Top Live Acts of 2016

It was a year that reminded us of why live music remains as essential as ever

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There are a lot of things that we focus on at Consequence of Sound, from our 24/7 news coverage to our music and film reviews to our extensive, in-depth features. But when it comes to covering live music, there are few others that report from as many concerts and festivals. This year we’ve seen the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, Japandroids, and Prophets of Rage at small clubs and Coldplay, Pearl Jam, and Bruce Springsteen at stadiums. We traveled to Australia, Spain, Mexico, and Iceland to cover festivals while still appreciating city takeovers in Boise for Treefort, Calgary for Sled Island, and Austin for SXSW.

We’ve seen a lot this year, but the handful of artists to follow left the biggest impressions. That bunch included one master saying goodbye to the world behind a single piano, pop’s biggest sensation knocking socks off at stadiums (including the Super Bowl), one of music’s most acclaimed songwriters using her own performance anxiety as an innovative asset, a rock band that celebrated the urgency of life at festivals throughout the year, and one of music’s most captivating figures embarking on a tour that literally took it all out of him. When so many aspects of music are on shaky footing, it’s nice to know that live music remains as essential as ever. The following are our five favorite live acts of 2016.

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Beyoncé

On February 7, 2016, Beyoncé damn near upstaged the Super Bowl. When she marched out to perform the just-released “Formation” during a halftime show that ostensibly belonged to Coldplay, she brought an army of dancers, cat-like reflexes, and an announcement that had fans frantically checking their savings accounts: The Formation World Tour was coming. One boycott, two months, and a Lemonade later, Queen Bey and company marched onstage in Miami as her wicked all-female band let “Formation” roar. 2016 has more or less belonged to her ever since.

However, the success of the Formation World Tour goes well beyond the massive box office or Beyoncé’s cultural omnipresence. Lasting nearly two hours, her sprawling set felt at times confessional, at others defiant, but always deeply personal. Any Beyoncé performance serves as a showcase for an indefatigable woman of tremendous charisma, discipline, and skill — these shows make running a marathon look easy, and Bey does it in heels — but like Lemonade, the Formation World Tour created an emotional journey, floating the audience on a choppy sea of rage, sorrow, acceptance, love, and above all, power. The earlier pop gems took on new resonance — “Baby Boy” means something new when followed by “Hold Up”, and “Survivor” lit up differently when it arrived on the heels of “Freedom”. Throughout, a Monolith spun and transformed, using video, pyrotechnics, and text to immerse audiences even deeper in this psychologically dense world.

Oh, and it was a goddamn blast. Can’t forget that. Audiences may have showed up ready to bow, but Beyoncé made sure there was more to the tour than mere worship, drawing crowds together to mourn an icon in a simple Prince tribute, to practice their modulation skills with a “Love on Top” sing-along, and of course, to tell the world exactly how they woke up this morning. No moment was more immersive and celebratory than “Freedom”, however, as Beyoncé and her dancers used a stage filled with water and their own exuberant moment to create a baptism of sorts. Soaking wet and exhilarated, they showered the audience, and though the water may not have reached the nosebleeds, the love certainly did. Few people can do what Beyoncé does on stage, but she reminded us that we can all do what she’s done in life: overcome. –Allison Shoemaker

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Prince

Prince

It still seems too soon for the past tense.

As recently as April, the Purple One was commanding the stage in Atlanta with his recently unveiled “Piano and a Microphone” tour, a concept that saw Prince do away with his longtime band and backup singers and instead perform solo. The 20 shows that ultimately encapsulated “Piano and a Microphone” demonstrated that all of the genius and funk and raw sexuality that had categorized Prince’s 40-year career was still right there at his fingertips, just a few notes and falsetto yelps away.

Seeing Prince at what would be his final show in the Bay Area (and seventh-to-last concert ever) was a transformative experience. In an age where we forgive the live shortcomings of legacy acts like Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones for the chance to see them in the flesh, no such sacrifice was necessary with Prince. To be fair, Prince was nearly 20 years younger than McCartney at the time of his passing, but up on stage, he wasn’t 57 — he was immortal.

At Oracle Arena on March 4th, Prince played 36 songs, including three encores. Every song was a benevolent riot of groove and soul, from the lyrical dexterity of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” to the euphoric catharsis of “Purple Rain”. The concept of this tour, Prince told The Guardian in November 2015, would afford him the freedom to “[not] know what songs I’m going to do when I go on stage.” Beyond improvising the set list as he went, the format also gave Prince carte blanche to play with tempos, blend tracks together, and, in essence, hold court as the king of his craft.

Bursting with life only weeks earlier, to learn on April 21st that he was suddenly and forever gone was a blow many of us have yet to fully accept. In a way, we shouldn’t. For while we may now speak of Prince in the past tense, his shows will always live in the present, a celebration of the infinite and a reminder to enjoy the party we call life at every turn. –Zack Ruskin

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Savages

When Savages began their career, they dreamed of being the loudest band on a bill. They wanted to shake the city of London from within the walls of a venue. And, from the start, Savages did just that. Jehnny Beth sharpens her lyrics so that each string of words is a dagger slung through her belt loops. Gemma Thompson screeches her guitar, turning it into an untamed animal. Ayse Hassan leans backwards, her bass weighing against her hips, so that she can dig into each note, letting the instrument’s tone snarl even when creeping. And Fay Milton, the drummer holding everything together, refuses to let up, speeding forward or lightening the air in a moment’s notice.

And yet when they released their sophomore studio album, Adore Life, in January of this year, Savages changed gears. Volume was no longer the goal, but a stepping stone towards their new one: authenticity. In a world filled with disparaging remarks, brutal relationships, and terrifying government regimes, Savages dared to unify, to turn to those around them and call for a collective rise above it all. Live, they ask audience members to stand tall beside them, with them, above glowing embers of negativity. All four members asked themselves if they could truly, genuinely adore life — and then asked listeners if they could choose to adore life, too.

As the months progressed, Savages developed a louder voice with unshakeable presence. When they played to a crowd of a few hundred at The Meadows, they demanded attention. When they played to thousands at Primavera Sound, they brought onlookers to tears. When they played a cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” at End of the Road, they provided faith to those who found little elsewhere. Each set, regardless of weather or physical barriers, Jehnny Beth descends from the crowd, pries off her stilettos, and climbs into the audience, trusting in them to hold her high, to look into her eyes as she sings, to mouth words in tandem. It’s the type of connection that bears retelling later. It’s the type of connection that so few acts offer, especially rock acts that forget to share the connection they feel onstage with those in front of them.

Every music fan knows what it’s like to head home in disbelief, caught up in the moment, unable to digest what just unfurled before them. When a band’s live performance compels you to return home eager to sing their praises, then they’re a good live band. When a band’s live performance is structurally similar to when you last saw them but you still return home eager to sing their praises, then they’re a great live band. Savages manage to top themselves each time they perform, no matter how many times you’ve seen them, no matter where they are playing, and no matter what type of fanbase is in the crowd. They fuel themselves with a passion so genuine that it only burns brighter the longer they use it. Pray we’re lucky enough not just to see more rock acts like them in the years to come, but to experience a connection as cleansing and authentic as that which they offer time and time again. —Nina Corcoran

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Sia

At first, you think it’s your eyes playing tricks on you. A moving image of prerecorded feature actors plays alongside onstage mimics who caricature their every move. It looks like a movie, but the bill says her music is “pop” — though it could easily be “dance” or “art.” It’s so physical and visual that when the music starts, Paul Dano pounds his fists on a table onscreen and a dancer onstage performs the same motions, each one acting out themes of rejection, love, and conflict. These moments crack open the barriers of reality and projection, and Sia stands at the center, facing her fears — an arena filled with her songs echoing back.

Pop music functions as exaggeration of the already towering emotions that we feel every day but can’t always express. In putting those emotions into such a big, performative production, Sia doubles down on that process, simultaneously shrugging at the supposed “sincerity” of other pop musicians and insisting on the more complex, nuanced reality we truly face, one that has its own version of daily performance — even in merely saying “fine” when asked how you’re doing by a stranger when you couldn’t be further from it. She produces self-aware, postmodern pop, responding to a reality in which emotions reflect and refract upon each other in a hall of smoke and mirrors.

But it’s not all smoke and mirrors. Her live show is full of grand theatrics that some might characterize as gimmicky, but her career is built on technically brilliant songwriting, genuine emotion, and powerful vocals. While most things are better louder, spit and sweat slapping your face if you’re lucky enough to stand in the front row, the artist’s aura blasting the room, Sia has perfected that same visceral feeling through more elaborate, imaginative showmanship.

Sia’s 2016 began with the appropriately titled This Is Acting, a collection of songs that she had written for other pop stars before she became one herself. For that concept to work, the Australian artist needed to be able to create a version of herself that also authentically fit the styles of Rihanna and Adele, and she did all of this and more — in the studio. The next step of the process was touring, something the arena-shy megastar hadn’t done in years. Sia had traversed the late-night circuit, turning each stop into a one-of-a-kind event, but she hadn’t scheduled a concert in five years.

That changed when the notoriously mysterious and insular artist hit the road in support of This Is Acting, taking along the grand style of those television appearances. She brought along the requisite dancers, videos, and celebrity cameos to bolster her already magnetic voice. During the show, the megatron screens usually devoted to illustrating the onstage performance aired a polished, pre-recorded video of the likes of Dano, SNL’s Kristen Wiig, comedian Tig Notaro, and dancer Maddie Ziegler threaded throughout, lending an electric through-line to her otherwise static physical self. In synchronicity, three dancers contorted into shapes: a six-armed totem pole, tongues affixed to cheeks, hair cutting through the air, mimicking Sia’s powerfully designed words, sounds, and visuals — as if they had unbuckled from deep inside her soul and leapt excitedly to freedom, to be shared with the world.–Lior Phillips

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Kanye West

Kanye West is no stranger to tours that ignite conversation in the music world. From his Glow in the Dark tour to Watch the Throne to Yeezus, every incarnation of West’s touring vision have been events with few equivalents. Hell, even his canceled Fame Kills tour with Lady Gaga is probably the most famous tour of all time that never even happened.

So, the Saint Pablo tour was, in a sense, what we expect from Kanye West. The stage design was cutting edge, featuring West floating above his rabid fans, the audience becoming just as much a part of the show as the performer. The setlist highlighted his latest material, but dwelled in enough of the past to please even the most casual of pop music fans. And, of course, there was the merch, created for each performance to give fans a unique piece of West clothing that instantly shot up in value as the set drew to a close. As a complete package, it was incredible, with no tour support needed to help pack arenas full of young fans eager to stare up at Kanye and feel warm, sweaty bodies of their peers pressed against them.

Of course, now that the year is drawing to a close, the Saint Pablo tour stands for something else. Following the election, West’s rants took a worrisome, paranoid, and political turn (especially because his political perspective differed so greatly from his audience), becoming increasingly unhinged before he had to be hospitalized. The remaining tour dates were ultimately canceled, and it’s beginning to appear that people might remember the Saint Pablo endeavor more for how it ended than how it began.

And that’s unfortunate. The demands of the tour may have temporarily broken West down, but when it was on track, Saint Pablo was a focused and innovative spectacle, another masterstroke from one of music’s most enigmatic minds. –Philip Cosores

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Top Live Acts of 2016