Those who persist in denigrating rock ‘n’ roll as “mere entertainment” scoff at the very notion, but my driving force as a critic always has been the conviction that the next show I see will be the one that will change my life.
I’ve had the privilege of enjoying countless nights like that during 15 years as pop music critic for the Sun-Times. Now that has come to an end: I am moving on to become a full-time faculty member in the English Department at Columbia College, though I will continue co-hosting “Sound Opinions” for Chicago Public Radio, as well as writing about music in the new venue of blogs.Vocalo.org starting June 1.
The purpose of my Friday column is right there in the name–“Live,” a celebration of great live music via previews and profiles of noteworthy artists hailing from or coming to Chicago. By my calculations, I’ve written more than 700 entries through the years (in addition to album and concert reviews and news stories). To say farewell, I thought it fitting to choose the 15 best concerts I’ve covered for the paper. Listed chronologically, I chose them without consulting my notes or archives until after the fact: These are the shows that instantly spring to mind whenever I’m asked, “What are the best concerts you’ve ever seen?”
I hope you were there to experience some of this music with me. I thank you for reading me, and I hope to see you at the next concert that will blow our minds.
1. Nirvana at the Aragon Ballroom, 10/23/93
At the first of what turned out to be Kurt Cobain’s last shows in Chicago, a night that included transcendent versions of “Jesus Don’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” the song we’d come to know a decade later as “You Know You’re Right” and pretty much every other tune you’d want to hear the most important band of its generation perform ended with him climbing to the top of a towering prop tree, teetering 15 feet above the stage, then diving to the floor. It was electrifying and unforgettable.
2. The Jesus Lizard at the Vic Theatre, 11/13/93
One of the best live bands this city ever has produced, this was the night Jesus Lizard fans remember best. Singer David Yow spent half the set throwing himself at the crowd and riding atop their up-stretched arms, and the music never hit harder.
3. The Flaming Lips at Metro, 2/18/94
In the months after the release of “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart” in June 1993, one of the best albums in the Flaming Lips’ career was withering and dying on the vine–until Chicago took it to heart, spiking sales, turning “She Don’t Use Jelly” into a major hit and saving the band’s career. Oklahoma’s psychedelic-pop madmen performed this free show to say thank you. The old two-guitar, bass and drums lineup never sounded better–and it still puts the balloons- and plushies-adorned spectacles of recent years to shame.
4. Hole at the U.I.C. Pavilion, 9/3/94
Still mourning the death of her husband Cobain several months earlier, Courtney Love returned to the stage with a vengeance, opening for Nine Inch Nails and coming on like a flamethrower in a tissue factory. Yes, kids: She really was justifiably famous once as something more than a celebrity train wreck.
5. Barry White at the Chicago Theatre, 7/22/95
The idea of a guilty pleasure is a Catholic concept I left behind with my altar boy’s frock. I will not apologize for loving R&B’s immortal Round Mound of Sound, who not only played all of his enduring make-out hits with his 30-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra on this memorable night, but did it while flanked by two lingerie-clad dancers gyrating in massive champagne glasses.
6. Bob Dylan at Metro, 12/13/97
At the height of his powers during what may prove to have been his last career resurgence, tearing through his set with a ferocious guitar-driven band, Robert Zimmerman scoffed at the notion of nostalgia and played this sublimely intimate venue with an intensity seldom heard in artists one-fourth his age.
7. PJ Harvey at the Vic Theatre, 10/28/98
“Simply put, if there is a more intense female performer in rock today, I have yet to encounter her,” I wrote in my review. And I’m still hard pressed to name anyone better.
8. Kraftwerk at the Riviera Theatre, 6/10/98
The legendary “Beach Boys of Dusseldorf” and progenitors of modern electronic dance music hadn’t performed in the U.S. for decades when they made this rare appearance outside the walls of Kling Klang Studio, which they actually packed up, brought with them and reconstructed onstage for a crowd so thrilled that it didn’t even care that it was missing one of the Bulls’ key championship games.
9. D’Angelo at the Arie Crown Theatre, 3/31/00
Virginia-born Michael D’Angelo Archer remains the most inventive, original and moving voice in R&B since the great Marvin Gaye. When he toured in support of his masterful “Voodoo,” he started out by merging Gaye, James Brown and Iggy Pop–and then he kicked things up a notch.
10. Screeching Weasel at the House of Blues, 10/28/00
A contender for the most irresistible pop-punk band after the Ramones, I never saw Screeching Weasel during its early heyday in the Chicago suburbs. But I still smile like an idiot recalling the electric thrill of this reunion show, one of the last featuring the original tag team of Ben “Weasel” Foster and John “Jughead” Pierson.
11. Wilco at the Petrillo Bandshell, 7/4/01
I’ve seen a lot of great Wilco shows–and some mediocre ones, too–but this one stands as a triumphant celebration during the tense days when the band was uncertain whether the best album of its career, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” ever would see the light of day, thanks to the idiocy of the major-label system. Then, too, there was the fact that after Sept. 11, these songs would forever sound entirely different.
12. The Rolling Stones at the Aragon Ballroom, 9/16/02
Better even than the more intimate small-club show at Double Door, this was the night the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band proved it could still deliver when it cares to, digging deep into its legendary canon to unearth R&B, reggae, disco and country-blues rarities it had hardly ever played live, all on top of a hefty sampling of “Exile on Main St.”
13. Kanye West at the House of Blues, 2/11/04
A day after the release of his debut album, the soon-to-be-superstar proved to be as exciting onstage as he was in the studio, rolling through all of “The College Dropout” with backing from a then up-and-coming keyboardist named John Legend, hip-hop violinist Miri Ben Ari and his mentor and fellow South Sider, Common.
14. Neil Young at the Chicago Theatre, 11/12/07
Young has given me so many incredible nights, it’s hard to choose just one. But on the evening of his 62nd birthday, he followed the model of his classic 1979 concert film “Rust Never Sleeps” by performing one set in solo acoustic mode and another with the full-on electric fury of a great band featuring some of his best-ever sidemen. There was something for everyone, and all of it was great.
15. Ida Maria at Lollapalooza, 8/8/09
The best live music experiences rarely happen in venues much larger than the Aragon or the Chicago Theatre; at the festival I’ve called “Walmart on the Lake,” the sound and sight lines always are compromised, and the vibe is more akin to the beer-soaked bleachers at Wrigley. But there can be exceptions, and the most memorable I’ve had at Lolla Mach II came from this Norwegian powerhouse, who braved the midday sun and threw herself into indelible anthems such as “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked” while out-Iggy-ing the great Iggy Pop himself.