“Dude, I swear they were better live.” We’ve all given that excuse before, in an effort to defend the bands whose brilliance we’ve seen firsthand, but who failed to deliver when confined to a studio. There’s just something about a live setting that brings out the best in certain bands, where they can show off their chops and let their personalities shine through their songs. No tricks, no gimmicks, no hiding: they can either play or they can’t. And every now and then, we come across a band that takes the stage and blows even their own recorded work out of the water.
Jenna — Grouplove
I was listening to “Tongue Tied” and “Colours” before they were radio hits, but once Grouplove started to blow up, I forgot about them. It’s one of those “Oh, everyone listens to them and they’re overplayed, so why should I listen to them?” moments. It wasn’t until I saw Grouplove at ACL 2013 that I gave them a second chance. I was watching from a distance, but it was easy to see how much fun they and the crowd were having. The band had just released “Spreading Rumours,” and I was familiar with a few songs, but I just couldn’t get into it. It wasn’t bad by any means, there was just something missing — the live performance. Grouplove brings their songs to life when they perform. It’s not just the music. It’s their clothes and dancing, their love and energy — the same love and energy the crowd feeds off of and returns to the band to make for a special show.
Maria — Flaming Lips
I distinctly remember sitting my parents’ living room at 13 years old, watching Wayne Coyne crowd surf in a hamster ball at VH1’s The Who Rock Honors and thinking, “I have to see The Flaming Lips live before I die.” Granted, I hadn’t heard a single Flaming Lips song yet, and once I did, I reevaluated my previous thought. The band’s psychedelic sound might make it seem like they’re just a bunch of chill, super high dudes playing music that will lull you to sleep, but their shows are exactly the opposite — to an extent. From huge, confetti-filled balloons, to people onstage dressed like rainbows and Wayne Coyne hurling a huge pile of silver streamers into the crowd every five minutes, there’s always something to keep you entertained at a Flaming Lips show. I recently saw them, and not only did I have the time of my life, but I walked out looking like a princess piñata had just thrown up all over me. Sure, the crowd at a Flaming Lips show tends to be older, but you wouldn’t guess it based on the energy and good vibes everyone gives out. The Flaming Lips proved my skeptical 13-year-old self wrong, and I’m so glad they did.
Bryan — Beartooth
I had lost some faith in Beartooth after their 2014 full-length, “Disgusting,” which featured a more refined approach than 2013’s “Sick” EP and some truly cringeworthy choruses that would have been right at home on KISS-FM 96.7. Still, I was willing to give the band the benefit of the doubt at SXSW this year, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Stripped of their studio sheen, they were just five dudes playing heavy, take-no-prisoners hardcore. “My voice is shot, so I need your help singing these songs,” frontman Caleb Shomo told the crowd, a personal invitation to jump onstage and bellow into all three mics, including his. Never have I seen such incredible sportsmanship and crowd participation at a show, with kids shouting and stage diving like their lives depended on it. It brought me back to my “local scene” days at home, where going to metal shows shaped me into the person I am today. I say that without the faintest hint of irony, and for Beartooth to evoke those feelings after so long makes them winners in my book.
Belicia — Chappo
I needed to secure a good spot to capture footage of White Arrows at Stubb’s indoor stage, which meant I also had to watch an opener whom I was completely unaware of and uninterested in. As the band took the stage and the lights dimmed, frontman Alex Chappo walked in from the door beside me and politely said, “Excuse me, I need to get to the stage.” As he passed me, I noticed his tan leather jacket with a giant eye sewn on the back and turquoise feathers jutting from the shoulders like wings. Now I was interested. I would describe the band’s sound as a weirder version of the Killers, but it was their stage presence and gypsy vibes that made the set memorable. Chappo danced and waved his arms like Jack Sparrow, constantly flinging confetti at the audience and joining us on the floor multiple times, where he would climb on people’s shoulders and hang from the pipes of the low ceiling. I listened to Chappo on the ride home but was disappointed. What I heard onstage was not the same thing playing from my speakers. The guitar was noticeably weaker, and Chappo’s voice lacked passion, as if the band had been sapped of their energy. They still sound great from my earbuds, but they’d be much better off if they transferred their onstage power to the recording studio.
Emily — Manchester Orchestra
To my 15-year-old self, standing amidst the sold-out crowd at Baltimore’s Rams Head Live, frontman Andy Hull looked like a god. I went to the show for opener Cage the Elephant, but left that night a Manchester Orchestra convert. I remember being ready to faint when they played my two favorite songs, “The River” and “Simple Math,” back-to-back. Manchester Orchestra is a passionate band, and the imperfections in Hull’s voice when he puts his heart and soul into a performance accentuate the intensity of his lyrics. Their songs aren’t meant to be heard through iPhone speakers, but screamed into a microphone onstage in a small, sold-out venue to a hysterical crowd of people who know every word. At one point, the audience stopped singing entirely to listen to Hull’s pain-drenched voice during “100 Dollars.” “If you knew I was dying, would it change anything?” he later sang during “I Can Barely Breathe,” before smiling and asking the crowd to join him for the rest of the song. As the band smiled, thanked us again for coming and swiftly left the stage, I remember thinking, There’s no way that those are just normal guys. Four years later, Manchester Orchestra remains of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever seen. Listening to their music on its own is still good, but it just doesn’t compare to listening to Andy Hull choke on his words and seeing the guitarist fall down to his knees as the band played behind him.