Having seen 263 different bands live, and a good many of those more than once, I offer you a top 10 list based on ample experience. Oh there might be better live bands out there, but mark my words, these guys are among the very best.
10. Sunn O)))
1 time: 20090917
Recommended album: Black One, or their collaboration with Boris: Altar
Sunn O))) is what happens when an ancient mystery cult encounters electricity. This is probably the closest you can get in this day and age to a true pagan spiritual experience. This is amplifier worship in the literal sense.
9. The Mountain Goats
1 time: 20061029
No Children off of Tallahassee
Recommended album: All Hail West Texas
A funny looking man picks up an acoustic guitar and starts singing you a story about two young lads named Jeff and Cyrus. As the painfully awkward lyrics inform you of their botched efforts to form a metal band, accusing society’s lack of tolerance for holding their dreams at bay, you really start to wonder whether you should cheer the guy on or steal his lunch money. Then the story reaches its conclusion with a chorus of “Hail Satan! Hail Satan tonight!”, everyone in the audience is singing along, and you at last realize that it doesn’t really matter whether you understand the guy or not. This is delightful. If you bother to dig around a little, read more of the lyrics, catch the references here and there, you’ll come to find that John Darnielle absolutely “gets it”. The joke was on you. But it was a clever innocent joke, because everything this guy writes is just as honest as it is intentionally comical. Show up, sing along, listen to his stories, walk away smiling.
2 times: 20080516, 20080517
Hail to the Hammer off of various albums
Recommended album: Eric the Red
“Viking metal” is as much an ethos as a musical style. Indeed, I hesitate to label any but the most undeniable bands “viking”, as opposed to “folk” or “pagan”. But in Týr we find the true third generation of the genre, following Bathory and Falkenbach, with whom they share little stylistically save a knack for writing anthemic heavy metal pagan hymns. I never got into Týr much until I saw them live, but was impressed by their great vocal harmonies, trance-like song progressions, and most notably the confidence with which they could hold the stage even when singing a cappella. By the end of the night I was making arrangements to drive three hours away to see them again.
3 times: 20060614, 20071031, 20090527
St. Cajetan off of Cracker
Recommended album: Garage D’Or best of compilation
Cracker are the most underrated band of the last 20 years. I’ve been a fan since Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now) and Low were radio staples in the early 90s, but when I finally saw them live for the first time in 2006, I was blown away by their energetic stage presence. Johnny Hickman is a rock guitar guru, blending the established melodies with bluesy improvisations that at no point feel forced. David Lowery, nearly 50, rocks out harder than most younger musicians today. You’ll show up with limited hopes of tapping your feet to a few old familiar songs and discover a band that ranges from head-banging rock to slow tongue-in-cheek ballads to plodding blues-worship masterpieces.
6. Explosions in the Sky
1 time: 20070429
Your Hand in Mine off of The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place
Recommended album: The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place
The name says it all. Granted I saw them main stage at Coachella on a sound system set to support Rage Against the Machine’s first gig in nearly a decade, I have to imagine their music completely encompasses any venue. Explosions in the Sky write songs so compelling that you will completely forget you’re at a gig. The music penetrates everything in its vicinity and thrusts itself into you so forcefully that no amount of distractions will diminish the experience.
5. The Decemberists
4 times: 20040627, 20040628, 20061024, 20090814
excerpt from The Hazards of Love
Recommended album: The Crane Wife
The Decemberists have evolved from a thoroughly entertaining sideshow into a complex, operatic experience, without losing track of their original nature. Last time I saw them they performed the Hazards of Love rock opera in its hour long entirety without breaks, then returned for a good half hour of interactive fun. Audience participation is required, but hard to resist when they’re marching up and down the aisles in parade, awkwardly yanking people out of their seats to perform weird skits set to their older songs.
3 times: 20070316, 20071019, 20080629
Farewell off of Pink
Recommended album: Akuma No Uta
A youtube comment for this video described Farewell as “probably the greatest sludge ballad of all time”. Remember that feeling of disintegrating into the world that you got the first time you listened to Converge’s “Jane Doe” or Explosions in the Sky’s “The Birth and Death of Day”? A video of Boris can’t possibly do them justice. The shear volume of sound is their most distinguishable characteristic. On songs like “Farewell” it will disolve you. On songs like “My Neighbor Satan” it will implode you. On songs like “Naki Kyoku” it will chill you out in a mellow bliss.
5 times: 20060723, 20061124, 20070707, 20071006, 20090923
Womb with a View off of War Party
Recommended album: Beyond Hell
Ever seen a man in a pig suit get a spear jammed up his ass and split out the top of his spine? Ever get soaked in the blood and puss launching forth from the gaping wound, while a monster with a three foot dick sings about raping your girlfriend and feeding her to bears? …What, that doesn’t sound fun? Everyone should see GWAR live at least once. You will either become a cult follower or start going to church more.
2. Dropkick Murphys
3 times: 20070913, 20080307, 20090629
Kiss Me, I’m Shitfaced off of Blackout
Recommended album: The Meanest of Times
If you’ve ever drank a beer and liked it, you are a Dropkick Murphys fan. Their gigs are more like giant parties… Well, parties with bagpipes and Guinness.
1. Blind Guardian
2 times: 20061210, 20061211
Mirror Mirror off of Nightfall in Middle-Earth
Recommended album: NiME or A Night at the Opera
Hansi Kursch is the King of the Nerds, and we must give our worthy sage the rightful placement he deserves. What happens when you combine Iron Maiden stage presence with the most epic melodies ever written and lyrics about the Dark Lord Sauron? Click and see my friend. Click and see.