Top Live Acts of 2014

If we've done our job, this list shouldn't be a surprise.


If you scroll down to the very bottom of the page and click on “About Us,” you’ll find a mission statement we take seriously: “Consequence of Sound is the missing link between mainstream pop culture and the underground.” Year after year, we get better at putting that idea into action. Our live coverage — from giant festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo to stadiums and arenas to theaters and clubs — aims to feature what both we and our readers feel is important.

In years past, we never ventured off to Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry concerts, but this year we did and found out that big pop spectacles are actually a pretty great time. We also tried to incorporate more EDM live coverage into the mix. We still focused on the major markets of Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, but we also established San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, London, and Minneapolis as areas to explore. Needless to say, we saw a lot.

And after all we saw, we’ve now chosen five acts that have stood out over the last 12 months. If we’ve done our job, this list shouldn’t be a surprise. Our goal for next year’s coverage is to find even better ways for you to experience the fun we get to have on a nightly basis. Maybe you’ll use our live reviews as a way to relive your experience or as a filter for deciding what you’ll see with your ticket-buying money. Regardless, if you get the chance, we can wholeheartedly recommend the following five acts. (Spoiler alert: It’s too late to see one of them. Sorry.)


dark side - tomorrow never knows

Photo by Sasha Geffen

Darkside will only have one album to their name, and it’s not even the best thing they ever did. On tape, Nicolas Jaar and his partner in crime, Dave Harrington, rendered their jazzy compositions with perfect slickness. Live, they set off bombs.

I got caught in their shrapnel early this year at Chicago’s winter festival Tomorrow Never Knows. The duo headlined the Metro that evening, but I couldn’t tell you how long their set ran. Their songs don’t mark off easy intervals of three, four, five minutes. They stretch and loom as Jaar builds his beats from behind a semicircle of electronics. Here’s this guy, hunched over and steely-eyed, just stacking up a fortress around himself, all but blowing out the subwoofers with his analogs. And the only one to counter him, the only other person on stage, is a guy with a guitar.

Here’s something I learned that night: Guitars aren’t cool anymore. Not in the way they used to be, at least. Bands like Diarrhea Planet embrace their instrument’s uncoolness, layering four (!) electrics on top of each other to push party rock to its most bombastic extremes. It works because anything less ridiculous would fall flat. Rock guitarists can make great music, but they don’t ooze that impenetrable air of cool anymore. That era ended the minute Gibson cast a mini Les Paul in plastic and slapped on colored buttons and a PlayStation hookup.

But knob-twiddlers? They’ve taken the throne, and Jaar is one of the engineers who gives the electronic underground its shine. He radiates cool, and Harrington soaks it right up and bounces it back at him, hollowing out an echo chamber of vibes. I’ve never seen two people be so un-self-conscious on stage together. They never looked at the audience. They looked at their gear and then stared at each other with bullet eyes, each building off the figures that the other would twist out of his instrument.

Darkside won’t happen again, though I know whatever these two musicians do next will be worth following. They were a flash, a year and a half of perfect collaboration, of “jazz” in its best sense: heavy, improvised, dangerous, and a little bit playful. They made festivalgoers dance at midday with alien pulses and minor key guitar solos. That doesn’t happen every year.

–Sasha Geffen

St. Vincent

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

Sometimes it seemed as if the St. Vincent on stage this year was a character written by Annie Clark in the lead-up to her new album; the shock of platinum hair, the too-precise-to-be-human dance moves, and the steely gaze all worked in sync with her lyrical critiques of the Internet age to produce a sort of futurist, hyper-aware version of herself. It’s tempting to use the word “robotic” when describing her choreography, but there’s a palpable human passion to her presence as well (as seen best in her scaffold-climbing rager at Austin City Limits). “Cyborg,” then, works much better.

In that sense, St. Vincent’s stage show in 2014 embodied the same blurred intersection between technology and life that her self-titled album inspected. The amazing guitar work on her previous songs is patched together with synths and robotic mesh for stunners like “Prince Johnny” and “Bring Me Your Loves”. The twisted look at today’s technology of “Digital Witness” gets an extra turn from the robotic messages asking not to digitally capture “your experience.”

There’s something to the fact that she worked with David Byrne, one of the biggest avant-garde artifice envelope-pushers in the rock world. St. Vincent’s shakey dance moves and costumes echo the Talking Heads’ influence visually, but another key is that the tour for their Love This Giant collaboration put her in front of even larger audiences than her already charming and captivating live shows had prior. She needed to be bigger, and her following solo tour was certainly that.

But even when not tied to her own themes and messages, Clark proved to be a dynamic force on the stage in 2014. She was one of a few artists tapped to front the briefly reunited Nirvana; while filling Kurt Cobain’s shoes would be a challenge for any performer, she handled it deftly. Clark also made a few late-night stops, notably wowing Letterman and dominating SNL. Despite all the heady talk of themes and theories from critics, her music and presence were powerful enough to bring even the average viewer into her strange, avant-rock world.

To be completely honest, I started out 2014 upset by this new St. Vincent. I missed the approachable wit of her debut, the natural performer. I was concerned she was going too far in a quest for crossover rock star status and had lost the thread of what made her so likable as a person. But then the final screw twisted in my brain, and I began to see this stage performance as just that: a performance. While she was already an amazing live act when I could think of her just as a musician playing songs, she’s proven just as thrilling as a persona, a show. And that’s still overstating the “character” element — the 2014 St. Vincent isn’t detached or distant, just different from the one of Strange Mercy. And, in the end, that’s the point: The world is changing, no matter our hesitation. If this cyborg St. Vincent is the harbinger of that future, so much the better.

–Adam Kivel

Katy Perry

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Photo by Gretchen Bachrodt

“I have a lot on my plate,” Katy Perry told Rolling Stone in their cover story this past summer. “Things can get monotonous. Sometimes it gets overwhelming. A lot of people want things from you. But it’s fine! It’s called trade-offs. You have this dream, and then the dream becomes reality, and what comes along with it is you run a company. It’s the fine print of the dream that you didn’t know was there.”

Truth: The 30-year-old singer-songwriter from Santa Barbara, CA, is a professional. There’s no argument about it. She thinks methodically and she executes accordingly. It’s not like she has a choice; after all, she’s in the midst of her third world tour, which spans 130 dates over four legs that will take the Katy Perry brand across North America, Europe, and Oceania. What started this past May won’t wrap up, technically, until next March.

If you’ve seen “The Prismatic World Tour”, which runs about two hours and features over 20 performances, then you understand how much of a colossal undertaking that really is for Perry. She doesn’t just sing each night; she dances, she swings midair, she performs a medley of acoustic songs, she pops in and out of trap doors, she serenades a lucky birthday gal atop a titan-sized cake, she changes into about a dozen complicated wardrobes, she straddles a giant Egyptian horse, she hands out hot local pizza to hungry fans — I could keep going for another four paragraphs.

Similar to the late King and the still-truckin’ Queen of Pop — Michael Jackson and Madonna, respectively — Perry creates an unforgettable event for her legions of fans. One that isn’t just a concert, but a Hollywood blockbuster production, complete with an army of directors, choreographers, designers, managers, booking agents, promoters, photographers, roadies, etc., who all lead, coordinate, push, and pull the dozens of musicians and dancers required to make this happen.

As such, the ensuing tour continues to dazzle tens of thousands in every major market across the globe. The majority of her shows have sold out, having topped the Billboard Hot Tours charts back in September with $31 million in ticket sales from 21 of the tour’s North American concerts that occurred in a two-month span beginning on July 15. Critically, she’s been just as successful, garnering positive reviews from Rolling Stone, Billboard, and The Village Voice, the last of which called her Madison Square Garden performance “Better Than: Every other multimillion-dollar concert I’ve seen.”

To her credit, Perry also enhances the event by creating offline activations with her sponsor, CoverGirl, who supplied each arena with 3D glasses for the “Firework” closer and cardboard cutouts that fans could pose next to as they waited for Capital Cities to get off stage. In an age where icons seem so tangible thanks to the glut of social networks (Perry retweets her fans religiously), the icon makes it her main prerogative to embrace her fanbase while performing, whether it’s taking selfies as she struts by, speaking to them one-on-one between songs, or, as previously mentioned, making their birthday wish come true in the craziest way possible.

When I caught her sold-out performance at Chicago’s United Center this past August, I was floored by how accessible she was to her adoring fans. Admittedly, I criticized her for being “less like Craig Finn and more like Sally Field,” but I’m also a cynical son of a bitch, and this is a show that has no room for cynicism. It’s a bombastic yet earnest attempt at capturing the chummy, feel-good nature of everything Katy Perry represents, and while it’s over-the-top at times, that’s also the point.

Katy Perry’s one of a few ringleaders carrying the torch for a genre that continues to outgrow itself by the month. And with the help of many, many friends, she’s coming out on top, not with a smirk and a wink like her peer Miley Cyrus, but with a grin and a running bear hug. Who in their right mind wants to turn away from that?

–Michael Roffman

Future Islands

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Photo by Ben Kaye

It’s easy to forget, in this century of digital everything, that music is a physical act. We increasingly engage with our favorite bands or artists in their computerized forms: mp3s, WAV files, exclusive album streams, etc. Never has music been so instantly accessible, and never has it felt so physically remote, trapped inside the cold, impersonal world of our headphones.

In 2014, Baltimore synthpop band Future Islands helped us remember that music is something that happens to the human body. They released their fourth album, Singles, in late March, but the true highlight of their year will go down as a Late Show with David Letterman performance from earlier that month. Consider it Samuel T. Herring’s coming-out party; in just over three and a half minutes, the vocalist seemed to cycle through nearly every human emotion while performing Singles standout “Seasons (Waiting on You)”.

Longtime fans of Future Islands were, of course, no strangers to this outpouring of primal energy, but thousands of others had just discovered their new favorite band. With Gerrit Welmers and William Cashion forming a united front of calmness behind him, Herring proceeded to beat his chest, pace on bended knees, and force his throat into guttural gymnastics.

In spite of his idiosyncratic style, Herring is a traditional frontman in the sense that his impact is best felt in a live setting. Even as Future Islands’ musical output grows more restrained, Herring continues to imbue his band’s performances with a visceral, chaotic immediacy. Those who caught their performances at Coachella, Chicago’s North Coast Music Festival, or elsewhere on their international tour were quick to discover that the much-talked-about Letterman performance was no fluke.

To their eternal credit, Welmers and Cashion also know their roles and play them well. Their smooth, electronic compositions are the ideal foil to Herring’s emotionally charged performance. This is apparent enough on record, but it’s at the very core of the band’s live appeal. The band’s other two members function as sonic and visual anchors, maintaining a steady groove and stoic expressions as Herring gyrates wildly.

Singles may be Future Islands’ strongest and most cohesive effort to date, but it’s still a shadow of what they bring to the stage every night. This is a band that isn’t afraid of confrontation and a man who isn’t afraid to cry or beat his chest until it’s black and blue. Future Islands is the antithesis of physical remoteness, and in 2014, that’s exactly what we needed.

–Collin Brennan

Jack White

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Photo by David Hall

It’s no secret that Jack White is a man of high standards. He has a rigid idea of how music should be produced and performed, and he’s unafraid to call out whoever he thinks isn’t meeting those standards (*cough* The Black Keys *cough* Lana Del Rey *cough* Foo Fighters *cough*). But if you’re lucky enough to find yourself gazing up at that blue-tinted stage with the three white stripes, immersed in an immaculate set for two to three hours straight before a man whose energy just won’t let up, it becomes clear that this stringency is the greatest gift Jack White could ever give his fans.

Like his career, White’s live performances are in a constant state of flux. Long has he been praised for regularly switching between a male and female band, picking said band the very day of the show, and designing his setlist in real time based on the audience’s reactions. It’s a unique power that he gives his audience, and in doing so, he demands respect back. Asking audiences to refrain from using cell phones during his shows, he expects full energy and attention. He is so committed to the sanctity of a live performance that if fans don’t deliver on their end, he’ll walk offstage and refuse to deliver his. Unfortunately for Detroit and New York, they found this out the hard way.

In his lengthy and robust career — three bands, one solo project, 15 records, and countless live performances between them all — he has perfected the recipe for a colossal set. Pulling deep tracks from any and all of his projects, he keeps audiences drooling for the tasty jams to come. What’s more, he fully understands the power of a good cover and revamps his sets with tracks by a diverse set of artists including The Police, Talking Heads, Kanye, and Lorde. And that’s only the beginning. When Jack White has an idea, he has the balls and the means to actually pull it off, no matter how elaborate. Raising the bar for his London show, he completely transformed a venue into the “Vescovo & Co Clinic,” complete with nurses and doctors, and gave fans clues a la Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist to find it. Savvy fans who found the venue were treated to a scorching show, followed by White fake-convulsing and exiting via ambulance.

While his stage creativity has been capturing much of the attention as of late, White’s tenacity is what really made him shine this year. One-upping himself with each leg of the Lazaretto tour, he managed to play a record-breaking 33-song, three-hour set in Chicago, the longest of his career. Even after acquiring a gnarly ankle sprain in San Francisco, he refused to cancel the tour and returned for a show the very next night with his pain mostly buried within the sizzling set. This unparalleled stamina, as well as his obvious talent, cemented White as one of the must-see festival headliners this past season and left few negative reviews in his wake.

Bringing the scrutiny down a notch, below the bells and whistles of the show, Jack White has been a treat to see live this year, and all years, because of his unexpected humility. Speaking with such eloquence and graciousness to the crowd, he makes you believe that you just shared the most important show of his life with him and that he thanks you personally for it. But the gratitude is fitting given that he shapes his show around his audience and their energy. He knows that he needs the audience to craft a one-of-a-kind, push-and-pull relationship, a fluid body that must work together to survive.

–Danielle Janota