The best gigs I saw in 2013

SIMON SWEETMAN
Last updated 05:00 07/01/2014

I didn't get through all the lists before the end of the year, forgive me. So we'll do a couple more this week I reckon. First up, the best gigs I saw in 2013. I saw plenty of great shows fromBest of The Year - 2013local acts to some of the biggest names in music - including a couple of heroes I'd been waiting a while to see.

So here we go. Working through the year - here are my favourites. Click on the link for the full review or check out the precis.

Lawrence Arabia, SFBH, Wellington, January 26: James Milne is New Zealand's greatest contemporary songwriter. I'm sure of that. I'm now sure he leads one of the best bands in the country - a deeply intuitive musical unit. And he is a charismatic, committed musical director, offering his heart and soul, his optimism and cynicism in song and in the performance of those songs. There is biting satire. But there is a heart and mind engaged, so passionate, so real. So good. (I'd see Lawrence Arabia solo and then with four-piece band and they were both great shows also).

A Place To Bury Strangers, SFBH, Wellington, January 27: Playing to not much more than a couple of dozen people - a shame, a terrible shame - APTBS delivered a brutal, pulverising set. It was exciting and enticing. It was visceral, it cut deep and through the light show - and the use of darkness, particularly - it was as if a visual representation of the sound was being offered. We could see the sound coming off of the guitar, bass and drums, deliberately buried vocals sitting in behind and working as another texture to the sound. One more layer.

Bailterspace, SFBH, Wellington, February 1: I was nervous for them - right up until the first shimmer of guitar, the first thrum of bass, the first slosh of the hats. It seemed like it could have gone either way - first time seeing one of my favourite bands in over a decade. But as soon as they started, as in the very instant, it could only go one way: straight through me, straight through everyone in attendance. A giant, huge, glorious sound. The Bailterspace sound.

Moon Duo, Bodega, Wellington, March 2: Moon Duo has the goods. But sadly, whether due simply to too many other gigs on at the same time or some poor planning/marketing, this was a small audience. A very small audience. Hey, but no matter. Johnson and Yamada jump straight on in, building a set that rocks out in a subdued, psychedelic way - trippy projections across the band help transport us back to the Velvets doing their thing in front of Andy's films - and Johnson (his main gig is Wooden Shjips) has his guitar set to phase rather than stun, the lines countering Yamada's synth vamps. He has a Garcia-esque ripple (pardon the pun) at times. Spacey jams and a Krautrock feel start to seep into the performance as it continues to build.  Yamada provides the steady hand as Johnson's guitar dribbles across, weaving, wandering, wobbling and warbling, his vocals mostly another texture rather than a definitive voice. There's something of the Flying Nun sound to this too, also the scuzzy stoner-rock shapes of a bunch of fuzzed-out rockers like the Dandy Warhols and BJM and offshoots like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

Kronos Quartet, MFC, Wellington, March 11: Part of the magic of Kronos Quartet, for me, is the deft understanding - and use - of tension, in the playing, in the themes within the pieces. Tonight there was a calmness is offering this tension, the inaccessible made accessible, so many different vestiges of so many musics made remarkable.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse, TSB Bank Arena, Wellington, March 19: Neil Young's guitar solos when he's riding with the horse are a surprise every time - to him and to us. He plays them as if he's hearing them for the first time. That's the real (genuine) treat. His severe case of guitar-face so genuine; he so thoroughly means this s**t. He'll fight for it too. His guitar carries the scars to show for it. He's so wrapped up in this and his body language suggests the power runs through the lead and on through him before it gets to the guitar's pickup.

Paul Simon, Vector Arena, Auckland, April 8: A phenomenal set, touching in on the best tunes from his career, recasting some, reshaping some, serving others as if they were slipped straight from the record and it was impossible to believe - almost - that some 40 years might have passed. What was important was that the pianist dissolved My Little Town into a blur of borderline-indulgent but brilliant mad soloing. What was important was how The Obvious Child smiled and lurched and that a cover of Mystery Train showed off an Elvis-influence to this band's sound. Just another string to the bow. A debt to James Burton. What was important was hearing 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover as the third song in. A hint at how there was so much more to come, there had to be if that was just tossed out third. What was important was a nine-song encore that was positively explosive and offered light and shade, acoustic and electric, solo and full band; it was, in a way, its own show. A bonus show. The version of Hearts And Bones sits with me still. Extraordinary song. And yet a straight - straight-ahead - reading of it was mind-blowing to see and hear live. One of the best gigs you could see I say. And the best gig Paul Simon could offer. So in that sense you couldn't have asked for more.

Robert Plant, TSB Bank Arena, Wellington, April 5: A Led Zeppelin-heavy set but with see-if-you-can-spot-this versions of Black Dog and Four Sticks and Whole Lotta Love as Plant found new ways to tunnel into the blues. It was an amazing performance, with standards recast to show that the evening was as much about where Led Zeppelin songs had come from as it was an act of seeing where exactly they could go.

David Kilgour, Puppies, Wellington, April 20: Whatever the Dunedin sound ended up being, you watch this guy and you hear it in microcosm. You are taken back to every crummy flat you drank beer in with a Tally Ho or Beatnik or Getting Older as partial soundtrack. You watch this guy. This nonchalant phenomenon. And you marvel. Because you've been lucky to see David Kilgour. Always different. Always the same.

Kraftwerk, Joan Sutherland Theatre/Opera House, Sydney, May 24: These almost-too-faithful recreations are a proud testament of the sound-world carved out by Kraftwerk's dogma, the stringent focus on everything that is not the 12-bar blues scale; that is not ever close to that magic combination of chords derrived from Pachelbel's Canon in D has resulted in 40 years of work that is its own canon; that is tied to whatever part of our past - as audience members, from when we discovered it - but is still given enough rope to slide out and off toward a future sound; a series of found future sounds. Hard to imagine a life without this. Impossible now to forget one of the greatest - and if it's odd to say this, most human - performances of this lifetime.

Cassandra Wilson, Opera House, Wellington, June 7: I don't think I've ever seen a more soulful, hypnotic, enchanting and controlled performance. I don't think I've ever seen a more engaging, magnetic live-inside-each-song performance. Cassandra Wilson embodies each song, controls the band through her movements, every hip-shake, every slow grind, every shoulder-shrug; if she doesn't issue the sound as conduit then she reacts so viscerally. At one moment, when percussionist Mino Cinelu sent a spine-chilling conga-crack/cymbal-splash flam out to accent the groove Wilson jumped. Her back was turned to Cinelu but it was palpable that she felt the music instantly/instinctually. Because when she jumped her feet hardly left the floor, it was instead a jump from the gut. Her body shunted by the sound/shunting to the sound.

Killing Joke, Bodega, Wellington, June 14: Jaz Coleman remains a captivating, enigmatic frontman, channelling darkness and revelling in the near-absurdity of the act as he marched on the spot offering stiff-elbow stomps, his arms acting like pistons seemingly propelling the music. Imagine Alice Cooper cast as Harold Steptoe, an art-school Ozzy Osbourne, he was at the helm of the show, on the prowl across the stage, he lived each moment to make any fan's very happy night.

The Black Angels, Bodega, Wellington, June 19: The chime of The Byrds, the shimmer and churn of shoegaze, so many ideas from the 1960s - not just psychedelic - and all updated/purloined so as to appear (within) the band's own sound. In fact what I thought of - most - was The Dandy Warhols. And how the Dandys looked like they were sure they sounded like The Black Angels. But they never did. Not even at their best. They had the swagger, the cockiness, the look - but never the sound. The Black Angels, quite the opposite of The Dandy Warhols (ie: actually talented) were all about the music, the audience, the commitment to performance - it was not about them as such; they were just (as it should be) the conduit for the music.

Steve Vai, Town Hall, Wellington, July 18: You can find fault with the music, sure. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea. But it's worth seeing Steve Vai perform live, because it's something truly extraordinary. It's a marvel, it's magnificent, there's no one like him - he is head and shoulders above the other players that work at being this sort of guitar hero. He transcends the silliness of shred, building orchestrations from a guitar, creating symphonies from his six - and seven - strings.  Steve Vai is a magician. And yes, that means there's some tackiness. But there's such a wow-factor that it's forgiven. He's an entertainer too - offering value for money, offering an experience, offering so much of himself. A frequently stunning show, pitched correctly to the fans. A standing ovation of course. And then an audience shuffling out proudly basking in afterglow.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Bodega, Wellington, July 20: Nielson's gifts as writer and performer are still evolving, maturing, sharpening - but he's taking music to a beautiful new place. And as a unit, UMO is among the best live acts you could hope to see and hear in this day and age. World class, world-beaters even. He's got something special in his fingertips, something special in his soul. We were lucky to be able to hear a glimpse of it. There's more to come, more sonic brilliance. Of that I'm sure.

Dave Dobbyn and Don McGlashan, Old St Paul's, Wellington, October 1: As the evening played out the songs started to talk to one another. You could imagine McGlashan's White Valiant hugging the road in Dobbyn's Blindman's Bend.

The Drones, Bodega, Wellington, October 5: Gareth Liddiard, lead singer, guitarist, songwriter, leader of The Drones, is ushering in a golden age of songwriting. His compositions play out like short films; they feel more like literature than music - sitting alongside the work of, say, Tim Winton, as part of an Australian tradition. Think even of John Hillcoat's films, that very visceral reaction that comes from slow-building white-knuckle rides. That sense of horror, brute ugliness told so poetically. There's a knife-edge tension to The Drones as live act; lacerations of guitar punctuating - and puncturing - the music.

Mountaineater, SFBH, Wellington, October 11: It was wonderful, it was beautiful, it was special - quite glorious.

Rhian Sheehan and Orchestra Wellington, Opera House, Wellington, November 2: Sheehan makes music that moves people. Music that has the intensity, pathos and beauty of haunting slow-motion film sequences; that has the joy and spiritual/philosophical centre of classical works and the deepest, most powerful film scores. It's as if from the block of sound he works, a sculptor, careful and wise, to chip away just what he needs; to leave only what closest resembles the feelings and thoughts that went into the creation. To see and hear these works performed live is to get as close to the actual inspiration as possible - to get as close to inspiration.

M.Ward, Bodega, Wellington, November 9: It was a short set, with a beautiful and sweet intensity. It was virtuoso playing, served with just the slightest shrug. Wonderful.

Neutral Milk Hotel, James Cabaret, Wellington, November 22: All of this means so much because of the music, because of the fact that the original members who created that strange and beautiful set of songs are here. The magic spell of this music is still so potent when you hear the band conjuring their special sorcery.

Kelly Joe Phelps, SFBH, Wellington, November 24: A masterclass in country-blues playing, a jazz improviser's approach to blues guitar, an impeccable feel. His slide playing evoked the searing heat of the desert, the dark night of the soul standing at the crossroads, hellhounds on the trail. And if there was something of Bob Brozman or Ry Cooder in the approach and playing it was in the idea of the playing and player being a conduit, passing on music to the audience, carrying on a tradition.

Iris DeMent and Greg Brown, Old St Paul's, Wellington, December 1: When she starts singing it is as if everything else stops - a moment suspended in time. The finest voice I've ever heard singing live.

Peter Murphy, Bodega, Wellington, December 15: An energised frontman ruling the roost as total class act. But it all works because of the songs - those glorious songs. So Murphy prowled and finger-pointed, he offered a near-wink at times, he chuckled and jokingly disowned his legacy, he added guitar and melodica at times, but for the most part he stood strong with the capable band behind him issuing the sound.

Phoenix Foundation, SFBH, Wellington, December 31: The single best Phoenix Foundation set I've seen. All up. This was (further) proof that they're the truly great band working in this country at this time; the best in the land.

So, what were the best gigs you saw in 2013? Any of these on your list? And what did I miss? 

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