Putting one of these lists together always seems like a fun and easy task at the outset, but once you actually start compiling one, it can easily transform into a bit of an ordeal. I saw a lot of really great shows in 2011, and it’s a challenge to pare them all down into such a confined space. Should all facets of an evening be considered? Should the guy who incessantly yapped through that one show be allowed to taint an otherwise fantastic night out? It’s impossible to agree on all the answers. This is a classically imperfect science, but here are 10 shows (along with a few runners-up thrown in for good measure) that made an impression on me over the last calendar year, anyway.
Willie Nelson at Pechanga – Jan. 16 Dude’s still got it. And now that he’s in his late 70s, these shows are basically impromptu, live-performance mash-ups of various greatest hits collections. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Zoe Keating at the Loft – Feb. 28 Headliner Kaki King was her usual amazing self, but the unassuming, fire-haired, loop-pedal cellist stole the show. An evening where the two were playing together, both consummate masters of their trade, was like a physical manifestation of a Rosie the Riveter poster.
Jessica Lea Mayfield at the Casbah – April 27
I actually can’t believe this incredible young talent isn’t being touted as the Next Big Thing by anyone and everyone who has heard her play. But her confident, easygoing and perfectly self-effacing performance at the Casbah was unequivocal proof that it’s only a matter of time.
Bomba Estereo at the Loft – May 25
The Bogota, Colombia, five-piece mix old and new styles in a completely engaging way, and lead singer Li Saumet is impossible to ignore. When first listening to their aptly titled stateside debut, Blow Up, I thought it would be impossible for them to be as compelling in a live setting. I was wrong.
Sean and Sara Watkins at New Village Arts Theatre – July 9
The Nickel Creek siblings just keep getting better with age. But throw in Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and put the show in a 100-seat Carlsbad playhouse where the threesome didn’t even need mics and you have one hell of an amazing evening of music.
Tinariwen (July 12)/Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 (July 13) at the Belly Up
Even though they took place on separate nights, it’s impossible to count these shows individually. This back-to-back African two-step was an incredible and magical way to spend the front end of a summer week and the best consecutive-night booking all year.
Sade at Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre – Aug. 23
It’s Sade. What can I say? You either love her or couldn’t care less. I am certainly part of the first group. And John Legend opening didn’t hurt, either.
Lisa Hannigan at the Belly Up – Sept. 29
I actually wasn’t even planning on attending this show, but she was so ridiculously charming when I interviewed her, I decided to make the effort. Don’t let the genteel nature of her records fool you: This woman and her band are beasts live. Easily one of the very best shows I saw all year.
DJ Shadow at 4th & B – Oct. 22
Wow. That’s really all there is to say. If you were there, you’re one of the lucky ones. Explaining it will never suffice. How do you make a DJ compelling for an entire show? Josh Davis held a clinic on that exact topic that night.
Cass McCombs at the Casbah – Dec.1
Cass has been my white rabbit for years. Have loved his music for a decade, but for whatever reason, catching him live has eluded me. Soft-spoken and shrouded in darkness for the entirety of the show, Mr. McCombs delivered a strange and beautiful set.
Honorable mentions: Charles Bradley (sweat!) at the Belly Up on Aug. 25, Chad VanGaalen (quirk!) at Soda Bar on Oct. 10, and Kyuss (rawk!) at House of Blues on Nov. 17