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Our coverage of the Best Gigs of the ’00s continues with this second part.

Sufjan Stevens
9:30 Club, Washington D.C., 09/27/05

The concert didn’t sell out instantly and cost only $15. If Sufjan Stevens had decided to re-launch the same tour in 2009 the cost might have been closer to $45.

While Stevens, Iron and Wine, Devandra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and a bunch others first snuck into through the back door of indie rock via the lo-fi movement; by 2005 they were also slowly melting away the decades-long tension between rock and folk by grabbing from more influences and finding new outlets for their art. Illinois, with it’s textured orchestrations and genre crossing sound, was in many ways graduation day and the Come On Feel the Illinois tour would be the celebration. Folkies weren’t sneaking around anymore, they were banging on the front door.

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The crowd at the 9:30 Club that night reflected a diverse coalition of NPR mavens, college students, acoustic door room dudes, hipsters, high schoolers (some dragging chaperones), indie rock obsessives and emo kids. Stevens had mapped out a tour that was part pep-rally with dashes of orchestral chamber protocol. He had broken the mystique by tuning the piano and guitars himself and kept the demeanor of composer/taskmaster in addition to head cheerleader throughout the night. At the same time he would intersperse choreographed tongue-in-cheek cheers the band would execute in their matching “I” T-shirts and pom poms in between songs. Was this spectacle satire though, or just a giddy impulse to recapture something old and innocent? There’s not really a satisfactory answer to that question and I imagine that the tour elicited a mixture of the two in people. Something sophisticated seemed to be at work though, almost a challenge of older American traditions to see if they could still hold water in 2005.

During the opener, the unreleased “50 States Song,” big whoops went up for Virginia and Maryland. The anthem itself represented a higher ambition that indie fans would become intoxicated with for a brief time. “What will be the next state?” was on the tip on everyone’s tongue for the next year and a half and the opening number sort of whetted the crowd’s appetite that, yes, they’ll be back again one day to sing this same song before an opus New Jersey or Oregon. After all, he had done Michigan before Illinois, how could there not be more state albums coming?

If you’ll recall, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden were part of the Illinoismaker ensemble, making the talent pool rich. The band itself employed seven or eight members on this stop and used trumpets, xylophones, banjos, guitars and piano. But their greatest group effort came in the vocals, mixing a church choir’s rigid aesthetic with Brian Wilson melodies. “Chicago” came to life in this live setting while “Decatur” outshone its recorded counterpart. Following “Casmir Pulaski Day’ with “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” might have been the most depressing ten minutes of any concert. Still, a re-arranged “Star Spangled Banner” might have been a show stealer with its descent into an earnest and holy free falling harmony. Jazz, bluegrass, funk were all on display in one concert that encompassed 100 years of American music. It was as much a Smithsonian project as an indie rock band.

Stevens had made it all look easy. There was no thrashing and gnashing of instruments by any of his musicians, just a business-like approach to executing sharply written and largely open instrumentation. He was much a conductor as a performer that night prompting a comparison to Duke Ellington who used his “band as his instrument.”

Stevens’ performances in the years to come would be sparse affairs at large theaters; helping to convince the world that My Morning Jacket playing with the Boston Pops wasn’t such a far-fetched idea .This decade, it seems, will close without a proper follow-up to Illinois.– Neal Fersko [Photo: Hanson Ho]

Sleater-Kinney
The Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR 12/30/05

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Since I was a little late to Sleater-Kinney, I tried to see them as much as possible during the first half of the decade. I could pick any of their shows for this feature, but went with this one because it was the last time I saw them before they broke up in 2006. They had a fervent fan base and plenty of critical acclaim, but if anything they’re underrated. There was nothing particularly distinctive about their live show-aside from guitarist Carrie Brownstein’s leg kicks and windmills- but there was always something striking and inspiring about these three polite, well-dressed women playing visceral, bracing, ear-rattling rock ‘n’ roll. They evolved past any kind of punk/riot grrrl/indie labels to just become a great band period. When they evoked the Clash and Rolling Stones on 2002’s One Beat, it didn’t seem like hubris. They never bought into rock star bullshit and for Portlanders, members were often seen at other shows or trivia nights.

They played the Crystal Ballroom to a sold-out crowd on the second to last day of 2005. Drawing heavily from The Woods, their formidable, still awesome swan song, Sleater-Kinney were heavier, louder and more powerful than I’d ever seen them. They did enough old songs, but it was the new ones that really killed. They were in total command and it was invigorating to see a band at the top of its game. Few groups have one great vocalist, but Sleater-Kinney were blessed with two who could really wail: Browstein and Corin Tucker. They closed with the shattering, Zeppelin-esque stomp of “Let’s Call it Love,” which segued into the blistering “Entertain,” in which Brownstein excoriated those who expect music to be mindless and those enamored with the past: “You come around looking 1984/ You’re such a bore,1984/ Nostalgia, you’re using it like a whore.” At the time I didn’t think there was a more impressive American band out there and I’m still not sure if there is. No one in the early part of the decade seemed so engaged (politically, socially, musically), yet they never became preachy or didactic.

For the final song, they brought out the opening bands, Quasi and Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks (both now featuring drummer Janet Weiss), for a rousing, topical cover of CCR”s “Fortunate Son.” When Eddie Vedder opened for one of their final shows a few months later, it felt like rare justice in the music world. Sleater-Kinney went out on top, never compromised, and remain deeply missed. – Lukas Sherman [Photo: Modnar Naidanac]

The Hold Steady w/ The Thermals
Off Broadway, St. Louis, MO, 03/15/07

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This show has made me second-guess every concert I’ve seen since.

I was flying solo that night (which is, sadly, not unusual). A few friends waffled on buying tickets, and Off Broadway had inevitably sold out. “No big deal,” I thought, “more rock for me.” I arrived early, and staked out a spot near the front of the stage.

The crowd had filled the floor before the Thermals took stage. Supporting 2006’s excellent The Body The Blood The Machine, the band didn’t so much play their set as attack it. Hutch Harris offered little between song banter; his eyes were too wild, his pace was too fast to allow any wasted time. The band – at the time, a four piece consisting of Hutch, Kathy Foster, Lorin Coleman and Joel Burrows – kept up, delivering an electrifying set to the eager (slightly drunken) crowd.

It’d have been a night to remember had the night ended there, but within minutes, The Hold Steady had set up shop. Boys and Girls in America was only a few months old, and the band leaned heavily on the new material for their set. Craig Finn was giddy, working the crowd from the get-go: he ran in place, spread his arms, leaned on the mic stand and generally acted like a two-year-old messed up on pixie sticks and beer. The band wasn’t to be outdone: Franz Nicolay pounded his keyboard while hopping up and down, Galen Polivka mimed firing arrows to the balcony, Tad Kubler wielded his guitar like it was on fire and Bobby Drake kicked the shit out of his set. But the most amazing thing was the smiles – the band looked like they were having the time of their lives, like this was the only thing that mattered to them.

The band closed their set with fan favorite “Killer Parties,” and they pulled as many fans as they could onstage during the final moments, myself included. It was then, looking out across the sea of faces singing along to their every word, I realized why the band was so deliriously happy. When you create that much joy on a cold night in St. Louis, you can’t help but crack a smile. – Jason Stoff [Photo: Matt Karp]

The Flaming Lips
Bonnaroo, Manchester, TN, 06/07

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Seeing any band perform at Bonnaroo is an event in itself, but watching The Flaming Lips play at Bonnaroo is more than that: it is an experience of a lifetime. I had never seen the Lips live before but my husband had and he convinced me, even though it was midnight and I was sunburned, dehydrated and exhausted from lack of sleep the previous night, that I HAD to stay up for the set.

The show began before it began. Backstage assistants costumed as superheroes popped up over the fence containing the crowd and tossed hundreds of small laser pointers into the audience. Giant balloons began to make their way over the spectators. During sound check, a a good hour before they were schedule to begin, Wayne Coyne and other members of the band appeared on the stage to perform a cover of “War Pigs” an act of generosity which instantly created a feeling of camaraderie amongst the crowd. By the time Coyne reemerged inside of a large inflatable ball and rolled, like a hamster, over the audience’s heads, there were many thousands in the horde and the collective energy and enthusiasm swelled. As the first notes of “Race for the Prize” burst out of the speakers, orange and white confetti blasted out of enormous cannons on stage and filled the late night air with what seemed like a million

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butterflies. Every surge in the music brought more confetti for the next two and a half hours, supplemented with balloons the size of small cars bouncing on top of the crowd, flashing lights and video, and- did I mention the Santas?- dozens of dancers on stage costumed as Santas or space aliens (Santas on one side, aliens on the other). At one point, stage hands turned on the mist machines and brought out a huge mirror. Coyne directed us all to point our lasers at the mirror at the same time, resulting in reflected beams scattering all over the foggy sky. A very cool effect. All the while, Coyne kept saying how glad he was to be there and positivity is a vitally-needed force in the world right now.

I haven’t said much about the music. The music was good and Coyne’s banter was too much at times (although he does go on too long at times…), but that wasn’t what made the gig so phenomenal. It was the experience the band created for us. We weren’t just listening, we were dancing, deflecting laser beams, shaking confetti from our hair, gazing with awe at a beautiful spectacle and bonding with our fellow concert-goers. The man next to us, dressed in a Ghostbusters jacket, kept cuddling my husband (“Don’t worry, I’m a Ghostbuster,” he said to me) and offering to feed me beer from his bottle. Don’t get me wrong, the music was an essential part of the whole thing- there’s nothing like shouting “Yoshimi” lyrics with 10,000 other people into the dark Tennessee night- but what makes this experience my “gig of the decade” is that I walked away feeling like I had left my body for a while and become a part of something big. And that doesn’t happen often enough. Thanks, Lips! – Sarah Anderson [Photos: Matt Jordan]

The Rentals
Beta Bar, Tallahassee, FL, 09/7/2007

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The Rentals have not released a new album since 1999 and had been in stasis until the latter half of the ’00s. One might think their reformation a ’90s nostalgia act, but the band was hardly big enough to cash in on nostalgia a decade after “Friends of P” got played on MTV2 a couple of times. It had to have been something else.

Opening for them at the Beta Bar was Copeland, a Florida band that made it big with their generic sub-Coldplay sound. Once Copeland finished their set, most of my ignorant college crowd contemporaries cleared out, uninterested in this Band They Never Heard Of. It was annoying, but it also allowed me to make my way to the front with the remaining dweebs and weirdos — all old enough to have seen The Rentals during their initial incarnation. I felt more at home with them.

People wonder what happened to Weezer post-Pinkerton, and I’m pinpointing Matt Sharp’s departure as that vital non-Rivers Cuomo component that affected the band. Whatever element he brought to Weezer (besides bass), their music stopped being fun when he left. That fun carried over with Sharp to The Rentals, who seem to be having the time of their lives when they play.

The band members frequently traded instruments — always a good sign when band members acknowledge one another’s existence. Rachel Haden took the mic to sing the great Weezer B-side “I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams.” Sara Radle played guitar (among other instruments) and wore a really cute dress. Sharp himself had the flu that night and, despite that, his enthusiasm for the band was as infectious as his condition. He jumped around the stage, invaded the personal space of his mostly amused bandmates, and perched himself on guard rails, grabbing my shoulder to steady himself. Of course being touched by a former member of Weezer colors my opinion. I’m only human, dammit. A good show makes me smile. The Rentals made me smile a lot. – Danny Djeljosevic [Photo: David Bigler]

Tom Waits
Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA, 07/05/08

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It isn’t easy being a Tom Waits fan. The man takes as long as he wants between albums, sidesteps most interview questions using flagrant tall tales, and openly detests touring. Waits has been known to lie dormant for years, then without warning, release uncompromisingly challenging albums, possibly tour and then retreat back in to obscurity without a word of things to come. Most living legends of the music world have kept their careers vibrant through highly publicized albums and grueling tour schedules; Tom Waits has succeeded for decades doing the complete opposite.

Which is why when Tom Waits announced 2008’s Glitter and Doom Tour, fans hounded after tickets like this was their one chance to get inside the Wonka Factory. Waits’ previous outing, 2006’s Orphans Tour, offered only eight dates, and like 2004’s Real Gone Tour, the sets played heavily from Waits’ most inaccessible album Real Gone. Fans hoped this tour would see Waits adding more variety to his shows as well as more dates to his tour.

On both counts, most were pleasantly surprised. Waits stated in the tour’s press release he’d be performing songs he’d never attempted outside the studio. And, when the tour schedule was finally released, it boasted of 12 stops (which is a lot for Tom), although 11 of the shows were to be performed well below the Mason-Dixon Line.

I caught Tom Waits in Birmingham, but it was his show two days later in Atlanta that still stays with me as the best I have ever seen. Fox Theatre was much larger than where I’d seen him last, and my seat was much farther away. But to be so far back gave the whole experience perspective. It was reassuring that such a strange, aging musician could pack such a large venue; and when Waits finally emerged (an hour late), it was incredible to see the wonder on everyone’s face as he launched into “Lucinda.”

The Glitter and Doom Tour, night after night, showcased Waits’ most definitive career-spanning material; with Atlanta’s set list delivering the strongest collection of songs Waits has ever performed in one concert. Instant crowd-pleasers like “Come On Up to the House,” “Tom Traubert’s Blues” and “Johnsburg, Illinois” were replaced with rarities like “Cause Of It All,” “Such A Scream” and “Till The Money Runs Out.” And it may be because NPR was recording the show, but the traditional backbones of Waits’ show were noticeably stronger than usual. “Cemetery Polka,” “November” and “Make It Rain” were howled with Tom’s distinctively stark passion while the piano songs “Lucky Day,” “On The Nickel” and “Lost in the Harbour” proved Waits did not need a well-honed back up band to bring his songs to life. But the strength of Waits’ back up band could not be overlooked. The five-piece ensemble soldered together Waits’ low-life anthems with all the clang, boom, and steam of veterans like Marc Ribot and Larry Taylor.

The performances remained inspired and engaging through the 25 song main set, culminating with Waits’ tipsy revamp of “Singapore.” For the encore, Waits brought out his old disco hat for the antics of “Eyeball Kid,” but it was the stripped back, almost atmospheric, rendition of Rain Dogs’ closer “Anywhere I Lay My Head” that perfectly stitched together all the dissonant guitars, the sinister characters, and the stage that had been swathed in dust and sweat for well over two hours. – Brian Loeper [Photo: Simon Godley]

Radiohead
Comast Center, Mansfield, MA, 08/13/08

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For a brief moment, blackness instilled itself in the 14,000+ seat amphitheatre. A familiar drumbeat pierced through the wafting din of anxious chatter, poised lighters and the occasional hoot, only to be partially obscured by preliminary applause. After the extended drum intro, the first jangly guitar notes plucked away as the neon multi-color lights of the simple but elegant stage piece faded in. So it was “Reckoner” they decided to open with! Could there be any better indicator of an amazing show to come? I highly doubt it.

Not wanting my overpriced scalped ticket to go to waste (warning to all those planning on seeing these guys, get your tickets far, far in advance), I remained completely sober to bask in every delicious moment Radiohead had to offer me. A generous fraction of the 25-song set was reserved for the very reason they played on that humid Boston evening: to promote In Rainbows. Every song from the album was covered at one point. Most memorable was “Faust Arp,” played solo by Thom Yorke; a minute through, he botched the guitar lick and the song stumbled to an almost-halt. After Thom’s brief laugh (what a sport!) the audience gracefully cheered him back into the groove.

As usual, Thom’s spastic dance earned the stage’s forefront. The rest of the band played Musical Chairs with their instruments, synthetic and otherwise. The set list of course touched upon the hits (“Karma Police,” “Paranoid Android,” “There There”), but they carved a nice chunk of room for less popular (and more satisfying) songs. “Exit Music” and “Wolf At the Door” were a delightfully morbid treats to hear live, and “The Gloaming” is much more energetic and inspirational when accompanied by a performance to watch. Their rendition of “Idioteque,” which also capped the night at the end of two – not one – long encores, was an out of body experience on its own. From rocker to reflective ballad and back again, Radiohead covered all ground of the emotional spectrum with virtuous ease. It’s why they’re so often critically hailed as the best band on Earth. – Jory Spadea [Photo:Steffen Jørgensen]

Antony and the Johnsons
Moore Theatre, Seattle, WA, 02/28/09

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Now that the decade comes to a close, what will be our legacy? For many, it has been 10 years filled with sadness and disappointment. Though we are ending on the optimism of Barack Obama’s election, the bitter taste from the failed Bush Administration will linger for years. Is there one voice that can embody this sadness? Yes, and it’s Antony Hegarty who put on a luminous performance in Seattle in support of his The Crying Light album.

Important as a poetic treatise on our planet’s collapsed ecosystems, the power of that album and Antony’s startling live interpretation will serve as the perfect artistic representation of our imperiled planet. Though it is intrinsically about our vanishing glaciers and everglades, the beauty of this set of songs also is a lavender-tongued representation of the brutal sorrow of the past 10 years.

The show began as a dream, like waking up after a late night and the streets below seem new and empty and exciting. Wearing a brown robe and presiding over his Steinway like the grand dame at the ball, Antony played a 17 song set that evening that leaned heavy on the newer material, but with enough older songs to keep longtime fans sated.

Nothing can prepare one for the shocking power of Antony’s voice in person. Even a devoted listener to his albums cannot comprehend the beauty and command he wields with those beautiful pipes. When the band played “Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground,” I could not prevent myself from crying.

Though things did get weird when someone dissed Beyonce from the shadows of the audience, Antony’s honest, brutal reaction of, “Stop the show. Why would you say that? You must be joking,” showed a performer unwilling to allow the bullshit so common from today’s audiences into the intricately created bubble he cast over us. He even elicited an apology from the unsuspecting joker.

Why does Antony’s sadness feel so good? Is it possible that each of us has that untapped potential, that satchel of melancholy that we are too afraid to air out and show the world? Antony will carry that burden for us all. “I am happy/ So please hit me/ I am happy/ So please hurt me,” go the lyrics of “Cripple and the Starfish.” Breaking this cycle of trust and abuse will probably never end. Let’s hope Obama, unlike Bush, does not tread on our trust just like Antony’s abusive lover. Just as the lights faded as Antony exited the stage that evening, I am more than happy to see this decade shuffle off into the wings. Cue lights. – David Harris [Photo: Oliver Peel]

[Lead Tom Waits photo: Vincenzo Cosenza]

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