PopMatters Picks: Best 2011 Summer Concert Experiences

It’s no secret that summer brings some of the best live music performances around the country, but now the summer has come to a close and, understandably, we’re a little upset about it. Instead of sulking, we decided to reminisce. Here are just a few of our writers’ favorite moments from the past summer.

by Jose Solís Mayén

Date: May 2, 2011

Venue: Hammerstein Ballroom

City: New York, NY

Kylie Minogue

“Aphrodite Live”

This is the second time I’ve flown from San Jose, Costa Rica all the way up to NYC to see the Australian goddess. Why? This is only the second time she officially toured our continent, even with more than three decades in the business. Yet America has never really fallen to the pixie’s charms and you could tell from the way in which people went “huh?” whenever they learned who was playing the venue that night (I waited in line for ten hours to stand in front of the stage). Once the show started though you couldn’t help but wonder, “Why isn’t she bigger?” Kylie took her massive Aphorite: Les Folies show (the gargantuan production featured a flying angel and fountains commissioned by the Bellagio designers) and adapted it for the intimate Hammerstein. The result was a perfect combination of huge stadium show values and a joyous intimacy that made everyone in the audience feel like they were getting a private show (even Joan Collins was there!). After almost three hours of sexy dancers, Dolce & Gabbana outfits and music that is pure magic, I haven’t been able to get Kylie out of my head.


by Joshua Kloke

Date: May 28, 2011

Venue: Malkin Bowl

City: Stanley Park, Vancouver, Canada

Sam Roberts Band

My summer kicked off in style: Sam Roberts on a Saturday night at the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park, Vancouver. With a slowly setting sun and a hip flask full of bourbon (curse whoever decided Malkin Bowl should be a dry venue), Roberts and his penchant for loose, expanding blue-collar rock helped me say hello and goodbye at the same time. While the entire crowd said hello to the onset of summer and welcomed it with open arms, this gig was to be my last in Canada for some time. I would leave for a year in Southeast Asia and Australia the next week.

For a hoser like myself, this was a jarring notion, but Roberts rose to the pressure. While he may not be a very tall man, his ability to stomp through a set and lead his band made him seem taller than the very mountains which provided our backdrop. Never showy, just overtly hard-working, Roberts left me with the perfect impression of Canada to carry across the world.


by Allison Taich

Date: June 17, 2011

Venue: Auditorium Theater

City: Chicago, IL

My Morning Jacket

Out of all the live music I saw this summer, my favorite show was My Morning Jacket (MMJ) at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.

Several elements made the show a powerful experience: for one I was not there to report, but rather for shear love of MMJ. My friend (an even bigger fanatic than myself) bought our tickets through a presale six months prior to the concert. The Auditorium Theatre holds 3,929 people spread in four levels of seating; the venue was sold-out yet we managed to score 12th row center floor seats.

The 19th century theatre belonged solely to MMJ for the evening and could not have provided a more appropriate backdrop for their musical aesthetic. For three straight hours the band captivated fans with vocal shrieks and driving rhythms, and could have journeyed further if time permitted. The musician’s and fan’s energy was contained under the theatre’s soaring dome ceiling ribbed with ornate arches. The arches emitted a soft, warm golden glow and resembled a twinkling rainbow. Regarding the venue’s ornate turn of the century interior MMJ front-man Jim James remarked: “This is what my mind looks like!” During the show I peered around and appreciated fellow MMJ fans absorbed in the music’s energy; some people dripped with sweat from extreme rocking out while others were on the verge of tears. As for me the music stopped my heart and resuscitated me back to life multiple times over.


by Billy Hepfinger

Date: June 24, 2011

Venue: Schenley Plaza

City: Pittsburgh, PA

Jukebox the Ghost

“14th Annual WYEP Summer Music Festival”

Last fall, I had to eat two tickets to see Jukebox the Ghost after something popped up at the last minute, so imagine my delight when they came back to Pittsburgh this summer as part of WYEP’s summer music festival. Last year’s Everything Under the Sun was an absolute blast of goofy power-pop – an album I had a feeling would make a great summer listen – so I guess it’s no surprise that their show ended up feeling like the sunniest moment I had all summer, even after a torrential downpour opened up halfway through the set. Highlights for me were the stunning “Summer Sun”, debut album mainstay “Hold It In”, and, I kid you not, a riotous cover of “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News. Pro-tip for fledgling indie power-pop bands: when you’re playing a show that probably includes a lot of people who have never heard of you before, a Huey Lewis cover goes a long way.


by Melissa Bobbitt

Date: June 24, 2011

Venue: Pyramid Stage

City: Glastonbury, UK


“Glastonbury Festival”

No amount of tipsiness, no distance to slough through in the knee-deep mud, no dearth of sleep could prevent this writer from seeing the magnificence of U2 for the first time in concert. It was a Yankee’s vacation in King Arthur’s land, to be able to cross “go to Glastonbury” off the bucket list. And what better climax than being drenched in stinging rain as the luminescence of Bono and the boys warmed us? What a spectacle. What an unforgettable moment, as the pinnacle of cool led 180,000 in crying out, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. The Edge’s masterful arpeggio conducted a symphony of lighters and cellphones rising in the brisk night. In swept that overwhelming feeling that maybe we had just found what we were looking for – unity. It was an experience that proved that the healing power of rock was no myth; it was sermon.


by Jayson Harsin

Date: July 5, 2011

Venue: La Maroquinerie

City: Paris, France

Charles Bradley

Incredible that this James Brown-era guy is getting his time in the lime light only today, in his 60s, and it was clear that crossing the Atlantic, in the context of his life, at this point, brought him to tears.


by Thomas Britt

Date: July 23, 2011

Venue: Alexandra Palace

City: London, UK

Beach House

“I’ll Be Your Mirror”

Every once and a while a show comes along that demands a last-minute decision. In the most serendipitous circumstances, a show you never thought you’d be able to attend becomes a show you’ll never forget. July’s I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in London was one such show, and a midday performance by Beach House was the peak of my summer’s greatest concert.

Yet the events of the days directly preceding and during the festival — the death of Amy Winehouse and especially the horrifying terrorist attacks in Norway — created a parallel sense of unfortunate timing and a mood that made some acts resonate more than others. Beach House, in particular, found a way to recognize the tragic events while allowing the show to go on. In between songs, Victoria Legrand took time out to acknowledge how much sorrow was in the air, not citing specific circumstances but undoubtedly dedicating her songs as tributes. The band’s “Norway” took on palpable added import. Though in a less literal way, the cathartic highlight of the set was “10 Mile Stereo”, which soared to even greater heights than its already transcendent studio version.

In the grand scheme, despairs of the real world will always dwarf geeking out over the best lineup ever. But Legrand and Beach House turned bad timing into a perfectly pitched performance that gave perspective to a weekend high on good music and heavy with sadness.


by Chris Conaton

Date: August, 4 2011

Venue: Paonia City Park

City: Paonia, CO

MarchFourth Marching Band

“Pickin’ in the Park”

I was not expecting to attend a concert when I traveled to western Colorado in early August. But at the local diner on our first morning in the tiny town of Hotchkiss, there was a poster for “Pickin’ in the Park”, just up the road in Paonia. It advertised a family-oriented atmosphere, and that week’s performer was the MarchFourth Marching Band, a group I’d been wanting to see live for a while. So we packed up the five-year-old and headed to Paonia City Park on Thursday night, August 4 for the show. It was a beautiful summer evening in the mountains, and several hundred people turned out to dance all night. MarchFourth was happy to provide the groove, working their way through two sets of funky big band music that put smiles on everybody’s faces. From their personalized marching band outfits to their tight rhythm section and great soloists, the band seemed to be having as much fun as the crowd. The five-year-old thought the music was cool, but she thought MarchFourth’s quartet of nimble stilt-walkers were just about the greatest thing around. It was a great show in a unique setting.


by Maria Schurr

Date: August 7, 2011

Venue: Rumsey Playfield

City: New York, NY

Friendly Fires

“Central Park Summerstage”

Few indie artists have asses to shake. Even if they did, it is doubtful they could wiggle them with the same aplomb as Ed MacFarlane of Friendly Fires. At the British indie disco band’s free Central Park Summerstage show, the combination of MacFarlane’s shimmying (something like a cross between Saturday Night Live‘s Mango character and someone with a magnet in their crotch and an iron rod never far away) served as a stand-alone summer spectacle. Friendly Fires’ breakout second release, Pala, is filled with such steamy dance party guarantees as “Show Me Lights”. By bringing such instantly summery music to the table, MacFarlane and Co. could have easily phoned in a performance, particularly a free one. Instead, these Hawaiian shirt-garbed, cowbell-happy Brits brought both it and their self-titled debut album to life in a way that made the capacity crowd forget about such summer in the city woes as overcrowding at free gigs and that grimy consistency your sweat takes on when you’ve spent too many August days out of doors.


by Kevin Smallwood

Date: August 10, 2011

Venue: Harvey’s Lake Tahoe

City: Shoreline, NV



When the realities of the life you’ve built go to battle with the freedoms of the life you might opt for, you can lose your mind. Now, I’m no dreadlocked transient, but over the last decade, I’d see Phish just about anywhere my wallet and car could handle. Phish gave me a reason to visit some beautiful parts of America I’d never have an excuse to see otherwise. In many respects, the band enabled me to live out one of my favorite books: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But just like the book, we age, become handcuffed to cubicles and acquire lady friends who think it’s all “rather silly”.

The inevitable restrictions of age might be why my favorite musical moment from the summer of 2011 was sitting down on a couch to watch the live HD broadcast of Phish playing a concert in Lake Tahoe 2,647 miles away. It sounds lame but we’re witnessing the dawn of live concert video streams. The whole concept allows fans to sidestep the catch-22’s of their reality and participate in the music. Sure, I missed out on the adventure to Lake Tahoe… but fifteen dollars got me into the show and gave me a visual of every musical moment – and I still made it to work the next day. That rules. Plus, it was the first time I didn’t have to bump elbows and dodge acid soaked patchouli monsters at a Phish show.


by Andy Johnson

Date: August 13, 2011

Venue: De Montfort Hall & Gardens

City: Leicester, UK


“Summer Sundae”

Bellowhead’s abilities as a live band have never been in doubt but at Summer Sundae festival this year they somehow seemed to step things up a gear. By August, the overcrowded UK festival circuit had left John Spiers and Jon Boden’s 11-piece folk ensemble unpaid for at least one performance, but if anything this injected them with righteous fury rather than glum dejection. Playing a set which leaned heavily on tunes from their aptly-titled 2010 LP Hedonism, the group proved once more that they are one of the most electrifying audio and visual spectacles around. While “Cross-Eyed and Chinless” best showcased the thrilling instrumental prowess Bellowhead can bring to bear, the likes of “Yarmouth Town” confirmed Boden as an unlikely but deserving superstar frontman.


by George de Stefano

Date: September 3, 2011

Venue: Ragusa Stadio Comunale

City: Ragusa, Italy


“Eretico Tour”

On Saturday, September 3, I joined several thousand Sicilians in a soccer stadium in Ragusa for a concert by one of Italy’s biggest and most offbeat pop stars, the rapper Caparezza. Tall and gangly, and boasting an impressive Ital-Afro (“caparezza” means “curly head” in the dialect of Molfetta, his southern Italian hometown), the artist formerly known as Michele Salvemini delighted his ardent fans with a two-hour, high energy extravaganza. Every song turned into an inventive performance piece, complete with elaborate video projections, props and costumes. Caparezza’s music combines goofy, surreal humor and cutting irony, whether he’s denouncing Italy’s politicians or rapping the praises of those nonconformists (like Galileo) he calls “heretics”. His latest hit single, “Goodbye Malinconia” features an earworm of a chorus sung by Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet. When he performed it at the concert, with one of his band members filling in for Hadley, I was singing along as loud and happy as the locals (a predominantly but not exclusively young audience), in a soccer stadium in the Sicilian town my grandparents immigrated from early in the last century. I can’t imagine what nonna and nonno would’ve thought of the show, but I had a blast.


by Jonathan Kosakow

Date: September 3-5, 2011

Venue: Dicks’s Sporting Goods Park

City: Commerce City, CO


“Labor Day Run”

Though it’s always a weekend reserved for escapes, barbecues, and relaxation, Labor Day’s signal of the end of summer is usually not welcome. This year, for Phish fans, it also signaled the end of what was probably the band’s best summer tour since they returned to the road in 2009. So although there was certainly cause for celebration, there was also a bittersweet taste in the mouths of the tour hardy. The band’s three-night run at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado, though, was one for the ages. Starting Friday afternoon and ending late on Sunday night, Phish’s three concerts covered their entire range of stage performance – from high-energy rock and obscure covers to beautiful, intricately woven instrumentals and gimmicky gags (on the first of the three nights, the band only played songs that began with the letter “s”). For those who may have thought Phish was on their way out, think again. This was a weekend to prove just how far back in they are.


by Jesse Justice

Date: September 10, 2011

Venue: Merriweather Post Pavilion

City: Columbia, MD

Patti Smith

“Virgin Mobile FreeFest”

Patti Smith has always been a legend to me, so when I saw that she was on the Virgin FreeFest lineup at Merriweather Post Pavilion on September 10, I made a mental note to make sure I was in the pit for her set.

Upon walking out on stage, she made a few Polaroids of the crowd with a decades-old 650 Land Camera, and then she calmly put the camera away and dropped into her first number. Her fearlessness and energy washed over us from the beginning. She sang, I shot, she spat, I got chills. The kind where you’re a little too close to the transformer and think you might have just saved your life by not grabbing whatever live wire was beckoning.

As concert photographers, we get the first two songs, which tend to be unpredictable, at best. For me, those two were the best.