Sweet Talk's Top Ten Live Songs 2008

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Being Editor at Large means, well, one is at large a great deal. When one holds such a post for a top notch music magazine, it generally means a lot of time is spent on the road, catching artists in their natural habitat.  Over the course of 2008 Sweet Talk did just that. I manged to see shows in fourteen states and four countries, as a journalist, fan, rookie roadie, and even a producer of several festivals. While I did not manage to see as many club gigs as I once did ( a second child will do that to you), I obviously ingested my fair share of the world's best drug, live music. Therefore, I present my highly opinionated top ten songs experienced in the flesh in 2008.


Honorable Mention: "One" U2 3D 1/19/2008: Yes, I realize this doesn't exactly count, but seeing the US Premiere at Sundance with the band in attendance and saying hello to Larry Mullen at the accompanying cocktail party was as live as I've ever witnessed U2. In other words, better seats never existed and afterwards I felt complete sensory overload.  This was as close to a visceral music experience as you can get without actually being there. I'm not even a real U2 fan but this version of "One" was chilling. If you want to read more about PASTE's review of being at the premiere click here:


10) Mark Kozelek "Rock and Roll Singer" SXSW March  13th 2008 Central Presbyterian Church, Austin Texas:

If you have never experienced the march musical madness known as South by Southwest, let me give it to you in one word, exhausting. After catching Eli Paper Boy Reed, My Morning Jacket, Wax Fang, American Babies, M. Ward, Kaki King, Ben Harper and Tom Freund and at least ten other bands all within in 8 hours and setting a personal record for Belgian Beer consumption in the same amount of time, I began strolling/ crawling up the hill to my room at the Omni.  I almost made it until I looked at my hand where I had drunkenly scrawled "Glen Tipton!" as a early reminder to myself to not miss Mr. Sun Kil Moon himself, Mark Kozelek.  Kozelek found the perfect time and place to do a set of his new material, midnight, upon a church alter with nothing but a guitar and two small spots for illumination. I curled up in an empty pew toward the back and stared up at the fine arches and masonry until I slowly dozed off into a dreamlike state of musical bliss. One of my favorite writers singing me to sleep after a very very long day.  I awoke to the strains of "Rock and Roll Singer", a perfect ending.

Although the sound quality is only fair start the video at 3:30 to visualize:

9) Black Crowes " How Much For Your Wings " Opera House 10/17/08 Boston, MA

The first time I saw a rock and roll show in the exquisitely renovated Opera House was a few years back when the White Stripes blew into town and Jack White exorcised the Puritanical spirits swirling around the joint with swagger and virility. The Black Crowes did the same but with a shit load more weed. We were fortunate to spend time with the boys during soundcheck and it was clear that this was going to be a fairly surreal and spacey show. After a slaying "Wiser Time" and a solid "Bring On, Bring On", we slipped backstage for a few Stella A.'s and some Hershey's Dark Chocolate while the band got people swinging with a wink and nudge cover of "Mighty Quinn". After the merry sing along the lights dimmed, red shadows draped the stage, and the human powered "dry ice" machine jumped into overdrive with the opening strains of the fairly rare "How Much For Your Wings". The oozing two-ton lyrical pleading over unhinged guitar psychedelia bleeding into the drapes made my eyes water from the sound's sheer physical force.   Sometimes you just want your face blown off by a stack of Marshalls and their is no better band to oblige than the Crowes. We spent the after show with the band listening to road tales and reminiscing about our other run ins over the summer (Newport Folk Festival / Jackson Hole Music festival).  My ears stopped ringing a full four days after this show.

8) Levon Helm- "The Weight"  6/14/08 Flag Day, Bonnaroo Manchester, TN

As twilight began to engulf the fields of B-Roo, I was sitting in the production trailer with uber-talented video director Sam Erikson simultaneously watching the filming of Iron & Wine, Zappa Plays Zappa, and Levon Helm and the Ramble on the Road.  It was amazing to watch the editors fading and jump cutting live with such dexterity it boggled the senses.  It was akin to watching a maestro conducting three orchestras at once. While gaining a new appreciation for the video arts and drinking a very tasty vodka soda copped from the backstage of the comedy tent, I settled in to watch Iron & Wine's set.

Sam Beam and crew were artfully augmenting the normal tempos of "Boy With A Coin" (reggae head shake) and my favorite song of 2007 "The Devil Never Sleeps" (downbeat hep cat cool), but my ears and eyes kept wandering over to the screens showing the 68 year old, cancer conquering, Dirt Farmer.

Levon could not wipe a mega watt grin off his warmly creased face. It was as if a John Deere tractor beam kept drawing me into the womb of Americana. I quickly thanked the mobile unit crew for their air conditioned hospitality and bee-lined it for "The Other Tent". 

Snuggling into the photo pit with some of the other moths to the flame, I immediately felt a collective energy greater than any other Bonnaroo tent show I've witnessed over the years.  The vibe was just "ON". No other real way to explain it. After raising the stakes with "Ophelia" and shaking the heavens with "The Shape I'm In", the air ignited with static the minute the Ramble dropped "The Weight."

Now I have seen this song performed at least four dozen times over the last 30 plus years and even seen Levon do it a couple of times in various incarnations, but the venue, the time, the energy didn't even come close to this version. I ran into Levon backstage at Newport Folk on Sunday just after he did another version of the tune with Gillian & David and Jake Shimabkuro and I asked him about his Bonnaroo set and he said it was just a very "emotional version". I didn't want to pry any further but I told him that whatever it was it still made what little hair I have left stand at attention just thinking about it.  This really was one of those times you just had to be there to believe it.

Levon at Bonnaroo 2008

7) American Babies "Swimming at Night" 8/2/08 Newport Folk Festival

The third time the road manager for Damian and Stephen Manager called me to tell me they were crossing the Newport Bridge and they still couldn't figure out how to get off it, I just started laughing.  The only solution was to send a very "understanding" Rhode Island State Trooper to find them and give them an escort to the festival grounds.

In the meantime there were approximately ten thousand people standing in a torrential down pour waiting for music. This wasn't just a passing shower this was a true summer squall that ended up knocking out all the power on Aquidneck Island for over an hour.  If it wasn't for the generators for the main stage the whole festival would have gone silent.

However we still needed a band to brave the elements and possible electrocution, so I jumped in a golf cart, tore to the Waterside stage and not so calmly asked the American Babies who were packing their van for the long trip back to Brooklyn after finishing their set to approx 100 people if they wanted to play the main stage.  They asked how long they had to prepare; I told them to grab whatever gear they could carry and jump on the cart.

As the amazing stage team quickly outfitted the Marley's gear to work for the Babies, the band stood backstage in a tight circle and quietly harmonized the little ditty sung by Winthorp's pretentious friend Todd and his Ivy league preppy cronies in Trading Places.

"Zeta Chi..Zeta Chi my friend...Neath the elms we sing our tones we're brothers to the end. Muffy in the bathroom stall, Margaret by the lake....Susan down in Ridgely hall, Constance on the make. Constance Frye...Coooonstance Frye....anytime you'd call... Constance would fulfill your needs....winter, spring...oooor faaaaaaall. 'that was great, that was really great. "And she stepped, ooohn the baaall."

After nailing the harmony and some last minute encouragement from Trey Anastasio who had just finished his own main stage set, the American Babies walked onto the biggest stage of their young career exactly ten minutes after finishing on the small stage and simply killed IT in absolutely the worst conditions imaginable.

There are some bands that get breaks and never take advantage and then there are bands like these guys who absolutely soar. When Tom Hamilton sang the lyrics into the heart of the storm,

"Dare the Ocean to drag us away, because we're not afraid of a water grave"

while looking out on the raging sea and a multitude of water logged revelers was inspirational. As I've said many times before this band deserves every shot at the big time.

6) Young at Heart Chorus, "Fake Plastic Trees" Newport Folk Festival, 8/2/08

  As I said back in August, Sweet Talk was proud of bringing several artists to stages all   around the country, but one of the absolute highlights was bringing the Young @ Heart Chorus to Newport Folk.  They are not a novelty, they are the truest form of musical expression, full of humor, joy, passion and poignant emotion. 

(photo by Joe Ruggeri)


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And yes, Josh Jackson, Rita Huston, and I were all crying during their Radiohead Cover of "Fake Plastic Trees". Imagine if you will a petite 87 year old woman singing a capella:

She lives with a broken man
A cracked polystyrene man
Who just crumbles and burns.
He used to do surgery
For girls in the eighties
But gravity always wins.
And it wears him out, it wears him out.
It wears him out, it wears . . .

She looks like the real thing
She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love.
But I can't help the feeling
I could blow through the ceiling
If I just turn and run.
And it wears me out, it wears me out.
It wears me out, it wears me out.

And if I could be who you wanted
If I could be who you wanted
All the time, all the time.
Oh, oh.

while a choir of fellow octogenarians sings harmony, and yes, you'd be balling your eyes out too.



(photo by Michael Weintrob)

5) Wilco "Remember the Mountain Bed" Jackson Hole Music Festival 8/16/2008

Set on the side of the Tetons with the Snake River and Sleeping Indian Mountain as a backdrop, the environs for the inaugural Jackson Hole Music Festival were simply awesome.

To accompany such an inspiring locale, we envisioned a one two programming punch of Brian Wilson into Wilco to close the first day. Bridging the gap between the original pusher of pop boundaries and the next generation with a mere 30 minute set break was truly a vision realized. While Tweedy dedicated a blissful "California Stars" to Wilson later in the set, the true highlight of the waking dream was Wilco opening with Woody Guthrie's "Remember the Mountain Bed", perfectly mirroring the spirit of the glowing revelers:

There in the shade and hid from the sun we freed our minds and learned/
Our greatest reason for being here‚ our bodies moved and burned/There on our mountain bed of leaves we learned life's reason why/The people laugh and love and dream‚ they fight‚ they hate to die

Drinking tequila at the local watering hole with Nels Cline before the show, while Tweedy ran up the side of the mountain and Stirratt fished a secret local spot, it was clear in talking about the beauty of playing in such remote and breath taking settings such as  Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Alaska, the boys were thoroughly enjoying these rugged "Frontier" gigs.  Seeing the band on the top of its game, frolic in the golden light of a late mountain afternoon was truly soul satisfying.

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4a)  Trey Anastasio "Bathtub Gin > Wilson", Newport Folk Festival 8/2/08

Having Trey at Newport was another dream I had long before it became a reality. Nearly a year and half absent from playing live and the only truely solo acoustic show in memory, it was an amazing sight to see Trey walk onto the hallowed Fort Stage at Newport with nothing but an acoustic guitar under is arm. 

After the well documented hardships and healing of the last year or so, it was an emotional set, particulary "Waste" and "Heavy Things" which were both especially poignant. With his long time friend and primary lyricist Tom Marshall standing side stage, Trey also busted out a song never before performed live called "If I Could Be a Sailor". Written over a decade before, he dedicated it to the sailboats anchored off the festival grounds. Boats all over Newport Harbor blasted their airhorns in appreciation. 

Soon after
 the aforementioned squall tumbled forth over the bay, rain started coming down in sheets cutting out the power to the smaller stages and soaking everyone to the bone. Rising to the occasion, Trey broke into "Bathtub Gin" which allowed for some hysterical crowd participation("We're all in this together and we LOVE TO TAKE A BATH" )  including singing the lead guitar phrases. Keeping up the sing along Trey segued directly into the call and response intro of "Wilson" which culminated in the crowd firing back the ultimate question on everyone's mind after such a long time away from the stage, "CAN YOU STILL HAVE FUN!"  

Although musically rusty and under such adverse conditions Trey's beaming grin, funky dance shuffle and belly laugh carried the obvious response.

4b) The Felice Brothers "This Land is Your Land" Newport Folk Festival 8/2/08

Around the same time as Trey ushered in the howling gale, the gung-ho Felice Brothers were laying down their intensely raw, ragged glory, barn storming, dirt music on the Waterside stage that is until the power went poof., Instead of cutting  their time short the entire band jumped off the stage and finished the set barefoot in the mud amongst the crowd around them for one big sing-along that would have made Woody Guthrie immensely proud.  


3) The Decemberists "Sons & Daughters" Orpheum, Boston 11/06/08

Two days after the historic presidential election, Colin Meloy and Co. encored with a very powerful and joyous "Sons & Daughters". Before leaving the stage Colin had this to say about the song:

"I don't want to get all VH1 Storyteller on you, but this song was written about three years ago at a very different time; it was an escapist song, an imagining of going somewhere else, of getting away. But, after Tuesday, you know as songs sometimes do, things change; they take on a different meaning for you.  I hope this song, what it means to me now, is about staying right where you are and making changes at home."

He then brought about 30 people from the audience and opening act Loch Lomond up on to the stage to sing and dance along to the chorus, "Hear All the Bombs Fade Away/ Hear All the Bombs Fade Away" against one of the best musical drones of the last decade.

Yes, one of those fists being raised at the end of the show is mine.

2) The Avett Brothers: "St. Joseph's" Gondola Ride over Jackson Hole Mountain, 8/17/08

My favorite musical addiction of 2008. I was late coming to the table, but now I am a full on  junkie. Watching them close the Harbor Stage at Newport Folk was a revelation. They were the only music going against Mr. Cheeseburger in Paradise who was playing simultaneously on the Fort Stage, and they were going off! So much so, we gave them another 10 minutes. Actually that's a bit misleading. If we had not given them more time, chances are I would have been bludgeoned repeatedly by the frothing and "spirited" crowd.

After such a rebel rousing, I was more than ecstatic to have them Christen the Jackson Hole Music Festival.  Easily a thousand people waited at the gate to grab some front stage turf just for these guys.  Not surprisingly ,they killed. Although they did play my favorite, "Murder in the City" it was tough to hear the quiet nuances that bleed from the album version.

Earlier in the summer I had the amazing fortune to ride a Ferris Wheel with Jose Gonzalez and Death Vessel while they played some mood music just for me.  Check out the Video . So I thought why not see if the Avett Brothers would join me for a gondola ride.  Beside playing human Tetrus around a snare drum, banjo, acoustic guitar, and full size stand up bass, this was one of the coolest moments of my career. 

Over the twenty minute round trip, in between illuminating snippets of brotherly dialog and expressions of wonder at the jaw dropping vistas, the boys honored my request with an unplugged and penetrating "Murder in The City" and a brilliant "Bella Donna" with extended jam complete with the snare falling out when the doors momentarily opened at the top of the lift before we began our descent. However, it was the joy in "St. Joseph's" against the bluest of blue sky that left me sated and inspired.

In fact Go buy The Gleam II right now!

Dave Vann MMJ Bonnaroo

(photo by Dave Vann)

1) My Morning Jacket "Oh Sweet Nuthin'" Manchester TN, Bonnaroo July 13 -14 2008

Yes, you read the date correctly. When you play for hours and hours on end starting at midnight and ending ???? in monsoon rains you have the right to say you played over two dates.  It really should come as no surprise that MMJ is number one on this list as I spent the better part of 2008 traveling around the country watching Jim James sing AND getting paid for it. What a country.

In March I spent four straight days with James and the boys catching a blow the door off the hinges set at the Parrish, a dark eared bizarro gig at the Austin Music Hall, an acoustic late night Jim James show at a Church w/M. Ward, a late late night mini DJ set in a suite at the Driskill and a hilarious trip to the Austin Zoo, all which you can read about in fine detail in the July cover story.


In August James showed up at Newport Folk and basically owned the joint, sitting in with She & Him, M. Ward and Calexico and of course throwing down an ethereal rain soaked solo set which included a haunted "It Beats for You" that stunned yet another drenched crowd into pin drop silence. ****

Aquarium Drunkard put it best:

Whereas parts of Jim James solo set at Newport gave way to Evil Urges- a quiet “Sec Walkin’,” and a peaceful “Look at You,” among others — it was Z’s“It Beats 4 U” that stole the show. While he fingerpicked a spiny melody and the rooftop rain slowed to a patter, James shouted out in a soulful lament, his voiced cloaked in his now-trademark reverb. For four minutes, no one spoke and no one moved: not the security detail, not the audience; it was one of those rare live moments when everything stands still and time arrests itself, and it’s these moments that James and My Morning Jacket seem to be creating more and more of.

Yet believe it or not these all did not match the sheer power of MMJ on a wet hit summer night in June. My perennial Bonnaroo wing-man Todd and I set up at the soundboard and did not move for thirty three straight songs.  While setting lofty benchmarks for their originals it was also a night of revealing covers; covers that were eclectic, apropos, humorous, funky, and smokin' in every shape and form, including 

"Hot Fun in the Summer Time", "Hit It and Quit It", "Tyrone","Cold Sweat", "Get Down On It", "Across 110th St", and  of course "Home Sweet Home" by Motley Crue feat. Zach Galifianakas dressed as Little Orphan Annie.

But none encapsulated the sheer exhausted ebullience as Velvet Underground'd "Oh, Sweet Nuthin'" . At 4:53 into the song everyone left standing knew they were witnessing an epic night in this band's young career. It may not sound like perfection on tape but as far as what live music can do for the soul and spirit of a listener when witnessed in the flesh it was pretty freakin' close.

It was like a 15 round heavy weight bout where everyone left the ring reveling from the band's beatdown. People simply raised their hands in giggling adulation while the sheets of rain washed away any lingering inhibitions. Later, as the band came off stage I hugged Patrick Hallahan who seemed close to collapse and thanked him for replenishing my faith.

"From our heart to yours" was his reply.

If that's not the goal of live music than I don't know what is.