The 25 Best Live Acts of 2016

Music Lists Best of 2016
Share Tweet Submit Pin

10. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
This was a big year for The Boss, with a massive tour centered around The River and the publication a new memoir. But there’s still no doubt he’s one of the best live performers of all time, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down: He broke his previous record for his longest-ever US performance on Aug. 30, playing for a whopping four hours. And then he promptly broke it again, playing for four hours and four minutes just five days later. (For more classic Springsteen performance video, click here.)

9. Florence + the Machine
Florence Welch is like a red haired, English Stevie Nicks. She wears draped dresses and she sashays across the stage. She coos sweetly until she unleashes her most arresting vocal acrobatics. But the Fleetwood Mac comparisons stop with The Machine. Welch’s backing band, complete with backing vocalists, a harpist, two percussionists, and a keys/synth player in addition to the traditional rock band set-up, manage to replicate music off all four of the band’s records with accuracy and panache. Topped off with a flashy light game, Florence + The Machine is one of the best acts touring the arena/amphitheater circuit today. —Hilary Saunders

8. Lake Street Dive
You’re missing out on the full Lake Street Dive experience if you’ve never danced to one of their songs. The band’s funk-soul-rock hybrid music is invariably groovy and demands physical participation. Look no further than the players themselves to model the appropriate embodied zeal and emotionality; they’ve been great performers since the beginning, but now they really know how to sell their music after over 10 years of playing together.(Guitarist/trumpet player Mike, aka “McDuck,” doesn’t exactly share the others’ overt enthusiasm, but his deadpan demeanor is part of the fun.) The band’s projection of both sophistication and approachable camaraderie onstage allows them to appeal to a wide variety of audiences: they seem as at home in front of crowds of families as those of only adults. Add to all this their supreme musicianship (they met while training at the New England Conservatory of Music) and a healthy dose of attitude, and the result is a band that was born to both move audiences and get them moving. A bonus: Lake Street Dive is known for doing great song covers, and they often perform one or two of these live.—Monica Hunter-Hart

7. Charles Bradley
Charles Bradley  finds himself on our Best Live Acts list for an impressive fourth year in a row, and we have a feeling that as long as he continues to tour, he’ll continue to be among the best live performers we see in any given year. If you haven’t yet had a chance to see The Screamin’ Eagle of Soul do his thing, stop what you’re doing and figure out how to rectify that immediately.

6. Car Seat Headrest
Nowadays, Car Seat Headrest shows—like Car Seat Headrest—begin and end with Will Toledo. Their Teens of Denial-centric sets are bookended by indie rock’s dapper young standard-bearer standing alone on stage, his subdued singing voice betraying the heavy heart underneath his band’s meteoric rise. As drummer Andrew Katz pointed out between songs at the band’s sold-out Atlanta show in September, it wasn’t long ago that Car Seat were playing for six people at a time, and it was telling that Toledo responded that night by noting exactly how long. The uber-talented frontman and creative core of Car Seat emanates kindly anxiety, coming across like the kind of guy who would rather hang out with your pet at a party, embodying his music. But rock-star swagger or no, sandwiched between each Car Seat show’s somber Toledo interludes are an hour-and-a-half long reminder that this is one kickass rock ‘n’ roll band. Car Seat are at their best ripping through their cathartic indie anthems as a unit, from the heartbroken bounce of “Maud Gone,” to the shout-along-inspiring “Fill in the Blank,” to the yearning crash of “Something Soon.” But there is room left for experimentation, like their sprawling renditions of “Vincent” and Toledo’s stripped-down solo take on Frank Ocean’s “Ivy.” All told, their live shows are a potent distillation of the singular mix of introversion and aggression, vulnerability and empowerment, insouciance and precision that makes Car Seat Headrest one of the best rising acts in rock.—Scott Russell

5. Neil Young
It’s hard to watch Neil Young perform his new songs (“Hang Gliders,” “Texas Rangers,” “Show Me” and “Peace Trail,” so new that they all were debuted just a few months ago at Telluride), which are political and speak to the times, without wondering why the issues he’s singing about—in some cases, issues he’s been singing about for decades—still exist. Do the Boomers who cheer and pump their fists during these new tracks feel any twinges of guilt for their generation’s role in our current affairs? How is it possible for them to hear Young change “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s” to “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 21st Century” during “After the Gold Rush” as he did during his Desert Trip set and think anything other than “damn, what have we been DOING?” Regardless, we need Neil Young now more than ever, and his excellent live performances in 2016 are proof. He remains tuned in to today’s issues, whether he’s speaking out against the Dakota Access Pipeline, cracking a few Trump jokes or busting out some of his classics to remind us just how much work remains to be done. (For more classic Neil Young performance video, click here.)

4. Chance the Rapper
Chance isn’t one to heed conventions; no, he shuns both labels and traditional concert formats. His Magnificent Coloring World tour this year was no mere music gig but an idiosyncratic theatrical journey. Chance arranged his songs into an ordered narrative and added characters (a gospel choir of huge backup puppets) and dialogue interludes. The storyline followed his own maturation process; the audience watched as a lion puppet named “Carlos” gave him spiritual and emotional guidance. It was an epic, demanding show that proved Chance to have not only amazing creativity but also incredible stamina. He refused to give audiences anything less than a multifaceted, boundaries-pushing concert experience, and so secured his rank among the most ambitious and talented live performers this year—Monica Hunter-Hart

3. Mitski
The music journalism community is currently still in the midst of tallying all of the reviews, opinions and song counts that occupied 2016, and while we’re not psychics here at Paste, we’d bet our vinyl crates that Mitski’s ornate eye-opener Puberty 2 will take a huge amount of that pop culture real estate in the coming weeks. The soulful singer/songwriter’s fourth LP swings between comical, sincere and devastating at a song’s notice (or sometimes within the same track, as in album opener “Happy”). Mitski has remained largely private throughout her ascent, so her live shows are a fleeting window into the singer’s world.—Sean Edgar


2. St. Paul & the Broken Bones
There’s a real soul music is named as such. It comes from the soul. It soothes the soul. And Birmingham, Ala.’s best octet St. Paul & The Broken Bones has soul for sure. Frontman Paul Janeway shimmies and prances in the most impressively flamboyant suits and shoes and climbs on drum kits and speakers too tall to crawl down from without assistance, all while delivering lines in a tenor/falsetto with religious-like fervor. But, as this is a band affair, The Broken Bones never fracture or falter. The horn section rings in all the right places. Bassist and co-founder Jesse Phillips stays right in step with drummer Andrew Lee. And lead guitarist Browan Lollar adds a rock ‘n’ roll touch in his solos that’s exclusive to the band’s live sets. When all forces combine, whether Janeway wails about broken hearts or civil rights, St. Paul & The Broken Bones reach a place in their audiences that can’t come from any place other than the soul. —Hilary Saunders

1. LCD Soundsystem
When LCD Soundsystem announced their reunion just five years after their massive farewell at Madison Square Garden, they were (perhaps rightly) met with some skepticism and anger from fans who had shelled out huge sums of money to see their favorite band play for the “final” time. But once James Murphy and company actually got out there and played, that all seemed to slip away. As Jeff Gonick wrote in our review of their Webster Hall show, “A sound guy walks on stage to check a mic and a low cheer cascades through the crowd. A few minutes later somebody drops a water bottle off by the drums and people celebrate like they’ve got stock in Poland Spring. This isn’t just anticipation, these people have lucked, begged, bought, bargained or in my case convinced an editor to send them to witness a resurrection. To watch one of their favorite bands come back from the dead. And this room is alive with expectations of not just when, but how it’s going to go down.

To a certain degree, bands are defined by expectations. We don’t just expect them to perform the best show we’ve ever seen every night, to produce music often enough to satisfy our insatiable, bordering on unhealthy appetite for media, to entertain us with access to the most intimate moments of their life. We see their best and worst moments replayed and analyzed like the Zapruder film. We spend hours listening to strangers pick them apart on podcasts. We fall headlong into the abyss that is online comments. And we end up creating a narrative in our heads about who they are. Their lives become another TV show to us. And like our favorite shows, we build up our expectations about not only what will, but what should happen next.

So when LCD Soundsystem quit at what some might call the pinnacle of their 10-year career, they George R.R. Martin’d us. They killed themselves off in the second act. And the same way George changed the rules when it came to who was safe and who wasn’t by killing off Ned Stark, LCD changed the rules on us. They let us know that no matter how much we might love their band, our love isn’t the only thing they live for. That LCD isn’t a permanent thing we should always expect to be there. And that if their band is going to exist, it’s going to exist on their terms.

Which is why as James Murphy and the rest of the band came out on stage to hand-bruising applause and throat-shredding cheers, as the cymbal smacking beat of Get Innocuous! opened the show, as the air filled with the diluted weed smell of electric drug-pens, I put my notebook away and didn’t try to think of ways to compare this moment to my expectations for it. I didn’t saddle this show with the weight of the ones I missed. Or look at this performance through the lens of all the years I wish they’d been playing. I didn’t try and understand last night in the context of when they left. Or try to create some narrative that connects leaving to coming back. I didn’t even try to force-fit the whole experience into some larger point about their legacy.

I tried, hard as it sometimes is in a world where we’re all supposed to share our opinions about everything, to just have fun. To embrace the crushed toes and spilled beer and accidental elbows during “Daft Punk is Playing at my House”. To laugh about how real “Losing My Edge” suddenly feels with the thirty-something record-head beside me. To jump up and down like an extra in a House of Pain video during “Dance Yrself Clean”. To enjoy how loud and drunk and crowded and sweaty and messy and imperfect the whole thing was.

I tried to let the music do what it’s supposed to do. Not spark twitter feuds, inspire podcast speculations or create fodder for overly wordy think-pieces, but make us feel something that’s bigger than what a song means. I tried to listen to James Murphy when he said during one of the few catch-your-breath breaks to not worry about filming every second of every song, but to “Just be here.”

I tried do something maybe we should all do this time around. Throw out our expectations and enjoy the moment while it lasts, no matter how long it lasts.”

Recently in Music