Over the next couple of weeks we’ll be looking back at 2021 and looking forward to 2022 with a set of top ten lists compiled by our team of editors. 2021 has been the year of many things we’d like to forget, but one thing that might hold a fonder place in the memory bank is the return of live music. We look back at the ten best gigs we attended during this exceptionally long year:
Kelly Lee Owens – This is the bit where lazy end of year me just tells you to go and read the review I already wrote about this astounding gig. But it truly was astounding, so it deserves to be revisited here. For me there are two reasons that made it stand out from all the other great gigs this year. First, we danced. Not a simple head nod or side to side sway, but really danced. It was the perfect amalgamation of club and gig. Second, we really felt it. Sure we heard all the other gigs, but this one we really felt. All the grief and elation in Kelly’s music, every swing of her dark hair, every bounce through the springy floor of the Ritz, we felt it. And my did it feel good.
Squid – Maybe it was because it was my first full house gig since March 2020, but there was something particularly special about Squid’s gig at Manchester’s Albert Hall in September. The setlist was perfect and, from my seat on the balcony, the sound was as crisp and clear as I ever remember it being at the venue.
But it was the energy that really made the evening. The energy from the band who went full throttle all evening, but even more than that – the energy of the crowd. I watched the pit go wild all night from my vantage point, but as everyone in the higher seats stood up and danced to the cathartic closing performance of ‘Pamphlets’ it was clear that Squid had given everyone in the room the release they’d been waiting for. Live music was back with a bang.
Nubya Garcia – My affection level for jazz remains at the ‘admiration’ point of the scale. It hasn’t quite advanced to ‘enjoyment’ yet; I like my hip-hop inflected with it, my film soundtracks punctuated with it, but boredom sets in when I listen to a full record. There are signs things are changing though, given how much I enjoyed 2021 releases from the likes of Alfa Mist and Nala Sinephro. And I’m mighty glad I took a chance on another of the new brigade’s leading lights, Nubya Garcia. The first gig I’d seen since the plague began was an enthralling affair, with Garcia warmly chatting with the audience in between bouncing renditions of the lengthy cuts from her debut album, Source. The positivity of the atmosphere was a welcome reminder of the joys of live music.
Rina Sawayama – The joy in the room that night at Albert Hall Manchester seeing Rina Sawayama ascend from outsider to Pop Superstar was felt by every person present. I can’t remember the last time I witnessed a pop show as awe inspiring as this, or one performed at this scale. She made the church like venue feel like an arena delivering vocals, choreography and star power from start to finish. Her self titled debut album was a highlight even in a year without live music, but on stage it came alive.
Whether genre hopping between ‘Dynasty’, ‘Comme Des Garcons’, ‘Paradisin’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Save You Now?’, or delivering an emotional crowd moment with Chosen Family it felt like every single person in that venue was along for the ride with Rina. Her cool wit introducing ‘Akasaka Sad’ by cheerily announcing ‘This is a song about Depression!’ made for one of the most exciting live music gigs I can remember. Rina Sawayama is the most engaging Popstar we’ve seen since Lady Gaga.
Kano – With all the other brilliant real life gigs that made a return in the second half of 2021 you may wonder why I, the one who “hates” rap (I will attempt to correct this misunderstanding in a longer article in 2022), am picking Kano’s televised Worthy Farm performance. In a normal year, whether you attend Glastonbury or not, the Pyramid Stage headline sets are always one of the talking points of the summer. With no festival, no main stage and a livestream meltdown this year, the performances we did get to see, did not have the same impact. This is why the very best of those performances, from Kano, needs to be mentioned here. Simply, it was extraordinary. A white suited Kano, in the rain, doing more with one microphone than you imagined possible. It was terrific drama, his interactions with other performers recalling moments of theatre. Would I go and buy an album now? No. Would I go and see him live, even if it was half as good as this? Absolutely.
Little Simz – I’ve made little secret of the fact that I was pretty disappointed in Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, feeling that the hideous skits and too much filler dampened down the excitement and ambition of the project.
But if it left me with any doubts about the magic of Little Simz as an artist (which it didn’t, really) they were soon extinguished by her performance at Manchester’s Albert Hall. I can’t remember the last time I saw an artist own a stage in that way, making me feel like, even as I stood among the most people I’d been surrounded by in the whole of 2021, she was inviting me to sit down in her living room while she told me about her life. She was intense, entertaining, fun, captivating, and original – all the things I never doubted about her.
Blossoms – It really felt like Blossoms’ first ever headline Arena show would never happen. Originally planned for late March 2020, it was supposed be the final show of a victory lap tour of their brilliant Foolish Loving Spaces album, but it was rescheduled over and over again. You could tell the Stockport band had to do this show, their biggest gig ever in the arena they grew up closest to, they were jumping at the chance to perform as soon as it was safe to again. The first live music gig back at Manchester Arena at all, the atmosphere in there was unreal. It felt like being back home after being away for so long and the adoration felt for the band and the venue by a home crowd was incredible.
It felt like they were giving the show of their life too, years of hard work playing literally every other venue in the Greater Manchester area was leading to this point and it was a privilege to be there to witness it. The audience were with them every moment, I’ve not seen a crowd so engaged for a band like this before. As someone who’s had so many memorable times at the arena too, it was almost an emotional night for me too, everyone just so grateful to be there and screaming along to great music again.
Shame – This was an odd gig in many ways. Not only was it the first show I’d been to since March 2020, but it was also the first time in my life that I’d been to a gig with a girlfriend who was nearly eight months pregnant. If all of that wasn’t bizarre enough, it was also my only socially distanced gig so far. Being seated in the Trades Club, while watching a raucous punk performance, was a different experience – but Shame are so good live that they really made it work. Vocalist Charlie Steen has so much energy that it made up for us all trying to dance in our chairs, and as the band belted around the stage I remembered why I loved live music so much. Utterly mesmerising.
Laura Marling – Oh look. Another Picky Bastard yammering on about Laura Marling for the 1827th time, how unoriginal. The problem here is that Laura is just so good, that I couldn’t shut up about her show at Albert Hall for weeks. I’ve never seen Laura perform entirely solo before, my first set of shows from her being when starting playing with a full band, so this night felt extra special. Songs from 2020’s terrific Song For Our Daughter came alive on stage, while the audience were entranced as she played so many of her all time greatest music.
I would happily pay to see Laura Marling perform the Once I Was An Eagle suite once a year for the rest of my life. A transcendent moment in a masterclass of an acoustic gig.
Anna B Savage – I feel like I’ve written about Anna 300 times already this year, so I nearly didn’t take the time to add her gig at Night and Day to this list. But that would be silly. Anna’s music has soundtracked my 2021 and there were few moments this year as transcendent as standing 3 feet away while she people my favourite recent songs.
Most impressive of all, she showed herself to be a true rock star at the same time as a ridiculously humble performer. Not only does she have my album of the year and song of the year- she might also have my gig of the year, too.