By Marina Malin
As the year concludes my social media feed is inundated with Spotify statistics detailing music preferences of each unique music listener and their muses. Simultaneously, my inbox is filled with music publication’s top album releases. This leaves me with the challenging task of selecting my album of the year, driven by my obsessive need to rank albums and artists in order to understand my music personality. Amidst these considerations, there is a crucial aspect of music that is not as frequently explored when reflecting on the year – the ability of an artist to take fragments of their creativity and dispel their imagination in front of your eyes. This leads me to consider what my top live performances of the year are.
In 2023, I was fortunate enough to experience some seriously exceptional gigs from New York City, Denver, Chicago, and Copenhagen. Here are the top 10 (out of 23) performances I have experienced this year.
10. Mission Ballroom, Denver. May 14 2023.
I’ve always admired Indigo De Sozua’s incredible capability to captivate her listeners with the rawness of her voice. She is often grouped with artists like Lomleda and Field Medic under some “sad girl starter pack” playlist Spotify made. However, after seeing her live, I believe she exists well beyond these motionless artists. She displays a wide range of emotions and experiences through her multidimensional voice, adding complexity to this genre she’s categorized in as a baseline. Much like the witty singer-songwriter Sidney Gish, she lets us in on her intrusive thoughts. Although, where Sidney is manic-pixie-monologue intrusive thoughts, Indigo De Souza is shorter tempered: she’s not afraid to take up space and express herself outwardly. She’s mad, she’s upset, she’s impulsive, and she does not care who sees it. Indigo De Souza is what I long to be — unapologetically herself. In her “Real Pain,” a sentiment of painful love persists. Indigo De Souza’s vocal range resembles Weyes Blood’s “God Turned Me Into A Flower.” Her voice ascends us when she sings her hypnotic opera-like melodies. She matches this conspiracy with her flowy arm movements and whirling aura. She utilizes movement to amplify her message on grief and loss. Instead of bird calls and beautiful hums of Weyes Blood, there are cathartic screams (that are real recordings of her fans yelling that they sent to her) because Real Pain is anything but disciplined, it is a release of tameness. She flaps her arms in angelic butterfly notions despite the internal crashes of voices and pleads. She moves her body intuitively, as she is conducting her band using the abstract extensions of her physical form. To tell us that Real Pain is a full body release, that we are connected through our sufferings.
9. Mission Ballroom, Denver. May 14 2023.
Alex G is followed by an aura of mystery due to his lack of social media presence, reserved and allusive attitude in interviews, and deceptive lyrics that convey complex emotions and character development. Creating a fog both lyrically and physically, there is a haze that runs to every corner of Mission Ballroom, setting mystique for Alex G’s arrival. Alex G has an universal expectation to uphold when it comes to his attitude during his performances. Videos of Alex G’s outburst scurry across TikTok: punishing fans for “misbehaving,” leaving the stage in the middle of a set, slurring his words, getting mad at his crowd etc. Alex G is like your local middle school bully –to be criticized by Alex G is a back-handed compliment that fans strive for. We hope that the concert we attend will unleash a new devilish persona unhinged enough to contribute to one of those viral TikToks or Reddit chains. While his interaction with the May 14 Mission Ballroom’s crowd was minimal, he makes up for it with flashy shape-shifting abilities. After whining and pleading like a child for “Forgiveness,” Alex G paces around the flickering ambiance, descending into a dark shadow where “Blessing” furthers a ghostly facade. Only being able to make out the shadow figure, Alex G walks like a zombie with his back arched and neck protruding forward in a way that is inhumane. Walking around in his ambiguous figure, Alex G abruptly drops down to the ground to scream “HUAH” like an underpaid actor in a haunted house who likes to scare kids for a living. But when Alex G does it, it’s not heartless, in fact, we scream and holler in excitement for his volatility. Dragging his cup of something that is not water, his humanity disintegrates. Alex G hovers over the piano, throwing his body in whirlwinds, screaming into the microphone. It causes me cognitive dissonance watching him shapeshift his voice in and out of the two streams of consciousness. Alex G is the predictably unpredictable villain we root for.
8. Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago. July 22 2023.
Chicago’s newest and most hated group Pitchfork Rain Delay hijacks the festival’s Saturday, cutting Julia Jacklin’s set unexpectedly short. Fans run to the blue stage to catch what will most likely be the shortest Jacklin set to exist. The time frame only allows for 3.5 songs which motivates a solo as her band cheers her along from the sidelines. “Too in Love to Die” is a passionate sentiment and ode to a love that reinvigorates your purpose to live life. The track is so beautifully intense, perhaps too much as she pulls an Elliott Smith: abruptly stopping the song before its end because it doesn’t feel right. A human mistake she handles with honesty that is admirable to watch as she shyly remarks “I don’t know why I started with that, I never start with it.” The unexpected ambiguous unfolding of the day breaks down any walls of reservation Jacklin may have, allowing us to see, as she expresses, her utmost vulnerability. We are able to see a raw, imperfect Julia Jacklin that if the circumstances were different, we may have not become acquainted with her frazzled and gentle disposition. Though overwhelmed, we saw Jacklin courageously authentic in her perseverance, making her set all the more beautiful. It is a beautiful scene and moment for Jacklin’s fanbase to come together and admire their rainbow after the storm.
7. VEGA, Copenhagen. November 20 2023.
Bar Italia is a group that aims to exist solely in the solitude of their own dark shadows. For a while, the band desperately tried to steer clear of identification by avoiding photographs and interviews. Not communicating a single word or banter in between tracks, Bar Italia captivates the audience with their unspoken mystique. Despite minimal narration or acknowledgment of their surroundings, the self-conscious group’s energy is palpable: we can rely on their music to express any personality for them. Clearly anxious, and afraid to take up physical space, lead vocalist Nina Cristante bounces side to side in place awkwardly avoiding eye contact with every man in the room while musing on existential angst. However, her physical decisions are misleading to the powerful post-punk of her voice that saturates each corner of little VEGA. The lousy imperfect snarring guitar work demands all attention, enthralling a similarly shy audience. The transition from recording studio to performance is seemingly flawless in its identical sound. Would it be offensive to say they are talented at sounding talently untalented?
6. Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago. July 23 2023.
Florist is the orchestra of an audible bouquet you want to cradle and keep close and tend to. Not in a pitiful way but out of perseverance of its beauty. The bristled bubbly taps are produced by using brush drumsticks and the sentimental guitar strums are backed with verbatos. Every nook and cranny that makes up Florist is flooded with the utmost caution and delicacy. Aside from these sentimental touches, Florist takes a minimalistic approach to sound. They blossom in Sprague’s poetic lyrics that speak from extremely vulnerable and personal experiences: “We try to be vulnerable, that’s kinda the point of this. It’s not always the easiest thing to do in life. I think it’s good to try.” Through her lyrics, Sprague exemplifies the power of vulnerable expression and connection. And thank god for it. Her discussion on grief and home makes me feel ineffably connected to Sprague. Her words feel like little secrets that very few understand, but I see her so clearly. Devastatingly beautiful, she sings poetry that linger in my ears like “home is a garden I can’t keep alive” (from “Dandelion”). Emily Sprague is an angel: soft and endearing. I am just so happy she exists. As the set closes, she gives audience members time to speak with her as she puts away her equipment. Before heading off stage, she gives a fan her setlist. I read somewhere that this was the first time in Pitchfork Music Festival history that that has happened. The thoughtless gesture attests to her naturally kind nature. As the few remaining listeners part from the stage, I overhear someone saying “It was so great to see her again. She has really come such a long way.” The loving nature of Florist breaks down power dynamics between artist and listeners and instead cultivates lifelong connection and friendship.
5. Loppen, Copenhagen. October 29 2023.
Half an hour past doors, I find myself in the Freetown of Christiania, melding into the paint plastered bricks of Loppen in dull lights that illuminate a scene akin to a dark misty alleyway. This is my meeting point with a professor at University of Copenhagen who sold me his son’s ticket for the Wednesday show. As we make small talk on our way up the graffiti-filled staircase, he tells me he is meeting a friend at the concert. I depart and make my way toward the front, navigating through a sea of middle-aged white men tightly gripping Tuborgs; I didn’t realize the Danish prof invited his entire friend group? They all seem to be cut from the same cloth. I check my phone to make sure this is a Wednesday concert and text my friend “Since when is Wednesday a dad rock band?” Wednesday’s remarkably snarring guitar, overwhelming distortions, western whistles and rhythm accredits this noisy Ashvielle band pioneers of their very own genre: countrygaze. The band is a ticking bomb of western fuzz, abrupting in whiplash induced head banging, aggressive dissonance lighting and overwhelming noise. Despite having one of the greatest indie-rock albums of the year and touring around Europe, Wednesday manages to bring a sense of personal familiarity with Hartzman’s small-town imagery and encouragement of communal frustration with the state of our world. Though the venue was grungey, Wednesday hosts a sunny small-town barn gathering and I forget I’m the only 21 year old girl drowning in a sea of middle-aged men fissuring their necks to Wednesday’s loud(er than expected) sound. Accepting my defeat, I surrender alas, damn these 9-5 Danish men have taste.
4. Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago. July 22 2023.
The same shimmering cyclical synths, twinkling harps, fantastic choral-like vocal depth, staggered tippy-toe piano playing, and psychedelic drumming imprinted from Weyes Blood’s March show still subjects me to ascension today. However, this experience is different. While the outfit, set, and undertones were fairly identical to the March gig, the enjoyably pretentious energy of Pitchfork made it an entirely new experience. There is an adventurous quality to the audience, as they are observably more devoted and familiar with her power. Her adorned spirit is enhanced by her crowd. My favorite and arguably the most cosmic song of her set, “God Turned Me Into A Flower” was dramatized by the paid actor Rain, who chose the only artist, audience, and song that would fit its performance’s virtue. Only Weyes Blood fans would be overjoyed dancing under rainy clouds, allowing it to mystify their experience. Not one person in the crowd leaves for shelter. As a collective we enthusiastically embrace the transcendental moment that is “God Turned Me Into A Flower.” We find muse in Weyes Blood who bridges fairytales and our present reality to create an audible sanctuary. The quality of magic revealed that Weyes Blood is more than her creation, she is a cosmic mystical sighting that nature reckons with.
3. Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago. July 23 2023.
“Long live Palm” and “Palm forever and ever and ever” audience members scream as their Pitchfork set marks one of the last Palm gigs ever. In regular psychedelic fashion instead of being filled with grief over their farewell, hippies unite in the present: smoking weed and flailing their bodies to the Philadelphia math-pop, art-rock, neo-psychedelia, experimental-rock group. Palm demonstrates mastery of withdrawal and rearranging temps that birth intentional noise scapes. There is manic time signature and blurry lyrics that meld into Palm’s sonic abyss. Without a clear logical tempo, there is no awareness of where you are on the track. We cannot predict what turns the sound will take or when it will combust into its demise of a trillion pieces. Encouraged unawareness teases us and we are forced to get lost within their sound, immersing ourselves in the sonic blessing that is the presence of Palm. Just like Palm, time is fleeting and all we can be responsible for is the perception of the now. With lulling vocals not sturdy enough to guide us out of this synchronic trip, Palm strikes down any restraints of their sound and exists as is. Unlike anything we have ever witnessed, we do not question Palm’s obscurity. We enjoy that you can’t find this anywhere else and that is exactly what makes the set so bitter-sweet.
2. Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago. July 21 2023.
The Smile appears on stage with significant spacing, just barely visually acknowledging one another’s presence. Without physical acknowledgment of one another, their band possesses a telepathic language that the audience could only understand sonically. All three masterminds of their multi-instrumental paths are absolute wildfire when combined, capable of dramatizing each beat without a tilt of the head. Their set gave us insight into what a prodigy’s brain sounds like. Their performance was nothing short of a shot of ecstasy: perfect instrumentals, idiosyncratic vocals, unparalleled composition, and brilliant technique. Possessing an almost spiritual divinity, the crowd was transfixed by Yokre’s haunted complexity. Greenwood thrashes his fingers up and down the neck of his guitar, even using his guitar to shred apart a bow as an art form. Sonically, we’ve been plopped on orbit floating in space and the only thing we can grab onto is Skinner’s pristine drumming but even that is momentary and pushes against any grain confining them to be anything but extraordinarily radiant themselves. The Smile is incomprehensibly impressive, beautiful, and flawless. There is nothing that could be reviewed, rethought, or interpreted in other ways than perceiving it exactly how it is. I experience great hesitancy in writing about them at all, with the weight of their immeasurable talent on my shoulder, unsure if my vocabulary could even do them half the justice they deserve.
1. Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago. July 23 2023.
With a psychedelic backdrop, bright orange speakers, and their electrifying guitar leads, Modu Moctar hosts a traditional Woodstock celebration 50 years later. Mdou Moctar is based in Niger and fully embraces their roots with the entire band dressed in traditional Taureg robes. Infusing Tuareg music with psychedelic rock, they transcend all boundaries and premature expectations. Lead singer Mahamadou Souleymane sings in his Tamasheq language and though the majority of the audience cannot translate his lyrics, we unite over our shared acknowledgment that Mdou Moctar absolutely shreds in every definition of the word. His riffs are exhilarating and he smiles with genuine gratitude throughout his set. He is so radiant that the crowd reflects his positive energy in the utter captivation of his prodigiousness. While Souleymane is the vocal point, his band does not fall far behind him. There is an energy he omits, riffing off not only his skill but pure life energy and force. They all possess extreme passion and skill as their fingers rave over the necks of their guitars, becoming subjects of their craft. Everyone is exuberant and cannot get enough. We are unable to look away as they break free from the confinements of genre and disintegrating time and place of music. Mdou Moctar knows how to leave an impression and give us a good ol ‘time. The crowd leaves with an unanimous response: Mdou Moctar made the long-lasting impression that when we look back on the festival decades from now, we will remember the electrifying experience Mdou Moctar brought to us.
Honorable mentions: Big Thief & King Krule
Concerts seen (I promise I went to more than 3 venues): Sidney Gish, Weyes Blood, Indigo de Souza, Alex G, Widowspeak, Pitchfork Music Festival (Grace Ives, Alvvays, The Smile, Julia Jacklin, Black Belt Eagle Scout, Palm, King Krule, Weyes Blood, Big Thief, JPEGMAFIA, Mdou Moctar, Jockstrap, Florist, and Bon Iver), Black Country New Road, Wednesday, Jockstrap, and Bar Italia.