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.

On Basilica SoundScape & Authenticity

Julia Holter Basilica

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Gamelan Dharma Swara
Gamelan Dharma Swara, photo by Lindsey Rhoades

Touted as a cure to “festival fatigue,” this past weekend marked Basilica SoundScape’s third year in Hudson, NY, two hours north of the city. Nestled in that bucolic landscape hulks a cavernous 19th century foundry revamped and rechristened by Hole’s Melissa Auf der Mar and her partner, filmmaker Tony Stone, as an arts collective. With Brandon Stosuy (of Pitchfork fame) and Leg Up! Management’s Brian De Ran organizing a line-up of experimental music’s best and brightest, the shindig also boasts artisanal foods, art installations, and an avant-garde craft fair.

In many, many ways, it is the quintessential “anti-festival” – the only act I remember seeing on actual festival bills this summer was Deafheaven, who played Saturday night. It’s so different, in fact, that you begin to wonder why or how its organizers would even mention “festival” in the same breath as “SoundScape” except as a framing device for people who wouldn’t care in the first place and certainly wouldn’t be attending – those people that like festivals even, who plan to meet up with their crop-topped and cut-offed friends by carrying around some ten-foot, vaguely humorous sign or balloon animal all weekend, those people that don’t get festival fatigue because they live for any opportunity whatsoever to drop molly in a field with a hundred thousand rave-orbing Skrillex devotees. With capital-F Festivals popping up in or around nearly every major American city, this is no longer a market cornered by Coachella and Bonnaroo, but they all have the same vague feel – wide open grounds, multiple stages that make it impossible to see every act, overpriced tickets and overpriced concessions, ‘roid-raging security, and mostly unimaginative line-ups. The thing is, tons of people still go to these events as if it’s the only way to see live music. These people need no “anti-festival.” So who, then, is something like Basilica SoundScape really for?

Unlike most mid-sized towns with relatively small music scenes, New York City’s “scene” is pretty diffused due to its sheer size. But there is a specific intersection of journalists, musicians, labels, managers, PR teams, and their social circles who form the sometimes insular “insider” bulk; this is the subset of people Basilica was curated by and for, and they headed up to Hudson in droves. Though supposedly SoundScape attracts locals, most of the faces in the crowd were familiar to anyone tangentially related to the industry. Much the way SXSW can feel like a vacation for music-industry folks and culture critics (even though we’re all still “working”), SoundScape felt like a bizarro (though admittedly awesome) tailor-made alternate universe for an incredibly niche crowd. While that’s not exactly a bad thing – most of us do what we do because we are actually passionate about bands like Swans – there was a different kind of fatigue to the whole thing, even if it wasn’t “festival fatigue” so to speak.

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Julia Holter Basilica
Julia Holter, photo by Lindsey Rhoades

That being said, Friday’s performances were breathtaking. The most appropriately-named band on the roster, Endless Boogie, stretched their searing psych jams to their limits. Julia Holter’s performance was a personal highlight, her hands deftly springing over her keyboard, her vocals emotive and grandiose enough to fill the entire space but remaining somehow intimate. With a more sparse set-up than some of her typical full-band performances, it was a treat to see her play solo. Following her performance, Gamelan Dharma Swara filled the floor of Basilica Hudson, observers posting up all around the ensemble of twenty or so seated behind traditional Balinese percussion instruments. Xylophone-esque, the bars are tamped by hand after striking with mallets, their ornate golden forms producing tones just as gilded, the whole sound a complete wonder. That segued into the transformative drone of electronic wunderkind Tim Hecker, whose complex compositions act on the senses in peculiar ways. His low-end is amped to earth-shattering proportions, so as to produce a very physical sensation in the throat and chest (and even skull) while washes of shimmering melody play just beneath. It’s the best kind of thing to zone out to. Taken together, this onslaught of transcendent performances was worth the trip alone. Afterward, Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry performed his inventive Music For Heart and Breath compositions, all of which are timed to the players’ own breath or heartbeats via stethoscope – a novel idea, although in such a cacophonous space full of distractions it unfortunately fell flat.

So, imagine now the type of person who would soak that all up while sneering at the idea of Outkast-and-Jack-White-headlined, corporate-sponsored Festivals – the music writers, the experimental composers, the record store clerks, the somewhat elistist Brooklynites who’d never be caught dead at Governor’s Ball (unless they were covering it for some internet publication or other). That’s who was there, and that’s who a thing like SoundScape is meant to impress. And yet, there wasn’t any real air of snobbery, because snobbery hinges on looking down at someone, and at Basilica, we’re all in the same discerningly curated boat, our sails full of our own good taste. And that is fine and good, and unsurprising, but let’s not pretend that SoundScape is solving any of festival culture’s actual problems, or even acting as a model for anything other than a DIY-ish version of something more similar to All Tomorrow’s Parties.

Really, one of the more innovative aspects of Basilica programming were the Saturday evening readings by Mish Way (of White Lung), Los Angeles poet Mira Gonzalez, and Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves. It’s an interesting concept to bring spoken word pieces into a lineup that features post-hardcore acts like Swans and Deafheaven, and the fact that all three readers were women felt progressive and uplifting. Graves’ piece was published in full on The Talkhouse and dealt with gendered double standards and examined authenticity through anecdotes about Andrew W.K. and the media’s treatment of Lana del Rey. It’s a bit of an odd comparison in some ways, Andrew W.K.’s “persona” having been invented prior to the popularity of the longform thinkpieces del Rey’s been such inspiration for, but at its heart was the very real feeling that female celebrities face far more scrutiny (and for that matter, scrutiny of a different breed) than men in entertainment ever do. Graves used Andrew W.K. as a talking point because she’d recently met him and familiarized herself with his backstory, but I couldn’t help but wish she’d left del Rey out of it and chosen instead to share her own struggle to be taken seriously or seen as authentic. Pop music is a whole other monster – something she touched on in her essay only briefly – because it reaches such a wide audience and by its very nature demands its performers have some sort of gag or gimmick, and that does manifest itself differently for women in pop than it does for men in pop. At Basilica SoundScape though, the kind of authenticity folks seemed most concerned with was proving their own, their presence at such a groundbreaking, culture-altering event the best sort of cache.

So Basilica SoundScape is absolutely worth attending if you truly appreciate a well-curated lineup in which the details and intersections behind every act are carefully thought out by its organizers. For those types of show-goers, SoundScape will likely continue to be that breath of fresh Autumn air as long as the gorgeous venue that hosts it stands. While it may alienate the mainstream festival attendees of today, hopefully SoundScape will act as a beacon that proves there’s always a different way – particularly for those that put big-box events together. If SoundScape can build on this year’s successes and continue the trend of innovation next year, even the Lollapalooza lovers are bound to notice.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]