Holy crap, what a year in live music… I attended well over 100 shows in 2012. No, that’s not a typo. It took me a year to finish my year end list. I’m only ranking 73 because I really dig prime numbers. And to make it easier, I left out festivals, local bands, bands I saw more than once and some highbrow artsy stuff that I sneak into on occasion.
Read up, check out some youtube clips, and I hope you find something you like. Or don’t like. Let’s get to it, and let me know your faves!
1. Afghan Whigs – Metro
This was why rock n’ roll was invented. A Lollapalooza aftershow. It was late, it was hot, it was crowded and I think my shoe was untied. But once Greg Dulli began the proceedings, nothing else mattered. The sonic intensity of the music, the sinister lyrics, the swagger with which he controlled his stage and the crowd all made me feel as though I had sold my soul to be there. He kindly returned it at the end, but he could put the devil out of business if he chose.
2. Dave Alvin – Fitzgeralds, City Winery
By all counts I should be sick of Dave by now. I’ve seen him at every venue in town and in every configuration and yet I still show up every time like an annoying little brother who wants to tag along everywhere. Fortunately Dave doesn’t mind. His stories are anything but bedtime material and are accompanied by the stinging riffs coming from a Fender guitar that I’d probably recognize on the street more quickly than my own mother. No offense, Ma, but he’s that good.
3. Deerhoof/Buke & Gase – Schubas
Every year there is a show that surprises me more than finding a blue Tiffany box in a happy meal. Deefhoof did it this year. They weren’t even on my radar and the only reason I was at the show was because a friend recommended Buke & Gase. B&G were good, but I was completely unprepared for what followed. It was like prog rock coming down from a bad acid trip while doing sake bombs. Sounds frightening, but so mind opening you can’t wait to do it again.
4. Mavis Staples – City Winery
Mavis owns the night. When she cries, you bawl with her. When she’s angry, you want to stand behind her. When she’s joyous, you feel so much fucking joy you think your head is going to explode. To do that in every song takes talent, and she makes it look natural.
5. Diamanda Galas – Museum of Contemporary Art
I was just getting over a cough and cold and a sign was posted at the door threatening to remove anyone making any noise including photography, talking, recording, cellphones, or candy wrappers. I was terrified she was going to kick my ass, so I filled my mouth with a dozen Ricolas, held my breath and was even afraid to fart. She came out in her classic goth attire to a stage holding only a piano, and let loose with a mix of schizophrenic, but impressive vocal and musical chops that make Tori Amos seem like a drunken penguin. It’s as if she were raised solely on Stravinsky and Maria Callas records but forced to practice 24 hours a day inside an Addams Family pinball machine. It was sometimes as terrifying, as it was beautiful, but definitely a performance I’m glad I survived.
6. Punch Brothers – Park West/Cubby Bear
A friend talked me into going to the Park West show. I went reluctantly. I even passed on a free Maroon 5 show the same night. And all you suckers that went to squeal over Adam Levine that night can sit and spin, because these guys might not be as pretty as Adam but they know how take a song from the front porch to a larger venue without losing the smell of cornbread or the feel of the dirt below their feet.
7. Concrete Blonde – Park West
This band has been a favorite of mine since some of you younger ones were chugging apple juice from your sippy cups. Johnette can still melt the ice cubes in your kiddie cocktail with her voice alone, and you had better buckle up because the songs will still drop you like a right hook if you think they’ve mellowed after 25 years.
8. Fiona Apple – Lincoln Hall
I’m not a Fiona Apple fanatic. I haven’t sat in my room with an overly lengthy titled CD plotting revenge against past lovers, but I dig most of her tunes. In the manner of her album titles, I guess I would say the show was A Peanut Made Me Puke ‘fore the Show But I’d Still Trade the Waif a Cheeseburger for a Dynamite Song.
9. Metric – The Vic
This was a free show, ill-sponsored and poorly publicized by some car company. So the venue was half-empty, but it afforded me the opportunity to be upfront for my first live experience with Em. I’ve always been a tad embarrassed to like this band, and for some reason I’m a tad embarrassed to put this show in the top ten, but her voice is sweet, the hooks are sharp, the set was engaging and she’s got a rad pair of getaway sticks.
10. Fishbone – Cobra Lounge
I caught them the year before, and sometimes that can hurt a band in the rankings. But this band still has so much energy and is so dynamic that they completely scrambled my brain cells into believing they belong in the top ten again. And I’m not going to argue with my brain. I’m a genius.
11. tuneyards - House of Blues
Merrill has a horrible haircut. She fingerpaints her face. She plays a ukulele and sometimes howls like spider monkey. It sounds like a nightmare day at pre-school, but via tuneyards she makes some of the most interesting, creative and fun music out there today. The world needs more Merrills.
12. Jeff Tweedy – The Vic
Okay, so 2011 was Wilco overload, and this show was early in 2012. So it was initially way lower because my brain is old. But after some goji berries and kale, I remembered how intimate he made a 2,000 person room feel, his sense of humor, the spontaneity of the show, and the quality of the songs when stripped down to an acoustic guitar and a bag of Funyuns.
13. Ray Wylie Hubbard – SPACE
I met Ray a few times in my Dallas days and he was always a humble and likeable chap walking around town with a guitar and looking like he just rolled out of bed. He still looks like he just rolled out of bed but after 60 years people are finally figuring out what I’ve know for 15… he’s not only likeable but knows how to write a tune so vivid that often you feel like you just stepped out of your DeLorean to be there with him.
14. Chris Smithers – Old Town School
You know how when you have a crush, you want to like everything that your crush likes? Why, yes, I am a fan of the neo-Baroque philosphers! You, too??!!! Dave Alvin recommended Chris Smithers. I listened. It was good. I saw him when he came to town. It was even better.
15. Daniel Johnston – Bottom Lounge
If you don’t know Daniel Johnston, you should know he’s schizophrenic. Literally. So the show was what you might expect. Came out and did a couple tunes solo. Then left saying that he’d be back out with his band. Came back saying he didn’t have a band. Did a few more tunes. Got flustered because he thought his songbook was messed up. It was heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time.
16. Meshelle Ndegecello – Old Town School
She shocked the world when she topped my 2010 list. She’s just as cool, but this performance of Nina Simone songs was as cool. I really dig cover tunes. But this was a little like putting chocolate in a martini. I love chocolate. I love gin. It might work and you’ll get drunk, but I’d rather have a real martini and then stuff my face with chocolate when I’m laying on my dirty linoleum floor after finishing the bottle.
17. Ruthie Foster – SPACE
I still love Ruthie. But now she’s like an old friend. The music is consistent, positive and keeps a smile on my face like nothing else. I leave every show wanting to take her home with me and ask if I can keep her. I’ll make some pizza rolls and we can listen to old records and she can teach me a chord or two. Sigh…..
18. Bettye Lavette – City Winery
Bettye is still the queen. But she’s like heroin. Ever since I discovered her I couldn’t get enough. But now my arms are covered in track marks and I’ve lost everything and I just need to take a break. But you know I’ll be back. Bettye and Mr. Brownstone have a lot in common… they won’t leave me alone.
19. Prince – United Center
A Prince show has been on my bucket list for a while (right after make out with Shania Twain and before build a robot), so his three-night stand seemed like a good opportunity to cross one off the list. On the first night I had read that he treated the show like a pre-school Christmas pageant dress rehearsal, pouting about the sound and refusing to play guitar. I was there on the second night and there were enough moments to remind me why I was there. He also gets a bump for sharing the stage with Jennifer Hudson, who I had previously dismissed but might have stolen the stage from His Royal Badness.
20. Hounds Below – Beat Kitchen
I discovered this band earlier in the year and was excited to see them headline the Beat Kitchen… with about 25 of my closest friends. Sad that so few people showed up, but an exclusive all-access show for the ones who did. Just like my orgies. I just hope these dudes keep with it until the rest of the music world figures out that these guys are professional, passionate and know how to write a hook that you won’t be embarrassed to be singing days later.
21. Kids These Days – Columbia College
Ah, kids these days… they put together a high energy mix of funk and hip-hop and a dynamic show that gets them invited to the top music festivals and on television and they decide to break up. Back in my day we would have kept at it until we were 60 years old and could charge $450 a seat at United Center. So short-sighted.
22. Mucca Pazza – Taste of Chicago
The circus punk marching band. A bunch of ex-band geeks dust off their old marching band uniforms and perform a halftime show inspired by Benny Hill for whomever will have them. I’ll leave it at that.
23. Old 97’s – The Vic
An alt-country fave who keep the house a-rockin, so don’t bother knockin’.
24. Mark Lanegan – Metro
I was looking forward to this one like an Amish cabinetmaker looks forward to building cabinets. On the big day, Lanegan came out and planted himself in front of the mic stand, one foot slightly in front of the other, one hand midway up the stand and the other wrapped around the mic. And posed as if he were a model for a still-life art class. I’ve seen bowls of fruit move more. But his voice is a classic, he brought a solid backing band with a handful of dark yet captivating tunes, and he even managed to say “thank you” before leaving the stage. Oddly off-putting yet engaging at the same time. Like a date with yours truly.
25. Carolina Chocolate Drops – Lincoln Hall
An old-time string band, some front porch entertainment and a history lesson all rolled into one evening. Four musicians playing guitar, banjo, bones, violin, spoons, cello, drums and jug. I had a seizure when they merely asked us to sing along.
26. John Hammond – Old Town School
I like John Hammond. I’ve seen John Hammond before. But I forgot how good a John Hammond show is until I get there and he starts the first song. Then I feel like the idiot who ruined the idiom by forgetting how to ride a bike. He’s white, but this ain’t no white boy blues band playing Mustang Sally for drunk middle-aged women who can’t dance. This is down home blues for people who will wonder if Hammond found the same crossroads that Robert Johnson did.
27. Band of Horses – Metro
Every year Metro has a Thursday night Lollapalooza show that’s usually worth attending so I keep it open. When they announced it was Band of Horses I was a little disappointed but went anyway. They weren’t horses at all. And I also discovered Michael Kiwanuka. And was able to sell my extra ticket to some kid from Tennessee so he could see his favorite band. It was a feel good night all around.
28. The Dirty Three – Lincoln Hall
Part of the Nick Cave mafia, The Dirty Three are led by Warren Ellis on violin. If unfamiliar with Mr. Ellis, you might mistake him for a homeless gentleman who has wandered in off the street. A manic homeless gentleman who will rock your socks off with a violin and a couple of bandmates who play together like a finely tuned awesome noise machine.
29. Alabama Shakes – Metro
A band who suffered from overexposure… after catching them at a free local show at a little dive bar, this sold out show at Metro without much new material was a bit of a letdown. But Brittany still rocks and their music is a breath of fresh air in the dutch oven of new releases.
30. Dinosaur Jr. – SubT
A wall of Marshall stacks was pointed at the crowd in the intimate club. J. Mascis came out and showed us that he knew how to use them. It was loud. It was a throwback that still measured up to anything out there today. Rock n’ roll, kids… pay attention.
31. Blitzen Trapper – Lincoln Hall
These guys get a bump because I just saw them again this year and had forgotten how good a show they put on. It’s like a Grateful Dead and Lynyrd Skynyrd mash up, and as weird as that sounds it works like a tye-dye t-shirt on the 4th of July. Just leave the confederate flags at home, Bubba; these guys hail from Portland somehow.
32. Mike Watt – Schubas
One of the Minutemen carrying on the tradition long after the passing of D. Boon. He does a nice job and seems to have fun doing it. Carry on.
33. Rodrigo y Gabriela – Chicago Theater
I had been wanting to see this duo and had mixed feelings when they came around with a Cuban orchestra. Nothing against Desi Arnez, but I didn’t want the guitar play to get lost amongst a bunch of babalus. Maybe they did, but now I can say I spent a night at the fabled Tropicana Club.
34. Delta Spirit – House of Blues
They’ve got spirit, yes they do, they’ve got spirit, how ‘bout you? I remember cheerleaders chanting that back and forth across the field during football games. Pretty stupid. Yeah, we’ve got spirit… so shut the hell up already. Delta Spirit had spirit. The crowd returned the spirit. The floor shook a bit. Good times.
35. Battles – Bottom Lounge
This is a weird band. I didn’t know if I should have gone. But the rhythm got me. The rhythm is gonna get you. Tonight. O eh o eh. I got sucked into the whole experience and cheered for pink blobs and multimedia duets. It would have been a good night to do acid. Bonus point for the ridiculously high crash cymbal.
36. We Were Promised Jetpacks – Bottom Lounge
Sometimes I debate myself on whether this is one of the dumbest band names or most genius band names. In the end it really doesn’t matter because once they strap on the guitars and let the wall of sound rip, you forget all about the broken jetpack promises (but still fantasize about Judy Jetson).
37. Kasabian – The Vic
Part Spinal Tap, part dance rock, part just rock. It’s an odd mix of nothing too groundbreaking, but it works like a bottle of applesauce on pork chop day. Just show up, roll with it and you’ll have fun.
38. He’s My Brother She’s My Sister – Empty Bottle
No debating this one… this is a really dumb band name. And then they come up with the hare-brained idea to replace the drummer with a tap dancer. Fortunately I was intrigued by the proposition and who knew that a couple hippie siblings exchanging lyrics over some tap shoes would be the feel-good experience of the year.
39. Silent Comedy – Double Door/Schubas
These dudes from San Diego tear it up. If not for the fact that they got together to form a stellar band, they’d have no justification for the ridiculous facial hair that would otherwise be annoying. But it works here.
40. Eric Bibb – Old Town School
Mr. Bibb just lays down a down-homey, bluesy groove on an acoustic guitar, floats some smooth lyrics over the top, and chills so hard that you’ll crave a cool glass of lemonade on the coldest winter’s day.
41. Lee Fields – Lincoln Hall
Mr. Fields sweats a lot. That’s how soulful he is. His sweat is so full of soul, that the devil could walk away with his fill and Mr. Field would still have enough soul remaining to pass through the gates of heaven while giving St. Pete the finger.
42. Laura Marling – Athaneaum Theater
Ah, Laura. I shouldn’t like you. I should ignore you at best; scowl in annoyance at worst. But you’re the exception to the rule. Not sure why. As Charlie Daniels said in The Legend of Wooley Swamp, “There’s some things in this world you just can’t explain.” In fact, she could do a set of Charlie Daniels Band covers and I’d probably show up. I dare you, Laura.
43. Handsome Family – Saki Records
Brett and his wife Rennie sing dark, Gothic America tunes and kicked it up a notch by doing an entire set of murder ballads at a local record store. It was a surprisingly delightful way to spend a September evening and mellowed me out in a weird way.
44. honeyhoney – Beat Kitchen
Suzanne and Ben make an odd couple but I like living in a world where they not only found each other, but they could interrupt a gunfight and distract everyone until it was happy hour and they could all just hang out at the saloon with a sarsaparilla.
45. Mission of Burma – Lincoln Hall
The horrible truth about Burma is that more people other than the 40-something dudes who remember them from the 80’s should have been at this show. But that’s cool… for one night we were all back in college except that the beers were more expensive and the floor wasn’t as sticky.
46. White Rabbits – Lincoln Hall
Their music ain’t gonna change the world. Their songs won’t be covered by aspiring coffee shop troubadours for decades to come. But they have a good beat and they’re easy to bob your head to without being as brain damaging as the top forty.
47. Le Butcherettes – SubT
My good friend Teri Gender Bender brought her band and bloody apron back to Chicago. I was entertained. Not as much as the first time, but I guess I have a high tolerance for bloody apron, Mexican garage rock.
48. Crime & The City Solution – Lincoln Hall
A gothic castle with a whimsical king surrounded by a moat of black licorice. Hell if I know what that means, but it was cool to spend a night chilling out with these old-timers who live there.
49. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes – Daley Plaza
Somehow a bunch of dirty hippies got a permit to park their bus downtown and grace a stage next to the Picasso in Daley Plaza for a free lunchtime show. I took an extended lunch and saw that they were having such a swell time making music that I almost dropped my khakis and stowed away on their tour bus.
50. Maps & Atlases – Schubas
The singer’s voice annoys me. The bass player’s movements annoy me. Their stage props annoy me. Their videos perplex me. Their general hipsterness begs to be destroyed. But damn if they don’t pull it all together as a pretty damn good band with some catchy songs. While I pay $15 to stand there like a judgmental ass.
51. Nneka – Double Door
This was early in the year and I thought could be a top ten show. It was probably unfairly brought down later in the year when I saw her again and started suffering from Nneka overload and her spirit and sincerity suddenly turned and became pretentious and annoying. I’m sure it’s me. I like you Nneka. Really.
52. Heartless Bastards – Lincoln Hall
I love Erica and this band, but clearly this is the section of my rankings that could be relabeled as kick-ass bands I just got burned out on. I’m like JoJo the idiot circus boy with a pretty new pet….
53. Aimee Mann – Park West
I’ve had a crush on Aimee since the 80’s when she rocked the bass with her spikey platinum locks and rat-tail. I still have a crush on her and still like her songs, but they seem more suited to my living room than a large concert hall. Swing by sometime, Aimee, and you’ll easily make the top ten.
54. Wild Flag – Metro
This was the fourth time I’ve seen the coolest rocker chicks on the road. Unfortunately each venue got more and more crowded. And I showed up late and might have well been standing across the street. But, yeah, they still rock.
55. Japandroids – Metro
Damn it, man, stop showing up late! This time I ended up upstairs trying to catch a peek between a sea of more punctual fans. Great energy, but I might have enjoyed it more had I been closer to the stage than the urinals.
56. Devotchka – Metro
Another one I need to chill on for a bit. It’s fun to mix it up and see a band with a string section, a tuba, accordion and whatever else they fancy playing music that will sweep you away the same way a good movie can. But on overload, it gets a little Groundhog Day.
57. These United States/Bailiff – Schubas
A solid double bill… my first time seeing TUS rocking out on Schubas small stage, but put over the top with a strong showing from local openers Bailiff. Nice to see your hometown band hold its own against the more established acts.
58. Duke Spirit – Lincoln Hall
I’m my own worst enemy. I caught them at SubT a few years ago and was caught completely off-guard by the sound and energy. Liela owns it. It had been so long awaited and so amped up in my own head that I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. Which is totally wrong. You’re awesome, Liela. Like heroine. I used to do a little but a little wouldn’t do it so the little got more and more…..
59. Charles Bradley – Millennium Park
I saw Charles at Metro the year before and gave him a bad review because I was sick and insisted on going to the show and ended up sitting in the corner by the end of the night in a hoodie and the cold sweats and venue security thinking I was on drugs. I just convinced them I was just trying not to puke on their shoes. Sorry, Charlie. I went to his free show at MP a year later… and, yeah, he’s way better when you’re not delirious.
60. Black Keys – United Center
I had tickets to their Metro show a few years ago but sold them to see Gogol Bordello at SubT the same night. I don’t regret the decision, but seeing them with an additional 17,000 people at the United Center might not have been the same.
61. Lenny Kravitz – Chicago Theater
Some people want to be rock stars. Others have to be rock stars because they don’t have a choice. Lenny and his band fit this category. It’s not like you’ll see them doing taxes at Price Waterhouse or even manning the fitting rooms at the Gap. The songs may be a little formulaic, but they deserve to be up there.
62. Cowboy Mouth – House of Blues
One of the best live acts touring. So why are they so low? I guess you need to be in the mood to party. If you are, they will slice up the limes for your tequila shots. But I found out that if you aren’t in the mood, those limes can sting an open wound. So just make sure you have your mardi gras beads when you go see them and you’ll have a great time. Otherwise stay out of the way.
63. Johnny Clegg – Lincoln Hall
It was a pleasant evening. He deserves to be higher based on solely on his convictions. Not for bad stuff like drunken driving, but personal convictions regarding South African liberation and getting in trouble for having a bi-racial band when such things were illegal. I enjoy world music, but only in small doses.
64. Walkmen – Lincoln Hall
Nothing wrong with the Walkmen. I think I was just tired after a long weekend of Lolla aftershows and annoyed that they dress so well.
65. Lumineers – Logan Square Auditorium
If only I had enjoyed the show enough to justify the trouble of getting tickets. I’m sure the band was swell that night but the venue sucks and the crowd sucked even more. Good grief, don’t you guys have frat houses in which to drink and act like assholes?
66. Sam Moore – City Winery
A new venue wanted to give me tickets to see half of Sam and Dave. Still has a voice that mellows me like no other, but it was half the fun without Dave.
67. Junior Brown – Fitzgeralds
I like Junior. He’s amusing. He’s talented. But after you’ve seen him once or twice, you kinda get it. If you’re a diehard fan that’s cool, but for the rest of us we’ve been on the ride so no reason to get the season pass.
68. UFO – House of Blues
I was four when this band formed. Forty years ago, this show would have been Too Hot To Handle. It was fun to hear the hits, but I can’t say it would have been much different if you had put a really good cover band up there. Especially with the Lights Out.
69. Hush Sound – Bottom Lounge
Yeah, I had a momentary lapse of reason and really, really liked this band for a week or two. Maybe I had malaria or something. They’re not bad, but not sure how I ended up actually going to one of their shows.
70. Amy Lavere – Abbey Pub
I dig Amy and her delicate voice singing dark songs and her tiny frame handling that upright bass. But this one just seemed a bit uninspired. Perhaps because they totally got shown up by the opening band – the Hooten Hollars.
71. George Thorogood – House of Blues
I went to see George in 1984. I remember because I wasn’t quite old enough to drink and spent a good portion of the evening trying to secure beer. It was fun, but I wasn’t about to drop $50 to see George these days at HOB. But I got on the guest list, and decided to check it out. I stayed for three songs… just long enough to cringe at the cheesiness of the show and the caricature of himself that he’s become. And the fans stuck in 1984 and still eating it up….
72. Greg Ginn and the Royal We – Red Line Tap
The founder, guitarist and mainstay of Black Flag. He’s been fighting ex-band members and then made a foray into electronic music. I was intrigued enough to pay $8 to check this out at a local dive bar with about 20 other folks. I went in knowing what what I was getting into, but it was still a train wreck. He played some guitar melodies over a drum and bass track recorded his computer. Which kept crashing. He’s also kind of awkward, which explains why he’s always let his singers be the voice and face of the band. Sorry, Greg. I really was pulling for you.
73. Electric Six – Double Door
It was supposed to be a party, but it was just kind of silly.
Did you actually just read all that? Serious? We should be friends. Send me a note or comment here and let's hit a show!