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WILL BARONESS TAKE THE COVETED BEST LIVE SET OF THE YEAR AWARD TWO YEARS IN A ROW?

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baronessgijoeLast year Baroness played a truly stellar set that left me weak in the knees; this year, despite having had actual knee surgery back in April, I felt pretty damn sturdy after dem “stoner-metal-meets-Ford-truck-jingle” Georgians finished their consistent yet largely humdrum set a couple weeks ago.

As many of y’all have commented recently, this year’s Blue Record is somewhat of a step down from 2007’s mostly strong Red Album (which in itself was a dilution in certain ways from the band’s prior EPs First and Second), and as can be expected, the live set has slightly suffered as a result. [Axl strongly disagrees. – Ed.]

Thankfully my assessment has more to do with the waning quality of songs/songwriting on the new album record — the band’s execution of said songs was pretty impeccable, and the energy was ferocious. But is that enough to sustain a whole set? Well, not for me — about halfway through I started getting bored by the even-keeled-ness of the sound — but I also feel compelled to recognize that the majority of the crowd seemed to by-and-large eat up every moment.

So who’s right? Well, as we hopefully learned last week, music criticism is not about right and wrong (despite some folks’ insistence on deeming others *wrong* for expressing their opinions, pedantic as they may be). I will continue to wish Baroness the best, and I truly hope that the next offering blows all previous efforts away. But I’d be lying if I said I’m not somewhat skeptical. Oh well — they can’t possibly fuck up a winning streak nearly as much as these watered-down dudes.

ANYWAY — the real question is, what be’d my favorite live set of the year?

Well, let’s start with the most basic question in this realm: what constitutes an excellent set of live music?

For me, first and foremost I want the band to exhibit a great deal of energy, enthusiasm, and good times — no matter how amazing any group’s music is, if the players look bored then why the hell should I care? Having said that, obviously the quality of a band’s music is of the utmost importance — songwriters should be constantly evolving, and as we all know sometimes they hit the mark and sometimes not so much.

I believe that the quality of a band’s live set has a great deal to do with the songs that band is primarily rocking over the course of a given tour….haven’t we all seen certain acts that we deemed underwhelming at the time largely because we felt lukewarm about the particular album they released that particular year? LoG, I’m lookin at YoU.

But it’s not enough to just have great songs that you’re loving playing to crowds (although I guess sometimes it is) — a band must execute said songs with a strong sense of precision and power…..the groups that effortlessly nail every part/transition/solo come off like real pros, and as such should be lauded (at least for their playing).

I also strongly respect dynamics within a live set: are there interludes between/during songs? Is the band hitting us hard and then giving us a chance to recooperate before he next punishing? Or are they purposely not giving us a moment to breathe? Hopefully there is a solid level of consideration for this stuff, and it comes across in the flow of the set.

And then comes the age-old question: how much do/should the band flex their written material in a live setting? If the band is huge enough to play two nights in a given city, would their sets vary, even if the song choices/order stayed the same?

I feel somewhat split on this debate: like any committed fan, I relish hearing a group’s killer tunes performed note-for-note accurately and precisely onstage — there’s always the omigod-they-actually-pulled-it-off factor as well as everyone’s secret desire to sing along (or air guitar/drums/glockenspiel) to songs they love.

But I’m also always psyched when a band is able to reintepret recorded tunes and make them sound FRESH for a live show…..some groups do take this aspect to too-noodly heights, but when just the right amount of jamz are applied or certain parts are cleverly rearranged, classic tunes can feel brand new again.

And let’s be honest — while it’s often thrilling to see your musical heroes pulling off tricky songs you’ve cranked a zillion times on yr ipizzle, doesn’t that also get boring sometimes? I mean, if we’re paying all these hard-earned dollars and getting babysitters for the kids/handcuffing the lil bastards to the radiator, shouldn’t we get something unexpected & especial to qualify as our “monet’s worth”?

I’m just sayin.

And so all that said……here are a few of my favorite live sets from 2009.

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MASTODON
No surprise here — I’ve seen these bastards twice this year, and while the first time was completely satisfying, it was the second of the two shows (Dethklok tour) that really did it for me. In both cases the band played this year’s Crack the Skye album in its entirety (followed by a mini-set of classic Masto-jamz), but my appreciation of said album certainly evolved over the course of the year.

For you see, it took me a while to get down with the strength of Skye — upon first listen, I sort of felt like “that’s it?” — but it wasn’t. The songs continually grow on you (me) and present layers upon layers of well-crafted and impeccably executed melodies and rhythmic patterns.

Ultimately I felt like the second time I saw them play the album live, I was hearing the songs unfold for the very first time. Of course it only helped the experience when my buddy pulled out a giant glass pipe and we took hits of some serious dank right as the band hit.

These are truly the Georgians to beat.

THE MARS VOLTA
Now, before y’all gasp a collective groan, let me just say this — I don’t care that they’re not metal with a capital M (just wait til you read my next pick) – the Volts are still the most original and artful rock act out there really doin their thing.

And I must preface any current accolades by mentioning that when I saw these guys last year, I largely hated the set — meandering, repetitive, noodly — but all of my internal criticisms seemed to be addressed in the group’s reconfiguring of how to rock this year’s set: the band played all of their best songs super-tightly, with very little embellishment and a relentless drive I didn’t know they still had. All the experimentation seemed to have faded away, and in its place stood a veteran posse of amazing progsters…..my only gripe is that at an hour and a half, the incendiary set was way too short.

It’s a little hard to know what to expect from these guys year to year, but that’s part of the magic of artists who are willing to take such daring risks — the bigger the leap, the harder the potential fall….but also the higher the music can take you.

I’m through trying to convince anyone of the unbelievable merits of the Mars Volta — the band has more than proven themselves over and over again. Thankfully, despite a questionable run, they are back at the very top of their game.

SUNNY DAY REAL ESTATE

I almost didn’t make it to this reunion show. But the day before, somebody offered me their extra tix, and I am so goddamn thankful that I went. I was never a Sunny Day fan growing up; once I acquired a few of their albums, I quickly concluded that they were a hit-or-miss group with some phenomenal tunes and others that felt stale.

But seeing the reunited band perform this year, I couldn’t believe that such grace and deliberate emotional rock power had been put on the back burner for so long. True, singer/guitarist Jeremy Enigk stepped away from the project for quite some time to become a dogmatic Christian fundamentalist and record a few solo albums, but holy fucking jeez, does this guy have the world’s most soothing voice, and omigod how incredible does it sound with THIS band and THOSE tunes? Even when Enigk is screaming, newborn infants are falling sound asleep.

The band was virgin-tight as well; one really got a sense of how majestic, soulful, and touching open-hearted rock music could be before emo became such a dirty word.

DETHKLOK
Biggest surprise of the year — whooda thunk that a band from a frickin cartoon show would be SO skilled, SO entertaining, SO fucking brutal? Brendan Small & Co. have it all — hilarious metal parody, another successful show (Home Movies), killer band….judging by this thunderous performance (and riotous accompanying cartoons throughout, created just for this tour), I’m down for whatever’s coming next.

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And so there you have it: my fave live sets of the year. Clearly you all agree with my opinions — right?

(stay tuned for our official collective MetalPoops Best of 2009 Show List, coming next week as part of MS Listmania 2009!)

-KW

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