The Nine Best Live Acts We've Ever Seen
Dillinger Escape Plan at House of Blues last month
Photo by Groovehouse
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.
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.
Cowboy Mouth at the 2009 Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival
Photo by Michael Pittman
Cowboy Mouth 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 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 at Watch the Throne's Toyota Center stop, December 2011
Photo by Marco Torres
Jay Z/Kanye West 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 at Verizon Wireless Theater (back then), September 2009
Photo by Groovehouse
The Mars Volta 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
Menomena 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.
Sir Paul at Minute Maid Park, November 2012
Photo by Jim Bricker
Sir Paul McCartney One of the best decisions I have made in my life was when I impulsively spent way too much money back in 2011. See, I was raised on The Beatles. My mom didn't sing us that "Rockabye Baby" bullshit; we were treated to "Octopus's Garden" and "When I'm Sixty-Four." When people ask me who my favorite band is, it never even occurs to me to name The Beatles, because to me that's like saying "I breathe oxygen and am affected by gravity." The Beatles just transcend.
So when the one and only Sir Paul McCartney was coming to town to play at the one and only Wrigley Field, I should have jumped at the chance to go. Instead I waited until the last minute to buy tickets, realizing I was a dumbass and would regret not seeing this show for the rest of my life.
And regret it I would. To see an international icon at an American institution was absolutely indescribable. Macca and his band sounded absolutely fantastic through the entire set: Beatles classics, the best of Wings, even new songs that were actually good.
I cried so many times out of simple and pure joy, sometimes just marveling that I was there and was able to experience what was happening around me: once during "Maybe I'm Amazed," one of the most heartfelt and honest songs ever written; listening to "Let 'Em In," which reminds me of chopping carrots with my mom; before and during a stripped-down version of "Something," when Paul told a few George stories; of course during "Let It Be," which was truly beautiful; throughout "Hey Jude," which was blended with the chorus of "Give Peace a Chance" as the entire audience swayed and chanted; and twice during the second encore, which included "Yesterday" and the famous medley of "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End."
The concert, in a word, was magical, and the best money I've ever spent. I also learned a big lesson: Don't pass up the opportunity to see a show you really want to see. SELENA DIERINGER
Sir Paul McCartney It's a bit of a copout to choose a Paul McCartney show as the best concert one has ever attended. He's a Beatle, so if you've seen him you're almost obligated to say his was the best show you ever witnessed. But I've got a good reason for taking the easy way out.
For one, it was a good old-fashioned rock and roll stadium show. Minute Maid's roof was opened to a cool, clear night. I was there with my wife and old friends and we pregamed at Warren's Inn, so we didn't even mind the line that stretched around the ballpark just to get into the show.
And then, there was Sir Paul, playing for hours, literally dozens of songs. I knew the words to nearly all of them and I never considered myself that big of a Beatles fan. His band was stellar, but they weren't there to mask any age-related deficiencies. His playing was fantastic and his voice was even better.
"Something" was something touching and special. "Hey Jude" nearly brought me to tears. At one point, my pal looked at me and said, "My God, we just listened to McCartney do the end of Abbey Road live."
It wasn't just one of the shows I'll never forget, it was a singular night among many great ones I've had that I'll carry with me. Really, how can you top that? JESSE SENDEJAS JR
Phish This was an easy one for me despite seeing some amazing shows in my day. Yeah, I could've picked Paul McCartney or that time I got to see Cream at Royal Albert Hall, but the first and only band that comes to mind when talking about best live acts is the one and only Phish.
I've been following Phish around the country for years, and will continue to for many more to come. I know that many of you are immediately skipping to the next article because for some reason you don't like the band, but ask yourself: "Have I ever even listened to Phish?" The answer is most likely no - and that means you've never seen them live either.
They are known for their brilliant live shows, especially their ability to perform a completely different set from night to night. The best part of the show is the overall fan experience -- from hanging out in the lots before the show meeting some of the phriendliest pholk in the land to standing with 20,000 like-minded phriends anticipating what song might come next while dodging the multitudes of glowsticks flying through the air.
You're missing out if you've never experienced Phish live, but even though they seemingly never come to Texas, you need to jump on the next opportunity to see the Vermont jam kings. JIM BRICKER
Rage Against the Machine I've always been glad that we never got a real Rage Against the Machine reunion tour, because if they ever hit the road I would go, and I worry that it would taint the memory of that one perfect show I saw in my youth.
This is what I remember: after Zach came out and introduced the band to start the show, the main stage lights went down, and when they came back up there was a giant reproduction of The Battle of Los Angeles album cover that read "The Battle of Houston." The next few hours were a blur of energy and violence. I was on the second level of the Summit/Compaq Center, and the entire level was undulating up and down from the music/people jumping in their seats. I saw people moshing up on the second level. It was intense.
It's the only show that ever left me speechless. No joke. My dad and I didn't say anything on the drive home. We didn't have the words to talk about it. CORY GARCIA
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.