Every December I seem to announce that the New Year will bring new posts, but I actually have a couple of ideas this time round. In the meantime, by way of demonstrating that I’m still alive and engaged with the world, I’m offering this end of year list. This year I’ve invested considerably more in live music than in the recorded stuff, which has more to do with budgeting than anything else (I’ve been scouring all the other lists for the last couple of weeks and am finding some really good albums that passed me by in the year). Here, then, are my top 10 live music experiences of 2013:
10. Teleman at Dot to Dot Festival and Tramways Festival (Gorilla, Manchester; Devonshire Green, Sheffield)
Teleman just about push These New Puritans, Melt Yourself Down, Sam Amidon, The Steve Martland Band, that Bad Vibrations Show at The Shacklewell Arms in February (Novella, Eat Lights Become Lights)
and Ed Banger and The Nosebleeds out of the list proper. They’re a solid live proposition, and I can’t wait to see them perform a proper, album-backed, longer-than-30-minutes set somewhere in the near future, but I think it’s that completely addictive first single of theirs that gives them the edge here. If this were a list of my 10 favourite tracks of the year (and it isn’t), I can’t imagine anything that would beat ‘Cristina’ to the top spot.
9. Captain Murphy (Warehouse Project, Manchester)
This was totally euphoric, which definitely has something to do with the fact that for the entire set I was still reeling from having shaken the great man‘s hand mere minutes before he took the stage. Clearly, fanboyism is the most powerful drug of all.
8. Semana Santa marching bands (Granada/Seville/Cadiz)
Aha! You thought this was just going to be gigs, didn’t you? In April my wife and I travelled across Andalucía and caught Easter parades in three cities. The culture of the Cofrades is fascinating in ways too numerous to go into here, but the tunes that played as they filed past – sometimes solemn and droney, sometimes uptempo and ornate, always based on a minimalist-maximalist balance of brass and percussion – were among the most memorable aspects of the whole trip, right up there with the jamón.
7. Serafina Steer (Soup Kitchen, Manchester, but more so Castle Hotel, Manchester)
Steer’s gig at the Castle in January, with support from the demented Paddy Steer (no relation), was my first of the year, picked out on something of a whim after a couple of 6 Music DJs had tipped the singer-songwriter for big things in 2013 (her album The Moths Are Real would certainly be in my hypothetical top albums list). We were sufficiently impressed to go and see her again a few months later. There is something singularly lived and conversational about Steer’s songs on record that jumps out that bit more when you get to see her crafting them (and occasionally messing them up) in front of you.
6. Bo Ningen at Dot to Dot Festival (Zoo, Manchester)
These New Puritans might well have been my loudest gig of the year, but this was the show where overwhelming loudness added up to the most. The extended wig-outs, with Taigen Kawabe’s bass high in the mix, were pretty much transcendent, and when you came back to earth there was the consolation of watching this genuinely really weird-looking four-piece thrashing around the stage in torn-up dresses and eyeballing the crowd with a terrifying neutrality of expression.
5. Sky Needle/Bad Nanna/Pheromoans (Cafe Oto, London)
More weirdness, this time from three bands signed to the Upset the Rhythm label. What a feast! Every Pheromoans song had this spiky, lo-fi intensity where each element was just a notch or two above complete chaos. One of Mad Nanna’s songs was so trippy that it actually made me feel nauseous, which is at least partly commendable. And given that I picked up my much-loved copy of Sky Needle’s 2012 LP Rave Cave from an underground record store in some hipster district of Sydney I was convinced I was never going to get to see them perform, but here they were, with Sarah Byrne’s nonsense vocals unleashing primitive fury to a raw backdrop of homemade instruments. Turns out the next day they were playing just down the road from me in Chorlton, but Cafe Oto is perfect for this kind of thing.
4. Juana Molina (Trinity Church, Salford)
Another artist I wasn’t sure I was ever going to get to see live, only this time it was an artist I’d been following for over half a decade. Towards the end of the show she hit one of those long, dissonantly-multitracked vocal drones that have latterly become her trademark and I felt more fulfilled by a live performance than I had done in ages. Ace support too, from one Keeley Forsyth.
3. Cass McCombs (Castle Hotel, Manchester)
This was just ridiculously intimate. We were so close to the stage that I was leaning over McCombs’s songsheet, and then halfway through he asked the tech people to turn off the stage lights, playing the rest of the set illuminated only by a string of fairy lights. His version of ‘County Line’, with a spare electric guitar melody picked out by his lone bandmate, was swoonsome and momentarily convinced my wife to name our first-born son “Cass”. After the gig we bought a copy of Humour Risk from the merch table and one of the venue guys suggested we should get the artist to autograph it. He decorously refused our invitation, which is probably to his credit.
2. Melody’s Echo Chamber/Julia Holter/Dutch Uncles (Beacons Festival, Skipton)
In the middle of the festival’s Saturday afternoon line-up fell this impossible pile-up. Julia Holter and Dutch Uncles were Beacons’s main draws for me, and Melody’s Echo Chamber were definitely there propping up my undercard. What looked on paper like a festival disaster actually proved to be an outrageously enjoyable couple of hours, as I caught the first three songs from Melody’s bright, summery set before legging across fields to the massively over-subscribed tent where Holter was introducing tracks off her new album, before leaving a little early to make the end of Dutch Uncles’s opening track. I’d see the latter two acts later in the year performing full sets with top billing, and these shows could easily have made my top 10 on their own, but I doubt I’ll ever have a more comprehensive music festival experience than that August afternoon in rainy, rainy Skipton.
1. Tino Sehgal – ‘This Variation’ (Mayfield Depot, Manchester)
I really, really didn’t anticipate that my cultural highlight of the year would be associated with the Manchester International Festival. The Manchester International Festival is the sort of program that throws huge amounts of money at established cultural practitioners to produce high-concept tourist novelties, the sort of program that organises Radio 4-friendly roundtables on Grime. But this commission (which was only a commission in the sense that it had been commissioned for a new site – the piece had already been performed at Documenta in 2012), by some stroke of magic, really worked. I spent four voluntary hours in Sehgal’s installation on my first visit, and then went back for a second a few days later. I’m considering it here as a live music experience in the sense that a cappella song-and-dance routines – Janet Jackson’s ‘Feedback’, Faith No More’s ‘The Real Thing’ and other such weird choices – are the glue which hold the whole piece together. But this performance, naturally, was about so much more – about optics, haptics, our basic sense of self and other. It is the most moving work of art I have ever encountered.
by Luke Healey