Best Shows of 2008: Old-Man Version

radiohead.jpg Don't leave me high, don't leave me dry. (Kyle "Leafblower" Gustafson for TWP)

Malitz has weighed in with his annual list of the Top 10 Concerts By Kinda-Sorta Obscure Artists, though he went off-script by putting Kanye West's powerhouse Virgin Mobile Festival set at No. 1. (For my money, I thought Kanye was even better at Nissan three months earlier. Not that I actually paid to get into either show.) Anyway, here's my own list.

1. Radiohead - Nissan Pavilion, May 11
"Rain down, rain down/Come rain down on me," the tortured poet Thom Yorke sang in the chorus of "Paranoid Android," a caustic anthem that became a rousing singalong on an overwhelmingly soggy spring night. For those who were stuck on the flooded roads surrounding Nissan, this show was a complete and utter disaster. The fortunate few (thousand) who managed to make it to the swampy shed for Monsoonpalooza, though, were witness to a stunning set by a band that specializes in rainy-day music: gorgeously anguished tales of dread and alienation that amount to sullen songs for sullen souls.

There was a quiet intensity to the show, in which Yorke's high, quavering falsetto was wrapped in the warm textures and dazzling Technicolor grandeur of Radiohead's music. The exceptional mix was perhaps the best I've ever heard at a big venue, and the instrumental ebb and flow was transcendent, as the band managed to sound both cerebral and intuitive -- like a jazz band playing cinematic rock songs. Over the course of two hours, Yorke sang of isolation and anxiety, of frustration and dissatisfaction, themes that no doubt resonated with those who didn't make it to the show. The result, for me, was the most satisfying and emotionally rewarding concert of the year. (Original review.)

Five more after the jump.

2. Levon Helm - Ram's Head Live, April 24

levon_helm.jpg'Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?' (Marvin Joseph/TWP)

Time and cigarettes were not kind to the drummer and part-time singer for the late, great Band, who was diagnosed with cancer of the vocal cords a decade ago. He went through 28 radiation sessions and literally lost his voice. But it gradually returned; thus, Helm did, too, with his first solo album in a quarter-century and this rather remarkable tour. The Baltimore show was a knockout -- a freewheeling roots-music hootenanny during which Helm was joined by a dozen gifted musicians, including the great multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell. Helm sang from the gut in an aching, earthy voice that sounded wearier and more weathered and raggedy than ever, which lent his vocals an extra, somewhat eerie layer of gravitas. That was especially true during the encore cover of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released." It was an elegiac exclamation point from a real roots-rock survivor. (Original review.)

3. Randy Newman - Strathmore, Sept. 24
Randy Newman has a remarkable gift for cutting to the funny bone as he examines the absurdities of life and the peculiarities of society. Consider what the cartoonist Garry Trudeau told TWP's Comic Riffs blog last summer about Newman: "He's probably our finest satirist -- an absolute master of funny, nuanced storytelling. He doesn't get overtly political that often, but no one's better at explaining America to itself. Go give 'My Country' a listen, about a man who spends his life in front of a television 'as big as all outdoors.' While you're laughing, try not to cry."

But there's much, much more to Newman than that side-splitting -- and often politically incorrect -- social commentary, as the man also writes and performs some of the most devastating love songs you'll ever hear. I was really struck by the dichotomy of his oeuvre during this fantastic concert in Rockville, during which Newman was fighting a cold. (Thankfully, I mean, how can somebody who sings about short people having no reason to live and about leasing Korean parents be so open-hearted and emotionally honest as to come up with something as gut-wrenching as "I Miss You"? (Klimek's original review.)

4. Ruthie Foster - New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, May 3
The big story of the weekend was the return of the Neville Brothers, who hadn't performed in their hometown since Hurricane Katrina -- an absence that caused much consternation and controversy. (So much so that a columnist for the Times-Picayune was compelled to write a column on in which he urged locals not to protest the first family of funk's headlining performance.) The Nevilles' performance was memorable enough, but for me, the highlight of the weekend came when I wandered into the blues tent just in time to catch Ruthie Foster leading her all-female band through a cleansing, deeply soulful cover of the Lucinda Williams song, "Fruits of my Labor." It was a revelation.

I was blown away by Foster's vocals, which were the perfect combination of emotion, power and control, with some stunning flourishes, such as her descending vocal runs. On a subsequent song, Foster sustained a vocal note for what seemed, in real time, like three minutes; it was a crowd-stirring, tent-top-lifting, jaw-dropping, lung-emptying, hair-raising, wow-she's-still-holding-it?!!? moment. Foster blended the ache and weariness of a blues singer with the fiery grit and optimism of a gospel vocalist. If you need a vis-a-vis, I'll offer early-era Aretha as a data point. Yes, she was that good. If you'd heard Foster drilling down to the emotional core of the blues stomp, "Death Came A Knockin' (Travelin' Shoes)," you'd understand. Awesome stuff.

5. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss - Merriweather Post Pavilion, June 13
While the old rock-and-rollers waited anxiously for an announcement about a Led Zeppelin reunion tour, Robert Plant was busy scratching his roots-music itch with Alison Krauss and a marvelous band led by T-Bone Burnett and featuring one of my favorite multi-instrumentalists, the great Buddy Miller. It was a very different kind of blond ambition tour -- one in which two sandy-haired singers from opposite ends of the world came together for an eclectic, wide-ranging exploration of American roots music. Whereas Plant, the Brit, became famous in his 20s for plying his keening voice to oft-thunderous blues-rock songs, here he was, at 59, performing haunting, atmospheric country, bluegrass, folk, soul and gospel songs -- plus a little bit of Led Zeppelin -- with Krauss, a fiddle-playing American Midwesterner who specializes in plaintive mountain music and wasn't even alive when Led Zep was booked at Merriweather in 1969. The unlikely pairing resulted in a spellbinding show that was full of surprises, from the song selections (the old murder ballad "Matty Groves," the Ray Charles country two-step, "Leave My Woman Alone," a brooding "Black Dog") to the nearly perfect meshing of Plant's tenor and Krauss's crystalline soprano. Over the Tennessee hills and far away. (Original review.)

6. Kanye West - Nissan Pavilion, May 10
The sci-fi themed "Glow in the Dark" tour was the hip-hop megalomaniac's latest ploy to prove that he's creatively without peer. It was a wildly conceived one-man musical -- a soul-searching, strangely intimate hip-hopera in which the angsty, needy rapper is trolling through space, searching for "a new source of inspiration," as he quests to save the world from creative stasis. Only, he crashes his vessel on some distant planet -- where, of course, he breaks into song. There was no shortage of braggadocio, of course, but Kanye also showed himself to be a complicated and conflicted figure, all pouty and petulant and racked with doubt and anxiety. That Kanye -- the one who can be brutally honest in his self-reflections -- ran wild on the lonely planet, to marvelous effect. The narrative didn't necessarily hold up, as the connection between the story and the music seemed tenuous, and West had the annoying tendency to shout his vocals. But the overall result was still borderline brilliant, a tribute to West's ambition and artistry -- particularly the strength of his songs. It was a gripping, potent performance from rap's first true arena star. (Original review.)

By J. Freedom du Lac |  January 6, 2009; 12:05 PM ET Concerts , Favorites , Year-End Lists
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