Wednesday, November 24, 2021

YEAR END LIST: Top 10 Concerts I Saw In 2021

 I'm gonna be 100% honest with you guys before I start this roundup, it feels really good just to be able to rank concerts I went to this past year. After a year and a half away from shows it got to a point during this extended time at home that I didn't think concerts would ever come back in their normal state. I also tortured myself by attending a socially distanced concert in Lubbock and all that did was make me even sadder that concerts couldn't be held in a normal manner. However, with the vaccine rolling out and more states finally repealing social distancing measures, I finally started getting to attend shows again in July and it's been so great to do so.

This list is likely going to be the easiest one to write out of the ones I plan on doing because it's such an easy thing to do. Of course, there will be some bias here and there (see the #1 spot on this list) but this ranking is based on three categories, 1.) my enjoyment of the show, 2.) The quality of the performance, and 3.) the reception by the crowd. So without further ado, here are the 10 best concerts I saw in the past year. 

10. Flatland Cavalry

Flatland Cavalry has been on my list of Texas Country bands to see live list for a while, I think since the first time I heard One I Want. Given the chance to see them at Josh Abbott's festival, I knew I couldn't wait any longer. The band played for a solid hour and 45 minutes and there were a few things that made this show feel pretty special. For one, this was a homecoming show for the band, something that frontman Cleto Cordero touched on a few times and something that made the live version of Tall City Blues hit a little harder. Another thing that made it special was all of the artists hanging out on stage during their set. While this was dubbed as a festival, it was really just a Flatland show with three openers but regardless, it was still cool to see Kolby Cooper, Pecos Hurley, and Josh Abbott and his wife just hanging out while the band was on stage. Abbott did come out and play guitar during the song No Ace in the Hole which was cool but his microphone wasn't on which made it kind of funny. Performance-wise however, Flatland is tight as a knot. On stage, Cleto has fun banter and I think he smiled the most I've seen any performer smile during any show (save for someone I'll mention later). A lot of their songs also translate a lot better live, mainly the songs Some Things Never Change and Coyote (The Ballad of Roy Johnson). The hometown crowd was a great cherry on top too as everyone sang every word back at Cleto and you could tell everyone was having a good time. If you're a fan of Texas Country music and you have yet to see Flatland live, I highly suggest doing it the next time they're in your area.  

9. Phoebe Bridgers

Look, I'll start off with the negatives first because there are a few. First things first, while Phoebe 100% deserved to play a main stage at a major festival like ACL, having her play in the daylight felt almost disrespectful. Speaking of disrespectful, I think this show was the worst that talkers got during the entire weekend, especially during the songs Punisher and Scott Street where at times I couldn't even hear Phoebe over everyone in the crowd. However, when the crowd was attentive, it was magic. Especially during I Know The End where everyone progressively got more and more hyped as the climax of the song inched closer. Phoebe's set started off with an amazing run of songs, going from Motion Sickness (a perfect opener) into Garden Song into Kyoto, the last of which Phoebe said was dedicated to "anyone who's ever had to lie to CPS about their parents." This brings me to my next point, Phoebe is hilarious on stage. Whether she was giving songs wild introductions (my favorite being her introducing the song Chinese Satellites as a song about "being chased by anti-abortion activists" then also dedicating it to Greg Abbott) or asking everyone if they were ready for "more mid-tempo jams," she always had something witty to say in between songs. Her setlist was great too though it mostly leaned heavily on Punisher material, it was all great live. Songs that I didn't care all that much for like Moon Song and Graceland Too sounded miles better live. I hope Phoebe hits the road again soon because I'd like to see her in an environment where this material would be better suited. Preferably a theater or smaller venue that can get dark and really let her visuals pop (because the visuals she had were really cool and deserved more love.)

8. Surfaces

Never thought I'd like a pair of Aggies as much as I did these guys.

Hailing from College Station, Texas, I initially wasn't too sure if I wanted to see Surfaces at ACL Fest. For one, I wasn't too crazy about their latest album Pacifico, a lot of it felt too generic and safe. However, the second the band launched into their opening song, Good Day, I already knew I had made the right choice. I don't know how else to explain this show except for fun and the most positive vibes for any set I saw during the weekend. The crowd ate it all up, Forrest and Colin were super active, bouncing around the stage and even running down through where the barricades divided the crowd during their closer, Sunday Best. Sunday Best live was an experience, you could tell that that was the one song everyone knew for sure and the second the pianos hit, everyone lost their mind. I think a reason I haven't been crazy for their studio material has been because a lot of it feels a little too generic but when they play songs like So Far Away and can throw in a saxophone solo or just jam a little bit, that makes the songs so much better. They also threw in a couple covers, Fly by Sugar Ray and Ain't No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye, the latter of which went over waaaaaaay better than the former. And I know this will be a dumb comparison but in some way, Colin and Forrest sort of reminded me of Cage The Elephant live where one person is singing and the other is holding a guitar and just keeping the crowd hyped up. I don't know, that's just what I drew comparisons to. I also have to point out that Colin was extra appreciative to play this show because in 2017 when he attended the fest, he sent himself an affirmation text saying "gunna make it on these stages one day." 4 years later, he and his bandmates absolutely delivered and made for one of the happiest sets of the weekend. 

7. Koe Wetzel

The first time I saw Koe Wetzel was in 2018. He played a Spring Break show in Corpus Christi and was the second artist to play out of 4 on the bill. Before the show, I tried to listen to a couple of his songs, the first being February 28, 2016, and I remember telling myself, "What's so special about this guy?" A few hours later, Koe and his band took the stage and I swear a tornado blew through Concrete Street Amphitheater. For a full hour, Koe and his band delivered one of the rowdiest, loudest, and most hell-raising shows I have ever seen from an artist in the Texas scene. Fast forward 3.5 years and I finally got the chance to see him again, this time being very familiar with his catalog and his reputation live. Yet once again, he blew through every expectation I had. I want to make something really clear though before I continue this write-up for this show, come here, listen real close. ahem. Koe Wetzel is a rockstar and makes rock music and I won't be debating that claim. Taking the stage promptly at 9:30 PM to an audience of 9000 fans, Koe walked out on stage, grabbed his guitar, threw his guitar stand into the wings of the stage, then immediately kicked us in the teeth opening with Sundy or Mundy and Something To Talk About. There's one massive upgrade from the last time I saw him though and you can probably guess what it is from the picture up above, an increased show production. While the band still rocked just as hard as they did the first time I saw them, it certainly helped to have fog cannons, pyro, fireworks and video screens this time around (even if he didn't use the video screens all that much). And, um, Fuss & Fight live...insanity. I think that's about all I can say about it. Just like Flatland, if you're a fan of Texas music and haven't yet taken the chance to see Koe live, it's an experience and I'd hurry to do it before he's in arenas. 

6. Chris Stapleton

Speaking of arenas, man Chris Stapleton knows how to rock one. I want to give some credit where it's due though for another aspect of this show that I haven't really talked about for anything else listed here. Chris picked excellent openers for this show with both Yola and the legendary Jamey Johnson getting things warmed up before he took the stage. I do have to say though that I was a bit nervous about this show. He had had to cancel a few shows prior to this one due to laryngitis and when I found this out I was nervous for either a) the show to be canceled, or b) Stapleton to take it easy on his voice and maybe not play for as long as he usually does. Both of those notions were wrong however and from his opening song, Nobody to Blame, until the last notes of Outlaw State of Mind, Stapleton sang so effortlessly good like laryngitis had never been an issue for him. Stapleton played for two hours and barely even took breaks to talk to the crowd because it was so focused on the music. Which, yes, the music was very good. I'm a huge Stapleton fan so getting the chance to see him live as close as I did was incredible, but even knowing all of these songs, they all sounded so much better live. Hard Livin' and Second One to Know rocked a little harder live, Millionaire and Broken Halos both led big sing-alongs, and Tennesse Whiskey was the perfect way to cap off his set before going into his encore. I will say that one thing that bummed me out was the fact that his wife, Morganne, was unable to make it to the show that night as, according to Chris, she was home with one of their children who was sick. It didn't completely ruin the experience but it definitely would've made it cooler. Regardless, Stapleton is a beast live and I will definitely be seeing him again should he ever roll through these parts. 

5. Tyler, the Creator

I remember eating breakfast with my mom when I felt my phone vibrate. I turned it over to see ACL had tweeted, "Lineup Addition: Tyler, the Creator has been added to this year’s festival, performing Sunday night of both weekends." He was called in to replace a disgraced DaBaby who had been dropped from DaLineup after his Rolling Loud incident. This was something that was still on my mind even as Tyler played, and not in a positive light. Even from the opening song CORSO, Tyler glided across the stage while fireworks popped behind him and he still rapped every single word without losing his breath, and right as that song ended I said to myself, "I can't believe DaBaby was supposed to be the rap headliner tonight." That's something else that I need to point out. As someone who is a huge fan of Tyler and has been super happy to see him grow both as an artist and in popularity, I was skeptical to see him being billed as a headliner both here and at Lollapalooza but any skepticism was erased as he continued performing. If this music thing ever fails for some reason, Tyler could easily have a career as a stand-up comedian because he is hilarious on stage. Whether he was calling the crowd trash for not singing Boredom loud enough for his standards or repeatedly asking us, "Are y'all sweatin' yet?" to respond with "Good because I am dripping." Perhaps the funniest was him saying how much love he had for the city of Austin even though, "Based on the color of my skin I feel uncomfortable going into a lot of places in this city." Oh, and don't get it twisted, Tyler is one of the best live rappers in the game right now, I could probably count on one hand the active rappers who are better than he is live. Every aspect from the set design to the setlist to his energy on stage was incredible and at times it felt cinematic. The only reason I'm not putting this show higher is that the crowd was pretty lame until mosh pits and a less-than-packed audience allowed me to keep moving closer and closer to the front. By the time I got to where I took that picture, he was dropping IGOR material and NEW MAGIC WAND live is an experience, take my word for it. CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST OUT NOW!

4. St. Vincent

Another reason I'm not listing Tyler higher is because of the set I saw right before his by Texas native Annie Clark, professionally known as St. Vincent. While it took me a while to warm up to her latest album, Daddy's Home, I'm now convinced that it's one of the best albums released this year and I think that live, a lot of the Daddy's Home material slaps a tiny bit harder. Mainly the title track which benefits live from having extended time for solos and the song Down which has some really awesome synth passages live that didn't make it into the studio version. The show was very theatrical with Annie donning a blonde, Marilyn Monroe-esque wig and a set design behind her that looked like a tiny city. I also need to mention the band she had behind her because they were fantastic. While a lot of her music tends to be electronic and synth-heavy, hearing a song like Digital Witness get a funkier reworking or Sugarboy get a little extra distortion makes them all that much better but surprisingly, my favorite performances were songs where Annie wasn't even playing guitar, most notably the song Fast Slow Disco which had me dancing like a fool. That song live is honestly one of the best live performances I've ever heard of any song, I can't explain why but it was just beautiful. As far as guitar songs go, I can't not mention the songs Marrow and Birth in Reverse, Marrow mainly just because it's probably my favorite song she's ever released and it was fantastic live but Birth in Reverse absolutely blew the proverbial roof off of the place and was a kick in the teeth (to use the phrase again) to have right at the beginning of the show. I have plans to attend Innings Festival in Tempe, Arizona this upcoming Spring and I am very stoked to be able to see Annie again. 

3. American Aquarium

In my Principles of Journalism class, I've learned that to be a successful journalist, it's best to be transparent and share whatever biases you have before you make whatever points you need to make so let me do that real quick. A) this was my first live show after a year and a half of no concerts, B) I love BJ Barham, American Aquarium, and their music, and C) this show was at Gruene Hall I mean...come on now. For two hours, BJ Barham and the rest of American Aquarium tried their hardest to burn Gruene Hall down with only two guitars, drums, an organ, and a pedal steel, and they came really close. At 9:15, the band walked on stage to the sound of Smooth by Santana before Barham grabbed his signature red acoustic guitar and started strumming the chords to Casualties from the band's 2012 album, Burn.Flicker.Die. I don't think I saw any show with an opening song as fierce as this one all year. BJ was stomping around on stage, yelling in people's faces, and scooting away from the mic every time the final line of the chorus hit to let the sold-out audience yell, "NOW I'M JUST A CASUALTY OF ROCK AND ROLL!" Speaking of, the crowd was amazing. Being just about the only fan of this band in my inner circle, it was super awesome to be belting out a song like Jacksonville or Tough Folks with 900 other people. I wanted to try and single out some great performances but there were way too many to pick from. I could talk about how passionate BJ got during the final verse of The Long Haul, or maybe I could talk about how incredible the song The World's on Fire was live, but I think the crown jewel of this show was the performance of one of the band's biggest hits, I Hope He Breaks Your Heart. The song had a sing-a-long so loud that I couldn't even hear Barham at all during the chorus and it even prompted my dad to ask, "I wonder what everyone just walking by outside is thinking." The night capped off with a cover of Sammy Kershaw's Queen of My Double Wide Trailer before Barham stood at the merch booth shaking hands and talking to anyone who wanted to stop by. As one of those people who did stop by, I can assure you guys that he is a giant sweetheart and honestly one of the nicest guys I've ever met in this indie country circuit. With a new album planned out for the summer of next year, I can't wait to see what Barham and company have planned both in the studio and for their live shows. 

2. Dayglow

Where do I even begin with this show? While I do still regret leaving before the last two songs of his set, I am both really proud and still blown away at the quick ascension of Sloan Struble's musical project, Dayglow. I actually have ACL to thank for introducing me to him when he was added to the 2019 lineup late. That year he played on the festival's smallest stage, the BMI stage in a brutal time slot between 4 other artists. I wasn't able to see him because the group I was with wanted very badly to be very close to Billie Eilish so I had to stay put at the Honda Stage for the whole day until after her set. That being said, in only two years, Sloan went from just another early-day option to headlining the VRBO stage which is an incredible feat, but enough of me talking him up, the point of this is for me to tell you why it was so great and there was a myriad of reasons. For one, the stage was nestled in a back corner of Zilker Park surrounded by trees on both sides. Second, whoever their lighting guy is needs a raise because the lights for this show were incredible and nailed the vibes of every song he played which leads to my next point. His setlist was packed with banger after banger and he only really slowed down in the middle to tell the story of how, while attending UT Austin, he uploaded his first album Fuzzybrain to SoundCloud before eventually dropping out of college. And last but not least, Sloan Struble. I really don't know how to describe him as a frontman because there's a lot of things I can say about him. For starters, as big as this project has gotten, he still seems pretty shy and nerdy but I feel like that's part of his appeal as well. He doesn't have a larger-than-life ego but he's also not just curled into a ball trying to avoid talking to the crowd, he's honestly just a guy who likes making music and got lucky and all his huge smiles on stage made it feel even more personal (This is who I mentioned earlier as someone who smiled more than Cleto). And speaking of, when the music hits, Sloan turns into a dancing machine. Just from the opening notes of their first song Something, Sloan immediately skipped onto the stage from out of the wings, hit the woah, did a spin, then started singing like nothing happened. He also had a David Byrne like energy during the song with some awkward moves that looked like he was fighting an enemy we couldn't see. Elsewhere through the set, the songs Fair Game and Listerine were both incredible live as was the song False Direction which greatly benefitted from a guitar solo from touring guitarist Colin Crawford. And the last two songs I saw, Crying on the Dancefloor and Close To You were the perfect way to cap off the end of the night. Had ACL not booked the next guy I'm going to talk about, I would easily say that this was the best set of the weekend and the best show I saw this year. It was even better considering I'm a pretty big fan of Dayglow and he still blew me away. However, I can't say that this was the best show I saw this year because ACL did indeed manage to book...

1. George Strait

Again, Journalism Class, biases, let me get those out of the way. For starters, I am a Texan, I was born with George Strait lyrics already memorized. When I was growing up, I absolutely adored George and you can ask any family close to me, Mom, Dad, cousins, aunts, uncles, I literally wanted to be this man when I grew up (I mean I still kinda do but it's a lot less feasible). When it was first rumored that George would be playing I already knew I would be set for a 3 day pass to this festival and that I would be hanging out at his stage all day to be as close as possible to him since I don't ever imagine myself paying thousands of dollars to see him from this close in an arena or stadium.

Alright, biases out of the way. This was my third time being able to see George. I had seen him for my 10th and 14th birthday in Little Rock, Arkansas and Denver, Colorado, respectively. Of course, never from this close and never as appreciative as I was of this opportunity to see him. I can confidently say that at 69 years old, George has never missed a beat and he still sounds incredible live. His voice may have gotten a little more baritone over the years but outside of that, he still sounds identical to how he sounded on Strait Country. Maybe it was just because of how close I was or how awesome the crowd was but I think this is the best of the three times I've been able to see George. He usually enjoys playing live ever since he retired from touring but for some reason I feel like he was extra appreciative to be headlining a fest like ACL, a fest where you also had the option of seeing Miley Cyrus at the same time or Billie Eilish and Tyler, the Creator on the same stage as him in the two days after. He seemed in really good spirits telling the crowd that "We were originally supposed to do this a year ago and we're so glad we finally made it." He also said that whoever thought the festival up deserved a medal. His stage banter was brief but it was always followed by a laugh or a smile before he would launch into his next song. One of my favorites being when George noticed someone, who I see yearly, holding a sign cut out in the shape of a guitar pick reading, "pick me!" He tried to throw the pick but he said, "It's hot, I'm sweating, I tried, sorry," after the pick didn't even clear the subwoofers in front of the stage. I know this will sound stupid to say just given that he's George Strait but of course, his setlist was just hit after hit for 2 solid hours and while he did drop in a few new songs, everything felt super consistent and the 2 hours went by way faster than I expected them to. As he walked off the stage after The Cowboy Rides Away, it sort of hit me that this might be the last chance I ever get to see him live. If this ends up being true, I can't complain, he was incredible, and there's no doubt in my mind that this is the best concert I saw in all of 2021.