The Rest of the Best of 2016

Favorite Moments of 2016

1. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Being in Wrigleyville during the series. Being at the parade. Pure emotion. Being with Jordan when they won. Eamus Catuli switching to all zeroes. Not quite giving up hope when it seemed all but over MULTIPLE times. Continuing to ride that wave.

Katie Nixon and I near the seventh largest gathering in human history.

2. Meeting Bruce Springsteen the day before my birthday. Also, his show at United Center on August 28. Magic in the night.

3. The Hold Steady: Reunite with Franz Nicolay, play a bunch of really awesome shows behind my favorite album of all time. The Frenchkiss reissues of AKM and Sep Sunday. Lifter Puller twice in one year, including the opportunity to stand on stage at Red Rocks. Denver meh, Chicago good and New York was wonderful but I could have done without the concussion. Great openers: Titus Andronicus, Laura Stevenson (so nice!) and Lifter Puller. Nights go on forever and guitars are cool.

4. Nashville visits, March-August (Just a few: recording in the Third Man Booth, all the food, Infinity Cat House, Doom, Tim buys a guitar, City Winery, meeting Daddy Issues and Diarrhea Planet, and pretty much everyone that made my time there awesome.)

Hanging with Emmett and Evan from Diarrhea Planet.

5. More travel: Austin, TX trip with my Mom. Hanging in Boston and candlepin bowling with some of my best people and Vineyard Youth in Pawtucket, RI. Additionally, anyone who came to visit me and had a good time.

6. Health and wellness: PRing my third 5K on the October 30 Hot Chocolate Run. Exercising regularly for the first time in my life. Reading the most books this year than I’ve read in a decade.

7. Personal: Getting the opportunity to write for Men’s Journal and interviewing Dolph Ziggler, Chad Gable, Hot Doug and Andrew Wyslotsky.

My team beat his in the World Series. I ain’t sorry.


8. Wrestling: American Alpha winning the NXT and WWE Smackdown Tag Team titles in the same year (all of the great wrestling this year, seriously.) Owens and Zayn at Payback in a total mindblower. Zayn and Nakamura at Takeover Dallas. DIY and Revival at Takeover Toronto. Meeting Jerry Lawler randomly in Memphis inside his restaurant and being able to tell him we shared a birthday.

9. Food: Qui, Parachute, Rolf and Daughters, Husk, Mitchell’s Delicatessen, Maketto, Pinewood Social, Row 34, Mission Chinese and a ton I’m missing.

10. Trash Pandas releases two EP’s and having involvement in them. They make me laugh and proud I did a thing that’s out in the world.

Shows

I saw 37 shows this year. Take a look.

Everything I Listened To

I made a playlist for every month this year of everything I listened to individually (excluding albums). Check it out.

Four Days In The Life

I’m finally starting to decompress from a week in New York (that really began in Chicago the day before with improbably sharing a photo with Bruce Springsteen) where I saw the Hold Steady four times in four days at Brooklyn Bowl. As expected, it was an incredible (albeit sometimes stressful) experience, but that’s another story for a different day. What struck me is so much how so many people I came into contact with were really riding the wave of “nostalgia,” if you can call the celebration of a ten-year record just that. I suppose it’s possible, or it’s a sign of me aging, when I talked to more than one person that lamented for not being around for ‘the scene’, a series of what seemed to be halcyon days that really weren’t, more a lot of good times punctured by bad decisions or inexperience, but still remembered the same. Either way, I didn’t quite feel a hearkening back to the past as much as I did really love seeing so many lapsed fans that kind of tuned out at the turn of the decade when the future of the band seemed a little murky.

Photo by Rich Tarbell

Photo by Rich Tarbell

I mean, I get that, the early ‘10’s Hold Steady was a series of experiments that didn’t quite gel completely, trying to make due with Franz Nicolay’s departure and redefine a sound. But what we DID get is Steve Selvidge, a member of the band whose presence seems so vital it’s hard to imagine what the band would be like without him – the fact that Franz has returned to the fold with Steve in tow is not an abdication of what truly made The Hold Steady great in the first place, instead, it’s an embarrassment of riches. (I have quietly referred to this wishful thinking-turned-reality lineup as SuperSteady for many years, and oh my word, they did they NOT disappoint.) What these shows, these three reissues have told us is that The Hold Steady, in whatever form they are in these days and going forward are still capital-F, capital-D Fucking Dangerous.

Yes, they’re my favorite band, of course I’m going to say that. I defy anyone who has caught any of this year’s seven gigs to tell me different. They don’t really need to make any new music right now. The canon has been established. How mindblowing is it to hear Franz add genius flourishes to songs that he didn’t play on? Harmonica on “Sweet Part of the City”? Brilliant keys on “Spinners” (still in the running for one of THS’s best-ever songs) and the mind melt of bringing himself to the dance on “The Weekenders” which is surviving the years as one of the band’s weirdest compositions from a not-too happy era.

I have a stake in it, I know. November 30’s encore of “The Ballad of the Midnight Hauler,” a song I’ve gently requested from Craig for at least seven years before finally giving up, was a major surprise, something I’d never thought I’d hear again, much less get a shout out for my birthday. While I’ve been recognized before (it never stops feeling amazing), nothing tops that. I can’t stop smiling about it. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to me.

The thing that keeps flashing back to me are the faces. The faces of all of these people I’ve gotten to know over the years, whether in person by chance through the internet but never in person until now and countless others. I’ve watched all these people transform of the years, grow up, get older, turn into better versions of themselves, remember their journeys, remember mine, and remember it all still feels pretty sweet. I hope to never forget that, forget you, and hope that somehow, someway, we’ll all find each other again no matter what becomes of this band. It was a celebration of you guys, us guys and this beautiful, messy thing we all created together. That’s an amazing thing.

Six shows, Five days, One car

Things are a little less cloudy and my ears have stopped ringing. It turns out the pain I was experiencing was actually a developing ear infection and it’s slowed me down considerably until I went to the doctor and got some nifty antibiotics. I’m just going to ramble here, so if that’s not what you expected, it’s probably best to hit the “BACK” button on your browser right now.

The last week of the tour was probably the most fun I’ve had traveling to see The Hold Steady since I started leaving the region in summer of 2008. The band was incredibly, impossibly tight every night (I’ll admit, the addition of the new dudes left me having some doubts), but as soon as they kicked in with “Sweet Part of the City” that auspicious Tuesday night in Cleveland, it was GAME ON.

The song is a prelude. Think about it. “We were bored so we started a band. We’d like to play for you.” It’s a totally brilliant “welcome to the rock show” introduction.

Day 1

Cleveland, as attendees have previously reported, was a bit out of control. To point fingers – there were a group of kids (allegedly close to two-dozen) at the gig to celebrate their friend’s 21st birthday. No one really seemed to inform them that extreme, belligerent drunkenness pre-show may not be the healthiest decision for anyone. They didn’t respect personal space before the music began, which was the first issue, and the fact that they were openly antagonistic to bystanders was just too much. I can understand the lack of personal space while the music is going on, but before is a big no-no in my book. People were hit. There were the police. The band stopped. Craig said “It can’t possibly be worth it that much”. He was right.

Day 2

My first impressions of Pittsburgh: It’s a city with an east coast mentality featuring an impressive array of subcultures. To name a few: Hip-hop heads, crust punks, goth kids, indie rockers, and a hell of a lot of Penguins fans. I had plenty of time to people watch outside while I waited for doors to open. The venue, Diesel Club Lounge, was most certainly a dance club, and I couldn’t help but crack Wayne’s World jokes, as it reminded me of the place where Crucial Taunt played that revved-up version of “Ballroom Blitz”.

The show itself was certainly unique – a smattering of old jams and an abnormally high number of unreleased b-sides – “Criminal Fingers,” “Touchless” and for some, the why-isn’t-this-on-the-record WTF of “Goin’ On A Hike”. The first few rows of the crowd seemed to contain most of the jumping up and down and singing – while the back rows seemed to watch almost pensively.

Highlights of the evening – my buddy Whiskey Daisy finally hearing “Arms and Hearts” after close to twenty shows – totally special.Also, that ridiculously great steak sandwich I had at Primanti Brothers, post show. Oh my word. Steak. Cheese. Tomatoes. Cole Slaw. French Fries. ALL ON THE SANDWICH.

Day 3

The next morning, we headed for Morgantown, West Virginia. Our drive there was encumbered by an hour and a half long shutdown on I – 376/US 22 Monroeville. Turns out that there was a pretty bad accident where an SUV had flipped over several lanes of traffic. I found it easier just to blame the Canadian that was driving our car. Actually, that was our excuse for a lot of things that week.

Anyways: Morgantown. Very unique place. I made some cracks about meth-heads and Mountain Dew on Facebook, and got an earful about them before I got there. I now regret that. The show at 123 Pleasant Street (not surprisingly, on the street of the same address) was one of those tiny club shows that stick with you for ages. It was so small that rumor had it that there wasn’t a ‘traditional backstage’ area. The instruments were packed in so tight that Bobby had to jump over his drum kit to get behind it. My thoughts of this intimacy and closeness hearkened back to the Iowa City show at the Picador last April. The crowd was jacked that a band of THS’s caliber was in town, and everyone was excitable and great to be around. No brutality, just a lot of high fives.

These super small shows are where the Hold Steady really thrives. The energy is so concentrated and infectious and there’s an entirely different sense of togetherness compared to that at some of the larger shows.

A friend of mine wondered out loud if the band would play “Girls Like Status”. Some of us were skeptical. When the band unleashed in in the encore, it was great to see his face light up at the sound of the opening chords. It’s nice how things work out like that.

Day 4

Earlier in the week, someone mentioned to me “Jersey Mike? Mike Van Jura? That dude seems to know how to throw a party.”

Yes.

I remarked that I hadn’t been so excited for a music-related event since prom like I was for Harrisburg. That’s kind of the truth.

The family reunion vibe to this gig – the fact that so many US-ers had come in from all over the map and were mostly at the same hotel heightened the excitement. Jersey really pulled all the stops out for this one – the “Steadheads” flyers he dropped off in the hotel lobby – the “Stay Positive” symbol entrance stamp, the confetti cannon that didn’t quite work (no fault of his own). All totally silly and totally great ideas that led to the “THIS IS A BIG DEAL” feeling surrounding the show. We felt it. The band knew it, and they killed it.

To exhaust a tired statement: the bar band was back in the bar. It needs to be said. “Barfruit Blues,” “Most People are DJ’s,” and “The Swish” – all AKM era favorites, all perfect, sounding totally and completely infinite. Everything seemed to pop. (Download the recording of this show from the archive. Essential.) So sweaty, so much confetti, punctuated by a divine version of “Killer Parties”. Catching up with and meeting new people post-show was awesome. It makes me wish that more shows I attended were more like that. I’ll never forget that night. One for the ages.


Photo courtesy of Rich Tarbell

Day 5

New York was the perfect postscript to the storybook week that preceded it. Dually, it was the most ambitious day of Hold Steady show-going that any of us had undertaken. Why? It’s simple. Two shows, two venues in one night. One Hold Steady show can be a throughly exhausting physical and mental experience. Two, well, getcha’ Gatorade ready!

So, um, let’s call a spade a spade here and say that I’m ‘particular’ about when to arrive for shows. The fact that there were two shows at two different venues, (and that the doors for the second venue opened before the first show was even over) was a logistical nightmare. How could we possibly wrangle get close up for both?

By the time we arrived at Bowery Ballroom, I was shocked to see that there was a line of people that had arrived over an hour before us. I was astounded, and to tell you the truth, kind of impressed.

One of the guys in line got my attention immediately. A precocious young guy – ‘hollywasahoodrat’ on this board – had some seriously infectious enthusiasm. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the fan of the future – a total encyclopedia. One moment still has me rolling: During the J. Roddy Walston and the Business set, he turned at me after he saw bassist Zach Westphal’s trademark mustache and exclaimed, “Oh, that’s delightful!”. Absolutely perfect.

Oh – a note about J. Roddy – there’s something richly authentic about them. From the piano rave ups, the huge choruses and the totally unbridled sexuality of their performances. No matter which way you swing, you sense it. They creep up behind an unsuspecting audience and shake them until they’re a bunch of believers. There’s no reason even try to fight it. Drink the Kool-Aid. It tastes good.

Back to the Hold Steady – it’s astounding how night and day different the show at Bowery felt compared to the show in Brooklyn at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. The Bowery show was very relaxed and the crowd seemed to ruminate every note. It’s rare, but that crowd seemed like they were there to appreciate the music more than participate in it. That’s fine. The setlist was conducive to that, especially starting with a stellar “Positive Jam”, the pleonastic (and that is not a complaint) “Cattle and the Creeping Things” to the sedate roll “A Slight Discomfort”.

Not to give the false impression that the show consisted of slower numbers, but they seemed to leave the most lasting impression at the first event of the evening.

We made the decision to split before the encore of the first show. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like going from rocking at maximum intensity to turning on your heels, wading through a crowd, running down two back staircases in the venue then right out into the street. We somehow flagged down a cab in under two minutes, have him be apprehensive about going into another borough, then spending another three minutes convincing him to drive us to Brooklyn to the show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. There was very little time to think about anything else then the task at hand. The five of us had a goal. Six minutes later we arrived at the venue, made it indoors, and to our amazement, found hardly anyone occupied the front area. At this point, you’re probably scoffing. That’s understandable. I don’t care though. It was a lot of fun. Another mission accomplished.

The Oranges Band opened up the second show, as they had all week for the Hold Steady. If you have not heard them, they are a really great, totally underrated group out of Baltimore. Lots of fun, hooky pop songs, including one called “Open Air”, that’s stuck in my head nearly two weeks later. Well worth checking out.

Just like that, The Hold Steady were suddenly on stage again to the strums of “Sweet Part of the City”. With the additional lighting on the stage and the energized crowd, it felt cinematic. I don’t know if the cameras there to capture the event were able to harness that feeling.

The set was peppered with old favorites – I’m assuming “The Swish” was there was a wink to the days when the band played there when venue was known as North Six – to unreleased tracks like “Goin’ on a Hike” and other nuggets like “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”. My favorite moments came with the flashes of guitar interplay between Koob and Steve. The synchronized solos during “We Can Get Together” were Allman-esque (that’s meant to be complimentary) and the the double acoustic guitars to start “First Night and “Citrus” were a nice twist as well.

With one more set closing “Hoodrat,” it was over. I don’t know what else to say other than what I already said above. It was an amazing week with some great music, excellent friends, and some nice new faces.

I can’t wait to do it all over again.

St. Vincent at Metro, 2/18/10

St. Vincent is for lovers.

Or, that’s what it seemed like Thursday night Metro, a post-Valentine’s smattering of pairs, tall and short, black and white, fat and skinny. To the guy behind me: I swear, if I overhear you again telling the obviously bored chick you’re with about how awesome your music collection transitions from Billy Holliday to the Dead Kennedys, I’ll smack you. The stench of your smugness discussing your Yo-Yo Ma jams was equally disgusting.

St. Vincent at Metro, Thursday February 18, 2010

All asides, Annie Clark’s nom-de-plume return to Chicago was nothing short of gorgeous. By that, I mean both the tunes AND the performer.

Her two albums – 2007’s Marry Me and last year’s Actor are two gems of strangely damaged pop music. They’re lush with jagged, uneven soundscapes, nestled with her delicate falsetto. It’s like an angel narrating your nightmares.

I suppose that’s part of St. Vincent’s appeal. She’s pretty, diminutive even, and she makes a lot of noise. Big noise.

What’s great about her music is that is contains a “this-could-go-off-the-rails-at-any-moment” energy without entirely deviating from conventional song structure. The arrangements on her records are meticulous. That insularity doesn’t always translate live.

Quite the contrary. It was striking to find how wide open each song seemed to be. They were airy and almost malleable. This was put to the test very early on.

Her band, (four scruffy dudes) started with a diaphanous version of “The Strangers”, where Clark struggled with the volume malfunction of her guitar during the song’s midpoint. It didn’t really seem to matter though, as the swell of brass instruments easily compensated for the guitar’s absence.

One of the night’s best moments was “Marrow,” a stomp full of guitar squalls and an uneasy, audible tension. Clark’s plea of “H-E-L-P, help me, help me”, followed pounding her guitar’s body during the song’s breakdown showed some of her uncharacteristic wickedness.

Unexpectedly, she eventually abandoned her guitar in favor of keyboards during a gentle version of “The Bed”, a mellow ballad. It was quiet enough to hear the conversation of those inconsiderate enough in the back of the club.

Clark’s music commands seriousness, it’s a relief to find she has a sense of humor. As her band left the stage briefly so she could perform solo, she explained her love for “It Was a Good Day” by Ice Cube, which was the song that proceeded her on stage. She gave a quick narration of the song, then played another song she considered similar in theme, a sterling version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days”.

St. Vincent at Metro, Thursday February 18, 2010

The breadth of Clark’s powers were on display with the encore of “Your Lips Are Red”. A tension filled mess of guitar, bass and brass instruments, Clark attacked her guitar with the same gesticulation Gena Rowlands displayed during one of her psychotic episodes in John Cassavetes’s “A Woman Under The Influence”. Both were unnatural, unorthodox and generally terrifying.

I suppose there’s another parallel between those two. In the film, Gena Rowlands is a woman who looked crazy and tried to convince everyone she wasn’t. Here, St. Vincent is a woman who doesn’t look crazy and wants to convince everyone she might actually be.

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View more photos from the show at our gallery.

Higher and Higher

I’ve been to shows, but not THAT show.

Sure, I could expound forever on the trope of a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show being likened to a religious experience, but I won’t because I feel I can do better than that.

Forget it. Who am I kidding?

If I didn’t before last night, I BELIEVE now.
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It’s a pastiche of images swirling through my head. You have Bruce’s first descent into the middle of the crowd for ‘Hungry Heart,” crowd surfing back to the stage to continue the show – or the abscess of horns magically bringing “10th Avenue Freezeout” to life.

A marathon lasting over three hours; it felt as if no stone was left unturned, from first album classics (“Growing Up”) to the prowling, elemental (“Kitty’s Back”) to the ‘WTF?’ (“Jole Blon”?)

Of course, the main attraction came with the complete performance of the group’s 1975 stone-cold classic, Born To Run. Any way you look at it, the album is colossal. Every track has a mammoth emotional hook. The way the piano dances in “Thunder Road” as Bruce’s vocal gets more urgent each verse, his shredded vocal in the chorus of “Backstreets,” and the mournful trumpet that wades through “Meeting Across The River”. These moments are at every turn.

There’s the album’s title track, which really is the only song to actually capture the naïve, blazing intensity of being young and in love – so powerful, so hopeful, one wrong move and it could crush you under its weight.

All of these emotions translate live. The songs feel otherworldly – Clarence Clemons’s majestic solo on “Jungleland,” – yes, THAT solo – is something I could live in. It peaks and valleys with grace and complete effortlessness from it’s performer. It’s the end of a musical journey, and a hell of a fitting epilogue it is.

That wasn’t even the end of the evening; an entire set of songs followed the album. The award for “Too Soon?” goes to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” based on a Christmas tree (complete with working lights) cardboard sign request collected by the Boss during the “requests” segment. Fans in the pit threw Christmas hats at the band, and both Clemons and drummer Max Weinberg obliged them. (Also, it should be said, Max wearing a Christmas hat does nothing to overwrite his classic perv supreme image on The Tonight Show in my mind.)

The one-two punch that really brought the evening full circle came at the end of the evening – the jubilant (and personal favorite) “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” which has been documented by us before, and it was great that we finally heard it by the person who wrote it. Jaw dropping. No other words other than those are coming.

The night’s final song – a cover of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” was the other moment. The normally three minute rave up expanded to an epic thanks to Bruce and his band, taking advantage of this by making their way to the center of the arena to sing the chorus amongst the faithful.

At that moment, it was clear: together, we were already on a higher plane, if only for a couple hours.

These Projectors Need Cleaning

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Dirty Projectors at Bottom Lounge, Friday, November 13, 2009

Dirty Projectors’s Friday night show at Bottom Lounge was a definite contrast to the other two bands we’ve seen in the past few days. John Darnielle and his Mountain Goats teeter on the line between celebratory and morose, and Art Brut remains indie rock’s funniest (and musicially exceptional) inside joke.

With vocalist/guitarist Dave Longstreth’s group, there is no humor. It’s a collective of very serious musicians that conciously take the fun out of rock and roll. It’s impossible not to detect a cultist vibe that runs through the Dirty Projectors when they’re on stage. Longstreth is clearly the leader, and everyone seems to be under his spell – the girls especially. Singers Amber Coffman, Hayley Dekle shimmied unconvincingly like 60’s girl group backup singers. Rarely did anyone else challenge his stage presence or his acrobatic guitar stills. This was painfully apparent as his guitar essentially drowned out Coffman’s soaring vocal on “Stillness Is The Move”.

What was terribly disappointing is the lack of the camaraderie between the group. None of them really seemed to enjoy what they were doing on stage. Multi-instrumentalist Angel Deradoorian, a talented solo musician in her own right, remained far stage right all evening and hardly cracked a smile.

On Bitte Orca, the band’s latest record, the songs are infectious. They breathe. They have great hooks and incredible vocal interplay. Live, they’re a mess of noise that is opposite the album’s calculated synchronization. For what Longstreth and Co. have finally accomplished on record, they’ve got a ways to go with their live performance. There are glaring rough edges, and perhaps with a little more collaboration live – stretching the songs with the same kind of elasticity that permeates their singer, they’ll have a more engaging live show. Until then, they’ll continue to sound like a gaggle of sound without a clear direction.