What defines a sublime concert experience? Is it the venue? The weather, if the show happens to be an outdoor one? The quality of the company you keep during the gig? The behavior of the crowd? The sound? The set list? The price of beer?
Inevitably, it is a combination of all of these things. Which can make every concert experience a dicey proposition. There are so many variables in play, and they all need to combine to strike the right balance. When they do, you’ve got a night you’re likely to remember for years. When they don’t, you feel ripped off.
The experience of live music is a subjective one, which means that, for every 10 people who attend a concert, the odds are high that five will love it, and five will write a letter to yours truly asking, “Were you even at the concert?” as if they were the first person to think up such a witty rebuke.
One can make valid critical observations regarding the apparent emotional commitment of the musicians on the stage, the consistency of the performance, the length of the show, and so forth. But ultimately, the music either connects with you, or it doesn’t.
Here are five shows that connected with me in a big way this summer.
1. Todd Rundgren with Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, Thursday at Canalside, Aug. 15
A show that transcended my expectations, even though those expectations were high. Rundgren is one of popular music’s great chameleons, and for this free Canalside show, he wisely opted to feature music covering just about the entirety of his 40-year career. The sound was a bit rough at first, and Rundgren’s voice took a few tunes to warm up, but once everything clicked in, the show packed a wallop. Rundgren fronted a band of seasoned virtuosos in the form of bassist Kasim Sulton, guitarist Jessie Gress, drummer Prairie Prince and keyboardist John Ferenzik, and everyone on stage appeared to be thrilled with the size of the Canalside crowd, which boasted a visible abundance of long-serving “Todd-Heads.” The steaming soul-funk-blues hybrid offered by openers Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds sealed the deal.
2. The Flaming Lips, Artpark, July 17
For anyone who held lingering doubts concerning the continued relevance of psychedelic music, the Flaming Lips brought their mind-bending production to Artpark’s outdoor amphitheater and kicked those doubts to the curb. The stage set itself – a sort of space-age mountain that provided singer Wayne Coyne with a perch from which to address the crowd, with a Pink Floyd-esque light show and massive video projection screens to match – was enough to capture the imagination of the tuned-in attendee. But the Lips are more about substance than style, and it was the music, after all, that made this show one of the summer’s finest. Coyne is a psychedelic humanist, and his lyrical observations can be both devastatingly poignant and uplifting. The set list, favoring new album “The Terror,” but making plenty of stops throughout the Lips’ wonderful catalog, could not have been better.
3. Jane’s Addiction, Darien Lake PAC, Aug. 11
Jane’s Addiction co-headlined the Rockstar Energy Drink Uproar Festival alongside Alice in Chains, and above Coheed & Cambria, Walking Papers and others. But this day at Darien Lake belonged to Jane’s, even if AIC turned in a strong performance. The band is simply at the peak of its collective power currently, after spending more than a year on the road in support of 2012’s “The Great Escape Artist.” Singer Perry Farrell seemed to defy both age and long periods of rough living with a clear-headed, muscularly intense performance. Farrell’s voice remains remarkably strong, and the passage of time has allowed him to gain unfailing control over that voice. Guitarist Dave Navarro remains one of the more exciting and dynamic players in all of heavy rock. And drummer Stephen Perkins brought a tribal percussion aspect to the thunderous Jane’s sound. Having seen the band twice over the past 18 months, I expected a strong show at Darien. What I got was even more than that.
4. Infinien, Sunwaves Music Festival, North Fork Music Park, Aug. 17
So often, it’s the shows that catch you off guard that make the strongest impression and stick in your mind the longest. When I went to the Sunwaves Music Festival in Warsaw, I’d never heard of Infinien. When I left, I knew I’d never forget the band. The Philadelphia-based quartet – fronted by pianist/vocalist Chrissie Loftus, and also featuring guitarist Matt Hollenberg, drummer Tom Cullen and bassist Jordan Berger – caught me completely off guard with the sophistication of its sound, which boasted aspects of progressive rock, post-rock, jazz fusion, pop and a dash of the avant-garde. Loftus is a compelling presence, blending sensuality, a broad vocal range, and serious piano chops. Imagine Return to Forever fronted by Bjork, and you’re in the ballpark.
5. Volto, The Waiting Room, Aug. 6
So much of our summer music scene revolves around the big stages – the outdoor free and soft-ticket shows, the mini-festivals, Darien Lake, etc. – that we might overlook the abundant signs of musical life on the club scene. This show - the debut area performance from a modern progressive music side-project whose most famous member is erstwhile Tool drummer Danny Carey – hit me hardest precisely because it was so unexpected, so intimate and so gloriously loud! Volto is a group formed several years ago as a low-key jam session for friends Carey, guitarist John Ziegler and bassist Lance Morrison, but it soon developed into a serious band in its own right. This show at the newly opened Waiting Room was a godsend for fans of daringly complex progressive music. The band featured most of its just-released debut album, but also offered some gloriously twisted covers, among them a jaw-dropping 20-minute interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.”