2019 was a solid year for live music in Metro Detroit. Not only did Mo Pop Festival have arguably the best line-up they’ve had since moving to West Riverfront Park, but it seemed like every week there was something to see at a venue within a 50 mile radius. This year I saw big arena acts (Post Malone, The Black Keys, Mumford and Sons), DJ sets (James Murphy), legends I previously missed (Wu Tang Clan, Of Montreal), and even free shows (Moon Taxi, Michigan Rattlers, JR JR). In fact, this was probably the most live music I’ve seen in person since I wrote for Atlanta Music Guide in 2011-2012. I don’t know if I could replicate this number of shows in the near future, but I will gladly try.
1. Kacey Musgraves-Royal Oak Music Theatre-January 10th
There can’t be any claims of recency bias here, since the Kacey Musgraves show happened waaaay back in January. I’m not sure how it is possible that I saw a generational talent like Kacey Musgraves perform in such a small venue (that’ll never happen again), but I’m thankful I was there. Kacey’s heavenly vocals, style that bordered on elegant and nostalgic, and playful crowd interaction exceeded any expectations I had for the show. The show balanced Musgraves’ sly story-telling on “Oh What A World“ and “Follow Your Arrow”, with charming ballads like “Slow Burn” and “Merry Go Round”, as well as uptempo singles like “Velvet Elvis” and “High Horse”. The well costumed band seemed in lock step with their lead singer as they escalated the disco-country numbers from Golden Hour to very danceable. Ms. Musgraves also wins the award for best live cover of the year with her psychedelic version of Brooks and Dunn’s “Neon Moon”. In summary, Kacey Musgraves put on a near perfect show.
2. Vampire Weekend-Mo Pop Festival-July 27th
If you saw my top albums and top tracks lists, seeing Vampire Weekend’s name near the top of this list shouldn’t be a surprise. Tracks from Father of the Bride, like “Sympathy” and “This Life”, felt right at home with the rest of the band’s catalog at West Riverfront Park under the lights. Vampire Weekend are well known for their show prep and the effort showed as the band stretched songs like “Sunflower” and “A-Punk” into jam friendly sessions to my delight. The cover of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House was probably a bit “on the nose” for some, but I thought it was absolutely perfect executed and hilarious.
3. Tame Impala-Mo Pop Festival-July 28th
Tame Impala’s show stopping Mo Pop closer set on Sunday night was a full sensory experience with hazy guitars and keys, otherworldly lights, and spacey visuals that paired perfectly with Kevin Parker’s magical vocals. My expectations were very high for the set, but I knew the scene would be a little different than the last time I saw Tame Impala at Saint Andrew’s Hall is 2013. One major change, a deeper catalog that allowed the band to open with “Let It Happen” and a whole lot of confetti, which put the crowd in a full on frenzy. Everything in between was fantastic, but closer “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” was well worth the wait.
4. Lizzo-MoPop Festival-July 27th
I think Mo Pop Festival organizers were extremely fortunate that they booked Lizzo before her meteoric rise this year. The good news is that everyone that attended Mo Pop on Saturday night benefited because they saw two headliners that night. There were wardrobe changes, booming sound and light, danceable hit after hit (“Boys” and “Juice” were top notch), and a heartfelt acknowledgement from Lizzo before playing in front of her hometown. The crowd sing-alongs for “Good As Hell” and “Truth Hurts” could surely be heard all the way to the Ren Cen.
5. Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals-Meadow Brook Music Festival-June 2nd
I almost didn’t attend this Anderson .Paak show and I would have deeply regretted it. Not only did Anderson punctuate every song from “Tints” and “Come Home” to “King James” and “Make It Better” with personality and stage presence, he genuinely seemed to be loving the experience. .Paak switch from band leader/drummer to singer and rapper with ease and I was thrilled to hear his flow on “Come Down”, “Glowed Up”, and “Bubblin’” sounded just as good live as it does on record. .Paak’s band the Free Nationals was also incredible and helped push the energy from chill Sunday evening to Sunday night party. Bonus points for the Free Nationals’ medley that included “Pony”, “California Love”, and hometown favorite “It’s So Cold In The D”.
6. Beck-DTE Music Theatre-August 3rd
When I bought the tickets for the double-bill of Cage the Elephant and Beck show, I assumed Cage the Elephant would be the best performer of the night. Cage the Elephant was highly enjoyable and I would certainly see them again, but Beck rolled out a hit parade I wasn’t expecting. I’m a Beck fan, but was not sure how some of those songs would translate live in an amphitheatre. Turns out, probably better than they would in a club or theater, as “Loser” and “Devil’s Haircut” set the tone from the opening notes. It felt like the entire lawn was dancing to old favorites like “E-Pro” “Que onda guero” and new efforts like “I’m So Free” and “Dreams”. Closers “Night Running” and “Where It’s At” were even stronger with Cage the Elephant joining the fun.
7. Hot Chip-Phoenix Concert Theatre (Toronto)-September 12th
It is my goal to see a show outside of Michigan at least once a year. It is interesting to see different cities’ crowd norms and visit venues I’ve never been to. The Hot Chip show in Toronto also checked off a major “gotta see them live” mark on my list. The eclectic band’s setlist spanned all of the band’s efforts, but “Hungry Child”, “Spell”, and “Melody of Love” fit particularly well with older tracks. The highwater mark of the show was the band’s highly unexpected, but very rewarding cover of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”. “Over and Over” probably elicited the second loudest crowd reaction, but set closer “I Feel Better” was the most entertaining dance party and memorable for many days after the show.
8. Toro y Moi-Majestic Theatre-November 2nd
The first time I saw Toro y Moi was 6 years ago at the Masquerade in Atlanta, and also memorable as the last show I saw in ATL. The set was enjoyable, but partially weighed down by my pending departure, partially because the performance felt a little flat. Fast forward to November 2nd, 2019 and a lot has changed for Toro y Moi (and myself). Chaz and the rest of the band seemed much more energized with more material, including most recent album Outer Peace, and more dance-friendly jams like “Ordinary Pleasure” and “Who I Am”. Chaz smiled for nearly the entirety of the set, danced, and genuinely seemed to enjoy his time in Detroit.
9. The Black Keys-Little Caesars Arena-October 5th
At this point, I had seen the Black Keys perform 4-5 times previously at festivals and amphitheatre. This will sound spoiled, but I was excited for another Black Keys show but assumed I had probably already seen the best of Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney. Ya know when you go to a show and forget that you have not seen a particular song in a band’s catalog performed live previously? That happened to me during “Little Black Submarines” and that nearly blew me (and the rest of LCA) away. The entire set was particularly blistering for a rock show at an arena filled with nearly all my old favorites (“I Got Mine”, “Your Touch”, “Strange Times”) and new gems like “Walk Across the Water”. I would see the Black Keys 5-10 more times if they continue to play more bruising sets like they did in October in Detroit.
10. Post Malone-Little Caesars Arena-September 29th
I know what you’re thinking: Post Malone? I understand Post (Mr. Malone?) can be a polarizing figure, but seeing him perform at a sold out arena would make a believer out of anyone. Fresh off the release of Hollywood’s Bleeding, it seemed everyone at LCA knew the lyrics to songs like “Enemies” and “Take What You Want”. The energy was constant throughout the show, but kicked into another gear as Big Sean came out for surprise renditions of “Bounce Back” and “I Don’t F With You”. Opener Swae Lee punctuated his shared hit “Sunflower” before Post Malone closed strong with “rockstar” and “Congratulations”. The most memorable song for me was a particularly poignant version of “I Fall Apart” that felt like a true superstar moment for Post Malone.
BONUS: Michigan Rattlers-Pig & Whiskey (July 20th)/Magic Bag (December 27th)
Blog favorite Michigan Rattlers were just outside of my top 10 live shows of the year, but I couldn’t resist noting how much that I think this band is on the rise. I saw the alt country/folk band play two more shows in my backyard of Ferndale (very convenient as well) that showcased the Petoskey band’s growing catalog and excellent cover choices (Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, Three Dog Night). The band noted a new record is in the works and I hope the Nashville influence continues the Michigan Rattlers’ earnest narratives and rock spirit.