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BEST OF 2014: The Top 10 concerts of the year

In a year of new music clubs opening on all sides of the city and major festivals popping up all summer, here are 10 concerts that stood out.

Stevie Wonder, Nov. 14 at the United Center

A musical feast that spanned nearly three hours and utilized more than 30 musicians, Wonder showed multiple sides to who he is as a performer, musician, comic, social justice advocate, and, yes, down-to-earth funny guy. By seamlessly moving among different musical styles, instruments and attitudes, he performed his 1976 masterpiece “Songs in the Key of Life” and a show-ending medley of hits.

Ahmad Jamal, Oct. 10 at Symphony Center

Here was an evening with a true master: The 84-year-old jazz pianist beguiled the audience with playful renditions of chestnuts and new songs in a trio setting. Elegant, with open spaces to let the music breathe, his phrasing was masterfully dynamic, emphasizing textures and rhythmic shifts rather than blitzkrieg tempos and improvisational peaks and valleys.

<em>Jack White performed to a sold-out crowd at the Chicago Theater in July.</em> | Rick Lobes/For Sun-Times Media
Jack White performed to a sold-out crowd at the Chicago Theater in July. | Rick Lobes/For Sun-Times Media

Jack White, July 23 at the Chicago Theatre

The music impresario blurred various styles, dynamics and personal history like someone who didn’t see borders between any of them. Many songs from his past bands were reworked to gain new momentum with his five-member band; other songs only survived the present as frames he burned down to ash to create something new. White managed to create a show that fed on improvisational energy, and the risks that can result.

St. Vincent, July 19 at the Pitchfork Music Festival

Annie Clark’s hourlong set showcased why she is a modern guitar god: On a festival bill of middling indie wannabes, her loud, proud quasi-metal riffing that was the boldest anywhere, all day. Near the end she hopped onto the shoulders of a security guard who leaned her body over the edge of the photo pit so concertgoers could claw at her while she continued running her fingers through her guitar, all the while remaining fully in control.

<em>St. Vincent performs at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July.</em> | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media
St. Vincent performs at the Pitchfork Music Festival in July. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

Funeral Bonsai Wedding, Sept. 12 at Constellation

A new band by Chicago’s Steve Dawson, featuring vibist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Frank Rosaly, combined free jazz and singer-songwriter fare into a mesmerizing end result that showed how wonderful things happen when masterful singers listen to one another with open ears.

Sturgill Simpson, Dec. 6 at Thalia Hall

This crossover artist is the biggest name in country music this year and his recent show here shows us why: A rock-solid band and vocals that reference outlaw male singers Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. Rather than looking back, he did a refresh on country conventions and made it sound relevant for a new audience.

The National, April 15 at the Chicago Theatre

There were screaming punk moments, stomping guitar anthems, and, yes, singer Matt Berninger worked his way through audience seats, but what stood out most was the band’s sense of control and orchestration. Every flourish and crescendo appeared tightly wound and released at the right time. Other bands might feel overwhelmed by the momentum of their music, but this one uses precision as an instrument unto itself.

John Prine, March 14 at Symphony Center

His two-hour show was a homecoming, as they all are when the Maywood native returns to town. There have not been new songs for quite some time, but this tour did not need the special occasion. Instead, Prine showcased a repertoire of songs that is in it own class: bare but eloquent, comic but dark.

Lorde, March 18 at the Aragon

The New Zealand newcomer had only one album to draw from but she made the most of it: She designed the show to put her in close connection to a keyboardist and drummer, who utilized both electronic pads and a live drum kit. The trip-hop electronics, swooshing synthesizers and recorded backup vocals still left a big space for her voice. The music expressed a slice of teenage life we don’t often come across on the big stage: toughness expressed with humility, and a kind of glamor that managed to remain demure.

Billy Corgan, Aug. 30 at Ravinia

Maybe it was the show-ending visual of 30 wrestlers in spandex and leotards standing on the Highland Park festival stage, but this nearly three-hour show was one never to forget. While there were a few familiar songs, the set mainly operated as a way for the solo Smashing Pumpkin to filter his music in a way that mega-stardom did not allow in the past: solo piano and guitar, acoustic guitar duets, and a small band ensemble performing rarities, unreleased material, plus a cover or two. They served to show he is a star who has far more to offer than for what he is best known.

Mark Guarino is a local freelance writer.