Nine Inch Nails live in Chiba, Japan. Photo by Mike Rengel.
I saw nearly 40 shows in 2018. Almost all of them were good—many of them were noteworthy. And some were etched into my mind, audio/visual snapshots that I filed away in my meat computer memory banks to sustain me on days that aren’t so bright. Here are the ten most memorable shows I saw in 2018, in chronological order.
Neko Case – Castle Theater, Bloomington, IL – January 27th
Neko Case is a force of nature. There’s no better way to describe her. She sings with unrivaled power, grace, and humility. She’s a tornado that thinks it’s a light breeze. I’ve seen her a number of times over the years, and have never been anything less than bowled completely over. This show was no different. Neko delivered a mix of fan favorites as well as treated us to over half a dozen brand new, yet to be released songs. It was exciting to be a test audience. Her backing band was tight, and her banter with singer/partner-in-crime Kelly Hogan was hilarious and engaging. It was almost stand up comedy! I’d pay full admission just to hear them trade quips and anecdotes. This was a show that offered solace to hurting hearts and laughs to lips that needed them badly.
Jens Lekman – Off Broadway, St. Louis – February 10th
Peripatetic Swede Jens Lekman has a habit of hopping around the world, playing small shows where he happens to pass through or temporarily call home. But they’re very rarely in Middle America. I was starting to think I’d never get the chance to see him live, so it was a thrill when he announced a show in St. Louis. Doubly so when I noticed it was in a cozy setting at my “home venue.” Lekman wrapped his funny and wistful story songs in acoustic folk, beats & samples, bossa nova, disco, and odd bits of orchestral pre-rock popular song. Standing there listening to him play his music was like sitting down with a confidant, a philosopher, and a raconteur all rolled up in a knit beanie or comically large-billed baseball cap. His is music for when you’re smiling, for when you’re shuffling in sadness, and when you’re feeling like you need someone who sees the world from a different angle, and this show was all of these things, often all at once.The entire crowd was singing along to every word all night long. I’ve only ever met a few people who even know his songs, so to be a part of that was a flood of heart-filling community. It was a touch that made a great performance an unforgettable night.
Marillion – Granada Theater, Dallas, TX – February 21st
Marillion are the band that gives your heart a booster pack. This was the final show on a short North American tour where they played various places they’ve rarely or never played before; it was an emotional night that can only be described as mutual communion. Many artists have great fans, but I’ve never been a part of anything like the way Marillion loves their fans as strongly and passionately as we love them. It was a room full of strangers joined at the heart by songs that emanate from and touch the soul.
This is a band that excels at connecting metaphysical dots into powerful, soaring, lump-in-your-throat moments of unfettered humanity that bind us. They remind me, in this ever increasingly coarse world, of the human potential to understand, forgive, seek, and love. In a live setting, they do all of this with an extra dose of empathy and emotion.
“El Dorado” crushed xenophobia. “The Leavers” spoke to the isolation of the touring musician and unshakable connection between artist and audience. Lead singer Steve “H” Hogarth was hoodie-cloaked and looking like an emo Jedi during a dramatic, cathartic “Mad.” “King” was a neutron bomb of a hymn to the way the commoditization of fame has cost lives and cut short artistic careers. The band dug out “Seasons End” to mourn our warming globe. Maybe their best song ever, the dramatic, explosive, and darkly/beautifully draining “The Invisible Man,” unexpectedly showed up in the encore (it’s usually a show opener). “This Strange Engine” was a heartbreaking, MIDI cricket bat-equipped, squaring your upbringing with your present and future origin story. The entire show was, as H so perfectly put it, “the strength to melt our guns.”
H and guitarist Steve Rothery have never looked nor sounded better. Bassist Pete Trewavas was 1990 springy. My favorite little thing was continuing the tradition of no matter where you set up shop, if you’re honest and open, you make new friends. I struck up a convo with my neighbor and forged a bond. Javier and his mate had lived in Tulsa for the last 15 years but last saw Marillion in Mexico in 1999. And we cheered and embraced and sang along like members of a secret club with a secret handshake that is sitting there for the taking, if you’re open to accepting it. This show was a night with a band that offers a portal to a sonic hug; to a heretofore undiscovered part of yourself. Marillion delivered, as they always do, on the promise in the lyrics to “The Leavers”: “We come together—we’re all one tonight.”
Phoebe Bridgers – Blueberry Hill Duck Room, St. Louis – April 10th
I spent most of 2017 raving about Phoebe Bridgers, and in 2018 I finally got to see her put on a show. She is talented beyond her years and so emotionally astute. Her music is sad, sincere, and surviving, but she tempers it with a positive, almost bright disposition, a side order of surprising sweetness, sly, biting humor, and a strong acknowledgement of but refusal to be defined by darkness. Her songs are beautiful and cut right to the heart. She used the intimacy of the Duck Room to her advantage, drawing the packed house extra close to her and regaling the rapt audience with cutting, dryly witty stage banter, powerful, sincere vocals, and excellent choices of covers (Tom Petty; Sheryl Crow). I got verklempt. It was not only personally cathartic, but it was exquisitely moving to notice an entire room full of people feeling exactly the same way.
Spoon – The Pageant, St. Louis – May 16th
After all these years, I finally got a chance to catch a Spoon headline set! Britt Daniel and company took the stage bathed in dramatic, red light and from the first moment to the final encore, displayed why they are still masters of economical, elastic cool. Their show was a perfect merger of rhythm and melody, full of songs with Zen koan lyrics that packed a punch. And they got down and get you dancing! At this point in my life I’m a “show up early to get a rail seat” guy, but for this show I got right down front in the pit and was so happy I did. This was a fun, engaging concert that perfectly illustrated how Spoon balance instinct with intellect, and how they have managed for so long to be remarkably consistent yet still adventurous.
Trashcan Sinatras – Blueberry Hill Duck Room, St. Louis – June 13th
I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to go with me, so I took myself on a date to see my favorite Scottish indie-jangle-folksters. The Sinatras offered up a bounty of their trademark harmonies, wit, and wordplay. It was great to hear classic albums Cake and I’ve Seen Everything in full, plus a bunch of other choice cuts, including more than a few from latter-era standout Weightlifting. They were fun and heartfelt in satisfyingly equal measures, and told some great stories and banter, too. It was so nice to finally catch them live after almost 20 years and to be in a small but enthusiastic room full of fellow Anglophile nerds.
Courtney Barnett – The Pageant, St. Louis – July 17th
I finally caught Barnett live after an almost five year wait and she didn’t disappoint. She channeled a folky, psychedelic “Australian summer garden” vibe that coexisted with British Invasion jangle and copious amounts of raucous garage rock stomp. And she absolutely tore it up on the guitar. Barnett possesses an unparalleled gift for transmogrifying the mundane into funny, intelligent, captivating tales—snapshots dense with wordplay and deadpan wit; she sings about (social) awkwardness, anxiety, and overthinking with empathy and humor.
And did I mention she freaking rocks? “Nameless, Faceless” was a striking smackdown of online misogyny and fragile / toxic masculinity. “I’m Not Your Mother” was an explosive all out assault on it. The Byrds via Nuggets of “Sunday Roast” was impressive. The material from her strong new record was twice as powerful in a live setting. “Depreston” was a highlight and the crowd response confirmed it. The song remains a masterpiece – the way she spins a story about house hunting into a poignant exploration of uncertainty, mortality, and things left behind was truly affecting.
Nine Inch Nails / My Bloody Valentine – Makuhari Messe, Chiba, Japan – August 17th
I still can’t believe this show was a real thing that existed and happened! When my good friend Amy and I discovered that Trent Reznor and Kevin Shields would be sharing a stage at a festival in Japan, we decided it was absolutely worth flying halfway across the world for. Capping off a week and a half long Japanese vacation / adventure, the grand finale of the show did not disappoint.
It was nearly midnight when Nine Inch Nails took the stage to a completely packed house. The airplane hangar-like convention center where the festival was held was bursting at the seams with Japanese industrial and shoegaze fans, and indie nerds from around the world. We were in the very front row, and as the show was moments away from beginning, the pressure pushing at us from behind became immense. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross took the stage with remarkable intensity and didn’t let up for a second. They dove into the soul’s dark depths and sweated out fear and self doubt. This was the perfect music for the state of the world in 2018. Anger is an energy.
And oh my god, there was still My Bloody Valentine! Around 2 o’clock in the morning they finally shuffled on stage, and within seconds we went surfing in a gloriously rough sea of noise, with beautiful currents of melody coursing through. The feedback and raw overdriven power reverberated at an almost molecular level. My DNA felt like it had been rearranged. It was something like standing in front of a jet engine made of sound. Some things instantly stick with you forever; this was absolutely one of them! A dream come true.
Johnny Marr – The Cannery Ballroom, Nashville, TN – September 15th
I felt like I’d been waiting my entire life for this show. Marr’s music—as the songwriting core of the Smiths, his work with The The, Electronic, and so many other artists, and more recently his excellent solo work—has been a constant in my life from college on. His music was and is a positive force in an increasingly shadowy world and it was amazing to be in the same room watching and hearing him ply his craft in person. The way he mixed rhythm with lead melody, jangle with texture, was fascinating, unique and life affirming. He played a number of Smiths songs that honestly, I enjoyed more than hearing Morrissey sing them. He dug out not one but two Electronic songs, which made my week. And his solo material reinforces that he’s still a vital, inventive force. Songs like “Spiral Cities” and “New Town Velocity” are as good as anything he’s ever done. A true genius and he was impossibly cool, stylish, and good natured. An amazing night made even better with so many great and like-minded humans along. Some of us road tripped from St. Louis, some from Cleveland, and we all met in a nexus of musical community and harmony. It was a powerful reminder of music’s persistent ability to forge and reinforce bonds. I took immense joy in looking over at my companions as Marr launched into Smiths classic and anthem for a particular kind of tragically romantic indie weirdo (one that I firmly am) “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”, and noticing they all had tears of joy in their eyes and the same impossibly wide smile on their faces. We shared magic, and we carried it away with us. It’s important to create those sorts of memories and reserves that you can tap into when life lacks a certain sparkle.
Freedy Johnston – house show, St. Louis – October 21st
Freedy Johnston is a “songwriter’s songwriter”. He has a knack for memorable turns of phrase, well crafted melodies, and songs that paint vivid little pictures. He’s been a firm favorite of mine since I first heard him sing “Bad Reputation.” So when I discovered he was passing through town and playing an intimate house concert, I jumped at the chance. The show didn’t disappoint—he played favorite originals, several new songs-in-progress, and covers that pleased both himself and the audience. His stories were as acerbic, darkly funny and sweet as his songs. And it was even cooler to make new friends (including our hosts), meet Freedy himself, and his little dog Sparky, who split his time napping in a bed in the corner by the guitars and begging for snacks from the audience. | Mike Rengel
Alvvays – Metro, Chicago, IL – March 23rd
U2 – Scottrade Center, St. Louis – May 4th
Fleet Foxes – Peabody Opera House, St. Louis – May 15th
First Aid Kit – The Pageant, St. Louis – June 10th
Julien Baker / Phoebe Bridgers / Lucy Dacus (boygenius) – The Pageant, St. Louis – November 15th
Thom Yorke – Stifel Theater, St. Louis – December 8th