As we wait for concerts to return, we give you our top live artist picks: Big Thief, Code Orange, Dogleg, George Clanton & more
We’re getting closer. Agonizingly so. In fact, many of us have already purchased tickets to future shows (though some of those are still over a year away from happening). Some of us have been holding onto festival passes for going on two years. Needless to say, anticipation for the return of concerts could not be any higher.
And after spending the last year huddled in isolation – feverishly digesting whatever recorded music we could get our hands while slowly learning to enjoy virtual livestream concerts – the prospect of the living, breathing concert-going experience continues to fester in the minds of music diehards. And with the impending avalanche of tours that’ll soon be announced, the market is about to become extremely flooded, and the choices endless. A new conundrum awaits the average concertgoer: which shows to pull the trigger on?
If you’re a regular Impose reader, then you know that we love to champion anybody that flies relatively under the mainstream radar. In our eyes, there’s nothing more thrilling than watching a newly-crowned hero emerge from the DIY scene to the delight of a whole new wave of fans.
Of course, by now we’re all well aware of the awesome concerts put on by the likes of Tame Impala, Beyoncé, Phoebe Bridgers, My Morning Jacket, Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, Aphex Twin, Billie Eilish, Blood Orange, Tyler, etc. Instead of boring you with the obvious big-name choices, we’re giving you our picks of some of the less mainstream-famous artists with live shows that absolutely stack up to those of the artists mentioned above. From indie to pop, punk to psychedelic, hip-hop to R&B, electronic and everything in between, the next time one of these acts comes through your hometown, you’re gonna wanna get yourself a ticket.
With concert calendars filling up and demand through the roof, at this point, there are two big things you need to worry about: trying not to blow through all your savings, and managing to score tickets at all. In the meantime, here’s some choices to stew over. Good luck.
Alex G is one of the most peculiar live performers around. The Philadelphia musician’s shapeshifting indie sound comes doused with some of the most intensely personal songwriting you can imagine – as poignant and introspective as it is off-kilter and experimental. At the same time, there’s a rugged DIY charm to his sound that connects in a very visceral way in a live setting. At a typical Alex G show, you’ll find throngs of young teens moshing up front to “Harvey” as well as twenty-somethings in the back pondering their quarter life crises during “Brite Boy.” It’s an all-encompassing vibe. Sometimes Alex will take over a dozen crowd requests in the back half of his sets; his band’s chameleonic chemistry means that no deep cut is off limits. A truly unique artist who always delivers live.
The phenomenal American producer Avalon Emerson is also one of the most versatile DJs in the scene, with a free-wheeling and unpredictable style that pushes the boundaries of house and techno with a highly melodic touch. Which means her sets end up being the highlight of every party she plays. Having cut her teeth in such rave-hungry places as Berlin and San Francisco, Emerson is a master at giving her audiences exactly what they want – able to coax an emphatic reaction with every flick of the turntable. The next time she comes around, you’ll wanna bust out those dancing shoes. We don’t have any performance footage, but you can listen to her Mexico MUTEK set below.
Over the last five years, Big Thief has evolved into one of the world’s best bands, period. Their searing slice of pastoral folk and anthemic indie rock carries the perfect amount of cerebral and emotional weight, a sonic elixir that results in blown minds and crushed hearts. Prior to COVID, they had a world tour mapped out in support of their pair of legendary 2019 LPs U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, which would have seen them play some of the biggest venues of their career. In a live setting, Big Thief are intimate and devastating, and they perform with a jangly rawness that makes their songs cut even deeper. They’re a band that transcends, and you’re gonna wanna transcend with them.
Before black midi even released any music, they built up a bullet train of word-of-mouth hype purely on the strength of their bonkers live show. And trust me, the buzz is absolutely warranted. The band’s stage presence alone brings out a whole new dimension to their unwieldy, experimental sound; watching them toss everything into a blender and surgically construct in real time is an utterly galvanizing experience. They also have a knack for really getting into the performance – picture fish flopping out of water and you kinda get the picture. Rowdy stuff. I could go on but you should really just see it for yourself.
Pittsburg metalcore behemoths Code Orange hit another level in the cycle for their last album Underneath, and they did it in spite of the absence of concerts. Instead, the band, known for their explosively fierce live shows, turned to livestreams to whet fans’ appetites. They also incorporated state-of-the-art lights and screen set-ups, resulting in a dazzlingly terrifying stage spectacle that channeled the highly visual nature of their music. Each event was spectacular. Curious fans were recently treated to this little Reddit AMA nugget, in which frontwoman Jami Morgan shared, “hopefully our upcoming live show will be somewhat of an amalgamation of our three live streams. the ideas are an endless well, lets see what we can afford haha. i promise you it will be the best show you have ever seen from us by a million miles.” Consider us first in line.
The Comet Is Coming
Cosmic jazz is designed to mentally transport you to another time and place – preferably the outer limits. One of the groups most adept at channeling that vibe is the English trio The Comet Is Coming, who prove that sax, drums, and synths are all you need to blast off on a righteous space odyssey. As with any live jazz performance, come for the epic jams and moments of sonic improv, but stay for The Comet Is Coming’s uniquely hallucinatory edge as they whisk you away to the cosmos. Definitely not a dazed, laid-back experience, but more of an intensely spacey, ominous and metaphysical journey. Engage Hyperspeed!
Prior to COVID, the best recurring NYC double bill going was Deli Girls and Machine Girl (also on this list). In Deli Girls’ case, the Brooklyn-based noise and digital hardcore duo puts on an absolutely insane DIY show. Whenever they hit the stage, singer Danny Orlowski’s guttural vocal screams ignite destruction alongside a symphony of cacophonous, industrialized drum machines and synths. The two members of Deli Girls throw every bit of themselves into their performances – musically and physically – and that kind of scorched earth energy brings out the gut-wrenching and fiercely political nature of their sound. When shows return, hearing that new LP BOSS in a live setting will be a wild experience.
On record, DIIV tended to lean a bit more into the dream pop and slowcore spheres, but in a live setting they’ve always been eons faster and louder. With their heady latest album Deceiver, the band went all in on that latter stratospheric shoegaze-infused sound – capturing searing emotional highs and lows – and every bit of it comes to whirring life in their live performances. A lot of it is in their swagger; the Zachary Cole Smith-led group carries themselves with an effortlessly rough-around-the-edges charm. It’s a meditative, psychedelic, and enchanting experience all at once.
Detroit emo/post-hardcore rising stars Dogleg play hard, fast, and with hearts worn firmly on their sleeves. It’s no wonder that their music translates so well in a live setting, inducing a throng of moshing, crowdsurfing, and fervent singalongs that do not let up from start-to-finish. They didn’t get to play many (if any?) shows in support of their incredible debut LP, last year’s Melee (one of our favorites of the year). But once fans eventually get to line up on the bar, and the lights go out and the band struts out on stage, we just know the place is gonna explode like a powder keg.
Floating Points is the modern heir apparent to the IDM throne, and still riding an absolutely legendary album hot streak that includes 2015’s Elaenia, 2019’s Crush, and this year’s phenomenal Pharaoh Sanders and London Symphony Orchestra collab Promises. But even more impressive is his ability to produce an otherworldly live audiovisual journey – a haunting marriage of technological craft and sonic explosion that induces an out-of-body experience within audiences. Outside of his eye-popping live sets, Floating Points is also a fantastic DJ, especially adept at diving into disco, acid house and garage. Whatever mood you’re in, he’s got you covered.
Frankie and the Witch Fingers
There are a lot of amazing L.A. psychedelic rock bands out there right now, but perhaps the most entertaining live spectacle comes to you via Frankie and the Witch Fingers. Dosing their wily brand of garage-psych with a jammy, vintage kick, the quartet’s shows get the bodies flying and the brains melting. With a diverse discography under their belts, Frankie’s sets take you down heady momentum-shifting rabbit holes which, when combined with a healthy offering of liquid light visuals, result in a pummeling, vortex-like experience that keeps you on your toes at all times. They’ve cut their teeth opening for bands like Thee Oh Sees, Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, and even Cheap Trick and ZZ Top, and now they’re primed to ascend to the next level. We can only imagine what that is…
George Clanton is one of the current figureheads of vaporwave, and between his robust catalogue (which includes his work under the ESPRIT and Mirror Kisses monikers, his work under his own name, and his work with 311’s Nick Hexum) and co-running 100% Electronica with Negative Gemini, the man is always prolific and always ahead of the game. But his concert game is a whole other behemoth. Energy-wise, it’s like an effusive DIY punk show – complete with crowdsurfing, slam-dancing and Clanton’s frequent stage-dives – topped off with a spectacularly unique visual experience (just wait till you see those fucking lights). His show is just about the most entertaining stage romp out there.
If you truly want it, then Gulch will deliver the most painful, nerve-racking, and exhilarating concert experience of your life. The San Jose outfit is one of the most talked about bands in the metalcore scene and yet still a bit of an enigma on the live circuit, which makes them all the more vital. Every time they take the stage, chaos reigns. Their debut album – last year’s Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress – channeled the violent, hurricane-like force of their live shows. In our Top 50 Albums of 2020 piece, Seena Ratcliffe wrote that the album “conjures the sticky floors and smelly, oppressive air of a crowded, tiny all-ages venue or American Legion that’s been rented out for the night. Memories of being punched by a crowd-killer from the pit, people scrambling up on stage only to hurl themselves blindly back into the crowd, swirling masses of flailing humanity, and a ringing in the ear that sticks around for another day or so.” Like I said, you have to truly want it. If so, then definitely make Gulch your top priority. And please, for the love of God, watch out for those windmills (see below).
Industrial techno is a unique beast in a live setting. Dance music in general tends to err on the catchy and crowd-pleasing side; adding layers of static and dissonance turns it into something entirely different – a suspenseful, ominous, warehouse-dwelling sort of vibe. Enter Berlin rave star Helena Hauff, one of the best in the world at conjuring those kinds of moods without sacrificing an ounce of dance floor bopping. Toggling through a mix of acid house, EBM and industrial, Hauff’s DJ sets are always a diverse and unpredictable journey – keeping fans on their toes from start to finish through clouds of fog, cigarette smoke, and strobe lights. She’s the #1 ticket once parties and raves return.
The Danish post-punk marauders Iceage have undergone an incredible sonic evolution in their decade and change as a band, and their live shows reflect that. No longer the nihilistic, bratty punks of their teenage years, (though they can still unleash those teeth-smashing vibes when they want to) their most recent sets were chilling and slithery, with singer Elias Bender Rønnenfelt’s brooding voice and presence steering the icy, ominous goth ship. Their upcoming new LP appears to foreshadow a brighter future, and we can’t wait to see how they render it into their intensely turbulent performances. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re one of the few bands on this list who already have tour dates lined up! You can grab tix HERE.
In this era of slurry, syrupy singer-rappers, the best live performers are still the ones who can rap a million words per minute. Enter J.I.D, the Atlanta fire-breather and Spillage Village member, whose impressive rise to the top of the hip-hop rungs has no doubt been enhanced by his immaculate live performance capability. The sheer inventiveness of his rhymes and flows – able to contort words and syllables into impossible shapes – combined with his slithery on-stage charisma, results in a truly impressive technical performance. Come for his rapid-fire delivery, but stay for the edgy, psychedelic party vibes.
Whenever Jlin performs, she brings the heat. With her punishing and bombastic brand of IDM and footwork, the Gary, Indiana producer slices, chops and buzzsaws her way through sets with ferocious DIY attitude. She’s also known to employ dance troupes on stage – as seen below at Pitchfork Festival 2016 – and musically each set is totally different from one to the next. With such a dense palette of sounds under her belt – including everything on 2017’s mind-blowing Black Origami – she’s guaranteed to deliver something big and combustible each night. If you’re trying to have your face melted off, this show is for you.
I don’t think I can accurately describe just how godly a Kamasi Washington set can be, but I’ll try. It’s basically a religious experience. Kamasi is the preacher, we the fans are his devoted followers, and by the end of his set, he’s got us speaking in tongues. It’s truly something to behold in person. You don’t even need to love jazz and it’ll still change your life.
Kero Kero Bonito
Kero Kero Bonito can do it all. Whether it’s spinning shimmering, vapory pop fairytales, or cranking out noise-tinged lo-fi alt rock anthems, KKB deliver some of the most freewheeling and positive vibes you’ll encounter at a concert. Frontwoman Sara Bonito is a delightful ball of energy; her zigzagging onstage presence and sweetly vocals are the guiding ship on top of the band’s jagged hybrid of electronic pop and experimental noise. Their colorful concerts bring a dose of both worlds: ravey dance breakdowns and killer guitar-driven moshing. A KKB show will have you bouncing around like you’re on that trampoline they’re always singing about.
Kentucky metalcore overlords Knocked Loose are one the most popular bands to emerge from the scene in the last several years. Much of it has to do with their thunderous and highly acclaimed 2019 LP A Different Shade Of Blue, which galvanized fans of metal and hardcore more than just about any album in recent memory. Another reason they’ve received so much (well-deserved) attention is the stupid-levels of insanity that their live shows can reach. If flailing bodies and windmills aren’t your thing, then stay far away, or maybe tucked in the way back. Knocked Loose come at you from every direction instrumentally. Their concerts can best be likened to a cyclone that leaves mass destruction in its wake. If you’re trying to unleash some serious pent-up tension, you won’t find a better setting than a Knocked Loose show. They are relentless.
Ambient music is a wondrous, eye-closed listening experience in which soundscapes wash over you in subliminal, full-bodied ways. In a live atmosphere, it’s a transfixing ride – especially when the performer can conjure his or her own signature sonic twist. The Philadelphia ambient, drone, and new age legend Laraaji is one of the genre’s best and most prolific names; his eclectic stitching of piano, zither and mbira has been hypnotizing audiences for over four decades. He’s still as active as ever, having released the albums Sun Piano and Moon Piano last year to great acclaim, and even treating fans to a series of virtual livestream performances. As the post-COVID era approaches and audiences search for that feeling of sonic catharsis, you won’t find a more serene and meditative experience. You can check out a video below of Laraaji performing with the late great Harold Budd in a cave in 1986, for reference.
Let’s Eat Grandma
When it comes to conjuring futuristic pop music with an experimental edge, there’s almost no act better at it right now than Let’s Eat Grandma. At this rate, the Norwich duo of Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth should be regarded as legends in the making, having achieved their big break in their teenage years with their wondrous 2016 debut LP I, Gemini. They then followed that up in 2018 with what I’d argue is one of the best albums of the last decade, I’m All Ears. Walton and Hollingworth have been making music together since they were very young, and their telepathic chemistry comes shining through in a live setting, as evidenced by their ability to tag-team instruments and verses, and how they even engage the crowd in interpretative dancing. Their shows are part emotional rollercoaster ride, part kaleidoscopic electro pop fantasia, and part performance art. What’s not to love?
Little Simz isn’t just a rapper, she’s a spiritual guiding light. As the U.K. hip hop scene continues to climb to an apex, and artists like Stormzy and Slowthai attain global success, the socially-minded Simz continues to raise the bar with her defiant records and incendiary live shows. Delivering rhymes with machine gun like speed, Simz drops truth bomb after truth bomb with a full backing band matching her beat by beat. Even as fans open up the pits, she’s got them hanging on every word she says. It’s not just fandom. Little Simz is a movement.
Machine Girl are certified maniacs. Their freaky style of breakcore and avant electronic is downright transgressive (and aggressive), and they’ve always managed to channel that energy into a one-of-a-kind live show. The duo’s double bills with fellow noise savages Deli Girls were the hottest ticket in NYC before lockdown, and the idea that they’ve been sitting tight and saving their energy all this time is just scary to think about. With their latest album U-Void Synthesizer taking their sound to digitally dissonant new levels, there’s really no telling what they have in store for audiences next. You really won’t know what’s gonna hit you until you’re actually there.
Negative Gemini is a jack of all trades. Singer, producer, 100% Electronica label head, curator, tastemaker, fashion icon, VR livestream star, the list goes on! Of course she also shines as a live performer, with an ability to conjure her dreamy, echoey electro pop soundscapes and render them into dazzling vaporwave wonderlands on stage – starry lights and fog machines in tow. Neggy Gemmy shows are always a magical affair. She’s also a badass DJ, as you can see from her Virtual Utopia sets. In any case, she does not miss! So don’t miss out.
Of all the great bands leading the British post-punk revival, the rowdy South Londoners Shame possess the most go-for-broke mentality. Behind the throttling rhythms, frenetic riffs and snarling lyrics, they emit such a pervasive, snowballing energy that it always feels like they’re teetering on the edge – like a freight train about to go off the rails. In a live setting, Shame do NOT hold back, always channeling that impending doom and reveling in it without a care for their safety or those in the audience. Frontman Charlie Steen is a relentless onstage presence, though the other members do pull their weight. In fact, it’s very normal to see all of them sprinting back and forth and spinning out with reckless abandon. They’re a gnarly group of guys, but it’s all in good fun.
Sky Ferreira is by far the most elusive and enigmatic artist on this list. It’s been eight years since her breathtaking debut Night Time, My Time came out and she still hasn’t released rabidly anticipated follow up Masochism. She’s also only performed a handful of shows in the last several years. So who knows what the future brings for Sky Ferreira? But all this kinda makes her that much more vital; any piece of new music she might share will be devoured by her fans, and any live dates she may announce will sell out instantly. So if and when that next album cycle and/or tour winds up happening, you’ll want to book yourself a spot. Like on record, her live show is a moody and staticky pop affair, with blown-out audio engineering that somehow only maximizes the power of her voice and melodies. Sky, we’re ready when you are.
Los Angeles-based R&B mastermind Sudan Archives constructs her music beautifully in a live setting. Fastening violin, drum machines and looping pedals around her breathtaking voice, she conjures the type of sound that keeps audiences so transfixed that you could hear a pin drop. When she performs, she has fans in the palm of her hand, with an ability to inject any venue with intimacy. Most of the time she’s a one-woman show – utilizing effects pedals and electronic beats – although sometimes she does employ a full string section. In any form, her sets are mesmerizing, drawing out the more subtle and shapeshifting elements of her recorded music with hypnotic aplomb. Her show is a spiritual experience as much as it is a musical one.
Swedish post punks Viagra Boys are a scuzzy and slightly sinister bunch. They make music that evokes scronky, acid and beer-soaked backyard barbecues, and they sure do have a weird lyrical fascination with sports and nudity. Every piece of their live show – their throttling basslines, pulsating drums, freaky deaky saxophones and off-kilter vocal performances – underscores their one-of-a-kind psycho beach party vibe. Picture an unholy combo of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and X-Ray Spex but with a garage-dwelling jam sesh disposition, and you sort of get the idea. In other words, they absolutely rip.
Most of the acts on this list make you want to either dance, trip or break stuff. Weyes Blood, on the other hand, will have you glued to your seat and gazing in awe, such is the devastating beauty of her music. Her voice is a jaw-dropping instrument to behold, and it drives and powers her cinematic art pop stylings with magnetic effect. Obviously the most ideal place to catch her is in an intimate setting, and yet she has this transcendent ability to take any venue big or small and make audiences feel like they’re watching her in a tight practice space. No matter what, Weyes Blood makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room, and that’s a special quality for a performer.