Enjoy their top picks for the best shows of 2011, and feel free to leave a comment with your favorite concert memory from this year.
U2 at Busch Stadium - July 17
My favorite concert of the year -- hands down -- was U2 at Busch Stadium. It was spectacular! Granted, it was U2, the most commercially successful band ever in the world -- some may snicker and say the most sold-out band that could ever be -- but it was remarkable, even mind-blowing. It was an event that broadcast throughout the downtown area in a most hair-raising, smile-and-shout-inducing I don't care what you say there is no denying this! kind of moment. I dragged my jaw all the way back to the house and had to sip chamomile tea for two days to even begin to recover from the awesomeness. I believe! I believe that was it -- and I only watched from outside the gates with Virginia, both of us floored completely. When something on that grand of a scale and yet so piercingly intimate happens, one has to not only pay attention, but bow down in shivers, then dance uncontrollably in the streets.
Foreign Exchange at 2720 Cherokee - November 15
I went to quite a few concerts this year, but the most memorable by far was the Foreign Exchange concert at 2720 Cherokee in November. This was the first time FE performed in St. Louis after releasing three albums; the anticipation was palpable. The room was packed and the crowd was electric when the band took the stage. By the second song, frontman Phonte Coleman had already decided this would not be the last time they'd come here. Before the night was over, the audience managed to fall into a totally spontaneous electric slide.
PJ Morton at Lola - July 3
In July I had the privilege of watching one of my all-time favorite indie soul music artists perform. It was none other than PJ Morton and his awesome band. This show happened at the last minute but the memories are timeless. PJ brought the house down with a highly energetic set of newer and older material. The place was packed and the vibe was amazing! Definitely a best concert of 2011.
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears at Off Broadway - June 16
My favorite show of 2011 had to be Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears at Off Broadway in June. It was a hot night and Off Broadway was packed. The show was amazing. The energy that Black Joe Lewis brings to the stage borders on maniacal. The show they put on was filled with electricity and a swagger that doesn't come through town every night. It was definitely my favorite show of 2011.
Ray Brown Tribute Band at Jazz at the Bistro - March 16
Legendary bassist Ray Brown's legacy is still alive and well. This past March, Jazz at the Bistro showcased the Ray Brown Tribute Band, featuring three of the jazz world's top performers: Benny Green on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums.
The vibe at the Bistro was electric as the crowd buzzed with anticipation. These three musicians, though all top players in today's jazz scene, had never shared the stage together as a trio. The amount of rehearsal, or lack thereof, actually gave a really cool flow to the night. The show epitomized the true essence of jazz, improvisation. With most likely no rehearsal at all, the band took turns calling tunes they collectively knew. The fact that they weren't well rehearsed made it much more entertaining for the crowd as the musicians had to be intensively, aurally involved, and had to have great communication on stage and on the fly.
The trio covered a wide range of styles that kept the audience's full attention. Included in the set were burning bop numbers at breakneck tempos, like Dizzy Gillespie's "Bebop" and slow, soulful, heavy-swinging tunes like Neal Hefti's "Li'l Darlin'." The group also played some of their originals like Green's "Phoebe's Samba." Between tunes the band would take turns talking to the crowd about the piece they were about to play. They were all great storytellers, and this kept the performance very informative but in a laid back way as they mixed in humor as well.
Green's swinging, bluesy solo lines were reminiscent of Oscar Peterson, though also had the bebop chops of a Phineas Newborn and the thematic development of a Bill Evans. Simply phenomenal. Christian McBride's bass solos were so full of soul that nobody could stay in their seats. Never have I seen such a perfect combination between simple funk-filled lines and lightning-fast chops. The man had complete control of his instrument, as did everyone in the group. The power and animalistic energy coming out of Hutchinson's drum grooves rocked the room and had the crowd on their feet time and time again.
Smiles seemed to be permanently stitched across the faces of the audience throughout the set and especially on the encore of Ray Brown's composition "Buhaina, Buhaina," a tribute to the great drummer Art Blakey.
Funky Butt Brass Band
Paul Simon at the Fox Theatre - November 15
I think I might have had an out-of-body experience at Paul Simon's most recent concert at the Fox, and I mean that in the best way possible. His voice was in fine form, the band was incredibly versatile (at some point, I think every musician onstage picked up at least one different instrument) and the music was transcendent. I'm a big fan of his latest record, "So Beautiful Or So What," and I loved hearing those tunes performed live. But even the older hits seemed rejuvenated, and in playing them, Paul did, too.
John Henry and the Engine
Langhorne Slim at Lincoln Hall (Chicago) - August 24
This summer we were lucky to get to do some shows with Langhorne Slim. He is one of my favorite artists. We were at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, and he was sick and losing his voice. Before the show he was laying low and drinking Jameson to keep his throat good. Seemed pretty down and out for the night. But when he came out he killed it, really owned the room. It was such a high energy and soulful show, never would have guessed he was feeling like he was. It was great to see that commitment up close. That was my favorite show of the year.
The Half Knots
Of the handful of shows that I did get to go to in 2011, my fave was actually out of town. I saw that Centro-matic and Sarah Jaffe were coming to Off Broadway in early July. I had tickets to see Will Johnson in a living room show in May and had to miss it because my son's band concert was on the same night. I kicked myself again because we were going to be out of town for the Off Broadway show. Thankfully, we were able to catch them on June 30 at the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan. The show kicked ass. I love Centro-matic's new album and Matt Pence is one of my top five favorite drummers of all time. I think Sarah Jaffe is a really promising new talent, and even though there were some awkward moments live, her strong songwriting still shone through.
In town, my favorite would have to be seeing Josh Ritter at Off Broadway in July. It was about 120 degrees in there, but it was the first time I'd seen him live after being a fan for over a decade, and he had a great energy that was able to overcome the oppressive heat in the room.)
Sade at the Scottrade Center - July 28
I wasn't truly aware of Sade until her 2010 release "Soldier of Love." My now-wife bought me "Lovers Rock" (2000) later that year when we met, and I fell deeper. This summer, synchronicity brought Sade through town on her first tour in nine years. From the militant electro-rock opener of "Soldier of Love," Sade and her band covered all the best parts of music. I didn't know a diva capable of dominating an arena so easily -- as if you were in a listening room one moment and a big '80s dance party the next -- could be so deeply artistic and inspiring.
The Bo-Keys at Wood House Concerts - July 15
My concert of the year was the Bo-Keys at Wood House Concerts in July. The band consists of Memphis soul brothers who played in the Hi Rhythm section (Al Green, O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles) along with the guitarist from the Isaac Hayes band. As a huge fan of Memphis soul music, I accepted Rick Wood's proposal to offer up my drum kit for the show. Before the show I met the drummer, Mr. Howard Grimes. He was kind while tuning my drum kit to his specs. I was in awe watching him "quietly" tune my drums while setting up the Ludwig aluminum snare drum that graced all those classic Hi Records albums.
From the first couple instrumental tunes, I could tell that Howard hadn't lost a step on the drums, and the band followed suit getting locked in the groove. There was a tambourine player next to Howard who added just the right touch to the songs. Surprisingly, that tambourine player is the soul great, Percy Wiggins. When Percy stepped up to the mic to sing, it really kicked in.
The band played songs from its new record "Gotta Get Back" and then some soul standards that knocked me out. Hearing Percy sing "Book Of Memories" -- an old song recently unearthed from the Atlantic record vaults -- was southern soul heaven. It continued as they kicked out one classic after another. "Love and Happiness" was another burner. Howard Grimes played drums on the original and kept the beat locked in and the band followed. I couldn't keep my eyes off Howard. Every little nuance of his playing was a joy to see and hear.
Charles "Skip" Pitts, the guitarist in the band, sang a few numbers too. His voice is shot and very scratchy -- a "Wolfman Jack" sound. Hearing his wah-wah guitar licks on "Shaft" brought smiles from the whole room. Enter the bass player and the recently enlisted keyboardist and you have the southern soul revival band. Howard mentioned after the show he'll be turning 64 soon. He was enjoying himself all night and I told him he's "still got it!" That was the key. The band kept it up for the whole show.
Talking with the keyboardist after the show, I asked about their following in Memphis. He said most people down there just take it for granted. I let him know that St. Louis and KDHX appreciate their soulful musicianship. It was a special evening that I'll never forget.
Tight Pants Syndrome
Old Lights at LouFest - August 28
For some reason, it took me until this year's LouFest to see this "local" act live, and they turned out to be my favorite set of the fest. (Take that, Cat"erwauling" Power!) Old Lights played a smoking, incredibly entertaining set of widescreen pop gems -- many from their recent "Like Strangers" EP, which is one of the best records this year, period. Unpretentious and easy, this is a crack live outfit -- and a band you definitely need in your record collection. Or flash drive, or whatever. (Honorable mention goes to Troubadour Dali, whose scorching LouFest set the following afternoon was my second fave LouFest 2011 performance.)
Cassie Morgan and the Lonely Pine
Gillian Welch at the Pageant - September 3
Sharing the sacred space of the stage behind a simple set of microphones, Welch and partner David Rawlings held me completely captive from start to finish. Of course I was already sold on the quality of Welch's songs, but witnessing them live made me even more of a believer. With Welch and Rawlings it's the little things, and to me they got everything right. Their vocal harmonies were effortless, Rawlings' guitar work was other-worldly and Welch's delivery was spot-on. Watching this gorgeous musical partnership was downright mesmerizing, and more profound than any other concert experience I had this year.
Bruiser Queen and solo artist
Gillian Welch at the Pageant - September 3
The first time I got to see Gillian and David was the day after my 21st birthday. I finally got to see them again on a stormy Saturday evening almost ten years later. With just the two of them on a huge, bare stage, they played a variety of favorites spanning all five album's worth of material. Between a wardrobe malfunction with her dress and a power outage, Gillian didn't let that shorten her 22-song set list. The second set ended with "Caleb Meyer" (my all-time fave), and was the same song they ended on in 2001. Two encores later the show ended in a mass sing-along of "I'll Fly Away."
Teddy Presberg's Resistance Organ Trio
Garage a Trois at 2720 Cherokee - September 30
Garage a Trois at 2720 was a highlight for me for out-of-town bands. I've always enjoyed these guys a lot and recently they added Marco Benevento in place of Charlie Hunter. The music has evolved into a much deeper space with Marco. There are still elements of jazz, but it's buried in noise riffs and psychedelic grooves. Lots of risks are taken on stage, but they all know each other so well it seems effortless.
Paper Dolls and Jump Starts
Bo and the Locomotive at Schlafly Tap Room - October 1
Bo and the Locomotive returned from their East Coast tour at full throttle, with a powerful welcome home show that ended with a bang. The band began the song "Time" as usual, but something extraordinary unfolded. Steven's drum set was dismantled as he played, losing cymbals and toms to members of Pretty Little Empire and Union Tree Review. A cowbell, tambourine and floor tom joined in and an awesome drum circle of local musicians exploded. The energy was amazing, the camaraderie obvious, and I could do nothing but dance, jaw dropped.
The Jans Project and the Love Experts
The Bangles at the Pageant - October 8
The keepers of the flame just keep getting better as the years go by -- and better looking! They've always been a great live act, but this was the best I've ever seen them. Great musicians singing and playing a tremendous set list of one powerful pop gem after another as well as several inspired A+ covers, and the best harmonies this side of the Mamas & the Papas. What's not to love?
My Morning Jacket at the Pageant - August 2
I saw quite a few shows this year but the My Morning Jacket show at the Pageant in August was by far and away the best. It was a communal experience. It reminded me why I love rock 'n' roll so much. For just under three hours the audience was sent into orbit from the sheer power of the music. Paste Magazine recently called Jim James and the Jackets the heir apparent to the Boss -- yes, that Boss. If you were there, then you have a good idea why they would make such a claim.
The Morning After Girls at Off Broadway - October 13
The best show of 2011 in St. Louis was also the one that most of St. Louis missed. The confines of Off Broadway are always welcoming and on a warm fall night the Aussie by way of New York transplants the Morning After Girls brought their brand of spacey neo-psychedelia to St. Louis. An extremely small crowd was treated to blistering atmospheric and space-tinged rock 'n' roll hits with lush harmonies and melodies harkening back to the Verve's "A Storm In Heaven." Sacha Lucashenko and Martin B. Sleeman shared the vocal duties throughout as they stormed through songs from their Ride, BJM and Dandies influenced debut "Preludes" and the more Spiritualized and Pink Floyd tinged follow up "Alone." Powerful, raw, epic and lysergic. Pure beauty!
Free Energy at the Firebird - July 20
These boys took great care to craft a "classic rock" debut album ("Stuck on Nothing"), but after touring with it for over a year, they finally tapped the primal essay writer energy that makes for killer rock. It was an exuberant, loose-but-tight affair, and lead guitarist Scott Wells fully evoked a Mick Ronson/Jimmy Page vibe without a hint of cheese. If they can capture this road energy in the studio, the next record is gonna be a killer.
Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three at Off Broadway - August 19
It's a Friday night. I hurry through a gig of my own so that I can get to Off Broadway in time to see Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three. My band mates and I park, head toward the venue, and come to a stunned stand-still in the middle of the street. The line stretches over a block as throngs of fans wait to get inside for the second of two sold-out shows in one evening. The peppy, folk-tinged performance did not disappoint the masses who smilingly squeezed into the overflowing venue. We are St. Louis. We love our music and we show it. It doesn't get much better than this, folks.