Here are my favorite concerts from 2011:
1. Le Butcherettes at Lollapalooza, Aug. 5: Teri Gender Bender, aka Teresa Suarez, wears a red-stained butcher's smock and flings her high-heels into the crowd, the better to stomp, twirl, somersault and stage-dive, while working her three-piece garage-punk band to exhaustion. She assumes a new personality every few lines, her voice toggling between sweet and sinister, joyous and angry. The set's furious pace amid stifling humidity eventually overwhelms drummer Gabe Serbian, who takes a break from his duties mid-set to vomit several times, then returns to pound the kit with more ferocity than ever. An amused Suarez sings his praises: "I love him to death ... to death!"
2. Paul McCartney, July 31 at Wrigley Field: It’s a stifling summer night in the city, but the 69-year-old legend works up a James Brown-worthy sweat while throwing himself into 37 songs for nearly three hours with barely a pause. McCartney turns the soul ballad “Maybe I’m Amazed” into a towering moment, pushing his voice higher and harder. Great band, too. As drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. goes, so goes McCartney, and on this night the drummer is pumping out the rhythm oil. Whether poking fun at the excessive pyro during “Live and Let Die” or reminiscing about his old pals Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison, the ex-Beatle comes across as an affable genius who loves his work.
3. Raphael Saadiq, June 3 at Park West: There is smooth and then there’s Raphael Saadiq, a man who looks like he gets out of bed with the crease in his slacks razor-sharp. Like Stevie Wonder, he exudes an almost child-like enthusiasm for music, delighting in every slip of the hip, every falsetto note done just right. He surveys his career, from Tony! Toni! Tone! bedroom ballads to much more adventurous new tracks such as “Over You,” providing evidence that each year since his career began in the ‘80s he’s been getting better.
4. Tune-Yards, July 15 at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park: Can a ukulele rock? When Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus is playing one it can. With a bassist and horn section fleshing out her tunes, Garbus thrashes her uke, pounds on a drum, and sings as though she’s trying to split the clouds. She shifts between soulful trills and warrior cries in the span of a few notes while dancing up a storm to Afro-pop rhythms.
5. Kanye West and Jay-Z, Nov. 30 at the United Center: The “Watch the Throne” album suffered from too much self-satisfied materialism and not enough soul, but the hip-hop kingpins make amends with a show stuffed with high points. Though they clearly respect each other’s accomplishments, the dynamic is telling: Jay-Z as the self-confident older brother, West as the eager-to-please protégé. The contrast in their styles, and the rapid-fire exchange of hits surveying both their careers, keeps the energy high for more than two hours (which almost justifies the curious decision to close the show by performing one of their tritest songs, “N--- in Paris,” eight straight times).
6. Portishead, Oct. 12 at the Aragon: The British trio’s first Chicago show since the ‘90s does not disappoint. In contrast to the more subtle, creepy dynamics of the band’s early incarnation, this show amps up the toughness and turmoil that always undergirded its music. Beth Gibbons no longer sounds like she’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her voice piercing through a wall of drums and feedback on “Threads” and “We Carry On,” while Geoff Barrow makes like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, orchestrating everything from amid a nest of instruments in the back. Best of all is a relatively sparse creep-through-the-graveyard on “Wandering Star,” with Adrian Utley’s guitar shivering in the darkness.
7. OFF!, July 16 at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park: Most of the bands at Pitchfork’s annual gathering of the indie tribes are on the more genteel side of the spectrum, which makes OFF’s set all the more necessary and potent. Singer Keith Morris gives a preview: “We are going to bring a different flavor to the party today,” and the quartet of veterans from the Circle Jerks, Red Kross, Burning Brides and Rocket from the Crypt rips though its set in less than 25 minutes, allotting approximately a minute per song. Even one of the beefy security guards patrolling the stage pit headbangs while flashing the devil’s horns.
8. Paul Simon, May 16 at the Vic Theatre: What is it with these 69-year-old pros this year? Shouldn’t they be off relaxing on some island in the Bahamas by now? Instead, McCartney rocks Wrigley, while Simon leads an eight-piece multi-culti band through a two hour history of rhythm, from Capetown to New Orleans. Simon rarely plays venues this cozy, and his set list goes beyond the usual classics to deliver songs with a casual, jamming-in-the-living-room flair. He even delivers a face-melting air-washboard solo.
9. Wild Flag, March 18 at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas: The Portland quartet’s excellent self-titled debut album (No. 1 on my year-end list) is still unrecorded when the band unveils its new songs at the annual music conference in Texas. Carrie Brownstein and Mary Timony lock guitars like swords and then tumble on the stage, Janet Weiss fires off furious drum volleys, Rebecca Cole pogos in place while playing keyboards. There’s a giddy energy in the room, a heady reminder of what a gift great rock ‘n’ roll can be.
10. Adele, May 24 at the Riviera: The singer was in much demand through the year as her album “21” took up permanent residence in the upper reaches of the Billboard album chart, but she had to cancel a bunch of tour dates because of throat ailments. Fortunately, she was in fine health for this relatively intimate concert in which she split the difference between despairing break-up songs and earthy, self-deprecating, gal-next-door stage banter. She reaffirms that her voice is no studio creation, but a powerfully haunting instrument. She also giftwraps a 70th birthday salute to Bob Dylan with “Make You Feel My Love.”
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