The final part of /Countdown 2023 sees me looking at the best gigs of the year.
Some statistics for my gig-going in 2023. I went to 38 shows (each festival is counted by number of days – so Infest is three days, so counts for three shows), and saw 125 live sets. I saw 122 unique bands, three of them more than once, at 32 venues, and my wife saw 31 of the sets with me. These gigs were in eight cities or towns, in two countries (the UK and USA).
/2021/not awarded (COVID)
/2020/not awarded (COVID)
/2019/Teeth of the Sea
/2018/The Young Gods
/2017/Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
/2016/Cubanate / Cold Waves V
This has been a more settled year, but an extremely busy one. I managed to see a lot of shows, even if probably missed just as many more by no longer living in London.
Here are the ten best shows I saw in 2023.
/The Shacklewell Arms /London
They might have been great at Cold Waves, but their rather smaller – and sweatier – debut show in London in November was an absolute riot. Their songs have clearly caught a great many fans over the past few years, so this show saw them playing to an excitable crowd that knew pretty much every word, and the atmosphere was such that the band were visibly surprised and happy at the reception. This just pushed to greater heights, and was the best synthpop gig I’ve seen in a long, long time.
/Grant Lee Phillips
/Music Hall /Ramsgate
Back in the early nineties, one of my great loves were the various US bands that were exploring the Americana revival within the Alt-rock sphere. One of those was Grant Lee Buffalo, and I was able to reacquaint with my most beloved albums of theirs when they were reissued in the Spring. But in the meantime, I headed up to Ramsgate on a late-January evening to see Grant Lee Phillips, the lead singer of that erstwhile band, put on a lengthy solo show. There were new songs, there were old songs, there were even requests (which resulted in an utterly joyous take on The Shining Hour). The kind of gig that left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling for days afterward.
/Royal Albert Hall /London
Despite having been a fan of Tori since I first heard Little Earthquakes as a teenager, I’d never seen her live – to the astonishment of many of my friends. The ticket to this RAH show wasn’t cheap, but it turned out to be worth every penny. Noting her long-time relationship with this venue – I believe Tori has played there quite a few times over the years – this seemed to give the chance for a set that reflected that past, with some surprising inclusions from the earlier albums and an awful lot of fan favourites. A particular, and very unexpected, highlight for me was a rollicking take on Little Amsterdam.
/Electric Brixton /London
While dEUS haven’t been inactive in recent times – they’ve toured regularly – the latest album How To Replace It was their first album of new material in a decade. As is usual with dEUS live shows, too, while they are willing to indulge their fans with old favourites, the sets are almost always built around newer material on the whole, as they want to continue pushing forward, not getting stuck in the past. This show was proof that they keep doing the right thing, I can tell you.
/St. George’s Hall /Bradford
The return of Infest 2023 felt like the beginning of a new era. With the Bradford University venue no longer available, a search went on for a new venue that would be suitable, which as I understand it took them some way from Bradford – but in the end, they returned to Bradford and the impressive confines of St. George’s Hall. It was a wise choice, with friendly staff, lots of space and a live performance space a million miles away from the University.
As always, there were particular highlights: Beborn Beton made a triumphant return on the Friday night, with a lengthy set of synthpop classics that was notable for new songs being as popular as the old hits, while young industrial-punks Capital X pretty much blew the minds of everyone there – and are certainly ones to watch. Then there was the closing set from Test Dept., the radical industrial legends. Using the giant stage to full effect, their stately, political take on industrial was a thought-provoking, quite brilliant close to the weekend.
/Incineration Festival 2023
/Electric Ballroom /London
2023’s edition of Incineration Festival was the usual race around four Camden venues to catch as many bands as possible – and it was something of a mixed bag at points. But the day was opened, at midday (!), by Scottish slam-death loons Party Cannon in the Underworld, and they owned the day. There was happy-hardcore intro music, inflatable beach balls (and a large inflatable Orca later) in the crowd, set-closing push-ups, lunatic samples and some of the best death metal you’ll hear.
Perhaps more bands should take themselves less seriously. It’s far more entertaining.
/HERE at Outernet /London
Daveed Diggs might be better known in some quarters for his acting these days, but Clipping., the industrial/rap act he fronts, remain a striking, progressive force. This summer night show at the ultra-high-tech new Central London venue was fantastic fun, with Clipping.’s fierce electronics given the best possible sound and Diggs whipped up a storm amid an enthusiastic crowd. And who knew one of the most thrilling live songs I heard all year would be based on a sample from a Whitehouse track? Oh yes, Wriggle absolutely destroyed.
/Cold Waves XI
I made my fifth trip to Chicago for Cold Waves in September, and once again it delivered in spades on both old favourites and impressive new acts. On the new front, the striking noise and rage of Lana del Rabies sounded like absolutely no-one else, while A Split-Second supercharged their sound and provided the best performance I’ve ever seen from them (the new, upgraded version of Bend My Body Armour was something else). 16Volt made their return to live performance after a good few years, and even threw in a punchy new track ahead of the expected 2024 new album, while Godflesh steamrollered us on the Sunday night.
The weekend, unexpectedly, belonged to Front Line Assembly. With Tim Skold on guitar, Bradley Bills on drums, and of course Bill and Rhys, they played an utterly pulverising set that was pretty much as perfect a set as I could have ever wanted to see. Especially one that started with a rip-roaring take on Vigilante.
Will I be back in 2024? You can be damned right I’ll be trying to be.
/Moth Club /London
Sure, Brainiac have had something of a renaissance recently – partly thanks to the outstanding Transmissions After Zero documentary, the slew of reissues that have followed as well as the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tim Taylor’s death in 2022. But even I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that the surviving members would reform to tour – with the assistance of fellow Dayton, Ohio musician Tim Krug.
I pounced on a ticket as soon as they were available, and spent a cold January Monday night in Hackney with a roomful of similarly excited people. You know how many reunion shows are pedestrian affairs, mindful of the age of the audience (and band)? There was none of that here, as the rejuvenated band absolutely ripped through a set covering all corners of the band’s releases – with John Schmersal and Tim Krug sharing vocals (the former mostly the clean vocals, Krug mostly the many effects-led vocals) – and it was an absolute blast.
Something I never thought I’d see again – I was fortunate to see the original line-up in 1996, at a gig that rewired my young brain – was one of the best gigging nights of my life.
/Islington Assembly Hall /London
Of all more recent “extreme” musical projects, it is perhaps not especially surprising that Kristin Hayter has retired the extraordinary emotional force of their Lingua Ignota project. But before it was retired, a handful of closing shows were announced, and the first of a pair of London shows in October – the very last ones – was a jaw-dropping tour de force. Just Hayter and a piano, she stripped back many of her best-known songs for a medley lasting an hour, and for most of that time you could have heard a pin drop. It wasn’t an easy listen, but it was enthralling, and the right send-off for a project that has run it’s course. And by some distance, the best show I saw in 2023.