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'I Like It Best When It's A Little Loud': Ann Powers' Favorite Live Shows Of 2018

Pussy Riot's performance at SXSW — one of Ann Powers' favorite concert experiences of 2018 — felt like an occupation of the senses.
Hutton Supancic
Getty Images for SXSW
Pussy Riot's performance at SXSW — one of Ann Powers' favorite concert experiences of 2018 — felt like an occupation of the senses.

Live music is my conduit to self-care. I love it all, from a piano concerto to a folksy singalong; but despite the ringing in my ears that complicates my lifelong pleasure, I like music best when it's a little loud. Live music awakens my senses and shelters me from everyday life's disorganized noise; I needed its clarifying energy more than ever this year. And the best thing about this form of self-care is that it takes place in community with others. It awakens connections, mind, body and soul — and that, I think, is what we need more than ever in 2018.

Here are my top 10 concert experiences of 2018, almost all in Nashville, my beautiful home town, where sharing live music is a spiritual practice.

1. Marc Ribot, David Hidalgo and Buddy Miller in the Lounge at City Winery, 2/21/2018

For 30 minutes in the middle of a set of mostly Spanish-language songs, the renowned guitarists Ribot and Hidalgo (of Los Lobos fame) invited old pal Miller to join them, and performed country classics like Merle Haggard's "The Running Kind." These three longtime traveling companions redrew the map of America as a borderless range, home to everyone with a breakable heart.

2. Nick Cave: Feat. Nashville at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, 4/06/2018

Chicagoan (and former Alvin Ailey dancer) Cave's riotously varicolored "soundsuits" — made of twigs and glitter and flea-market yarn — dazzle when displayed in museum settings like Nashville's Frist. This multimedia performance brought the suits to life, assembled and worn by local artists and community leaders. The night's music, made by the combined choirs of Nashville HBCUs Fisk and Tennessee State, a high school marching band, and spoken word artists Rashad the Poet and Ciona Rouse, wasn't just a soundtrack; it was the circulation system that gave real life to the ancestral spirits Cave's suits invoke.

3. Pussy Riot at The Main, South By Southwest Music Festival, Austin, Texas, 3/13/2018

The rarest live shows seem to create a rift in history itself: Life was one thing before Pussy Riot took the stage, and another after. In a performance that felt like an occupation of the senses, the balaclava-clad Russian radical collective turned revolution technicolor with churning electronic beats and agit-raps.

4. Janelle Monae at the Ryman Auditorium, 7/13/2018

On a tour celebrating her emergence as the femme-androgynous leader of a new world that exists right in the midst of our broken one, Janelle Monae rallied her gorgeous all-sizes-shapes-and-colors audience with a woman-driven soundtrack of fight songs grounded in funk, fun and love.

5. Idles at the High Watt, 9/28/2018

"I F****** LOVE IMMIGRANTS!" bellowed Idles singer Joe Talbot as these English punk believers careened into the anti-Brexit solidarity song "Danny Nedelko." A woman stage-dived. The packed-in crowd held arms aloft. Punk made yet another disruptive dream come true for an hour of sweat and bliss.

6. Neck Deep Campfire Club session, Marathon Music Works, 9/15/2018

This was a VIP experience (purchased, no doubt, mostly by the parents who hovered nearby) but it felt as D.I.Y. as any punk show. There is nothing like the bond between a rock band and its teenage followers, and Neck Deep, a Welsh pop-punk band, brought that love to sweet life for an hour one afternoon, answering questions from a small group of their fans and singing their songs together in glorious, unamplified chorus as a plastic campfire crackled between them.

7. Amy Rigby at Dee's Country Cocktail Lounge, 5/12/2018

Some artists really do speak directly to me, and Rigby is one: a woman who's fully lived a rock and roll existence, from footloose bohemian youth through motherhood and marriages, and is still out there spinning tales made of whimsy and sudden shining insight. A friend who'd never seen her before marveled: These songs are so good. The wide world deserves to hear Rigby (check out her excellent 2018 album The Old Guys) but on this spring night in a packed bar lit by strung holiday lights and beer signs, we were enough: the folks who will always defy the next day's alarm to commune with a great artist telling our own life stories back to us.

8. Gail Davies at the Station Inn, 6/07/2018

The 70-year-old Davies, Nashville's first woman record producer and a country hitmaker in the 1970s and 1980s, threw an intimate birthday party for herself that felt as stellar as a gala tribute, with guests like Suzy Boggus, bluegrass favorite Rhonda Vincent and Davies' son Chris Scruggs helping her tell the story of a remarkable life through song.

9. Paul Burch at Tomato Fest, 8/11/208

Sometimes a perfect moment is only a song long: As treasured local bard Burch played his New Orleans-flavored number "Boogie Back" on an outdoor stage in the sticky 90-degree heat at East Nashville's annual neighborhood party, a young couple swing-danced; a guy in a traffic-cop vest boogied with a stranger in cargo shorts; a woman dipped her sun parasol as she spun in pirouettes, and a mom and her toddler tried a two-step. Music made that miracle again: community.

10. Low Cut Connie at the Basement East, 11/18/2018

This Philly revue's frontman Adam Weiner is notorious for his swaggering showmanship, but the high point of this wild show was a gesture of supplication: At the piano, after fellow vocalist Saundra Williams wowed the crowd with a gospel throwdown, he bowed his head and took her hand, and she hit her final glorious high note. The whole history of rock and roll transmission was represented in that exchange between a black woman and a white man. Her strength, the source; his willingness to be humble before it, a step toward a better understanding.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.