During a year when world-conquering, box office-shattering tours by Taylor Swift and Beyoncé dominated the concert biz headlines, there were innumerable other live music highlights in 2023, from dingy DIY shows to epic stadium gigs to surprise reunions to milestone birthday celebrations. As we do every year at this time, we’re excited to share reflections on the best music we experienced in the flesh with our own eyes and ears, organized in chronological order.
Drive-By Truckers / Wednesday
40 Watt, Athens, Ga.
The idea all started with the fans and gathered steam at meetups and pre-show parties the week of the Truckers’ annual HeAthens Homecoming. During the last of four shows at the 40 Watt, the dudes in the audience all wore dresses and skirts — not as a gag, but to voice their opposition to anti-drag legislation in neighboring Tennessee. When the Truckers caught wind of the plans, they took the stage in busted redneck drag. Patterson Hood stunned in a floral-print frock, Mike Cooley showed his jogger’s physique in a short black wrap and multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez sported a ’70s skirt-and-blouse combo that made him look like one of Charlie’s Angels deep undercover. Even more than the clothes, the outrage brought out the fire in a band not known for holding back onstage. The Truckers tore through classics like “18 Wheels of Love,” “Zip City” and “Let There Be Rock” with palpable outrage and even joy, as though they might hit a chord powerful enough to be heard up in Nashville. – Stephen Deusner
Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90
Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, Ca.
Packing 90 years of history into two nights of music is no easy task, but this star-studded tribute to Nelson on the occasion of another milestone birthday truly had it all. Billy Strings opened both shows with a cover of Nelson’s set opener “Whiskey River,” and from there, artists ranging from Beck to Norah Jones, Rosanne Cash to Chris Stapleton, Ziggy Marley to Margo Price, Neil Young (in one of his first performances in years) to Tom Jones and Snoop Dogg to Keith Richards toasted the Red Headed Stranger’s peerless legacy. By the time the man himself closed out the show was stirring versions of “On the Road Again,” “Stardust” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” you couldn’t help but marvel at what you’d just witnessed. – Daniel Kohn
The National / Soccer Mommy
Deer Lake Park, Burnaby B.C., Canada
The National are a band you always want to catch live, thanks to the almost-instant connection one feels amongst the audience. It’s something both my wife and I wanted our four-year-old to experience, so as fans and a family, we headed to the picturesque Deer Lake Park stop on the band’s First Two Pages of Frankenstein world tour. As the sun slowly set, the National performed 24 songs from across their catalog, including a surprise live debut of “Patterns of Fairytales” from 2003’s Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. For more than two hours, we were kept comfortably captivated by lead singer Matt Berninger’s conversational lyrics and flailing figure, while the Dessner brothers’ cascading, gorgeous melodies radiated from the softly lit outdoor stage. As the band wrapped with their traditional closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks,” we made an early escape, pulling our sleeping boy in his wagon and leaving the violet dusk behind us. I’ll never forget that moment. – Gen Handley
Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, Queens, N.Y.
Of all the great shows I caught this year — from boygenius’ Halloween set at the Hollywood Bowl to the Postal Service’s much-anticipated reunion — Weezer’s tour stop at Forest Hills Stadium was surprisingly the best. I’d seen Weezer perform a few times before, but with set lists focused primarily on covers and newer material, the shows were both disappointing and unsatisfying for any longtime fan. On this tour, Weezer curated a nightly changing set tailor-made for listeners who’ve been there since the beginning. Frontman Rivers Cuomo treated the show like his own Eras tour, tackling everything from controversial cult classics from Pinkerton to the new SZNZ EPs. Longtime fans such as myself hadn’t heard these songs live in many years, including a rare acoustic performance of “Susanne” from the Mallrats soundtrack, which I’d been praying to experience since my first Weezer concert nearly a decade ago. Lindsay Jordan, aka Snail Mail, also joined the band onstage to belt out Pinkerton-era b-side “I Just Threw Out the Love of My Dreams.” The show was a reminder of why I fell in love with Weezer’s music as a teen and why fans now have hope that the band’s best days aren’t long gone. – Tatiana Tenreyro
Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, New York, N.Y.
It’s one thing to enjoy the music of 78-year-old Brazilian legend Arthur Verocai on wax, particularly his belatedly influential 1972 self-titled debut, which has been sampled by everyone from MF Doom to Ludacris. But it was quite another to see him perform the holy grail album in its entirety during his first-ever New York show at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park on this beautiful August night, particularly thanks to the presence of a full orchestra. Rock-tinged, jazzy gems such as “No boca do sol,” “Pelas sombras” and “Dedicada a ela” never sounded better, highlighting a rare opportunity for crate diggers and casual fans alike to experience this music in a live setting. – Jonathan Cohen
Niyaz: The Fourth Light
Royce Hall, Los Angeles, Ca.
Iranian-born, Los Angeles-based singer Azam Ali and multi-instrumentalist Loga Ramin Torkian have long broken new, challenging artistic ground with their world-electronic ensemble Niyaz. With the “immersive” performance The Fourth Light, they have fulfilled that mission brilliantly and affectingly. One word kept coming to mind through this captivating evening: dizzying. The Fourth Light was a free-fall through time, connecting us and our world with that of eighth century Sufi saint Rabia Al Basri, Islam’s first female mystic poet. The music was engulfing, with swirls of ancient and modern Silk Road-and-beyond styles supporting Ali’s transfixing vocals. The visuals also overwhelmed, as projections covering the whole stage had the effect of pulling us in through images architectural, neural, geometrical, celestial. Throughout, two dancers took turns at center stage, with Tara Pandeya drawing on various Asian cultural traditions and Tanya Evanson twirling in Sufi dervish motion. In the end, everything faded away, leaving just Evanson, a solitary figure in a white gown, spinning, the whole universe contained in each turn. – Steve Hochman
SoFi Stadium, Inglewood, Ca.
There was a time in the ‘80s when I worried about attending a Metallica concert, in fear of an audience I thought would be overly aggressive. Forty years later, Metallica fans are the heartbeat of the band’s shows. They performed literally right on top of the audience standing on the stadium floor—no barriers or security between them, and the projected slide show was of Metallica and their fans. This being a two-night experience, only half of the weighty catalog of favorites was performed, as there were no repeats from the first night. Still, there was a healthy dose of blistering classics, among them “Whiplash,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Ride the Lightning” and “One.” The ropey veins in James Hetfield’s throat threatened to burst through his skin, Kirk Hammett’s fingers were a blur on the guitar frets and no one can pull a stank face quite like Lars Ulrich while relentlessly shredding on the drums. As they do after every show, the band came off stage into the audience, aka the “Metallica family,” translating the intensity of the performance into passionate face-to-face interactions. – Lily Moayeri
El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, Ca.
If you’re going to see one band to help you understand the post-pandemic rise of experimental hardcore, it should probably be Turnstile. But if you scoffed at that sentence and grumbled something like, “Turnstile isn’t hardcore anymore” or “fucking sellouts,” you should go see the Armed instead. Known for their borderline troll-like mystique, the world’s most interesting rock band cycled through roughly a dozen members (including Queens of the Stone Age’s Troy Van Leeuwen), four crowdsurfing singers (including one who sprayed attendees with the hose from behind the bar) and 17 hard-hitting tracks at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. For a band intentionally shrouded in mystery, its semi-anonymous members left no doubt that they can put on a hell of a show. They even closed with a Converge cover and debuted a handful of tracks they’d never played live before. – Josh Chesler
Brooklyn Steel, Brooklyn, N.Y.
As the latest Pavement reunion wound down, nostalgic Gen X’er-Millennials and discerning Gen Z’s were treated to an intimate four-night stand in Williamsburg, where the group spent much of their formative years. Led by the man Courtney Love calls “the Grace Kelly of Rock,” Stephen Malkmus, the O.G’s of indie slack were still refreshingly ramshackle, though this time around, tighter and more mature as a unit than ever. Pavement spent the second night of the run stretching fan faves like “Pueblo” and “Fin” into deeper explorative jams, and unearthing more back catalog (“Maybe Maybe” hadn’t been played since ’97), than any other Brooklyn Steel show. The week’s only double-encore, their surprise TikTok hit “Harness Your Hopes,” didn’t hurt either. The reunion continues next year in South America, so catch the only band of 50-somethings with a hip hop-style hype man while this life still allows it. – Jonathan Rowe
U2:UV Achtung Baby Live at Sphere
The Sphere, Las Vegas, Nv.
No band was better suited than U2 to christen the Sphere, the new $2.3 billion globe-shaped performance venue near the Las Vegas Strip. U2 already explored intense sensory overload in Western culture on its original Zoo TV tour in the ’90s, but this time around, the 18K resolution, 15,000-square meter curved video screen allowed for a truly next-level experience. The images behind U2 were both kaleidoscopic and earthbound, turning the night into a multi-sensory thrill ride. Opening night was a flawless exercise in far-out stagecraft, with a 22-song setlist largely centered on songs from the 1991 album Achtung Baby. Performed on a simple stage modeled after Brian Eno’s elegant turntable design, deeply emotional songs such as “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” “Mysterious Ways” and “One” were fueled by tension between U2’s undiminished raw power and the magnificent and insane high-tech visuals all around them. – Steve Appleford
Mohawk, Austin, Tx.
Power Trip’s reunion at Mohawk in Austin was Texas’ most poorly kept secret, and they didn’t need the element of surprise. As soon as Chris Ulsh hit the drum intro to “Soul Sacrifice,” bodies were flying and slamming, people were jumping off Mohawk’s side stage balcony and Blake Ibanez’s razor-tight rhythm slashed the remaining unbruised. This was a real deal Power Trip gig, which seemed impossible following frontman Riley Gale’s tragic passing three years ago. He was an inescapable and irreplaceable presence, and one of the very few who could honor his legacy is Skourge’s Seth Gilmore. The band didn’t just need a powerful singer — they needed someone who’s lived Texas hardcore as much as Gale, and that’s a small list. Thankfully, the crowd gave Gilmore an extra lift, singing most of the anthemic “Executioner’s Tax,” which remains Power Trip’s signature song (you could have heard it from El Paso!) The experience brought back many great memories, without nostalgic staleness. However, Gale’s family criticized the gig the day after, saying they were not consulted or invited, We hope they and the rest of Power Trip can resolve their differences, because their music can still bring people together in a way few in heavy music can replicate. – Andy O’Connor