Hot Fun in the Summertime: My Top 5 Shows of the Season

“Man, didn’t summer just fly by?” ‘Tis the season for remarks like this, which people invariably pull out when confronted by somebody they don’t like very much, because better to feign friendliness and move on than have to deal with the fallout of saying “I don’t like you very much.”

Anyways, didn’t summer just fly by? I haven’t posted since way back in those halcyon days of June 2012, when the summer was young and full of possibilities, there was a policeman on every corner, and American families cared about a little something called morals. Also the summer concert season was just getting underway in Western New York. My dance card was pretty darn full with reviews throughout, only two of which predictably turned out to be duds (sorry, Rascal Flatts and Def Leppard, but you’ve earned those reputations). This meant I had to miss some good shows in order to restore my proper sleep patterns – Sleigh Bells and Tune-Yards most regrettably – but as you’ll see in my top 5 list below, this was a wonderfully eclectic time to go check out major concerts in Buffalo.

5. The Beach Boys, June 29 at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center

Speaking of romanticizing a past that was never as idyllic and simple as we’d like to think it was, the surviving members of The Beach Boys got back together for a 50th anniversary tour this summer. And, much like the new LP that accompanied it, That’s Why God Made The Radio, this show was flawed, but still better than it had any right to be. Backed by a battalion of musicians and vocalists, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks made some of the most beautiful and ambitious compositions in pop history sound organic and true. Wilson’s voice was a little shaky, and his stage presence was catatonic, but that’s par for the course – hearing him sing the full-throated plea of “Please Let Me Wonder” was a gift, ditto the impeccably executed suites of “Heroes and Villains.” My only complaint echoes the sentiments of many a Beach Boys fan – Mike Love is a creepy cornball. Way too much of this show was dedicated to the elemental surf-rock ditties that place The Ballcapped One front and center; I understand the need to include “Surfin U.S.A.” and “Surfin’ Safari,” but did we seriously need “Hawaii,” “Catch a Wave,” “Be True to Your School” and the like? 50 years on, the contrast between these tunes and Wilson’s ballads of the same period is striking. The heartbreaking high of seeing him sing “In My Room” was enough to carry me through the stuff I’d rather just pretend didn’t happen (There was no encore performance of “Kokomo.” There was no encore performance of “Kokomo.” There was no encore performance of “Kokomo” …).

4. Feist, July 15 at Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor

Last year, Nitsuh Abebe wrote a great piece for New York magazine called “Indie Grown-Ups,” which posited that artists like Wilco and Feist are our generation’s Sting – a once-unique voice that softened to the point where his music can be piped in at your dentist’s office. I agree with his point for the most part, and as someone who unabashedly loves Ten Summoner’s Tales, I don’t find it all that insulting either. But while Feist does have some of the trappings of middle-of-the-road adult contemporary, her most recent album Metals, and her thunderous set this past June that leaned heavily on its songs, proved that she’s more dangerous than you’d think (unlike Wilco, who completely deserves the AC tag after the comfortable groove they’ve been in for the last five years). Seeing these songs performed live was a revelation – I already liked the album’s more visceral, sinister rhythms, but in concert they bowled me over like an unexpected storm. “How Come You Never Go There” swung hard. “Comfort Me” stomped and swooned. And “A Commotion” was a percussive blast the likes of which you most definitely did not hear at Sting’s Artpark show a few weeks earlier. Feist’s trio of backup singers unleashed powerful harmonies, dressed in what looked like sackcloth and dancing with ritualistic, glassy-eyed abandon. In my review, I compared them to the witches from “Macbeth.” Which might sound silly in the light of day. But in the shadow of the storm, anything seemed possible.

3. Girl Talk, August 23 at the Outer Harbor Concert Series

When you hear an eclectic mix of music, presented with carefully thought-out segues and an uncanny sense of timing, you know you’re listening to a great DJ. And on the Buffalo radio dial, it’s nigh-on impossible to find that kind of listening experience, what with pre-formatted playlists and strict genre-based guidelines (unless you’re close enough to pick up WBNY 91.3, Buffalo State’s student-run station). Which I think is the main reason why Girl Talk’s perpetual sweat machine of a set a few weeks back was just as comforting as it was propulsive. The one-man show of Gregg Michael Gillis – a wiry little guy with more energy than Usain Bolt – officially kicked off the latest new concert series on the waterfront with a non-stop stream of mindblowing mash-ups, cherry-picking riffs and choruses from 50 years of Billboard charts and re-purposing them in intoxicating new ways. He’s clearly a DJ who cares deeply for everything he’s sampling, a man who wants to show us just how good it sounds when Elton John and Biggie Smalls share the same space, reveling in the unpredictability that has become the mortal sin of corporate radio. In the moment, of course, all I knew was that Gillis was making me happy, churning out an irresistible party by the water by using the same fanboy passion that had the teenaged me making mixtapes for anyone who would pretend to listen to them. This kind of thing probably won’t infiltrate the mainstream as much as it should – the second Outer Harbor concert was a radio station festival headlined by Evanescence, that apparently attracted way more people than GT – but for one glorious night at least, it felt like anybody could play anything they wanted.

2. Iron Maiden, July 16 at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center

When I told the guy sitting next to me that this was my first time seeing Iron Maiden, he looked confused. Noticing the grey in my hair and the fact that I wasn’t wearing anything with the Maiden logo on it, he nodded, smiled awkwardly, and turned his head back toward the stage, politely giving me the brush like I was a homeless man singing for pennies. Although I like this band very much, my lack of devotion to it stood out like a nun at a satanist convention. Never in my life have I witnessed a fan base show such lockstep love for its heroes than at this concert, where I was possibly the only person who wasn’t draped in Iron Maiden merchandise, some of it bought that night, much more of it procured over the course of decades of concert-going. Brilliant branding has something to do with it, of course – the band’s mascot, Eddie, continues to be placed in one new, cartoonishly violent scenario after another, resulting in an endless stream of merchandise for fans to crave. But if Iron Maiden wasn’t such a toweringly awesome band, Eddie would have no soul, and not in the cool way. And after 30-some years, these guys still shred like no other, making my Maiden voyage an epic, blisteringly loud, blissfully nostalgic experience. They focused exclusively on classic material, playing most of the 1988 “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” concept album alongside “The Trooper,” “The Prisoner,” “The Number of the Beast” and other crazy-ass crowd-pleasers. Singer Bruce Dickinson wailed like a tortured opera singer and scampered around the stage non-stop, and guitarists Adrian Smith, Dave Murray and Janick Gers soloed like men possessed, the bright smiles on their faces an incongruous delight. Metal is a hip, underground thing these days, leaving Iron Maiden as one of the few true monsters of rock still delivering the goods to adoring stadium crowds. And during this show, it was obvious that their passion hasn’t ebbed one bit. If that doesn’t make you grateful enough to buy a t-shirt, then I don’t know what will.

1. Drake, June 8, Darien Lake Performing Arts Center

After filing my review after Drake’s stunning performance this June, I got turned around a bit on my way to the always-horrible Darien Lake parking lot. During my search for another exit, I just happened to run into the artist as he exited a backstage trailer en route to his tour bus. Unaware that I was watching him, Drake was bursting with post-show adrenaline, pumping his fists and grinning from ear to ear. It was encouraging to see this for a few reasons:

1. As a fan of Drake’s lush, nakedly emotional approach to rap, this private, unabashed display of childlike joy made me believe that he’s not trying to play us, that the feelings he espouses on record are his actual feelings.

2. This was a big star, getting as swept up in his music’s energy as his fans. I’m sure the boatloads of cash don’t hurt, but this sure looked like a guy who loves performing as much as anything else on earth.

I know, I know. I’m reading into this 10-second encounter way too much. But I can’t help myself. After seeing his set, a pristinely executed offering of ruminative R&B grooves and top-flight Dirty South beats, shot into the stratosphere by the emcee’s steady flow and infectious energy, I was thinking about Drake as an Important Artist, somebody who could feasibly keep mainstream hip-hop honest for years to come. Then I saw him celebrating like a kid who just got a bike for his birthday – not your typical, too cool for school Important Artist behavior.  “Hey, great set,” I shared. Drake stopped in his tracks like I’d actually said something he hadn’t heard a billion times. “Thanks, man,” he responded, with complete sincerity. At that moment, I couldn’t have been more of a fan.

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