Gazette reviewers Michael Hochanadel, David Singer and Kirsten Ferguson pick their top shows of 2016.
Feb. 24. James McMurtry at The Hangar. Playing solo, he delivered miniature novels of telling detail and deep truth about underdog lives on the ragged edge where greed has shoved working folk.
March 12. Willie Nile at WAMC’s The Linda. A full band blast: After deep-rocking originals, he melted Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” into David Bowie’s “Heroes” as the near-capacity boomer crowd surged to the front of the stage.
May 1. Nellie McKay at the Van Dyck. A solo show packed with musical mastery, humor and passion. She claimed “I just wrote that!” after the Beatles’ “If I Fell,” joked in “Mother of Pearl” that “Feminists don’t have a sense of humor,” and sang “Dear Mr. Sanders; you made me love you!” to Bernie. Everybody loved her.
Aug. 7. DakhaBrahka at Music Haven. Three Ukrainians played hip-hop, folk dances and pop on a music store worth of instruments. Even in a proudly international series, this world-beat show stood out; like Lisa Lisa rapping a wedding in the Urals, Rasputin strutting in a Mardi Gras parade with Sun Ra.
Nov. 11. NRBQ at the Egg. A highlight film of faves, with variety and skill set at over-the-moon terrific. They played cool rockabilly outbursts, fractured blues, highway-roaming car songs, love songs and zippy jazz.
April 23. Jennifer Nettles at the Palace. After less-than-great openers, Nettles hit like an unexpected jolt of energy, took charge immediately and didn’t let go. Bringing The Palace to another level with her performance and authoritative presence, she peaked with an emotional “Purple Rain” two days after Prince’s death.
March 26. Joan Baez at The Egg. The sold-out Hart Theater filled with the sound of reverence as 75-years-young Baez made music from decades ago that sounded as fresh as if written this year. She sang spirituals, folk tunes, political ballads; songs of John Lennon, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, and she told great stories.
July 2. Phish at SPAC. They play here so much that calling them a top concert of the year, every year, feels boring. But it’s hard to avoid. It’s an event, like the circus coming to town, and each year they play updated tricks. Their first of three nights was strong, crisp and to the point, pushing past three-plus hours.
Sept. 18. “Weird” Al Yankovic at Proctors. Music concert or comedy show? His first-ever Schenectady show was both: a hilarious concert that wouldn’t work without the music. He turned hits we all knew from over four decades into zany, ridiculous acts. The full, all-ages audience walked out smiling, humming songs from their own vintages.
Nov. 11. Ani DiFranco at The Egg. DiFranco writes solid, clever songs, plays a consistently solid show and always delivers. In a political event as much as a musical one, just days after the election, she gave fans a place to gather, lament and commit to a better future. Timing made DiFranco’s songs and delivery extra poignant, especially her opener: Sam Cooke’s soulful “A Change is Gonna Come.”
Feb. 8. Bruce Springsteen at Times Union Center. The Boss revisited his classic 1980 double album “The River” in an epic two-and-a-half-hour performance that kept the sold-out arena rapt during the quieter numbers and lifted fans to euphoric heights with the rockers.
April 1. Gogol Bordello at Upstate Concert Hall. The New York City Gypsy-punk band whipped the crowd into a delirious frenzy that barely let up for two hours. The long-running band played cuts from their fan-favorite album “Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike” in honor of its 10th anniversary.
April 21. Beach Slang at the Hollow. Shortly after the show they would break up in a huff, before getting back together. But on this night, the scrappy Philadelphia punk band was on fire, channeling the ghosts of the Replacements and playing the kind of fun, sweaty, devil-may-care rock and roll that seems all too rare these days.
July 21. Freakwater at the Low Beat. More than 20 years after this idiosyncratic alt-country band from Louisville, Kentucky released their early, seminal albums, they made a very rare area appearance in honor of “Scheherazade,” their first record in more than a decade — treating fans to the gorgeous vocals and quirky camaraderie of frontwomen Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin.
Oct. 26. Elvis Costello and the Imposters at the Palace Theatre. Costello’s brilliant 1982 album “Imperial Bedroom” got the nostalgia treatment here, but not a rote replay. Instead he mixed up and reinvented such classic tracks as “Tears Before Bedtime” and “Almost Blue,” interspersing them with bristling tunes “Pump It Up” and “Lipstick Vogue.” The band rocked and Costello seemed happy to be there.