The 20 Most Overrated Live Acts in Music

Adele
Adele
Photo by Timothy Norris

It's happened to all of us: You plunk down your hard-earned cash on expensive concert tickets to see your favorite band, only to have your expectations crushed by bad sound, a weird set list, lackluster showmanship or all of the above.

Every band deserves a pass every once in awhile, but some just consistently underperform, or have been coasting for far too long on past glories. As much as we love the music of every artist on this list (well, OK...most of the artists on this list), these are the live acts that just don't live up to the hype.

ChvrchesEXPAND
Chvrches
Flickr/GabboT

20. Chvrches

Two years later, and I still haven't gotten beyond the first track on Chvrches' 2013 debut The Bones of What You Believe. I'm still seeing stars. At the time I thought "The Mother We Share" is what The Knife should have sounded like. But live at the Wiltern, the stage presence of singer Lauren Mayberry — who stood there for an hour like an animatronic puppet missing an emotion chip — had me longing for a punch in the face, or an actual knife to slit my wrists. "I really don't dance," she said, which would have been fine, but no amount of lasers and brilliantly timed lighting tricks can hide a singer that looks like she'd rather be reading a book than performing. Mayberry on the stage was like Jason Bentley checking out during an interview on "Morning Becomes Eclectic." A traffic jam on the 405 would have been more energizing. — Art Tavana

The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady
Photo by Timothy Norris

19. The Hold Steady

If you saw The Hold Steady in 2008 after the release of Stay Positive, if might have been revelatory, with the energy of a hardcore show but the musical sensibility of classic rock. If you didn’t know the words, you had keyboardist Franz Nicolay on hand to coach you. Flash forward to their recent runs, and everything that was once special has grown stale. Nicolay is gone, the venue size and set length have remained stagnant, and the ratio of dudes to non-dudes at the shows has become more and more troublesome. — Philip Cosores

18. M83

Plenty of bands have built wonderful performances out of Simple-Simon synth refrains and endlessly repetitive keyboard arpeggios, but only M83 does it with an insufferable sense of self-importance. Onstage the French electro-rockers act like they're changing the world, when in fact all their doing is making a fancy spectacle. When thousands of people start screeching along to the main riff of “Midnight City” like a pack of mindless banshees, you know it’s time to call it a night. — Peter Holslin

Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire
Photo by Timothy Norris

17. Arcade Fire

Wayne Coyne of the Flamings Lips (don't worry — we'll get to them) called Arcade Fire pompous pricks once, and though he later retracted that, he also said he wasn’t a fan of their “'we’re gonna survive' kind of music.” Clearly, a lot of people are, though. Arcade Fire were darlings and inexplicably had cred the minute their debut, Funeral, was released. And yeah, Funeral was good, but it wasn’t the paradigm-shifting musical second coming it was touted to be — more like an update of classic rockers like Bruce Springsteen and U2, only less compelling. And yes, I think so even when they play live. Sure they’re rather overwhelming on stage, but mass doesn’t always equal power. I’ve seen them turn in murky vocals and lack engagement. Plus, the pomposity Coyne spoke of is part of who they are at this point, and it’s a big turn off, tainting even their fieriest moments. — Lina Lecaro

Animal Collective
Animal Collective
Photo by Timothy Norris

16. Animal Collective

Can I interest you in 40 minutes of feedback punctuated by the chirps of starving baby birds? What about that and you're surrounded by a bacchanal of sweaty, pulse-quickened white dudes in panda masks? Crowd concerns aside, Animal Collective is distinctive in that it may not matter whether they play more or less accessible parts of their undeniably impressive catalog, because the song as recorded may bear little resemblance to the song you hear live. That's the beauty of AC and experimental music in general. The flip side is there's no telling whether you've signed up for something transcendent or merely a sound experiment — where you're the lab rat. — Patrick James

Red Hot Chili Peppers
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Warner Bros. Records

15. The Red Hot Chili Peppers

At their best in the studio, RHCP can sound like the world's coolest frat party, a keg-stand-worthy mishmash of funk, butt-rock, jam-band psychedelic noodling (thank you, John Frusciante) and a few immortal, hug-it-out power ballads (whatever you think of the rest of their catalog, "Under the Bridge" is hard to deny). But live, they can seem oddly bloodless, as Anthony Kiedis' limited vocal range gets exposed and Frusciante's colorful trips into the light fantastic diverge ever more wildly from the unending one-man bass-guitar funk-fest that is Flea. Since Frusciante's departure, his less flashy replacement Josh Klinghoffer has further highlighted the band's weaknesses, making their live shows less "Get Up and Jump," more "Fortune Faded." — Andy Hermann

Adele
Adele
Photo by Timothy Norris

14. Adele

Her songs have been so overplayed that if you held a shotgun to the average person’s head and demanded them, they’d be able to spit out most of her lyrics. So how is it that the woman who wrote them and had been performing them for months-straight couldn’t get them straight? Like (almost) everyone who saw her at the Hollywood Bowl a few years ago, I was aghast that she barely brought her C game to such a legendary venue. What’s worse, like a novice, she called her mum to let her know she was standing on stage. Then-newcomer and opener Janelle Monae left her cutesy amateur shit back at the high school talent show. Even with a day’s notice due to Etta James' last-minute cancelation, her other opener, funk-soul goddess Chaka Khan, barely broke a sweat blowing people’s minds. What was Adele’s excuse? She was wearing too much make-up. Aw. — Paul T. Bradley

TV on the Radio
TV on the Radio
Timothy Norris

13. TV on the Radio

TV on the Radio has always been a hit or miss live band, with enough players on stage to make mixing a hazard, and the horns sounding either outstanding or horrendous. But while technical difficulties are forgivable, the band has long settled into a “festival set” rut, determined to remain a mid-tier band, not playing for much longer than an hour and always carting out the same parade of hits with sub-par new tracks shuffled in. With as many great albums as the band has to draw from, it is disappointing that TVotR never revisits deeper cuts from Return to Cookie Mountain or Dear Science. — Philip Cosores

Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen
Photo by Timothy Norris

12. Bruce Springsteen

I am a Jersey kid, so it pains me to say this, but The Boss is past his prime. His breath control, never the best even in his "Glory Days," is now so bad that he sounds like Gary Busey after running up a flight of stairs, gasping out verses while his overly guitar-laden band (seriously, guys, do you really need Bruce, Patty, Nils and Little Steven strumming away on every song?) bashes away behind him. The twin losses of Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici have robbed the once-mighty E Street Band of much of its magic, and their set lists nowadays lean too heavily on Springsteen's sub-par recent catalog and cover songs either too obvious ("Proud Mary") or way too leftfield ("Highway to Hell"? really?). I'm not saying The Boss should retire — far from it — but maybe a nice solo acoustic tour, heavy on Nebraska and the more introspective corners of his classic '70s catalog, would be a long-overdue hit of the reset button. — Andy Hermann

Wu-Tang Clan
Wu-Tang Clan
Photo by Timothy Norris

11. Wu-Tang Clan

It feels so monumental when Wu-Tang plays that no matter how inspired the performance is, you're bound to be disappointed. Too often you get a parade of killa bees dropping one recognizable verse at a time, followed by an exploding gong, repeated ad infinitum. The result is a whole that's less than the sum of its (glorious) parts. The worst shows recall the finale of another 1990s New York phenomenon, Seinfeld — where the governing principle was trot out one bit character after another and hope it buys enough good will to carry an otherwise forgettable event. But show me a solo monk with a couple guest spots (say, GZA doing Liquid Swords at the Echoplex) and you've got the hottest of hot fire. — Patrick James

The Pixies
The Pixies
Timothy Norris

10. The Pixies

When the Pixies reunited at Coachella in 2004, I almost started crying out of disappointment. Listless and not quite in tune, the band played a set that may have been mind-blowing in a seedy-but-hip club decades earlier. At Coachella, though, it sounded half-assed. The moral of the day: Reunion shows will never make up for the fact that your parents deemed you "too young" to see the Pixies open for the Cure at Dodger Stadium. I split early and years passed before I could listen to them again. Then I remembered that what made the Pixies great were albums like Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, not a reunion show. — Liz Ohanesian

9. Brian Jonestown Massacre

It's not the Brian Jonestown Massacre's fault that some folks first heard them following the release of Dig!, a documentary about BJM, The Dandy Warhols, and each band's acerbic frontman. It's just a shame that BJM's Anton Newcombe often lives up to the portrait the film paints of him — egocentric, toxic, willing to sabotage entire sets arbitrarily. The dude may be a musical genius, but he also embodies the worst aspects of hipsterdom: nostalgia-worship, drug use, ennui that borders on audience hatred. After Dig! came out, folks would go on and on about how the threat of an onstage meldown lent BJM shows a powerful tension. What I saw was rote bickering that distracted from otherwise brilliant songs. — Patrick James

Kings of LeonEXPAND
Kings of Leon

8. Kings of Leon

After growing a goofy beard in 2008, my hipster boss was duped by KROQ into believing the gimmick of Kings of Leon being some whiskey-shooting "Southern Rock Strokes." In October, he offered me some tickets to see Kings of Leon at a 7,000 sellout of manufactured '70s nostalgia at the Nokia Theatre. I fell for the hype and wanted to impress my overlord, so I went. Kings of Leon turned out to be 90 minutes of muppet-like stadium rock that was so awful it drew the likes of Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron. The first sign a rock 'n' roll band is destined to be overcooked Top 40 bacon? High School Musical groupies. Caleb Followill didn't even vomit, which would have been better than standing next to rich brats swaying to the fireside coyote-pop of the worst ballad ever written: "Revelry." — Art Tavana

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7. The Flaming Lips

The visuals were incomparable, but even the dazzle of hundreds of spherical red balloons backlit by flashbulb-bright lights still didn’t make up for the Flaming Lips’ lackluster, too-short performance at their 2013 “Halloween Show” at the Greek. Just as October 29 isn’t quite Halloween, the Flaming Lips aren’t quite what they were five or 10 years ago — openers Tame Impala did a far better job of stirring psychedelic excitement. When the Lips closed their 75-minute set with the always lovely “Do You Realize,” it felt like a passionate goodnight kiss at the end of a bad date — stirring, but not saving. And a reminder of what should have been. — L.J. Williamson

6. The Rolling Stones

I'm sure Mick and Keef were riveting in their day. Hell, all the filmmakers had to do for long stretches of the 1970 doc Gimme Shelter was point the camera at Jagger and let him do his snake-hips thing. But that was 45 years ago. More recently, anyone who wasn't too busy fawning over the Stones' legacy on their 50th anniversary tour couldn't help but notice that Keith Richards often seems hardly bothered to play in time and Jagger has become a septuagenarian caricature of a rock star, pausing between each shimmy to make sure his spine is still in one piece. Even a series of awkward stunt guest appearances by the likes of Carrie Underwood and Lady Gaga couldn't conceal the fact that these geriatric rockers need to call it a day. — Andy Hermann

Death Cab for Cutie
Death Cab for Cutie
Photo by Timothy Norris

5. Death Cab for Cutie 

Even if you’re all about a man-baby turning his hand-scrawled adolescent poetry into an adult whimper-fest, and even if you’re truly delighted by the apparent cleverness of songs about car part names, and even if you just want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other entitled, sweater-naming adults and sway along to stock ballads while imagining yourself enrobed in a thick Pacific Northwest fog, you’re going to be disappointed. Frankly, you’ll only be stoked by a Death Cab for Cutie show if you want to see an awkward man fumble through presumably practiced songs he wrote himself with a band that has also presumably practiced. — Paul T. Bradley

4. (Nearly) every single EDM headliner

Once upon a time, hearing a DJ set at an electronic music festival meant hearing something original and unrehearsed. DJs actually played records, or at least CDs, and they were often ones you had never heard before, skillfully mixed together with other records to create new combinations of sounds no one had ever heard before. Now, EDM fans can count themselves lucky if the dude up there pressing "Play" on his laptop is at least surrounded by a bunch of cool projection screens. A handful of mostly old-school acts still play improvisational DJ sets the old-fashioned way, or build tracks from the ground up with live gear, but too many now trot out the same tired hits in the same tired sequences, jumping on the mic to lamely hype up the crowd when their formulaic sets fail to do the trick. Sorry, guys, but the coolest projection screens in the world can't compensate for how bored you look up there. — Andy Hermann

3. Kanye West

He’s probably the easiest target on this entire list thanks to his meglomanical ways and his over-exposed TV-star wife — but keeping this just about Kanye West’s performance chops is kind of impossible. The arrogant Yeezy of stage and record is the genuinely arrogant Yeezy of real life. There’s no arguing his wickedness with words and beat production. But is he as powerful as Jay-Z or eloquent as his predecessors (Tupac, Biggie, Snoop)? No way. I’ve seen him perform in concert only a couple of times, but that was more than enough. His shows are like going to the Super Bowl and church at the same, with West as the championship team, the sore loser and the messiah all in one. Yes, bravado is a big part of hip-hop’s appeal, but Kanye always proves that it can be overdone. At some point, watching him becomes a “bless his heart” sort of thing. You can tell that Kanye West really believes he’s the best… and when it comes to over-rating Kanye West, he is. — Lina Lecaro

ToolEXPAND
Tool

2. Tool

I decided to go see Tool at Staples Center in 2006, you know, a few months after they played Coachella with Madonna. I should have known better. There he was, a semi-retired Maynard James Keenan, wearing a cowboy hat and looking like a Midwestern ranch hand, dancing to the rhythm of shit that sounded like a sterile CD-R I burned in the early 2000s. It was like seeing a Tool cover band playing the mall, with disco lasers highlighting a motionless guitar player, Adam Jones, who looked like he was drifting off into an opium-induced coma. This wasn't the Tool live act I heard about in the '90s — when Maynard would twitch through an entire set, like an alien fetus feeding off operatic metal; when drummer Danny Carey would smash occult symbols like a Viking god in space. Tool in 2006 was too geometrically precise, too bored with their own inflated metal-for-math-majors act to be anything more than a conference call version of their former selves.There was no mystique or Gollum body paint (Maynard wore designer jeans). Seeing Tool on a chair cushion in a basketball stadium was like seeing Mudvayne playing a residency at Planet Hollywood. I felt like a massive tool that night. — Art Tavana

Radiohead's Thom Yorke
Radiohead's Thom Yorke
Timothy Norris

1. Radiohead

My hands are actually shaking as I type this: Radiohead are the most over-rated band in modern rock. Now that it’s in black and white, on the internet forever, and I’ve crossed the proverbial picket line of esoteric criticism (ensuring I’ll never snag that job at Pitchfork), here’s why: They’re an interesting and yes, talented band, but somewhere along the way the guy who first mused about outsider Creep-dom actually became “special”… so very special, to a lot of people. And they bought into it. Radiohead’s songwriting peaked with The Bends, and starting with the admittedly captivating OK Computer, it became more about the process of creating unique soundscapes and the convoluted (deep) expression of that process than the actual music. Acclaim for the cosmic slop of Kid A only cemented the band’s often pretentious and sometimes pointless conceptual tendencies.

I've seen them twice — both times at Coachella — and while the medicated masses seemed to find them transcendent, those who of us who didn’t drink the desert Kool-Aid thought Thom Yorke and company not only selfish on stage (they turned the Jumbotrons off so faraway fans couldn’t see them), but kind of a snooze. When you see a live show, it shouldn’t be about the process. It should be performed for the fans, not at the fans, and definitely not in spite of the fans. Radiohead just don’t seem to care either way. — Lina Lecaro


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