From the downtown streets of Toronto, to the desert paradise at Coachella, to urban parks in Philly and Chicago, to an airstrip at the edge of Atlantic City; 2012 featured reunions and rarities, veterans and rookies, the eccentric, the exuberant and the ostentatious. These are the top musical performances I witnessed in 2012.
Black Sabbath – Lollapalooza
Grant Park, Chicago, IL – Aug. 3
After enduring the tasteless, feel-good snoozefest that was Passion Pit for over an hour, the florescent-clad hipsters began to depart in droves and the denim-clad longhaired dirt-bags condensed in front of Grant Park’s northern main stage for Black Sabbath’s only North American performance of 2012 (and at that time, what was potentially their last show ever).
Despite Ozzy’s often haggard and futile attempts at reaching those high notes and a couple of derailments by the typically stalwart bass/guitar duo of Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi (and curtailed by Bill Ward’s replacement on drums, Tommy Clufetos), Sabbath delivered a blistering 16-song set, heavy on the hits and heavy on the eardrums.
Seeing Sabbath in 2012 is no doubt a whole different monster than it was back in 1970’s. Songs like “Sweet Leaf” and “Children Of The Grave” packed a punch that antiquated 1960’s recording technology just wouldn’t allow for on the records. Iommi’s augmented guitar riff during the second verse of “War Pigs” brought new life to the song.
Ozzy was as excitable and spontaneous as ever. I think I counted about 12 “Go crazy”s and 17 “Go fucking crazy”s. He even took a little foray off stage to mouth-kiss the sign-interpreter (who was often as entertaining to watch as the band) as Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith looked on.
The tens of thousands of Sabbath devotee’s clearly either ignored or forgave the hiccups, many clinging awestruck to every moment of this rare opportunity to see them live. Ozzy didn’t give a fuck that he was singing out of key and neither did I.
They closed it out appropriately with “Paranoid”, and we took our sweat-drenched leave of Grant Park to the distant sounds of the Black Keys.
Death From Above 1979 – Edgefest
Downsview Park, Toronto, ON – Jul. 14
Following a big return in 2011 and being dubbed by me as the “Festival Whore” of that year, this Toronto based two-piece took a seven-month break from touring.
Edgefest line-ups have been hit or miss since the single-day radio festival migrated from its former annual home in Barrie to the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto and later to Downsview Park. Fortunately with Billy Talent, Silversun Pickups and DFA 1979 on the bill, this year was a hit.
From the opening mayhem of “Turn It Out”, Sebastien Grainger and Jesse Keeler ripped through every song from their 2004 Self-Titled LP, the only full length they’ve released to this day. Moshpits that were once home to smiling, happy-go-lucky Silversun Pickups fans were engulfed by angry bruisers intent on hurting people. It was hot, tight, sweaty, and filthy; the way a rock show should be.
They played one obscure new track (and have since been road testing countless more). The audience was then assaulted with the twisted hooks of “Little Girl”, “Black History Month” and the extended live version of “Romantic Rights”, which wouldn’t be complete without Grainger’s obnoxiously angsty screams and bellows. The robotic disco-punk breakdown of “Do It” to close out the show only helped to cement their spot on this list.
Descendents – Riot Fest
Historic Fort York, Toronto, ON – Sept. 9
Riot Fest was in essence, a homecoming. couldn’t walk 10 feet without running into somebody.
Chaotically fun sets by NOFX, Fucked Up and Less Than Jake were like icing on a studded leather cake but Descendents were the reason most of us were there.
Milo Aukerman’s 4-piece started the punk rock fiesta with the pessimistic and anthemic “Everything Sux”. Side stage was overflowing with onlookers including NOFX’s Fat Mike and Goldfinger’s Darren Pfeiffer.
Three songs in, a nice fellow behind me decided he would attempt to take me out of the front by sticking his finger in my eye which resulted in my fist in his face followed by my prompt booting from the show…or it would have had I not pleaded my case to security and quickly shoved my way back to my former claim. That incident and losing my camera in the NOFX pit failed to dampen my spirits during the barrage of 2-minute staples of 80’s punk.
The testosterone-laden audience was in full on sing-along mode, especially when Aukerman led the band into raw angst-driven hits from their seminal album Milo Goes to College. During “Hope”, “Parents” and “Suburban Home” it was difficult to hear the vocals over the discordant choir of PBR pounding onlookers. Hoards of croudsurfers plummeted over the front row as Aukerman took to the barricades and killed “I’m Not A Loser” making my life.
David Byrne & St. Vincent
Queens Elizabeth Theatre, Toronto, ON – Sept. 20
When word of this collaboration began to work its way through the Twitterverse I was as befuddled as I was thrilled. The consequent release of their album Love This Giant (one of this years best records) only intensified my hopes of a tour.
Toronto’s 50-year-old (recently retrofitted) Queen Elizabeth Theatre was the intimate and acoustically worthy setting for the fourth show of this limited North American jaunt.
Accompanied by an 8-piece horn section, an aging but effervescent David Byrne and a cuter-than cute Annie Clark dazzled, interspersing St. Vincent and Talking Heads hits amongst the new collaborative tracks. Commencing with Love This Giant’s first track “Who”, they proceeded to confuse and delight with bizarre choreography which could be described as being somewhere between a New Orleans marching band and a robot-marionette ensemble.
Following the sinister groove of “I Am An Ape” Clark took the lead for St. Vincent’s “Marrow”, which was amplified by the added presence of a horn section. During “Cheerleader”, Byrne laid precariously on one shoulder, as Clark serenaded the audience.
The Talking Head’s tracks came later in the form first of a surreal rendition of “Burnin’ Down The House” and then “Road To Nowhere” to close out the show. It would’ve been absurd to expect more out of this performance. It was bewildering, fun and flawless.
Metric – Lollapalooza
Grant Park, Chicago, IL – Aug. 3
2012 was huge year for Metric. The release of Synthetica elevated them to an arena band in Canada, bolstered in part by the success of lead out single “Youth Without Youth”, which you may have heard on every Chorus rock radio station, every hour, for the last 7 months. Furthermore, this album seems to have pushed them up the festival chain internationally.
The strangest thing about seeing this band States-side is how oblivious much of the audience is to their music. There were pockets of us singing and dancing frenetically, but we were at times drowning in a sea of ignorant reluctance.
Emily Haines’ sultry, infallible vocals and stage presence were an enthralling spectacle. She excelled during “Youth Without Youth” and the somber dystopian melody of “Help I’m Alive”.
Unfortunately, with only 45 minutes to perform, a lot of hits were neglected. “Patriarch On A Vespa”, “Monster Hospital”, “Poster Of A Girl” and “Gimme Sympathy” were all omitted to make time for songs from Synthetica, many of which were brilliant in their own way, particularly the title track.
Closing out the set with synth-heavy dance-rock hits like “Dead Disco” and “Stadium Love” surely made converts out of many of the formerly indifferent festival goers in attendance, many of whom were waiting for Die Antwoord.
Metric will undoubtedly continue to ascend.
The Hives – Made In America
Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA – Sept. 2
The best band I saw at Jay-Z’s Made In America festival was made in Sweden. The Hives exude electricity and it’s contagious.
I would argue that nobody in the game today can hype up an audience quite like lead singer Pelle Almqvist.
“Ladies. Gentlemen. Ladies and Gentlemen.”
They took to the stage wearing suits and top hats, executing a frenzied “Come On!” from their new album Lex Hives before blasting through the three-chord fury of “Main Offender”.
The Hives employ every stage antic in the book and why shouldn’t they. Guitar spins, jumping off of the kick drum, letting fans take the mic, crowdsurfing, and the freeze are all commonplace at a Hives show, and this chicanery never comes off as contrived. It’s silly unabashed fun.At a hip-hop oriented festival this nonsense caught the attention of more than a few passers-by; the audience was much more bloated at the end of the set than it was when it began.
“Take Back The Toys” was a riot. The opening chords of “Hate To Say I Told You So”filled me with anxious but affirming butterflies; the rest of the song was a blur of screaming, jumping, headbanging, drunken partying. “Tick, Tick, Boom” was more of the same.
If you aren’t into the Hives by now, give up on life.
Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg – Coachella
Empire Polo Fields, Indio, CA – Apr. 15
Coachella always features the comeback. This year there were three.
The return of Dr. Dre (with Snoop) after a 12 year absence from live performances definitely matched the hype of the 2010 unveiling of Gorillaz and was likely the most anticipated live performance since the return of Rage Against The Machine in 2007. Not coincidentally, Dre and Snoop drew likely the largest audience in the history of the festival.
My prime spot in the second row was the reward for a days worth of waiting. Fortunately the four preceding main stage acts were Fitz & The Tantrums, The Hives, Justice and At The Drive-In.
The celebs piled in behind the photographers in the moments before the show commenced. My feeble mind recalls seeing Rihanna, Ke$ha, Xhibit, Tony Hawk, and oddly Macy Gray.
A buffed out and visibly elated Dre got things started with “The Next Episode”.
This set has been chronicled ad nauseum, so I’ll be brief. As many of you know, it featured guest appearances by Kendrick Lamar, a blunt-smoking Wiz Khalifa, Vitamin Water mogul 50 Cent, and a lip-syncing Eminem. And who could forget Hologram Tupac (which I assure was far less impressive up close …but still kind of impressive).
Perhaps what was most-surprising about this set was the grandiose stage production. Clearly, no expense was spared on the backdrop, stage props, and video’s which would have been a logical move had this turned out to be a full-on tour, but alas it did not.
I don’t know about y’all, but for me it was all about 2001. “Forgot About Dre” and “Still D.R.E.” topped an already bonkers set.
Snoop was so ripped he could barely open his eyes.
Jack White – Lollapalooza
Grant Park, Chicago, IL – Aug. 5
Somehow, the only time previous to Lollapalooza that I was fortunate enough to see Jack White live was during The Dead Weather’s 2010 Coachella set, which was completely drowned out by the thunderous inanity of Tiesto; so for me, this was a big moment.
As the sun retreated behind the Chicago skyline, Edward scissor-less-hands took to the stage with his all-male backing band, The Buzzards, blasting through Blunderbuss’s lead out track “Sixteen Saltines” and the White Stripes’ garage-punk chugger “Black Math”. Later, a minor-chord rendition of Rome’s “Two Against One” was as ominous as it was captivating.
After subbing out The Buzzards with his all female backing band The Peacocks, White forged ahead with a 6-song set featuring the bluegrass twang of vibrato-laced “Hotel Yorba” and the indelible The Raconteurs’ hit “Top Yourself”.
The encore that followed was a delectable mash-up of White’s biggest hits, past and present. After The Racontuers’ “Steady As She Goes”, which kicks just a little more ass live, the band dove into The White Stripes’ “Hardest Button To Button”. I was instantly 18 again.
White’s penultimate ode to a carefree muse, “Freedom At 21”, gave way to “Seven Nation Army” bolstered by the baritone chorus of the thousands singing along.
I departed Grant Park surrounded by smiles, as thousands of festivalgoers chanted the infectious melody of ‘Seven Nation Army’ in unison. “Ooooh oh oh oh oh ooooh ooooh”. I couldn’t have dreamt up better conclusion to Lollapalooza.
Refused – Coachella
Empire Polo Fields, Indio, CA – Apr. 13
I’ll admit that in my naiveté, I really wasn’t fully aware of Refused’s utter brilliance until I saw them at Coachella. I was perhaps skeptical based on my contempt towards modern-hardcore.
I was watching The Black Angels when Refused took the stage and I was torn. After catching odd glimpse’s of the ensuing havoc on the big screens, I bailed on The Black Angels and ran towards Refused. My only regret was that I didn’t expedite my decision to do so.
Minus a small surprise warm-up show in the distant obscurity of their hometown Umeå, Sweden, this was Refused’s first show in 14 years. Coachella made them an offer they couldn’t refuse, and their fans weren’t fuckin’ around.
I shoved my way through one of the malicious circle pits with relative ease during the opening chords of the incendiary “Coup D'état”. Simply put, I was an instant convert.
After a brief speech by lead singer Dennis Lyxzén, during which he stated Coachella organizers “nudged” the band towards reuniting, they busted out my new favorite song, “Summerholidays vs. Punkroutine”.
With lyrics dripping of cultural antipathy and anti-authoritarian sentiment complimenting their precision post-punk musicianship, this 5 piece truly annihilated. The buzz-saw guitars and inciting screams of Lyxzén during “New Noise” pushed the audience into full-on batshit mode.
They concluded the furious set with the dynamic and dissonant “Tannhäuser/Derivè”, which was supplemented by bursting smoke machines and strobe lights.
I returned to my tent in awe of one of the tightest performances I’ve been fortunate enough to witness. Months later, I managed to catch them one more time during this limited run of reunion shows.
At The Drive-In – Lollapalooza
Grant Park, Chicago, IL – Aug. 5
2012 hailed the return of At The Drive-In after more than 10 years of inactivity. Following their split back in 2001, members formed the cores of Sparta and The Mars Volta leaving most to assume there was no need for a comeback.
Following a short run of Texas club gigs and five major festivals, At The Drive-In gave their final North American performance of the year at Lollapalooza.
Eccentric and impulsive lead singer Cedric Bixlar-Zavala introduced the band as “Latin Danzig” while they took to the stage and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul looked on from stage right. The gravity of my situation became quickly apparent as they unleashed “Arcarsenel” from 2001’s Relationship Of Command, prompting the audience to instantly crush towards the front barricades. Within minutes I was being lifted off of the ground by the crowd surges.
Guitarist/dilettante Omar Rodriguez-Lopez looked despondent at times. Fortunately it didn’t affect his performance; his unconventionally distinctive tones and melodies being the driving force of this band.
People-watching became an unintended form of entertainment. Distinguishing between fans waiting solely for Jack White (with their impatient, confounded, and anguished grimaces) from the At The Drive-In devotees (headbanging and screaming as if the end was nigh) became a game.
Throughout the set, Cedric often replaced the crackled screaming of yesteryear with high whine’s similar to the sound he embraced in The Mars Volta. It didn’t matter. The vocal call-and-response with rhythm guitarist Jim Ward during the droning and apocalyptic “Quarantined” proved it.
The rousing melodies of “Enfilade”, “Non-Zero Possibility” and “Catacombs” only tantalized an already crazed audience. “One Armed Scissor” pushed it over the edge, as Cedric’s convulsive stage mannerisms reached their erratic peak.
This band has been idle for far too long.
Radiohead – Coachella
Empire Polo Fields, Indio, CA – Apr. 14
Any other year I’ve seen Radiohead, they’ve topped this list. This show was super-super-mellow which wasn’t bad, but did remove it from Top 10 consideration. The surprise injection of epic OK Computer hits “Lucky” and “Paranoid Android” resuscitated this set from gloomville. At the end of the day it was still Radiohead, one of the best bands on Earth.
The Flaming Lips – NXNE
Young and Dundas Square, Toronto, ON – Jun. 16
I was bummed that Radiohead were playing Toronto the same day as the Flaming Lips because I really wanted to see both. Unfortunately, the stage collapse at Downsview Park put an end to my Radiohead plans, leading myself and countless thousands of others to divert our trajectories towards downtown for the free Flaming Lips show. Metro police were forced to shut down Young Street to make room for the overwhelming surplus of attendee’s and the Flaming Lips gave their all amid rumors that Radiohead would join them on stage. That did not come to pass, but they did include Radiohead’s “Knives Out” on their 2-hour set list.
Arctic Monkeys – Coachella
Empire Polo Fields, Indio, CA – Apr. 13
Not surprisingly it was difficult to exclude this band from the Top 10. As far as 45-minute sets go, this was as good as any I’ve ever seen.
It just wasn’t the same as catching an Arctic Monkeys headlining set though (which I did in Seattle in 2011). With that said, this band can do no wrong, and the surprise inclusion of new tracks “Evil Twin” and “R U Mine” (which in a ballsy move, they concluded the set with) added to an already stellar set. I would see this band every day of my life if I could.
The Black Keys – Coachella
Empire Polo Fields, Indio, CA – Apr. 1
The Arctic Monkeys’ tour mates gave a powerful 17-song set in a Coachella headlining slot believed to have been originally offered to Black Sabbath. This band didn’t become America’s biggest modern rock export by mistake. The late 2011 release of El Camino propelled the Black Keys to a sold-out arena act and they’ve been releasing hits records with an urgency possibly unmatched by any rock band since The Beatles. The highlight of this set for me was the mid-set pairing of the minimalistic and raw riffage of “Your Touch” and their latest and perhaps greatest hit “Little Black Submarines”.
Jay-Z – Made In America
Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, PA – Sep. 1
Jay-Z’s first attempt at curating a music festival worked out splendidly minus the shameless and ubiquitous corporate promotion. Hits like “Empire State Of Mind”, “99 Problems”, and “Big Pimpin” highlighted the preamble. Then in a twist, Kanye West, Pusha T, Big Sean, 2 Chainz and Common debuted G.O.O.D. Music in an unexpected 7-song set. Jay-Z then joined Kanye on stage for the epic dueling raps of “Niggas In Paris”, from 2011’s collaborative effort Watch The Throne. Top that shit…
Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ON – Dec. 5
Atypically spry for a 78 year old, Leonard Cohen delivered a mesmerizing 3+ hour set on the second of two sold out Toronto arena shows. I could’ve left happy after the first 20 minutes having already heard two of my favorites, “The Future” and “Everybody Knows”. Cohen and his exceptionally talented 8-piece band went on to play an assortment of old songs and songs from Old Idea’s, his 12th studio album, which was released this year. After a string of hits including “Hallelujah”, “Take This Waltz”, “So Long”, “Marianne”, and “Closing Time” the raspy poet/pioneer skipped gleefully off stage to the adoration of all.
Die Antwoord – Lollapalooza
Grant Park, Chicago, IL - Aug. 3
South Africa’s Die Antwoord are obnoxious, obscure, ridiculous, offensive, asinine and fun as shit to see live. They came onstage wearing bright orange track pants and hoodies resembling prison jumpsuits, which complimented the whole inbred methhead look they seem to aspire towards. The absurdity of this act was what drew me to this set, and apparently I wasn’t alone; they had a huge turnout. Their silly brand of electro-rap incited a mosh-pit that would make Slayer proud. I don’t even know how else to articulate this goofy nonsense, but I can’t wait to see them again. I just hope AIDS can’t be audibly transmitted.
Metallica – Orion Festival
Bader Field, Atlantic City, NJ – Jun. 24
I would be remiss if I didn’t make mention of this set. Featuring the Arctic Monkeys, Modest Mouse, Red Fang, Suicidal Tendencies, Cage The Elephant and Fucked Up on Saturday alone, Metallica offered up a diverse but heavy bill for their newborn hatchling of a festival. But Metallica was not to be outdone onstage. For the first time ever, they played 1984’s thrash-metal masterpiece Ride The Lightning in it’s entirety, back to front. Witnessing the intense thrashing “Fight Fire With Fire”, “Trapped Under Ice”, and “The Call Of Ktulu” was worth the price of admission. They closed out the set appropriately with the onslaught of “Battery”, “One”, and “Seek And Destroy”, after which James Hetfield expressed the bands intent on making Orion and annual event. Say what you will about Metallica’s musical output since 1991, they still bring it live.