Top 10 Live Shows

by Haley Cullingham

Since this list is seriously subjective, instead of throwing together a list of acts that got the most attention over the last decade (Janet’s nipple, Kanye’s Roopocalypse), I’ve created a self-indulgent retrospective of the ten best live shows I was luckily enough to witness this decade. Some of them are legendary, some of them are notorious, and some of them no one remembers but me, and I’m going to kick myself for what I forgot tomorrow-but these are the shows I won’t be forgetting for decades to come. (And yes, there’s eleven-but I tried!)

1. 2003: Justin Timberlake at SARSfest
If you went to high school in Toronto, you remember this day as sweaty, hilarious, and overwhelming. When you turned around after Sam Roberts all you saw were portapotties, and half an hour later all you saw was people for miles. You probably got offered some bad weed, you maybe bought a funny hat, and you definitely got a sun burn. If you were as obsessed as I was with listening to Q107 on Sunday mornings in your parent’s backyard, then seeing the Stones and ACDC was pretty effing exciting. But it was JT’s pro-bono performance, during which hundreds of people in red bandanas pelted him with water bottles (presumably enraged by his dance prowess, possibly by his beats) that really deserved a heroes welcome. He was the only performer who went home from the day-long festival at Downsview Park with zilch (although singing on stage with Mick Jagger doesn’t count as zilch in anyone’s book) and was remarkably good spiritied about all the hurled abuse. I’ve been cherishing my sweaty, home-made JT For Prez tank top for years.

2. 2004: Yeah Yeah Yeahs with TV on the Radio at Phoenix Concert Theatre
In my last year of high school, the YYYs (this was the year they played the MTV Video Music Awards and Karen O got drowned in a volley of red flower petals at the end of Maps) played a show with this little band nobody had heard of (well, cooler people had definitely heard of them. We hadn’t yet.) called TV On The Radio. I’ve seen both since at tons of festivals, and nothing will ever compare to being almost-front-row for the avalanche of crazy energy that is Karen O and her many costumes. She spit beer at the crowd, she chewed on her microphone, she threw her body around the stage like it was made of sand bags-she was a Fucking Rock Star. That single show probably did more to define my definition of the word cool than any other I’ve ever seen. It also taught me I’m not allowed to wear high-top converse with fishnets, and that if you want to sneak into the bar your should bring your older sister’s passport, not your mum’s by accident. Hard lessons learned well. At the end of the night, drummer Brian Chase sat on the edge of the stage and drew sharpie fangs on my bunny tshirt, and a girl I hadn’t seen since she graduated three years ago gave me a huge hug. “Welcome to my world!” she grinned.

3. 2005: M.I.A. at Coachella
This was right before Galang exploded all over everyone’s speakers, and M.I.A. was already cemented in my brain as one of the coolest humans in the universe. They don’t allow encores at Coachella, ever-it’s legendary-but the crowd was so hungry for more at the end of her sweltering afternoon set that the organizers had to let her out again. She was wearing a spangled yellow caftan, and it seemed like she never stopped moving, shouting, heckling, and singing.

4. 2005: Arcade Fire at Coachella
This was probably the most written-about show I’ve ever seen, and Arcade Fire were definitely the most buzzed-about band at the festival that year. Even with all that hype, their sunset show blew everyone away. The crowd was ecstactic, mesmerized as Richard Reed Perry clambered up the scaffolding, and Rebellion (Lies) set the perfect score for the electric sunset tattooing the sky behind the iconic palm trees.

5. 2006: Broken Social Scene at Lollapalooza
Almost everyone who grew up in Toronto has seen BSS upwards of five times, and watching their set under the stars at Olympic Island this same year, while the skyline twinkled across the lake and the air was thick with pot smoke and best friends, defined this city for me better than I ever could on my own. It was, however, their set later that summer at Lollapalooza, which I watched with three vigorously patriotic travelling companions, that sticks out in my memory the most. This was when all the ladies were always around (Feist, Emily Haines, Amy Millan), and since BSS were the last band to play before the headliner, Canning, Kevin and Co. were told to clear off the stage ASAP (this scene is funnier if you imagine Perry Farrell delivering the message in a shiny gold suit, his ensemble of choice at the fest that year). After they put their instruments down, the crowd refused to leave. And kept refusing. No one was going anywhere, the Chili Peppers set was due to start in minutes, and the crowd wouldn’t clear off. They couldn’t play another song, but the members of the band walked out humbled on stage, thanking the crowd, and Kevin Drew bowed at the edge of the stage with tears in his eyes. It was one of the most intense expressions of love for a band I’ve ever witnessed, and their humble reaction was even more touching.

6. 2006: Daft Punk at Coachella
This is one of those sets that you often see discussed between disciples at dark basement keggers, their eyes wide with recognition. “The PYRAMID, MAN!” “I KNOW! THE FUCKING PYRAMID!” Describing electronic music as mind-blowing is a cliche and a half, but this set blew my mind. If you could harness the sheer amount of energy in the crowd, who moved like some kind of hypnotized dinosaur on MDMA, you could probably tear down Los Angeles in 30 minutes, freeways included. This was unadulterated festy glee, and years from now when wrinkling hippies are trying to explain why they sat in a car for hours to go listen to music in a desert, they will play a shitty tape recording of this set, and the kids will understand.

7. 2008: Akron/Family at The Crepe Place
When I was trying to decide whether to move home from Vancouver to Toronto, it only seemed logical to hole up in Santa Cruz for a week to contemplate big life decisions. Santa Cruz is a place of clarity. They have pterodactyls there. It just so happened that the week I was there, the band behind what I still consider to be one of the best albums of the decade was playing a little sweaty show at a bar called The Crepe Place. With a tie-dye American flag hanging behind them, the band attacked the crowd with psychedelic folk music, taking the recognizable and transcending their album with a show that felt like one long excited breath, the music weaving together until it became its own entity, and the crowd mashing towards the tiny stage with fire in their eyes and Budweiser in their bellies. Seriously awesome.

8. 2008: Kanye West at Lollapalooza
This was the same year that he managed to antagonize a field full of muddy hippies to the point of revolt (easier then you might think), but I said it then and I’ll say it again: Kanye West can do whatever the fuck he wants. His performance at his hometown fest in 2006 was marred by sound problems and threats of firing, but this year the Glow in the Dark show went off without a hitch-and anyone who felt alienated by the props and skits was brought back when West dedicated songs to his hometown and his late mother, his voice thick with emotion.

9. 2009: K’naan at MOD Club
K’naan played a small show thick with friends and family to celebrate the release of Troubadour, and it was a serious lovefest. He dedicated songs to his sister and mother, said hello to people in the audience he recognized onstage, told stories of recording at Tuff Gong studios in Jamaica, and took requests. When the crowd asked to hear Fatima, he told them that the song almost didn’t make it onto the album-and it wouldn’t have, had he not been absent-mindedly strumming it in his pajamas and encouraged to record it. But the best moment of the show was watching all the Somali flags waving along while he sang “Wavin’ Flag,’ and the crowd got emotional.

10. Final Fantasy and Grizzly Bear with the Brooklyn Philharmonic at BAM
In February, Final Fantasy and Grizzly Bear played shows backed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. When Brooklyn is used twice in a sentence that also contains violins, you are guaranteed success. Owen Pallett was clearly humbled by his invitation, and seeing him play with an orchestra feels like seeing his show coloured in for the first time. Lessons: Middle aged orchestra programmers in Brooklyn are cooler than you’ll ever be, and if we were all as lovely and talented as Owen Pallet, the world would be a gentler place.

11. 2009: Snoop Dogg at Bonnaroo
Snoop Dogg rules. He took to the stage with the world’s biggest grin, he sang a song with Erykah Badu, he loves his job more than anybody in America. You couldn’t walk anywhere in the festival grounds without hearing the bass from his show, and seeing the cloud of smoke above it. Is anyone making our generation a time capsule? Because Snoop Dogg should be king of that. It’s not this show specifically that belongs on this list, but Snoop Dogg in general, anywhere, anytime.

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