Steve Mellon/Post-GazetteIt was a good year for the legends, and when they live up to the billing, there’s nothing better.
We had Stevie Wonder doing “Songs in the Key of Life,” the Stones romping through the North Shore for first time in a decade; rare sightings of Randy Newman and Television; The Zombies playing one of the great cult records; and a wicked $%&*-ing set from the last of the blues legends, Buddy Guy.
It wasn’t all geezers, as Tame Impala, Manchester Orchestra and, of course, Taylor Swift were among those proudly representing the millennials.
Here’s the list:
John Heller/Post-Gazette1. Stevie Wonder (Consol Energy Center, Oct. 19): A greatest hits set would have been the ultimate crowd-pleaser, but perhaps not as meaningful or memorable. This time, we got to see the genius delve deep into a groundbreaking album that goes all over the map, musically. Wonder was in perfect form doing “Songs in the Key of Life,” fronting one of the tightest, funkiest bands to ever sit foot in this town. The lovely local touch was bringing the Skyliners up (to their own surprise) for “Since I Don’t Have You,” one of Wonder’s favorite old ballads.
Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette2. The Rolling Stones (Heinz Field, June 20): The Stones ... not the tightest band to ever set foot in this town. In fact, they were awfully sloppy, but brilliantly so, on a magical night in which a stormy evening left a rainbow over the stadium. Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood had those glorious, snarling guitars cranked to the hilt and the 71-year-old Mick Jagger proved himself the ninth wonder of the world, mixing the big hits with concert rarity “Moonlight Mile” and a requested “Paint it Black.”
Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette3. Taylor Swift (Heinz Field, June 6): Nobody casts a spell over a stadium quite like T-Swift, who arrived here on her “1989 Tour” and boldly pushed aside many of her earlier hits to focus on her exceptional new-ish album. It would have been even better if Wiz Khalifa had been the surprise guest here instead of Little Big Town. Nonetheless, Taylor, who seems to connect with everyone in the stadium on a personal level, was as sparkling as the 50,000 points of glowing light.
Katelyn Jones/Post-Gazette4. Sufjan Stevens (Heinz Hall, Nov. 3): The Midwest indie darling hadn’t played a show here since doing an acoustic set at Club Cafe at the beginning of his 15-year career. We were fortunate to finally get Stevens touring on what many feel is his compelling piece, "Carrie & Lowell," a poetic, soul-baring eulogy to his mother. That voice we'd only heard on record was so immediate live, it practically froze you in your seat. “Carrie & Lowell” was presented as a theater piece with artful lighting and old home video. Between the acoustics of Heinz Hall, a microphone he must have spent a fortune on, exquisite melodies and a voice that glides so beautifully from whisper to falsetto, it was a stunning effect.
Churches/Scott Mervis/Post-Gazette5. Thrival Festival (Hazelwood, Sept. 25-26): When I drive down Second Avenue in Hazelwood now, I look toward the Mon at the abandoned LTV mill and remember those two nights in September when Thrill Mill transformed it into one of the coolest concert sites we’ve ever seen here. With the mill glowing with red light and lasers shooting across the rocky grass field, we were treated to great, sample-sized sets by Manchester Orchestra, San Fermin, Strand of Oaks, Cathedrals, Panic! At the Disco (not my favorite band in the world) and Raekwon/Ghostface Killah, among others. It’s our own miniature version of Coachella or Bonnaroo, and I can’t wait till the next one.
Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette6. Sleater-Kinney (Stage AE, March 1): This was the first show here in 19 years for the riot grrrrls from Olympia, Wash., who attack with a vicious combination of angry, sexy and catchy. Fresh off a decade-long hiatus and touring on "No Cities to Love," one of the better albums of the year, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss (with touring member Katie Harkin) delivered monstrous squalls, short spastic bursts and those unmistakable high-pitched vocals.
Scott Mervis/Post-Gazette7. The Mavericks (Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall, April 25): The Mavericks would have to screw up majorly to not have a place on this list. The Mavericks are an unstoppable force live, between frontman Raul Malo sounding like the second coming of Elvis and Roy Orbison and the eight-piece band merrily blending rockabilly, ska, Latino, surf, alt-country, hard rock and just about everything. This was a true Saturday night party set as the Mavs revved the engine and then kept going and going, with 13 songs in the encore, one more rollicking than the next.
Scott Mervis/Post-Gazette8. The Alvin Brothers (Club Cafe, March 12): After being estranged for more than 30 years, one of rock 'n' roll's great unsung brother pairs, Dave and Phil Alvin, better known as the Blasters, tore it up in the tiny club. Dave is a blues guitar virtuoso and Phil has always channeled some ancient musical. Being a few feet away from them playing the hell out of "Border Radio," "Trouble Bound" and “Marie Marie” was an indescribable thrill.
9. Randy Newman (Heinz Hall, July 30): Having not shown his face here since 1977 (Syria Mosque), the singer-songwriter-pianist-composer-humorist renewed his acquaintance with the city, magnificently, joining the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Along with elegant versions of his underrated songs, he conducted the PSO in four of his own suites, including "Toy Story" and "Maverick." And his between-song banter...even better than Paul Stanley’s!
John Heller/Post-Gazette10. The Decemberists (Benedum, March 31): I get it. A 40-year-old Portlander who sings sea shanties and grandly poetic love songs with an affected British accent -- not for everyone. But there are few songwriters/storytellers more commanding on stage than Colin Meloy, and his bandmates, who had to double as the opening act when Alvvays got stuck at the Canadian border, are as versatile and accomplished as musicians get. The highlight was a four-song suite from "The Hazards of Love," the glorious rock opera they performed here in 2009.
11. Television (Carnegie Music Hall, Sept. 25): The NYC punk-era pioneers had played Pittsburgh only once, opening for Peter Gabriel at the Stanley in 1977, before splitting a year later. Tom Verlaine and company, re-formed in 1992, finally returned in a rare 2015 North American appearance, giving us the groundbreaking "Marquee Moon" album with the precision and intensity you'd expect from such veteran and masterful players. It was presented by The Andy Warhol Museum.
Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette12. Buddy Guy (Hartwood Acres, Pittsburgh Blues Festival, July 25): The blues legend had to apologize for this one. He swore like a sailor (if, in fact, sailors do swear more than other people) between songs. No apology necessary for the performance, which demonstrated why he was the bluesman of choice for the ’60s rock generation, and why he is a national treasure at 79.
Matt Freed/Post-Gazette13. John Mellencamp (Benedum, May 12): The Indiana Hall of Famer has made one of the more artful transitions from arena spectacle to theater show, and from young rocker into old protest singer, offering rich and beautiful Americana while also bringing the old hits in a joyous manner.
Scott Mervis/Post-Gazette14. Tame Impala (Stage AE, June 3): If Ken Kesey had been looking for a heavy Australian band from the future for his acid tests, Tame Impala would have been the first call. The members of Tame, who weren't even born in the '60s, would have been a nice addition to the psychedelic festivities, based on this Pittsburgh debut at Stage AE with colorful screens, fog, streaming lights and dizzying sounds.
Scott Mervis/Post-Gazette15. Earth, Wind & Fire (Heinz Hall, May 19): Playing a rare headlining show in Pittsburgh, EWF hit the stage 12 strong and took a polite crowd that didn’t know whether to stand up or sit down to a “Boogie Wonderland." The group is down to three core members, most importantly bass-master Verdine White and incomparable falsetto singer Philip Bailey. They wooed us with such slow jams as “Reasons” and “That's the Way of the World”) and got butts out of seats for “Shining Star” and “September.” Making this night even better was getting out early enough to see the Psychedelic Furs at Mr. Smalls.
Katie Darby/Invision/Associated Press16. Primus (Stage AE, April 14): We've seen a lot of Primus around here, from the Palumbo to Metropol to the Beaver Dome. This avant-funk-metal take on "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," complete with Wonka stage set, film and Oompa-Loompas, was Optimal Primus.
Scott Mervis/Post-Gazette17. Old Crow Medicine Show/Sturgill Simpson (Stage AE, July 29): It was Square Dance Night at Stage AE with this rowdy old-time string band from Nashville playing downhome hillbilly music (and even some Grateful Dead and Tom Petty), supported by the Kentucky outlaw who’s making a name as this generation’s Dwight Yoakam.
Scott Mervis/Post-Gazette18. The Zombies (Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall, Oct. 14): The Zombies are adored for 1968's "Odessey and Oracle," one of the most unsung psych-pop albums to emerge in the '60s and album No. 100 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. After a first set that ranged from charming blue-eyed soul hit "Tell Her No" to Argent's "Hold Your Head Up," the Zombies, fronted by angelic singer Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent, re-created "Odessey" so beautifully, it was enough to bring tears to the eyes of a psych-pop connoisseur.
19. Jason Isbell (Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall, Feb. 9): The body count escalated with every murderous ballad and rocker delivered by the former member of Drive-By Truckers. He unveiled his stories with exquisite detail and subtle twists, singing in a sharp voice that cut to the core.
Bill Wade/Post-Gazette20. Pittsburgh Rockin’ Reunion (Benedum, April 4)/Pittsburgh Rock N Roll Legends Awards (Hard Rock Cafe, April 23): First, Lou Christie and Donnie Iris, two local heroes in their 70s, raised the roof at the Benedum for the oldies show Pittsburgh Rockin Reunion. And then a few weeks later, the Pittsburgh All-Star Band -- with Iris, Joe Grushecky, Billy Price, Frank Czuri, Rusted Root, etc. -- did the city proud in a jam session that topped the one at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the week before.
Other shows I loved: The War on Drugs, Wire, And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, New Pornographers, Modest Mouse, My Morning Jacket, Joe Jackson, Richard Thompson, Flogging Molly, Steve Miller, David Crosby, Wiz Khalifa, Hozier, Styx, Of Monsters and Men, Mark Knopfler, Public Image Ltd.
Concert that would have been on the list: Father John Misty was the same night as Taylor Swift, and based on watching on the Coachella stream, he certainly would have cracked the list.
Best show that didn’t happen: The Replacements, who had been getting rave reviews, were all set to play their first show here in 24 years in May, but singer Paul Westerberg got sick a few days before and canceled just a couple dates on the tour, including ours. By the time the tour finished, we were hearing the Mats were finished for good. Among the other cancellations this year: Linkin Park/Rise Against, Interpol canceled the same month.
Least favorite shows: Alt-J, who sounded fine, but were once again deadly dull to watch; Shania Twain, who lacked the shine and vocal force of younger days; Darius Rucker ...same.
Best mainstream country show: What can I say: Florida Georgia Line has been a guilty pleasure since “Cruise.”
Best opening band: The J Geils Band blowing our faces out before Bob Seger at Consol.
Best banter: Right up there with Buddy Guy and Randy Newman was Ed Robertson of Barenaked Ladies, who was hilarious talking his trip to Kennywood.
Biggest miss: Rush on its farewell tour doesn’t play Pittsburgh, one of its core cities? A real slight to the fans here.
Best fake band: If I can’t see the real band, I would rather just play the record or watch the DVD, but the musicianship of Brit Floyd at Stage AE was positively stunning.