5. The Pogues (March 2006, Washington DC – 930 Club)
Is there a better way to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day then going to the see the originators of Irish-folk punk? Last year was an exception, but since 2006 I’ve been going to see the Pogues every March when they tour the East Coast. Some years I even went twice. Shane MacGowan’s vovals might be more warbled than they are on record, but the musicianship of the band more than makes up for it. The Pogues can easily tear through songs such as “Streams of Whiskey”, “The Sunnyside of the Street”, and “Bottle of Smoke” with reckless abandon that can cause even the squarest of concert-goers to let loose.
Even the slower songs as such as “The Old Main Drag” and “A Pair of Brown Eyes” truly come alive in concert. “Thousands Are Sailing” a lament about the troubles of Irish immigration becomes a triumph, when the song’s writer Phil Chevron takes over on lead vocals (MacGowan uses this a break to take a piss – I’m not joking). The fan-favorite “Body of An American” can become something of a bit of bro-mance – when was the last time you saw so many dudes with their arms around each other’s shoulder singing loudly?
4. U2 (June 2001 Washington DC – Verizon Center)
I personally think that the 2005 Vertigo Tour had better performances (saw them twice that year) but on the 2001 Elevation Tour U2 showed not only were they back after the disaster that was Pop, but proved that concerts can be an uplifting and cathartic experience. U2 perhaps more than any other group, excel at this.
This was the first U2 show I went to, after years of trying. I had desperately tried to buy tickets several times, only to find Ticketmaster inform me that the show was sold-out. Less than a week before the show, I read on a U2 fan-site that leftover tickets were being released. Nervous that I would be locked out again, I quickly logged on. I breathed a sigh of relief as I snatched up a pair of tickets for my older brother and I.
By June, even the newer songs off of All That You Can’t Leave Behind seemed like classics – particularly “Beautiful Day”, “Kite” and “In a Little While”. Even the classic warhorses seemed to gain a new life. Whatever you may think of him, Bono remains one of rock’s greatest frontmen – restless, until he reaches out to every single person in the arena. It’s rare that a band seems to be so aware of every single person in a 20,000 person arena. And The Edge’s ice-y guitar chords never sounded so glorious.
One of U2’s strengths has always been to make their old songs, relevant and contemporary. The bridge of “I Will Follow” linked the past to the present as Bono recalled playing clubs in DC during the group’s early days. “Bullet the Blue Sky” included an anti-gun rant, and “One” shed light on the troubles in Africa.
I just wish I had seen the post 9/11 shows when U2 songs seemed to be a soundtrack for a wounded nation.
3. Elvis Costello (May 2007, Washington DC – 930 Club)
I should probably pick the Costello show with Allen Touissant. But, I only remember half of the show, so I don’t think that should count. As I stated many times during this list, I’m in in love with small venues. And seeing Elvis Costello, five feet from my face at the 930 Club is about an intimate as you can. Being this close to one of your heroes is an experience that has evaded me until this show.
It wasn’t just the closeness that made this show great. Costello was touring behind a collection of his “rock” songs, and as such the show centered around material from his earlier days when he looked liked and act like a pissed off Buddy Holly. While Costello has mellowed a bit in his songwriting, the performances retained every bite and sting he left on record. “Lipstick Vogue” was particularly snarling with its length instrumental bridge. “There’s No Action” was a little tighter than the version found on This Year’s Model, but still seemed on the verge of veering out of control.
“Shabby Doll” was even darker than its studio counterpart, and the live favorite “Watching the Detectives” was given an extended reading, which suited the song’s reggae feeling. Costello is often known for his love of The Beatles, and the group’s rendition of “Hey Bulldog” was a highlight.
2. Leonard Cohen (May 2009, Columbia MD – Merriweather Post Pavilion)
For a man that doesn’t tour very often, Leonard Cohen put on one hell of a show. And like Willie Nelson, Cohen also seemed to be enjoying himself through the over 3 hour set which included all of his best known songs, “Suzanne”, “So Long, Marianne” “Tower of Song” and of course “Hallelujah”. As for Cohen himself, he seemed a lot more animated than you would expect a 75 year old man to be. He also seemed extremely humbled to be in the presence of “friends”.
The constant rain didn’t seem to do anything for the atmosphere. Despite being soaked for most of the night, the show could have gone on for 3 more hours and I wouldn’t have cared. Unlike Bob Dylan, your chances of seeing Leonard Cohen live are few and far between.
1. Van Morrison (February 2009, New York City – Wamu Theater)
(Note: I couldn’t find a video from the Astral Weeks tour)
A once in a life-time show. I’m usually not lucky enough to go to “special performances”, but I did manage to get tickets for this sold out show (at a hefty, but extremely worthwhile price). Like Cohen, Van Morrison doesn’t tour very often but in late 2008 he surprised everybody by not just playing a few shows, but by performing Astral Weeks in its entirety.
For me, Astral Weeks is a life-changing album, and I had no doubt that seeing Morrison perform Astral Weeks live would be a life-changing experience. Usually, I’m not a fan of concerts where you have to sit down, but this was one concert where sitting back, taking in the music was a perfect suit. In its original incarnation, Astral Weeks a reflective mood piece – one that commands you to sit down and listen. And the same went for the show.
The first half of the set contained many standard Van Morrison songs. While he was every professional, Morrison seemed to plow right through the set (“Domino” was particularly short winded). I wouldn’t suggest that he was actually bored with own material, but it was clear that he really wanted to do the Astral Weeks set. In contrast to the first set, Astral Weeks was given a slow jazzy treatment that didn’t take on the songs original arrangements, but retained the spirit of the record. “Slim Slow Slider” was given an expanded ending with Morrison repeatedly chanting, “I start breaking down”. It’s a song that I never gave enough attention to on the record, but it became one of the highlights for me.
Astral Weeks has always existed in its own plane. It’s not rock, it’s not folk, and it’s not jazz. It can be a combination of these things – but it’s also about the passage of time – looking back and seeing the past. Morrison made many great records since Astral Weeks, but he never made a better one. And in 2008 and 2009, Morrison finally looked back into the past and finally admitted what everyone already knew – Astral Weeks isn’t just a record, but an experience.