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When I looked back at the shows I attended over the past 12 months, I went to plenty of concerts from newer artists, but as I compiled the list of the 2011 performances that stuck with me and impressed me the most, the veterans rose to the top. I don’t know if that’s because their experience trumps what often passes for showmanship these days or because it was simply a banner year for older acts to hit the road, but I was surprised how many of these acts who have been criss-crossing the world with their music for decades now made the list.
Instead of feeling sad that I didn’t hear more new music from breaking acts that seemed truly great to me (maybe they all just needed a little more seasoning, or, as in the case of The Civil Wars, I saw them in late 2010, but not 2011), I decided to feel grateful that these older acts are still around and remain vibrant and compelling. None of them seemed near done and they can certainly teach some of the younger artists a thing or two about pacing. Plus, I think I caught a number of newer acts on a bad night and want to give them another chance before writing off their live skills.
Another theme emerged as well: as much as I admire and like artists like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry (neither of whom I saw within the calendar year), who put on spectaculars with each number more visually glittering than the next, I remain drawn to acts who don’t need bells and whistles.
The shows are in alphabetical order by artist.
Adele, The Palladium, Los Angeles, Aug. 17: The absolutely hottest ticket in town (especially as she was canceling shows all around) and for good reason: though only a few years in to what promises to be a long career, Adele has not only the chops, but the charisma to captivate an audience. Despite her world changing drastically in the last five years, she remains a totally unguarded presence, telling stories as if she’s talking to her best girlfriend over a cig and coffee in the kitchen, before bursting into glorious song.
Jeff Beck, Jazz Fest, New Orleans, April 30: Guitar gods aren’t really my thing, but Jeff Beck’s show in the late afternoon, before tens of thousands of adoring fans, was a revelation—not in how well he played (duh, on that one)—but in how enjoyable his performance was from start to finish through his own compositions to his reinventions of Sly & The Family Stone’s “ I Want To Take You Higher” (joined by Trombone Shorty), The Beatles’ “A Day In the Life” and Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.”
Kenny Chesney, Giants Stadium, E. Rutherford, N.J., Aug.13: Who knew? I’m surprised too. I’d always heard that Chesney put on a great show, but, not being a fan, I’d never bothered to go. I was blown away. In the often pelting rain, Chesney poured his heart and soul into the show, never sacrificing performance for showmanship. He owned that stage (and all its many appendages, running from pillar to post) from the minute he stepped on it and then worked to keep us thrilled for the entire two hours. I’m still not a big fan of the music (which makes his holding my interest all the more impressive), but count me in as a huge fan of his show and the work Chesney puts into providing the audience with a tremendously fun evening in its Buffett-like, party zeal.
Elvis Costello, The Wiltern, Los Angeles, May 12: Elvis Costello & the Imposters brought the “Spectacular Singing Songbook” tour back to the City of Angels for the first time in 25 years. With a big wheel of songs behind him, a genial, hilarious Costello brought fans up from the audience to give the wheel a spin to determine what song he would play next. Should they choose, the chosen ones could sip a dry cocktail on stage as Costello played or shimmy in the huge gilded bird cage in the corner. Costello also threw in a few tunes he selected in the 2 1/2 hour celebration of 35 years of music making. He’ll be dragging the wheel out for another round in 2012. Save your pennies and go. It’s an evening of pure joy for Costello fans.
Death Cab for Cutie, Santa Barbara (Calif.) Bowl, Oct. 15: Between Ben Gibbard’s marionette, stiff-legged dancing, a creative, visually arresting light show, and a set-closing, mesmerizing “Transatlanticism,” Death Cab brought every bit of its melodic moodiness to this sold-out show. “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” grows more exceptional and resonant over the years. No better way to spend a crisp fall evening.
Vince Gill, The Troubadour, Los Angeles, Nov. 16: Second only to Paul Simon’s band for its fluidity, chops and cohesion, Gill’s nine-piece surrounded him to create a wall of sound that was often breathtaking in the small confines of the 400-capacity Troubadour. Gill was playing the club for the first time in 35 years. He threw in the hits in the nearly 3-hour show, but this evening was more about a musical travelogue and his journey—including turning down Mark Knopfler’s offer to join Dire Straits— both as a radio star and as an incomparable guitarist. Dazzling, but never superfluous musicianship ruled the night.
Tom Jones, Jazz Fest, New Orleans, May 1: How can he still be this hot and sexy at 71? Maybe it was the magic in the New Orleans air or he just has his own brand of voodoo that follows him wherever he goes, but even the men were swooning as Jones soared through hit after hit with that sultry baritone of his to close out the first weekend of Jazz Fest. He paid tribute to NOLA with “St. James Infirmary” and “Hey Pocky Way,” but, of course, left room for “She’s a Lady,” and “It’s Not Unusual.” His encore of Prince’s “Kiss” was fun, but left everyone wanting more.
Paul Simon, Pantages Theater, Los Angeles, April 21: Forget about Simon— who was wonderful—there was no better band I saw this year than his assemblage here, drawn from as far back as the “Graceland” years to relatively new editions. They were able to fully realize, and enhance, his Caribbean, South African and Delta rhythms. The delight the audience took in the show was second only to the obvious immense pleasure Simon took in playing with the band.
Teddy Thompson, Bob Clearmountain’s studio, Los Angeles, March 22: As part of KCRW’s “Berkeley Street Sessions” series, Thompson took the stage accompanied only by his guitar and mesmerized the 150-person audience with his short set, which consisted primarily of tunes from his fifth studio album, “Bella.” He’s not as biting as his father, Richard Thompson, or quite as vulnerable as his mother, Linda Thompson, but he manages to create his own searing songs about love’s difficulties that captivated me from the first time I heard them that night.
What was the best show you saw in 2011?
Follow Melinda Newman on Twitter @HitfixMelinda