Best concerts of 2010

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BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY Sept. 28 at Ronny’s. The new songs were transformed into sprawling, loose-limbed, full-band arrangements. … Will Oldham took the stage and removed his flip-flops, revealing his pink-painted toenails. Oldham’s fingernails had pink nail polish, too, and his eyes were underlined with black makeup. The eyeliner was smeared on the left side of his face, looking like a bruise. As usual, Oldham’s face was covered with bristly hair, including a walrus mustache. As he sang, Oldham often contorted his legs and arms as if he were improvising some yoga moves. … As Oldham writhed and the band filled out the songs with an almost jazzy sense of exploration, it reminded me sometimes of Van Morrison from the Astral Weeks era. Read More / Photos

ROBBIE FULKS RESIDENCY all year long at the Hideout. One of the most delightful things happening in live music in Chicago is the ongoing residency by Robbie Fulks on most Monday nights at the Hideout. As a series, this perhaps deserves a special place outside my top 10 concert list, but let’s give Fulks the kudos he so richly deserves and just say that live music rarely gets better than this. He played 38 dates at the Hideout in 2010, and a fellow fan who’s been keeping track of the set lists tells me he’s played more than 400 different songs over the course of those shows. Fulks doesn’t just do the same sort of set every week. He plays with a revolving set of other musicians and singers and sometimes organizes the shows around themes, such as tributes to Alex Chilton or ’70s country music. I feel like something of a slacker because I made it to only five Fulks Hideout shows. (I saw Fulks perform with Nora O’Connor Feb. 8 and Dec. 27, with the Hoyle Brothers April 5, with Greg Cahill April 26, and with Robbie Gjersoe and Jenny Scheinman Aug. 23.) Fulks is a terrific guitarist, very skilled at acoustic finger picking, the sort of musician who can quickly learn new songs and improvise. He’s also an excellent songwriter, a good singer and one of the funniest, smartest raconteurs around. All of that, plus his great taste in music and musicians, adds up to an experience that’s truly enchanting to witness. The sets I saw with O’Connor were probably my favorites — she’s such a beautiful singer — but the other sets included many highlights, too. At the show with Gjersoe and Scheinman, it was exciting to see the three musicians skillfully finding their way through some songs they clearly hadn’t rehearsed, playing with a sense of improvisatory exploration — and doing it with a light sense of humor about it all. Photos from Feb. 8 / / Photos from April 5

THE NATIONAL Sept. 26 at the Riviera. Lead singer Matt Berninger began the concert closely hugging his microphone, but as the show went on, he became more animated, bouncing his microphone stand like a toy. During instrumental passages, he paced the stage, raising his clenched fists, like someone fighting off voices in his head. Berninger’s dance is awkward, lacking the typical rock-star moves, but it feels authentic. He seems to be expressing the emotion and energy he’s feeling from these songs in the only way he can. … It was thrilling how the National’s songs built to dramatic climaxes … During the final song, “Terrible Love,” Berninger walked out into the audience, singing out in the midst of the crowd’s voices for several minutes. Read More (Note: The photo above is actually from a different National show, their set this summer at Lollapalooza.)

THE ARCADE FIRE Aug. 8 at Lollapalooza in Grant Park. The seven musicians in the Arcade Fire are still swapping instruments and working up a sweat as they pound away with their violins, guitars, keyboards and even a hurdy-gurdy. The songs from the new album The Suburbs, sounded strong, but older songs provided the cathartic climax of the concert, as the audience sang along with “Rebellion (Lies)” and “Wake Up.” It was as if the crowd was defying the lyrics Win Butler had sung earlier in the new song, “Month of May” — “Now, some things are pure and some things are right/But the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight.” These kids were not just standing there with their arms folded tight. Read More / Photos

TITUS ANDRONICUS July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park. From my review for Signal to Noise magazine: The Bruce Springsteen influence was obvious from the opening seconds of the first song, “A More Perfect Union,” when singer Patrick Stickles yelled out the lyrics: “I never wanted to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey, because tramps like us, baby, we were born to die!” Guest players on horns and strings gave the songs a sense of grandeur resembling Neutral Milk Hotel, as Stickles and his bandmates flailed around with their guitars every chance they got. An American flag was draped over the front of the keyboard, and the Stars and Stripes dangled from Stickles’ guitar, too. Titus Andronicus is hardly your typical bunch of patriotic flag-wavers, but the band’s lyrics show a deep appreciation of American history and the long struggle to secure our freedoms. Amid the loud, rollicking chords and Stickles’ keening, emotion-drenched vocals, the crowd chanted, “U.S.A.! U.S.A! U.S.A.!” Read More / Photos

JÓNSI April 28 at the Vic. The concert built from a hushed quiet in the early songs to a cathartic burst in the encore, with Jónsi singing in a falsetto that was often angelic and occasionally demonic. The set itself was a masterpiece, with a shifting series of projected images making the stage feel like a cabinet of wonders. Photos

JANELLE MONÁE March 29 at Schubas. She wowed me with her strong voice and her sense of drama. I also noticed some interesting almost orchestral flourishes in the song arrangements. She and her backing musicians came out onto the stage in druid robes for a Spinal Tap-esque entrance, with a fog machine going, and the whole show had an air of spectacle about it, despite being at little ol’ Schubas. Photos

RICCARDO MUTI CONDUCTS THE CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA Sept. 19 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. It was a great spectacle to see so many thousands of people cramming into the park to see (or at least hear) the debut of the great maestro as the CSO’s new musical director. The fans waved Muti flags as he nimbly led the orchestra through a lovely outdoor concert, making even the most familiar pieces of music (such as the Fantasy-Overture from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet) sound fresh. Photos

TUNNG Nov. 17 at Schubas. The spirited, sing-along and dance-around-like-a-fool side of Tunng was on full display when the group came to Chicago for the first time in three years. Given Tunng’s reputation as something of a folk-rock group, who would’ve expected Mike Lindsay to don a pair of goofy glasses that would’ve been appropriate for Bootsy Collins? … This was quite a joyful musical affair. Read More + Photos

RUNNERS-UP
SYL JOHNSON Nov. 27 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
PHOSPHORESCENT Aug. 5 at the Empty Bottle
LCD SOUNDSYSTEM July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park
LIGHTNING BOLT July 18 at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE Sept. 18 at Lincoln Hall
SUPERCHUNK June 20 at the Taste of Randolph Street
FANFARLO April 7 at Lincoln Hall
THE TALLEST MAN ON EARTH May 28 at Lincoln Hall
THEE SILVER MT. ZION MEMORIAL ORCHESTRA May 27 at Schubas
CARIBOU July 12 at Millennium Park
IGGY & THE STOOGES Aug. 29 at the Riviera Theatre
CONDO FUCKS and ELEVENTH DREAM DAY May 16 at the Hideout
JENS LEKMAN Jan. 3 at the Viaduct Theater
ANDREW BIRD Dec. 16 at the 4th Presbyterian Church
THE FLAT FIVE Dec. 10 at the Hideout
GUIDED BY VOICES Oct. 13 at the Riviera
THEE OH SEES Sept. 16 at Lincoln Hall