Of all the reasons to love Los Angeles, like life-changing tacos, one of the most impressive is the quality of live music here. 2012 was an outstanding year that saw iconic artists like McCartney, Springsteen and the Stones surge to new heights and breakout acts like Frank Ocean, Alt-J, and Haim dazzle us with heaps of charm and promise. Then there were those summer months when “Call Me Maybe” relentlessly blared from every radio, iPod, and in-store sound system. Los Angeles was privy to it all from the dusky warmth of the Hotel Café to the open-air grandeur of the Hollywood Bowl. Here’s our highly subjective picks for the best live gigs of 2012, listed chronologically to avoid ranking a mix of artists that mixes rock legends with emerging performers.
10. An Evening with Lindsey Buckingham at the Wiltern (May 4)
With a passion that makes any show feel like it could be a farewell show, Buckingham stood alone on stage and played a mix of solo work and Fleetwood Mac hits including extended live versions of “I’m So Afraid,” “Big Love,” and “Never Going Back Again.” It was the perfect preparation for Fleetwood Mac’s 2013 tour. See you at the Hollywood Bowl in May.
9. Glen Campbell Farewell Tribute at the Hollywood Bowl (June 24)
Even for those not intimately familiar with Glen Campbell’s catalogue, this show was something special. His farewell concert was also offered some beautiful tributes from Kris Kristofferson, Lucinda Williams, Jackson Browne, Jenny Lewis, and others. Highlights included the entire ensemble singing “Viva Las Vegas,” Campbell performing with his son and daughter, and Campbell reminding the crowd that he can still play a guitar like no one else.
8. Fiona Apple at the Palladium (July 29)
After flying under everyone’s radar for the last seven years, Fiona Apple released one of the best crafted albums of the year, The Idler Wheel…. Walking on stage late at the Palladium, Apple said, “Sorry, I’m late. I don’t really have an excuse. I’m just nervous.” Not once did her stage fright show. Her lyrical prowess, piano skills, and smooth contralto voice were better than ever as she wailed through an angst-filled catalogue accented by the guitar of opening act Blake Mills. By the time the night was through, the 25-year-old, who was slighted by a tactlessly chatty crowd during his solo slot, was the topic of nearly as much conversation as Apple’s welcome return.
7. Laura Marling at the Hotel Café (Oct. 7)
Few artists can command a room quite like Laura Marling, though she never really means to. Though the British folk songwriter maintains that she’s dreadful with stage banter, she easily won over the Hotel Café with stunning songcraft, anecdotes about what she bought her on her first trip to Amoeba Records, and musings on L.A. traffic. The 22-year-old guitarist is a talent all her own, but don’t be surprised when she’s listed alongside musical peers like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
6. Florence + the Machine at the Hollywood Bowl (Oct. 8)
Flo and company owned the Bowl when they finally brought their dynamic Ceremonials tour to L.A. Clad in black gown and sheer skirt, she whirled like a dervish charming the audience, banging on drums in front a massive Art Deco backdrop, and making the entire crowd feel like they’re in in her inner circle, particularly during tracks like “No Light No Light” and “Dog Days Are Over.” Despite a fantastic set that showcased Florence’s maturing vocals, we remain most impressed by her ability to dash back and forth across the stage, barefoot and skipping, without sounding the least bit winded.
5. Mumford & Sons at the Belasco Theatre (Nov. 11)
It wasn’t the Bowl, but Mumford & Sons has the remarkable ability to make any gig feel like a party. In between two dates at the Hollywood Bowl, the London foursome brought foot-stomping folk anthems to the Belasco Theatre for a taping of Live from the Artists Den. It was all about the intimacy of the setting when lead singer Marcus Mumford made a deal with the audience: If we put away our camera phones, they’d put away their microphones. Launching into a beautiful, unplugged version of “Timshel,” the band showcased their intimate side, which is getting harder to see as they sell out arenas in the wake of their wildly successful alcum Babel.
4. Grouplove at the Wiltern (Nov. 17)
Grouplove shows are nothing if not a good time. Clever songwriting, skillful musicianship, and fun personalities collide when best friends Christian Zucconi, Hannah Hooper, Andrew Wessen, Sean Gadd, and Ryan Rabin take the stage. They finished their fall tour with a homecoming show at the Wiltern, where they walked out to a Kanye West track and covered Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” As they gain more experience on the road, Grouplove’s energetic live act just gets better and better. Throw in a whole mess of confetti to cover the dancing crowd, and it becomes harder not to have the time of your life for a couple hours.
3. No Doubt at the Gibson Amphitheatre (Nov. 24)
The Gibson was plaid and checkered as No Doubt returned for a seven-night stand in support of Push and Shove, their first album in 11 years. Gwen Stefani, Tom Dumont, Tony Kanal, and Adrian Young may spend just as much time picking their kids up from soccer as they do making music these days, but their energy is still as boundless as it was in 1999. Incidentally, that’s also the year Stefani stopped aging. Shaking the first show jitters a few songs into the gig, No Doubt gave longtime fans tracks like “Total Hate” and younger fans pop hits like “Hella Good.” It was when they cut loose on tracks like “Sunday Morning” and “Just A Girl” that they shone brightest. It didn’t really matter what they did, though, because that crowd was thrilled to have them back.
2. Soundgarden at the Fonda Theater (Nov. 27)
in 2012, the ’90s revival reached a flannelled fever pitch — but don’t tell Soundgarden. Conventional wisdom would have had the foursome lacing up their Docs and boarding the nostalgic bandwagon to golden coffers. Thankfully, the group instead chose to make their first record in 16 years, and they chose the Fonda to celebrate its release. The soirée boasted a blistering two-and-a-half-hour, 25-song set spread between new material, classics, and deep cuts. They still have the vigor to break their rusty cages and run, even if it’s home to tuck in the kids. (Contributed by Puneet Singh)
1. Haim at the Troubadour (Dec. 18)
It’s possible that no concert this year left us picking our jaws up off the floor quite like Haim, who gave rock a swift kick in the skinny jeans when they headlined the Troubadour for the first time earlier this week. Still fighting jetlag after returning from a UK tour supporting Florence + the Machine, L.A. sisters Danielle, Este, and Alana Haim conjured an even more energetic show than usual for their homecoming gig. Even without a full album, they proved why they’re one of the city’s finest music acts to emerge this year. The best review of the show came from pop artist Sara Bareilles, who tweeted, “I would kill a unicorn if @HAIMtheband would let me carry their laundry. My heroes. Wow. Amazing show.”
Honorable mentions include British folk musician Johnny Flynn, Regina Spektor, and KROQ’s holiday bash Almost Acoustic Christmas. If his Anaheim show was any indication, Springsteen would’ve topped the list, but this is an L.A. list.