These Are NYC's Best Live Music Moments of 2015 So Far
Azealia Banks at Irving Plaza, 5/11/15
Sachyn Mital for the Village Voice
On any given weeknight, the stages of New York City are hosting everything from a generation-bridging set of jazz standards at Radio City Music Hall to a beloved Brooklyn metal band's swan song to the . 2015 has been generous on the performance front, with memorable NYC nights brought into being thanks to the musical stylings of local talent and national chart-toppers alike. One of Nashville's most talked-about talents opted to have his record release show here; Joey Bada$$ basically threw himself into the outstretched arms of his T5 crowd; and that's to say nothing of the number of euphoric festival moments we caught at Governors Ball, EDC NY, FarmBorough, and other shows that rolled through town.
After looking back through some of the best concerts we've seen in New York this year, we've culled a list of our top live music moments. We couldn't rank 'em — how can you, when your options involve a Valentine's Day set from Paul McCartney and Azealia Banks's triumphant 212 return, and at the same venue? — so here are fifteen of the best live sets we've caught so far in NYC in 2015.
The front row at the Apollo was privy to not only a fantastic view of the elusive r&b crooner for his much-anticipated return to the stage, but his direct affection as well: D'Angelo spent a hefty portion of his two-and-a-half-hour set extending himself over the divide between his stage and the outstretched hands of his adoring public, making contact with as many audience members as he could while working through the tracklist of Black Messiah and selections from his adored catalog. Last week's Saturday Night Live performance had D'Angelo rolling through "Really Love" and "Charade" squarely behind the microphone and unapproachable, but the distance effected by ceremony and broadcast television wasn't there at the Apollo. D'Angelo showed up in Harlem ready to get intimate, and you can't get close to someone without touching them, without caressing them, without entwining your fingers with theirs. And while it was a given that many would be moved by Black Messiah and the sultry notes brought into being by D'Angelo and the Vanguard, the extent to which he'd touch the crowd surpassed expectations. — Hilary Hughes
Save for a short encore, the set was composed wholly of songs off Blur's new album, The Magic Whip. The work is, true to Britpop form, a bit of a disjointed affair, with Gorillaz-ready vibes and The Good, the Bad & the Queen–appropriate fare butting up against arrangements harking right on back to Parklife, though the live setting, as ever, offered a forum in which the higher-tempo numbers could shine brightest. Jaunty leadoff track "Lonesome Street" made for a fitting opener, Damon Albarn confessing to his particularly English variety of self-doubt ("What do you got?/Mass-produced in somewhere hot/You'll have to go on the Underground/To get things done here") as the rest of the crew bopped and bounced merrily. Nor did the slower cuts sap any of the gig's momentum, though they did occasion a whole lot of phones and Instagramming and then other people bitching vocally about all the phones and Instagramming. Of The Magic Whip's gentler jams, "New World Towers" carried over just as prettily as it appears in album form, and "My Terracotta Heart" represented a slow-it-down-and-warm-it-up high point. (Doesn't that song scratch precisely the same itch as Radiohead's "Nude"? And — seriously — doesn't it do it better, in all its pseudo-jazz emo desperation?) Oh, and how about the 13-y semipsychedelia of "Thought I Was a Spaceman," with Graham Coxon taking that extended coda, howling into the vocoder, whammying the night into pure rapture? — Mike Laws
This was technically a co-headlining tour, so both Cannibal Corpse and Behemoth played for the same amount of time (roughly 50 minutes each), but Cannibal Corpse made substantially more of their relatively limited time onstage. They opened with one of their slowest songs, "Scourge of Iron," as though warming the crowd up before a workout. And frontman George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher fits the role of coach or drill instructor: He's an astonishing physical presence, big and bulky, with a neck the size of the average person's thigh. He pinwheels his hair in precise circles every time the music speeds up, and barks the lyrics out like bullets. Behind him, his bandmates — guitarists Rob Barrett and and Pat O'Brien, bassist Alex Webster, and drummer Paul Mazurkiewicz — crank out the riffs, barely paying attention to the crowd at all. I don't think I saw Webster's face the whole night, as he bobbed his head above his instrument. The setlist was mostly drawn from their recent albums, with three tracks from this year's A Skeletal Domain — "Kill or Become," "Sadistic Embodiment," and "Icepick Lobotomy" — coming in a row at the end of the first half. But a few classics surprised and excited the crowd, particularly "Stripped, Raped, and Strangled," from 1994's The Bleeding, and "I Cum Blood," from 1992's Tomb of the Mutilated, introduced by Fisher as "a love song...about shooting blood out of your cock." Ultimately, they played fourteen songs with ruthless efficiency, never stopping for more than a few seconds. Fisher's stage banter was limited to demanding that the crowd mosh harder, or headbang as fast as he could: "You will fail, but you can try." — Phil Freeman
Björk's performance was full of appealing contradictions: It was at once soul-baring and withdrawn, coy and fierce, unhinged and refined. While delivering a powerful and perfectly controlled vocal performance (no vestiges of the vocal polyps that troubled her following the Biophilia tour), she marched and skipped along in front of the half-moon of string players like a drill sergeant or the picker in duck-duck-goose. She arched back and delicately pliéd while wearing a spiky, Hellraiser-esque headdress and restrictive white gown. Assertive lines demanded finger wags at the offending "him" ("Show me emotional respect") or a fist raised in solidarity with those who have been in her shoes ("I refuse, it's a sign of maturity/To be stuck in complexity/I demand all clarity"). In the concert's second, more upbeat half, she danced in a style that was somewhere between the spirited flailing of her onetime collaborator Thom Yorke and the stylized, atavistic moves of her British progenitor Kate Bush. Sometimes, she would become distracted, turning her back to the audience as she took in the sound of the band or focused on a difficult vocal passage. — Winston Cook-Wilson
Beaming, Banks wasted no time, easing instantly into "Idle Delilah." Gliding across the stage in sequins, hair flowing, Banks's presence was majestic and eagerly affirmed by her adoring audience. By the time "Gimme a Chance" began, the dance floor was teeming with movement, with nearly every fan dutifully mouthing along to each line of Banks's clean-cut diction and rhythmic genius. The vogue-ready intro to "1991" gave way to "Liquorice," which forced even the most stoic of showgoers into a state of unabashed awe. "JFK" premised the ominous pulse of "Heavy Metal and Reflective," which was greeted with collective exhilaration. "BBD" and "Wallace" were similarly received, the audience's enthusiasm building as each second passed. Banks's latest single, "Ice Princess," rendered the venue willingly sweaty and out of breath as her fans pushed their way closer toward the stage without missing a single word of the track. Despite the generally well-mannered crowd, a brief, but quickly squashed, fight sprang up toward the right of the stage. Immediately — and gracefully — Banks admonished the instigators, assuring them that there was no place for their behavior at her show. The beat dropped and the show continued, "Luxury" and "Miss Amor" turning the focus back on Banks. — Dianca Potts
Romeo Santos at the Barclays Center, 7/12/15
Sachyn Mital for the Village Voice
...Santos didn’t need to pronounce his own greatness. He didn’t need a crown-adorned microphone stand to show himself as musical royalty, either. Kicking off with Formula Vol. 2 opener “Inocente,” Santos immediately proved himself as a consummate showman with a razor-sharp focus on how to balance being a bandleader and a superstar heartthrob. When he wasn't gyrating across the stage or engaging with his band members and backup singers, he was talking to the crowd — and not just to hype them up. About every thirty minutes in the nearly three-hour set, Santos targeted someone in the first few rows of the arena and had a moment with him or her. Mostly, it was to flirt — at one point he took a woman’s cellphone to film himself and his band, only to ultimately go for a close-up on his nether regions; later, another audience member shared her beer with him — and to tease men about stealing their dates. It was the kind of closeness that was missing from last summer’s full-house doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. The relative intimacy of Barclays provided more access to Romeo’s gritty loverman stylings than the special-guest-packed celebratory marathon of those 2014 concerts. But this is always how Santos shines: He doesn’t require visual spectacle. — Claire Lobenfeld
Sturgill Simpson sounds better at death's door than most artists do in fine fettle. "Full disclosure," the singer said, taking the stage clad in a plaid shirt and wielding his acoustic guitar: "We're all sick as shit, but we're going to give you our best anyway." Their best was more than twenty songs, delivered with passion, perfection, and pathos, even when, at one point mid-show, that energy flagged ("Bear with me," Simpson requested. "I think I almost passed out.") Simpson's 2014 album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, his second, topped a lot of year-end critics' lists — including our Pazz + Jop Poll, where it came in sixth — and as he delved into a good many of the songs on that lauded disc, it clearly captured the ears of New Yorkers of all ages and aural predilections. Metamodern aside, he kicked off the show with a pair of tunes from his 2013 debut, High Top Mountain, "Sitting Here Without You" setting the tone of his authentic, anti–"new Nashville" country. There's no pop-produced sheen live or on the album, but rather a bright strength to the tunes that comes from great songwriting, delivered with heartfelt simplicity — and sometimes a dash of humor — by a man who has lived the stories he sings. — Katherine Turman
...The craziest part of the night was something the crowd didn't see. Several faculty members who knew the rapper (then Jermaine Cole) stopped by the ad hoc greenroom to congratulate him, and one in particular brought with her a fitting gift. Dr. Julia Upton — former provost and the professor of Cole's "Discover New York" class (a required course for incoming freshmen) — bestowed him with his official college diploma. Majoring in communications and minoring in business, Cole graduated summa cum laude in 2007 (with a GPA of 3.82) but never received his sheepskin because of a missing library book. "I owed money for a library book that I didn't turn in," he admitted sheepishly. He has "no clue" what title it was, but apparently even one vanishing book cost him his degree. "If you have any outstanding fee, that translates to money. There's a price associated with it. I never paid. That's why I don't have my degree." Luckily, the school waived the fee for its star pupil. "Tonight, I guess they let me slide," he laughed. Nearly a decade after the fact, Cole already knows exactly what he's going to do with his long-awaited piece of paper. "I'm gonna send it to my mom." — Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Byrne and the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Contemporary Color was a gobstopper, the greatest school assembly anyone ever imagined. Byrne's big idea: Pair up ten musicians with ten of the U.S. and Canada's top color guard teams. The squads got unique recordings to perform to at competitions, rather than the usual homemade edits of existing music; then, as a capper, they got the chance to perform with live musicians for four nights, here and at Toronto's Luminato Festival — the best assembly is also the best-ever field trip. Byrne has written and spoken persuasively about the power of color guard, about its curious place as both sport and artform. Rooted in military and parade culture, and then adapted to football, color guard has in recent years flowered into urgent, versatile, collective expression steeped in dance, cheer, and the traditional twirling of (plastic) sabers and rifles. This is kids making culture out of what they have available — playlists and the trappings of militant jingoism. In Contemporary Color, one squad (from West Chester, Pennsylvania) painted, in dance and flags and the music of St. Vincent, the experience of feeling as if you're a mental patient inside your own head. “It has to be perfect!” a cloying voice snapped, as the kids, through ritualized movement, exorcised the torments of teendom. — Alan Scherstuhl
A decade before she began inspiring breathless admiration with her series of minimal, glitchy, r&b-tinged singles (and their accompanying videos, brimming with a raw — though often metaphorical — sexuality), FKA twigs came up in London dance clubs, starring in a number of pop-music videos as a backup dancer. With the release of last year's critically acclaimed LP1, twigs shifted from the shadows into the spotlight, sharply chronicling her move to stardom on one of the album's standout tracks, "Video Girl." More akin to eccentric performance artist than traditional pop singer, twigs produces work that defies categorization while defining her own unique sensibility. As a celebration of all that, FKA twigs performed three sold-out nights of her electrifying, choreographed epic "Congregata" in a Brooklyn warehouse, part of Red Bull Music Academy's brilliantly curated annual NYC takeover. "Congregata" is a Latin word for "coming together," and in that spirit, twigs collects all the elements and inspirations that have shaped her career and her work — most notably, her closest friends from London's dance scene, who performed a kind of contemporary dance–meets–vogue competition that the audience may have been unlikely to come across otherwise. The entire show was built around this collusion of bodies and expression through movement, with FKA twigs playing both a central role and, more than once, sitting back and letting each of her dancers shine in their own right, including a showcase of voguing legends that brought the house down midway through the set. — Lindsey Rhoades
His intensity never wavered, but some of Isbell's strongest moments are fueled by the megawatt might of the 400 Unit behind him, his band of insane players that happens to include the Slash of accordionists. (That's the kind of gusto Derry deBorja played that wheezing organ with, anyway.) "Flying Over Water," "Codeine," and "Alabama Pines" buoyed Isbell through warm sing-along moments; the unfurling waltz of "Decoration Day" and drive of "Never Gonna Change" had Isbell favoring his solos over his vocal lines and nodding reverently to his Drive-By Truckers days. The transition between Isbell's tried-and-true road staples and the songs he's still finessing was fluid, with the crowd clamoring for Southeastern tracks as much as it did for the throwbacks. But "Cover Me Up" — the halved, bleeding heart of Southeastern — was the undeniable set highlight, the peak of Isbell's might as both a writer and a performer. "Cover Me Up" is a raw, down-on-his-knees declaration of love and commitment, one that's definitively transcendent when singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires, his wife, joins him onstage, and their performance at the 2014 Americana Music Honors & Awards reflects that. Shires wasn't at the Capitol last night, but Isbell soared over those notes, letting his voice grow hoarse when the song called for it and hypnotizing the crowd from the front row to the back of the balcony. After a particularly passionate rendition, a guy by the bar screamed "GOD DAMN!" at the top of his lungs, and the titters of laughter that rippled around him weren't of a teasing sort — if anything, they were in nervous agreement and too timid to voice their approval in the same way for fear of breaking the spell of Isbell. — Hilary Hughes
It’s past three o’clock in the morning at Palisades, a dank punk club underneath the J train in Bushwick. Someone has just handed feral rapper/poet Mykki Blanco — who is now down to his red Polo briefs — a rainbow flag. “I’m at the edge of the world/Who the fuck can touch me?” he roared earlier in the night on his menacing banger “Moshin’ in the Front.” The words resonated as Blanco waved the flag onstage fourteen hours into living in a country where same-sex marriage was declared legal from coast to coast. “It comes down to waking up knowing that you are not institutionally a second-class citizen,” said Blanco the following day....2015 has been a momentous year for the 29-year-old rapper. Five months ago, Blanco, née Michael David Quattlebaum, was signed to the Berlin-based record label !K7. The label gave Quattlebaum an untraditional record deal including funds to start his own !K7 imprint called Dogfood Music Group. Quattlebaum’s “mini-label” already has three emerging rappers signed on, two of whom (Psycho Egyptian and Violence) performed at Palisades with Quattlebaum for their first (and sold out) official showcase. “He’s redefining himself every day,” said !K7 founder and music industry veteran Horst Weidenmuller, who flew out to watch Quattlebaum perform. Weidenmuller pursued him after reading one of his interviews. “He doesn’t need anyone to tell him what to do. That’s exactly what I’m looking for — artists who find their own way.” — Sarah Grant
The pleasure and miracle of McCartney's Irving Plaza show wasn't just the fact of his presence, as you might expect. It was how, throughout the first hour or so, these songs seemed to stir such emotion in him. The simpler the lyrics, the better: "All My Loving," "Another Day," "It's So Easy to Fall in Love," and "I've Just Seen a Face" received crisp, airy treatments, his vocals buoyant, his whooing still delicious. (Throughout the night, the cheery polymath played guitar, piano, and a sporty Hofner bass.) By the time the Beatles got around to recording it, "The One After 909" seemed a nostalgic toss-off, a train song rocketing back from troubled 1969 to when the band, and the Sixties, had the whole world before it. (He wrote it, he has said, at seventeen.) But the joy and heat McCartney and company found in it last night felt not like old men looking back but like artists plunging into the very source of what they do. The guitars snarled and bit, more than you might expect, and the rhythm section edged encouragingly toward abandon. It felt, for a breath, like maybe something could go wrong, which is the most precious feeling a professional rock show can manage. As with "And I Love Her," the song feels unsettled, like there's still something to discover in it. Sadly, some of his most inspired compositions no longer have that sense of possibility. McCartney closed the set with dutiful airings of "Hey Jude" and "Let It Be," warhorses he feels obliged to trot out for the dudes who don't think they like "And I Love Her." On these, Paul the Pro takes over, Mr. Wings Over America, probably by necessity. Just like at Beatles shows you couldn't really hear him, but instead of the squalls of teen girls, it's everybody in the venue belting along, with many of the dudes making damn sure you know that they've memorized every ad-libbed Jude-y Jude-y WOW! OW!. Onstage, the performance becomes merely technical, with all the emotional dynamics of a fireworks display. This is ritual, our chance to join him in celebrating songs bigger than even he is, songs that he — like us — is singing along to, approximating the records that were a hit before your mother was born. — Alan Scherstuhl
...At the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Shamir played what he said was his “biggest show in North America to date,” and his excitement over that fact was both palpable and infectious. Still, Shamir has an extremely charming air of nonchalance, a matter-of-factness born out of unassailable confidence buoyed to extremes by the unmistakable admiration in the room. It wasn’t quite the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but the diverse audience made their enthusiastic support no secret, taking every opportunity to cheer, sing along, and of course boogie. Supported by live drums, a keyboardist, and a female backup vocalist whose voice occupied a register slightly below his own, Shamir started the set with relatively minimal album opener “Vegas.” The ode to his hometown made perfect sense as a launching point, its slow build reflective of the slightly sinister promises held in its lyrics. It’s also a great reference point for what’s influenced Shamir the most; like Sin City, the performer is imbued with a flashy allure that never falters but is hard to contain. He wasted no time in getting the party started, with the appropriately titled DFA-esque romp “In for the Kill” exploding into his standout single, “On the Regular.” The response was immediate: hands waving in the air, the audience spitting every sassy word of the self-hyping anthem that broke Shamir wide open. Waving a finger at the crowd while crooning his most genius line — “Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample” — Shamir never missed a beat, and neither did anyone watching; when he turned the mic on the Music Hall for its final “This is me on the regular, so you know,” everyone knew it indeed. — Lindsey Rhoades
...Despite his bold sense of style, Bridges is shy, soft-spoken, and completely devoid of any pretension or ego. This humility is probably his most arresting quality, if that isn’t an oxymoron. To Bridges, touring and playing music is a novel concept, and in the end he's just happy to be here, playing his music for people. At South by Southwest, he told me that touring “beats washing dishes,” and last night he echoed this sentiment, telling the crowd that being “out playing shows is better than sitting at home watching TV.” This isn’t to say Bridges lacks confidence. He certainly has plenty of it, but it’s still developing. He's still getting used to being fawned over, to playing in front of strangers who love him, to being a star. During his performance at the Bowery Ballroom, it felt like we were witnessing a pivotal moment in this star’s rise. His appearance on The Tonight Show and the subsequent release of his album represented a lifting of the veil, and now here he was, a fully formed touring musician, with an album out and everything. For the overwhelming majority of those in attendance, it was their first time seeing him perform, and, in a way, it was Bridges’s first time seeing such an audience, one that had been eagerly awaiting him, one that had already anointed him. He delivered everything we wanted, of course, because all we wanted was to see him and hear the songs we’d been swooning to for months. “We just got one goal tonight,” he said before playing his first song. “To make y’all happy.” For Leon Bridges, it will always be as simple as that. — Ryan Bort
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.