We survived Governors Ball. Northside Festival too. The year is more than half over, and, of course, there are still a bunch more festivals to come (Panorama for one) and some of the biggest tours of 2017 right behind (Kendrick Lamar, Paul McCartney and Arcade Fire to name a few). But first let’s look back at the best concerts that have come through NYC so far in 2017.
Lorde at Bowery Ballroom on June 16
At Governors Ball this year, young pop star Lorde turned the main stage into a high-concept house party, singing in front of a floating shipping container that staged scenes of teenage life. Two weeks later, her performance at the Bowery Ballroom was something different: a small, semi-public celebration of her just-released Melodrama presented by SiriusXM and a first look at many of its songs live. Faced with the difficult task of following up her landscape-altering debut, Pure Heroine, Lorde trades that record’s grand pronouncements for specificity and intimacy. Here is Lorde as a keen portraitist, with the moody modern-pop of her debut expanding to include piano ballads and guitar-based singer-songwriter-esque fare. She opened the show with the post-dubstep thrills, fatalistic lyrics and stuttering rhythms of “Homemade Dynamite,” more or less faithfully reproduced. Other songs transformed more, particularly the ones where collaborator Jack Antonoff’s influence is most obvious—the driving Springsteen piano of “Supercut,” the pop-punk balladry of “The Louvre,” with their coy, soft edges sung as snarls and provocations. After set closer “Green Light,” a single with wide, cross-generational appeal, a few folks trickled out only to be drawn back by the a cappella encore “Writer in the Dark.” A few of the new songs, with choruses out of Lorde’s normal range, rely heavily on vocal backing tracks, and live, she pulls back on those moments of release. With “Writer,” she went it alone, singing away from the mic and projecting an impressive wail into the rafters.
Solange at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on May 18
As a matter of its design, a narrow ascending pathway lined with paintings, the Guggenheim's main room traps visitors into a one-on-one with works by masters like Van Gogh and Degas. At her site-specific presentation of songs from A Seat at the Table, Solange used the space in much the same way: a place to focus on the particularities of her songs and the meaning behind them, accented by dance, movement and costuming. Descending from the top of the circular walkway to the ground floor, Solange, in brown, and a team of dancers, wearing all white (matching color the audience was instructed to wear) joined her band on the main floor. At moments a full horn section, hidden behind the handrails, popped up to accent a note. At others, the movements suggested playfulness and freedom (twerking along the wall elicited a riotous applause). The singer navigated into the crowd to dance with members individually during “F.U.B.U.”—a song whose ethos of black empowerment resonated throughout the performance.
Next show: Panorama Festival, July 28
Ryan Adams at Beacon Theater on May 3
Ryan Adams quietly replaced two members of his band shortly before the nationwide tour to support his latest LP, Prisoner. After only a few months of playing together—including a nuanced album-release show at Rough Trade in April—guitarist Benny Yurco and drummer Nate Lotz—left the band for unknown reasons. That might seem like a bunch of inside baseball but musically, the move was felt throughout his Beacon Theater performance. A group known as the Unknown Band backed Adams, with Todd Wisenbaker on guitar and Aaron Ficca on drums, and delivered a set that matched the album’s guitar-rock ambitions. Ficca was still finding his timing on songs like “Magnolia Mountain,” “Cold Roses” and other Dead-influenced jams, but overall, it was a group that more closely matched Prisoner's pop-rock mood, a band with loud peaks, interlocking guitar leads and moody reworking of old songs (like a haunted “When the Stars Go Blue”). The old crew was adept at moods Adams has already mastered; this one seemed built to usher in the next chapter.
Next NYC show: None, but playing Lollapalooza in Chicago on August 4
George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill on February 28
After more than 60 years of making music, it’s a weird thing to harp on George Clinton’s relevance: His place in the American music pantheon of already well secured (including literally in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame). Yet, in 2017, the most exciting musicians today—Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat, Flying Lotus—are openly pulling from Clinton’s playbook to make music that’s fun, political and funky. This show proved that Clinton hasn’t lost his own curiosity or puckishness. The ensemble opened with a string of tunes that favored metal-core licks and rapping before settling into sterling renditions of “Mothership Connection,” “Get Off Your Ass and Jam,” a life-giving “One Nation Under a Groove” with 11-part harmonies and an extended “Maggot Brain” led by longtime shredder Blackbyrd Mcknight. Three-hours later, Clinton and the band had hit on nearly every point of his career, past, present and future.
Next NYC show: B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, October 31
Buck Gooter at Union Pool on June 10
The annual Williamsburg-centric Northside Festival had a lot going for it this year—from a sunset show with pop-soul singer Miguel and late-night dance party with rising footwork producer Jlin to a proliferation of smaller club gigs. Harrisonburg, Virginia two-piece Buck Gooter stood out from the pack for its bafflingly thrilling live show. Front-person Billy Brett stood on the Union Pool stage screaming into the mic and occasionally kicking wind chimes that dangled from his table of effects and drum machines. Guitarist Terry Turtle, playing from the crowd, chunked out the songs chords on a metallically adorned acoustic guitar, overdriven into oblivion. Occasionally Turtle, hooded, would sing lead, a bit more melodic and bluesy than Brett’s hardcore growl. You’d watch for a few minutes, stunned, until another roundhouse to the dangling chimes knocked you back to your senses.
Next NYC show: Silent Barn, July 22
Migos at Barclays Center on May 19
Half a decade in, it’s clear that the Atlanta trio has a knack for leveling up, boosting its profile from humble viral beginnings of “Versace” to bigger viral fame (and a No. 1 record) of “Bad and Boujee” with seeming ease. On the large Barclays Center stage, Migos outshined headliner Future with a rapid fire segue of his hits: “Hannah Montana,” “Handsome and Wealthy” and “T-Shirt” all radiated energy through the packed stadium.
Next NYC show: Meadows Festival, September 15
The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane at Knockdown Center on May 21
As the setting sun filtered through Queens’ Knockdown Center, the Sai Anantam Singers took filed in to celebrate the music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. Coltrane founded the Sai Anantam Ashram in the mid-’80s, and the music she made there—Hindu devotional songs consisting of voice and synthesizer—resurfaced this year with a collection on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. At the Red Bull Music Academy–sponsored event, listeners were asked to remove their shoes and sit on pillows. The music, repetitive with a strong melodic foundation, was created to be sung in a group setting, and lyric books were passed out for folks to join in. Many did, and weeks later the blissful songs are still buzzing through my head.
Listen now: World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda is available via Luaka Bop.