Three for ’13: A take on the best shows of the year

Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder still rocks with all the angst and passion of his grunge movement youth. Image: Dan Addison Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder still rocks with all the angst and passion of his grunge movement youth. Image: Dan Addison

Live music is as important now as it’s ever been. With the days of the huge record contract all but behind us and the era of the small label in full swing, most bands can’t make a living without hitting the road hard.

“It’s a hard business,” Cold War Kids front man Nathan Willett told me before his October 29 Charlottesville show. “The income is mostly from touring, and that’s a tough way to do it.”

Two of the best shows I saw this year were from indie bands in the same boat as Willett—the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Dr. Dog both jammed at the Jefferson like their professional lives depended on it.

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum—one of the last vestiges of the major label era laying waste to any notion it might have become complacent in its old age. Pearl Jam might not be living tour-paycheck-to-tour-paycheck, but the grunge pioneers still rock like it’s 1993.

Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Jefferson

I’ll admit to being the type of guy who tears up at sad movies. I can’t say I’ve ever felt the same way about a concert, until the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a folk-tinged four-piece that pays homage to old-timey Southern black music, came to town on April 1.

The majority of the show was a heels-up good time. Dom Flemons, who’s since left the band, set the tone on banjo and guitar. He’s a ham. He makes funny faces. He flips his guitar around with the enthusiasm of an awkward teenager. Rhiannon Giddens, the Drops’ only remaining founder, is a virtuoso on strings and charged through the band’s most well-known track, a cover of the 2001 R&B smash “Hit ’Em Up Style.”

The Drops’ show dragged slightly at the midway point, and the lack of former member Justin Robinson was noticeable in the decision not to perform “Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” but the band moves through its catalog quickly enough to pull out of temporary stalls.

Many of the Drops’ tunes are lighthearted, and only in the encore did the band decide to tug at heartstrings and embarrass grown men. Standing four abreast on the stage, the musicians ended the night by chanting the traditional slave song “Read ’Em John,” in which a literate slave is asked to read the chanters a letter they hope will “let them go.” Even with few words and no musical accompaniment, it was the most poignant encore I remember seeing.

Pearl Jam at John Paul Jones Arena

It would be easy at this point in his career for Eddie Vedder to mail it in. Instead, on October 29, he was nothing short of euphoric.

“This feels like the kind of place we could get comfortable and play for a while,” he told the crowd after a few numbers.

The JPJ concert was, for me, more about the songs Pearl Jam didn’t play than those it did. The bandmates must not have heard how much I enjoy their cover of “Last Kiss.” They didn’t do “Even Flow,” passed on “Better Man,” and were perhaps too short winded for “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.” But even without those classic numbers, it reminded you what a rock ‘n’ roll show can be.

Vedder, at 48, is still an energetic acrobat of a performer. I’d put the way he handles a microphone stand, hurdles speakers, rides giant pendulums, and drinks wine from the bottle up against any 30 year old.

As for the wine, Vedder boozed so much during the show, I was worried he might get drunk and turn on us. The opposite happened. He stopped one song abruptly to make sure everyone was O.K. when the floor got unruly. He connected with two young boys in the front row who he reported sang “every word to every song” and invited them on stage, praising them (and their parents) for their fanship. If it hadn’t been for the uncomfortable moment when he tried to give the kids some wine, it would have been the perfect ending to the night.

Dr. Dog at the Jefferson

As one of Dr. Dog’s two lead singer’s, Toby Leaman, promised me before the show, the Philly-based six-piece didn’t pander; they were just “a good solid rock band doing [its] thing.”

Leaman and fellow songwriter Scott McMicken have been together for more than 20 years, and their comfort level is clear when they take the stage.

You’d think it would be difficult for two lead singers to coexist, but while Dr. Dog is unpredictable when it comes to style and influence, the band has always alternated, without fail, between Leaman tracks and McMicken tracks. On albums and in concert, each song sung by Leaman is immediately followed by a song from McMicken, and vice versa.

It’s a formula that shouldn’t work. It feels too contrived. But on November 6, the reasons for its success were clear. Leaman has the traditional rocker’s rasp. McMicken is squeakier, quirkier. Just when Leaman crooned “Hang On” during the Charlottesville show and convinced us he was the superior singer, McMicken made a case for his songwriting chops in the rambling “Phenomenon.” Just when McMicken broke our hearts with “Jackie Wants a Black Eye,” Leaman healed us with “Lonesome.”

In the end, it wasn’t the act on stage that proved Dr. Dog’s appeal—it was the crowd, where the audience was in a dance and lip sync contest to see who was the biggest fan.

The winner of that competition has been decided, by the way. By the end of the night, it was me.