I’m back home right now in Baltimore, sleeping couch-to-couch and renewing my driver’s license and wondering why the fuck cabs won’t stop for me anymore (is it the beard?), and there’s just not that much to talk about. This is a slow period for music: no big new records, no important tours, no big new stories coming out unless you count the guy from Fall Out Boy saying he’ll tell jokes if he wins a Grammy (ha!). So: retrospective time. I’ve covered a whole mess of live shows since I started doing this blog in August, mostly because a live show is a great excuse to concentrate on and talk about one particular artist. But this list is by no means definitive; I went to maybe like five live shows over the first half of the year, when nobody was paying me to cover them or letting me in for free. And for every show I went to, there’s another that I wasn’t able to get to. But I saw some amazing things, and here are the best of them:
1. Ghostface at BB King Blues Club, 10/9/05. Great rap shows can be predetermined, like Jay-Z’s big peace summit. Jay did everything he could do to turn that show into an event: bringing out hordes of guests, letting his guests bring out guests, ordering a stage built to look like the Oval Office except for the huge jets of flame shooting up from the ground, trotting out Nas to show everyone how magnanimous Jay is. And it was great. But it wasn’t anywhere near as triumphant as this Ghostface show, an incredible show that didn’t have to be incredible. Anytime you’re dealing with non-star rappers in general and Wu-Tang guys in particular, it’s a crap-shoot. They could come out for 15 minutes, half-assedly run through a couple of hits, and then leave. Or they could do what Ghostface did that night: stay onstage until after the venue turned the lights up, smile and beam constantly, radiate charisma like Sinatra or some shit, justify every accolade he’s ever received. The show was pure chaos, what with the Cappadonna and GZA and Masta Killa cameos and the army of hypemen and the weirdly touching moment where Ghost brought his son out for a couple of minutes of crazy-violent gun-talk. But Ghost hovered above it all, swaying and singing along to old soul songs and telling the light guy to put the blue light on. He didn’t have to put on a great show, but he did anyway, and that’s worth at least a couple of meticulously planned-out event-moments.
2. Elephant Man at Hammerstein Ballroom, 9/2/05. This whole night was amazing: virtually every big star in dancehall and reggae in rapid succession, T.O.K. turning “Footprints” into a cathartic larger-than-life grief-anthem, Damien Marley fucking ripping through “Welcome to Jamrock.” But there’s a reason that Elephant Man ended up as the headliner despite being nowhere near the most famous guy on the bill. He came out in a cowboy costume (hat, vest, six-shooters), with one pigtail bright red and the other pigtail bright orange, and immediately he was jumping on top of huge speaker-stacks and charging across the stage and generally upstaging anyone else who’d stepped onstage that night. The best part was that he barely did any songs at all; the DJ would play a beat, and instead of rapping he’d just tell the crowd how to dance: signal di plane, thunderclap, a bunch of things I’d never seen before. And the crowd did it. The entire crowd. A sea of hands doing whatever ridiculous shit Elephant Man told them to. It was pretty incredible. Then he invited a couple of enormous women onstage and brought out Diddy to hump one of them before picking her up and running around the stage with her, almost dropping her a couple of times. Then he called on the crowd to send help to Katrina victims and recited the Our Father. Truly bewildering.
3. Black Mountain at Mercury Lounge, September 27. Showmanship is nice and all, but Brad Paisley and Coldplay and Nine Inch Nails aren’t making this list in part because I know the shows I saw them play, great as they were, were essentially no different from the shows they’d played the night before and the night after. This should be fairly obvious by now, but I prefer chaos, big moments that end up meaning more because they happened against odds in a profoundly non-controlled environment. Black Mountain’s album was a no-brainer for my top 10 of the year because its heavy psycedelic classic-rock drone came from a place of joy and devotion, a fervent desire to bring its cliches to another level of existence rather than to simply fulfill them. But their album is pretty heavy on the studio effects, so the live show could’ve fallen flat on its face, especially since the dudes in the band kept inviting random people onstage to play tambourines and wandering around stoned between songs and exhibiting only a faint glimmer of understanding that they were playing a show in front of a paying audience. But they turned the ecstatic choogle of their live show into something even bigger and more powerful, stretching out their already-long songs to the point where they gained a cosmic heft and filled the air completely. Just monstrous.
4. Evens at the G-Spot, 5/18/05. I’ll take Fugazi first, but Ian MacKaye’s criminally slept-on new band does the crushingly heartfelt political shout-along thing nearly as well, and it does it in tiny art galleries rather than huge rented halls and open fields. This show was at a Baltimore logging mill (or something) that had been converted into a gallery, in the middle of the woods, early on a Wednesday evening, with no opening act, and nothing about the show could’ve been any friendlier or more welcoming (MacKaye did stuff like inviting a father with a little kid on his shoulders to the front so the kid could see better). MacKaye’s wounded-bulldog snarl-moan would sound amazing even if he was doing, like, “Hollaback Girl” at a Denver karaoke bar, but the band’s greatest asset is Amy Farina’s crystal coo, just about the prettiest thing I’ve ever heard.
5. Lungfish at Southpaw, 9/10/05. OK, so this was my favorite Baltimore band playing down the street from my apartment on my birthday a month after I moved to New York. It was exactly what I needed, and there’s no way it wasn’t going on this list. Lungfish played the same show it always plays: huge crashing riffs repeated so many times that they take on a mesmeric tide-cycle expansiveness with Dan Higgs creeping adenoidal yowl over the top. It’s gorgeous and hypnotic, and I will always go see them whenever I have a chance.