Hole in My Head

Best Live Music of 2023 in Review

Little did I know in 2001ish when I made a list of 90s bands I wanted to reform and see live, that over 20 years later I would have seen every one of them live, with the final two to reform topping my favourite gigs of 2023.

I don't know if it's something about autumn and winter, but like last year, my most favourite gigs came towards the end of the year.

Slowdive at The Ritz, Manchester

Music or Slowdive fan or not, I think everyone should see Slowdive live. Assuming the P.A. is up to scratch, they're unlike anyone else I've heard live.

At times it's like being washed over with waves and waves of beautiful melodic noise.

The first few tracks tonight sounded incredible: "shanty," "Star Roving," "Catch the Breeze," "Sleep," and "Souvlaki Space Station" - with the bass guitar from the latter vibrating the floor.

Slowdive's epic cover of Syd Barrett's "Golden Hair" ended the main set (definitely a contender for greatest cover song of all-time), with a beautiful "Dagger" starting the encore, followed by an awesome-sounding version of "the slab" (I was grateful for that as it seems the closest I'll ever get to hearing Collapse Under The Empire live with their only gig being in 2016) and the best ever "40 Days" I've heard live to end the set.

It was great to see all age-ranges as well as Halloween dress in the audience and on a couple of Slowdive members.

The only disappointment was no "Avalyn," which I think is by far Slowdive's best live song. But despite the lack of Avalyn - Slowdive were still good enough tonight for an all-time favourite gig - it felt like an absolute privilege to be there. It was my ninth Slowdive gig since they reformed, with another two planned in 2024.

Slowdive are also number 1 in my Albums of 2023.

Symposium at Club Academy, Manchester

It was difficult to pick a single photo from this gig, as I captured a few great moments. In the end, I couldn't resist sharing the air time!

Frontman Ross Cummins called last year's comeback gig in London a "mass therapy session," and after an especially awful couple of years for me personally and how amazing the gig felt, I completely got that sentiment.

Another November, but this time a better year for me, and how was it? Simply brilliant again, and post-gig, the most smiling faces I saw all year.

Symposium live are infectious, like a pandemic of enthusiasm. Even a track like "Bury You," with its dark lyric "I wouldn't bury you, even if you died" feels amazingly uplifting - so it must be something about the music that's cathartically joyful there. Symposium do have an absolute load of irresistible heavy guitar riffs.

Ross and bassist/vocalist Wojtek Godzisz thanked security for doing such a great job (lots of crowdsurfers, including Ross multiple times).

Easily the most fun gig of 2023.

With A (including a new song amongst the highlights) and Dega Breaks as support bands, this was a brilliant triple-header.

Outlander, Panic Shack, Lambrini Girls, and Victories at Sea at The Crossing, Birmingham

Future Days in Birmingham in 2023 had one of the best festival lineups I've seen, with these bands my highlights.

Post-rockers Outlander had an incredible enveloping sound with the longest set I've seen by them. Transcendental! The highlight of a great festival.

Panic Shack's great-sounding garage punk was part of an excellent performance including fun theatrics. "I Don't Really Like It" with the interchanging vocals and build from slow to fast was very effective and one of the best live songs I heard all year.

Future Days was full of bands with important messaging, and Lambrini Girls were least shy and most punk of them all. There was fun amongst the anger, as seen in the photo of guitarist/singer Phoebe Lunny above. It was an immersive experience all round, with many such forays into (and around and above!) the crowd. "Boys In the Band" - calling out sexism and abusers in the music scene - was the brilliantly raucous highlight.

I'd wanted to see Victories at Sea for years and after Future Days wish I'd seen them sooner within minutes of this gig. Unexpectedly danceable, and driving bass lines.

Hannah Aldridge at The Strines Nightingale, Stockport

The most intimate venue of the year, like being in someone's living room. The sound was brilliant too, with plenty of tracks from my favourite Hannah Aldridge album Dream of America, whose gorgeous Americana and gothic country features in my Albums of 2023.

Lots of fun and good humour too, with Hannah Aldridge trying her best (and doing very well) to praise the UK after Lachlan Bryan (in The Pleasures' support set and Hannah's band) dissed the UK in saying how much he loved it.

It was a great gesture for Hannah to invite The Pleasures back onstage for the penultimate song of her own encore.

The Pleasures themselves were good too, making this one of the best double-headers of 2023.

I can't find my photos of Hannah Aldridge's solo performance in the beautiful setting of St Lawrence's Church in Biddulph from earlier in the year, so here's someone else's photo. A stunning totally acoustic "The Great Divide," where Hannah stepped down from the microphone and stage, was the highlight.

Little Simz at Academy, Birmingham

Striking visuals and great rapping from Little Simz.

A minute's silence mid-set (the state of the world) was unexpected and felt more thought-provoking for it.

"Venom" (not one of my favourite Little Simz tracks previously) and its massive beat drop was a highlight, as were previous favourites including "Broken" and "Introvert."

The Waeve at Band on the Wall, Manchester

It was this gig that made me realise how good The Waeve are, with everything from the debut album sounding excellent. Superb walls of sounds at times too - not something I expected.

Slow Crush at The Flapper, Birmingham

Slow Crush and their massive melodic walls of noise are the closest live I've heard anyone to Slowdive while at the same time sounding like no one else but Slow Crush. While I said Slowdive feel like "being washed over with waves and waves of beautiful melodic noise," with Slow Crush it's kind of like being crushed by that melodic noise, but in the most beautiful way.

With Birmingham's very own shoegazers Graywave as support, this was the best double-header of 2023.

Slow Crush were also one of my gig highlights of 2022.

Rodney Branigan at Fulford Village Hall, Fulford

By far the most interesting and varied set I've seen from a solo performer, Rodney Branigan played for well over an hour and a half, with the "normal" singer-songwriter kind of material, his entertaining two-guitar songs, vocals with bass guitar-only tracks, superb looped vocal-only tracks and all sorts.

A funny guy too.

Joel Gardner supported, with the kind of excellent percussive guitar I'd only seen before from Jon Gomm. Another great double-header in 2023!

Film School at Jimmy's, Liverpool

As the first shoegaze band I saw live - supporting British Sea Power in 2008 - Film School will always be a special band. I chatted to the band after, saying that "Compare" (from Hideout) sounded especially incredible and how I imagined Slowdive to sound live. The band seemed to take my excited raving as a compliment, saying Slowdive were a big influence.

Tonight in Liverpool was a super high-energy gig with brilliant sound. My only disappointment was the lack of my favourite Film School song "Crushin'," which was an encore option on the setlist. But I can't complain; I didn't think I'd see Film School live again. My highlights tonight were tracks from latest album Field and that highlight from all those years ago, the wonderful shoegaze noise of "Compare."

Modern Age and Tripwire provided excellent support, with a unique instrumental by Modern Age sounding especially good. I wouldn't be surprised to see them go onto big things.

Film School also feature in my Albums of 2023.

Blur at Wembley Stadium, London

A gig that warmed up eventually as the sound improved. Full of hits throughout the set, I loved seeing/hearing Phil Daniels on "Parklife" - that's what rose the Wembley gig above the Wolverhampton gig earlier in the year.

Surprising highlights included the heaviness of "Oily Water," and "Under the Westway." "The Narcissist" sounded great live again. "Country House" was fun, and when I could hear it, the gospel choir sounded amazing on "Tender."

STRFKR at The Deaf Institute, Manchester

Last in the UK 10 years ago, I'd missed STRFKR and their knack of getting everyone dancing.

The chilled out and repetitive (in a great way) "Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second" was spine-tingling, followed by great-sounding new track "Always/Never." "Golden Light" was another highlight, with a long instrumental build up.

But "Isabella of Castile" blew everything else away, getting me grinning (it's one of my favourite songs), sounding stratospheric and very different to the lighter version I first heard live 14 years ago.

"Bury Us Alive," despite its title, was a wonderfully upbeat and danceable set-closer.

The Big Moon at The Sugarmill, Stoke-on-Trent

I loved The Big Moon when I first saw them in 2017, and over the years they've become even better - they fill whatever room or tent they're in with joy - a gig highlight of the year whenever I see them.

Compared to previous gigs, I did think a track from the debut album earlier in the set would've helped the energy in the room tonight - those songs all came later - but it was still a wonderful gig with plenty of those spine-tingling vocal harmonies, including the a capella opening to "Formidable."

And their latest album Here Is Everything is their best so far according to me, with the harmonies on "2 Lines" reaching The Polyphonic Spree-live levels of magical at The Sugarmill.

In the encore, frontwoman Juliette Jackson joined the crowd for a party-level eruption of "Bonfire."

Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs at The Sugarmill, Stoke-on-Trent

Great heavy riffs and noise. Loud from start to finish.

Fun facts on the night included Noel Edmonds being born at Trentham Gardens in 1917 and inventing clay (frontman Matt Baty had done his research on the local area).

James at Civic Hall, Wolverhampton

Three songs in (especially "Five-O" and "Waltzing Along") and this was shaping up to be one of the best gigs ever. For some reason, the rest of the gig didn't sound quite as good, but it was still solid with a great mix of rarities and classics, with my own favourite "Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)" another highlight.


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