My Top 20 live shows of 2014

2013 was the busiest year of live music I’ve ever experienced; I went to something like 75 individual shows, and saw somewhere between 150 and 200 bands, and I probably still didn’t see as much live music as Bob Boilen did last year. I can live with that. 2014 was a little less crazy — I went to closer to 50 shows, plus a two-day festival, and saw around 100 bands. Some of their names escape me, but the good ones I definitely remember. A lot of these show were spectacular, for that matter, and this year seemed like a great time to actually make an official list of the best shows I’ve seen. I’m not going to rank every individual live set, just the 20 best ones. I will, however, rank every album I’ve listened to this year soon. So, here’s the best of what I saw.

20. Wild Wild Wets – Zombies cover set (Soda Bar, San Diego): Every year Soda Bar does a covers showcase featuring local bands, and this year’s was super fun. The highlight was Wild Wild Wets, who featured members of Tropical Popsicle and Soft Lions for a high-energy Zombies covers set. (Costumes? Zombies, naturally). They kicked it off with “This Will Be Our Year,” which, incidentally, was the song my wife and I danced our first dance to. So, fun show with added sentimental value.

19. Speedy Ortiz (The Casbah, San Diego): Speedy Ortiz made one of my favorite records of 2013, Major Arcana, and they played a fun set at Soda Bar last year for that matter. But they sounded even stronger in this opening spot for Stephen Malkmus. I didn’t stick around for Malkmus, though; love Pavement, but the solo stuff doesn’t generally do it for me.

18. Ghost (House of Blues, San Diego): Ghost, or Ghost B.C., or whatever they’re called, were on my must-see live list for a long time, and finally, they made their way from Sweden to San Diego. And damned if it wasn’t a good time; their kitschy classic rock/heavy metal sound doesn’t go over well with everyone, particularly because it’s high on camp value, but with highlights like “Ritual,” “Year Zero” and “Stand by Him,” it’s hard not to be won over by the hooded, demonic clergy.

17. Ought (Soda Bar, San Diego): I might have ranked this one a little higher if the turnout was better; seeing relatively few people show up to see a great band is always a bummer in my book, but the Montreal post-punk outfit played an intense set of highlights from new album More Than Any Other Day all the same. If you didn’t see ’em, you really missed out.

16. Darkside (FYF Fest, Los Angeles): Electronic shows can be hit or miss, but I had high hopes going into this set by New York duo Darkside, particularly because it would end up being one of their last. Indefinite hiatus and all that. What I caught was much more impressive than a dressed-up DJ set; they really put on a show, complete with fog, a big mirror that shot light beams across the giant room, lots of mystique and some great, dark grooves. I left before Dave Harrington smashed the giant mirror with his guitar, though, which is a shame.

15. Deafheaven (The Casbah, San Diego): Last year’s Deafheaven set at The Void (RIP) was probably one of my top 5 shows of 2013, in which they performed the entirety of Sunbather in a small dark room, the intimacy lending the show an even greater level of intensity. Their show at The Casbah wasn’t that much different, just a little bigger, plus one added track from their first album. They still absolutely kicked ass, however, their shoegazing black metal epics always worth the face-melting live experience.

14. The Afghan Whigs (Belly Up Tavern, Solana Beach): Another band that’s been on a live-show to-do list for a while, The Afghan Whigs have been favorites of mine for about 15 years, when I picked up their amazing 1993 album Gentlemen. And after interviewing Greg Dulli in September, I was even more excited about their return, which didn’t disappoint. Dulli gave the crowd a little bit of tough-talk when some overhyped dudes got a little rough in the crowd (“Since when did San Diego become fuckin’ Baltimore?!”), but the set was packed with standouts.

13. Rocket From the Crypt (The Casbah, San Diego): I don’t think I need to explain this.

12. Pallbearer (Soda Bar, San Diego): Doom metal is tricky live — given the tendency of most doom metal bands to play songs that go on for three times the length of a regular pop song, it takes a bit of patience if you’re not a diehard doom-head. Pallbearer is different though, thanks to a more melodic approach to songwriting, and a vocalist that actually has a good singing voice instead of a growl. The band’s new album Foundations of Burden is one of my favorite this year, and the songs sounded great live.

11. The War on Drugs (The Casbah, San Diego): The War on Drugs had a good year, their new album Lost in the Dream landing on every year-end list published this year. All of them. Go look, I’ll wait. Anyway, they’re a surprisingly good live act, and I say “surprisingly” because so much of their music comes out of studio constructions. With all the effects and overdubs that go into their sound, you’d think it might not come off as impressive onstage; oh, but it does.

10. Jenny Lewis (Copley Symphony Hall, San Diego): I missed Jenny Lewis’ show at the House of Blues earlier this year, partially as a result of lingering resentment toward Live Nation. But she opened for Ryan Adams two months later, and though it wasn’t a headlining set, it rivaled most of the headliners I saw this year. Highlight: Lewis and her two backup singers harmonizing gorgeously on “With Arms Outstretched.”

9. Phoenix (FYF Fest, Los Angeles): I was surprised by how much I enjoyed seeing Phoenix at FYF Fest this year, but I shouldn’t have been. They’re one of the best BIG alt-rock bands out there, and the last time I saw them in 2009, at another small festival, they stole the show. It’s a rare act that can fill a festival stage and make it seem like they’re even bigger than that, and yet Phoenix pulls it off with ease. Also, after all these years, they keep playing “Too Young” and “If I Ever Feel Better,” and this pleases me.

8. Cloud Nothings (Soda Bar, San Diego): I was talking to my wife recently about which bands are in the elite group of bands we will absolutely see anytime they’re in town, and Cloud Nothings is pretty much there. They’re always a loud and invigorating band onstage, and the fact that their songwriting improves with each album is all the more incentive to see them. And while I missed hearing a second guitar player during their take on “Wasted Days” this time around, the energy more than made up for the absence.

7. Angel Olsen (Soda Bar, San Diego): Angel Olsen’s Burn Your Fire For No Witness is, hands down, my number one album of this year. So it stands to reason that she’d be on this list. The first half of the show was a solid rock performance, with fuzzy guitars and catchy tunes. But it wasn’t until Olsen’s backing band stepped aside that her real strengths shone through; during her solo take on the haunting “White Fire,” you could hear a pin drop inside Soda Bar. Anyone who can accomplish that deserves an extra round of applause in my book.

6. No Knife (The Casbah, San Diego): The last time I saw No Knife was in 2003, so you can imagine how stoked I was to finally catch them live again. They’re one of the best bands from San Diego to have never really gotten much attention outside of San Diego, and a group that I’d pretty much go out of my way to see anytime the opportunity presents itself. Might not happen again, so if this show is the last time I see them, it was a hell of a way to go.

5. Future Islands (The Irenic, San Diego): Future Islands made a huge mark on pop culture this year, thanks to their amazing appearance on Letterman in March. And if that’s all you saw of them in 2014, you still saw something amazing. But their hot, sweaty and extra passionate performance at The Irenic put most other shows I saw this year to shame. I don’t even mind that they didn’t play my favorite song of theirs, “Give us the Wind.” Every track was a knockout.

4. Failure (El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles): I was looking forward to seeing Failure’s first show in 17 years since they announced it back in 2013, and managed to score a couple tickets in the brief 10-minute window before they sold out. Failure was a super important band to me in the ’90s, and I never had the chance to see them before they broke up, simply because I was about 15 or 16 when it happened. But their comeback more than made up for that, with a two-hour set loaded with a pretty significant portion of their complete catalog. I also interviewed Ken Andrews, which was cool.

3. Ryan Adams (Copley Symphony Hall, San Diego): I’ve seen Ryan Adams live a few times, and each time it has been memorable, but this was easily the best performance I’ve ever seen of his. His band was tight, his setlist was nothing but great songs, and the live versions of some of them (“Let It Ride,” “I See Monsters”) put an impressive new spin on already familiar songs. And, true to form, Adams had lots of great banter and goofballery in store for the audience, including an improvised song called “Ghostbuster,” and an on-the-spot anecdote about playing a song called “Unicorn Bones” after covering Kiss’ “Lick It Up” 10 times in a row, which blew the walls of the theater and made their cellist explode. Good times.

2. St. Vincent (House of Blues, San Diego): Annie Clark is an artist. She gives highly quotable interviews, puts an admirable investment in the visual-art aspect of being a performer, and simply kicks ass live. Again, she’s an artist I’ve seen a couple times before, but this set blew any other performance out of the water, in part due to the stark, yet stunning stage setup, as well as her strange choreography and tendency to shred like a motherfucker. The more I see her, the less it seems likely I’ll ever hear her play songs from her first album again (except “Your Lips Are Red,” which closed the show), but that’s not that big of a deal. She’s evolved into something greater.

1. Drive Like Jehu (Spreckels Organ Pavilion, San Diego): I didn’t see this coming, even though it’s been at the top of my reunion wishlist pretty much forever. Defying the usual reunion cash-in, Drive Like Jehu got back together for one night — 19 years after breaking up — and played a five-song set of their most epic tracks, accompanied by San Diego organist Dr. Carol Williams. Hearing Drive Like Jehu live was amazing. Hearing them live with a pipe organ was mind blowing. Nothing was ever going to top this show in 2014. And I’m stoked to say I was there.

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