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Best Live Shows

December 16, 2009

Living in Central Illinois doesn’t make it an easy task to see great performances, but I did my best and Pygmalion certainly helped (as will be evident the more you read). Looking back I think I was able to see quite a bit of wonderful music this year and I am very grateful, I just hope I get to see even more in 2010.

10. Ra Ra Riot – Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Pygmalion Music Festival

I feel like this band got the shaft a bit at this year’s Pygmalion Festival. They had to perform on a lobby stage immediately following the festival headliner, Iron & Wine. Despite dwindling crowds and a massive musical hangover beginning to set in Ra Ra Riot brought their best and pumped a little bit of energy back into the beleaguered crowd.

I’ve never seen a string section rock quite as hard as the lovely ladies of Ra Ra Riot did on Saturday at Pygmalion. Matched with the enthusiasm of lead singer Wes Miles and the precision of their music, the show was quite a spectacle. In fact, I’m kind of glad that the crowd died before they began playing, because it made the experience more intimate…at least, as intimate as a lobby gets.

9. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin and Ohtis – The Coffeehouse, Normal, Ill.

I have never been to a better Monday evening show, and apparently neither has SSLYBY. When the Springfield, Mo. boys swung through Central Illinois earlier this year they stopped by my neck of the woods and played one of the longest, and best sets that I have had the pleasure of seeing.

Local band Ohtis opened admirably, but really it was Boris Yeltsin that set the place ablaze. With their latest album, Pershing, still fresh in my ears they matched it’s exuberance and charm with ease working their way through almost the whole album. They peppered in some classic songs from their debut album, Broom, and overall just made a mundane Monday anything but.

8. Headlights – Canopy Club, Pygmalion Music Festival

Champaign’s own ambient pop quartet Headlights couldn’t let Pygmalion come and go with just another concert. No, the hometown favorites had to up their game for the weekend, and to do so they decided to make their performance their new album release party.

Luckily crowds stuck around and showed their support for the first night headliner. The band started their show by playing a mix of new songs and old favorites, mixing in fast and slow songs. About three-quarters of the way through their set, they decided that a real Dan Deacon-esque dance party was in order, and turned up the intensity and pulled a few fans on stage. With  balloons flying all over the place and a steady stream of fans making their way on to the stage Headlights played five or six songs that were unforgettable. They did so while completely surrounded by fans and with smiles as big as the stage. It was the perfect ending to a great opening night for the festival.

7. The Antlers – Canopy Club, Pygmalion Music Festival

I liked the Antlers before I saw them live, but I loved them after. I was a skeptic prior to their performance, wondering how a soft, emotional album like Hospice could be transitioned into an entertaining live show. What I discovered is that you really have to see it to believe it.

The Antlers performed each song with vigor but still maintained the passion that made the album good. The band was alive on stage and their performance had gusto. It was awe-inspiring and more than just enjoyable.

6. Iron & Wine – Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Pygmalion Music Festival

This is what everyone came to see at Pygmalion: the one and only Sam Beam alone on stage with a guitar. He did not disappoint. He gently picked and strummed his way through songs spanning his career, interjecting a bit of humor and personality in between and holding the entire 1,000 seat-plus concert hall in rapture while he played.

To see him on stage was a rare treat, his voice had a beautiful warble that is just as pretty as it is when recorded. His voice singing “Sodom, South Georgia” still rings out in my head as clear as the day I heard him perform. His is a concert I will not soon forget.

5. Pomegranates – Canopy Club, Pygmalion Music Festival

As much as I loved seeing Iron & Wine, the highlight of my Pygmalion ’09 experience was seeing Pomegranates fill the void room of the Canopy with their electric energy. Their 2009 album Everybody Come Outside was one of my favorites of the year, and seeing it live is even more rewarding than listening to the album.

Everything about their set was exciting, whether it was lead singer Joey Cook singing into a megaphone or hanging over the edge of the stage from a PA speaker. There was so much fun to be had while listening to their experimental pop tunes and the audience took full advantage of that, bursting out in dance and claps to urge the band along. From one of the smallest stages of the festival these Cincinnati natives stole the spotlight and put on an incredible show.

4. The Decemberists – Murat Theater, Indianapolis, Ind.

Seeing the Hazards of Love performed live is the only way to see it, I’m sure. Putting a face to Shara Worden’s mind blowing vocal performance and seeing each little bit of the mythical story put to life makes the experience seem ethereal.

After their latest album had been performed in all it’s illustrious glory the band came back out and performed hits from their wonderful back catalog and even a cover of Heart’s “Crazy on You” with Shara Worden and Beck Stark. Combined with a full audience sing-a-long of “Billy Liar” and a simply perfect performance of “Raincoat Song,” the whole evening was incredible.

3. Sufjan Stevens – High Dive, Champaign, Ill.

I didn’t know what to expect when I saw Sufjan perform in October. His latest album was a neo-classical piece with no lyrics and he had put out no other albums since Illinois. What he did, however, was simply fantastic. He mostly trotted out new songs, which featured more experimentation than the Sufjan of old, but were a delight to see and hear.

His new songs featured an electric feel with a bit of boogie to them, kind of like a jazz-fusion with less emphasis on the jazz. They were still soulful, which was emphasized by the intimacy of the High Dive. When he did play older songs they were delicate and special to behold. His rendition of “Casmir Pulaski Day” and his final song “Chicago,” just killed me. I think my heart is still in pieces on the High Dive floor.

1. (Tie) Jeff Tweedy – Foellinger Auditorium, Champaign, Ill.


Andrew Bird – Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Ill.

I got the chance to ring in the year with Tweedy and end it with Bird, making me quite a lucky man. Both gentleman played solo to large audiences in an inpersonal space, but managed to rapture attentions and hearts like it was a personal concert. I was able to see Mr. Bird play just last evening, so I’m going to save my synopsis for after the week of lists, and just tell you that he was simply incredible.

Likewise, Tweedy put on one of the greatest shows I have ever seen. Alone on stage with a ring of guitars behind him Tweedy worked through Wilco, Loose Fur and Uncle Tupelo songs with the greatest of ease and precision. His voice resounded throughout the giant lecture hall as if he were singing into the ear of each listener individually. At the end of his show, for his encore, he walked to the front of the stage, free of all amplification and sang his final two songs. The entire audience sat still, quiet, fearing even a cough, giving Tweedy the greatest respect that a performer can have. His set was incredible, even when he messed up the lyrics to “Hummingbird” it simply seemed like an invation for crowd participation. His performance, I believe, will always be among the best I’ve ever witnessed.

As far as Andrew Bird’s Gezellgheid concert, come back next week for all the details.

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