Top 8 Shows of 2008

I’ve seen many good posts with favorite albums of 2008, so I thought I’d change things up a bit and cover the best live sets I saw last year.  First, a word to the wary.  I don’t care much for shows where the artist does a greatest hits compilation or plays the new album more-or-less in its entirety.  For $10 I can get that online or hard copy, and play it over and over.  I want to see a one-time-only event.  With that in mind…

#9: Flounders Without Eyes

Okay, yes, I said “top 8″, but I wanted to give an honorable mention to Flounders.  The very nature of a jam band is that you’re going to see a unique performance, so this category is kind of a home field advantage.  But this band from the Austin area consistently puts on a great show and the 2008 set at Old Settlers Music Fest was no exception.  Factor in the inclement weather and you had a special show.

#8: The Waybacks

I caught these guys 3 different times in the last year, but the best of the sets was at the campground stage at Old Settlers.  Warren Hood was still a recent addition to the band, but they tore it up in front of a crowd of no more than a couple of hundred people in the middle of a rainstorm.  They can tackle just about any genre and between Warren on fiddle and James Nash on guitar they define virtuoso without creating a barrier to the audience.

#7: Jon Langford and Skull Orchard

The former drummer for the Mekons has branched out considerably from his punk roots.  At the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in October he showed up with the Burlington (Canada) Welsh Male Chorus.  They covered everything from heavy metal to sea chanteys.  They don’t perform together often, so it’s hard to know what the “next” show will be like, but you have to go see it just for the spectacle.

#6: Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women

Another set from the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass event.  Dave Alvin surrounded himself with some of the finest musicians in the country, all women (Cindy Cashdollar, Laurie Lewis, Sarah Brown, etc.), and proceeded to weave his way through everything from Blasters tunes to country classics.  Solos abounded and harmonies were contagious.  It was a lineup that could only happen at a festival where all the musicians were there anyway, but kudos to Dave for pulling it together.

#5 Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives

Another act from Old Settlers, Marty and his band played a couple of sets there.  They were the almost-headliners one night on the main stage, but also did an intimate set earlier in the day at the off-off-main stage.  With his stories of life in the music business, the theatricals on the big stage, and his passion for the history of country music, Marty is why the country music industry has it so right when they give Entertainer of the Year awards in addition to all the recording honors.

#4 Billy Bragg

Live at the Fillmore.  With an iconic act in an iconic hall, I wasn’t taking much of a risk going to this show.  Billy certainly didn’t disappoint.  His politics aren’t for everyone, but in San Francisco he certainly wasn’t going to get a Dixie Chicks reception to his viewpoints.  He was heavy on the Woody Guthrie tunes and influences from Mermaid Avenue, but did a fine job of blending them with his newer material.  Plus, I’d forgotten just how viscerally appealing a well-played Stratocaster at high volumes can be even without a backup band.

#3: Alison Brown with Joe Craven

There are a few musicians who simply cannot be put into a musical category even though you know what you’re going to hear.  Like Bela Fleck, Alison Brown takes a bluegrass/Americana instrument and imbues a jazz music performance with all the sophistication of classical composition.  In this set at HSBF, she performed with her regular band, and frequent collaborator Joe Craven.  They finished an otherwise awesome set with Joe playing percussion on the soundboard of Alison’s banjo while she rained down the notes in a fingerpicking tornado of musicianship.  I stood there slack-jawed.

#2: The Wailin’ Jennys

The Jenny’s played a marvelous show in the Carriage House at Montalvo, a small theater that seats a few hundred people and has incredible acoustics.  You really can hear a pin drop.  The Jenny’s put together the most well-rounded performance of the year.  It had great instrumental solos.  It had charismatic band members who treated the audience like long lost friends.  It had harmonies that were second to no one else I’ve ever seen.  It was just damn near a flawless performance in so many ways.  I have to go see them again to know if I was that lucky or they’re that good.

#1: Ray LaMontagne

The only way to beat a near-flawless performance is to just put it all out there knowing it’s all on the line and you can crash dramatically.  I’ve never seen an artist do that so convincingly as Ray LaMontagne did at the Schnitzer Theater in Portland in November.  The first few songs of the show I was physically uncomfortable at just how uncomfortable he was up in front of the audience.  But he kept it all together, built a stronger performance song after song and owned every single person in the hall by the end of the show.  And I will never forget the soft, nearly spiritual sing-along of John Lennon’s “Imagine” as he closed the show.

But that’s just one man’s opinion.