The 2018 Yellow Tote Review Revue
Besides baking bread, there’s nothing I do regularly that gives me more pleasure than going to concerts. In the moment, it doesn’t seem like I go to a lot, and there are always shows I feel like I miss, but when I look back on 2018, this list begs to differ.
We just did a podcast on how year-end lists often suck, so I wanted to make this a little more fun. The Yellow Tote Review Revue gets its name from the fact that when I go to concerts alone (most concerts I go to), I bring a yellow tote bag (shout out to Phaidon) to hold a book, my Kindle, or, often, a t-shirt purchased from the merch table.
In the spirit of the joy I have when I am carrying the yellow tote, I’ve quirkily put together this categorized list of all the acts I saw this year. Maybe you’ll go see some of them! Maybe you won’t! But I highly recommend you give some local concert a try. You might fall head over heels for an opener, a main act you’d forgotten about, or even the venue itself.
Let’s start the show(s)!
Where to start besides the beginning?
Too often, in my opinion, people tend to show up to concerts very late. That’s incredibly unfortunate, because they are missing some damn good artists. Vagabon (The Anthem, 7/24) was the first opener before the buzzier Julien Baker and the tremendous Courtney Barnett. The Anthem felt all the more cavernous as spindly branches of folks were mesmerized by Vagabon’s powerfully vulnerable songs and emotive voice.
On the other end of the spectrum, DC9 provided a haven for two bands to bang my head to. Thin Lips (DC9, 8/28) put out an album called Riff Hard in 2016, and they kept up that credo with 2018’s excellent Chosen Family. As with any opener, it’s awesome to see a relative unknown (Slaughter Beach, Dog, in this case) become loved while getting the crowd up for the main act. Outer Spaces (DC9, 12/5) did the same while opening for Justus Profit and Jay Som. The Baltimore-based group hasn’t released an album since 2016, but damned if they didn’t leave everyone longing for an early 2019 release with Cara Beth Satalino’s clear-voiced brand of indie rock.
A Wild Crutchfield Appeared
As far as indie rock twins go, the Crutchfield sisters are the best. Maybe that list isn’t long (though a shoutout to Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National is deserved), but either way, they are worth a ticket regardless of configuration, and I have now seen them both together (in 2017) and separately. The sisters are unmistakable; when I went to see Superchunk (Black Cat, 4/3), I didn’t realize Allison’s band Swearin’ was opening until I realized out loud to a friend, “Oh, that’s a Crutchfield!” Swearin’ was a perfect lead-in to the raucous punk discord of Superchunk.
Meanwhile, Katie’s solo project Waxahatchee (Miracle Theatre, 9/8) also put out excellent new material in 2018. I had seen her before supported by a full band, but this time out, she was mostly on her own, either playing an acoustic guitar or seemingly bathed in angelic light at a piano.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
There comes a time in all relationships where some type of dissonance appears. Sometimes you overcome it, sometimes you don’t. With this group, all of whom I’ve seen before, that unfortunately happened when I went to see them in 2018.
While I can pinpoint it for some of them, I can’t tell you what it was with Alvvays (9:30 Club, 5/8) other than just general disappointment. I wanted to rock, but they just didn’t bring the energy I typically expect in 9:30 Club, which is admittedly a me problem. (I will not make a joke about Canada being stereotypically lame here, no sir.)
On the other hand, I know exactly what’s wrong with Car Seat Headrest (9:30 Club, 9/19): Will, pick up the fucking guitar, take off the MC Hammer pants, and go make some new music. I mean, he re-mastered an album from seven years ago, which is like revisiting high school love letters as if they were your peak. Dude, grow up, you’re a better artist now. And yet, there is a large group (read: the younger folk CSH is for aka not me) that love this version.
I realized the same thing with Mitski (9:30 Club, 11/17), which is that maybe I’m just not part of the group anymore. She shed her bass in exchange for post-modern dance moves this year for her phenomenal album Be The Cowboy, which I loved, but I guess I wasn’t ready for the live experience to change too (though it was still a lovely romp).
I should make special note of Girlpool (Black Cat, 2/7) because I know that this this moment will lead to more great music. No two voices seems to blend as well, as uncannily, as those of Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad, and while I might miss the way they used to sing their songs, I know they’ll bring the same excellence to the new chapter in their musical journey. If nothing else, Cleo’s courageous humanity is inspiring as hell.
I’ve come to recognize that what makes a rock star is that a large venue is the ideal medium to see them. Non-rock stars can excel in large spaces as well, but there is something particular about the aura of a true rock star. They’re not just musicians, they’re professional performers. No one exemplifies this better than Phish (Merriweather Post Pavilion, 8/11). Who cares when they last released an album? There are whole online communities dedicated to keeping track of their setlists for a reason. And dear Lord, the light show is incredible.
Speaking of light shows, while Beach House (The Anthem, 8/25) may not have as large a following as stars like Phish, I believe they actually have the perfect show for a humongous indoor music venue like The Anthem. In the year or so since it opened, I don’t know that anyone else has gotten the crowd as fever-dreamish, dancing erratically but as one.
On the other hand, it was excellent to see St.Vincent (The National, 5/23) right-size their perfectly choreographed performance for Richmond’s smaller National as opposed to the headlining festival shows or The Anthem where I saw them last December. [Editor’s note: Confirmed—a late-night show at Austin City Limits in October was an ideal venue as well.] In many ways, Annie Clark (or is it St. Vincent? Or is it Annie Clark?) is the closest thing we have to a traditional rock star at the moment: she is sexy and spellbinding, and she shreds with the best of them.
But sometimes the mantle of “rock star” can be a burden. I was fortunate to see HAIM (The Anthem, 5/1) a few years ago at 9:30 Club, when they were just three playful, preternaturally talented sisters rocking out in a way you wouldn’t realize just from listening to their album. Their recent success is well-deserved, but their 2018 performance was so ingratiating and canned that it made them seem like a product as opposed to people.
There was a point where I was perplexed by the people who have seen acts countless times…but that was a really dumb period. Seeing bands you like, or even ones you are skeptical of, multiple times is such great fun. Exhibit A: I saw Hop Along (Ottobar, 5/5; 9:30 Club, 6/5; The Southern, 7/28) three goddamn times in 2018 alone! THREE! And the memory I will have most is not the three amazing openers (Saintseneca, Bat Fangs, and Thin Lips, respectively) or each amazing venue (a pint-sized bar, an historic club, a seemingly former dinner theatre). No, it’s the sinking feeling at the beginning of third show when I realized I wasn’t going to see them perform material from Bark Your Head Off, Dog again in 2018.
Conversely, Okkervil River’s (Black Cat, 5/20) 2018 release In the Rainbow Rain made me question going to see them this tour. Well, dear reader, I was fucking wrong and I’m so glad I went. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Will Sheff get up there and sing his odd heart out, but every time I’ve left in a pleasantly vulnerable state. Sorry, Will. Please forgive me.
The Two Yoots, Twice
The thing about the youth is they will kick your ass and grin about it, and you can’t do anything but sit back and appreciate the ass-kicking. Snail Mail (Black Cat, 6/12; 9:30 Club, 12/21) showed off their precocious talent in 2018 with the superb debut album Lush. The only thing that can stop Lindsey Jordan from continuing to garner the adoration of people twice her age is herself (seriously, you’re 19! It’s okay to take a break from touring!).
On the other hand, I wish the Melbourne-based Camp Cope (NPR Tiny Desk, 7/18; Rock & Roll Hotel 7/18) could come to America more. Seeing them perform the devastatingly beautiful “The Face of God” in person was maybe the most powerful musical moment I experienced all year (not the least because lead singer Georgia “Maq” McDonald is very aware and vocal about why). In this time, strong young women like these are as close as we will get to a panacea.
At the end of the day, why does one go to a concert? To be blown away, I guess. That could be from at either end of the spectrum between catharsis and something more like joy.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra (9:30 Club, 4/27) sneaks up on you. You’re just kind of bobbing along, vibing, and then, all of a sudden, Ruban Nielson is crowd surfing…while still playing guitar. Meanwhile, your face has melted off and you are uncontrollably gyrating.
Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands (The Anthem, 9/28) is also known for his wild gyrations, to the point that both times I have seen him in concert, he has broken his pants/belt so badly that his bandmates, consummate professionals that they are, had to vamp for a while as he fixed the situation. Most notably, Future Islands always leaves the room incredibly dusty. It’s weird, though, because it’s like when you wanna cry as a kid but you’re out of breath, red-faced and huffing, and the tears have stalled but you wanna keep crying. You feel great while also feeling like you went through a garlic press.
What to say about U.S. Girls (Miracle Theatre, 9/7)? I’ll just tell it like it is: that was the sexiest show I’ve ever been to. I mean sexy in the most absolute sense of the word. There was a point in the show where the band thought, Okay, we are getting these folks out of their stupid theatre seats and they will be dancing, and damned if the whole place didn’t become the closest thing you’ll ever get to a bacchanal. It was an attraction to the moment that was inexplicable, and I can only hope to have again.
And then there was serpentwithfeet (DC9, 6/25). I’ve written about this show and how it restored (some of) my faith in humanity. Seeing him and his opener, the awesome Lee Mo, sing “bless ur heart” to the tightly-quartered, exuberant crowd was so, so heartwarming. I was truly blown away, if simply by the idea that a bunch of strangers could put away their baggage for a few minutes and, well, just have faith with one voice. It’s like church, but for everybody. I’m not crying, but you should be!
The One That Got Away
Parquet Courts (9:30 Club, 6/7). Do you recognize that date? No? Parquet Courts is maybe my favorite band, and I really love their latest album, Wide Awake! But I did not get to see them perform at 9:30 Club that evening. Because…
...THE WASHINGTON FUCKING CAPITALS WON THE GODDAMN STANLEY CUP AND I WAS IN THE LUDICROUS CROWD DOWNTOWN. THAT’S RIGHT! A WASHINGTON PROFESSIONAL SPORTS TEAM WON A TITLE!
We all gotta make sacrifices. Your favorite bands will tour again (because capitalism), but your favorite teams probably won’t keep that championship team together for much longer (ironically, also because capitalism).
Anyway, that’s enough for now. Stop reading and go see a show!