It’s that thrashing live wire of energy connecting artist and audience, that intangible electric magic that enlightens, invigorates and uplifts us which makes a live show so special. Though we’re barely halfway through the year, we’ve seen some utterly breathtaking performances that set a new standard for live acts. Check out the top seven live acts of the year so far.
Twenty One Pilots
We knew Twenty One Pilots were on a serious upswing two years ago, when spastic singer Tyler Joseph was climbing to the top scaffolding at Outside Lands, a massive early-day crowd in the palm of his hand. Now, on the strength of a tremendously well-received new album and a wildfire of word-of-mouth, the dynamic Ohio duo have kicked into a level of perfect harmonic equilibrium between riotous energy and razor-sharp showmanship. They tore the absolute hell out of their Sasquatch 2015 performance, and are clearly on a sharp upward trajectory.
Scaling the sound booth, wearing masks, tearing off Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” instructing the crowd to get as low as possible (with unanimous compliance), the antics were merely condiments to the incredible energy and connective spirit Twenty One Pilots brought to the Sasquatch stage. Keep an eye on these cats – there’s a reason busloads of people were raving about them hours after their set, and they remained on the tongues of weary-eyed campers on Sunday morning.
Mumford & Sons
Chasing the excitement of their new album Wilder Mind, Marcus Mumford & friends delivered a two-hour set of crystalline greatness at Bonnaroo 2015. The band played heavily off the wild enthusiasm of bassist Ted Dwane, whose emergency blood clot surgery caused a last-minute cancellation two years ago (he was replaced by Jack Johnson). His maniacally ebullient appreciation for every moment shone through as the boys pulled evenly from new and older material, integrating the banjo-less tunes seamlessly into the more suspender-pandering sounds of old.
Strongest reactions to the new material were for singles “Believe” and “The Wolf,” matching the more beloved selections off Sigh No More and Babel. But it was the all-hands-on-deck finale that proved the most heavily cheered – the band brought My Morning Jacket, Hozier, the War On Drugs, Danny Clinch, and Ed Helms onstage for a cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends” to close out a stellar victory-lap performance.
As the inevitable dance-domination movement continues its steady climb, a few guitar-driven rock outfits remain with lava-firehose intensity concreting the case for their continued survival. This year’s driving example is Diarrhea Planet, who defy their cringeworthy name with head-banging, wind-rocking, shredding bliss. Guitars squealed, classic rock-bro poses were strutted, boiling moshpits were a constant, and beaming grins ruled the day unanimously between stage and audience at Sasquatch 2015.
Talk all the trash you like about their name – these cats bring an absolute blast to any party they step into.
Florence & The Machine
“Are you surviving?” asked a beaming, wild-eyed Florence Welch after singing a captivating version of “Ship to Wreck”. “It’s so hot out there. Is everyone drinking enough?” The maternal wood-nymph goddess was in beautiful form, and entirely occupied with connecting as deeply as possible with her Bonnaroo 2015 audience. That’s just how a Florence & The Machine show goes.
Leading with the cinematically magical “What The Water Gave Me,” Welch’s vivacity carried the enraptured crowd’s enthusiasm through a wave of new material from their excellent third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. The slow-build forest fire of “What Kind of Man” found her running from end to end of the stage connecting with fans.
While Billy Joel wasn’t at all concerned with making a connection with his audience, it was precisely the opposite experience for tens of thousands of people crammed in to see Florence on the main stage. And the results were magnificent.
We think Glastonbury’s going to be just fine with its new headliner.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones
We were having ourselves a fine Sunday afternoon at Sasquatch 2015, enjoying a nice comedown haze from the previous night’s insane festivities. Then a pasty, fat white dude showed up on the Bigfoot stage and took us to church, in ways that silly Hozier mess couldn’t dream. Meet St. Paul & The Broken Bones. Paul Janeway led the procession, better known as St. Paul, a man possessed by the Spirit as well as the infectiously good soul jams of his backing band The Broken Bones.
Straight outta Birmingham, the group’s debut album From The City was sampled heavily through a raucously good revival session in the Sunday sunshine. “Like a Mighty River,” “Don’t Mean a Thing,” and “I’m Torn Up” were fantastically well received through a retro-soul, gospel-spiked lens.
Action Bronson, the poutine-slingin’, chain-blunting mic-killer sensation with a brand new album on the ears, stepped into his headlining spot at CraveOnline’s SXSW show like it was his living room. Blunt lit from start to finish, Bronson’s casual stage presence was equal parts hilarious and impressive, because it’s not an act: the man does not have a single eff to give.
The dirty witticism of “Actin’ Crazy” was received like an arena anthem banger, and further samplings from his brand-new Mr. Wonderful record hit like sledgehammers laced with laugh-your-ass-off lyrical couplets as the legendary Alchemist set the beats.
In between songs, he cherried the blunts and autographed everything from shoes to iPhone cases.
It was the final moments of Bronson’s set, however, that are laser-etched on the mind in a manner not unlike assassinations and lost virginities; a cinematic blaze of Scorsese glory (not that tired Stones documentary shit – we’re talkin’ prime) too perfect to be real.
At the end of a riotous run through “Easy Rider,” the man led the crowd in the repeated closing line: “Ride the Harley into the sunset” as motorcycle sounds blasted through the PA. When the chant-along hit full unison, Bronson tossed the mic over his shoulder in a hilariously obnoxious arc, and with right hand raised in a throttling motion stepped offstage and into the crowd. A trail of blunt smoke followed the double-wide superstar locomotive as he moved to and through the exit with what seemed like the whole venue in tow. He rolled round the corner and up the block, leading a throng of fans in a victory lap down 5th ave to the roaring chant of “Bronson! Bronson!”
Then along came Jack, suited with pinstripes and bathed in blue and backed by the finest Nashville imports a rock/country maestro and new-retro entrepreneurial architect could ever ask for. We knew he would deliver the goods at Coachella 2015– when has he not? But the angles and avenues were surprises, to say the least.
From the moment he blasted onto the stage, Jack looked angrily focused, his brow furrowed and eyes determined. Nearly every song featured a stylistic shift, if not a new arrangement entirely, and White worked very closely with the pounding percussion of Daru Jones to shape a blizzard of shifting beats and cadences. The flourishes and fills in “Lazaretto” and beyond were stupefying. Many beloved tracks including “Love Interruption” and “We’re Going To Be Friends” possessed a distinct country flare, reminding us once again that if he were to ever place the focus of his Third Man machine directly on the world of that bored sack of redneck-pandering radiobait, for even just a year, country music wouldn’t have any idea what hit it – nor would it ever be the same.
The aforementioned song was evidence of a highlight moment that makes a Jack White show so special: at the onset of “We’re Going to Be Friends” White brought his friends close to center, including theremin-slinging multi-instrumentalist and Old West saloon fixture Fats Kaplin, and violin player Lillie Mae Rische (who is a far more confident stage presence now than her Bonnaroo ’14 appearance). The true connective energy between them radiated with tear-welling force on some level barely perceived by our thick primate senses, but those in the moment felt the power of such beauty in musical honesty.
Honesty and connective spirit matter, despite the hype and banner ads, despite the sponsor jargon and culture-profiteers. This is why it’s far more than a Kanye-level rant when Jack, looking out at the sea of iPhones (but no selfie-sticks, thank you very much), roared: “Come on L.A. put your f*cking phones down for five seconds!”
This was no effort to send us back to the olden days directly, so much as demanding that sacred, connective intercourse of energy so many of us have forgotten how to feel, let alone value. ”The gold rush is over,” he announced at one point. “This is the new world, is it not?” True, but to what end?
Pearl Jam’s mastery of the art of the encore has one rival, and the White Stripes alum knows damn well how to play a crowd like the Devil’s fiddle. “Ball and Biscuit,” was a lusty, funky, skittering & squealing mess of greatness, followed by a blazing “Sixteen Saltines,” and a laughably-funktastic and awesome “That Black Bat Licorice”. A high-drama “Would You Fight for My Love?” followed, but it was the closer that did us in, as we all knew and expected. The song that elicits sports-stadium singalongs on every continent and has taken on a full cultural identity of its own, “Seven Nation Army,” is a show-closer festival jam if ever there was one.
Halfway through the song, we went ahead and took over for White, hijacking the riff and making it a roaring vocal chant.
Jack wasn’t in total command of the energy so much as riding the current crackling between audience and stage players. “Shoutout to FKA Twigs, Tyler The Creator, Run The Jewels and everyone else who played,” White offered near the end, a reminder of how much prime-talent real estate he was claiming as a two-hour headliner on Saturday. He then asked us to remember to take a few seconds each day, each and every day to remember “that music is sacred! That music is sacred! That music is sacred! That music is sacred!”
All photos by Johnny Firecloud