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The best concerts we ever saw

The Replacements in 2013.

The Replacements in 2013. © Tony Nelson

Seen any good shows lately? Nope, neither have we.

With the bars, clubs, theaters, and arenas shut down for longer than anyone’s ready to admit right now, live music is on indefinite hiatus.

So with no new shows to enjoy or review, our staff decided to wrack its collective memory and share some of our favorite live music experiences of all time. Hope this helps you get through the current gig drought.

The Righteous Brothers
Filene Center, Wolf Trap, Virginia
1991


When I was 12 years old, I went to see the Righteous Brothers. I wasn’t supposed to be there; the concert tickets were a 40th anniversary gift from my grandpa to my grandma. But right before the big date, my grandma was in a car wreck that left her laid up with a broken leg and wrist, so, my grandpa took me instead. I thought I was going into an old folks’ concert blind, but I soon realized that I was very familiar with the Righteous Brothers’ catalog. I knew “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” thanks to Rebecca Howe on Cheers, “Unchained Melody” from the (super scandalous!) sex scene in Ghost, and Bill Medley’s solo hit “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life” was from Dirty Dancing. My grandpa was amused and delighted each time I recognized another song, and we had a great time laughing at a group of drunk women dancing behind us. When we got home, grandma informed us that we had forgotten to hand her the TV remote, so she had spent her evening watching—and thoroughly enjoying!—Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place.Jessica Armbruster

The Replacements
Riot Fest
2013

It could have been a total disaster. Under the best circumstances, reunion shows tend to produce mixed results, and the self-sabotaging, booze-guzzling, eternally smirking Replacements had a notoriously unpredictable live show during their initial 1979-91 run. But in the post-downpour darkness on a perfect autumn night, the Minneapolis rock legends turned Chicago’s Humboldt Park into a joyous time machine, conjuring everything that made them great back to life. The moment Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson stormed on stage with “Takin’ a Ride,” a smile was plastered to my face. Throughout the band’s first U.S. gig in 22 years, the heyday-era hits (“Androgynous,” “Bastards of Young,” “Alex Chilton”) exploded with vitality and intensity; Westerberg’s twinkling, mischievous charm was ever-present. ("Fuck the clock!" he said, tossing the digital set-timer across the stage."I'm an old hand, a music business professional.”). I'm too young to have seen the vintage Replacements, but I still cherish the opportunity to have witnessed them coax magic out of those old songs seven years ago. The euphoric CTA bus ride back to the hotel, Mats fanatics beaming should-to-shoulder, was evidence enough that we saw something special.—Jay Boller

Death Grips
First Avenue
2015

A couple minutes before Death Grips’ MC Ride/Stefan Burnett and Zach Hill ducked their hoodies into First Avenue, an audience member threw a shoe onto the empty Mainroom stage—even without opening acts, the crowd’s hype level started at 19/10. A circle pit engulfed the floor while the duo barreled from one song directly into the next. They didn’t soundcheck, so it was basically a basement show with 2,000 people and better amps.

Ride—slick and dressed only in pants—looked like a praying mantis priming us for sacrifice, with lightning rods for elbows. (I’d searched for pics to prove this to friends and discovered he’d booted and cracked a CP photographer’s lens.) In parting, the band barked just one word: “THANKS.”

Old timers at the club said it was the worst show they’d seen in years. I remain awestruck to this day.Sarah Brumble

Snowing
Broken World Fest
2016

Loving ~*emo revival~* means spending your suburban youth obsessing over a lot of bands who broke up after exactly one full-length, and being a suburban youth means you got to see some of those bands just once (if that). But if you’re able to retain your angst and idiocy through adulthood, you might have the chance to drive 12 hours for the reunion of a band that’s recorded like 17 total songs.

Such was the case for my me and my friend Kyle in 2016, when we traveled from Somerville, Massachusetts, to Pittsburgh for Broken World Fest. The weekend boasted a truly historic sadboi lineup: TWIABP, Into It. Over It., Rozwell Kid, Pinegrove, Prince Daddy & the Hyena. But we made the trip for Snowing—the twinkly pride of greater Philadelphia—who were reuniting to headline the fest.

You can guess how things went from there. I laughed, I cried, I got sweat all over my friends. I didn’t take one photo during the set, but there is evidence of me looking dumb as hell with a “Snowing 7:16” foam finger after it. Before the weekend was out, we’d bought tickets to see their final final reunion in PA’s Lehigh Valley.

Hey, at least that drive was only… nine hours?Emily Cassel

PJ Harvey
The Academy, New York City
1993

I’ve seen a lot of live music because 1) I am old and 2) it’s my job. But for all the hours I’ve spent watching musicians onstage, I’ve got comparatively few bragging moments—you know, those rare glimpses of an artist in their prime that you get to lord over the younger and less fortunate. I did see Polly Harvey with her trio just after the release of Rid of Me, though, when she was a guitarist like none other in rock, an idiosyncratic virtuoso in absolute control of her instrument. Little did I know the trio would be short-lived: The next time I caught Harvey, just two years later in Seattle, she was in a red dress sinuously dancing along to the To Bring You My Love, no guitar in sight. And she was magnetic then too, as she was the several times I’ve seen her since, so it’d be unfair to say that her early stint as a rock bandleader was her peak. But it was a moment she’d never duplicate, and I get to brag.

Oh, some guys called “Radiohead” also performed that night.Keith Harris

Robyn
Palace Theatre
2019

There were long ribbons of translucent fabric cascading across the stage, a large sculpture of hands, and rippling lighting. The band's outfits were white or silver and the instruments were either clear or white. These visuals were futuristic, dreamy, and what I can only describe as: an absolute vibe.

I spent a while weaving through the packed crowd to find the best view. The crowd was full of glitter-clad twenty-somethings and burly bearded men. ("There are a ton of bears here, you'd love it," I texted my friend.) Robyn performed the hell out of the show: incredible vocals, costume changes, and lush dancing. It looked like she genuinely loved the show as much as we did.

I wondered how many times I belted out “Call Your Girlfriend” at queer dance parties over the years. I got emotional realizing that she's given us music that is vulnerable and energetic since the '90s. You can cry or dance to her music and I did a lot of both that night. In the middle of this euphoric utopia someone spilled a beer down my arm. I didn't mind.Shelby Lano

The Fugees
First Avenue

1996

One of the best shows I ever saw was also the one that taught me to respect the dangers of crowds. It was a cold winter night and the Fugees, at the height of their game having releasedThe Score earlier that year, were headlining First Avenue. Opening were the Roots and Atlanta hip-hop group Goodie Mob, featuring Cee-Lo Green. All of these people were very cool at the time. (This was before... a lot of things.)

The crush of humanity began outside the club; there were no polite lines around each corner as has become typical, but a scrum of very excited fans mobbing the area in front of the doors. As a short person, I have plenty of complaints about concert-going, and a top one is breathing the stale air around most people's shoulder-heights. (I try not to even think about trampling situations.) In this tightly packed mass, I was feeling a little ill and overheated already.

Inside the club was better at first; there was a little room to move around. Goodie Mob played an energetic set for an engaged audience; the night's overall vibe was very time-of-your-life. Sometime after the Roots took the stage (with their instruments!), I was near the back of the room, still wearing a heavy wool coat, moving farther from the stage in search of fresh air. One moment I was saying, "I think I need to sit down" as my vision got tunnel-y, the next I was on the bench in the Entry, puking on the floor. (I want to say in my defense that I'd had only one drink, but, full disclosure, it was a stiff rum and Coke on an empty stomach). My date was a little freaked about the fainting and ready to get me home, but I hadn't seen the Fugees yet. After a short rest and a glass of water I was able to stand, then was revived completely by a few crisp winter minutes outdoors.

The headliners commanded the room's attention with their recent hits but indulged in some playful moments too. Hearing the strong, luminous voice of Ms. Lauryn Hill live and in person was just as impressive and transformative as I'd hoped (and later proved the same at her solo First Ave gigs). And while some of the male artists on stage that night have in the years since become dorks and/or been revealed as assholes, the undeniable cool of Ms. Hill remains untarnished.Bridgette Reinsmoen

Pearl Jam
Marquette University Varsity Theatre, Milwaukee
1992

This was originally scheduled as a free gig at Marquette's student union. Then Ten took off, and the growing buzz relocated the show to the Varsity Theatre to accommodate a couple hundred fans.

Pearl Jam tore through nine tracks from their debut, including simmering opener "Oceans," the only time I've seen them play it in the 20+ times I've seen them since. They also ripped into two explosive new songs, "State of Love and Trust" and "Leash," proving they had more to offer us in the future.

PJ paid rousing tributes to their influences, covering Neil Young's "Rocking in the Free World," and closing with the Beatles' "I've Got a Feeling," with Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain and Eddie Vedder's younger brother joining in the fun. The show felt like a communal celebration as well as a seismic shift in the direction modern music was heading.

For the first time in my teenage life, I heard songs that spoke to what I was going through at that moment coming from someone from my generation. All the angst, anxiety, and wonder I felt was captured during that dynamic set, leaving me a lifelong lover of the power of live music as well as Pearl Jam.Erik Thompson