The year's final week holds at least two must-see shows: the rare union of Ken Vandermark, Nate McBride and Hamid Drake in their jazz-funk combo Spaceways Inc. on Wednesday at Empty Bottle, and the final concerts by indie-rock titans Guided By Voices on Thursday and New Year's Eve at Metro. The preceding 51 weeks weren't lacking for thrills either. From hundreds of sets in Chicago and elsewhere this year, here are the moments I won't forget:
Top concert: Prince at Allstate Arena, June 25. The quintuple-threat singer-songwriter-showman-musician-producer reasserted his ability to rock the funk, but the highlight was a mid-concert acoustic set in which the imp held the arena in thrall with just a guitar and a bar stool for company.
Best Halloween party: Drive By Truckers at Metro, Oct. 30. Guitarist-songwriters Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell and Mike Cooley took turns singing about the blue-collar South as if every song was their last. An epic three-hour-plus show in ghoul makeup ended with guitar strings, booze bottles and Jim Carroll's "People Who Died" broken and desecrated.
Best stoned soul picnic: Jill Scott at the Congress Theatre, Sept. 24. R&B divas don't get any more down-home than Scott, who didn't so much draw attention to her prodigious vocal skills as fold them into her conversational songs.
Scott bantered with her fans as if they were neighbors and sang to them as if she were exchanging recipes. In "Family Reunion," she made them ponder the potato salad at a barbecue, and allowed them to glimpse Cousin Ruby shaking her one good hip to a Frankie Beverly record in the back yard.
Best "event": Brian Wilson at the Auditorium, Oct. 2. The Beach Boys auteur finally performed "Smile," the concept album he scrapped 37 years ago. But seeing "Smile" in concert trumped listening to it on record. Wilson and his band put everything from campfire sing-alongs to orchestral music on an equal plain. No wonder the normally stage-shy singer actually appeared to be enjoying himself.
Second-best "event": Pixies at Coachella Music Festival, California, May 1. As prelude to their five sold-out shows at the Aragon in November, the quartet played its first major concert in more than a decade before 50,000 fans. As dusk settled over the desert, the ghostly sound of Kim Deal's wordless harmonies on "Where is My Mind" sent a shiver up my sunburned neck.
Holiest roller: Mavis Staples at Old Town School of Folk Music, Nov. 28. In blurring the lines between sacred and secular, prayer and song, life and entertainment, Staples isn't living in her storied past but in the moment. She climbed inside her latest songs, particularly "God is Not Sleeping" and "A Dying Man's Plea," with earth-shaking conviction.
Best "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" audition: Polyphonic Spree at Park West, Aug. 13. Spielberg-worthy sci-fi performed by a band of 24 white-robed Texans. As singer-ring leader Tim DeLaughter pointed to a spotlight and declared, "The sun machine is coming down and we're gonna have a party," he figuratively joined hands with otherworldly visionaries such as Sun Ra.
Best paranoid android: David Bowie at Rosemont Theatre, Jan. 13. The Man Who Fell to Earth once again made anxiety and paranoia sound stylish while making the case for relatively recent killer tunes such as "Battle for Britain" and "I'm Afraid of Americans."
Best opening set: Secret Machines opening for Interpol at Riviera, Oct. 17. Back-lit by white work lights, the trio took their hazy, two-chord melodies to deep space behind a herd of thundering drums, madly distorted keyboards and hallucinogenic guitars. It all made Interpol sound a little tame afterward.
Best Three Stooges impression: Beastie Boys at United Center Nov. 4. Even though Adam Yauch, Mike Diamond and Adam Horowitz have widened the scope of their putdowns to include politicians and world events, they still aren't growing up gracefully, and that's wonderful news. They remain hip-hop's greatest ambassadors, forever proclaiming the sheer joy of rhyming effusively, comically and ever-so abrasively over Mixmaster Mike's endlessly funky beats.
Best thank-you to the fans: Wilco at Otto's in De Kalb, May 19. Despite all the recent acclaim, everything seemed up for grabs before this show. The band's latest album, "A Ghost is Born," was still a month from release, a new six-piece lineup had rehearsed together for only a week and singer Jeff Tweedy was still shaky after emerging from a rehab clinic. But the audience's enthusiasm swept up the band, and the music sailed as newcomers Nels Cline and Pat Sansone made an immediate impact, before closing with Tweedy's hushed rendition of "The Lonely 1," a poignant valentine to the fans for helping ease the way back.
Greg Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.
Originally published Dec. 23, 2004.
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