By any real definition, the summer concert season comes to a close this weekend. I spent a lot of this summer running around and seeing bands; below are the highlights.
The summer kicked off with a spectacle thanks in part to the opening of the splashy Revel Atlantic City, an attempt to bring Vegas-style luxe to South Jersey’s famed boardwalk. Who better to ring in the complex’s concert hall than Beyoncé, who was making a much-ballyhooed comeback to live performance after taking time off to have a baby? Her set, which spanned her hit-filled catalog, had nods to Atlantic City’s showgirl culture, a torrid take on the nu-disco lament “Why Don’t You Love Me?,” a venue-wide sing-along to the escalating key changes of “Love on Top,” and a rework of the frothy “Countdown” that took apart that song’s building blocks (the singer’s moans, the numeric Boyz II Men sample) and rebuilt them into something even more thrilling.
The inaugural outing of Metallica’s two-day attempt to have a Lollapalooza of their own, held at Bader Field down in Atlantic City, was a success across the board—good crowds, neat sideshows that allowed the band’s four members to show off their extra-musical influences (cars, film, skating), and headlining sets that focused on the band’s two most towering albums. (Gorgeous weather helped, too.) It also had an adventurous booking policy. Metal acts dominated the bill; a mid-afternoon set by the Swedish heavy-doom act Ghost was a particular delight. But each member of the band also invited artists that they just liked, regardless of genre; among the outliers were the British act Arctic Monkeys, whose set was both crisp and gloomy, and country bro Eric Church, who primed the pump for Metallica with some arena-rock swagger. My favorite moment came when Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich raved about how the blistering San Diego band Hot Snakes had been “the soundtrack to the last year of [his] life.” As he gushed about their music, the members looked down at the floor with sheepishly delighted grins—and then once he was done, they tore into a set of rock monsters.
The Los Angeles r&b singer Miguel has been on my radar since the late-2010 release of his album All I Want Is You, which is full of gooey jams like the title track and the devoted-yet-sexy “Sure Thing.” In early 2011, he transformed Britney Spears’s “Hold It Against Me” into a sinuous funk tune that owed a lot to Prince, and that rework served as a precursor to the artistic leaps he has taken since then. His luxurious come-on “Adorn” is one of the best singles of 2012 so far, and his experimenting with form has coincided with him pushing sonic boundaries while still remembering that elements of musicality—hooks, song structure—are crucial to listeners’ aesthetic enjoyment. During a headlining set at Joe’s Pub, he commanded the small room, covering the Zombies and making the assembled collectively blush as he unfurled an anthem about wanting to possess his lover physically as well as sexually; earlier this month, he performed three songs at the Astoria beer garden Studio Square as part of a Hot 97 late-summer mini-fest, and even though he played to backing tracks, his magnetism was most assuredly intact, causing even the stoic types hanging out in VIP to sway along.
“It doesn’t matter that [Brandon Flowers of the Killers] isn’t Bruce Springsteen; it matters that he thinks he is,” a friend of mine said during the pomp-filled Las Vegas act’s July Webster Hall gig, during which they previewed a couple of songs from their forthcoming album Battle Born. And it’s true; Flowers, even though he has a voice that wiggles around notes more than it lands on them and a sense of lyrical metaphor that seems more phonetically derived than anything (“I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” is really fun to sing along with, though), plays the rock-star role well. He storms around the stage and leads the crowd into the promised land of sing-alongs and thrusting fists. Even those people who thought his band was kind of overblown at first (cough) will be screaming lyrics at the top of their lungs by the night’s end.
Before I saw this New York act in the sweaty downstairs of Milk Studios, I was only familiar with one of their songs—the beguiling “Hurricane,” a sullen, swirling track about pulling the trigger on a relationship too soon. Although “familiar” might be too tame of a word, given that I’d listened to it multiple times a day since it first popped onto my radar. “Hurricane” works so well because it combines the fuzzed-out guitars that defined the reverbed-out, alt-rock subgenre shoegaze with vocals that are surprisingly up front and clear in the mix—making the end result a 100-proof shot of Real Talk wrapped in a pop song. During their show, the band’s lead singer commanded the cramped room, shooting piercing glances at the crowd and not at her feet. The end result was intoxicating, and not only because the room was hot enough that the assembled were perspiring the free beer.
My New York–area concert summer ended, as it did last year, with a commanding female singer taking over the stage at Jones Beach. In 2010, it was Stevie Nicks; this year, it was the inaugural American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, who despite complaints of a hangover powered through the resilience anthem “Stronger,” and the still-fresh-despite-karaoke-flogging “Since U Been Gone.” She has been covering one different song a night for a while—when I saw her in January at Radio City Music Hall, she took on Florence + the Machine—and while her particular selection at Jones Beach was a slight disappointment (Gotye’s overplayed breakup rumination “Somebody That I Used To Know”; no Billy Joel in honor of the Long Island setting, Kelly?), her charisma and chops and aw-shucks-homebody niceness made my companion enthuse to me at the end of the show, “She is just the best person ever.” An added bonus of seeing shows while breathing in Jones Beach’s sea air: The bucolic setting even made the buzz saw whine of co-headliners the Fray somewhat palatable, even when they ill-advisedly dipped their toes into the Motown-cover pool.