We had it good here in 2011. High-profile and acclaimed national acts passed through Kansas City and Lawrence. Rare was the week that lacked a compelling reason to make it out to a venue. Below, we list our 10 favorite performances of the year. (These are all out-of-town groups; drop by next week for a survey of some of 2011's finest local shows.) We invite you to read, reminisce, debate, insult, threaten — whatever you like!
The Aftershock, March 15
After more than a decade's absence from area stages, Fishbone returned to the Kansas City area on short notice on a chilly evening in March. Local promoters managed to lined up a show at a somewhat unlikely venue: the Aftershock, in Merriam. The long-running California ska rockers appeared before a small but loyal crowd. Fishbone quickly got down to the task at hand: rocking the ever-living shit out of each and every ass in that room. The set hewed close to the hits — "Lyin' Ass Bitch" and "Party at Ground Zero" — and the funk seemed to flow effortlessly from everyone onstage. (Fishbone has retained only two of its original members, but you'd never know it.) While the set at Aftershock came as an unpleasant surprise in the days afterward to fans not in the know, those of us who made it out were happily certain of our good fortune.
— Nick Spacek
Jackpot Music Hall, April 11
Phosphorescent came through Kansas City back in early 2010, on a tour with David Gray. But frontman Matthew Houck and his backing musicians were dwarfed by the gingerbread-castle expanses of the Uptown Theater. The "Babylon" crowd was uninterested. The Jackpot proved a far better setting for Phosphorescent's wistful, twangy folk-rock. Though not an emotive performer, Houck seemed loose under the low, red-tinged ceilings of the Lawrence venue. He performed a fabulous cover of Willie Nelson's "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way"; a heavy version of "Mermaid Parade," replete with yearning guitar solos; and, to close the show, the gorgeous, haunting "Wolves." I felt lucky to be there.
— April Fleming
The Granada, May 18
A lot of shows in Lawrence are see-and-be-seen affairs. When Wanda Jackson appeared at the Granada, nobody's eyes left the stage. Jackson gave a performance that belied the rockabilly queen's 74 years. Her voice sounded as strong as when she was recording classics, like "Let's Have a Party," more than 50 years ago. And she demonstrated a naughty streak, talking shit on college students (chiding them for not attending to their finals) and licking her finger after a surprisingly sultry take on Amy Winehouse's "I'm No Good." Here's hoping that Jackson's "second act," as she referred to her current making-of-the-rounds, awards her long-owed success and recognition.
— Nick Spacek
The Uptown Theater, July 18
Helplessness Blues, the second album from Fleet Foxes that arrived earlier this year, is a dark, moody, dreamy folk album whose charms become apparent after only a handful of spins. The band members are drab-looking and generally dress like Communists. (At the Uptown, one of the guys was even wearing one of those green Castro hats.) They specialize in intricate vocal harmonies. Who's ready to party? Apparently everybody. A sold-out crowd endured the demoralizing July heat inside the Uptown to watch six guys bang on acoustic instruments. It was, in some ways, the social event of the summer. Lots of weed, lots of attractive people wearing their earthiest clothes, even some wholly inappropriate glow sticks. And at the center of it all, a band asserting itself as one of the finest folk acts in the world.
— David Hudnall
Sprint Center, July 26
One of many revelations brought about by Sade's breathtaking performance at the Sprint Center in July: It's possible to do a big-time, high-budget arena show without being overly glitzy, opulent or pandering. But probably only if Sade Adu is involved. She changed clothes four times, each outfit more elegant than the last. The band arrived onstage via elevator risers sprouting through trap doors. Multimedia elements were incorporated into nearly every song. None of it felt hollow or vain. We all fell blissfully under Sade's spell. On the evening's closer, "Cherish the Day," we watched in awe as Sade slowly rose from the stage on a mechanically propelled platform. Higher and higher she went, rounding out at about 25 feet in the air. The projection screen behind her was all cityscapes and skyscrapers. You show me how deep love can be, she sang, towering over us, magnificent, gorgeous, like something in a dream.
— David Hudnall
Livestrong Sporting Park, August 13
Kansas is farm country, and Farm Aid has been around for 26 years. Yet 2011 marked the annual benefit concert's first stop in the Sunflower State. No matter: Better to be invited late to the dance than not at all. Apart from a horrible parking situation and crazy-expensive beer, the freshly opened Livestrong Sporting Park proved itself a worthy summer venue. As for the music ... John Mellencamp was impressively spry, and his gruff, gravelly voice hooked us into "Small Town." The crowd was enraptured by scowlful old Neil Young, who reminded us what the event was about: supporting farmers by buying at least one local item every grocery trip. When Willie Nelson sang "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," I finished the day sunburned and happy.
— April Fleming
Grand Boulevard between 13th and 14th streets, September 16
The Foo Fighters' September performance inside Sprint Center was a typically rocking affair, but the surprise show they put on outside the arena prior to the set ended up making national headlines. The fame-seeking trolls of the Westboro Baptist Church had crept out of their caves to protest the Foos' show, and so the Foos decided to stage a protest of their own. Outfitted in exaggerated trucker garb, the band members pulled up on a flatbed trailer, instruments at the ready, in front of the "God hates fags" crowd. "I don't care if you're black or white or purple or green, Pennsylvanian or Transylvanian, Lady Gaga or Lady Antebellum," Dave Grohl sang in a hokey country twang, "men lovin' women and women lovin' men and men lovin' men and women lovin' women."
— David Hudnall
The Midland, November 8
What a treat to see Paul Simon in the intimate confines of the Midland. And what a pleasant surprise that, at 70, he still possesses such vitality. The crowd of olds, seated for most of the performance, didn't match the singer-songwriter's energy level, but it hardly mattered: We were in the presence of a true-blue pop legend. Simon led his nine-piece band through about 30 songs, many of them hits, some of them quiet old favorites, a few of them songs from recent albums that the crowd didn't know so well — a dignified mix from a dignified man. On "That Was Your Mother," he set down his acoustic guitar and performed some sprightly dance moves for us. "Hearts and Bones"? Not a dry eye in the house. It was a beautiful evening — not just a concert but an occasion for reflection, kind of what church is supposed to be like.
— David Hudnall
Guns N' Roses
Sprint Center, November 12
We know: It's not really Guns N' Roses. It's just Axl Rose. And Axl Rose is an asshole. But listen: This show rocked. The seven-piece band (which includes three guitarists) played for almost three hours, the stage ablaze in pyrotechnics. Rose showed few signs of fatigue, crisscrossing the stage, running back and forth, spinning around and doing that dance move he's been doing since the '80s — the one where it looks like he's trying to get dog shit off his shoe. Things wrapped up a little before 2 a.m., when the drumbeat to "Paradise City" sent the remaining crowd into a frenzy. On the floor, women danced and shook their titties under a litter of red streams of confetti. It was really, really loud. And it was all worth it.
— Berry Anderson
Watch the Throne
Sprint Center, November 29
What to expect from the epic collision of egos that was the Watch the Throne tour: Would Kanye throw a temper tantrum? Would Jay-Z, in flyover country on a Tuesday, phone it in? The answers to those questions: not really, and definitely not. What we got were two stages, rising video-cube platforms, laser pyramids and two and a half hours of nonstop fun, courtesy of two of the biggest names in hip-hop. "Make some noise for the genius that is Kanye," Jay-Z asked of the crowd, as "I Want You Back" sped up into West's beat for "Izzo." On "Gold Digger," Jay ceded the stage to Ye, shuffling around in the background, dutifully playing the role of hype man, interjecting "That ain't right" into Kanye's tale of lady woes. On "99 Problems," Ye returned the favor, voicing the role of the meddling policeman. The hits were so bountiful and the performances so tight that when Kanye's prima-donna moment inevitably arrived — he halted "All of the Lights" not once but twice, citing a flawed lighting cue — it almost seemed rehearsed, a natural extension of the sheer entertainment for which we'd all come.
— David Hudnall and April Fleming