ1 for Sam, PJ41 for me. This was an unannounced rollover show; it went on sale with zero notice half-an-hour after the first Toronto show sold out, which enabled me to do that rarest of things and pull general admission tickets to a Pearl Jam concert. And we got close yesterday:

nighttwo

Seeing Pearl Jam with Sam was a 35-for-35 item. Here’s what she got to hear:

Set:

  • Why Go
  • Corduroy
  • Mind Your Manners
  • Brain of J.
  • Animal
  • Garden
  • I Am Mine
  • Nothingman
  • Cropduster (literally any other song in the Pearl Jam catalogue would’ve been an upgrade; at least Ed punctuated it with an amusing story about the origins of the “let the fluency set it down” line)
  • Even Flow
  • Daughter
    • Blitzkrieg Bop [The Ramones]
      • W.M.A. (a longer tag than usual; I think it’s the first time I’ve heard Ed sing the chorus)
  • Green Disease
  • Unthought Known
  • Present Tense (epic)
  • Alone
  • Lightning Bolt
  • Do the Evolution
  • Blood

1st Encore:

  • Just Breathe (Ed and Boom only)
  • Oceans (Sam’s favourite Pearl Jam song!)
  • Inside Job
  • Breath (and I mean, look at that sequence! I kinda checked out after “Breath.”)
  • Lukin
  • Porch

2nd Encore:

  • Last Kiss [Wayne Cochran]
  • Last Exit
  • Better Man (no tag. Ed interrupted the song to tell a long, rambling, discomfiting story about a cabbie in Miami; it made me feel a bit uncomfortable, and while it didn’t ruin the show by any means it wrecked mine and Sam’s vibes the next little bit.)
  • Crazy Mary [Victoria Williams]
  • Black (these last two featured Mike McCready at the peak of his considerable powers)
  • Alive
  • Baba O’Riley
  • Yellow Ledbetter (which began with Stone, Jeff, and Matt doing a shot behind the drum riser and ended with Mike in the middle of the GA)

With that, both mine and Pearl Jam’s tour drew to an end. I have no idea when I’ll see them again. Taking a long break between shows was beneficial, I think, and I doubt I’ll be rushing off to any of their ballpark shows this summer (although I absolutely reserve the right to change my mind). This Ontario run of shows was special. I’m cool cherishing the feeling for the next little bit.

Pearl Jam in Toronto, Night One: The Binaural Show/PJ40

Set:

  • Go
  • Do the Evolution
  • Mind Your Manners

Binaural:

  • Breakerfall
  • Gods’ Dice
  • Evacuation
  • Light Years
  • Nothing As It Seems
  • Thin Air (only my second time hearing this; the first was at the infamous Hershey concert in 2003)
  • Insignificance
  • Of the Girl
  • Grievance
  • Rival (only my second time hearing this one, too; the first was PJ2 at the former Jones Beach Amphitheatre in Wantaugh, NY on the Binaural tour)
  • Sleight of Hand
  • Soon Forget
  • Parting Ways (only my second time hearing this one, too; the first was PJ10 in Boston in 2004)

Set (continued):

  • Corduroy
  • Once
  • Rearviewmirror

1st Encore:

  • Imagine [John Lennon] (stunning; I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this if/when I heard it, but it ended up being one of the highlights of any Pearl Jam concert I’ve seen)
  • Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time) (oddly, I’d seen this performed once before)
  • Comfortably Numb [Pink Floyd]
  • Even Flow (Mike’s solo ended with him in full Hendrix mode, on his knees in front of his speaker stack)
  • Down
  • Better Man
    • Save it for Later [The English Beat]
  • Porch

2nd Encore:

  • Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
  • Given to Fly
  • State of Love and Trust
  • Black
  • The Real Me [The Who]
  • Alive
  • Donna [James Rado/Gerome Ragni/Galt MacDermot] (Ed sang a line from “Donna” introducing Donna Grantis, who joined Pearl Jam on guitar for…)
    • Rockin’ in the Free World [Neil Young]

That’s my fucking band.

Pearl Jam in Ottawa

My self-imposed two-and-a-half year Pearl Jam exile came to an end in Ottawa yesterday evening. Clearly, “exile” is a relative concept when you’ve seen a band thirty-nine times…but regardless, after seeing the last show of their 2013 tour I decided to take a break from Pearl Jam, hoping the magic of seeing them live would return. I wanted it to feel special again. Last night, it did.

Couple quick points:

  1. There’s a Stephen John in the Ten Club. I learned this last night when I discovered he’d been given my fan club tickets. His membership number’s significantly higher than mine, which generally means his seats are worse (or “less good,” I guess: Pearl Jam seats its fan club in the proverbial “best seats in the house,” so in theory even the worst fan club tickets are better than the best ones available to the general public). To make a long story short, the Ten Club and/or Capital Tickets took very good care of us. Pearl Jam Heather and I ended up with the best non-general admission seats we’ve had for a Pearl Jam concert.
  2. During “Porch,” Ed saw my Who shirt, pointed at me, nodded when I pointed at myself, circled his chest, and pumped his first (the Who are famously his favourite band). If you don’t think that turned me all fan girl-y, well, you obviously don’t know me very well.

Set (the intro music was the R.E.M. song “It Happened Today,” on which Ed sings backup vocals and which the band played one time only, in Calgary in 2011)

  • Lightning Bolt
  • Mind Your Manners
  • Do the Evolution
  • Save You (surprisingly tolerable!)
  • Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
  • Love Boat Captain
  • Deep
  • Faithfull
  • I Am Mine
  • Even Flow
  • Setting Forth (before which Ed introduced Jon Krakauer, who was sitting directly across from us)
  • Corduroy (which has a new, jammed-out middle section; I didn’t love it)
  • Immortality (first time for me since September 17, 2005–also in Ottawa)
  • Given to Fly
  • Big Wave
  • Why Go
  • Jeremy
  • Porch

1st Encore:

  • Bee Girl
  • Speed of Sound
  • Parachutes
  • Sirens
  • Love Reign O’er Me [The Who]
  • Better Man
    • Save it for Later [The English Beat]
  • Blood
    • Atomic Dog [George Clinton] (snippet)
    • Superunknown [Soundgarden] (Mike played the opening riff after “Blood”)

2nd Encore:

  • All I Want is You [U2] (Ed solo, first verse and chorus only)
  • Wasted Reprise
  • Life Wasted (back in its original key, thank goodness)
  • Black
  • Alive
  • Fuckin’ Up [Neil Young] (this absolutely should be played more often)

Up next: Toronto tomorrow and Thursday!

“Our Little Arena in Thunder Bay”

Ten years ago today I was in the exact same place as I am right now–my parents’ house in Toronto–and in all likelihood trying to avoid doing schoolwork by reading the old Pearl Jam Synergy message board in search of any news on the band’s forthcoming Canadian tour. Rumours were rampant–they always are when Pearl Jam’s about to make any sort of announcement–but ten years ago today I stumbled across the wackiest Pearl Jam-related rumour yet:

I think that this Canadian tour thing just might happen, and it may be more cities than we would expect. Our little 3000 seat arena in Thunder Bay, ON was contacted by Pearl Jam management. They wanted to know about the capacity and availability of the arena. Unfortunately, I couldn’t squeeze any dates out of my source, as he knows that I’ll be on here right away.

At the time I wrote: “Pearl Jam at the Fort William Gardens. Now…okay. I know this is very much a rumour and that the chances of it ever coming to fruition are negligible–but wow. Wow, wow, wow. Pearl Jam at the Fort William Gardens? If for some reason this were to happen–and believe me, I’m not counting on it in the least–it would have to represent some sort of culmination of my being.” And then later, “Pearl Jam in Thunder Bay. The mind boggles.”

I woke up eleven days later to a Canadian tour announcement in my inbox–and on Friday, September 9 I saw my favourite band in my hometown in a building where I practically grew up. Ten years ago today my ultimate rock n’ roll fantasy started coming true.

Like an Opening Band for the Sun

Pearl Jam’s announcing…well, something tomorrow morning. I’ve actually been taking a break from the band, at least as far as seeing them live’s concerned: following the Seattle show in 2013, which sated a long-standing urge to see Pearl Jam in its hometown, I decided I needed some space from the band in general and the road in particular and spent last year consciously not trying to see them. It proved surprisingly easy: the closest they got to me last year was Detroit, and while normally I’d have done the eight-hour roundtrip drive from Toronto without hesitation (c’mon, it was Pearl Jam at Joe Louis Arena) I’m glad I was able to exercise restraint. Yes, I realize restraint’s a relative concept when I’d seen the band six times in a five-month span the previous year.

Anyway. I just gave the band’s self-titled record a rare spin, and when “Come Back” began it brought me back to Wrigley Field and…well, read on. Here are the ten best live moments from my thirty-eight Pearl Jam concerts.

  1. My first “Alive.” It’s still the single best version of any song I’ve ever heard, narrowly eclipsing any version of “Born to Run.” When Eddie sang (and the crowd shouted) the “if so, if so, who answers…who answers???” part I got so light-headed I literally thought I was going to pass out. I’ve spent the last thirty-seven shows (and the last seventeen years, for that matter) chasing that exact feeling.
  2. The first notes of “Present Tense” at the Fort William Gardens. Pearl Jam in Thunder Bay will forever remain the most special concert I ever see, and while I badly wanted “Long Road” as the opener (I got it two nights later in Kitchener) “Present Tense” was a pretty good consolation prize.
  3. “Release” at PJ20. The PJ20 festival, which took place in East Troy, Michigan Wisconsin twenty years after Ten came out, might’ve been the single most anticipated happening in Pearl Jam fan history…and three days beforehand I wasn’t planning on going. I’m glad I changed my mind: the entire weekend was memorable and featured, among many other things, Chris Cornell singing a Mother Love Bone cover and two Temple of the Dog reunions. But the weekend might’ve actually culminated with Pearl Jam’s very first song, the version of “Release” by which all others will be measured. “Release” can be spine-tingling with even an ordinary audience. Now imagine an audience of 40,000 die-hard Pearl Jam fans who’d been waiting four months for these two shows–then throw in the fact that some of them had travelled from the other side of the planet to be there and that most of us had spent the run-in dreaming up all sorts of wild scenarios (some of which came true). Given all that, “Release” was the only possible opener, and the response was nothing short of ecstatic. Listen to that sing-a-long!
  4. My first “Hard to Imagine.” The song was my white whale, although it only took fifteen shows for me to hear it (“Tremor Christ,” by comparison, took thirty-five). I’ve since heard it twice more, in Calgary two years ago and at the legendary Vic Theatre show.
  5. “It’s OK” at Jones Beach. Pearl Jam covered this Dead Moon songs on the first leg of its 2000 North American tour, less than two months following the Roskilde tragedy. This version, which was later preserved on the Touring Band 2000 DVD, remains definitive; at the end I got the same light-headed feeling I got during my first “Alive.”
  6. My first “Baba O’Riley.”really wanted to hear the band’s cover of “Baba O’Riley” when I embarked on my personal 2000 tour (four shows, which seemed incredibly decadent back then). They played it at the Toronto show; my reaction might best be described as “utterly mental” (Pearl Jam Heather will confirm this).
  7. The third encore in Buffalo in 2003. Still the best Pearl Jam show I’ve seen, narrowly edging the second Toronto show in 2006 (see #10). The improbable third encore–which followed a note-perfect second encore that culminated with a cover of “People Have the Power” by Patti Smith–opened with a version of “Baba O’Riley” that had people jumping over the boards and rushing the stage, and just when you thought it couldn’t get any better Mike was picking up his beat-up Stratocaster and playing the opening to “Yellow Ledbetter.” Afterwards me, Sherkin, and our friends sat in the car, totally unable to move; then we drove across the Peace Bridge with the Top Gun anthem blasting from the car’s tape player (!). I spent the night on a floor underneath a pool table in my friend Tyler’s basement. The next day…
  8. “Porch” at State College. …we saw what was for a while “the longest Pearl Jam concert that’s ever been played” (Eddie’s exact words at the top of the second encore). “Porch” alone clocked in at ten minutes, featured an impassioned Eddie speech replete with mirror reflecting over the audience a la Bono, and led to a “Rockin’ in the Free World” that finally caused me to lose my voice.
  9. “Come Back” at Wrigley. Read this. Then watch this (warning: it’s really tough). And then watch this, which was stunning to witness; during the solo an honest-to-goodness lightning storm broke out, which led you to conclude that God really does exist.
  10. “Beast of Burden” at the second Toronto show in 2006. The show, which was an underrated masterpiece, featured one high point after another, not the least of which was Eddie seeing Sherkin’s Canada flag, pointing to a Brazilian flag behind the stage, and telling him and the other flag-bearer that they should make babies (100% true story). The show ended, as so many do, with “Yellow Ledbetter,” and then as Mike was playing the outro he spontaneously broke into “Beast of Burden” by his favourite band, the Rolling Stones. Mike does that fairly often during “Yellow Ledbetter.” What made this version unique was Eddie joining in on vocals and the crowd, which had been incredible the entire night, singing along with him. This is the show I said made me want to run all night and into the following day.

Will I add to these memories in 2015? We’ll find out tomorrow!

My Favourite Concerts of 2013

Let’s keep on wrapping 2013! Here are the first best concerts I saw last year, starting with one of the strangest nights in my life as a music fan:

Pearl Jam, 7/19 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Pearl Jam at Wrigley was memorable for all kinds of reasons–including the show itself, which was interrupted by a 2-3/4-hour rain delay and ended at the stroke of 2am. Pearl Jam fans have been bemoaning what might’ve been quite literally since the show ended (thanks in part to a t-shirt featuring the actual planned setlist), but as an experience, both good and bad, Wrigley was pretty unique. Plus, it featured an Ernie Banks cameo, two Lightning Bolt premieres, the first-ever solo accordion “Bugs,” a searing take of the Pink Floyd song “Mother,” a tear-jerking “Come Back” dedication, and Eddie Vedder looking so damned proud the entire night your heart wanted to explode.

(Video by thesignaturelibrary)

Soundgarden, 1/25 and 1/26 at the Sound Academy in Toronto. Again, it’s a source of wonder that I’ve now seen Soundgarden three times–two of them at a club! All told we got thirty-nine different songs; “Jesus Christ Pose” from night one was the best of the bunch, but I also loved the first night’s killer opening, “Incessant Mace,” “Loud Love,” and spending five hours thisclose to Matt Cameron and Chris Cornell.

(Video by kikijetu)

Nine Inch Nails, 11/25 in Calgary. NIN was, top-to-bottom, one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. I hadn’t seen them since the infamous Kool Haus concert of 2005, after which I declared I’d never see them again because that initial exposure to their live show was so perfect. I held fast for eight years, even missing their arena tour with Queens of the Stone Age and Death From Above 1979. But when NIN came to Calgary for the final date of their Hesitation Marks tour, I caved. I’m glad I did: in addition to a killer setlist (“Sanctified”! “I’m Afraid of Americans”!), not to mention the presence of Lisa Fischer and Pino Palladino, the light show was as spectacular as anything I’ve seen this side of U2.

(Video by Ryan Howatt)

AmericanaramA, 7/15 in Toronto. AmericanaramA–headlined by Bob Dylan, featuring Wilco, My Morning Jacket, and Richard Thompson–was, top-to-bottom, as good a lineup as you’re likely to encounter…and that’s before mentioning the Feist cameo (on a freaking Leonard Cohen cover of all things). Dylan was stupidly good, but Wilco and MMJ matched him stride-for-stride (sorry, mom and dad, but you were literally the only people there who didn’t like MMJ). And the cross-breeding on stage was something to behold; MMJ and Wilco jamming on “Cinnamon Girl,” for instance, spoke to all of heaven’s possibilities.

Queens of the Stone Age, 8/8 in Calgary. This was my fourth time seeing QOTSA, yet my first time seeing them as a headliner (unless you count the time Flaming Red and I saw them at the MuchMusic environment; that was surreal). The band’s 2013 album …Like Clockwork was on every single year-end best-of list; live, it burned, the songs fitting perfectly with the rest of the Queens’ catalogue. Going in, I wanted …Like Clockwork front-to-back (they’d done it at least once on the tour) and “Millionaire” and “Song for the Dead.” And while the former didn’t quite happen, the latter certainly did–along with a delirious, off-the-cuff “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” in the encore.

(Video by Ryan Howatt. It’s shaky, but it’s freaking awesome.)

Here’s to an equally good 2014! First up: Neil Young with Diana Krall at the Jack Singer. Might well be all downhill from there.