Lehigh Valley's The Morning Call: Top 50 Concerts Of The Year - Mellencamp #1

Top 50 Concerts of the Year for the region

The Morning Call  by John J. Moser 

The two best concerts I attended in 2011 had a lot in common.

Each featured a veteran rocker at the peak of his ability to connect to the audience, playing precisely the right songs and performing them precisely the right way. And at each show, the artist played with palpable passion.

Here is why those two concerts were so much alike -- and the rest of my Top 50 concerts of the Year.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that my favorite two shows were so alike. They were by the same performer, John Mellencamp, in February at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and in November at Reading’s Sovereign Performing Arts Center.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, either, then, that another artist I saw twice in 2011, Owl City — Nov. 12 at Crocodile Rock Cafe in Allentown, and June 25 at the Mann Center for Performing Arts in Philadelphia — were my next two favorite concerts.

While Mellencamp’s shows seared into your soul, Owl City’s shows were far more intellectual, with the music having a lot of elements of symphonic classical music, and his lyrics were witty, interesting and touching. But his shows, especially the one at Croc Rock, also were fun.

What is a surprise is how many of my favorite shows this year were in smaller venues. My eight top shows all were in venues with crowd capacities of 1,500 or fewer.

But it was that kind of year in concerts. The huge shows were OK, but the smaller shows shone. Musikfest’s new Steel Stage main venue at SteelStacks had very good shows, and set attendance records, and the Allentown Fair’s lineup was solid. But between them, only one show made my Top 10.

It was a game-changing year for small concerts in the Lehigh Valley area with the opening of Musikfest Cafe at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks .

Musikfest Cafe offered up about 125 shows in its first eight months — I attended 20, plus others at the new outdoors Levitt Pavilion. Most were good, but just one made my Top 10. Four, however, are among my Top 50 concerts of the year.

In fairness, I missed perhaps the biggest show of the year: U2’s 360-Degrees tour at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field. I also missed Marc Anthony at Allentown Fair and a few Musikfest Cafe shows I wanted to see — Edwin McCain and Marc Cohn, for example. The reviewers for those shows said they were great.

I missed Elton John — who last year played my favorite concert of the year at reading’s Sovereign Center — at Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza because his publicity people screwed up my ticket request.

But this year, I saw 165 concerts in 47 venues. So I’m confident I got a solid cross-section of what came through eastern Pennsylvania.

Here are the Top 50 I saw:

1. John Mellencamp Nov. 4, Sovereign Center for Performing Arts, Reading, and, Feb. 2 at Academy of Music, Philadelphia. More than almost any of his stylistic forebears, or contemporaries, Mellencamp has faced aging not with the sage understanding of a Bob Dylan or a sad searching of a Bruce Springsteen, but with the same defiance that has always marked his music. His shows were celebrations of that defiance: both were about two hours, with more than 20 songs each, including nearly all his hits. In Mellencamp’s case, oh yeah, life goes on.

Owl City22. Owl City, Nov. 12 at Crocodile Rock Cafe, Allentown, and June 25, The Mann Center for Performing Arts, Philadelphia. In a world where debauchery is promoted as fun in hits by Katy Perry and LMFAO, it’s a pleasant surprise that Owl City’s innocent, uplifting and orchestral songs have found double-platinum success. It also helps that the music is sparklingly good. The show at The Mann Center had the extra benefit of having an excellent opening set by Mat Kearney, but by the time Owl City played Croc Rock five months later, he had added slightly more of a rock vibe and clearly was more confident.

Lucinda Williams Live03. Lucinda Williams, Oct. 28, Symphony Hall, Allentown. In the highlight of a strong new series of popular music shows, Symphony Hall became a seedy dive on the swampy back road of a Southern town, where Lucinda Williams offered up her sins and sought forgiveness in front of a crowd who found solace in her sharing. She poured her heart out for nearly two hours.

Bryan adams34. Bryan Adams, March 13, State Theatre, Easton. The Canadian pop-rocker played the virtually the same Bare Bones Tour set he played a year earlier at Allentown Symphony Hall, and again, it was great. Just over two hours, an astonishing 29 songs long, each infused with emotion, Adams seemed to push his voice — always more passionate than pure, but remarkably well-preserved — to the limits of its range and expressiveness.

English Beat25. English Beat, Jan. 6, Sellersville Theater 1894. Ska music defies age, able to be played in its original form without ever sounding dated. And The English Beat delivered the music as fresh and vibrant as if they were showing off the 18 songs they played in 110 minutes — some 30 years old — for the first time. And the sold-out crowd, many also 30 years older,— danced.

Snoop06. Snoop Dogg, April 27, Crocodile Rock Cafe, Allentown. He showed up more than an hour late and played just 65 minutes. But Snoop schooled the crowded Croc Rock in what a rapper should be. He was insanely cool, with swagger other MCs can only wish for. At times he sang with disdain, other times laid-back and squeezed 19 songs (some of them short) into the set. When it finally comes down to it, he's still the Doggfather.

SteveMiller7. Steve Miller Band, April 30, Musikfest Cafe, Bethlehem. Far more than just a concert, the inaugural performance in the Musikfest Cafe, which was not open to the public, was a memorable celebration. But as a concert, it was pretty memorable, too. Miller captured just the right mood for the cafe’s first-ever show, playing his classic-rock hits, rousing electric and acoustic blues and more with both reverence and fun.

SocialD live28. Social Distortion, Nov. 20, Sherman Theater, Stroudsburg. Social Distortion not only is still around after nearly 40 years, but it also is making some of the best music of its career. The show demonstrated that Social D has aged punk rock precisely as it should have: with a sneer and guitars blazing, by turns rebellious and reverent, current and classic.

Straight live 00009. Straight No Chaser, Aug. 11, Sands Steel Stage, Musikfest. It took a cappella group Straight No Chaser, with Allentown native Jerome Collins and Fork Township native Walter Chase, 3 1/2 years to finally play the Lehigh Valley after its viral YouTube video of “The 12 Days of Christmas” mashed up with Toto's “Africa” got it signed to a record contract. But what a triumphant return: headlining Musikfest with a show lasting nearly two hours, covering 22 full songs (or mash-ups of songs) and three medleys that included parts of 26 others, running a broad variety of styles and ranging from good to stunning.

Rod Stewart Stevie Nicks10. Rod Stewart/Stevie Nicks, April 5, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia. If there’s one thing Stewart and Nicks’ show proved, it’s that time, indeed, marches on. While Nicks turned slower, lighter and — dare I say it, matronly — to adjust for the limitations of voice and age, Stewart barreled forward with a damn-the-torpedoes attitude that made his set far more enjoyable, faults and all.

LMFAO Jingle11. Q102 Jingle Ball, Dec. 8, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia. When it comes to music, you can’t have too much of a good thing. But the radio station WIOQ-FM 102.1’s Q102 Jingle Ball pushed the limit Wednesday with a show that featured 14 performers and lasted nearly seven hours. Luckily, most of that talent was a good thing, indeed. Electro-pop duo LMFAO put on a frenetic, fun, high-energy set that was the highlight of the night. TV boy band Big Time Rush’s set also was fun and enjoyable, it a bit formulaic. Gym Class Heroes also were really good, as were solo Jonas brother Joe Jonas, Fall Out Boys font man Patrick Stump, openers All Time Low and closers Cobra Starship and Flo Rida. Less successful was Disney maven Demi Lovato, and Kelly Clarkson screamed her way (sometimes sounding electronically enhanced) through her set. Avril Lavigne, at least, was occasionally very good, but on other songs was droll and lifeless.

NKOTBSB312. Backstreet Boys/New Kids on the Block, June 5, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia. Whether you liked the New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys concert probably really boiled down to whether you liked the boy bands in the first place. Because that’s what you got: two hours and 20 minutes of mostly hits from the bands’ 1986-2002 heyday, spanning 28 full songs and snippets of at least three others. The sold-out crowd loved it – they screamed, often teeny-bopper style, often danced and sang along to many of the songs. And why not? It was quite an extravaganza. And the songs were performed very well.

Campbell013. Glen Campbell, Sept. 15, University of Pennsylvania’s Irving Auditorium. If Alzheimer’s disease is, as First Lady Nancy Reagan put it in describing her husband, the long goodbye, Glen Campbell said farewell with the equivalent of a warm embrace at his show. Not exactly the robust hug he might have given at his peak, but a hint of greatness wrapped with the best of what remains of his talent and a sharing of memories with his audience. In a 70-minute set of 18 songs, he at times flashed brilliance – even diminished, both his vocals and guitar playing were sometimes stunningly good – and at other times was obviously confused.

Anka014. Paul Anka, June 9, Musik at the Sands, Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem. How great an entertainer is Paul Anka? Consider this: At the Musik at the Sands series he played a show that was virtually song-for-song the same one he gave just seven months earlier at the same venue – even sometimes using the same joke lines. And yet he performed so well, singing with such a great voice and such emotion, that the show not only was great, but somehow seemed fresh. And his crowd – even larger this time at a sold-out 2,000 – seemed to love it just as much.

Ginslive0015. Gin Blossoms, June 19, Sellersville Theater 1894, Sellersville. The Gin Blossoms’ music always was beyond its years. Arising amid grunge in the early ‘90s, it was more thoughtful and musically mature than the rest of the landscape — helping to explain not only its runaway success, but why it still holds up so well. More than 15 years after their commercial peak, the Gin Blossoms as a band also are more than holding up. They showed they not only still can deliver the music, but give a vital performance, as well.

Edwin McCain live216. Edwin McCain, March 26, Gypsie’s Nightclub, Mount Airy Casino, Mount Pocono. Edwin McCain’s show Saturday at Mount Airy Casino’s Gypsies Lounge and Nightclub shouldn’t have been as good as it was. He had played Sellersville Theater 1894 just four months earlier, with a set list that included two-thirds of the same songs. He opened with the same song, his new “Walk With You,” and again closed the main set with his biggest hit, “I’ll Be,” and encored with Anders Osbourne’s “The Lucky One.” But McCain’s show, 12 songs in 85 minutes, was simply great anyway.

Willie Nelson live017. Willie Nelson, Oct. 30, Penn’s Peak, Penn Forest Township. Anyone who goes to a concert by country music icon Willie Nelson expecting a grand show is bound to be disappointed. Because with Willie, the wonder is in the small things. And there were many such small (and not so small) wonders in Nelson’s show. He played a lot of songs: 30 in a 90-minute show. He played a lot of hits. He had a crack band. He played all his own leads. He sang well. He had a great encore. And he hung around after the show.

Wilson Phillips218. Wilson Phillips, Dec. 9, Musikfest Café at ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, Bethlehem. Wilson Phillips’s concert didn’t exactly take its sold-out audience back to the 1990s. Nor did it offer some unexpected act into which the trio had evolved over the two decades since it ruled the airwaves with four No. 1 songs in a year, making it the best-selling female group of all time. Rather, Wilson Phillips sort of simply revisited with its audience – a bit older but all its vocal talents still marvelously intact; a bit more relaxed, but totally without pretention and far more fun. They mixed all the hits with eight Christmas songs and covers. Nearly all were great, and nearly all highlighted the amazing harmonies that made the group such a hit.

19. Mat Kearney, Oct. 28, Crocodile Rock Café, Allentown. The thing that makes Mat Kearney’s music so able to connect so deeply is its honesty. His lyrics come from places deep inside his soul, but they convey the things in life that everyone faces. They’re open and unvarnished, but sympathetic. And they’re delivered in music that’s just as honest and open. Every one of Kearney’s 17 songs in his 85-minute show connected in that way. So successful was his set that its songs were not divided into good and bad, but good and better.

Image120. Theophilus London/Friendly Fires, Oct. 25, Union Transfer, Philadelphia. If there were record charts based on confidence and cool, hip-hopper Theophilus London would rule the music world. Not that he won’t anyway soon, based on his ridiculously good music. But at Philadelphia’s new Union Transfer club, London, a 2006 Pocono Mountain East High School graduate by way of Brooklyn, owned the stage. His 11-song, 45-minute set opened for British dance-rock band Friendly Fires, but it was London who got the crowd of something near 500 dancing.

21. Britney Spears and Nikki Minaj, July 30, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia. Oops! she did it again. Just when reports of Britney Spears' "Femme Fatale" tour had her lip-syncing and sleep-walking through her performance, Spears proved that her death was greatly exaggerated with an entirely acceptable and fairly entertaining show Saturday at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Yes, she clearly lip-synched, or sang over her own recorded voice, for much of the show, especially during the first half of the show, which was a very choreographed spectacle that rivaled the one Lady Gaga put on at the same arena in September. And badly on "Up 'N Down," when she didn't even mouth the words. And yes, Spears' body is more mature than svelte siren she used to be. And her dancing was far more subdued and slower than at previous shows. But Spears' show offered 20 songs in 80 minutes, with the aforementioned spectacle presentation.

SugarlandFair022. Sugarland, Sept. 2, Allentown Fair. Just three weeks after Sugarland narrowly missed a stage collapse that killed seven people at the Indiana State Fair, the hit country duo that was building up its audience at Allentown Fair, not only giving a triumphant performance, but setting a fair attendance record in the process. In a show reportedly reduced in scope because of the loss of much of its equipment in the Indiana tragedy, Sugarland’s music filled any space. Half of the 18 songs that filled the 85-minute show could have been the highlight at any other concert.

23. Parachute, Oct. 10, World Café Live, Philadelphia. Sometimes pop music gets a bad shake simply because it’s, well, popular. But every once in awhile, a pop artist such as Elton John or Billy Joel comes along, and it’s obvious there’s far more than catchiness to its popularity. Charlottesville, Va., band Parachute and its talented front man Will Anderson were like that. They aren’t in the class yet of John or Joel. In fact, the band’s cover of John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)” only demonstrated how far it fall short. But in a refreshingly good set, the band showed that not only are its songs catchy pop, they’ve got substance and, hopefully, the staying power that will let them develop into an artist like that.

24. Relient K, May 13, Musikfest Café at ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, Bethlehem. There’s no denying it: It was unsettling at first to see pop-punk band Relient K, known for its boundless energy and upbeat songs, playing an acoustic show. It also was confusing, because the show hadn’t been advertised as such. But those who remained open to the 17-song, 75-minute show eventually were rewarded. Not only did the concert present fresh and interesting takes on some of the Ohio-based quintet’s best songs, but it offered some truly great highlights.

25. Colin Hay, Musikfest Café, Aug. 21, Musikfest Café at ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, Bethlehem, and April 9, Keswick Theater, Glenside. Colin Hay, former front man of Australian pop group Men at Work, did the unexpected. He played his biggest hit, the 1981 No. 1 hit “Down Under” early in the show, and changed it significantly, transforming it from a light radio hit into something dark and menacing, his voice more expressive than on the original, and finished a cappella. But even more unexpected was the rest of Hay’s sets: each a display of vocal and guitar virtuosity, he reached hearts as he reached for the notes he sang, plucked emotions as skillfully as he plucked the strings of his instrument.

Script live 226. The Script, June 3, Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia. Sure, Irish pop-rock band The Script has songs that are catchy and have some good hooks -- none more than "Breakeven," their huge hit from last year. But that alone doesn't necessarily make for a great concert experience. So why was their show so darned good? Because they did pretty much everything right: They played good songs in a 15-song, 80-minute set, and played them extremely well. And because they did everything they could, wringing out of themselves a passionate-yet-fun effort that clearly pleased the crowd of 7,000 or so.

27. KISS, July 13, Mountain Laurel Center, Bushkill. KISS, for better or for worse, has become family entertainment. That was apparent when the fire- breathing, blood-spitting bad boy band of yore reopened Mountain Laurel Performing Arts Center after a four-year closure. It was evident in the number of children in the crowd, which promoters estimated at 7,000 in the 10,000-capacity venue.

28. The Sweet, July 21, Penn’s Peak, Penn Forest Township. With the band Sweet having just one original member and its last charting single 33 years ago, it could have been expected that its concert would have been a tribute show at best. But who would have guessed that instead, it would be a delightful blast of 1970s music that transformed the small crowd of perhaps 300 back in time with a performance that was enthusiastic and unapologetically authentic.

29. Chris Isaak, June 12, Penn’s Peak, Penn Forest Township, and Dec. 14, Symphony Hall, Allentown. What a wicked game it is that Chris Isaak isn't a far bigger hit singer than he is. Isaak offered up a voice that’s as good as Michael Buble’s or Josh Groban’s, with a show as engaging and entertaining as – well, maybe not Springsteen’s, but really good. And he had songs – 25 of them at Penn’s Peak and 29 at Symphony Hall -- that were both hauntingly heartfelt and raucously rocking.

Bruno Live 130. Bruno Mars, Aug. 30, Allentown Fair. In a day when popular music artists such as Lady Gaga try fill their work with dark, controversial messages and compete to outdo each other with huge stage spectacles, Bruno Mars proved that a show is far better when it’s simply entertaining and fun. With nothing more than an eight-man band and a good voice – and some hard work in the James Brown style of entertaining – Mars pleased the crowd.

Bangleslive131. The Bangles, Oct. 1, Theatre of Living Arts, Philadelphia. The Bangles were at their career peak in the 1980s, and found their inspiration in music of the 1960s. But nearly 25 years after that peak, they were still inspiring as a band, with the sound of both decades ringing out truly, and very entertainingly. In the first show of a tour to promote “Sweetheart of the Sun,” the band’s first disc in eight years, The Bangles not only recaptured what made them hits in the 1980s, but the vibe that inspired them, as well.

Trainlive132. Train, Aug. 14, SteelStage, Musikfest, Bethlehem. Train's closing-night show at a rain-ravaged Musikfest saw the band trying its best, in difficult circumstances, to please a crowd that showed amazing fortitude — and largely succeeding. Train played a 70-minute, 13-song show that, while short (35 minutes less than the band's 2006 Musikfest show) and leaning heavily on the 2009 disc, "Save Me San Francisco" (seven of the songs), hit all the highlights and saw Monahan pull out a lot of stops. And in drenching rain, perhaps brevity wasn't a bad thing.

33. Spin Doctors, Jan. 1, Gypsies Nightclub, Mount Airy Casino, Mount Pocono. With 20 years of radio play behind it, Spin Doctors could very easily do a show that faithfully replicates its hits from the 1990s with very little effort and the crowd would love it. Instead, the band chose to stretch a bit both they and the crowd were better for it. Yes, Spin Doctors relied heavily on its multi-platinum 1991 debut disc “Pocket Full of Kryptonite,” with literally half the show – six of the 12 songs the band performed in a 90-minute set – coming from that album. But the band also offered three good songs from its little noticed 2005 disc “Nice Talking to Me.” And the hits were anything but rote renditions.

Paramore34. Warped Tour, July 14, Toyota Pavilion at Montage Mountain, Scranton. The secret of the Warped Tour is finding its secrets. While shows by headliners such as Simple Plan, Less Than Jake and 3OH!3 at the 17th annual alt music festival are great, they’re also the most crowded and the most difficult at which to get a good vantage point and be comfortable. The set by headliner Paramore was so overcrowded that it was nearly impossible to move or see well – a shame, because the band’s set was good, and enthusiastic.

35. Popped! Festival, Sept. 23-24, Temple University’s Liacouras Center, Philadelphia. In less than 30 minutes on stage, Brooklyn indie-rock band The Hold Steady played more great music than most bands manage in a full concert – including any of the other 11 bands that were on the festival bill that day. The set was the highlight of the fourth-annual festival’s first night. The second and final day was better, with Foster The People, Girl Talk, Pretty Lights and more.

36. Gregg Allman, Jan. 22, Penn’s Peak, Penn Forest Township.

37. Suzanne Vega, Nov. 17, Sellersville Theater 1894, Sellersville.

Maroon 5 0038. Maroon 5, Aug. 6, Steel Stage, Musikfest, Bethlehem.

39. Goo Goo Dolls, Nov. 8, Sovereign Performing Arts Center, Reading.

40. The Dan Band, Dec. 15, Musikfest Café at ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, Bethlehem.

ALison Kraus0041. Alison Krauss, Aug. 9, Steel Stage, Musikfest, Bethlehem.

42. Duran Duran, Oct. 7, Tower Theater, Upper Darby.

43. Chris Cornell, Nov. 23, Symphony Hall, Allentown.

44. Plain White T’s, Oct. 24, Crocodile Rock Café, Allentown.

45. REO Speedwagon, Nov. 10, Penn’s Peak, Penn Forest Township.

46. Tom Tom Club, June 6, Sellersville Theater 1894, Sellersville.

47. Styx, Aug. 26, Penn’s Peak, Penn Forest Township.

Posner248. Mike Posner, April 7, Sherman Theater, Stroudsburg.

49. Berlin, July 23, Mount Airy Casino, Mount Pocono.

Journeyfair050. Journey/Foreigner/Night Ranger, Allentown Fair.

Honorable mention: Scott Stapp, April 16, Sherman Theater, Stroudsburg; Pat Benatar, June 26, Musik at the Sands, Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem; Thin Lizzy, March 24, Penn’s Peak, Penn Forest Township; The Badlees/Miz, Oct. 21, Mauch Chunk Opera House, Jim Thorpe.