Going to shows is the best way to experience music these days – the simple truth is, given the chaotic state of the recording industry, musicians know they must deliver live to bond with their audience and attract new fans.  As you can imagine, I attend – gladly and gratefully – many concerts each year.  Here, in chronological order, are the 10 best I witnessed in 2014, with videos that give a hint of what the artists can do in a live setting:

Cassandra Wilson, Highline Ballroom, New York, January 13
Wilson and her eight-piece band were celebrating the 20th anniversary of her “Blue Light ‘til Dawn” album, but the show went well beyond a trip to the past.  With a casual air that belied her mastery, she led the band, featuring violinist Charlie Burnham and guitarists Kevin Breit and Brandon Ross, through a series of sensuous reinventions of the familiar tunes.  In doing so, she reminded the audience that the album was a risk that had paid off.  And as always, her voice was a miracle.

 

White Denim, The Troubadour, Los Angeles, February 8
On their albums, the four-piece band out of Austin offers songs that seem diving boards for lengthy jams.  For their 2013 release, “Corsicana Lemonade,” they tightened their two-guitar attack, and on this night the new approach recast the group as excellent.  Brevity reigned and the music never meandered in a tight set, complex yet direct, driven by knotty rhythms.  

 

Lorde, the Austin Music Hall, March 3
On a rainy Monday in central Texas, the 17-year-old singer-composer kicked off her U.S. with much to prove:  Her debut album, “Pure Heroine,” was an unexpected worldwide hit, and her “Royals” won the Grammy for Song of the Year.  With steely confidence, she delivered a 70-minute show reliant almost entirely on her voice, songs and presence – no whiz-bang pyrotechnics or laser lights here.  By its end, it confirmed her status as a talent of significant merit with a huge future.

 

Damon Albarn, the Austin Convention, March 14
As if to symbolize the whirlwind of the annual South by Southwest Festival, Albarn was everywhere, performing the music he made with Blur and Gorillaz.  But his fragile solo album “Everyday Robots,” raised in part from dewy memories, suited this early morning presentation.   Its quiet blend of folk, electronica and West African music provided a deeply satisfying and memorable experience.

 

Woodkid, the Gobi Tent, Indio, CA, April 11
At the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, as Bonobo, Chromeo, the Glitch Mob, Nicolas Jaar, and the Replacements played elsewhere on the giant pitch, the French singer-songwriter and video producer Yoann Lemoine, who performs as Woodkid, staged an intense show that blended his majestic symphonic rock and baroque pop with his visual artistry.   As astonishing as it was completely unexpected – I happened to be passing the tent as the set began – Woodkid’s Coachella performance was the best concert I witnessed in 2014.

 

Nickel Creek, the Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, April 18
After three days in the California desert, a trip to Music City provided a palate cleanser, as did the tricky, often dazzling progressive folk of the reuniting Nickel Creek, a trio comprising Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and her brother Sean.   Welcoming them back, the rabid audience reacted as if Elvis had been raised from the grave.  Avoiding the trappings of clichéd Americana, the three musicians responded with the charm and virtuosity that’s evident on their ’14 album “The Dotted Line.”   

 

My Brightest Diamond, Bowery Ballroom, New York, September 25
The show opened with a joyous, bone-rattling performance by BatalaNYC, an 11-piece drum band, and it segued seamlessly into Shara Worden’s set of rhythm-centric rock.  Fronting an extraordinary duo of drummer Tim Mulvenna and bassist Nathan Lithgow, the concert demonstrated that Worden’s new sound, as presented on her album “This Is My Hand,” appeals to the body as much as it does the mind – and is every bit as rewarding as the cerebral, classically influenced music of her earlier recordings.

 

Robert Plant, Brooklyn Bowl, New York, October 9
The late stages of Plant’s career have been dedicated to the moment:  that is, what he’s done before isn’t as important as what he’s doing now.  Accordingly, Plant and his terrific band, the Sensational Space Shifters, played for about 600 people a set that blended West African instruments, banjo, upright bass, synthesizers and standard rock gear to explore his compositions as well as rearrange standards by Willie Dixon, Blind Willie Johnson and Bukka White.  As for the Led Zeppelin tunes, he took them apart and presented them with wit, irony and only a hint of reverence.   Would that every classic rocker was so imaginative and forward focused.

 

The Allman Brothers Band, Beacon Theatre, New York, October 28
One of rock’s greatest groups called it a career after 45 disjointed years and countless shows of inspired improvisational blues and rock.   Led by guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, and with Gregg Allman’s voice at its growly bets, the band ripped through its standards with fiery passion and the telepathy honed during the lineup’s 14 years together – the longest tenure of any Allmans’ unit.  The show concluded on the 43rd anniversary of founder Duane Allman’s death.   In the aftermath, I realized that it’s unlikely that we’ll ever again see the likes of the final version of the Allman Brothers Band. 

 

Cold Specks, the Echo, Los Angeles, November 11
Offstage, Ladan Hussein is thoughtful and unassuming, but when the show starts she reveals her authority as a singer and composer.  Backed by an outstanding and versatile band featuring Chris Condy’s baritone sax and bass clarinet, she moves easily among her compositions that tap into folk, gospel, R&B and rock for a smart, distinctive mix featuring a voice that’s equally compelling as a whisper or when on the edge of a roar.  One of music’s great joys is to witness the ongoing development of a special talent.  On this night, Hussein seemed poised to seize whatever opportunities may come Cold Speck’s way.