Smile Politely

Top Live Shows of 2011

Live performance is the essence of music, the truest representation of a band’s talent and ability. For the editors here (and many of the readers, we suspect), going to a show beats listening to the CD every time. We didn’t reach a critical mass of votes for shows, so while those of you who did vote were taken into consideration, please bear in mind that this list has been somewhat editorialized. But hey, rankings are meaningless anyways, right?

5. Robyn, Diamond Rings, Natalia Kills @ Canopy Club – February 15th

Back on a snowy night in February, Robyn worked the Canopy into a frenzied mass of sweat and movement. While the Canopy’s acoustic challenges have struck several other shows this year (notably Neon Indian and the New Pornographers), the room has never sounded better. I have literally never seen a crowd be this excited while simultaneously remaining positive and safe (sure, that Dan Deacon show may have been cool, but everything went to hell largely because of the crowd). In the end, not even a broken set of monitors could derail the momentum that Robyn had going that night, and it made for one of the best shows in recent memory. Opener Diamond Rings didn’t fare too badly either, winning over the crowd with his carefully constructed loops and friendly stage banter (“I hear you guys play basketball here”) after a questionable at best set from Natalia Kills. – Ben Valocchi (photo: Justine Bursoni)

4. Cut Copy @ Canopy Club – September 22nd

Aussies Cut Copy ventured into the Canopy Club on the second day of Pygmalion 2011 following the extraordinary set the night before from fellow headliner Explosions in the Sky.  Coming off of a great record Zonoscope and continuing their run of shows and festivals, they were not going to stop the momentum when they arrived in Urbana. The Canopy Club was completely packed to the brim once Washed Out finished their set (a solid set as well I might add).  The Aussies didn’t just bring their instruments — they brought a hell of a light show to accompany synth-filled dance rock.  By the time the set was halfway over people were covered in everyone else’s sweat and jumping like they could touch the ceiling.  After seeing the same thing happen at Pitchfork Music Festival with thousands of people in attendance, it seemed likely the same thing would happen when “Lights and Music” or “Hearts on Fire” started playing.  The band was exuberant and danced along as much as they could while maintaining their rhythm.  At points in the show it almost felt like my feet weren’t on the ground because of how much jumping there was in the pit.  The atmosphere of this show certainly filled the room with enough sweat and moisture to keep the Canopy hydrated for a night. – Patrick Singer

3. Hum, Dibiase @ Highdive – September 9th

Of all the nights not to bring my Hearos.

My friend and I knew the drill. We nuzzled up close to the stage early, as HUM were loading on. It was Dibiase’s record release show, and they had just slammed through an underappreciated set (manging to be as tight and loose at the same time as well as they do deserves less people at tables and more asses up close IMHO) and we had just slammed some beers and gotten reserves. We talked about the usual stuff musicians talk about when musicians are getting ready to play. Gear. Shows. Drugs.

Then came the noise.

As of the first chord, my body was physically moved backwards from the stage, my head swirling with pain and jubilation. As jarring as it was to have such wattage shoved in my ear-holes, my hands made no muffs as they were busy holding my heart – it surely could have burst.

I’ve been to HUM shows. But not like this.

I looked over for my friend, and he had gone. Presumably to the safety of the bar. And maybe I should have gone with him. I certainly would have heard more than Matt Talbott’s guitar rig. But I’m in love with Matt Talbott’s guitar rig, so I was in heaven. A terribly painful heaven.

The boys tore through some of their best, and most beloved tracks – “Girls & Drugs” (more commonly known as “I’d Like Your Hair Long”) ran straight into “Green to Me” to open the set. From early in the night, Tim Last showed he was on point, crunching through riff after riff alongside Jeff Dimpsey and Bryan St. Pere with such precision that his treble, though biting, bore down in the mix like part of that powerful rhythm section — again, remember that most of my aural experience was consumed by Talbott’s decibels being pushed through the air directly into my brain.

They serviced both longtime fans (and presumably themselves) by digging up oldies like “Hello Kitty” and “Firehead.” Staples “Iron Clad Lou” and “The Pod” did not disappoint, they were expected, and met the high expectations. However, it was spellbinding to see what can happen physically, emotionally, and spiritually inside a building whenever “Stars” rips from their hands right through the empty spaces between brains and hearts. In that room, in the Highdive. In this town, Champaign.

The highlight of the set would be the inaugural performance of “Cloud City,” one of the most incessant riffs they’ve ever offered – even (if not especially) considering Talbott set down his guitar near the end of the tune and drank a beer as the rest of the band finished up. That would have topped it. But then they played an encore replete with rock so spacey the loud stopped hurting altogether, and my head started swimming in the swell of “The Scientists.” That was amazing. But. The highlight of my night, and quite possibly my year, was a rousing display of thrash when “I Hate It Too” climaxed with Matt setting down his Les Paul on the stage again. This time much more aggressively. At the end of the song, the guitar struck the ground with great force: decapitating it, leaving the headstock askew yet tethered by the strings Talbott had just brutalized for upwards of an hour.

Needless to say, I followed them up to Chicago the next night. Their headlining set at A.V. Fest was terribly satisfying, especially from backstage. They’d warmed up. They’d tightened up. There was a huge stage, a huge crowd. But that magic, that hometown joy and rage just wasn’t there. – Isaac Arms

2. Good Night and Good Morning, The Diamond Stretch, Rvins, Aphid House, Smoke Coke/Shock Value, Dino Bravo, Rusalka @ Dan Aykroyd’s House – July 20th

The last show at this long-running house venue (located at 505 Haines! I can finally say that!) was a huge night complete with sets from bands featuring almost all of the house’s current and former residents — as I recall, it ran over six hours.

However, the thing that I remember most vividly about this night is the ungodly and oppressive heat. Sweat was literally condensing on to the walls during Smoke Coke and Shock Value’s battle set — one of the most intense performances I have witnessed in my entire life — and that was before the drop ceiling got torn down. Then, Aphid House played one for the ages, and the Diamond Stretch and Rvins tested the reliability of the basement’s soundproofing one last time. – Ben Valocchi (photo: Darwin Keup)

1. Saturday of Pygmalion – September 24th

We received votes for at least four separate shows this day, so we decided to wrap ’em all up together. Beginning with a hushed set from Owen at Exile on Main, all-day shows went on at Mike ‘N Molly’s and the Highdive Annex as well, including a well-received set by Chinese psych group Hedgehog and sets from artists including Xiu Xiu and Joan of Arc at Highdive. After raucous performances by Japandroids and Deerhoof, the reunion of the almighty Braid was the top thing on many people’s minds, and they delivered a triumphant set to their hometown crowd. I was one of the lucky ones to make it in to Mike ‘N Molly’s before they hit capacity, and witnessed the Dirty Feathers absolutely shred the beer garden in a performance that eclipsed any of the national acts at the festival.

More importantly, I didn’t feel like I was standing in a cultural bastion surrounded by cornfields that night. Doing the drunk-stumble to the bus station, I could almost imagine that this was a hidden corner of a much bigger city, somewhere people actively want to be. For just a few hours that night, Champaign felt bigger than itself.

Ben Valocchi (photo: Chris Davies)

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