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Best of 2013: Live Music

Hello again, everyone!  Hope you all had a very Merry Christmas!  Two more entries for the year and then we’re taking a break.

As many of you know, live music is one of my absolute favourite things in the world, possibly my favourite leisure activity despite the fact that I generally can’t stand the crowd around me.  Sadly, my taste in music doesn’t match up very well with my location, so the bands I’d want to see live very rarely come to Sheffield or the UK.  That being said, I did have the chance to see several performances of live music this year, and instead of ranking them, I’m going to give you a chronological breakdown, as best as I remember it.  Here goes:

1) Sigur Ros (London, March)–Saw them at a venue in London a couple of months before their album Kveikur was released, but they were already playing songs from it to build excitement for the album.  It had been less than a year since their previous album, Valtari, was released, but that one was so mellow that it didn’t really loan itself to a tour.  They’d also recently lost their long-time keyboard player and were officially calling themselves a trio.

I wasn’t in a great personal place on the day of this gig, and that taints my memories of it.  The opening act was a guy who stood behind a computer keyboard for 30 minutes doing something that produced what amounted to one long electronic ambient song.  No one paid attention.

Sigur Ros’ set was fantastic, though I had a hard time engaging.  But they played a great mix of songs covering pretty much all of their albums, and the use of lights, video animation, lasers and sound made for an immersive experience.  Highlights included “Hoppipolla” (the one song by them you’re likely to have heard even if you don’t listen to this band), the closer “Popplagio” and one particular song where lead singer Jonsi held a single, beautiful note for probably a good 45 seconds; when the room realised what he was doing, the audience seemed to collectively hold its breath, waiting for the release from the note.  Sigur Ros was first described to me as a band that inspired worship, and that they did.

2. The Avett Brothers (Manchester, March)-One week later, in a very different emotional place, I saw the Avett Brothers, with Vermont’s own Grace Potter & The Nocturnals opening. I’ve already written at length about the Avett Brothers and how amazing this particular night was.  What can I say?  I connected with God and remembered what it meant to be a human here on earth for this limited time.  A good night.

3. Rend Collective (Manchester, May)–I fell in love with Rend back in 2011; they felt so different, so energetic, creative and communal in their approach to worship, all values and ideas that connect with me deeply.  Live, they are passionate, sincere and tight.  They are responsible for one of my favourite songs of all time (Build Your Kingdom Here) and released the fantastic Campfire album earlier this year.  So ultimately, this gig was a disappointment.  I had not realised that one of their singers had moved on to something else, and I didn’t really like the venue.  Worship concerts are huge challenges, and I’m not sure I understand them.  If things are too planned out, or too focused on engaging the audience in a performance-focused way, you lose out on the spontaneity or flow that real worship seems to require.  However, many who attend aren’t ready for that.  On this night, though they were great musically, it just felt too much like a concert to me.  By the numbers, going through a setlist that they’d gone through night after night.  They seemed a bit more tired than the other four times I’d seen them live.  Still love these guys, but not a memorable night.

4. Once: The Musical (June, London)–I doubt I will ever forget this night.  Just a week before, we sat watching this movie with some friends while, unbeknownst to us, some other close friends were being killed in a car accident.  We found out the next morning.  That week was intense.  I remember feeling nauseous much of the week.  We’d had the tickets to go see the West End version of Once for months, and it fell exactly a week after the accident.  We headed down to London with our two closest friends, hoping for a breather and a chance for some emotional release through the sad and beautiful music from the film-turned-stage-production.

It was a beautiful day, and we decided to get off the tube at a park and stroll gradually towards the theatre.  As we got closer to Trafalgar Square, we became aware of something–it was Pride Day in London, and without going too much into it, the chaos and noise of that environment was in every way the opposite of what we wanted or needed.  After forcing our way through it as quickly as possible, we found a place to eat away from the crowds and finally went to see the show.

It was a great experience.  If you get there early enough, you are allowed to walk about on the stage, which acts as a functioning pub.  You can order a drink from the stage.  Eventually, musicians (the cast) come out and begin singing songs, and you’re up on stage with them.  It’s a great beginning to the show.

The stage production has taken many liberties with the original story, adding and embellishing mostly.  Some of it actually makes more sense now.  I didn’t love the actress playing Her that night, but she was the understudy.  The actor playing Him was excellent, not doing a Glen Hansard imitation and playing things a bit edgier.  And the music…oh, the music.

Our friends had seen the original New York production and said this version was missing some of the raw passion and joy of the original, and I can see that.  But still worth the trip.

5. Iona (Lindisfarne Island, August)–We had the chance to see Iona perform on The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, site of St. Aidan’s monastery.  Gorgeous setting, inside an old stone church.  A very odd crowd–a mix of young and old, (one grumpy lady asked us, “Are you here to see the rock band?”, which we were, though Iona most certainly don’t fit that descriptor), fans and new initiatives.  Iona was billing it as a worship evening, only the second they’d ever done, playing their songs that were fit for worship and some other songs as well.  And this had some of the same issues as the Rend gig, in that everyone there has a different understand of how worship works and flows.  Some people are there to just sing along and enjoy the music.  Others are seeking the presence of God.  Musically, the band was as brilliant as ever, but they seemed unsure how to lead from a worship perspective.  Still, very worth it.

6. Jesus Culture (Manchester, October)–I had no idea what to expect from this night.  It’s Jesus Culture, the 2nd biggest worship act in the world, and arguably the more influential.  Jesus Culture, hailing from Bethel Church, the church of miracles and the power of the Spirit.  Well, first of all it was much more crowded than I expected–I imagine there were a couple thousand people in that room, and we were sat way in the back because of a stressful and traffic-filled drive over from Sheffield.  And I think for me the size of the venue made it a difficult worship experience.  It was hard to connect and engage; to a degree it felt like there were some people way up front playing some music, and as much as we tried to focus and worship and set our hearts on the presence of God, we walked away not entirely sure why we had gone.  It was encouraging to be together with so many people seeking God; I’m just had hoped for and been hungry for something deeper.

7. Foy Vance (Sheffield, November)–I can’t tell you how much of a thrill it was to go to a gig in my own city, to see an artist I love and take the tram to get there.  Hadn’t happened since U2 in 2009.  Foy played the Leadmill, an historic but small venue near the train station.  His opening act, Rams Pocket Radio, won me over (I’m not usually a fan of openers) with his strong voice and enigmatically spiritual lyrics.  Foy played as part of four-piece, and the night was filled with great songs, a cameo appearance by his young daughter on drums, and a somewhat annoying crowd.  People!  I did not come here to hear you sing, ESPECIALLY when you don’t actually know the lyrics.  Zip it!

8. Christmas Pageant (Malin Bridge Primary School, December)–The Year One and Year 2 classes at Malin Bridge Primary School put out their annual Christmas pageant and concert, and Ira and I attended.  The story involved a bunch of young kids not related to me standing up on stage and saying lines too quickly and quietly for me to understand.  There was something about toys and a puzzle, then some songs and a kid played the piano and BLAH BLAH BLAH.  The show was stolen by Choir Member #62, played by Nadia Book, whose performance involved singing along to the songs she was supposed to and occasionally spacing out and forgetting to sing.  It will not be forgotten by a single person writing this.

And that is my year in live music!  One more entry to go!

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Best of 2013: Best Songs (Non-Worship Category)

Hello again!  My last post was all about albums (and I didn’t even mention how strong Foy Vance’s entire Joy of Nothing album was), but sometimes you just gotta love a song.  Here now is my list of the best songs of 2013–some catchy, some powerful, some emotional, some just fun.  I won’t offer much explanation, and if you want to know why the “non-worship” clarification, see my last entry.  In no particular order:

1. The Perfect Life–Moby; such a happy song, great to jog to.  With the help of Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.

2. Give Yourself to Dance–Daft Punk.  They had a song that got a lot more radio play, and if you liked that but couldn’t admit it because of the questionable theme, this is the song you want to listen to–same singer, same vibe, more agreeable lyrics.  (The message: you should dance.  Give yourself to it.)

3. Open-Ended Life–The Avett Brothers.  Again, the harmonica.  Yes.

4. From This Valley–The Civil Wars.  The happiest song this unhappy duo ever wrote.  Sweet Jesus, carry me.

5. Ingenue–Atoms for Peace; all about mood; I love the percussion that sounds like someone’s off banging pipes in the basement.

6. Tie: Step & Diane Young–Vampire Weekend.  Tracks 3 & 4 from one of my albums of the year.

7. Sun–Sleeping At Last.  Do yourself a favour; go out in the sun, somewhere beautiful in nature.  Put on some good headphones.  Listen to this loud.  “We are the apple of God’s eye.”  Feel happy to be alive and loved.

8. Brenninstein–Sigur Ros.  The Icelandic boys show some muscle.

9. Can’t Complain–Relient K; This is from their 2013 release Collapsible Lung, a collection of pop songs you initially don’t want to like, until you find they won’t leave your brain.  A song about being content; I needed it this year.

10. You Put the Flame On It–Charles Bradley.  The Screaming Eagle of Soul relaxes for a song that gives off an old-school Smokey Robinson, 60s era Motown vibe.

11. Tie: I Shall Not Want/Good to Me–Audrey Assad.  Two deeply moving, almost essential songs, both featuring portions of Psalm 23.  The lyrics to the first are deeply honest and ultimately both are very hopeful.  Here, listen:

12. Tie: Janey/Guiding Light–Foy Vance.  I’ve written about him before, and could include a couple other songs from his latest album, but these two are both excellent.

13. Low Light Buddy of Mine–Iron & Wine–There’s new fruit hangin’ from the old fruit tree.  2013’s most overlooked album.

14. Retrograde–James Blake–this year’s Mercury Prize winner at his best, with ethereal music and handclaps, a nearly perfect 3:44.

15. Gonna Let My Soul Catch My Body–Over the Rhine.  Smooth.

16. Bleeding Out–The Lone Bellow.  Featuring my favourite lyrics of the year: All the buildings they lean and they smile down on us and they shout from their rooftops words we can’t trust, like “You’re dead, you are tired–you’re ruined, you’re dust.  You won’t ‘mount to nothin’, like tanks full of rust.”  But we scream back at them from below on the street.  All in unity we say “Our time’s been redeemed!”

17. Electric Lady–Janelle Monae.  Funky pop perfection, showing off nearly everything Ms. Monae does best.

18. Loneliness & Alcohol–Jars of Clay.  Jars show they’re still vital with this song about the way many people in the West bury their true selves under things that don’t matter, all just to protect themselves.  We’ve all been here, even if alcohol wasn’t the thing that we used.

19. Spotlight–Leagues.  Um, maybe the catchiest song on this list.  Great debut album.  “Romantic live is the least of these/It comes and goes, come and goes so easily.”  Go on, listen:

And there you go.  Hope you can discover some new songs here to brighten up your life and point your compass the right way.  What were your top songs of 2013?

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?