Best Live Music Shows of 2018

On an October Monday, within a 200-yard stretch of State Street, Lil Sluggers brought the squeezebox, New Haven heroes Elison Jackson rocked out, and A Hawk and a Hacksaw took an audience to Eastern European and beyond, while The Lost Tribe and Orquesta El Macabeo laid down grooves from West Africa and Puerto Rico for a crowd that didn’t stop moving.

The two simultaneous shows at Cafe Nine and the State House raised two roofs and showed that there were enough music lovers in the Elm City to go around for a most eclectic night of music.

The two shows mark our favorite night of music in New Haven in 2018. We couldn’t go to every show. For every gig we attended, there were other shows all across town, from Firehouse 12 to Pacific Standard Tavern to the Anchor Spa, to the Rough Draft and the Space Ballroom, to basement shows and house concerts, ranging from jazz and punk to hip hop and folk. But that Monday night gave a little taste of everything — as do, we hope, the other shows that stood out in our minds when we discussed the year in shows on a recent episode of WNHH’s “Northern Remedy” (see bottom of article).

Year of the Horse at Cafe Nine

Singer-songwriter Christopher Bousquet, a.k.a. American Elm, had joked for a while that he was going to write a rock opera. Turns it it wasn’t exactly a joke. Bousquet revealed that he had written a song cycle called The Year of the Horse. It was about love and loss and the passage of time, and as he pondered the 11 songs he’d written, he imagined others singing them. He thus asked 11 other New Haven-based acts if they would each perform a song. They all said yes. What followed wasn’t just a celebration of Bousquet’s songs, but many of the songwriters who make the New Haven scene what it is.

Audio Jane, Tiny Ocean, Lys Guillorn at Cafe Nine

The year 2018 was marked by groups that were fronted by women or in some cases all women, from La Tunda and the Shellye Valauskas Experience unleashing albums, to the formation of Roses Wild, to the emergence of newcomers Shy and Passing Strange. The triple bill of Audio Jane, Tiny Ocean, and Lys Guillorn at Cafe Nine was one of several such shows this year, with New Haven music scene veteran Guillorn side by side with Tiny Ocean and Audio Jane, each of which released debut recordings this year. Together the three bands warmed up an autumn night.

Marc Ribot and Ceramic Dog at Cafe Nine


New Haven also saw its share of names come through town, showing that the Elm City is one place to hear big acts in smaller spaces — a gift for music lovers. One such show was Marc Ribot and Ceramic Dog. Ribot has played for years with the likes of John Zorn and Tom Waits and plays big festivals all over the world, but the guitar wizard came as part of a trio to thrill a rapt audience at Cafe Nine. It was a rare example of a long concert that could have been longer, as Ribot showed his music to be as vital as ever, sharp, emotional, and overflowing with possibility.

Cafe Tacuba at College Street Music Hall


Speaking of big names, Mexican alt-rockers Cafe Tacuba fill stadiums in Latin America and ever-larger halls with each passing tour in the United States. The band landed at College Street Music Hall to greet a full floor of screaming fans who knew the words to nearly every song — particularly those off the band’s masterpiece of an album, Re — and summoned the band back on stage through four encores. College Street isn’t a stadium, but the exploding energy in the room for the entire night made it feel like one.

Murdervan, The Danglers, and The Ratz at Three Sheets


With Murdervan singer and guitarist Shaun Bowen back from California to visit, one of New Haven’s hardest bands hit the Three Sheets stage to deliver a set of blistering rock ‘n’ roll, supported by the Danglers and the Ratz. The gig showed that New Haven’s rock ‘n’ roll scene is still alive and kicking.

Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds and Slim Cessna at Cafe Nine

The double bill of Kid Congo — like Bowen, visiting New Haven after moving away not long ago — and Slim Cessna turned the State Street club into a dance party for a night, just as Kid Congo did when he lived in town. Sometimes music is about profound emotional experiences, and personal expression. And sometimes it’s just about getting sweaty. New Haven this year had room for both, and more.

Karen Meat and Shy at Cafe Nine

The New Haven-based Shy showed that she wasn’t, delivering a strong set of songs backed by a tight, talented rhythm section. But Cafe Nine’s taste for the eclectic was on full display with Karen Meat, a delightful and unique band from the Midwest that was Exhibit A for the argument that, even when you don’t know who the band is, sometimes you should just go out and take a chance.

Light Upon Blight at Best Video

Light Upon Blight’s ongoing series of shows at Best Video, often providing improvised soundtracks to movies from Carnival of Souls to Naked Lunch, was just one facet of the way New Haven’s noise scene walked into the spotlight this year. In addition to ongoing shows at Firehouse 12 and Never Ending Books, noise acts found their way to the Hamden institution, to Cafe Nine, and at venues across the city for the Elm City Noise Festival, which gets stronger with each passing year and shows that New Haven’s audience has some of the biggest ears around.

R&B Night at Terminal 110

Meanwhile, with live music every Wednesday and Friday at least — and crowds that make the place feel like Saturday no matter what night of the week it is — Long Wharf’s Terminal 110 has established itself as one of New Haven’s best spots for R&B and soul. At the club’s R&B Wednesdays, people who want to get up on stage and perform sign up beforehand, telling the ace house band what they want to sing. The band delivers every time, and so do the singers, cheered on by friends and music fans alike. The result is a parade of joyous discoveries as the club fills with people; then a DJ set runs until closing time, every time.

Click below for the conversation about the best shows of 2018 on WNHH’s “Northern Remedy.”

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