When I look back upon 2015, I certainly discovered my share of new favorite bands. But I have to confess, the best shows of the year were dominated by legacy bands returning to reclaim their pop thrones. And so the shows I am most excited about in 2015 were generally those shows where a genre-defining artist came back to DC and absolutely mastered their art.
But I’ll add this postscript: 2015 also was the year of the punk rock girl, as several notable bands reminded me of how much I like a woman’s voice over a bit of surf or rockabilly guitar. I’ll explain more after my official list of Parklife DC Top 10 Concerts of 2015.
Without further ado, my official top 10 list follows. (Click on the concert slugline to revisit the full review.)
Soon into a 2.5 hour set, Prince reached down into the audience and grabbed the hand of my favorite lady Yasmin –- and then Prince brought her up out of the front row and ONTO STAGE TO DANCE WITH HIM. Yasmin kicked off her shoes and danced up there with Prince for three songs or so as he sang through “U Got the Look,” “Shake!,” and “Cool” (covering the Time).
If that wasn’t enough to set the night on fire, Stevie Wonder snuck onto stage during our late-night show at the Warner Theatre to take over keyboards at some point, perhaps around the time of “Controversy,” the title track to the amazing Prince album from 1981. Stevie stayed on stage for the strongest segment of Sunday’s late show, rolling from “Controversy” to “1999” to “Little Red Corvette.” Prince himself was full of delicious swagger, and the audience ate it up. The man often took center stage during his performances, dancing up a funky two-step or thrashing away on his guitar while strident before his microphone. He was in good form, and he sounded fantastic and looked as fit as fuck.
My personal most anticipated show of the year did not disappoint. Golden-voiced Tony Hadley jumped to the stage of the 9:30 Club and nailed the lyrics of more than two dozen amazing songs by his band Spandau Ballet into the collective consciousness of everyone within earshot.
In the process, Tony and his bandmates *almost* had more fun than the audience at the very so nearly sold-out show. Buoyed by the confidence of a band in the thick of strong friendships and camaraderie and confident in a catalog of songs unmatched in their strength and appeal, Spandau Ballet stormed the 9:30 Club with soulful new wave tunes that left men and women aged 20 to 50 screaming for more.
It’s a tie! I almost wanted to limit this list to bands that performed in DC but Duran Duran were absolutely terrific in a triumphant concert in August.
Armed with a funky new single, “Pressure Off,” Duran Duran were poised to release their new album Paper Gods. But the first Port Chester concert, and a second show the following night, did not overly concern itself with a new album. The weekend was a tremendous gift to long-time admirers from a band in fine form, as they performed live rarities like “The Chauffeur” and “Election Day” (from one-album side-project Arcadia).
In hindsight, it’s little surprise that indefatigable Franz Ferdinand and the trailblazing Sparks saw the synergies between their bands and combined forces to become the supergroup FFS.
FFS struck glam gold in a thunderous performance at the Lincoln Theatre, charming an ecstatic audience who were clearly hyped to see the smooth blend of old school meets new school and the resulting theatrics. And theatrics were the order of the day as Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos traded off constantly with Sparks lead singer Russell Mael in terrifically dueling vocals and dance steps.
Born Ruffians roared back into DC with a fourth album, demonstrating how the post-punk stalwarts are at least as clever and good as bigger bands in their genre, including Interpol, Vampire Weekend, and Bloc Party.
By way of this comparison, I’m really hoping to draw parallels as to demonstrate that Born Ruffians should be selling out the 9:30 Club, but instead they somehow remain a bit of an indie rock secret. I’m a new wave kid at heart, and all of the modern crop of post-punk bands are absolute winners when it comes to making my feet dance.
It’s a perfect band to see with your mates if you’re a boy, and I could not have asked for a better show with which to raise some hell with my pals Doug and Jeremy.
Ride performed “Vapour Trail” near the end of their set at the 9:30 Club, delivering a quieter moment among songs that largely strode on the back of raucous reverb. As my friend Rick Taylor, host DJ of the well-regarded We Fought the Big One, intimated to me afterward, Ride is a band that puts as much effort into crafting their songs as it does generating that glorious noise from their fuzzed out guitars.
The contrast comes quickly as Ride close the main set with “Drive Blind.” Andy Bell and Mark Gardener thundered through a lengthy cacophony of blurry, muscular noise for several minutes only to literally leap out of the din and into a smooth groove.
I’m told Ride are better than ever, and I believe it.
I also caught The Ocean Blue with Rick Taylor, who is truly the guy you want by your side when you delve into a critical analysis of a band’s sound and influences.
As an American dreampop band with clear new wave and neo-psychedelic influences, The Ocean Blue have never been shy about wearing their influences on their sleeves. Their concerts are famous for including covers from artists they admire, and you can clearly taste the distinct flavors they pull from them.
Poppier latter day Cocteau twins? Neo-psych from Echo and the Bunnymen and Psychedelic Furs? Forlorn remoteness and biting remarks from The Smiths, along with a catchy jangly guitar riff?
At Jammin’ Java, the excitement among the crowd was palpable for “Ballerina Out of Control.” The song could have come straight from UK contemporaries of The Ocean Blue, like the Jesus and Mary Chain, but the song’s atmospheric keyboards and its unhurried gait are hallmarks of The Ocean Blue and the band’s flavor of dreampop.
Steve Kilbey is calm, gracious and sharply self-aware. As he goes into the final few minutes of “Toy Head,” his bass reverberates with a distinctive psychedelic vibe that belies his own clipped, professional demeanor. He stands still, hypnotized into the zone of the music as he winds the song down.
But when Steve walks across the stage, he strides with swagger — like a rock god from distant shores who may be slumming in the States. The Church, which Steve cofounded with guitarist Peter Koppes, falls into a groove around him, as they come together for the next song, “Vanishing Man,” a single also from the new album, Further/Deeper, released in October of last year.
And the new crop of psychedelic and neo-psychedelic bands? They pray at the altar of The Church.
Claire Evans is a kinetic, whimsical performer who is happy to put a philosophical musing next to a disco beat in her band YACHT. Another signature element of YACHT is the extremely catchy disco-punk sound engineered by Jona Bechtolt — a sound that has comfortably escalated into full-blown old-school new wave.
In previous albums, YACHT may have gotten a bit heavy with themes of heaven and utopia, but they keep it “lighter,” relatively speaking, on the new album. And the best songs shine under this lighter touch — songs like “L.A. Plays Itself” and “I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler.”
Midge Ure toured in support of Fragile, an amazing album that demonstrates the man is still in peak songwriting form, but he also revisited his past with his groundbreaking megaband Ultravox in songs like “Hymn” and “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes.” And Midge crossed the United States all alone with one guitar to play those songs.
Midge’s experiment in touring utterly solo appears to have been a smashing success. It is worth your while to catch this singularly powerful and earnest performer. To borrow a phrase from one of his greatest hits compilations, you’ll certainly have “no regrets” doing so.
I honestly try hard to be polite, but talking about Marina Diamandis demands I be blunt. She’s beautiful, amazing, sexy, talented, and a whole lot of WOW.
I saw Marina and the Diamonds perform twice in 2015, for the fourth and fifth times respectively, in Las Vegas and DC.
The first time in April at the Boulevard Pool at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas was a decidedly mature affair. Stopping between showcases at the Coachella Valley Music Festival, Marina performed in a diva’s gown, meant to seduce us in the moonlight, opening her set with “Bubblegum Bitch” from the 2012 album, Electra Heart. The Welch beauty was staggering — her fantastic voice impossibly perfect and her striking poise formidable.
The second time on Nov. 6, at the Lincoln Theatre in DC as part of the Neon Nature tour was a decidedly different, albeit still quite enjoyable, experience. Nonetheless, Marina and the Diamonds — she’s a solo act (Marina) and we are the diamonds — proceeded to strut, pout and dance away the evening in a thoroughly memorable concert performance.
Long-time fans received a big payoff in a number of unexpected song selections that Madonna often delivered intimately, dropping the showy trappings and leaving only the singularly talented woman underneath, at the Verizon Center.
Such a moment came early in the show when Madonna strode out to the center of a catwalk-styled stage and performed “Burning Up” from her debut album with an understated but versatile band backing her from the main stage. I enjoyed these quieter moments more than the razzle-dazzle of the big show, myself, although the entire thing was undeniably slick.
All in all, our Madonna show gave us everything we could have wanted, ranging from the brassy big numbers to the smaller, more intimate numbers — while Madonna the entire time called upon all her wiles and savvy to make a show that remarkably connected with her large audience.
Postscript: The Year of the Punk Rock Girl
Although these specific concerts didn’t make my “top 10” list, I enjoyed the following shows a great deal — in part because they reminded me of how much I like a range of sounds from female-fronted bands who dabble in melodic punk.
Brooklyn duo Sharkmuffin were fresh and energetic when they played DIY venue Above the Bayou on July 20, 2015.
Seattle quartet La Luz played some amazing surf guitar at Comet Ping Pong on March 10, 2015. Wow, I love punk and surf together. (And I was there to review opener Craft Spells.)
DC’s own Priests opened for Parquet Courts at the Black Cat on Feb. 7, 2015, and Katie Greer reminded me that her voice is part kitten purr and part jet engine roar. The first time I saw Priests on Jan. 10, 2014, at DC9, when they opened for Pottymouth, was certainly a favorite show of 2014 for me.
And I found a new favorite band when Philadelphia trio Amanda X opened for Vaselines at the Rock and Roll Hotel on Jan. 14, 2015.
Here’s to a new crop of shows, and more new bands, in 2016 and beyond!