This past year in concerts was like the novel you pick up with few expectations that, in its own understated manner, quietly knocks your socks off by the time you turn that last page. None of this year's shows matched the bombast and spectacle of last year's Arcade Fire show at Merriweather Post, or the surreal Broadway musicality of Sufjan Stevens at The National in Richmond which, unless knocked from its perch, ranks as the greatest concert I've ever seen.
Without further ado, here are the five best shows I saw in 2011:
5) Sharon Van Etten at the Red Palace - One of my late discoveries of a marvelous album from 2010 resulted in one of my favorite shows in 2011. I'm loathe to put together yearly "Best of" album lists, as I don't do this professionally and I'm admittedly slow on the uptake with some (many?) artists. Van Etten sounds a bit like an East Coast analog to Laura Graham, quiet and unfailingly polite. Where she differs from Graham in in her songs' deeply personal lyrics, brimming with heartache. Even as she sings of being a "Consolation Prize", you can't help but sense how much she loves performing.
4) Civil Wars at the Lincoln Theater - From an episode of Grey's Anatomy to Paste Magazine's "Best of What's Next" to the feel good story of 2011, a pair of major label burnouts who gave away their first (live) album on their web site and self-released their debut studio record. Can you name another artist who was featured on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic and garnered video airplay on CMT? The secret behind their three-year "overnight" success story is their marvelous chemistry onstage and in song, interplay that often confuses people into thinking they're a couple offstage. Although pretty firmly entrenched in the Americana camp, Joy Williams and John Paul White displayed the breadth of their musical influences in sprinkling in covers by Michael Jackson, Smashing Pumpkins, and Leonard Cohen into their 17-song set.
3) Bon Iver at the 9:30 Club - Anyone who expected the For Emma, Forever Ago Justin Vernon, shivering and weeping into his drink in the woods of middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin were bound to be disappointed. Gone was the Emperor of the Sad Bastards, replaced by a big band leader who aspired to be a blue eyed soul crooner. At turns sonorous and playful, Vernon mixed covers of The Outfield's "Your Love" and Björk's "Who Is It" into a 16-song set largely drawn from his most recent album. And while I still think the song "Beth/Rest" sounds like a reject from the closing credits of an unreleased 80's Stallone thumb wrestling drama, this concert featured the best sound I've ever heard in the 9:30 Club. The luxury of a 7 or 8-piece band and what seemed to be an onstage audio engineer produced a sound that was sprawling and immersive.
2) Beirut at the Black Cat - The musical successor to the Elephant Six collective's quirky take on world music, Santa Fe's wunderkind Zach Condon wowed a capacity crowd at the Black Cat with sing- and clap-along favorites.
1) Jeff Mangum at Red Emma's/2640 Space - The progenitor of Elephant Six and reclusive founder of Neutral Milk Hotel emerged with much fanfare from his years of self-imposed exile to play a show that was as much museum piece as triumphant return. The location, a converted church in a section of Baltimore that could charitably be called "colorful", not to mention an absolute prohibition on photography or any kind of audio or video recording, added to the oddness of the event. Names were required when purchasing tickets, to prevent the scalping that had taken place with prior shows, and were assiduously checked at the door. Fans stood in virtually hushed reverence as Mangum opened his set with favorites "Oh Comely" and "Two-Headed Boy, Part Two", until the singer goosed the audience into singing along with him. The mercurial Mangum of the past seemed to have faded with the years, leaving a singer who seemed to finally be at peace with his standing in the indie rock pantheon. Mangum was gracious, almost playful, his wit so dry and understated that it occasionally took the audience by surprise. Song by song, the years faded away, so the now 41-year-old singer looked and sounded as he did when In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released in 1996.
Some Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:
Kathryn Calder at the Red Palace - The New Pornographers' youngest member not only emerges from the shadow of her famous uncle and the band's better known female vocalist with her solo show, but also puts together one of the more memorable bills of the year with Bird of Youth and Chris Bathgate opening for her.
Destroyer at the Black Cat - Another member of the Canadian supergroup shows that yacht rock is not only alive but has returned from the bathroom still itching for a bump.
Dntel at the Red Palace - The half of the Postal Service not divorcing Zooey Deschanel demonstrated what has been keeping him busy since we took the duo's album title to heart and gave up hope of a follow-up. Another top-to-bottom knockout bill, with The One AM Radio and Will Wiesenfeld's side project Geotic supporting him.
Wild Flag at the Black Cat - It's not Sleater-Kinney, but it might be every bit as good, if not better. The most kick-ass, all-female band I'd rather not meet in a dark alley. And it in no way involves Fred Armisen, for which the world is grateful.
Explosions in the Sky at Rams Head Live! - The long-form, instrumental, multi-guitar compositions of these Texas post-rockers mark the intersection of hard rock and classical. Alternately thunderous and exquisite, they'll make you rethink your definition of Rush as "prog".
Vieux Farka Touré - Mali's answer to Eric Clapton, and the son of the late, great fingerstyle guitarist Ali Farka Touré, has come into his own in the last two years on the strength of his virtuosity and his electric live shows.
There you have it -- a walk through the live musical highlights of my year.