WAMM’s picks: the best live shows of 2021

by WAMM staff

Omicron and Delta be damned, live music did return in 2021 and, at least in Memphis, in triumphant fashion. Maybe it’s just the post-quarantimes reentry talking but we had some of the most transcendent live music experiences of our lives this year. So what did we do with all those feels? Wrapped them up into a best-of listicle, of course. Keep reading for our favorite live music moments of 2021.


Dive Bar Love Fest at B-Side

Given that the P&H Cafe is still without a home (Long live the P&H!), my memory of this summer’s benefit concert for the treasured dive bar is a bit bitter-sweet. That said, it remains one of my most cherished musical moments of the past year, both for the exceptional live music and the pervading sense of camaraderie. During that all-too brief moment, there was a genuine sense that the pandemic was behind us and the day-long concert provided one of the first opportunities for fans and musicians to come together again. And as those who were lucky enough to be in attendance can tell you, the performances were uniformly excellent and particularly inspired, from Blvck Hippie to Preauxx to Louis Page. Here’s to hoping that 2022 brings us all a lot more moments like that. – Ezra Wheeler

Mononeon at Railgarten

To kick off Railgarten’s inaugural 901 Fest this September, organizers booked Memphis’ own MonoNeon, the technicolored bass wizard who is responsible for some of this year’s most infectious and funky tunes. Although I had seen him perform before, this particular concert felt like a revelation, as MonoNeon and his band took the audience through a mind-bending journey through jazz, hip-hop, gospel, and soul. Even farcical tracks like “Fartin’ All Ova the World” hit with a certain gravitas, a feat that only a true genius could pull off. – Ezra Wheeler

The Tambourine Bash at the Levitt Shell

While it’s true that Music Export Memphis’ annual fundraiser regularly features one of the best assemblages of local talent year in and year out, the true genius of the concert is the unique collaborations between musicians. This year, the Tambourine Bash upped the ante with a larger venue, more talent, and even more audacious musical pairings. The concert’s blowout ending, which featured all 30+ performers on stage together singing some of Memphis music’s most enduring classics, might just be this year’s most transcendent concert moment. – Ezra Wheeler

Tank and the Bangas at the Levitt Shell

Confession: this pick, for me, is 50% because Tank and the Bangas put on an epically great show and 50% because it was my first in-person concert since the start of the COVID times. It felt so ridiculously good to be sitting on the lawn of the Shell and enjoying live music with friends – simultaneously this brand new thing I’d never experienced before because it had been so long and as if absolutely nothing had changed and life was completely normal. If I had to pick a non-Memphis band to be my first show back post (mid) panini, you can’t do much better than Tank and team. They take their live performances very seriously and every element was on point that night from the musicianship to the fits to the attitudes. Bonus: I always love seeing Tia Henderson, Memphian and Stax Music Academy alumna, on the stage and she’s tearing up the roads (and the skies) with Tank as a backing vocalist. – Elizabeth Cawein

Mempho Fest at the Botanic Gardens

I definitely didn’t see every band that took the stage at Mempho, so it feels like a little bit of a cheat to put the entire fest in my best-of list, but since this particular pick is motivated by how excellent the entire festival experience was, I hope you’ll give me a pass. The Botanic Gardens was a killer set up for this event, and its small-ish size – just two stages, no competing sets – and attention to detail on food and beverage and other auxiliary experiences was a breath of fresh air compared to other multi-day music festivals. I’m definitely not 22 anymore, but even when I was — the crowded, cramped, loud, confusingly-laid-out experience often typical for music festivals was not my cup of tea. Pair this incredible setting with Memphis in October weather and a booking team dedicated to elevating Memphis up-and-comers alongside national touring acts, and you’ve got an event that will be a destination for me for years to come.

Greet Death + Catholic School, The Hi-Tone

Memphian post-punk upstarts Catholic School showed up equipped to impress in mid-October, their debut set an intimidating local support slot for Michigan slow-core titans Greet Death. Not only did CS absolutely pack the Hi-Tone’s small room on a chilly Monday evening, but they blazed through their too-brief set with the kind of tossed-off, confident grace that many long-tenured bands of renown would kill for. Calling to mind Philly nu-gazers Nothing as well as underrated Tampa dream-pop crew Merchandise, Catholic School instantly established themselves as the new Memphis band to watch. – Zachary Corsa

God Rest Ye Merry Theremin, Memphis Listening Lab

The theremin is a fascinating instrument with a very colorful history, one bedecked with rich tales of accidental-genius invention and suggestions of Cold War espionage, and Kate Tayler’s nimble touch with the notoriously-finicky instrument was by turns enchanting and beguiling at the lovingly-appointed Memphis Listening Lab (capably backed by Reigning Sound vet Alex Greene on synth). Concerts that seek to educate as well as entertain often sacrifice a fair bit of the latter for the sake of the former, but here both goals were equally satisfied, and the theremin easily won over the crowd. – Zachary Corsa


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