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Top Live Acts of 2012

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annual report live e1354828544653 Top Live Acts of 2012

Here’s a good problem to have: Too many acts on the road. This year, we spent a lot of time at venues or festivals worldwide and not one of us is complaining. Several entertained, several disappointed, but the successes far outweighed the failures. Because there are so many engaging talents out supporting their music these days, we decided to expand our choices to five and create a shortlist rather than just any one resounding winner.

We know you’re just as avid as a concertgoer, so please feel free to share your choices in the comments below. Who knows? Perhaps your recommendation will get another pair of Chucks out to your local venue. We’re not the only ones who would appreciate that.

M83

cos m83 18 Top Live Acts of 2012

When M83 dropped their now Grammy-nominated sixth studio album, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming last fall, it sounded like the sort of record destined to be heard live. From the Zola Jesus-led “Intro” to the sweeping, crowd-lifting ethos of “Steve McQueen”, the record’s 79 minutes screamed for the sort of large-scale arenas that we’ve only seen in science fiction films. Six albums in, Anthony Gonzalez finally pushed his trademark dream pop into something subliminally interstellar, while also retaining that heartfelt exploration his past five records previously championed.

He started small, though. In November of 2011, he embarked on a short-lived U.S. tour in support of the record which included a stop at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, where it was sort of like imagining Andre the Giant living in a studio apartment in Boca Raton, FL. It worked, and more intimate flair like “Wait” or “We Own the Sky” gelled well within the 500 capacity venue, but a sweeping anthem like “Midnight City” was never destined for such claustrophobia. By the time 2012 rolled around, however, M83 were already scheduled at half a dozen music festivals, where they’d no doubt set their talents off like wildfire.

By all accounts, their appearance at this past March’s Ultra Music Festival in Miami, FL was a disaster — yet, it really wasn’t. After a plague of technical snafus that set them back 45 minutes and shortened their performance down to two songs, the outfit came out sprinting with the festival’s best 10 minutes all weekend: a heroic rendition of “Midnight City” and a sweaty exercise of the ever dependable closer “Couleurs”. Despite all these problems, and the fact that one of the most highly anticipated sets of the weekend was annihilated, few festivalgoers left and the stage was overwhelmed by obsessed revelers who waited for over 40 minutes in anticipation — even with over four other jam-packed stages to choose from. True, they eventually only got 15 minutes of actual time with M83, but it was enough for smiles all over.

Few acts in recent memory have worked off such power. M83 not only reserves that right, but expands upon on it every chance they get. If Pearl Jam plays like it’s their last performance to date, M83 treats each night like it’s the last one on Earth. With each subsequent performance, their sound just manages to sweep more and more people and insist upon bigger surroundings. When they performed at Chicago’s Riviera Theater this past May, even that venue was too small for them. A few months later, at Los Angeles’ FYF Fest, they tore down the proverbial curtains two hours before the festival closed its gates, which begged the question: Does anyone really care what happens next after that?

It all comes down to feeling. Few, if any, can walk away from an M83 performance and not feel reinvigorated. As one close friend told me that night in Los Angeles, “I feel like I’m having sex every time I see them.” I’d argue it’s even better than that, but hey, perhaps I’m just partial to French electronica and saxophone solos. Sue me. -Michael Roffman

Purity Ring

purityring3roffman Top Live Acts of 2012

This heart almost burst through its little ribs and sternum when, after absorbing two years of singles, leaks, and rumors, Purity Ring finally announced Shrines, their first proper studio album. Fortunately, my organs held intact long enough to locate tickets for not one but two of their supporting, summer tour dates. The first was outdoors, headlining the smaller Blue Stage at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival, while the other was inside Chicago’s intimate Lincoln Hall. But it turns out, with this band, venue selection is irrelevant. No matter where Purity Ring performs, they create their own enchanted space of intimate dazzle with sweet songs and hypnotic warmth.

Whimsical decorations transform their live show into an otherworldly insect hive built atop a fantastical tree fort. This setting somehow manages to be moody but without gimmick. LED powered lanterns hang from sticks strewn about the stage, like brown cocoons waiting to burst rainbow colored butterflies and moths. These lanterns dance gently in the breeze or sway in time with Megan James’s deliberate but soothing sashays and sound pedal adjustments. The changing colors also sync well with the set, because their programming is loose enough to keep all attention on the music, the moment, and the shared experience. I am not one who subscribes to the more spiritual claims of Feng Shui, but this arrangement just overflows with positive energy and a windy grace.

Corin Roddick, hidden behind his panel of instruments, conducts a symphony of stardust. Instruments, mind you, is a soft term because rather than drums, guitars, or even a keyboard, there’s nothing in front of him except a custom-made rigging of programed boards and bulbous mushroom caps which light up and loop tones whenever thumped by his mallets. Singer James adds to the makeshift percussion as she strikes a glowing drum during crowd favorites like “Ungirthed”, “Fineshrine”, and other choice cuts from their growing, albeit embryonic repertoire of songs.

Purity Ring was the band to see live in 2012. If you caught the act, feel lucky. If you missed it, don’t wallow because there’s always the 2013 tour. Plus, you can bask in the knowledge that the band may have added even more songs to their setlist, thereby extending the experience. Either way, in an age of short attention spans and instant gratification, it’s refreshing to wait a long time for something, and then be awestruck when the moment finally arrives. -Dan Pfleegor

Refused

 Top Live Acts of 2012

On December 15th, Refused will play in front of a home crowd in Sweden for their final reunion concert, and then promptly return to a dormant state, with the separation showing little sign of being temporary. And, while it’s surely a loss for the music world, this clean conclusion ends a run throughout 2012 that elevated to uncommon heights the typically tricky and often disappointing concept of “reunion.”

Sure, Refused can thank solid strategy for part of their triumph. The band hit a sweet spot of accessibility with appearances at marquee festivals, medium-sized venues, and even the Jimmy Fallon stage, allowing vast numbers of fans the chance to experience the band’s uncompromising live vision. Additionally, the band didn’t over-schedule or over-charge, maintaining a boutique quality to the tour with their integrity unquestioned and their bank accounts reloaded.

But, all of this would be irrelevant if the band had lost any of the hunger, creativity, or chops demonstrated on the group’s landmark The Shape of Punk to Come. And as fans began to report back from their first reunion dates in California surrounding Coachella, the word spread that Refused somehow took a 13-year break and returned stronger than ever, delivering sets packed with drama, acrobatics, emotional outbursts, circle pits, joy, political discourse, and well-tailored suits. And, even if any rust had formed on the five-piece as musicians, no one could notice through the captivating stage presence of frontman Dennis Lyxzén.

It’s strange to highlight an exercise in nostalgia as most vital for 2012 rather than music actually made in 2012, but remember that likely a small portion of the current Refused audience were actually listening to the band in their original time. These shows weren’t overrun by aging punks trying to relive their youth, but, rather, offered just as many wide-eyed, crowd-surfing youngsters for music that makes as much, if not more, sense now than at the time of its release. In a year where hardcore seemed more visible, more accessible, and more inspired than ever, Refused returned to claim their share of the throne, and are leaving the scene having set the bar even higher, having possibly demonstrated The Shape of Shows to Come. -Philip Cosores

Swans

swans jeremy larson 2012 7 Top Live Acts of 2012

Frontman Michael Gira said that this is the “best iteration of Swans in its 30-year history. [Our live show] left us feeling drained and energized, simultaneously. And that seemed to be the same experience that audiences had.”

Even from back in the ‘80s, a Swans show was an event. After three decades, Swans are no less challenging than they were in their formative beauty=total fucking destruction days. Taking material from The Seer that was initially written on the road in 2010-2011, the band spiraled in and out of 20 to 30 minute noise-rock drone-rock no-wave hysteria, all loosely scripted and conducted by one manic Gira. The men of Swans circled each other on stage, provoking whoever matched one’s gaze to dig deeper into the song. And no there was never enough aggression for Gira. He and bassist Chris Pravdica would have a noise-metal pissing contest with him on stage for minutes at a time bearing their teeth until one of them would back down.

And when you look at the audience of a Swans show there’s little movement. People are rapt and focused, save for when they would hit the old Jesus Lizard tones with “Coward”. I’ll never forget in the first five minutes of the show Gira sidled over to the front of the stage where I was at and caught the eye of a woman next to me who was taking notes on a giant pad of paper. He smiled and shook his head. He literally shook his damn head at her. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen.

Actually, Swans hate all kinds of notes. Most bands use notes and adorn them with melodies and harmonies. Swans take on the the inscrutable task of trying to destroy notes. They pound them, chisel them, and erode them with everything from homemade hammer dulcimers to mouth harps to orchestra bells to sleigh bells to pedal steel guitars to electric violins to the ballistic roots of rock & roll. Audiences are left slack-jawed watching Gira manically conduct his group of Deadwood extras, as he falls on the ground to yell, “get out of my cunt.”

After an almost two hour show on this tour, Swans would close with “Apostate”. Gira hobbled around the stage, arms in crucifix position, haphazardly conducting the band. Thor Harris stood transfixed at the orchestra bells playing the same pattern for 15 minutes. A 2012 Swans show ends with Phil Puelo beating the living hell from a concert bass drum. How he had the energy for that I don’t know, but no matter if you liked the show or not, if you were there, you were drained. -Jeremy D. Larson

Jack White

jack white 6 e1338281050682 Top Live Acts of 2012

Young musicians, learn how to bring it live, and then bring it night, after night, after night, after night. Your audience will remember you.

Of all the things Bruce Springsteen said during his keynote address at South by Southwest earlier this year, that’s one of the lines that still sits with me all these months later. Those 24 words make all the sense in the world, yet in 2012 it seems few abide by the ideology. Bruce still does. Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters do, too. Of the newer bands? Japandroids and Cloud Nothings come to mind. But for those few names, I could give you one thousand others who go with the flow each night, performing a heavily scripted show where the type of beer consumed is about the only deviation.

Here’s another thing Bruce said during the keynote, in regards to the impact that Motown and Soul music had on him:

And it was here, amongst these great African–American artists, that I learned my craft. You learned how to write. You learned how to arrange. You learned what mattered and what didn’t. You learned what a great production sounds like. You learned how to lead a band. You learned how to front a band.

Here’s where the field gets really limited. How many artists can you actually call a legitimate frontman? Not just the guy or girl with good looks who sings and plays guitar really great. No, the type of frontman who leads the band, dictates the set, and interacts with the crowd. The frontman whose mere presence resonates a sense of awe, be it during your first show or your 40th. The frontman whose known by just their first name, and whose reputation is applauded the world over. And of those who come to mind, how many of them are under the age of 40?

I had an opportunity to attend Third Man Record’s showcase at South by Southwest this year, which marked only Jack White’s sixth solo show ever, and thus the sixth time he fronted the male band the Buzzards and the female band the Peacocks. You wouldn’t have known it, though. Up there, the two bands played like seasoned 20-year vets, charged with keeping up as Jack changed key signatures, rearranged songs on the spot, and danced like James Brown. And they did it without a setlist; Jack prefers to select songs on the spot, something not even Bruce or Dave or Eddie can claim to do.

When Jack White first announced plans to go solo, the anticipation was high. An album was one thing, but it had been five years since the White Stripes’ last show. What would he play? What’s more, as some White Stripes diehards asked, would he dare to play any Stripes songs sans Meg? Jack balked at the notion in an interview with The New York Times: “I wrote the White Stripes songs myself. It always felt like the two of us covering my songs.” Yet when it came to showtime, many of those White Stripes songs were rearranged; some more uptempo, while others reworked with a country twang. Jack would probably argue it was his way of keeping this interesting, but indirectly it felt like a nod of respect to the fan base who holds The White Stripes’ memory so close to their heart.

And that’s just one of the many things that made these Jack White solo shows so special. The lack of setlist isn’t the only thing impromptu; Jack doesn’t alert his bands of which one is playing until the night of the show. A concert with the Buzzards proves to be a balls-to-the-walls night of Detroit rock, where drum heads and guitar strings are frequent victims of songs like “Seven Nation Army” and “Ball and Biscuit”. The Peacocks meanwhile pull from Jack’s Nashville roots, exuding the styles of Johnny Cash and Wanda Jackson.

But other elements of Jack shows are extremely well thought out. The breathtaking blue and black shades coloring each instrument and the backdrop of the stage blend together as if Wes Anderson was the creative designer. White’s team of roadies are trained pit bulls, each willing to army crawl through electrical wires and tackle amateur photographers at the bequest of their leader.

And then there’s Jack himself. His mind is his setlist, preferring to play off the emotions of the crowd rather than what’s written next on a piece of paper. Hours before headlining this year’s Lollapalooza, Jack played a surprise show at Reckless Records in downtown Chicago. The acoustic performances of “We’re Going to Be Friends” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” were something out of The White Stripes’ playbook, bringing memories of Jack and Meg’s intimate final days in Canada. For the 50 or so diehard fans packed into that store, it was the perfect form of closure to a band that never really said goodbye. Yet just a few hours later, Jack plugged in with his new bands, ready to introduce 60,000 people to the new era of Jack White. Or, should I say, the new era of Jack. -Alex Young

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