After a year-plus drought, live music came back to the world in 2021. Living in NYC and being addicted to the high of seeing my favorite songs performed live, I absolutely had to dive back into seeing shows. When I started buying tickets, it felt like the fog of 2020 was clearing a bit and things were returning back to “normal”. Ha haaa… but not for long! I continued going to shows despite being stressed, masked the heck up, and trying to not engage with thick crowds as much. Too much good music came out this year, too many artists on tour with songs that I’m hinging emotional ground on hearing coming through the city. Too many artists I’m anxious to support in some meaningful way again.
I ended up seeing 44 performances by 43 different bands (Yo La Tengo being the only double), with a mini festival at Knockdown Center putting up big numbers in terms of artists added to the list. I had a stretch of seeing four shows over four days leading up to my birthday. My legs are no longer conditioned for shows. I’m going to have to regain my strength.
I maintained my concert-going etiquette though. On that note, can I please ask fellow concert-goers to please mask up (don’t just keep it down just cause you’re drinking an $8 Modelo), please go to the back or to the bar area outside if you’re just going to gab the whole time (too many shows this year I’ve been stuck by people who just talk and talk during sets. Where do you think you are?? Just go to a bar!), and if you’re tall as hell and you worm your way up to the front of the crowd after the show starts, I hope you slip on a banana peel. We’re not animals out here.
To the artists that once again braved the conditions and performed for us – thank you! Your work and art are not taken for granted. I saw some of the most mind-blowing shows of my life this year, and I hope that I can continue to do so in 2022. My full list of shows I saw is below, along with ten alphabetized shows that immediately stuck out to me, along with one shining moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
THE moment that will stick with me from seeing shows this year was the end of the ESG concert. If you’re unfamiliar, ESG is a foundational post punk group from NYC that I think is hugely, HUGELY underrated in terms of their influence on modern music today. They were the first headliner of Knockdown Center’s summer festival and drew an audience of mostly older music fans, showing that the young folk are uneducated (it’s not too late!). The band is led by Renee Scroggins and two of her children.
During the whole show, Renee was seated in a chair low to the ground, where barely anyone could see her. She still put on an electric show, performing the hits and even bringing up some folks from the audience to participate (they were incredibly geeked). On the last song though, her son goes and walks off and brings a wheelchair back up onstage. He then picks up his mother and places her in the chair and wheels her offstage, while her daughter is yelling “THAT IS MY MOTHER! YOU GIVE HER HER RESPECT!” and the crowd is going berserk. I didn’t catch what caused her to be bound to a wheelchair, but the emotional moment of her family coming behind her after putting on this show, despite clearly being somewhat impaired physically, was a lot to take in. Definitely had some tears going in that moment. So many people stuck behind after the set, waiting for someone from the family to come back onstage so they could all bow in unison. ESG are legends, and continue to turn the party no matter what. I feel lucky and privileged to have been able to see that set.
NOW, onto 10 more great shows I witnessed this year:
(presented in alphabetical order)
Coco @ Union Pool
I wanted to shout out this Coco show because it unexpectedly came at the perfect time. I had seen a show at Terminal 5 the night before and folks, if you need to know anything about T5, it’s that I know more people that label it their least favorite venue in the country than anyone who has said anything good about it. Not to deride people too much, but it draws in the type of crowd that is not my scene whatsoever. I was looking forward to this show, but feeling burnt out beyond belief after being subjected to torrents of BS the night before.
The vibe was immediately different upon entering Union Pool (how often can you say that?): it was full of musician friends of the band that I recognized from other projects (and was too shy to introduce myself or say hello) along with other music nerds, watching mesmerized and in silence (that’s a big one!). Coco’s show itself was like an aromatic balm, with the three main members backed up by three additional skilled auteurs on stage (including blog favorite Renata Zeiguer!). They played through their debut album, their voices and gentle instrumentation melded together beautifully. An instant pick-me-up for someone who pulls so much pleasure from seeing music played live. A revelation.
Jessy Lanza @ Knockdown Center
If I were made to choose a top favorite concert I attended in 2021, it would have to be Jessy Lanza closing out Knockdown Center’s Summer Outline mini-festival in August. I even made the header image for this post out of a picture I took at this show. Her set mostly consisted of tracks from her 2020 album All The Time, along with an extended DJ set, which included some of the tracks that appeared on her DJ-Kicks mix (like Masarima’s “Freak Like U” – mega hit!).
It was Lanza’s first show since lockdown and she mirrored the audience in levels of emotion. The whole crowd was dancing, screaming along to the lyrics, and crying due to sheer happiness (myself included). Lanza too was crying and responding back “I LOVE YOU” to all the audience members shouting it at her. It seemed like a massive exhale for everyone at Knockdown that night. This was the third time I’ve seen Lanza and can confirm, she is an incredibly infectious presence on stage that truly enjoys her job. Her music intrinsically encourages movement and had me and everyone around me totally grooving. It helped that we were outside, so the paranoia of covid was turned down a bit. We had our masks on and were groovin. It was pure magic, a night I hope to never forget.
Katy Kirby @ The Turk’s Inn Rooftop
Gotta shout out this show since it was my first back since lockdown, and what a show it was. Kirby and her band played through her debut album and did a few covers, including Alex G’s “Bobby”, all of which the audience sang along with. I’m serious – the album had been out for a few months and the whole place knew every word. It was a beautiful first dip back into seeing shows, a beacon of light after trudging through darkness for over a year.
L’Rain @ Elsewhere
Shout out to L’Rain and the staff of Elsewhere for this show. It was supposed to take place on the venue’s rooftop, but due to a sudden thunderstorm, the bands and staff acted quick and got the main hall operational for the show. This was my first time seeing them since 2018, and hearing them play tracks off of Fatigue was like medicine for a wounded soul. Taja Cheek’s voice, instrumental skill and natural feel for live performance shone beyond the doors of the venue, and her talented band flexed their own ability as well, bringing the lush and multilayered tracks from the record to life. No studio magic here, folks. Hearing them close out with “Take Two” had me leaving Elsewhere on a cloud. I’m seeing them for a fourth time in March and I cannot wait.
Mary Lattimore @ Union Pool
Another Union Pool show, who’da thunk it? That venue seems to carry a duality. Either it’s rowdy, bar-fueled mess of rock madness, or it’s a collection of tender music nerds surrounding a mystic sonic wizard in hushed tones. Mary Lattimore is absolutely a mystical entity, with her harp and pedal controls creating massive and cascading soundscapes that are so easy to get lost in. She’s also a delight in the banter department, explaining context behind songs or just talking about what’s been going on this year. Just seems like someone that would be a lovely person to hang out with. Left the venue feeling warm and aligned within the universe.
Mdou Moctar @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it one million more times: you have to see North African Tuareg guitar musicians live. I had been a fan of Bombino for a while before I saw them live in 2018, where I then got my mind absolutely blown. I had been wanting to see Niger’s Mdou Moctar for some time, but figured that the way they tour (which is OFTEN) we’d cross paths eventually. I was not wrong! The electric tunes from their new album (and full catalog, let’s be honest) vividly came to life onstage, with the entirely audience enveloped in their spell. Lead songwriter + guitarist Mahamadou Souleymane is just a wonder to watch casual shred on guitar, and the whole band crushes it.
They performed “Taliat” as the encore and it broke the audience out into the friendliest most pit I’ve ever seen, with people more bouncing around and dancing with each other in a circle rather than aggressively slamming into one another. They all had their arms wrapped around each other like it was a European soccer match and saying “HEY!” along with the beat. It was a spectacle to say the least.
SPELLLING @ Le Poisson Rouge
One of my most-anticipated shows of 2021 did not disappoint. I had tickets for this for months beforehand, PLUS it was the day before my birthday? Have mercy. SPELLLING’s new album The Turning Wheel was my most listened-to record of the year, packed full of super memorable moments I couldn’t wait see translated live. SPELLLING packed out the stage with performers, including three backup singers, guitar, bass, piano, drums and maybe one more versatile performer up there. I think it was their first show together with this full ensemble and first time really performing these dense songs, so there was a bit of green-ness to the whole show, but hearing “Boys at School” (which yielded one of the longest applauses I’ve ever been a part of, and also had Tia Cabral saying “maybe I should play it again!”), “Legacy” (maybe my favorite song on the album? The grooves are too good) and “The Future”. Despite a few people who were clearly way too intoxicated to be there, the whole vibe of the show was fantastic. Everyone was there to celebrate SPELLLING, and for good reason. They put out one of the greatest musical achievements of 2021. If they tour in 2022, pencil it in immediately.
Sun Ra Arkestra @ Bowery Ballroom
Opened for Yo La Tengo for one of their 2021 Hanukkah shows. I’m so happy I finally caught them as one of their perennial openers, since it’s always a surprise who’s playing until that night. They played their brilliant, mind-melting jazz for nearly an hour and a half. Marshall Allen was leading the Arkestra, all of his 97 years, while also shredding on his sax and E.V.I. It was awesome and I may have liked it more than the actual YLT set that followed it. Most of the Arkestra also joined YLT for a few songs during their set, playing a mixture of YLT & Sun Ra tracks. Music history, folks. It’s real!
Yasmin Williams @ City Winery
After Yasmin Williams’ new record became a constant presence in my partner and I’s apartment, it was only natural to buy tickets to her show at City Winery in Manhattan. It was my first time at the intimate venue and quite the way to kick off my experiences there. Williams obviously excels as a performer, but she should consider more emcee gigs, as her banter skills were off the charts and had the audience in stitches with her dry humor and frank anecdotes. But ultimately, it’s about the music. Her guitar playing is hypnotizing to say the least, and the fact that she balances tap playing with kalimba, foot tapping and her massive harp guitar is a sight to behold. I definitely teared up once or twice just from the beauty alone. Go see her once things clear up again – you will not regret.
Yo La Tengo @ TV Eye
Yo La Tengo was the only band I saw on two different occasions. The first, which I’ll be talking about here, was one of three intimate shows done at Ridgewood venue TV Eye and the second was one of their 2021 Hanukkah shows (my third time going to one!). I’ll be talking about the TV Eye show because not only was it a smaller space (I was very close!) but the setlist was better as well. A few songs I had been wanting to see like “Paddle Forward”, “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Season of the Shark”. They covered Hank Williams, Times New Viking and Neil Young, among others. I hadn’t heard “Time Fades Away” until this year (sorry) and it rips. Duh. Ira shouted out someone in the front row wearing a Superiority Burger shirt, further emphasizing how elite the band’s tastes are. Also starting off the show with “You Are Here” and “Ashes” was wonderful. There’s A Riot Going On has grown on me a lot over the last three years. I will always go see this band live, no matter what. Thanks Ira, Georgia and James.
ALL 2021 SHOWS::
If you’re curious as to how I’m able to have this catalog of shows on hand, I make sure to log every single show I see in a list on my Rate Your Music profile, which you can find HERE. Also as a note, every artist I saw at Knockdown Center in the list below was at the Outline summer festival, aside from Circuit des Yeux. They really had an insane lineup of artists – all for less than $60! You kidding me?
- Ana Roxanne @ Union Pool (note: opened for Mary Lattimore. I was primordial ooze)
- Aoife Nessa Frances @ Webster Hall
- Basside @ Knockdown Center
- Blacks’ Myths @ Music Hall of Williamsburg (Opened for Mdou Moctar. Mind-blowing)
- Body Meat @ Knockdown Center (you will never see a bad Body Meat show – go see them)
- Bright Eyes @ Forest Hills Stadium
- Caroline Rose @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
- Circuit des Yeux @ Knockdown Center (with a string section. It rocked)
- Coco @ Union Pool
- Doss @ Knockdown Center
- Dua Saleh @ Knockdown Center
- Eli Winter @ City Winery
- ESG @ Knockdown Center
- Galcher Lustwerk @ Knockdown Center
- Indigo De Souza @ Elsewhere Zone One (the kids are alright)
- Jessy Lanza @ Knockdown Center
- José González @ Pier 17
- Katy Kirby @ The Turk’s Inn Rooftop
- Laura Marling @ Brooklyn Made (her voice. I mean, are you serious? Unreal)
- Lido Pimienta @ Terminal 5
- Lightning Bug @ Baby’s All Right
- L’Rain @ Elsewhere
- Lucy Dacus @ Forest Hills Stadium
- Magdalena Bay @ Knockdown Center
- Mary Lattimore @ Union Pool
- Mdou Moctar @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
- My Idea @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
- The New Pornographers @ Webster Hall
- Pink Siifu, GKFAM @ Ted Kamal @ Knockdown Center
- Rochelle Jordan @ Brooklyn Steel
- Shannon & The Clams @ Webster Hall
- Slauson Malone 1 @ Elsewhere
- SPELLLING @ Le Poisson Rouge
- St. Vincent @ Radio City Music Hall
- Sun Ra Arkestra @ Bowery Ballroom
- Sylvan Esso @ Terminal 5
- Tiberius b @ Bowery Ballroom
- TOKiMONSTA @ Brooklyn Steel
- TOPS @ Bowery Ballroom (Would have put top 10 but this was my 6th time seeing them, diversity)
- TORRES @ Bowery Ballroom
- Waxahatchee @ Forest Hills Stadium
- Yasmin Williams @ City Winery
- Yo La Tengo (x2) @ Bowery Ballroom + TV Eye