The best concerts of 2018
Typically at year’s end I’ll look through all the shows I missed, rather than the ones I saw, and feel guilty about not doing my part to get out more often. And this year was no exception, except that one show, at the top of this list, rearranged my thoughts on concertgoing.
But beyond David Byrne’s transformative White Oak Music Hall gig, I found myself doing a lot of shows that were either farewells or might be farewells. Players like Michael Nesmith and Electric Light Orchestra hadn’t played Houston in decades. Others, like Tony Bennett, age 92, and Bob Dylan, age 77, cycle through, but you have to wonder when a show will be the last — a glass-half-empty state prompted by Tom Petty’s death in 2017. So this list is heavy on old and nostalgic, including a few guys from ’80s bands playing vibrant shows of old music.
1. David Byrne, April 28, White Oak Music Hall: Honestly, this show could be Nos. 1-10. I’m prone to hyperbole about a concert, as we all can be. And I saw many this year that were brilliant. But this one was the only time I left a show content if it ended up the last concert I ever saw. Byrne didn’t ignore his new solo album, “American Utopia,” but he threaded through a generous quantity of Talking Heads songs and some other solo tunes. But he did so in a manner in which preconceptions about source material melted away. More than a flesh-and-blood version of a setlist, this show was admirable for its reinvention of the stage, taking a Broadway-like approach to filling the space with deliberate choreographed motion designed to accentuate and accommodate the music. Byrne’s very good Jones Hall show, nearly a decade earlier, suggested this performance might be coming: A gig in which every minute detail is considered and weighted. Where his backing ensemble — a large one — moved with the fluidity of a marching band, like a Second Line in a large diorama. I’m confident an impromptu rock ’n’ roll show can still move me. But Byrne’s show mixed a little pulse of live music with the repetitive perfection of something rehearsed time and again.
2. Bob Dylan, Oct. 14, Smart Financial Centre: On this tour, Dylan cut back the pool of songs from which he drew, and y’know what? It didn’t matter. He commands an exquisite band that swings through blues, rock and torch, and some of the “new” songs — now a decade or two old — have become staples and standards.
3. Aimee Mann, Jan. 20, The Heights Theater: This show demanded perfect sound, so it fit the theater perfectly. Mann’s most recent album was full of porcelain harmonies and intricate internal rhyme schemes, and all of it came through beautifully. The #MeToo offering of “Voices Carry” tied together three decades of smart and cutting songwriting.
4. Peter Hook and the Light, May 31, Warehouse Live: There’s no obscuring it: This show was an exercise in nostalgia, with Hook running through the entirety of the two “Substance” anthologies: one by Joy Division, the other by New Order. He more than carried the vocal parts, and his band reveled in playing a synthy form of rock that was ahead of its time decades ago.
5. Michael Nesmith and the First National Band, Sept. 7, The Heights Theater: Nesmith was a little winded from a formidable heart surgery just a few weeks earlier. So this one started a bit rickety, but he and his rootsy band — which connected decades of American music from Tin Pan Alley and Vaudeville through Nashville honky-tonk — offered a heartfelt and trippy alternative to country music history.
6. Milton Hopkins, March 1, Discovery Green: Hopkins is a Houston treasure, and he doesn’t do many shows these days, being 84 and all. But the great blues guitarist put on a short and sharp clinic, covering more than 60 years of music for a Thursday night crowd that largely gathered because the show was free, only to hear a lot of musical history pouring from his guitar.
7. Electric Light Orchestra, Aug. 10, Toyota Center: ELO hadn’t been to Houston in over 30 years, and fans were primed for its lush, symphonic update of Beatles-esque pop. Jeff Lynne couldn’t hit all the notes as he could in the ’70s, but he still played a fan-friendly set of favorites that set people to moving. It had a strange magic, even if it didn’t have “Strange Magic.”
8. Johnny Marr, White Oak Music Hall, Oct. 11: I don’t know what a Smiths show was really like, having not seen one, but I knew going in what Morrissey shows are like, and they’re always good, but kind of labored, especially considering the fact that you don’t really know if he’s going to play until he’s on stage. In contrast, Marr’s show was a strutting rooster of a rock ’n’ roll show, and teemed with energy and a generous mix of Smiths standards and songs from Marr’s brisk new, topical “Call the Comet.”
9. Paul Simon, Toyota Center, June 2: Joyful and melancholy never nestled together better than this show, where the poet laureate of ennui scrolled through more than 50 years of songs about restlessness of various sorts. Simon’s voice was close to full, and his band provided plenty of lift on this, one of several farewell tours this year. It was sweet and sad, but mostly sweet.
10. Taylor Swift, Sept. 29, NRG Stadium: I missed a lot of the big, big shows of the year, but parenthood pulled me to this one, which was a perfectly executed performance of this scale. Credit Swift for cleaving the giant football stadium into pieces and playing little sets to each mini crowd. The bangers did their banging, but I most appreciated a little acoustic mini-set where her melodic gifts, which can get buried in bigger productions, were allowed some space to breathe.