2015 was the first full year I lived in Phoenix, and this year, my music habits tended toward extremes. I made an effort to attend as many arena shows as possible, while the albums I listened to most were either from local artists or small indie acts. Here are the 10 best concerts I attended all year.
Muse — Saturday, December 5, at Gila River Arena in Glendale: In 2004, my best friend from high school won tickets to see a British rock band called Muse at the 550-capacity Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado. As a college freshman, I was in no position to turn down a free show. The band, which was playing arenas in the U.K. but hadn't yet established a stateside audience, proceeded to blow my mind. So when Muse came to town this year, I was skeptical. How could a show in a hockey stadium compare to an intimate club gig? But the arena show was nothing short of phenomenal. The band's new release, Drones, is a concept album dealing with indoctrination into some sort of New World Order-type society, and the way Muse set up the stage made the concert experience like watching a summer blockbuster. I doubt I'll tell stories about Glendale 2015 like I do Boulder 2004, but the experience of watching a band push the boundaries of what an arena concert can do isn't something I'll likely forget for a long time. Read the full Muse review here.
U2 — Friday, May 22, at US Airways Center (now Talking Stick Resort Arena): The problem with arena concerts is that so many artists stage them as they would a smaller performance. They throw a stage at the end of one arena and scale up the lights and visual effects from the smaller venues. The problem is that arenas are designed to provide sight lines into the center of the floor — presumably where most of the action of a game occurs. Why not use that to your advantage as a performing artist? U2 realized this, designing an entire set around a catwalk stretching between two stages at either end of the arena floor. A cage the width of the catwalk descended from the rafters, onto which various animations were projected. The entire show was a spectacle to match the theatrics of U2's music.
Tool — Saturday, October 31, at Tempe Beach Park: There was a lot of controversy surrounding comments Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan made in our cover story about him this year, and it was all leading up to Tool's only concert of 2015, a Halloween show at Tempe Beach Park. The concert itself found an energized Tool reaching back in its catalog to its first EP and even debuting a section of an unfinished new song. The band dressed up like Led Zeppelin for Halloween, and even did cover of Zep's "No Quarter," the first time Tool had performed the song in years.
Eagles of Death Metal — Tuesday, October 20, at Crescent Ballroom: November 13, 2015, will go down in history as a day the world changed. It could have been any band on stage at the Bataclan in Paris that night. Terrorists stormed the venue and slaughtered 89 people who just wanted to get out and enjoy a night of escapist rock 'n' roll boogie. I feel connected to those inside the theater. I was one of them, seeing the exact same band, less than a month earlier at Crescent Ballroom. Eagles of Death Metal was playing a rare live show with Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme on drums. Before the show, frontman Jesse Hughes took a picture of the YMCA's flagpole silhouetted against the setting desert sun. It was the most political thing that happened all night. The band played with energy and had the entire sold-out ballroom dancing to the band's raunchy tunes.
Rihanna and Kanye West — Saturday, January 31, at DirecTV Super Fan Stadium in Glendale: Super Bowl Sunday was easily the craziest weekend I've ever witnessed as a music journalist outside of South by Southwest. Money and moneyed people poured into Maricopa County, and there were more concerts and parties than anyone knew what to do with. There were some extremely hot tickets that weekend, including a Steven Tyler acoustic set, but there was no single event more impressive than Rihanna and Kanye West's performance at DirecTV's private Super Saturday party. Rihanna performed a slew of hits to a crowd of what couldn't have been more than 1,000 people, and Kanye performed a 10-minute set of his own. Each of these performers on their own could have easily sold 10,000 concert tickets.
Taylor Swift — Monday, August 17, at Gila River Arena in Glendale: Taylor Swift's entire concert was an infomercial of how awesome a bestie Taylor Swift is. Thinking back on this show, the most memorable part is how Swift enlisted her high-powered female friends — Lena Dunham, Selana Gomez, the sisters of Haim — to record video interviews about what it's like to be friends with 2015's most important singer in pop music. I left the concert euphoric on the experience, but a week later, I wasn't listening to her music anymore. I barely even wanted to be her friend. Looks like the brainwashing didn't hold.
John Mellencamp — Wednesday, July 29, at Comerica Theatre: Pretty much every shade of white person imaginable attended this concert. White collars, blue collars, and every color in between. It's a testament to what John Mellencamp has accomplished in his career. He's a hero of the heartland for a reason. This concert was marked by a fine performance from Mellencamp and a near show-stealing violinist, but almost as equally entertaining was Mellencamp's stage presence. He spoke with the timing and authority of a seasoned comedian, and listening to his gravelly speaking voice was like lying in a field on a sunny day.
Rush — Monday, July 27, at US Airways Center (now Talking Stick Resort Arena): You have to work very hard when you're in a rock trio like Rush. For example, when the guitarist plays a solo, the bass player and drummer have to work together very closely to ensure the groove never falters or sounds thin. The more members in the band, the less responsibility each player has. When you play music as complex as Rush, you don't have a lot of room for error. The most impressive takeaway from the Rush concert was how the band made everything look easy — Geddy Lee played impossibly difficult basslines while singing notes in the stratosphere, Neil Peart's drums drove the energy of each song, and Alex Lifeson's guitar wove everything together. Rush's show was long, sprawling, and at times inaccessible to the casual listener, much like the band itself. But for a band celebrating its 40th anniversary, the energy and technical expertise were impressive.
Aerosmith — Saturday, June 13, at Gila River Arena in Glendale: In contrast to other arena shows — e.g., Taylor Swift, U2, Muse — Aerosmith didn't even try to pull out all the stops for its concert. Just a basic stage with some extenders to the wings and center of the crowd. But when Steven Tyler fronts your band, you don't really need any extras. Seeing Tyler perform live was impressive in itself. The show was unapologetically no-frills, and the music spoke for itself: You could never have listened to an Aerosmith record in your life and still recognize 75 percent of the set list.
George Clinton — Thursday, August 13, at The Pressroom: I heard from someone in the know that George Clinton and company had a tough time getting to Phoenix, and when they arrived, they played pretty much the same set they've played each of the four or five times I've seen them. But as worn out as the band may have been, the show was a reminder of why this band is so important. The combined efforts of the dozen-plus musicians on stage created a rich wall of sound, and the crowd at the Pressroom was dancing regardless. Clinton's legacy is intact; it will live on in both his albums and the vast number of hip-hop songs that have sampled them. But the man deserves to be playing arenas.