2011: A Year in Gigs

It’s been a year and half since I updated this blog.  Life happened.  A second child was born, we added a discipleship and church-planting training school to our already huge list of responsibilities, and time and/or energy to sit and talk about stuff I like disappeared.

But I have a little time now, and some motivation.  You see, 2011 was the Year of Gigs.

Live music is just about my favourite leisure activity.  I love nearly everything about it–the build up to the first song, guessing the setlist, the banter.  Live music, as long as its played by people who know how…well, there’s just nothing like it.  But it is expensive to see established bands, and not many come to Sheffield that fit my style, and so in 2010 I saw a grand total of ZERO concerts.  This was not acceptable to me, so in 2011 I vowed to get to a gig or two.

As it happened, I saw several.  And it was awesome.  So this here is my review of the gigs of the year–highlights, low points, rankings.  Why should you care?  I don’t know.  That’s up to you, really.

In order that I saw them, here’s the list of headliners: The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, Foy Vance, Coldplay, Greenbelt Festival (including Rend Collective, Gungor, Gordon Gano and the Ryans, and LZ7)  Iona, Rend Collective Experiment

The Decemberists–I saw them at the O2 in Leeds.  It came about when, basically, I completely failed to get tickets to see Mumford & Sons in Dublin.  Seriously, I was online when the tickets went on sale, followed a bad link to the wrong website, and by the time I found the right one, it was sold out.  Like 90 seconds in.  I was heartbroken.  And The Decemberists were touring the UK in support of their January album release The King Is Dead.  (Could they not have released in, you know, December?)  So as a consolation prize, I bought two tickets to that.

I had heard a couple of Decemberists album before, having bought Hazards of Love on a whim after a stressful trip to IKEA one Monday.  I liked, but didn’t love.  But The King Is Dead…well, that could be my album of the year for 2011.  Whereas the previous record was a proper concept album, telling a complete story, The King Is Dead is a highly song-focused record.  It’s a collection of songs, and whereas previous records had emphasized the prog rock and other nods to British music, this album stylistically is born entirely out of Americana.  It is 10 beautiful tracks, and so I was excited to see them play some live.

The opening act was a band called Blind Pilot.  They were good.  A bit melancholy, but you have to like any band that has their own vibraphone player.  I enjoyed them enough to download at least one song.

Then it was time for The Decemberists.  Their show opened with a humorously relaxing pre-recorded message from the mayor of Portland, inviting us to picture the band as figures approaching us on a forest road, preparing to tell us a good yarn or two.  They opened with “Shiny”, from their debut album years earlier.  I’d never heard it before.  That led straight into the glorious “Down By the Water” from The King Is Dead.  And that was the structure for the evening.  Frontman Colin Meloy bantered humorously between songs, and they alternated between chunks from the new album and older cuts, going from folk to progressive rock and back with ease.

It was weird (Sample song lyric: “This is the story of your gypsy uncle…”) and brilliant, and it was good to be back at a live venue again.

Set Highlights: The Bagman’s Gambit, a weird tale about falling in love with a Soviet-era spy, and a song I’d never heard before.  This Is Why We Fight, from the new record.  And the gorgeous June Hymn, also from the new record.

Set Low Point: Leeds was the only venue during their entire UK tour that did NOT get the live staple Mariner’s Revenge Song during the encore.  I had been so looking forward to it.  Instead we got the so-so Sons and Daughters.  Oh well.  Someday…

Sufjan Stevens–Okay, so I was a little bit excited for this one.  Seeing Sufjan live was on my dreams list.  Seriously.  While I likely would have preferred to see him tour Illinois, I knew that seeing him on The Age of Adz tour would be something special.  It’s a bizarre album and really complicated to pull of live.

We waited outside the O2 in Manchester for approximately six days.  Finally, they started letting people in.  We were pretty far back, and by the time we shuffled in, the opening act, label-mate DM Stith, had already started playing his songs, acoustic numbers with live loop recording used to build songs layer by layer.

And he only played like 3 songs!  And before we knew it, Sufjan was on.  He opened with a stunning live rendition of “Seven Swans.”  I can’t even describe it, so…

Glowing costumes.  A screen behind the band and one in front, making 3D animations, in this case of constellations forming and collapsing.  A huge set.  A huge band–2 full drum kits, 2 back-up singer/dancer/aerobic exercise performers, Sufjan, DM Stith as his ghost vocalist and organist, 2 guitarists, bass, a horn section.  Choreographed hand motions.  ANGEL WINGS!

And that was just the first song.  Sufjan followed a pattern relatively similar to the Decemberists.  He’d play a weird, disturbing, cacophonous full-band song from the new album, and then come to the front of the stage and play something acoustic by himself.  The great thing was that I’d been following the setlists since he started the tour, and Manchester got by far the best show (and one of the longest) on the tour to that date.  Not only did we get, for the first time on that tour, his cover of REM’s “The One I Love,” but we also got for the first time live in 3 years his song “Sister”, which happens to be one of my favourites.  It was a stripped down version, sure, but still magical.  Though I connected on a personal level more with some gigs later in the year, this was by far the most intense and spectacular performance.

Did I mention he played for 2 1/2 hours?

Set Highlights: Too many to mention, but probably the opener (Seven Swans), Sister, the 25-minute album-highlight opus Impossible Soul, which starts and ends acoustic but whose middle involves auto-tune and Sufjan dressed as a disco-ball, and the encores of Casmir Pulaski Day and Chicago.  The word epic doesn’t cover it.

Set Low Points: Um…the few hecklers?  (Less talk, more rock?  Really?)  The unplanned big bang that scared the band during the last bit of Impossible Soul?  The probably-connected 12 minute wait for the encore?

Foy Vance: Okay, so this gig was somewhat spontaneous.  Foy was playing at a small but very cool club in Leeds, and about eight of us drove up to see him.

There were a couple of opening bands; the first one did nothing for me, and the second one was pretty good but slightly arrogant.  Finally Foy came out.  That voice.  Wow…I mean, that voice.  That man is talented.  What he does, building loops on that acoustic guitar and using his voice, is just incredible.  It was a musically solid night.

But it was also a confusing night.  For a couple of reasons.  First, the setlist.  Basically, he played for 90 minutes and only managed to sing I think 3 songs from any of his recordings, one being the encore.   So no one knew most of the songs.

But more than that, it was Foy’s state.  Talking to Dustin afterwards, we decided it was a little like watching a man proclaim and then lose his faith in God, live on stage, while becoming slightly more drunk.  Losing it, then regaining it, then wrestling with it angrily, then proclaiming it again, and so on…Foy spoke about the death of his father, and it was obvious that this weighed heavily on him.  It was obvious that he was, in many ways, broken.  It was just unsettling to watch all of that unfold live on stage, and though the night was musically excellent, I left with mixed feelings.  But in the end, I mostly loved it.

Set Highlight: Well, I knew almost none of the songs.  But there was one about the days of the week that was epically cool.  (Guy gets drunk on Saturday, on Sunday ends up in church, etc.)  And Indiscriminate Act of Kindness is beautiful.

Set Low Point: Again, I didn’t know the songs, but I could do without the swearing, though somehow its less offensive coming from an Irish mouth.  How does that work?

Coldplay: We won tickets to Coldplay’s night at the annual iTunes festival, held for a month at a small(ish) venue in London each summer.  I was very excited to see one of the world’s biggest bands in a small, comparatively intimate setting, and for free, but in some ways the gig was a disappointment.

Part of that was my fault.  Since I love concerts, I like to know what to expect, so I usually follow a band’s setlists as they tour.  Setlist.fm is a great website for this.  The Decemberists and Sufjan were both mixing up the list each night, so I went in with a general idea of what kinds of things were being played, but I was still going to be surprised at the specifics.  Coldplay, however, was touring on basically the same setlist each and every night, so there wasn’t really room for surprise.

The other negative thing, sadly, was the setting itself.  Seeing them in a small place was pretty awesome, and for awhile it looked like we weren’t going to even get in, so there was a large group of us absolutely thrilled to be in there.  But they were also professionally recording it to broadcast highlights on the web, and so there was a ring of crane cams and other recording equipment that broke the room in two.  And unfortunately, we were on the outside of that ring.  And with us on the outside of the ring were a bunch of people who didn’t care, talking their way through the gig, barely aware that a Coldplay concert was happening.  With the equipment obscuring our view and connection, and all the chatter around us, it was hard to engage.

That’s not Coldplay’s fault.  They definitely played a strong set and were excellent live.  Chris Martin’s energy is unmatched, and the guys play well together.  So while it is the most disappointing gig of the year, it was still also a lot of fun.

Set Highlights: Viva La Vida, which I consider one of the best songs ever written, and, surprisingly, Every Teardrop is a Waterfall.  Hearing that tune live made me realise its slight Irish flavour–it comes across as sort of a jig!

Greenbelt Festival, including: Rend Collective Experiment, LZ7, Gordon Gano and the Ryans, Gungor: Greenbelt is…not like anything I’ve ever experienced.  Held annually at Cheltenham Racecourse, attended by roughly 20,000 people. Greenbelt is just plain weird.  There’s no other way around it.  If a Christian arts festival and a hippie activism conference had a baby, it would begin to look like Greenbelt.  Or, if a group of Christians put on a non-Christian festival one the same grounds that a group of non-Christians were trying to put on a Christian festival, you’d get Greenbelt.  Where else can you hear Palestinian protest music alongside screening of thought-provoking films alongside a passionate, Spirit-led worship time alongside belly-dancing lessons?

Anyway, I saw several live bands during this: Rend Collective Experiment twice and Gungor (sort of) once were the key ones, and I caught snippets of other gigs, including LZ7 and Gordon Gano & the Ryans.

I went to a worship set led by Rend Collective as well as a more gig-like set on the main stage.  The worship set was possibly the live music highlight of the year for me.  Not only was the presence of God just amazing in the room, and I spent the hour just enjoying Him, but I fell in love with these guys.  Seriously, I can’t think of a more humble, approachable, authentic group of musicians working today.  And they’re good–far more musical than the stereotypical worship band.

The other band I was there to see was Gungor, and in reality it turned out to only be Michael and Lisa Gungor without their full band.  Instead, they were playing with hired musicians, a talented bunch that they met for the first time on stage that day.  Given that they only had 10 minutes of rehearsal, it was a great set.  But during the band’s first song, a guy from the festival marched on stage and set down a clock that began ticking down from 39 minutes.  39 minutes!  At Greenbelt, speakers get more time than bands.  But despite all that, they were somehow musically tight and some songs came to life in ways they didn’t on CD.

In addition, I caught LZ7 on the main stage, who were fun if you like that sort of teenage dance-hop, and Gordon Gano & The Ryans.  If you don’t know the name Gordon Gano, it’s likely you know the voice, and this is his new band.  They did play some tunes by his old band, so that this, this actually happened:

Festival Highlights: Hearing Rend Collective’s “Build Your Kingdom Here” for the 1st and 2nd time; meeting with God at their worship set; Gungor’s renditions of “Dry Bones” and “Call Me Out”.

Festival Low Point: The Rend’s main stage set was only 25 minutes long.  Lame!

Iona–My parents came to visit in October, and I was browsing online one day before that and happened to see that a. Iona had a new album and b. they were doing a small tour that brought them within 90 minutes of our house on the day my parents arrived.  My dad loves Iona, and rightly so, so we treated them to a concert.

The venue was a church auditorium specifically built for things like this.  There was no opening act.  I had only just gotten the new album after reading a couple of reviews that really sold me on it, despite the fact that I haven’t liked their last couple of records.  And the reviews were right: their new double-CD is their best album in over a decade, and the veteran Celtic prog-rockers gave a tight, breathtaking nearly 3 hour show.

It’s sad there were only 200 people or so there.  Iona is a band that deserves a much bigger audience.  They are musically innovative and complex–one of my favourite songs has a breathtaking instrumental interlude in 11/8 time–they are fine musicians, each playing multiple instruments, and their songs are epic, gorgeous, and inspiring.

Set Highlights: The lead singer dedicated a song to my dad.  My wife won a CD in a dance-off.  They played Irish jigs!  And the aforementioned song in 11/8 (Bi-Se I Mo Shuil)!  And the opening song, which also opens the new album.  So, so epic, all of it.

Set Low Point: I don’t love the White Horse song.  Or the violin instrumental.

Rend Collective Experiment–saw them twice more, once at Cliff College, once at Worship Central.  Yeah, they continued to grow on me, and at Cliff College announced a new album January 9!  We seriously considered flying or driving to one of the album release parties.  Would have been worth it, but we couldn’t work it out.

So, here’s to a year in gigs.  Hopefully soon I’ll post my “Old Movies” entry that I started 18 months ago.  Merry Christmas.  What’s the best concert you saw this last year?

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3 responses to “2011: A Year in Gigs

  1. Sounded like a great year.

  2. Hey John. Did you ever find out what the Foy Vance ‘Days of the week song’ was called? Desparately trying to find a video or audio of this song?

    Cheers,
    Graham

  3. I didn’t. I know he has a new album coming out later this year. The song sounded nothing like this EP he’s just put out, but I know the EP was written specifically for a film, so we’ll see if the song is on the album.

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