The way we consume music has been evolving for decades, but the importance of live performances has remained consistent. As vinyl gave way to cassettes, CDs, MP3s, and now streaming, people’s desire to see their favorite artists in person has not diminished, and the connection that can be made by looking a musician in the eyes still holds as much power for children as it does for seasoned adults. With that in mind, it’s pretty amazing that concerts have so many new things to offer attendees, how just when you thought you’d seen everything, someone like Travis Scott will fly around on a giant bird.
This year’s most memorable, affecting, and transformative live performances came at giant festivals and tiny shows, from pop stars big enough to star in movies to musicians most people have never heard of. The common thread is the care that the artists all take in their craft, and how the spirit of seeing live music with like-minded fans can be all-consuming.
If 2018 is thought of in one musical moment, it has to be Beyonce’s colossal headlining performance at Coachella. It hasn’t even been a year and it already feels like the stuff of mythology, with the storyline of how it came into being only adding to the mystique. Of course, she was supposed to be the 2017 headliner, riding high on the release of Lemonade, but her pregnancy meant postponing it for a year. For most artists, this would mean a loss of relevance, but Beyonce is always relevant, and the year to prepare only intensified the rabid nature of how the set was consumed.
We can talk about the grandeur of the set, with nearly 100 backing dancers, fireworks, costume changes, special guests, and more hits than most sets could dream of. We can talk about the fact that the set had its own fashion, how fans staked out their spots hours in advance and held onto them for dear life. We can talk about how Beyonce took her moment and made a statement about Black greatness, not dimming her own light for a second while the whole world tuned in via livestream. But like she has at awards shows, Super Bowls, and virtually any other place that she has the opportunity, Beyonce seized her chance to do something that has never been done before. No other artist in the world is as fearless in the biggest moments, and Beyonce went and changed how festival headliners will be viewed forever.–Philip Cosores
David Byrne isn’t what most people would categorize as a traditional thinker. His solo career and work with the Talking Heads has been defined by pushing boundaries. I would say that’s what he did with his American Utopia tour, but if you took a quick glance at the stage, you’d quickly notice there isn’t anything to push.
For the shows in support of his 2018 album of the same name, Byrne adopted a minimal and fascinating approach. He equipped his backing musicians with instruments strapped to them like they were in a high school marching band. This allowed them to take advantage of the space and freedom that setup provided, delivering a level of clever choreography and free-flowing energy you don’t really see with instrument-playing bands.
The result was wonderful. I saw the show at Portland, Maine’s Merrill Auditorium, and the audience was beyond into it. It was the loudest and most excited room I’ve been in all year. Aside from amazing stage design (or lack thereof), Byrne is still a charismatic and alluring performer at 66 years old, and still capable of whipping a crowd into a frenzy. As he walked his bare feet all around the stage, it was clear that he hasn’t lost a step. It was a unique show in 2018, and it felt like a performance that only a talented, seasoned innovator like Byrne could have delivered.–Derrick Rossignol
Gang Of Youths
Is there a band you feel like belongs to you? A band that you fell for early on, back when they played clubs, and then stayed with as they ascended to arenas? For me, that band is Gang Of Youths, the messianic Australian outfit whose 2017 release Go Farther In Lightness is one of my favorite albums of recent years. Incredibly, I got to see Gang Of Youths take the clubs-to-arenas leap in the space of one year.
In the spring, I saw them pack Minneapolis’ storied 7th Street Entry for a sold out gig that wowed one concertgoer so much she vomited right in front of the stage. (You know a band is good when people are willing to stand in puke in order to catch the back-half of the show.) Then, in the fall, I saw Gang Of Youths play the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul as the opening act for Foo Fighters. Incredibly, they were equally commanding in these radically different venues. In the club, lead singer David Le’aupepe’s do-or-die energy reverberated off the narrow, sweaty walls, like Eddie Vedder at the start of the Ten tour cycle. In the arena, meanwhile, Gang of Youths’ expansive, near-orchestral sound had room to spread and envelop thousands of instant converts.–Steven Hyden
On July 14 at The Forum, they couldn’t tear Harry Styles off the stage.
Every night of “Harry Styles: Live On Tour,” Styles closed with a breathless performance of his song “Kiwi.” After four minutes careening around the stage like a baby Jagger with his Gucci loafers on fire, he’d always end the by song spitting water into the air like a whale. But in Los Angeles, for his last live performance of 2018, Harry shook it up a little. He sank down to his knees to spit the water — then rose up like a demon, sticking his tongue out to show us he wasn’t done yet. He performed “Kiwi” two more times in a row.
My GA section broke out into a legitimate mosh pit — all the catharsis of a punk show, but in a crowd of young women with glitter in their hair. Sparkles flying, we smashed into each other, screaming along to the lyrics and matching his energy. By the end of the third “Kiwi,” Styles was exhausted, out of breath, and sweating through his velvet jacket. One of my friends lost a shoe, another an earring. Time stopped. According to the videos, the three “Kiwis” lasted 12 minutes, but those 12 minutes felt endless.
All of us went into The Forum dreading “the final show.” Harry Styles’ tour was a place for us to dance, sing, and “be whoever we wanted to be in this room,” safe and watched over by our glittering guardian angel. Harry turns every arena he plays into a home, and bewitches all of us in the stands into a family. On July 14 at The Forum, Harry showed us that he knew how much this tour meant, and that he felt the same way, too. He honored us with the best gift he could — those wild minutes we shared on an infinite loop.–Chloe Gilke
Maggie Rogers is having quite the year. She’s released three new singles, performed as the musical guest on SNL, was lauded by Taylor Swift for her Spotify Singles cover of “Tim McGraw,” and is wrapping 2018 on an arena tour as the opener for her own longtime role models, Mumford & Sons. It’s overwhelming, no doubt, but she’s having the time of her life, and it shows.
When Maggie Rogers gets on a stage, she takes it over, commanding the entire room with her electric energy. Her repertoire is still fairly small, but that made the experience all the more thrilling as she performed it in its entirety during her headlining tour this fall (mixed together with unreleased songs from her forthcoming album, Heard It In A Past Life). Rogers’ Twitter bio simply reads “movement/feelings,” and those are two of the things that are the center focus of any live show of hers. During her stop in Santa Ana, California, Rogers spoke, close to tears, about her utter disbelief at the soaring trajectory of her musical career thus far. Then she’d dance, bright-eyed, for no one but herself. And the whole crowd danced, too.–Leah Lu
Mannequin Pussy’s Romantic exploded onto the scene out of nowhere in 2016, ending up at number five on our list of the year’s best rock albums. The two years since have been jam-packed with nonstop touring opportunities for the band, each one gracing slightly bigger rooms than the last. I first saw the band opening for Joyce Manor in a Toledo, Ohio dive bar, where they were scrappy and impressive, but relatively static onstage, delivering Romantic from front to back.
About two years later, at their last show after spending almost all of that time on the road, a fully evolved Mannequin Pussy took the stage at Brooklyn’s Music Hall Of Williamsburg. A switch seemed to have been flipped, turning frontwoman Marisa Dabice into a full-blown rockstar. As tight as ever, the four-piece thrashed around and screamed their way through almost all of Romantic, as well as several tastes of the the band’s forthcoming record. If their performance in Brooklyn are any indication, Mannequin Pussy is ready to change things.–Zac Gelfand
Rico Nasty is an exemplary model of big dick energy. Her music radiates female empowerment, control, and liberation in hip-hop. All of these elements were on full display when she brought her Nasty Tour to Los Angeles at The Echo to boost her Nasty mixtape. And my goodness, was the energy profoundly electrifying and contagious. Her fans raged, headbanged, and let out mad aggression, as she encouraged them to do. so Mosh pit? Check. Wigs flying? Check. Crowd surfing? Check. This show was a definite safe space for her very loyal fans to be themselves and they got to do it with their favorite rapper, Rico.
The Maryland-bred rapper is barely three years into her rap career and her performance at The Echo is a peek at the brilliance and magnitude of what’s to come — a quiet storm, so to speak. By building upon her legacy with iconic performances, where she gives fans whatever they want — including a little spit in their mouth, if they ask — it makes her a bonafide rock star in every sense of the word.–Cherise Johnson
Don’t call it a “homecoming.” Vince Staples’ ComplexCon set was more of a coronation.
For one thing, the 25-year-old Long Beach native made it a point to note, in his signature, wisecracking style, that the downtown area of his hometown where the Long Beach Convention Center resides and ComplexCon took place was a no-fly zone for a north-sider like himself growing up. Maybe that’s why his performance there took on such elevated significance for local, longtime fans. It wasn’t just a signal that Vince had ascended to a level of acclaim and notoriety that he’d overcome the previous restrictions on his intramural travel, but that he could do so in such stylish fashion.
Just days after the release of his most mainstream-friendly album yet, FM!, Vince held court on a rival side of his hometown, complete with a posse of his musical friends and collaborators to declare that he’s now the official King of Long Beach. Long live the king.–Aaron Williams
Public humiliation — and all the baggage that comes along with that — is one of the most powerful forces on earth. It breaks down the spirit. It damages the brain. It destroys self-worth. You know how you feel when something so bad happens, you think you’ll never recover? That was how 2018 started for me, and, coincidentally, how most of 2016 went for my pop idol, Taylor Swift. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I packed up my things and headed to Glendale, Arizona for the tour opener of her Reputation era, not just because I’d never seen her before, but because it was an album chronicling the worst period of her career so far — and I was in what I had deemed to be the worst phase of mine. What I found, while watching that show, is the same thing that has made me continually return to music throughout my life: It heals me.
Surrounded by hundreds of teenage girls dressed to the nines in every character from the “Look What You Made Me Do” video, singing along to old and new Taylor songs with an arena full of (almost all) women, and encouraged by the resilience and sparkle of Swift herself, I realized that it was my choice. I could either wallow and feel sorry for myself, or I could take all the pain and hurt, the suffering and the damage done, and let it converge into the sharp wisdom and emotional strength necessary to build something even bigger and better in its place. The thing about your reputation is, once you lose it, you see how little it amounts to in the first place, you see how far public perception can be from the truth. I saw, finally, that no matter how many people said they hated me, or wanted to judge me for my “sins,” I didn’t agree with them. I loved me.
If it wasn’t for watching Taylor modeling this self-love first, swaggering across the stages of the biggest stadium tour this world has seen a lone female performer take on… possibly ever, I’m not sure I would’ve come to that same conclusion. I don’t know what I would’ve done. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the Reputation tour changed my life, and it wasn’t just because Swift is an insanely talented performer, one of the best songwriters of all time, and an inspiration to countless young women all over the world. It was because she took the hardest thing that ever happened to her, and simply made it part of her own story, choosing to look past the pain and the anger, and yes, the disgusting and sometimes terrifying, mindless hate, and create something beautiful, anyway.
Haters gonna hate, yes, but it’s deeper than that. Hate is intended to breed fear. By refusing to give in to those who wanted to control how she saw herself, Taylor Swift changed the narrative. That’s bigger than music, and it’s sure as hell bigger than something as flimsy as a reputation.–Caitlin White