2018 wasn't a great year for a lot of things, which may be why it was such a great year for live music. The best live shows this year were both joyful celebrations and visceral escapes, gatherings that incited us to sing along, dance like nobody was watching or simply stand in awe to witness it all come together onstage, the artist conjuring an extrasensory spell and connecting everyone in the room/theater/club/arena no matter how big or small. Performers can miss the mark sometimes — they phone it in for the dough, they let their own drama ruin the vibe or they take the self-indulgent route and don't give us what we want (yes, we want the hits, or least a lot of them). But when they're really feeling the music, they can't not make us feel it too, and it's pure bliss.
There were a lot of big, blissful shows in L.A this year. Yes, we all hate the ubiquitous cellphone in the air, but personally, I can't blame people for wanting to capture this magic to keep it with them forever or share it with a world not lucky enough to experience it in person. Don't get me wrong, being present during a great performance is everything, but photos and video prove to the world — and later, to ourselves — that the extraordinary thing we saw and felt actually happened the way we remember it. All I really know is I was pretty damn lucky this year, and so were you if you were at any of these shows.
10. Cal Jam with Foo Fighters, Iggy Pop, Greta Van Fleet and more at Glen Helen Regional Park
When I think about joyful performance, I think Foo Fighters top the list. Dave Grohl will never be too cool to geek out onstage and giddily bust out your favorite song in a sweaty T-shirt and face full of hair. He brought this exuberance to the festival circuit with CalJam, and his second installment this past October was everything it could and should have been. Joan Jett joined the Foos onstage (for some Nirvana!), Iggy did his thing, defiantly still shirtless at 71, and Tenacious D (on the second stage) brought grins and grinds galore. It also was an opportunity for many who'd been hearing about Greta Van Fleet to finally see for themselves if they were the second coming of Led Zeppelin, as they'd been touted the past couple years. In terms of material the answer is no. The retro rockers lack the bluesy hooks and rapturous mysticism of Zepp, but they possess real chops vocally and instrumentally, plus they're young and hungry and cute (in a Greg Brady as hippie rocker Johnny Bravo sort of way). They gave me real hope for the future, or rather, for the greatness of the past to re-emerge in the future.
9. War and George Clinton at the Greek
George Clinton touted this as his final L.A. show before retirement but — shocker! — he ended up playing the Novo several months later, and we're guessing he'll be back. Doesn't matter, though. Clinton's live shows the past few years have been all over the place, cosmic slop that meshes P-Funk freakouts with the audacious alchemy of his later-era jams. He always brings lots of people onstage and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's a party regardless and we hope it's not really over. War, on the other hand, were a revelation at this summer show. From rhythmic raves like "Why Can't We Be Friends," "Lowrider" and "Cisco Kid" to smooth crooners like "Slipping Into Darkness" and "All Day Music," they turned in a flawless performance that was also loose and spontaneous, with a multiracial/generational crowd (old cholos, young families, stoners who know good shit) coming together to figuratively "spill the wine" and feel very fine.
8. The Bomboras at Catch One
Mondo Hollywood, a two-day festival of garage, punk and rockabilly from local promoter Brando Von Badsville, was a loud, sexy and furious two-day fest for the grease and grind crowd, featuring burlesque, DJs and a slew of psychobilly faves (Guana Batz, Three Bad Jacks) and psych-tinged stompers (The Schizophonics, The Flytraps). The atmosphere was revved up but somewhat chaotic, so nobody really stood out. But the fest's closing band, The Bomboras — who hadn't played together in years — were an exhilarating exception. Dressed in their usual skeleton garb, the surf guitar–driven ghouls rocked their instrumental tailbones off and gave the crowd the fiery finale they hoped for via their infamous flaming organ climax. A volcanic performance, indeed.
7. Lenny Kravitz at the Palladium
Lisa Bonet's current hubby, Jason Momoa, may be getting all the attention these days, but her first love is still doing his thang and doing it well. Very well. Lenny Kravitz is a Gen-X–era rock star, his biggest hits having been in the '90s, but damn, this dude can still rock a crowd and he proved it at the Palladium in October. He released a fierce and funky new album this year, Raise Vibration, and I'm not sure why it didn't chart higher, but nevertheless, Lenny still thrives live, meshing old and new seamlessly onstage. Of course, the tracks from his debut, Let Love Rule, and emotive follow-up, Mama Said, are enough to satisfy live, and songs like "What the Fuck Are We Saying" and "Mr. Cab Driver" resonate more than ever in Trump era. Here's hoping Kravitz continues to call it out as he raises new vibrations.
6. Joe Perry and Friends at the Roxy.
Read my full review here.
5. Weezer at the Forum
Read my full review here.
4. Nick Cave at the Forum
Fans of Nick Cave fancy him a god of some sort, and it's a role he lives up to every time he performs. Usually he plays many nights at smaller venues, so when it was announced he'd be at the Forum in 2018, some fans were put off. How would the intimacy and energy of his shows play in such a large space? Turns out Cave can turn any locale into a house of musical worship. Dark, dramatic and immersive (even in an arena) Cave's Forum concerts brought out L.A.'s bad seeds (I see more people I know — all wearing black, natch — at his shows than any other) and allowed us to soak up his bleak and beauteous musings and soundscapes in a new way. Dozens were even invited to plant themselves onstage with him during the concert, something I've never seen at the Forum.
3. Jack White at the Mayan
Jack White's 2018 release, Boarding House Reach, was my favorite new record of the year and that's because it saw the artist truly stretch himself in new ways. White is an old garage rocker with blues on the brain and fuzz on his fingers, and his vocals vary from sweet country croonin' to ravaging punky rants. But with the new one, he infused '70s-style funk (see Clinton and Parliament) and even some hip-hip hues, albeit metallic ones that reference Rage Against the Machine. The result was a disjointed but utterly dynamic record and an even more cacophonous live show. For his Mayan gig he held back nothing and for once nobody seemed to mind the show being heavy on the new material. He still played the mandatory "Seven Nation Army," though. No pics of this one, not even a grainy cell shot — White hired one of those locking-pouch companies for cellphones, a trend I hope others don't follow next year.
2. Echo & the Bunnymen at Immanuel
L.A. Weekly used to have a format for live reviews that noted our "critical bias" at the end of each review, a weird but I guess valid note to include. If we were still doing that, mine would be "teenage new wave crush" for Echo & the Bunnymen, as the band's singer, Ian McCulloch, was "it" for me in the '80s, posters on the wall and all. Seeing him turn in performances over the years varying from meh to marvelous, my fascination has been unwavering. The beauty of Bunnymen's tortured and romantic balladry, contrasted with the aggressive tempos and heavy hooks of their faster stuff, has been a ride I take again and again, on record and every time they come to town as well. Mac can be aloof onstage but this time he was really connected with the crowd, even when he rambled incoherently between songs and admitted to doing so. His delivery was impassioned and gorgeous even during the moments when he went slightly off-key. He played all the hits ("Never Stop," "Killing Moon," "Seven Seas," "Lips Like Sugar," etc.) and it truly felt like he did so because he wanted to, not because he had to. This show being in a church felt really, really right.
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1. Nine Inch Nails, The Jesus and Mary Chain at the Palladium
Seeing Nine Inch Nails at the Palladium last week, I couldn't help but remember seeing them almost 10 years earlier, when Trent Reznor said that slate of shows would be his last ever. There was a similar kind of significance to these shows, even though no such announcement was made, but in truth NIN shows are always kind of a big deal, and this was true even before Reznor started focusing on film scores. That's because he is incapable of not digging deep when he's onstage. Though a happy family man these days, Reznor has the ability to channel the rage and pain that made his music a phenomenon, and he and his band always make the wounds sound and feel fresh. NIN's music connected with disenfranchised and depressed kids everywhere and let them express their feelings in a primal and penetrating way. It still does. So much so that L.A. fans with tickets to multiple nights crashed on Sunset Boulevard after the show to be first in front for subsequent shows. I could've done without three numbers from his side project How to Destroy Angels with wife Mariqueen (especially her very slow solo) but otherwise, last Saturday's set (the final night of six) was simply exquisite in its power, production (foggy and shadowy lighting into room-bathing reds and blues) and delivery. Having Mike Garson, David Bowie's pianist, come out at the end was a dramatic touch that paid homage to the starman who influenced everything (even if it wasn't an actual cover like at 2017's FYF Fest). And speaking of reverence for those who came before, The Jesus and Mary Chain as openers were dark and dreamy gloom-pop perfection.
Honorable mentions: Coachella, Cloak & Dagger Fest, Camp Flog Gnaw, Cold Waves Festival, Pussy Riot, Smashing Pumpkins at the Forum, ELO at the Forum, The Damned at the Fonda, The The, Slash at the Whisky, Echo Park Rising, Beyoncé & Jay Z at the Rose Bowl, Celebrating David Bowie at the Wiltern, The Go-Go's at the Hollywood Bowl.