Bob Boilen’s 116 Favorite Concerts Of 2013

By Bob Boilen  |  NPR

I didn’t watch any TV shows in 2013. I only saw one movie that I can remember. But I saw over 662 shows in 2013, 549 bands in 139 clubs in 21 cities. It was a perfect year.

What I get out of a great live performance that I don’t get out of a pre-recorded event is a sense of risk, an adventure shared with a room full of people. Music is a living language, an exchange that happens between players on stage, fueled by fans. When I look back on my top 10 shows of the year — 10 shows I’ll never forget — I remember magical moments that may not have taken place if each particular element of player, place and people hadn’t come together on a given night. A great show makes you feel like you’re part of something.

Below, read about my top ten concerts of the year, then find the complete list of the 662 performances I got to be a part of in 2013, listed in chronological order, with the 116 concerts I rated four stars or above in bold. (Yes, I rate every concert I attend. Every song I listen to as well.) Go to @tinydesk to find my Instagram photos from nearly every show, or press play on the video above to let a year’s worth of concerts speed by in about a minute.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit
Ballake Sissoko & Vincent Segal - Atlas Performing Arts Center, Washington, D.C.

A French cellist and a Malian kora player seem an unlikely duet to create the most fiery and memorable performance of 2013, but the interplay between this African harp and the cello was transcendent. I honestly believe these players are still discovering the possibilities in their virtuosity. It's simply delightful and uplifting to witness.

See a Ballake Sissoko & Vincent Segal Tiny Desk Performane.

Sigur Ros - Patriot Center, Fairfax, Va.

For a few decades, I stopped going to shows at arenas. These places may work for sports, but for music they always felt soulless. Then along comes a band from Iceland to transform the commercially bland Patriot Center into something more like a church than an arena. I felt sorrow and joy; a friend next to me wept. The music of Sigur Ros is atmospheric enough to change a space in a heartbeat. I was connected in a way words fail.

Hear a full concert by Sigur Ros.

James Blake - 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C.

I saw James Blake three times in 2013 and all three belong in my top 15 shows. I love electronic music, the way it can set your hair and teeth vibrating. But I love it even more when it's mixed with something acoustic, something grounded. Maybe that's what makes the human voice the perfect foil for computer-generated sound. Blake and his fabulous band manage to build live loops and create more music than three people should be able to without relying on pre-programmed beats and loops. This show was soulful and adventurous. I loved it.

See James Blake live in concert.

Colin Stetson - The Bitter End, New York City

The connection is so direct. A man, his breath and his saxophone. In this case, a bass sax, about the same size as the man blowing into it. The sound is overpowering, almost beyond human. Stetson's circular breathing — blowing hard while simultaneously taking air in — means the notes go on forever, overtones cascading in ways that feel electronic and processed, except they're not. It's actually just a man, his breath and his sax.

See Colin Stetson in concert.

People Get Ready - Atlas Performing Arts Center, Washington, D.C.

When you see a good number of shows in a given year, it's almost a given that you'll get used to people on the stage standing still while they perform, whether it's on a laptop or guitar (this is especially true for the kind of music I'm attracted to). Generally, there's a charismatic leader, the one who commands the stage. It's rare to find that attribute in an entire band, but it's why I love People Get Ready. This is performance art inseparable from music, a combination of dance, drum circle and rock band. It's wonderful to have something visual to engage with, but this band's show works because it's not just about entertaining the audience but also firing up the performers. What I see each time I've seen People Get Ready play (I saw them twice last year, after they played my favorite show of 2012) is an unforgettable set of songs played without a moment you could call ordinary, a show filled with excitement and surprise for players and viewers.

Find more on People Get Ready.

The Front Bottoms – Flux (Drexel University), Philadelphia, Pa.

I saw The Front Bottoms three times this year. All were stellar, memorable and physical events, but none as perfect as the show in the stuffy, sweaty basement of Drexel University back in May. Brian Sella writes songs worth singing along to, and that's exactly what the hundred-plus students in attendance did night, though maybe screaming in cathartic release is the more appropriate description. It went on like this all night, through old songs and new, as kids were being hoisted and held sailing frightfully above the sweltering crowd, bumping into the low-hanging lights that lit the stage. There wasn't a dry shirt in the crowd when the night was over and everyone felt so much better for it.

See A Tiny Desk Performance By The Front Bottoms.

Laura Marling - Lincoln Theatre, Washington, D.C.

Laura Marling came to a newly revamped and grand Lincoln Theatre, stepped on stage with just an acoustic guitar and her magnificent voice, played the first five tunes from her new album without pause and completely won my heart. Her words and her phrasing are so penetrating, so precise, so organic and calculated at the same moment. I've seen Jeff Tweedy and Colin Meloy both stand solo on that stage with just a guitar. And I still can't recall the last time I've seen someone be so commanding and elegant and make it seem so effortless with just one guitar and a voice.

Hear Laura Marling In Concert.

The Blow - Pianos, New York City

Of all of my favorite shows, I came to this show knowing less about the band than any other and walked out having discovered my favorite album of 2013. The performance by Khaela Maricich was a mix of performance art, storytelling and singing, all done to electronic music performed by Maricich's partner Melissa Dyne. For touchstones imagine Laurie Anderson and Joni Mitchell together on a street corner, telling tales of life and love.

Find More On The Blow.

The Music Tapes - Rock & Roll Hotel, Washington, D.C.

Julian Koster and The Traveling Imaginary converted a local rock 'n' roll club into a circus by literally putting a circus tent inside the venue! Before the music started there were bean bag tosses, blindfold games and wonderments led by Julian Koster and his merry band. When the band performed it was like witnessing a magic show inside an old-time radio show. The music was enchanting and included Julian bowing his banjo his musical partner on horns and countless other instruments. And the sounds were fantastical. There were horns, keyboards and countless other instruments. Koster bowed his banjo alongside Static the singing television and a seven-foot-tall metronome. What this group does is unique, otherworldly and huge fun for the whole family.

See A Tiny Desk Performance By The Music Tapes.

Alt-J - 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C.

I find it thrilling when something more than a recreation of the recording happens at a show, but somehow, there are tons of shows where what you get is just a livelier version of the records and somehow I still come away thrilled. Of all the bands of that ilk I saw in 2013, Alt- J thrilled me the most. I've now seen this band tour basically the same set of songs from their one and only album five times in three different cities and every time, the songs trump the mediocre visual performance or lack of one.

See Alt-J Live In Concert.