You know when you go and see a show and it leaves you buzzing for days? When it’s about much more than the music: it makes you feel thrilled to be alive? Sometimes it can be so powerful your brain chemistry seems to be altered and that dopamine spike lasts way longer than just a couple of hours. That was my experience at the Kate Bush Before The Dawn shows at London’s Hammersmith Apollo in September. It wasn’t the sweet shock of seeing a beloved artist I never thought I’d see perform, the whole show was creatively mind-blowing. I was witness to a work of art that expressed skill and imagination on a scale of the greatest literature, art or film. The high probably took a month to wear off but I often think back to details – the slow-motion close-ups of British birds; the Turner-esque sunset alongside ‘The Sky Of Honey’; ‘Cloudbusting’; the burnished yellow confetti fluttering from the ceiling scrawled with Tennyson poetry – and it feels good. Kate Bush’s show was just one of many exceptional live moments in 2014. From The Libertines to Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey to Perfect Pussy, NME writers pick their best gigs of 2014. Let us know yours in the comments below on Facebook or using the Twitter hashtag #bestgigof2014.
Arcade Fire at London’s Earl’s Court
When Earl’s Court is demolished next year, it won’t be a sad occasion for many of the artists who’ve performed there. In terms of huge, cavernous venues, Earl’s Court is as punishing a room as they come. There’s more atmosphere on the moon. Arcade Fire showed the rest how it’s done, with stunning lights, costumes, neat stage gimmicks (how did Régine Chassagne pop up on the secondary stage so quickly?) and the sheer spectacle and energy of having so many players on stage creating a carnival atmosphere throughout. By the time the Canadians’ tour rolled around to the UK, their ‘Reflektor’ show had already been on the road for six months and was well-honed as a result. An ever-changing set of guests and cover versions kept it fresh, and the London crowd was lucky enough to get Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch doing a one-off version of ‘The Cutter’. This was the year that Arcade Fire truly arrived as an arena-worthy band – and the year that audiences worldwide flooded out of massive venues still singing along to closing number ‘Wake Up’.
Dan Stubbs, News Editor
Cass McCombs, Queen Elizabeth Hall
It was freezing, it was dark and it was Monday, but 13th January is by far the best night out I’ve had all year. Stood by the river Thames waiting for Cass McCombs to play was so exciting, like queuing up for a gig you’ve waited a year for as a 13-year-old. The idea of watching him perform in an all-seated theatre was weird. He hardly ever tours here, and the last time I saw him play, he got pissed off about the lights being too bright and ended up finishing the gig in the dark. That was in a tiny room above a pub.
He made this much bigger venue feel the same size. It’s hard to describe just how intimate Cass McCombs’ songs are, but from the opening chords of ‘Big Wheel’, which he played first, his guitar and his voice swallowed the whole room. ‘County Line’, one of his best songs, felt endless, and it was a privilege to hear him sing older tunes like ‘What Isn’t Nature’ and ‘The Same Thing’. The best bit, though, was realising that Preston from The Ordinary Boys was sitting in front of us. Turns out he’s got fantastic taste.
Ben Homewood, Reviews Editor
Future Islands at London’s O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
When it started, I thought I was going to hate Future Islands’ biggest headline gig to date. Call me a curmudgeon but something about the crowd whooping every time frontman Samuel T. Herring as much as shook a leg got to me. “You’re just clapping a meme,” I seethed silently as the crowd lapped up anything even vaguely similar to the band’s iconic TV performance being recreated thousands of miles and millions of YouTube plays away from that Letterman’s studio. But then I realised, this was a gig that meant more than viral fame, this was music breaking through laptop screens and into real lives.
It was a celebration of triumph over adversity, of time and commitment actually paying off for a band who never gave up and a the point where a London crowd, the city with one of the prickliest reputations in music, could lose their shit to synth-pop songs played by a man who looks like an out of luck Marlon Brando whose main form of expression is cossack dancing to his own music. I’ve not checked any of the footage filmed that night out online and I never will.
David Renshaw, News Reporter
Lana Del Rey, Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury Festival
Glastonbury could have been an almighty stumble for Lana Del Rey. Going into it, live appearances around her latest album ‘Ultraviolence’ had been scatty and she’d just told a journalist, “I wish I was dead already”. Plus, she was still dogged by suggestions that, well, she just wasn’t any good live. So to Saturday afternoon on the famous Pyramid Stage. With 40,000 people in the field and thousands more watching at home, the stakes and the pressure was high. The atmosphere was of muggy apprehension – half the sky was blue, half of it was black. Lana emerged and was visibly daunted by the amount of people in front of her, nervously stealing a puff on a cigarette between songs. But through the course of an hour she pulled off one of the most gripping, uneasy, fragile, heartfelt and, in an odd way, thrilling shows of the year. It was tension-fuelled and fascinating. Not just a moment survived for Lana Del Rey, but a moment won.
Greg Cochrane, NME.com Editor
Jamie T at The Dome, London
The many Jamie T gigs I attended before his five year break were always the most exciting – full of sweat, spilt pints and rampant dancing. Having been away for so long, there was every possibility that these new gigs wouldn’t live up to the past. From the very beginning of his first London gig back, at The Dome in Tufnell Park, it was clear that wasn’t going to be the case. If anything, those five AWOL years made everything more intense and exhilarating; the crowd was uninhibited as they reconnected with old songs like ‘Salvador’ and ‘368’, and soaked up new tunes like ‘Zombie’ and ‘Limits Lie’, while Jamie performed with a fresh sense of purpose, worlds apart from the panic attacks and fear he often describes as part of his relationship with playing live.
Rhian Daly, Assistant Reviews Editor
Perfect Pussy, St Vincent, La Roux, Taylor Swift
It’s hard to pick a favourite: Perfect Pussy’s first UK show in Brighton (with Joanna Gruesome supporting) was so furious and sweaty that I had to wring my clothes out afterwards; La Roux’s recent Bristol gig was incredible not least for the fact that the audience were actually dancing; this week’s cover feature is essentially me marvelling at St Vincent’s current live show (which I saw six times this year) to the tune of 3000 words. But for sheer spectacle, I’d say Taylor Swift at London’s O2 Arena in February. She played about eight instruments, flew through the air on a trapeze and delivered a bunch of motivational speeches that were highly rehearsed, but so what – I still laughed and cried with my best friend and felt the superhuman gut punch you get from hearing great pop songs executed before your very eyes.
Laura Snapes, Features Editor
Krill at Shea Stadium, New York
“I’m blue as a bruise today and getting bluer,” squawked Jonah Furman like a man desperately choking for air, claustrophobic in his own skin, to a small crowd listening intently. I didn’t know much about Boston trio Krill before stumbling into that show in May, at New York’s ironically named Shea Stadium (it’s a 200-cap DIY shoebox). I didn’t need to: screeching above a wash of nervous, wiry guitar goodness, like Built To Spill or ‘Blue Album’-era Weezer gone cold turkey on their anti-anxiety meds, their scrappy screwball rock hit me instantly. Songs like ‘Turd’ and ‘Fresh Pond’ lurked in the dark crawl space between hilarity and tragedy, interchanging goofy lines about faecal matter with bursts of devastating melancholy – I remember hearing the line “when I go home I look out the window/but all I see sometimes is the window pane”, barked over a brilliant stop-start guitar jangle on the latter, and deciding there and then this was my new favourite band.
Al Horner, Assistant Editor NME.com
Shamir at Babycastles, New York
It was a last minute thing, seeing Shamir. Halfway through a so-far below average CMJ, and someone tells me he’s playing a tiny gig that night. Firstly, the race is on to actually get in. While A) it seems like nobody outside the British contingent in NYC even knows who Shamir is yet, B) this is really bad, because CMJ is full of Brits abroad (“working”). Eventually, I manage to sneak in by pretending I’m someone else on the door. Babycastles is like something Terry Gilliam might have invented and put in Brazil; all retro-futuristic demeanour, flights and flights of stairs, bins stuck on the ceilings to create weird lighting effects, useless arcade games, and lots of cleaning apparatus/useless crap pushed up against the walls.
Foolishly, I expected Shamir’s performance setup to be minimal – just him and someone on beats, probably. When I saw the seven people crammed on that tiny, tiny stage my jaw dropped – a drummer (Nick Sylvester, who runs Godmode Records) stuck away stage left, two backing singers, and three dudes behind doing god knows what. It goes without saying that everyone was totally in tune with each other, and that when the drop came on tracks like ‘I Know It’s A Good Thing’ and ‘If It Wasn’t True’ the sound and feeling was absolutely huge.
Matt Wilkinson, Radar Editor
Miley Cyrus at London’s O2
I’d watched YouTube clips of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Bangerz Tour’ before it rolled into London in May, but this didn’t prepare me for how ridiculous the former Disney star’s arena show really was. Miley arrived on stage by sliding down a giant tongue that emerged from a projection of her own face, she rode a huge hot dog high above the crowd, she brought an enormous replica of her dead dog onstage, she introduced one of her godmother Dolly Parton’s masterworks as “a song about that cunt Jolene”. It wasn’t classy, some of it was actually pretty cringe, but it was a lot of fun.
Nick Levine, Film & TV Editor
The Libertines at London’s Alexandra Palace
The Libertines’ totally glorious Ally Pally show was my live highlight of 2014 not only because it was an absolute triumph in itself, but because it restored the faith that their Hyde Park show had dented. It wasn’t that Hyde Park was bad, but something felt wrong. Surrounded by Barclaycard sponsored everything, with a massive golden circle separating the band from the fans and only a gaggle of bankers in between to cement the problem, it just felt very, well… un-Libs. Ally Pally, however, was the opposite. Chaotic and heartfelt, it was just the right balance of nostalgia (Roger Sargent’s wistful video montage at the start in particular) and real time, 2014 excitement – for how strong the band sounded now and for a future that, for once, felt like it could finally actually happen.