Bands on the Run: The Best and Worst Tours of 2002

PopMatters Music Writers

Who stole the show in 2002 - and who should have had the mic stolen from them? PopMatters concert critics give their choices for the good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2002 live season.

1. Beck + Flaming Lips
As soon as word spread that Beck had asked the Flaming Lips to join him on tour as his backing band, a million music-heads whose formative years came during the '90s had the answer to a "What if" question they didn't even know to ask. On the one hand was Beck, who over his musical career has been the most consistently chameleonic live act this reviewer has seen: agit-pop ironist in '94; troubled folk troubadour in '96; funk-tronic superhonkey in '97; godson of soul in '99; roadhouse country balladeer in '00. On the other hand were the Flaming Lips, who've spent their touring lives in an increasingly extravagant pursuit of the greatest birthday party ever. Together they're a mythical pairing that has few real precedents.

But, coming in support of Beck's reflectively melancholy Sea Change and the Flaming Lips ever-playful Yoshimi vs. the Pink Robots, it was tough to imagine how everyone might get along once the music started.

It turned out to be a better match than anyone could have imagined. Rather than giving us a single persona to get through the night, Beck dove headlong into a set that never maintained the same tone for more than 10 minutes at a time -- and he somehow passed off the ever-changing moods as a singular accomplishment. He was full of spunk for long stretches that were matched by Wayne Coyne s enthusiastic emceeing. And in the moments when Beck's demons were on the brink of getting the best of him, Coyne was there to figuratively say "Buck up, little camper, everything's gonna be a-OK!" Musically, the Flaming Lips provided a sonic grandeur for Beck's songs that made his big sound bigger and his small sound all the more fragile. And they even got to host a party of their own to start the night, replete with balloons, a legion of furry friends and, yes, confetti.

Perhaps I've become of victim of that terrible virus called Nostalgia, but to these ears what came through was not past-their-prime musicians trying to relive old glories with a touring gimmick -- it was artists who reached the peak and kept climbing straight into the clouds.
     � Shan Fowler

2. Parliament
I guess this really isn't a very great country after all, because people weren't camped out for weeks in front of the theater to see P.Funk tour this year. Sure, they don't bring the spaceship anymore, and they have lost perhaps some of their revolutionary edge after thirty-five years. But none of that matters when the greatest band in the United States of Funkadelica hits the stage: all your favorite chants! screaming metal guitar face-offs! the dude in the diaper! Sir Nose workin' it! And Uncle George was lookin' good, whether he was telling us to get off our collective ass and jam or directing his band mates, all of whom -- the young and the old, the classic and the next generation -- were destroying the bounds between rhythm and melody and sense and nonsense like it was 1975 all over again. The uncut funk is gonna keep getting dropped like a bomb all over America. You owe it to yourself to experience The Awesome Power Of A Fully Operational Mothership at least once before you shrug the coil. I got mine in September.
     � Matt Cibula

3. The White Stripes
Jack and Meg White look like a modern-day Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello -- all head bobs, shy smiles and endearing glances. And then they plug in. And every jaw in the room drops at the raw crush of sound from the hands, feet and lungs of the baby-faced guy in a red jumpsuit and his pig-tailed sister. The White Stripes are the real deal. No bass guitar, no samples, no click tracks, no "exploratory jams"-just monster tunes, earth-shaking guitar, a telepathically intuitive drummer, and a vocal delivery that evokes Iggy Pop as easily as Gene Vincent.

Their version of "Death Letter" says it all. With filthy slide guitar work, those sorrowful lyrics, funeral-dirge drums and hair-trigger time changes the Stripes make Son House grin in his grave. Like Zeppelin did with "In My Time of Dying", the White Stripes almost make you wish you had something to cry about -- just so you could crack open a bottle, crank this tune, and fucking mourn Except with Jack and Meg it's just two musicians instead of four. And it's live. And it's better.
     � Brian Neumann

4. The Breeders
After a decade-long hiatus and a lot of lineup changes, twin sisters Kim and Kelley Deal finally put to rest rumors that their band the Breeders had broken up with the release of Title TK in May. Their live shows in support of the album were a lot less flashy than Lollapalooza, which they played at the height of their success with Last Splash and its "Cannonball" single, and the general lack of media attention around the band turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Lazy, meandering, and eccentric as their music and their personalities have always been, the Breeders were never a band meant for the glare of the spotlight. Since they were no longer in it, they were free to drink, smoke, and crack jokes onstage, making for a live show that blurred the lines between audience and artist, and almost felt like watching friends jam in someone's living room.
     � Charlotte Robinson

5. Spiritualized/Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Though he may not really be Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To anymore, make no mistake, J. Spaceman is still feeding his head. This tour, a "stripped down" seven-piece version of 2001's traveling band, gave Spiritualized fans a chance to hear what might actually be going on inside J's head, not to mention how all this would sound without the usual extravagant instrumentation. Verdict? Songs like "Out Of Sight" and the old Spacemen3 classic "Lord Can You Hear Me" reveal themselves to be powerful blues numbers. Spaceman and soundboy extraordinaire John Coxon make delirious, wonderful noise together -- from the opening shuffle of 1997's wicked double-entendre "Cop Shoot Cop" (hint: not about cops) the congregation stood in silent awe. Stoned. Stunned. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was in their element as well, delivering a superfuzzy set of moody psychedelia, highlighted by one of the greatest songs in recent memory, "Whatever Happened (To My Rock and Roll)?" A double bill of potentially epic shoegazing proportions instead bore witness to the healing power of the blues. Let us pray.
     � Andrew Watson

6. Def Jux Company Showcase featuring Cage, Copywrite, RJD2, Mr. Lif and El-P
I caught this show at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor, which has a capacity of about 300 people. And the whole night long, every single goddamn one of them was moving.

I grew up a white kid with hippie parents in a black neighborhood. I grew up post-Public Enemy, though it would take years for them to filter down to me. I may, or may not, have been exactly like every person jumping up and down in rhythmic pulse to the blazing agitprop that Mr. Lif and El-P were torching the club with.

Roughly split 50/50 white and black, every person there knew every word to every song, hitting the pothole cadences and deft weaving of Mr. Lif's "A Glimpse of the Struggle" and roaring as El-P began Company Flow's "The Fire in Which You Burn".

In this time of bling-bling and disappointing hip-hop "revues" from Chuck D, the Def Jux Company Showcase brought the out the anger and humor and despair and vitality of hip-hop, whipping kids who don't even vote into a frenzy over freestyles on corporate imperialism, Bush II fascism and failed urbanism while still lettin' everybody know just how he planned to fuck their girlfriend.

Forget that the openers, Cage and Copywrite, sucked. Forget that Aesop Rock didn't even show. Remember El-P and RJD2 goin' head to head in a fickita-fickita DJ showdown. Remember Mr. Lif flowing so fast that every bedroom MC in the crowd could only mumble along. Remember this as the best hip-hop tour of 2002.
     � Josh Steichmann

7. The Frames
Who's the best band currently operating out of the British Isles? The easy answer would be Radiohead, but the right answer just might be The Frames. Laboring in relative obscurity for most of their ten-plus year existence, the band, centered around singer/songwriter Glen Hansard, while extremely impressive on record, is a truly revelatory experience in a live setting. Lots of bands make a play at being passionate and intense, but really, there aren't too many performers out there who give off the impression that they truly live for performing -- that when it comes down to it, if they couldn't be up there playing amazing rock 'n' roll for you, they would probably just waste away. Hansard is one such performer. Charming and self-effacing on an interpersonal level, Hansard is the rare performer that truly undergoes a transformation when he takes the stage. Hansard's sturdy guitar lines form the backbone of the band's sound, but Colm Mac ConIomaire's swooping violin, Joe Doyle's rubbery bass and David Hingerty's expressive drums all play an equal part in the equation. From crowd pleasers like "Rent Day Blues" and "Fitzcarraldo" to absolutely spine-tingling gems like "Santa Maria" (written, as Hansard explained, from the point of view of the painter Egon Schiele and his wife as they lay in bed together dying of the Spanish flu) and "What Happens When the Heart Just Stops", The Frames' live show takes their audience on a thrilling emotional roller coaster ride. And if you weren't fortunate enough to catch The Frames on this year's US tour (their first in many years), be sure to pick up Breadcrumb Trail, a live album recorded in front of a typically rabid Czech audience. It's not quite like being there, but it's the next best thing.
     � Jeremy Schneyer

8. Wilco
Between being dropped by their major label and then releasing what is widely hailed as the best record of the year, 2002 seemed to belong to Wilco. The band toured the US nonstop throughout the year. I was able to see them three times, and each time was remarkably different from the others (as it has been through years watching the band, and seeing Tweedy perform solo).

The first night was in April in Providence, Rhode Island -- it was the first show the band did after the official release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. They opened with a newer song, "Not For The Season", and the sold out Lupos (a sizeable venue) was dead quiet in reverence. Covering a wide spectrum of songs, Tweedy and co. ripped through the set list with two encores. Six months later, I saw them in Boston at a sit down venue which was a noticeably more subdued experience. In general, I prefer standing venues for rock shows and the band certainly had their fun with it (at one point, Tweedy quipped, "Are you sure we're pretty enough for a sit down venue?") Still, the music spoke for itself-- the instrumentation was tighter and Tweedy seemed more relaxed and at ease with the songs from Yankee than in April. The addition of G3 laptop wizard Mike Jorgensen to the touring band also helped solidify the sound. There was ferocity in the band's sound -- cemented by Glenn Kotche's wild drumming -- that seems a departure from their previous musical touchstone. On tracks like Being There's "Misunderstood", Tweedy traded shrieks of "Nothing!" with Kotche's pounding in a memorable snapshot that resonates with me months later. Another remarkable performance of the night was the enveloping "Poor Places", where Tweedy's disquieting observations culminated in the lush orchestration that make the song a standout track from Yankee. I managed to catch them the next night at yet another sold out show -- this time at the Portland State Theatre and the show was even better. A trio of gorgeous renditions from Mermaid Avenue, "One by One", "California Stars" and "Hesitating Beauty" were highlights that were only surpassed by an even more pulsating version of "Misunderstood" and a rocking version of the always lively "Outta Mind(Outta Site)".

Wilco fail to disappoint, and the addition of Kotche and multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach to the band have served to energize their live performances and invigorate their sound. Hopefully, the band will continue to experiment with their sound -- perhaps experimenting even more with their laptop sensibilities (elecro-twang, anybody?) Who knows, but if anyone can do it right, Wilco can.
     � Alexandra Chassanoff

9. Cody ChesnuTT
In a sharp blue chapeau/crown stylin' on the Sly tip, with a white Ethiopian scarf swinging in the electric haze and a Gibson guitar invoking instant mummery of old black and white television footage of Chuck Berry onstage, Los Angeles' Cody ChesnuTT disseminated his still "bootlegged" Headphone Masterpiece during several hot shit shows in the prime bicoastal metropolises (LA, New York, Philly, his hometown ATL). Even if the grooves on his solo debut don't seem progressive enough to many colleagues other than the Roots (he appears on their new Phrenology) and pundits beyond the editorial department of The Fader, ChesnuTT's either very cunning or an incipient creative genius in the vein of pop legends past from Arthurly and Prince to Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson -- or both. With his vague, inchoate preaching between songs, time will reveal whether he's treated as the deity made flesh on par with his evident predecessors -- electric pop dandy Hendrix and roots shaman Marley -- or merely supplants Kravitz as the Aughties' favorite branded heir of that tradition, combining psychedelia and a cloud of the "sweet smoke". The single "Look Good In Leather" sounds like a post-Big Star/post-Funk Brothers reinterpretation of 1950s rock n roll and it can be as refreshing as a cherry red Popsicle on a high summer day. Backed by his three-piece band, Cody often delivered moments in performance that made one root for him rather than level accusations of "retro!" Perhaps his greatest triumph this year was riding the "THE" bands hype by convincing the Strokes' Julian Casablancas to let him stand onstage during their hit "Last Night", mute waving the ever-present Coptic scarf, at their MTV2 concert. And he rode their "NY Punk" coattails to dates in England like the Reading Festival. More than the Brat Prince Ryan Adams or newly-bedheaded Rhett Miller and even Motor City carpetbaggers Eminem and Kid Rock, ChesnuTT seems the rock star of the year -- no prefixes nor any negatives. Someone who croons "My Women, My Guitars" like a Catholic confessional over Dylanesque mouth harp could hardly work a paltry day job (in fact he's been supported by family and friends these last few years). "Serve This Royalty", his scathing send-up of hip-hop's bling-bling culture, will likely also become the media descriptor most applied to the songwriter himself.
     � Kandia Crazy Horse

10. Paul McCartney
When Paul McCartney toured in 1993, I was first in line to get tickets. I paid $75 for a third-row seat, and, when he came on stage, I got teary, because I couldn't help thinking, holy crap, that's Paul frickin' McCartney right there!

When Paul McCartney toured in 2002, tickets in the third row were going for about $250, and I just couldn't see paying that much money to re-visit the experience. So, instead, I paid $80 a pop for two seats that were way at the back of the venue. From the day I bought the tickets until the day of the show, I kept thinking, geez, I can't believe I paid this much money for seats that are so far away from the stage!

And, yet, as Paul opened with "Hello Goodbye", then followed up with "Jet", despite having considerably more distance between us this time than during our previous encounter, I still managed to get teary all over again.

That's when I realized that it's not about where you sit; it's about knowing that you're in the same room with a Beatle. And not just A Beatle, but, if we're speaking solely of the living, THE Beatle. Ringo's all fine and well, but Paul's the Beatle who wrote or co-wrote songs like "Yesterday", "Hey Jude", and "Getting Better." And, on the Driving U.S.A. Tour, although it's thirty-plus years down the line, he sang them almost as well as when he first composed them.

People can bitch and moan about the cost of tickets for McCartney's shows all they want; God knows I did. Ultimately, though, if you're enough of a fan to plunk down the big bucks in the first place, it's highly unlikely that you'll leave the show feeling that you didn't get your money's worth.
     � Will Harris

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