AF 2017 IN REVIEW: The Best Live Shows of 2017

Austra @Warsaw

This was my first show of 2017, unless you count sets by Janelle Monae, Alicia Keys, and Indigo Girls that dotted the Women’s March on Washington days prior. I may have been late to the game regarding Austra, a beloved Toronto band already two albums into their career, and it wasn’t even their music that first grabbed my attention. It was the striking artwork for their third record, Future Politics. On its cover, a woman leads a handsome mare, cloaked in Austra’s signature shade of red. As it turned out, the album was as slick and strong as its imagery.

I sought out this strength one night at Greenpoint’s Warsaw, where Austra moved the whole room to dance with abandon. Lead singer Katie Stelmanis was captivating, her soaring voice sounding miraculously better than on the record. If it weren’t for her obvious talents as a pop star, Stelmanis would have an easy time making it as a stage actor or Broadway diva. The band plowed through the new album’s heavy hitters like “We Were Alive,” “Future Politics” and “Utopia,” sprinkling older favorites throughout the set.

Just days after Donald Trump had been sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, Austra made the Warsaw crowd believe that if we sweat hard enough, we could construct our own utopia right there on the dance floor.

Girl Band @Saint Vitus

Girl Band, Dublin’s all-boy noise foursome, rarely leave the stage without first inciting a small riot. They’re one of the few bands I’ve seen that can touch something primal in audiences, waking them from their New York, no-dance comas. This spring show at Saint Vitus was no different. The crowd was a little rigid initially, but once Girl Band slammed into “Paul” off of 2015’s Holding Hands With Jamie we all went wild. Daniel Fox’s warbled bass line whipped us into a swirling frenzy. We attempted to scream along with lead singer Dara Kiley, but our sweat and thrashing limbs did most of the talking.

Perfume Genius @Brooklyn Steel

This gig was without a doubt my favorite live performance of the year – and I almost didn’t go. Audiofemme’s own Lindsey Rhoades, who could not make it that evening, asked if I would go in her absence. “Sure,” I said, having no clue of the treat in store. I’d listened to the record, and was of course proud of the Seattle band’s success being from Washington myself, but the sheer magnetism of PG mastermind Mike Hadreas blew me away. He slinked and slithered through each song, howling like a hellhound one minute and whispering like seraph the next. In those moments onstage, Hadreas seemed to be Bowie’s heir apparent. He certainly had a Ziggy Stardust-worthy outfit.

Blanck Mass @RBMA/Sacred Bones

It didn’t hurt that as Blanck Mass’ Benjamin John Power was whipping up beats, Björk was head banging by the PA system… in a hot pink clown suit. But even without Our Lady of Iceland publicly endorsing the set, Power’s gut rattling music had me enraptured. Power always performs in total darkness, giving shape and weight to his intense soundscapes. You can almost feel his songs wrap around you like a python beginning to squeeze. When he cued up “Please” – my #2 favorite song of 2017 – I suddenly understood what it’s supposed to feel like when you get the good MDMA. I’d only ever had the bad shit.

Aldous Harding @Park Church Co-op/Baby’s All Right

I saw Aldous Harding twice within a week at 2017’s Northside Festival. The first time was at Park Church Co-op in Greenpoint. Harding wore an all-white suit, conjuring the combined spirits of Tom Wolfe, David Byrne, and Jerry Hall. She was otherworldly, contorting her voice to reach the vaulted ceiling, then summoning it down low, to rattle the wooden pews we sat on.

The second time was at Baby’s All Right, a far less romantic locale. Still, Harding bewitched me with her strange posturing and mythological voice. As she sunk into the lovelorn depths of “Horizon,” I was near tears. I closed my eyes. I mouthed the words, “Here is your princess/And here is the horizon.” And then a sharp splat cut through the room. The crowd parted like the red sea, and there at the center was not Moses, but a 60-year-old, portly man, barfing all down his t-shirt. After a period of bug-eyed shock, Harding laughed and returned to her set. I went outside to breathe better air.

Bing & Ruth @Basilica Soundscape

There was so much to see at Basilica Soundscape this summer, and yet the first band that played on the festival’s opening night is what stuck with me the most. Bing & Ruth’s David Moore seemed to be painting with his piano keys, while the accompanying cellist and clarinet player extracted color from their own instruments. They invoked a staggering beauty that went unmatched for the remainder of the weekend, in my opinion. Bing & Ruth make music that’s incredibly difficult to describe, but I feel lucky I was able to hear and feel it in person.

Sean Nicholas Savage and Dinner @Baby’s All Right

This was not my first Sean Nicholas Savage rodeo, but it was by far the finest, largely due to opening act Dinner’s inspiring performance. Danish singer/songwriter Anders Rhedin knows how to work a crowd, and does so with a divine combination of goofball and deadpan tactics. He had us sitting on the ground like school children, clapping like a gospel choir, and dancing like disco wildcats. It was a nice round of cardio before Sean Nicholas Savage began his vocal calisthenics. We swayed for Dinner, but we swooned for Savage.

Diamanda Galás @Murmrr Theater

I couldn’t have imagined a better Halloween. After walking a mile through Fort Greene, squeezing past trails of children in Halloween costumes, candy spilling from their cloth sacks, I approached Prospect Heights’ Murmrr Theatre. The stage and pews were cloaked in red light, and the baby grand piano was the requisite black. It was a fitting atmosphere for Diamanda Galás, the singer, composer, and pianist I recently crowned as the Queen of Halloween.

Galás was bewitching. Her piano seemed to awaken the ghost of Thelonious Monk and Satan himself, while her voice was alight with several spirits; some crooning, some growling, some downright shrieking. Galás is a medium above all else, and this last Halloween, she seemed to communicate with other worlds.

Swans @Warsaw

This was another show I almost didn’t attend. I’d already seen these noise dinosaurs two summers ago, and didn’t plan on showing up for their goodbye gig at Warsaw last month. But when a good friend got the flu and offered up his ticket gratis, how could I pass? I got to the venue in time for a plate of pierogis and kielbasa, and through some fortunate twist of fate, had a pair of earplugs in my purse. This was a very good thing considering Swans were playing at decibel levels strong enough for sonic warfare. As Thor smashed his gong, I felt like I was inside of a tank as it unloaded ammunition. Even my feet were vibrating.

Animal Collective @Knockdown Center

Nothing could’ve prepared me for how mesmerizing Animal Collective’s set at Knockdown Center was a couple of weeks ago. The evening’s objective was for Avey Tare and Panda Bear to perform 2004’s Sung Tongs in full. I entered Queens’ Knockdown Center full of skepticism; how exactly, were they going to summon that wall of sound with just two dudes?

I still don’t know the exact answer to that question, but the task was accomplished. After ample fiddling by roadies (one of whom sported a biker jacket and looked like he was named Butch) the stage was set, and the travel-sized version of Animal Collective settled into their chairs. What transpired over the next hour plus was a village of sound supplied by two men, four microphones, and some expert pedal work. Whatever their process was, it blew me away. I was wrapped in surround sound, every blip, crack, and whir massaging my body with the tiniest pulses.

LIVE REVIEW: Perfume Genius @ Brooklyn Steel

An unexpected warmth greets me at Brooklyn Steel. Defying the industrial structure, a pink tropical backdrop hangs over a stage flanked by palm fronds, which seem to wave at the sold-out crowd. It is a set-up that hints at one of two possible realities: 1) A lush, theatrical performance by headliner Perfume Genius is in store. 2) The atmosphere is merely consistent with their recent press shots.

I am desperately hoping for the former, but having never before seen Mike Hadreas and company in concert, the night’s fate is unknown. Fortunately, the décor suits opening act Serpentwithfeet just fine. The occult-gospel-cum-jazz outfit helmed by Josiah Wise opens with sparse, chilling pieces. I say pieces because “song” seems too limiting a word for the confessional poems and trip hop ballads sprinkled throughout Serpentwithfeet’s set; perhaps “spells” would be more fitting. Wise conveys great range as a vocal performer and pianist, yes, but also in his wit and charisma, which has the early-bird crowd tearfully singing along one moment and laughing the next. I can’t help but wonder if his theatrics will be echoed by Hadreas.

My thirst for drama is quenched the moment Perfume Genius appears, slinking on stage to the violent, Rococo strings of “Choir” from their recent LP No Shape. Hadreas saunters towards us in a white Byron blouse tucked into a pinstripe jumpsuit – the latter looking like it once strutted the runways of Vivienne Westwood.

It is such a powerful entrance, that I’m nearly knocked over when the four piece then open with “Otherside.” In its first minute, No Shape’s commencing track disguises itself as a fragile piano ballad – a lullaby even. But after Hadreas coos, “rocking you to sleep from the otherside,” a cannon of bass, glitter, and wailing angels is shot through our organs, leaving us shuddering and primed for more.

“Otherside” is the one moment of austerity before Hadreas changes shape, shifting into an undulating lord of seduction; part Morrissey, part Annie Lennox, and part Peter Pan. He gyrates and circles his hips, popping one pale shoulder out of his crisp shirt and then slipping it back in again. Hadreas is at his most vampish on cuts like “Go Ahead” and the dark Elvis romp “My Body” off of 2014’s breakout album Too Bright.

Thunderous jungle drums sew the set together, adding a sinister undercurrent to the evening. The performance feels slightly intoxicating; like, say, a fine perfume should. I find myself wrapped in chills throughout, and plumbed with pumping hot blood. Hadreas is the performer we’ve been waiting for. He whets our appetite with opulent musicality and erotic posturing, but nourishes us with complex song structure, poignant lyrics, and gorgeous instrumentation. He is, as they say, a package deal.

Such a package in fact, that little whiffs of his component scents start cropping up as he performs. I’m smelling Kate Bush, Little Richard, Portishead, The Cramps, Madame Butterfly, and the soundtrack to Twin Peaks. But like a fragrance, the sum of its parts reveals something entirely new when mixed properly.

During Perfume Genius’ five-song encore (a formality I typically hate, but was ecstatic for in this situation) Hadreas sat down for a piano rendition of “Mr. Peterson,” from his debut record Learning. Before he began, he motioned long-time boyfriend and bandmate Alan Wyffels to the keyboard, where they played a duet to an ooh-ing audience. And then, the band reassembled for the one moment I’d predicted correctly all evening: the finale was Too Bright’s shining anthem “Queen.” But despite my suspicions, Hadreas did not sashay away at the song’s end. He simply walked, and waved, and thanked us.

LIVE REVIEW: San Fermin @ Brooklyn Steel

On May 13, San Fermin returned to Brooklyn, where they got their start, to put on a show worth remembering. Though the venue, Brooklyn Steel, just opened, several band members mentioned during the show just how important it was to be playing a homecoming gig, and they performed their hearts out to show their love and appreciation for the journey they’ve been on so far.

San Fermin is the brainchild of Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who produces and writes songs for the band. San Fermin’s third album Belong was just released in April of this year, and it reveals a more solid, confident side than prior albums. Part of that comes from the lyrics’ vulnerability; for Belong, Ellis confronted his anxiety and fear of disconnection, making it more raw but all the stronger for that. Not only has Ellis become a more self-assured and immersed bandleader, but the synergy between all band members are at a peak. This came across immediately and enthusiastically in their performance.

The show started off with “Oceanica” and “Bride,” two tracks off their latest album that both hold the ethereal yet foreboding aura that’s to be expected from San Fermin. Frontwoman and multi-instrumentalist Charlene Kaye was an elegant Siren in a silver jumpsuit who swung her head and danced with fluid movements perfectly matched to each song. At one point, she grabbed a guitar and stood on the drumset, illuminated in light, arms extended and holding the guitar overhead as she strummed, relishing her grounding lead role amongst the discordant charm that embodies much of San Fermin’s music.

On tracks like “Methuselah”  Kaye made space for her co-vocalist Allen Tate, their voices complimented, encouraged, and enriched one another perfectly as they passionately delivered their messages while the rest of the band was enveloped in shadow, giving the illusion of two people singing simultaneously while occupying separate worlds. When the two sang duets together, such as with “Parasites,” there was a radiating admiration between the pair that reverberated as deeply as Tate’s baritone.

When Kaye took to the drums during the encore performance of “Happiness Will Ruin this Place,” “Astronaut,” and “Oh Darling,” it allowed for other members of the group to shine as brightly as she had. “Oh Darling” saw striking vocals from the newest member of San Fermin, violinist Claire Wellin.

There was a mutual respect between everyone on stage that permeated the show deeply. Between songs, they gradually introduced members of the band and held for applause. Ellis was introduced before the band left the stage for its encore, and the applause was (unsurprisingly) staggering, taking maybe even him by surprise. The reverence held by the band for its leader was felt by each person in the audience as we cheered in an attempt to convey our appreciation for what he’s created.

San Fermin’s Brooklyn Steel show was a pinnacle of their musical career, one that highlighted a band that has grown into itself and embraced its full potential. Seeing such a performance in the city where the band got its beginnings can only go down as a momentous occasion within that musical career.

NEWS ROUNDUP: BK Steel Opens, Synth Pioneer Dies & More

  • RIP Ikutaro Kakehashi

    Ikutaro Kakehashi passed away last Saturday at age 87. He founded Roland in 1960, meaning without him, we’d be way behind in drum machine and synthesizer technology. After leading the company for decades, he founded the electronic instrument company ATV Corporation in 2014 and received a technical Grammy in 2013 for work in MIDI technology.

  • Stayin’ Alive: A CPR Playlist

    CPR is most effective when chest compressions are performed at 100 to 120 beats per minute, but how can someone easily remember that tempo? If you’ve been CPR certified, you were probably told to think of the Bee Gees classic, “Stayin Alive.” But, there are more options. As NPR reported, the New York Presbyterian hospital created a playlist of songs that are the right tempo to save a life, with artists ranging from Shakira to the Beastie Boys to Modest Mouse. Listen below.

  • Brooklyn Steel Officially Opens

    Last night, the new, huge Williamsburg music venue Brooklyn Steel opened with the first of a five nights LCD Soundsytem residency. Tickets to all five nights – 10,000 tickets, to be exact – sold out in minutes. The band reportedly debuted three new songs and mentioned that they’re almost done with a new album. Signs posted outside the venue tried to deter concertgoers from filming the show, saying, “It’d be a real gut punch to all the people who have been working insanely hard the past 18 months to release this music.”

NEWS ROUNDUP: Ghost Ship Tragedy, Venue News & Meg White


  • Ghost Ship Death Toll Rises To 36

    Last week, a fire broke out at an Oakland warehouse and loft that housed a DIY space called the Ghost Ship. Described as “a center of the Oakland community,” the space was hosting an electronic music show that night, leading many to jump to conclusions that the victims were irresponsible ravers partying in a dangerous building. In reality, if blame is to be placed anywhere it’s on the housing crisis in Oakland. Artists simply can’t afford to rent proper spaces to house DIY venues, which often double as safe spaces for marginalized groups. And it’s not limited to Oakland; as this article by Meredith Isaksen states, “The economic trends in Oakland and the circumstances leading to the Ghost Ship fire are a magnification of what many are experiencing across the country.” Read it here, and watch Patti Smith dedicate a song to the victims of the fire below.

  • New Venue, Brooklyn Steel, Announced

    The Bowery Presents has announced a new venue, Brooklyn Steel, which will open in Williamsburg at 319 Frost Street. With a capacity of 1,800, that will make it the “largest general admission venue in Brooklyn.” Bowery Presents partners John Moore and Jim Glancy promised “easy access to bars and restrooms, to unobstructed sightlines and state-of-the-art sound and acoustics” in a statement on the Bowery Presents website. 40 bathrooms and a good view of the bands sound nice, but can we get Glasslands back too?

    Some of the first artists to perform at the new venue include The Decemberists, Pixies, PJ Harvey, Two Door Cinema Club, Animal Collective, Perfume Genius, Whitney, Tycho and The Black Angels. More details here.

  • Read This: Why We Can’t Forget About Meg White

    Remember all of those debates about whether or not Meg White was a good drummer? I never found any problems with her playing; she had a simple style that fit well with the type of music The White Stripes played. So why did so many people insist on tearing her down? Kayleigh Hughes breaks down the meaning behind all of those “pervasive, heavily gendered critiques of whether or not Meg White is a good drummer” in this excellent Watt article.

  • Elvis Guesthouse Closing After NYE

    2016: the year of venue closures. We’ve already lost Palisades, Manhattan Inn, Aviv, and Market Hotel (temporarily). Now, the owners of Elvis Guesthouse, a bar that’s the Manhattan counterpart to BK’s Baby’s All Right, have announced it will be closing at the end of December. [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Insert joke about Elvis leaving the building].