11. Ruthie Foster – MAC: From Screaming Females to the opposite end of the spectrum, Ruthie will not make your ears bleed or sucker punch you if you’re not paying attention. Ruthie will merely take the stage, endear herself to you in a way that you wish she was your neighbor so that you could share a cup of tea with her every afternoon, and then spew enough joy through her music that if you aren’t smiling then you must be super self-conscious about your teeth or something. Go see a dentist because that’s unacceptable at one of her shows.
12. Rhett Miller – Schubas: I own an acoustic guitar and I make horrible noises with it. But even if I knew how to play the damn thing, I’m fully aware how incredibly difficult it is to keep someone’s attention with just an acoustic guitar and irritatingly good looks. But Rhett is one of the few I’ve seen who can pull it off. He keeps the energy high, never lets off the gas, and his songs will keep you engaged as you round each verse with him as if riding a high banked race track in high gear. At the end, you can’t believe 90 minutes has passed, and Rhett is more sweat-soaked than an NBA team in the fourth quarter.
13. Wild Flag – Subterranean/Empty Bottle: Anytime you start a band with 2/3 of Sleater-Kinney, you’re on the right track. These four women look like they’re on their way to a PTA meeting. But instead of talking about bake sales, they decide to kick the principal in the nuts, hit the road and pay for the new playground equipment by rocking out and selling merch to adoring fans across the country. Those kids are going to have a kick ass playground.
>Watch Wild Flag
14. Cage the Elephant/Florence & the Machine/Black Keys – Marcus Ampitheater, Summerfest, Milwaukee: I am a total music and concert snob now, and if the venue holds more 2,000 people I tend to turn my nose up and move along. But this triple bill was too good to ignore so I grabbed some tickets, played hooky from work and took a road trip to the land of cheese and bratwurst. The little dude from CTE flung himself around the pavilion like a Frisbee at an Ultimate tourney and stole the show, while Florence filled the airspace with a voice so strong you could almost see it, and then the Black Keys came out but I missed most of their set because I was caught up in my own thoughts of the irony of the band name given the fact that they don’t have a piano or keyboard player in the band. Then I started thinking that maybe I’d take piano lessons and tried to remember where the power adapter for my Casio was. Pretty soon the show was over, but the people around me told me it was spectacular. Too bad half of them were morons and missed CTE.
15. Split Lip Rayfield – Double Door: This one was a huge surprise. It was an impromptu stop on the way home because Suzanne Vega nearly put me into a coma and I felt dirty after sitting amongst all those old, clean Evanston-ites. I chose the Double Door because Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers were opening, but I stuck around for SLR and was blown away. Banjo/guitar, mandolin and a homemade stand up bass made out of a gas tank and piece of hickory. There was drinking, dancing, making out… and that was just me and the band. Some good-time thrash-grass music and seriously fun show for everyone there.
16. The Joy Formidable – Metro/Double Door: My buddy told me about this band. The day of the show. Thanks for the head up there, buddy. I’m a busy man. Actually, I’m not and I could have gone, but I skipped it and made him go alone to prove a point. I showed him! And I missed a surely awesome show at Lincoln Hall. Fortunately, he drove me to their free Lolla aftershow at the Double Door later in the year, and I also got to catch them headline a show at Metro. Ritzy looks demure in her coiffed platinum hair, well-appointed make-up and conservative dress. (Can make-up be well-appointed? I don’t think so, but I think you know what I mean, so stop being a stickler, will ya’?) But as soon as the music starts she tears into her guitar like a Tasmanian devil, blowing through songs like an EF-5 tornado (that’s the highest intensity tornado on the Enhanced Fujita scale, in case you aren’t a weather geek like me). Oh, and they’re Welsh and swear a lot. It’s loud and fun. And that’s all I ask. I’m a simple man.
17. Don Dixon & Marti Jones – Abbey Pub: Einstein said, “For us trusting physicists, the separation between past, present, and future is a bare, yet stubborn illusion.” I’m not a physicist, nor very trusting, so although that doesn’t apply to me it still was apparent that I was unable to attend more than one of the shows going on at the same time the night Don Dixon came to town. Fortunately, Do312.com helped me make that decision by putting me on the guest list. I discovered Don in 1992 when he took a break from producing bands like REM and Smithereens to put out some of his own material. Not the type of stuff you’d find on B96 between En Vogue and Billy Ray Cyrus. I first saw him on 120 Minutes, an awesome show on MTV that aired on Sunday nights for music geeks who weren’t jumping around to Kris Kross every night. His raw voice, songwriting and catchy hooks kept him a mainstay in my collection for nearly 20 years, meaning we’re both old and just happy to be alive. But I’m still going to pubs to see live music and he’s still enjoying playing it, and all was right with the world for those 120 minutes two decades later. It was just a bonus that he brought his talented wife Marti and turned out to be a genuinely nice guy to meet.
>Watch Don & Marti
18. Le Butcherettes – Subterranean: Mexican garage rock performed by a badass girl wearing a bloody apron. I’m going to leave it at that.
>Watch Le Butcherettes
19. Meat Puppets – Double Door: You might know them from their semi-crossover hit Backwater after Kurt Cobain insisted on including them in his Unplugged session. After that, brother Cris took the drug use to new level and ended up eventually getting shot for starting trouble at a post office. You know you’re fucked up when they have to shoot you at a post office. Somehow they got their shit together and are back on the road. The sound is still completely unique, the songwriting solid, and the set list was deep and wild, covering their whole catalog and then some. It went on way longer than expected but I loved every minute, like bottomless cup of resonance served up by a weathered truck stop waitress that still calls you hon’ no matter how long you sit at her counter.
20. Ted Leo – Pritzker Pavilion: I’ve dug Ted for quite a while and he’s responsible for one of my favorite tunes, but I had never seen him live. I’ve either been out of town or working or deathly ill or meeting with my Antique Road Show Fan Club. And the last time I made the fatal mistake of underestimating his popularity and it sold out before I could snag a ticket, and all attempts to get on the guest list by parading topless in front of his tour bus went ungraciously ignored. But thanks to the City of Chicago, this one was free and I got a nice seat up front and finally enjoyed in person the greatness of Ted. Apparently he gave security a heads up to make sure I kept my shirt on.