About three months ago, on a clear and cool night in early September, I made the short trip to Midtown to watch Bon Iver play at the Uptown Theatre. (That makes sense if you live in KC.)
On most nights, this would seem like a pretty simple plan.
Drive to said show. Sip a beer and act sufficiently curious during the opening act. Experience the concert. And then head back out into the Kansas City night, content, inspired, ready for more music.
The circumstances of this night, however, were something different. After planning for a couple weeks to go with two friends, life interfered in the days leading up to the show, and I was left with two extra tickets.
The Uptown was sold out that night, and I knew this. So I knew it wouldn’t be a problem to unload the extra tickets at the last minute, but I also felt a little hesitant about going to the show by myself.
Do people do this? I thought.
The good news: I was able to find a friend of a friend to buy one of the tickets… The bad news: a couple last-minute calls were fruitless. I had one extra ticket, and the show started in about 90 minutes.
The sidewalk was dotted with scalpers, men with signs, all looking for a quick and painless buck. It was already dark, and the iconic Uptown Theater sign glowed over the city street. I looked around and saw a couple; they looked as if they’d come from far away. I nearly walked up to them, but something told me to stop. What could they do with only one ticket?
In the next second, I turned around, three girls standing on the sidewalk. The shortest one had brown hair and she’d just backed away from the ticket window, dejected, nervous.
I looked at her friends. They seemed less nervous, more secure, and it was easy to tell what was going on: They had tickets. The short girl didn’t.
“Do you need a ticket,” I asked, standing seven or eight feet away.
“Yea,” she said.
“I have an extra,” I said.
“Really?” she said, her chin and shoulders lifting a few inches.
This is not the story you think you are reading. In the next moment, the girl pulled out a wad of bills, handing me 30 bucks. (I know I should have given it to her for free, but I did pay $40 for it. And, anyway, I didn’t want to show off in front of her friends.)
She walked into the concert, and I never saw her again. I suppose the story would be a little better if we randomly bumped into each other at some dusty bar later in the night. Maybe I’d buy her a whiskey and sprite, and maybe we’d talk about the show. Maybe her name would be Jill.
But this isn’t that story.
A few minutes later, my friend’s friend arrived, and I tagged along with her group of friends. A short time later, Justin Vernon and his friends would take the stage, and the first few chords of “Perth” would ripple through the air in that old music house.
And now, more than three months later, I can say this without hyperbole or exaggeration: Bon Iver would perform the greatest show of my 25-year-old life.
And when it was over, we headed back out into the Kansas City night, content, inspired, ready for more music.
I’ve never quite understood why people make lists. And I’ve always scoffed at the arbitrary nature of months and years and decades. (Yes, it’s neat that we mark time in nice, even increments. But does anyone really believe that 1990 and 1999 had more in common than 1999 and 2001 because the former two years were in the same decade?)
But then I think back to that night in September. I will remember that night… maybe forever. Mostly because of the music. But also the experience.
It’s funny how music does that, seeping into the crevices and fissures of life, leaving behind old marks.
When I think back to 2011, I know I won’t think of one monolithic theme or narrative. Life doesn’t work that way. Not for me. But I will remember certain moments… and certain songs.
So here we go, finally, the 11 songs I will remember from 2011.
11. Holocene — Bon Iver (Bon Iver)
Only one album — and one artist — will show up on the list twice. Those are the rules. I didn’t even want to make the one exception. But “Holocene”, the masterpiece from my favorite album of the year, is too important to pass up.
10. One for you, one for me — Bright Eyes (The People’s Key)
One complaint: This song has this long outro, with one of Conor Oberst’s friends pontificating about religion and the world and, well… I’m not really sure. Just skip that part.
9. 6 foot 7 foot — Lil Wayne (Tha Carter IV)
The song samples the old Harry Belafonte track, “The Banana Boat Song”, and the result is classic Weezy: Pared down beats… and ridiculous lyrics.
8. Art of Almost — Wilco (The Whole Love)
This is Wilco at its best, a seven-minute force of sound that has to be listened to all the way through.
7. Same Mistake — Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (Hysterical)
This is one of those bands that appeared in my life for a brief time — freshman year of college, or thereabouts — and then vanished, the space filled with something else, the songs left alone or forgotten. Clap Your Hands resurfaced sometime during the early fall, and this song, the opening track on their latest album, provided the perfect reunion.
6. French Exit — The Antlers (Burst Apart)
Burst Apart, the Antlers’ follow-up to their debut album, Hospice, may have lacked anything as ambitious as “Two” — but this album was still created to be listened to on a chilly Sunday morning.
5. The OtherSide — The Roots (Undun)
Here’s my Roots story: When I was a freshman in college, the first week or so, I went to run errands with one of my roommates — one of those first “hey, this is college and I’m on my own experiences.” So we had to drive through campus, and moments after we got in the car, my now very-close friend put on The Roots’ “The Seed 2.0” and cranked the volume. In retrospect, this is exactly what a lame 18-year-old does when he arrives on campus. It still a good memory.
4. Helplessness Blues — Fleet Foxes (Helplessness Blues)
This song now comes with two associations: The first is Robin Hilton (a native Kansan) on All Songs Considered giving this song a perfect intro while I was running through Loose Park last summer; the second is from this great New York Magazine piece on the state of being a 20-something in 2011. Maybe this is odd. Can a song that sounds like an homage to the late 60s folk scene really do an admirable job of explaining life, the confusion, the joy, all of it? Maybe. It’s a good song.
3. First Aid Kit — The Lion’s Roar (The Lion’s Roar)
To be fair, the latest album from this Swedish folk duo doesn’t actually come out until January. But considering this song has been on YouTube for more than two months — and viewed more than 28,000 times — we felt good about putting it here.
2. Don’t Carry it All — The Decemberists (The King is Dead)
Maybe this isn’t The Decemberists best work, but it’s likely their most accessible, an album chock-full of Neil Young’s harmonicas, Tom Petty’s energy, and Dylan’s power. This song opens the 10-track recording, an anthemic blast of folk and Americana.
In one song, you hear David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, mandolin, violin… and Colin Meloy crafting the best lyric of the year: “Lay its head on summer’s freckled knees.”
1. Wash — Bon Iver (Bon Iver)
Back to that night in September. A smoky concert hall. Lights. A lead singer at the piano. And the best song of the year. (Go to 2:45 in this video).
In the weeks after the concert, the setlist from this concert became my go-to music for late-night runs. It just so happened that I had to move home for a short time, about six weeks, in the days after the show. One lease had expired. My new place wasn’t ready yet. And I was back in my childhood bedroom, waiting. So on many nights, I would escape into the familiar streets, running for 5, 6 miles, soaking in the crisp fall air.
Every time my iPod arrived to the piano intro, I could feel something — something that only comes with the perfect union of music, body and time. I can still feel it now. The song begins, the notes begin to hit, and I keep moving forward.
15 more songs to listen to before the end of the year
Boeing 747 — The Low Anthem
I Can’t Make You Love Me — Bon Iver
Super Bass — Nicki Minaj
A Long Way Down — Alela Diane
A Candle’s Fire — Beirut
We Found Love — Rihanna
Midnight City — M83
Whirring — The Joy Formidable
How Deep is Your Love — The Rapture
Little Black Submarines — Black Keys
Barton Hollow — The Civil Wars
The Wilhelm Scream — James Blake
Oh Sister — Neutral Milk Hotel
Estate Sale Sign — The Mountain Goats
Scarlet Town — Gillian Welch