The Nine Best Live Acts We've Ever Seen
Friday, one hand holding our collective nose, Rocks Off brought you our opinions on the worst live acts we'd ever had the misfortune to encounter in a post imaginatively titled "The Nine Worst Live Acts We've Ever Seen." But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction -- shoutout to Newton's Third Law of Thermodynamics, that's right -- so we feel downright obligated to bring you the best.
Photo by Groovehouse Dillinger Escape Plan at House of Blues last month
In that spirit, these are the artists who in concert blew us away, melted our faces, restored our faith in rock and roll (or hip-hop) and all that other gushy stuff. One program note: whether or not it's actually Eric Clapton, once they see God people tend to go on a bit. So settle in and pull up a comfortable chair. That afternoon meeting can wait.
Photo by Michael Pittman Cowboy Mouth at the 2009 Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival
The best live show I ever saw would probably have to be Cowboy Mouth. Understand, however, that in my personal list of favorite bands, they would probably not even crack the top 50. I liked them a lot as a teenager, but haven't followed them much in the intervening years.
How this came to be was: I was a young, insecure, depressive 15-year-old who knew very little about punk rock, which all of my friends were suddenly all about and which I was only starting to get into. I got kicked out of my friends' punk band for being a terrible drummer - they were right, of course, but it hurt.
Insecure about my lack of knowledge and experience, resentful and alienated from my friends, I saw Cowboy Mouth play in Austin. They were big, loud, and unapologetically positive. Not in a cheesy "The Secret" way, but in a "kill your inhibitions and let's fucking do this" kind of way. Over the course of that one show, I learned that it doesn't matter how "punk rock" you are, all that matters is that you love what you love with your whole heart, and fuck what anyone else has to say about it. You be whoever the hell you are.
I have probably seen better shows since then, but never one so perfectly enlightening, so exactly what I needed to experience at that formative time in my life. I hugged Fred LeBlanc onstage after "Jenny Says." Adorable, right? JOHN SEABORN GRAY
Dillinger Escape Plan
Photo by Groovehouse More Dillinger Madness
We've all seen plenty of terrific concerts 'round these parts, but the one that sticks out the most in my memory was my first Dillinger Escape Plan experience in '99 or 2000. The band had just released Calculating Infinity, one of the most outrageously extreme rock and roll records ever produced, and they were touring the South for the first time ever, if I'm not mistaken.
Word of their live shows hadn't quite spread to Texas at that point -- and least not to my friends and I. All we knew was that Infinity blew our socks off and that we had to see this band. We were the first ones in line outside Fitzgerald's, where then-bassist Jeff Wood put us on the guest list in exchange for a few bucks to get some dinner.
After incredible, visceral sets from tourmates ISIS and Candiria, we were prepared to be a little disappointed by Dillinger. No doubt they'd be standing stock still up there, concentrating hard to reproduce the inimitable runs on their record. But when they appeared, singer Dimitri Minakakis quietly said, "Hello, we're the Dillinger Escape Plan," and then the band ripped into the most terrifying musical performance I've ever seen to this day.
It was utter bloodlust on that stage. Minakakis screamed so hard into the mike that I though he might levitate. Wood played bass with his fist. Guitarist Ben Weinman maliciously swung his axe's headstock inches from my face repeatedly, and I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have minded much if he'd "accidentally" taken an eye out. Every one of them was flailing as if he was being electrocuted.
There was no moshing or stage diving; all 50 or so of us who were there just stood slack-jawed and stared at the craziest band we'd ever seen or ever will see. It was just so, so shocking. I've caught them a number of times since, but none could ever touch that violent Houston debut. Nothing else has, either. NATHAN SMITH
Jay Z/Kanye West
Photo by Marco Torres Jay Z at Watch the Throne's Toyota Center stop, December 2011
I'm sure I'll get shit for this, but the Jay Z and Kanye "Watch the Throne" tour was one of the best I've been to, and I'll admit it even if I hate to stroke Ye's ego and risk inflating it to a more dangerous level. I loved the balance that Kanye's hyperactive, snarling pit-bullesque mannerisms found against Jay Z's Godfather-like vibe.
You couldn't have had a more workable juxtaposition of personalities; they were the yin and the yang of the rap world, and their entrance on top of podiums situated on opposite sides of the venue was kind of awesome, considering it was kind of a metaphor for how different the two are. One to the left, one to the right, and yet they each found their niche without fighting for the limelight, which made it pretty stinkin' rad. ANGELICA LEICHT
The Mars Volta
Photo by Groovehouse The Mars Volta at Verizon Wireless Theater (back then), September 2009
Despite my rigorous devotion to unbiased journalistic integrity, it's probably not a secret to anyone who knows me that the dear departed Mars Volta was my favorite band during their lifespan. A huge part of that was their live show, which was the best I've seen. I consider the live setting a million times more important than recordings, and I look for energy over perfection, dynamism over structure, and excitement over everything.
The Mars Volta had all that in spades. At their best, they were eight punk rockers dancing like maniacs and jamming on psych-prog tunes that went on for 20 minutes each. They brought an unbridled enthusiasm and intensity to every show, and a mystique that hadn't been experienced since the heyday of rock. It was a real moment for those of us who were there, and I'll definitely be telling my kids about it one day. COREY DEITERMAN
SXSW is a juggling act, but when I heard that Menomena would be performing at the Red Eye'd Fly in 2011, I made it my mission to be there even though the only set I could make was at 1 a.m. My hunger and fatigue made me want to give up before they even finished sound check, but I'd never seen them before, so I stayed. It turned out to be the right decision.
Menomena is talented, to say the least, and seeing them live made me appreciate them in a way I never had before. Labeled as an experimental rock act, the group pulls from bands and sounds of their own upbringing that reflect as wide a spectrum as music itself. To me, nothing has ever been more fascinating to watch than multi-instrumentalist Justin Harris juggle three instruments at once.
Even better? Drummer, Danny Seim, switches off singing duties -- and they're not even the only two in the band. It might sound crazy, but Menomena is a band I recommend to everyone I meet. And it all started with that one performance. ALYSSA DUPREE
The list continues on the next page.