In the spirit of the upcoming Back to School Bash (9/4 – 12th and Porter), I’ve been thinking about great concerts. On a given week in Nashville I go to anywhere from one to three shows. Sometimes I’ll hit up two or three in a night. Aside from being part of the job (where else can you find so many musicians?) I just really enjoy seeing live music. Nashville, obviously, has plenty of it.
Unfortunately, a great show can be hard to find. I present to you…
Milam’s All-Time Top 5 Concerts!
5) Phantom Planet – Vanderbilt University – Spring 2002
This show was part of some college’s Rites of Spring weekend. The then-obscure Phantom Planet opened for the late-night headliner Guster, which was a collegiate favorite in 2002. I had heard “California” (yes, the O.C.’s theme song…also written by Jason Schwartzman of Rushmore fame) on a friend’s computer approximately four minutes before the concert. I had, essentially, no clue who this band was. They proceeded to play one of the most solid 60-minute sets I’ve seen to this day. Everyone familiar with their superb debut The Guest knows how tight those songs are, so the crowd immediately took to the music itself. But really it was the unrestrained energy of the show that took me by surprise–here was this uberpop California band climbing Marshall stacks, jumping off kick-drums, openly mocking the headliner (“Guster’s here, too, if you want to see THAT”). They were simply incapable of holding back. The swagger of the entire band only amplified the tightness of their sound the accessibility of their songs. There is maybe nothing harder than being the unknown opener warming up an indifferent crowd before the headliner takes the stage–Phantom Planet made everyone their fan that night, and made Guster negligible.
4) Lucero – Mercy Lounge – Spring 2005
Lucero seemingly does nothing but tour, so it’s no surprise that they’re a great live band. This show in particular stands out, as it came right before the release of Nobody’s Darlings. Lucero was big enough, even then, to fill the Mercy Lounge, but even a few hundred of their biggest fans hadn’t heard any of the new songs yet. They played over two hours of rip-your-face-off rock, tight, sober, and absolutely crazed. Every opening chord sounded like a statement, every chorus felt bigger than the last, Roy Berry beat the living crap out of his drums. When they debuted “Last Night in Town,” the crowd immediately took to the song and made me count the hours until the record came out. I left that night–after a few hours of some of the best rock performances I’d ever seen–wondering why anybody, anywhere would pay $35 to see The Shins’ catalogue of quaalude-tunes when bands like Lucero were dishing out shows like that for $7 at the door.
3) Cory Branan and Ben Nichols – Radio Cafe – Spring 2004
The now-defunct East Nashville dive Radio Cafe hosted, for a brief time, some very noteworthy artists. This show was one of the first that Cory and Ben (of Lucero) played together, both onstage with an acoustic, trading off songs and playing on each-other’s. The draw of Lucero’s frontman more than filled the little venue, but the listening-room atmosphere kept the crowd deathly silent all night. About four songs in, something clicked for both singers: they realized that the other wasn’t going to goof off and they had to bring it every song. A quiet competition heated up between the two, each song needing to top the last. If Cory played a cover, Ben had to play a better cover. If Cory played a Lucero song, Ben had to do a better version of one of Cory’s. Cory would slow down the tempo with “Through the Freefall” and Ben would answer with the definitive version of “Nights Like These.” They harmonized and played each other’s solo’s, upping the ante with every performance. This went on for nearly three hours, and almost nobody left until the bar closed and they had to finish. These guys have played a ton of shows like this since (and will again on the Brew City Tour), but this was the first and best of the bunch. To this day, the best acoustic concert I’ve ever seen.
2) My Morning Jacket – The Ryman – Fall 2006
I had seen My Morning Jacket once before, October 2005 at Nashville’s glorified warehouse City Hall, and thought they were incredible despite the poor venue. Pretty much everyone remotely familiar with MMJ knows their reputation as arguably the best live band around, so I absolutely could not miss them at my favorite Nashville venue, The Ryman. The Ryman, as you might know, is kind of a symphony house for pop music–an incredible theater with perfect sound and a listening room vibe. Pop acts play here, but the show experience approximates going to the symphony–everyone is deathly silent and the performers are held to the highest standard. Everyone sits on their wooden seat, claps between songs, and listens reverently. Except, at the My Morning Jacket show, that’s not at all what happened. They proceeded to come out swinging–filling the setlist with all their heaviest rockers and highest-energy songs, running around the stage, bringing the crowd to their collective feet. Nobody in my section (front and center) sat down during the show, and the aisles on the lowest level were flooded by people trying to get closer to the stage, moving with the music, screaming along. The ushers were a combination of shocked, dismayed, and genuinely scared. Of course, the music itself was incredibly tight, and I wonder if they’ve ever sounded better than they did in that room that night. After the encore, Jim James came back out and closed, playing “At Dawn” and “Bermuda Highway” acoustic and solo, almost a tip of the cap to the “traditional” Ryman performance. This would be #1 if it weren’t for…
1) Pearl Jam – The Pyramid – Spring 2000
Admittedly, this concert is much more in my memory than a great show. During high school, no band mattered more to me than Pearl Jam–and I honestly wonder if any band will matter more to me than they did at that point. During the Binaural tour, they stopped through Memphis (at the Pyramid, which is a great sporting venue, but doesn’t have good acoustics for concerts) and I immediately bought tickets. This wasn’t just my first Pearl Jam show–this was the first “actual” concert I’d ever been to attended. Predictably, Pearl Jam was exceptionally good that night–nonstop energy, incredibly tight, a few memorable surprises (Eddie donning a jacket and sunglasses to sing “Can’t Help Falling In Love”). Unpredictably, their setlist was one of the weirdest they’ve ever played, hitting all kinds of obscure favorites that I haven’t seen live since (“In My Tree,” “Tremor Christ,” etc.). They played two encores, twenty-eight songs in total, and closed with The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly.” And what I’m trying to say is this: if you don’t think that a seventeen year-old Milam lost his damn mind watching his favorite band play one of his favorite songs in front of his hometown crowd, giving them the “don’t cry, don’t brace your eye” section to sing, eight-thousand voices at once, with Eddie screaming uproariously into the next verse…I don’t know what to tell you. But eight years later, I can still get those goosebumps just thinking about it. I guess that’s the hallmark of a great concert.
But what are your favorite concerts of all-time? Were you at any of the ones I just listed? Let me know, yo!