Live music was back, in 2022, but in 2023 it’s really back-back. Taylor Swift is soon to have history’s first billion-dollar-grossing tour, and in an era when music can sometimes feel shunted off to the side in pop-culture conversations, the “Eras Tour” feels bigger than any movie or TV show. Deservedly so, even, as you know if you’ve seen it, all dollar estimates aside. But it’s also heartening to see a one-off concert event intrude on national headlines, whether it’s Brandi Carlile leading Joni Mitchell back into the spotlight as the focus of a public all-star session, or Willie Nelson celebrating his 90th birthday in a party that just a single night at the Hollywood Bowl couldn’t contain.
These are among the highlights in a mid-year list of the best concerts of the year, which stretches to include normal road-dog tours as well as arena and stadium spectacles and benefits. It may seem silly to qualify this list as “best” when there are a few million concerts this west coast-based critic didn’t get to for consideration… including any of Beyoncé’s shows to date, with her tour not hitting North America till mid-July. But without getting quite so definitive about it, here are a dozen shows or residencies that made the rocking world go round these past six months.
Brandi Carlile, ‘The Joni Jam,’ the Highwomen and More at the Gorge in Washington (June 9-11)
The “Joni Jam” that took place on the middle of the three nights at the Gorge could reasonably be called a worship service, with an on-stage choir led by host Brandi Carlile singing Joni Mitchell’s hymns back to her, as well as appreciating her own hard-fought resurrection as a performer after her aneurysm had threatened to sideline her forever. The epic group-sing that had Mitchell on stage as both a frontwoman and ensemble member for three hours was surely worth having traveled cross-country or internationally to witness, as so many flocking to this remote amphitheater in north-central Washington had done. But you know what? I would have traveled that distance just to see either of the two more Carlile-centric shows that sandwiched the Joni Jam, too. On night 1, there was what Carlile called a “friends and family” night where she serenaded her most faithful fans with neglected songs from early in her career, telling stories about being a scrapper on the way up and not taking an annual berth at her beloved Gorge for granted. Marcus Mumford and Allison Russell opened, with twin sets focused on their great respective albums about abuse, struggle and redemption. And then, night 3 had the legend Tanya Tucker opening for Carlile’s supergroup, the Highwomen, bringing some of the greatest country music of the 1970s and 2020s to the canyon. Along the way, we got a full Lilith Fair’s worth of contemporary greats making cameos, including Annie Lennox, Sarah McLachlan and Brandy Clark. For anyone who loves crafty singer-songwriters who are prone to drawing out explosive emotions in themselves and their audiences, or who just loves a good hootenanny, this was 72-hour nirvana. Now if only Joni can be coaxed back next summer to make it a twice-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. (Read Variety‘s original reviews of the weekend here and here.)
Taylor Swift at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona (March 17-18)
Swift’s tour will go down in history for multiple reasons, not least of them the 10-figure gross it is projected to land by the time it ultimately wraps up overseas next summer (if, indeed, that even is the end). It will be music history’s first billion-dollar tour, likely to come in somewhere around $1.5 billion, and that’s not even accounting for resale prices that are seeing even $49 tickets resold for $1,000+ in every city. But what will it really be remembered for? Well, the shows’ nightly length, for one thing, running through 44 full or partial songs (usually) in about 195 minutes. Bruce Springsteen does that; pop superstars don’t. But most of all, it’ll lodge in fans’ memories forever because of its (yes) “Eras”-spanning breadth, with Swift establishing she’s already lived a full musical lifetime in the last 17 years. All the old Taylors come to the phone in this set, from teen Tay to the Swift who makes every performance number a mini-Broadway musical to the woodsy Taylor who is nothing but an indie-rocker in a parallel universe. Machines don’t come any more well-oiled than this show… aside from those two-tune “surprise songs” moments that make every fan wish they could follow along to every show, if they were the world’s wealthiest Deadheads. If this were a movie, it’d be “Mission: Impossible” and “Past Lives,” combined. Only, at 3 hours and 15 minutes or so, it’d feel like the only film of the year that’s not a minute too long. (Read Variety‘s original review here.)
Elvis Costello in ‘100 Songs and More’ at the Gramercy Theatre in New York (Feb. 9-22)
No major singer-songwriter in history has ever pulled off what Elvis Costello did at the Gramercy across 10 mind-boggling nights in February, when he performed 250 songs with virtually no repeats. (His signature cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding” was the exception, getting a reprise as the finale each night, albeit in 10 different arrangements.) Yes, there’ve been other impressive career-spanning stunts before, from bands including Phish and Sparks, but nothing that had a singular figure of this stature not just rifling through a 45-year catalog but reinterpreting it, alone or with guests, rearranging tunes and grouping them together for thematic purposes. The results, in the six out of 10 shows we witnessed, were staggeringly great. The first night had Costello by himself, only playing songs he wrote before “My Aim is True” came out in ’77; another show had a hastily assembled Irish-Americana band accompanying him on songs having to do with immigration or travel; Valentine’s Day brought a set of (mostly) anti-love songs; a workshop troupe did a partial run-through of the Broadway musical has been working on — et cetera. Hovering over the whole thing in spirit was collaborator Burt Bacharach, who died the night before the run opened, occasioning a wealth of Bacharach-David covers as well as their own shared work. As it turned out, the official billing of the run — “100 Songs and More” — nearly amounted to an “underpromise and overdeliver” joke. Taken more or less in a fell swoop, the breadth of it all was, for lack of a more original alliteration, beyond belief. (Read Variety‘s original review here.)
Boygenius at the Fox Theater Pomona (April 12)
Outside of any given Taylor Swift show, you’d be hard-pressed to find a show with more livestreams-per-capita coming from inside the gig than were happening during Boygenius’ tour preview show at the smallish Fox Pomona, just outside the L.A. County line. Fans of any or all of the three group members — Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker — wondered just how the trio would come off in their first official, ticketed public appearance since 2018, before they were nearly so famous. Yes, the group’s combined vocals on the new “The Record” sounded deeply luscious, but had the harmonies… had some work done? As those of us inside the hall (and probably tens of thousands outside, thanks to IG Live) quickly were reassured, there was nothing the band did on vinyl that didn’t sound just as gorgeous or rock just as ferociously live. At this point, there was no solo material in the set — something that wasn’t added till they each added a number by the time they headlined the Re:SET tour in June. The show really didn’t need it. The “side project” material felt like a full meal, whether they were sounding as clean as a barbershop quartet warbling “Goodnight, Irene” in the opening a cappella “Without You Without Them” or literally crashing into one another, like participants in a rock ‘n’ roll slumber party, by the end. Live or on “Record,” Boygenius is one of the best reasons to be living through 2023. (Read Variety‘s original review here.)
Willie Nelson and Friends at ‘Long Story Short: Willie 90’ at the Hollywood Bowl (April 29-30)
“Thanks for coming to my dad’s birthday party,” said Micah Nelson, a few songs into an all-star tribute to Willie Nelson at the Hollywood Bowl, a show that did manage to be scheduled right on the icon-in-question’s 90th. “Welcome to the after-birth party,” Micah quipped at the outset of the second of two concerts. At the end of night 2, the guest of honor joked about how habit-forming the two shows were: “Same time tomorrow night,” Willie said. There were only a handful of numbers that were part of the setlists on both nights — or at least only a handful sung by the same artist — so it was a good thing that producers did in only selling tickets as twin sets. Part of the intent was surely to make sure there was enough quality material to pack a theatrical film version that played in theaters in June, but the heft of performers and performances over the six-plus hours of music in the Bowl felt warranted, given Willie’s catalog and Rolodex. One of the few tunes repeated both Saturday and Sunday was Lukas Nelson’s nearly soundalike version of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” but it is one of the dozen greatest songs ever written. Among non-relations, Dave Matthews had perhaps the most soulful solo rearrangement, with “Funny How Time Slips Away.” But the duets created some of the most beautiful or poignant moments, from Norah Jones’ and Allison Russell’s haunting “Seven Spanish Angels” to Rosanne Cash’s nurturing support of Kris Kristofferson in “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” That’s not to mention the ones involving the birthday boy himself: When Willie Nelson and Keith Richards sing that they’re gonna “Live Forever,” you believe them. (Read Variety‘s original reviews of the shows here and here.)
SZA at the Forum in Inglewood (March 22)
SZA proved one of the delights of 2022 — due to her very late-breaking album, “SOS” — and 2023, with an arena tour that made good on all the pent-up waiting after five years of suspense. No one would accuse her two albums or this tour of being low-energy, but the contemplative image that fronted the “SOS” cover carried over to a similar bit of staging in her shows, with the singer in a gown so poufy it was clear she wasn’t going anywhere, even though she was perched at the end of a diving board… an apt metaphor for someone reporting in right from the edge of her most fraught and contrary emotions. The production design headed even deeper into symbolism when she sang the new album’s “Special” from a raft that floated around the Forum, lit from afar by the beacon of a lighthouse she never quite arrived at. “I used to be special, but you made me hate me,” SZA sang, hardly sounding like a reigning queen of her scene… but purging in the midst of aerial adoration may be the best revenge. Why kill your ex when you can slay 18,000 people?
Neil Young at the Ford in L.A. (June 30)
Young will play much bigger venues on his short west coast solo tour — even in L.A., where he is shortly scheduled to do a couple of nights at the Greek — but the benefit of seeing him at one of the first four concerts at the Hollywood hills’ 1200-seat Ford amphitheater is getting to feel like a fairie sprite lucky enough to just have happened upon Neil Young in the woods. (Woods that have palm trees, but close enough.) His candlelit setup — three pianos, a pump organ, acoustic and electric guitars, a painted stove, an operating model train set and a lit-up “LOVE” sign — felt like a living-room practice space that had been dragged out into the redwoods, or as close to a semi-natural setting as urban Hollywood is going to provide. “When I hold you in my arms, I forget what’s out there,” he sang in “Prime of Life,” and everyone in the place knew how he felt, even with some crowd noise drifting over from the Hollywood Bowl across the freeway. Young has always liked to portray himself as a man out of time, or out of the generational space-time continuum, way older than his years back when he was on Sugar Mountain and maybe younger than that now. He has rarely gotten so specific with his lyrics that you could say very many of his songs are flagrant anthems for a boomer generation. But the setlist for this tour sure includes a lot of songs that live up to the promise he made about doing “songs that apply to my life right now, and apply to everyone’s lives in this era that we’re in,” even though “some of them were written 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago, but never really played live.” Being Neil, he didn’t talk much about the time-fades-away themes between songs, or even specific people — just the lineage of the instruments on stage, and his loathing for AI. But his choice of deep cuts from his catalog said a lot, as he threaded them together, and hearing them in L.A.’s most magical venue made for an unforgettable experience. Everyone knew this was somewhere.
Missy Elliott at Yaamava’ Theatre in Highland (May 19)
If you’re seeing this and wondering why Missy Elliott didn’t come to your city, you’re hardly alone. She didn’t come to any cities this year, so far, except Las Vegas, for the Lovers & Friends festival in early May, and a resort/casino in out of the way Highland, Calif. a few days later. Is a two-date outing any way for a legend to be celebrating her newfound status as a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee? It might be if you’re Elliott, who works on her own very intermittent schedule. What we’d like to believe — on behalf of the vast majority of the world that was unlucky enough not to attend her 2500-capacity casino gig in California’s Inland Empire — is that this prefigures a long-awaited tour that could now piggyback off her HOF honors to ensure sellout shows. Because what she pulled off out in the sticks is something that should be filling arenas in major cities around the country. (Albeit maybe at a longer length than the brisk 55 minutes this gig lasted.) Elliott was in top form, as if she’s rehearsing and touring this band and these dancers constantly and this was just another night on a long, adrenaline-driven road trip. She presented herself as the full package: looking great, sounding great, energized by the crowd and buoyed by her own natural bon vivant-ancy, on top of the production values you’d expect from a show built to travel. Even though we’re no longer in a down period for female hip-hop artists, actual royalty is still very much needed in our midst. (Read Variety‘s original review here.)
Jack White at the Belasco in L.A. (January 13)
No one in rock ‘n’ roll puts on more consistently thrilling shows nowadays than White, and his surprise gig at downtown’s Belasco, an addendum to a completed tour, was even more exhilarating than most. Maybe it doesn’t hurt, motivation-wise, to be doing a kind of “family and friends” concert that has everyone from Doja Cat to Conan O’Brien to members of Metallica looking on from the wings. It’s not like you’d ever get the impression White is holding back a little in Tulsa, but maybe it doesn’t hurt to have a side-stage contingent like that if you’re hoping to get a 55-minute encore. The cliché would be to say that, two and a half hours in, White had left it all on the stage, except that he never really betrays any hint of exhaustibility on stage… always leaving the sense that he’s still got more in him, even after 23 almost entirely intense numbers. Throughout the show, White had that Jimi Hendrix energy, but Hendrix as filtered through Memphis’ own brand of swagger — you’re never quite sure whether he’s setting his instrument on fire or swimming in great balls of it.
Maren Morris, Hayley Williams and Others at ‘Love Rising’ at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville (March 20)
At Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, a cast of mostly locally based stars, including Maren Morris, Paramore’s Hayley Williams, Yola, Sheryl Crow, Allison Russell, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell — plus one key out-of-towner, the Irishman Hozier — joined up with a host of Tennessee drag artists to protest state legislation aimed at cross-dressing performers, trans youth and same-sex marriage. The four-hour “Love Rising” benefit filled the hall with fans and LGBTQ+ community members and their allies and found a bigger international audience being livestreamed via the Veeps platform. No one received more of a hero’s welcome than Morris, who’d recently gone out on a limb by standing up for trans youth and their families in a headline-making online debate with fellow country star Jason Aldean’s wife, Brittany Aldean, while most mainstream stars held their tongues. She looked sharp in formal black-tie half-drag (a recurring theme among a lot of folks playing Nashville this year), performing “The Middle” while drag queen Alexia Noelle Paris accompanied her in an interpretive dance. But the most affecting moment might have been Joy Oladokun previewing a new number, “Somehow,” dedicated to anyone else growing up non-white and queer in middle America, as she did.
The War and Treaty at the Troubadour in West Hollywood (March 26)
That “find yourself someone who looks at you like…” meme is played out. But it has to be revived here: Find yourself a partner who looks at you like Tanya Trotter looks at Michael Trotter Jr., or vice versa. The pure joy exuded by the husband and wife who make up the duo the War and Treaty is so infectious, they could double-handedly restore anyone’s faith in marriage. They so happen to also be restoring a lot of people’s faith in music as they show up on awards shows and make other quick-hit TV appearances. A more concentrated dose of that, as found in their L.A. headlining debut at the Troubadour this spring, achieves an “I’ll Take You There”-level of transporting roots-soul. Despite their lack of experience in topping a bill in SoCal, these Nashville favorites actually have four albums out; the latest, “Lover’s Game,” was issued by a mainstream country label, but don’t let a couple of authentically twangy moments dissuade you if that’s not your thing, because this is their most satisfying genre-crosser to date. “Shared wailing” is the only real genre, with this duo. And when together they sing, “Have You a Heart,” the only reasonable reply is: Now, I do.
‘Nuggets’ Tribute at the Alex Theatre in Glendale (May 19)
In 1972, the famous “Nuggets” compilation album waxed nostalgic for the garage-rock of the mid-1960s. Just over 50 years later, we’re nostalgic from a very long distance, for that nostalgia that was wistful from a very short one. It’s not just about the songs that were anthologized on the original double-LP, though; it’s about a whole punk-rock, back-to-rock-basics movement that the album played at least some part in kick-starting, which we still feel the effects of today. Fortunately, the man who compiled “Nuggets” a half-century-plus ago is still around today, and ready, willing and eager to rock: Lenny Kaye, host of a tribute show that went down in L.A. under the beneficial auspices of the Wild Honey charity. (A new five-LP limited edition of “Nuggets” was also released by Warner just prior to the show, for Record Store day; find a stray copy if you still can.) This three-and-a-half show had a bit of starpower driving it, with Susanna Hoffs singing on two numbers, one of them in collaboration with accordionist “Weird Al” Yankovic. Mostly it was cult artists in the service of cult music that changed the world, or at least changed rock ‘n’ roll, with great turns from Peter Case, Wayne Kramer, Peter Buck, the Fleshtones’ Peter Zaremba and dozens of others. All the better when a bunch of original “Nugget”-eers pushing 75 or 80 made their way back into the limelight to go “Pushin’ Too Hard.” There’s a lesson for us all here: Those who forget the past are destined to not rock nearly hard enough.