As every year, there’s an influx of tours, festivals, and one-off reunion shows that come along with the fear of missing out. Some offer more than others, some are disappointments. And then there are some that change your life in ways you never could’ve imagined. And in a year full of protest attitudes and resistance, 2017 provided a fertile breeding ground ripe for new, original live shows. Here are the best that came from the most volatile year in recent memory.
10. Arcade Fire
For years I had been listening to Arcade Fire, and for years I’ve been hearing about their live show and how much of a spectacle it was, from synchronized light-up beach balls to the march through the crowd during the encore. Which is surprising that it took me this long to finally see them, and during the tour for one of their weaker albums no less.
Well, weak album or not, they still cemented themselves as one of the best live bands this year, or ever. Centered in the middle of a boxing arena in an actual boxing ring, Arcade fire made their way through the crowd at the start of the show to the stage. What followed was a 360° experience, a freedom to move about the venue a la Kanye West Life of Pablo-style, offering something new at each angle.
With an evolving stage, psychedelic visuals, dance pits, and a party-like environment, they blazed through a two and a half hour setlist that was hit after hit after hit, even taking time to take part in the dancing throughout the GA area. There were disco balls coming down from the ceiling, confetti, every visual stimulator you could think of, with every member of the band playing against the ropes of the ring, projecting outward to the audience. They’re one of these bands that bring something special to each show, taking each one just as seriously as the next.
A gentle breeze in the night, a routine dance narrative, and a steadi-cam following her every move… Lorde’s set at Coachella this year was a charming and entertaining experience. After being absent for almost four years, she mad a triumphant return with a show that teased and mashed up old and new songs, which brought up the question on everybody’s minds: How is this girl only 21 years old? And how is she so good at being 21? It was as if she had lived through this life before, coming back to the past to teach us how to live our lives to their fullest, or at least in a better way. Here’s to hoping she’s a voice that doesn’t wear herself out, a special one that resurfaces every once in a while when we need her.
8. Bon Iver
Much like Björk, Justin Vernon is an artist in every sense of the word. No performance is ever the same, of any song, always presented in different arrangements. It gives off a certain spontaneity, a fresh take on the songs’ forms.
But what makes him great are the musicians he surrounds himself with. Throughout Bon Iver’s revolving door lineup (save for about three original core members), each musician has provided different tones and textures. But at Coachella earlier this year, his performance was the best of the night, bringing guests from Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath to Bruce Hornsby, while going through the band’s 10 year discography. Beginning with his latest material 22, A Million to the show’s apex, a new rendition of “Flume,” and finishing with his collaboration with Francis and the Lights, it was a 60+ minute set full of surprises and guests. And by the end of the show, bookended by blank white screens with a distorted Justin Vernon voiceover, he summed up the entire night: “Hold onto your friends. Hold them close. Cause if you don’t have friendships, you ain’t got shit,” before breaking into his dance routine with Francis.
It was a short and quick reality check, one that was completely self-aware and didn’t over stay its welcome, a fresh wake up call to go home and get to work, because we have a lot of things to fight for.
7. The xx
Communication. Communication, communication, communication. That’s what was at the heart of the xx’s live show this year. In Daft Punk style, they created medlys and mash-ups of their own material, sampling them one-by-one to make the transitions absolutely seamless. It was an impressive feat to watch, but even more fun to dance to. With the whole show anchored by Jamie xx’s beats, the band ran through a career-spanning set, as one song bled into the next.
But what kept it exciting was the non-verbal communication with each other, speaking without so much as a glance. You can just see the band’s history in the way they look at one another. And that’s what makes these kinds of bands exciting to watch – the ones that talk to each other on stage. Not out loud, but to be able to read what each instrument is going to do two bars ahead of the count. They’re each captains in their own right, ones that can make a show sound different from night to night.
6. TIE: Björk and Arca
The first time I saw Björk was earlier this year, when she did a performance with the LA Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, displaying a stripped down performance art piece as the last stop on her Vulnicura tour, playing orchestral arrangements of both new and old material. But what made it so special was her inflections throughout the show, with every body movement feeling like a progression forward in a narrative she was telling – her dance along with a crescendo, the sound of her stiletto heels being the only thing you heard as she walked across the stage. It was a show with no technology, but all Björk.
Playing almost all of Vulnicura and older hits like “Anchor Song” and “Aurora,” it was as if I was hearing the songs for the first time, seeming to be unrecognizable to me. But it was her impulses that made the show fascinating, when she decided to stand to the side of the stage for “Black Lake” to let the orchestra swell up and down, giving off this ebb and flow feel that never broke its surface tension.
If you haven’t heard of Arca’s name yet, you’ve probably heard his work. In the past couple years, he’s produced albums and tracks with Kanye (Yeezus), Frank Ocean (Endless), Kelela (Take Me Apart), FKA Twigs, and of course Björk on Vulnicura and her most recent work Utopia. His touch of experimental techno and operatic soul provides a true mesh of genres unlike anything that’s been heard before. But it’s his live show that truly provides him an outlet to express himself.
Renting out a cavernous warehouse somewhere in East L.A., I entered through a chamber where I was sprayed down with chemicals, in which I then entered a dark performance space with props and mini-stages in each corner of the room. What followed was an intimate expression of Arca’s subconscious, moving about the room both on elevated pillars and on the floor tossing flowers into the audience. But what was truly fascinating was the geometry of the performance space – when Arca would move to a new part of the room, the audience migrated with him. When Arca stepped into the crowd, they would open up to allow him to navigate on stilts or jump out of a coffin with a joint. It was more performance art than a concert in the traditional sense, but one that always kept your attention.
However, when these two forces perform together, they put on a magical show full of fireworks and chemistry, as if Björk was an avatar extension of Arca, or Arca complimenting Björk’s narrative dance performance. It’s a show of friction and movement, drama at its highest order.
5. Fleet Foxes
A humid summer night, a hike through the woods, an intimate outdoor venue nestled into the forest – the Fleet Foxes’ performance at Merriweather Post Pavilion in July this year contained a magical moisture in the air. And with hometown heroes Animal Collective opening for them, it was a moment to witness.
The entire show, and even the journey there, felt like a dream – a blurred out fantasy as if no one was supposed to see. It was almost like coming across Rumpelstiltskin dancing around a fire pit, something forbidden that was supposed to be kept hidden, as I came across other wanderers that were just as curious.
And as the sun set, the evening beasts and bugs arose from outside the fire pit, as the creatures took to the stage, blending in the nature’s outside sounds and grasshopper chirps with the acoustics that came from banging on their instruments. From blowing through the first three songs off their new record, to their closing encore, the outside world seeped into the show, providing melodic accompaniment and a sense of comfort, as if Robin Pecknold was playing all these songs to himself on his front porch swing, or nonetheless, to a community of outsiders watching in on him at his most honest moment.
And with sticks and rocks and fresh cut wood, the band danced and sang hymnal-like yodels through the night, making music with whatever they had available to them, sometimes changing instruments, almost spontaneously, communicating with each other through nothing but a glance.
And just like that, they were gone – something only to be appreciated on first glance, nothing to be taken seriously at all or overanalyzed. Many others and I stumbled across this rare site, a space where time stood still, where we didn’t have to age or mature and just appreciate life as we know it.
It was during the show where I actually thought about the purpose of the band’s name: foxes are independent creatures, hunter-gatherers, belonging to no one else but themselves, having only one task – to survive to the next day. Put that into the perspective of Robin Pecknold, to be able to survive into the next day, to keep reminding himself why he does this, why he pursues a life like this, why he wakes up every morning to try and rediscover why he chose this path to battle inner-struggles.
And as I made my way back out into the forest, I too pondered what my purpose was to wake up every morning, a reminder that was introduced by creatures that I swore I sang and danced with that night.
4. LCD Soundsystem
Upon their reunion announcement, everyone met it with skepticism, easily calling “Bull Shit” after a five year hiatus. Having only gotten into them a year before, I wasn’t really quick to dismiss it, only eager to experience it.
And having caught them three times last year, their five night residency at the Hollywood Palladium is the best they’ve ever sounded, using every light fixture and visible and audible effects in the venue to their advantage. And of course, James Murphy being James Murphy, every snare hit, every synth buzz, every bar chord was mixed and blended perfectly with the size and sound of the Palladium.
And when the opening beat of “Get Innocuous” came in, a wall of metal synth noise hit me like a freight train, as the most electric entrance you’d ever seen a band take came onto the stage in the most exciting way possible, all in sync with each other, all in communication: one of the most engaging sights a concert-goer could ever hope for.
But what sets LCD shows apart form the rest is that the venue turns into an actual dance party, which is how LCD has always wanted their shows – no focus on the spectacle of the band, but focus on one another, who you’re next to, who you’re dancing with. It’s a connection with the people around you, an invitation to move about the room and dance with someone you’ve never met. It was the biggest dance concert you’d ever been to, and not once did it ever feel like a concert.
3. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
I had actually gotten to the show late that night, the usher refusing to let us in before the first three songs were over, as per Nick Cave’s request. However, after only the first song, she gave in. And thank God she did.
What I entered upon was a sight to witness: people crowding at the foot of the stage, bowing down to a man that looked as if he was giving a sermon. It was as if I walked in on Daft Punk performing, or a Kanye show – people trying to get as close to their God as possible, yet not close enough.
And yet, he embraced it, looking and singing into people’s eyes as if they’d been waiting their entire lives for that moment. In natural Nick Cave fashion, he brought the show to the very back of the room, climbing across rows and aisles straight up into your face, even asking my girlfriend to hold his mic, and at one point inviting the audience onto the stage during “Stagger Lee.”
It reminded me of how James Brown would perform, as the Bad Seeds played through the form, knowing when to transition whenever Nick Cave gave a howl or a scream. It was the last legendary rock star at his best, with communication being at the center of the tight Bad Seeds.
2. Nine Inch Nails
With a comeback show in downtown LA 4 years since their last record, Nine Inch Nails returned with a show surprisingly low on visual effects, presenting a more subdued, stripped down show that more than made up for in soundscapes. After hearing about how Trent Reznor puts on one of the best live shows of all time, there was no disappointment. From Atticus Ross’s programming to Alessandro Cortini’s use of a four-track Tascam recorder, the band produced sounds no one could ever think of being recreated on stage.
But above all, it was a show about perspective. No projected visual effects were used during the show, only practical effects. The lighting was bent and shaped in a way to create a natural, yet artificial depth of field that made the members appear farther apart then they actually were. It felt like a David Lynch film – all smoke and mirrors. Before they went on, they draped their instruments in videotape. But when you saw the lights go into effect, you saw its purpose. If you stood at one position during the show, it would have been entirely different than if you stood at any other point-of-view.
It was a dramatic show for a dramatic comeback, one that was needed in 2017, with Trent Reznor screaming across the stadium parking lot: “Now, you know/This is what it feels like.”
1. Frank Ocean
It’s hard to believe Blonde only came out a year and a half ago. And at the time, I’m sure none of us thought it would be the album of the year, nonetheless be dubbed one of the best of all time. That’s why when he was named headliner of FYF 2017 this year, after canceling last minute two years ago, everyone knew it would be a can’t-miss comeback event, but still, no one was sure of how or what exact form he would even appear in. Or if at all.
What followed was a Stop Making Sense-like performance, a concert film that felt pre-cut and edited with a position for the camera at each point of every song. With Spike Jonze and cinematographer Sam Levy on camerawork, and guitar prodigy Alex G and members of Real Estate as his backing band (and a cameo from Brad Pitt), it was an incredible symphony of elements working together.
But what made it so magical was how he pulled it all off. How do you play and satisfy a crowd filling a stadium parking lot a nearly percussion-less album that’s all about nostalgia and missed chances and opportunities? You make it about the moment, an experience that could only exist at that point in time. Much like after listening to the album, you felt and learned something intangible, as if we were hearing all the songs for the very first time. It was a performance that felt so off-the-cuff, as if he was playing to an intimate theater of 500 people – how he would spontaneously interject with a casual comment, as when someone commented on his blue diamond studded converse, or how he messed up “Good Guy” halfway through and yelled “FUCK!” only to start it over again.
But it couldn’t have been more opposite. For weeks if not months they rehearsed this orchestration of beauty, trying to pin down camera positions but still give themselves space to breath and improvise.
It would be hard to say that this is probably best the show I’ve ever seen, but even harder to think of any show that could top it. But this writer isn’t phased: Frank Ocean’s FYF performance/2017 tour will go down in history with Pink Floyd’s debut of Dark Side of The Moon, Radiohead’s unveiling of Kid A, and Daft Punk’s LED pyramid; a wave of emotions from start to finish. And the best part of it all? When he turned to see his face on the jumbo IMAG screens, flashing the most honest, humble smile you could ever imagine – this is you. You have the opportunity to do this, to change people’s lives. This is your definition of success.
Or maybe it was the excitement in the air, of all the people outside the fences peeking in to see if he’d actually show up. Or maybe it was how I spontaneously met up with my friends right before he came on. Maybe it was the drugs. Or, maybe, you just had to be there.