The Best Chicago Concerts of 2011

The Best Chicago Concerts of 2011

I truly believe it when I say that Chicago is one of the greatest live music cities in the country.  Memphis?  Nashville?  Austin?  New Orleans?  All great… But I’d put Chicago right there with any of them.  As Chicagoans, we truly are lucky to have the opportunity to see so much great live music night in and night out at scores of oustanding and unique venues.  From Paul McCartney to Ben Harper (and everywhere in between), here are the concerts that moved me in 2011 and made me consistenly remember why live music is my favorite thing in the world.  

The 2011 year in concerts…

The Great…

  1. Wilco (12/12 at the Civic Opera House and 12/15 at The Vic) – In August, I thought there was no possible way anyone could top Paul McCartney as best concert of 2011.  I was wrong.  While the Civic Opera House was the better of the two shows (prominently featuring Nick Lowe and Mavis Staples in the encore), the two sets that I saw of the five “Incredible Shrinking Tour” shows in Chicago were as different as they were great.  The Opera House was a big production with snow and a full stage set whereas the Vic had a more casual and laid back vibe. Digging deep (I only saw two of the five shows and the band still managed to touch on each studio album… not to mention Mermaid Avenue as well as b-sides), Wilco showed an impressive command of their catalog that I’m not sure any other band today can equal.  While any member of the band is capable of stealing any song live, Nels Cline finally seems comfortable in a band setting and Wilco’s current live performances reflect it.  The band is truly beloved in their hometown, there’s a sense of stability with the current lineup and 2011 saw them release one of their finest albums.  It is a great time to be a Wilco fan and I found myself rehashing these shows with friends countless times over the past few weeks.
  2. Paul McCartney (7/31 and 8/1 at Wrigley Field) – Paul McCartney has singlehandedly renewed my faith in the ability of a massive, overpriced, outdoor concert production to connect with an audience on an intimate level.  I approached the show with low expectations thinking to myself “Regardless of how these shows go, I’ll at least have gotten to see a Beatle.”  And then Sir Paul blew me away.  Here was a man from the biggest band ever, pushing seventy years of age, fronting an incredible backing band and conducting a show with a sense of urgency, completely refusing to rest on his rather ample laurels.  Make no mistake, Paul doesn’t have to be out there doing this.  It was clear he’s still doing it because he loves it and songs like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” sounded not only relevant but better than ever.
  3. Ben Harper (7/1 at The Vic) – A true artist, Harper has recorded his music in many different ways with many different people.  He touched on all of it at the Vic.  He sat down to play slide, he stood up and played solo acoustic and he rocked the house with a ferocious five piece band for three hours… And when he ran out of stuff to play he did Led Zeppelin covers and new songs he hadn’t even titled yet.  The sold out Vic crowd rallied around a solo acoustic rendition of “Burn One Down” in a way rarely seen at a concert in an era where people spend half the show looking down at their phones.  Harper responded with an off-the-cuff chat with the crowd about the qualities he values in his fans.  It was a straight from the heart moment of sincerity from a classy and humble artist.
  4. The Flaming Lips (7/7 at the Aragon Ballroom and 7/10 at the Dave Matthews Caravan at Lakeside) – At the Aragon they played 1999’s The Soft Bulletin in its entirety and at the Caravan they performed Pink Floyd’s 1973 classic The Dark Side of the Moon.  There is no band in the world better suited to cover Pink Floyd than the Flaming Lips.  The precise arrangements and timing required to pull off Dark Side were clearly a labor of love and the band’s stage show (psychadelic images, tons of gigantic balloons, lights hanging from the ceiling of the Aragon, people in various costumes and Wayne Coyne crowd surfing in a giant plastic bubble) is really something you have to see in order to believe.  When all was said and done, Wayne Coyne appeared more as a demented circus ringleader (presiding over the greatest trip ever!) than merely your typical rock n’ roll “frontman” and both shows were a delight.
  5. Arcade Fire/The National (4/23 at U.I.C. Pavilion) – For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was really part of something important at a concert.  I finally understood the feeling friends of mine tried to describe to me regarding the first time they saw Nirvana live.  Arcade Fire is an important band.  Both of these acts (especially Arcade Fire) seemed to come out of nowhere in 2011 as far as mainstream acceptance and cultural relevance are concerned (seriously, I know hipsters have loved Arcade Fire for years but if you had told me in 2005 when I saw them at Lollapalooza that they would become Grammy darlings who would end up doing a three night arena run in Chicago in the coming years, I would’ve told you that you were insane).  It was extremely gratifying to see people around the age of fifty and fifteen all enjoying a great band together.  The age range at this show was honestly that varied.  While the set was a bit short, it was nevertheless triumphant.
  6. Smashing Pumpkins (10/14 at The Riv) – Here is a show that I never expected to be putting on this list.  I didn’t even want to go.  I thought it was too expensive.  And then two friends from high school finally convinced me that we should check it out.  Unlike with Wilco, it has not been easy being a fan of the Smashing Pumpkins of late (even as a Chicagoan).  So often, Billy Corgan seems content to antagonize his audience instead of reward their loyalty (it’s the wrestling fan in him).  But recently, he’s surprised people, embracing his catalog with reissues of both Gish and Siamese Dream and in October at the Riv he seemed downright giddy.  I’ve seen the band five times (starting with Lollapalooza in 1994) and this was hands down the happiest I’ve ever seen Billy appear onstage.  He smiled.  He chatted with the crowd.  He  played not with the chip on his shoulder that many fans may have been expecting but as a man with something to prove, looking to reclaim his spot in the music world .  Hell, he even gave up the spotlight and reunited the band Catherine during his Riv encore.  And what’s more, the band around him is quite able, not merely backing Billy Corgan but really functioning as a band, challenging their leader, and the songs soared because of it.  Fans who write off this lineup because it doesn’t feature original members are really missing out (after all, Billy wrote and performed pretty much all parts on the old songs anyway… something he had no problem reminding the Riv crowd).  Deep cuts like “Soma,” “Starla,” “For Martha,” “Frail and Bedazzled,” and “Muzzle” were a pleasant surprise and show opening new tracks like “Quasar” and “Panopticon” actually have me looking forward to the release of the new Pumpkins album Oceania.  This was simply a great show.
  7. Mavis Staples (9/24 at the Hideout Block Party) – Mavis makes this list for the second year in a row.  She has the rare ability to make everyone in the room feel important.  It’s really unbelievable.  Performing outdoors, in cool late September temps, Mavis delivered a set that warmed my heart in a way that my flask of whiskey couldn’t.  Mavis was actually a part of  The Last Waltz and when she reaches deep inside to belt out lines like “You put the load right on me,” you feel it.  As I wrote in September, watching her perform is witnessing history.  She’s a legend and the fact that she records, performs and lives in Chicago should be looked at as an honor and privilege.
  8. Marshall Crenshaw & The Bottle Rockets (1/20 at Lincoln Hall) – On paper this wasn’t necesarrily an easy fit.  One of the greatest pop singer-songwriters of his time backed live by a southern rock/alt-country band.  But some things just work.  And this was one of them.  Opening the show with a set of their own songs, The Bottle Rockets provided a rollicking romp through older fare like “Radar Gun” and newer, even better material like “Suffering Servant.” While their set backing Crenshaw wasn’t perfect, it was fun.  Crenshaw remains in pretty good voice and sugary sweet songs about girls like “Someday, Someway” and “There She Goes Again” sounded ridiculously good in a rare, full-band setting amidst the intimate confines and stellar sound of one of the city’s finest clubs.
  9. Fitz & The Tantrums and Christina Perri (8/6 at Schubas) – I have had so much fun covering Fitz & The Tantrums in 2011.  I interviewed Fitz and am happy to report that he’s the real deal.  I also saw the band at Schubas, Metro and even a small industry showcase with only about thirty or forty other people at Comma Music… But it was that Lollapalooza aftershow at Schubas that Fitz and I spent twenty minutes on the phone rehashing/salivating over in October. He literally couldn’t stop talking about it. I was more than happy to keep peppering him with questions about it.  It was so hot on that August night and that club was so packed, that I can’t believe people weren’t passing out left and right following a full, dehydrated day in Grant Park. The band’s call and response was never better in 2011 and “MoneyGrabber” was triumphant.  For a band with only one album to their credit, they performed a tight, energetic set that would’ve made James Brown smile.   Plus, Christina Perri impressed the hell out of me playing guitar and keyboards (and putting the focus squarely on good vocals and well-written pop songs as opposed to the overly glossy production you get on radio and record) on hits like “Jar of Hearts.”
  10. The Lemonheads and Material re-Issue (6/28 at the Taste of Chicago) – I never got to see Material Issue live before Jim Ellison took his own life in 1996. As one of my favorite bands, I couldn’t be happier that they reunited to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of International Pop Overthrow.  Phil Angotti sounds eerily similar to Ellison on lead vocals and Insider Jay O’Rourke has complemented the new lineup nicely on guitar and sitar.  The reunion has been done in a classy way that pays homage to the band’s history without exploiting it.  So the handful of shows the band performed in 2011 (starting at the Abbey Pub in April) have been rewarding and each time I saw them there was marked improvement… Which culminated in their set at The Taste.  While sparsely attended, the show was nevertheless raucous.  MI ran through the hits and were again solid but The Lemonheads stole the show, which, frankly, was shocking. Evan Dando’s history of over-indulgence and unsteady live shows precede him. I’ve seen him solo at Metro and with his band at the Abbey Pub and both shows were abysmal.  He only got a third chance with me because Material re-Issue was on the bill and it was free.  But at The Taste, he tore through his set with a reckless abandon and songs like “Alison’s Starting to Happen” were crazy good. What’s more?  Dando looked great AND sounded great.  How that man can still sing so well after what he has put his body through is beyond me (seriously, check out the meaning to the song “If I Could Talk, I’d Tell You”) but he did and it was a great show.  I can’t wait to check out Material re-Issue one more time tonight on New Year’s Eve (in what is being billed as their final show ever) at Reggie’s.

Honorable Mention…

  1. Rush (4/12 at United Center)
  2. U2 (7/5 at Soldier Field)
  3. Kids These Days (9/24 at the Hideout Block Party)
  4. Motörhead (2/19 at the Congress Theater)
  5. Steve Earle and The Dukes & Duchesses (7/19 at The Vic)
  6. Jeff Beck and the Imelda May Band (A tribute to Les Paul, 4/1 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre)
  7. HUM (9/10 at A.V. Fest)
  8. The Drive-By Truckers (7/8 at the Dave Matthews Caravan)
  9. Roger Daltrey (10/7 at The Venue at Horseshoe Chicago)
  10. Screaming Females (10/19 at Schubas)
  11. OFF! (7/16 at Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park)
  12. Neko Case (7/15 at Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park)

I saw 81 concerts in 2011 and if 2012 ends up half as good, we’ll be in great shape in the new year.  A very heartfelt thanks to my fellow lovers of live music who have read this blog in 2011, stopped me at a show to say hi (or to tell me that I have no clue what the hell I am talking/writing about), or chimed in with their opinions, thoughts and encouragement in the comments section here or on facebook.  When I started this in June, I had no clue just how rewarding of an experience it would be and for that I’m quite grateful.  Thanks!  See you in 2012!

(Flaming Lips photo above taken by Jim Ryan at the Aragon Ballroom)


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  • Couldn't agree more about McCartney. Thanks for all the reviews.

  • Hi, John. Thanks so much for reading! Yeah, those McCartney shows were unreal. The bar for outdoor stadium concerts in 2012 has been set quite high. Have a great 2012!

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    Really find it hard that you didn't mention Phish from UIC pavillion even once. not sayin but just sayin.

  • Hi Matt... Couldn't include a show I didn't see (Heard a lot of good things though)... Come to think of it, I've actually never seen them believe it or not. Are they gonna tour this year?

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