San Diegans are spoiled. Not only do we have arguably the best weather on the planet, but America’s Finest City also houses some of the best live music venues in the country. Sure, occasionally, some bands choose to bypass us on their way to L.A. or San Francisco. But ultimately, they’re just missing out on what can be a really great market.
For local concertgoers, the choices are pretty much limitless.
From the biggest names at the biggest venues to the buzziest of buzz bands at the most perfectly scuzzy dive bars, San Diego has it all. As long as you have the time and means, almost any musical taste can be satiated. And we still have it pretty good, at least comparatively, when it comes to the general proximity of venues in the county.
Here are 12 of the top local shows I saw in 2018. As always, I’m sure that I missed some really great ones. But believe me, I wish I could’ve been there for them all.
1.24: Ty Segall & The Freedom Band at Belly Up
Assembling the same group of musicians who played on the bandleader’s excellent 2017 self-titled ninth album, the show took place only two days before the release of Segall’s phenomenally diverse 10th album, Freedom’s Goblin. Because the set list primarily drew from these back-to-back scorchers, the show was perfectly unhinged from the very first note.
3.3-4: CRSSD Festival at Waterfront Park
CRSSD has a few really great things going for them. Not only do they have one of the best outdoor venues on lock for their bi-annual flagship event, but they’ve also made a wonderful habit of crushing the lineup year after year. And this one might have been the best roster they’ve assembled to date. With acts like Empire Of The Sun, Anna Lunoe, Nicole Moudaber, Little Dragon, Tchami, Bonobo, Sasha, Gorgon City, Shiba San, Camelphat and more on stage, CRSSD outdid themselves during the spring show.
3.14: Oh Sees @ Belly Up
When this show came to town, bandleader John Dwyer had recently spent a lot of time playing mellower tunes with his duo, OCS. But it was back to the best live show on the planet, as well as the recently edited moniker Oh Sees (from Thee Oh Sees), for this one. Propelled by the crushing (as well as mesmerizing) dual drums of Paul Quattrone and Dan Rincon, the relentless rockers ripped through another intense set heavy with tunes from their then-latest release, 2017’s Orc.
3.24: Durand Jones & The Indications @ Soda Bar
The Indiana University-born soul quintet have made quite a name for themselves after releasing just an 8-song debut that was (get this) done for less than $500 and intended as a demo. Dual vocalists Jones and drummer Aaron Frazer are perfect foils, and along with band mates Blake Rhein, Kyle Houpt, and Steve Okonski, had the entire Soda Bar enraptured that night. But they’re no longer a secret. With proper sophomore release American Love Call due in March, their upcoming show that same month at the Casbah is already sold out.
4.12, 17: David Byrne @ San Diego Civic Theatre
The former Talking Heads frontman played a pair of shows on either side of Coachella’s first weekend on this trip to S.D. The Oscar-, Grammy-, Golden Globe-winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee brought one of the most original stage set-ups in recent memory — a non-stop, choreographed, nearly two-and-a-half hour performance where all 12 people on stage either wore or carried their microphones and instruments. Plus, on the night of the 12th, Seattle’s amazing Perfume Genius (Mike Hadreas) opened the show.
4.25: The Distillers @ Casbah
Brode Dalle, one of rock’s most engaging and powerful singers, got her old band back together after something like a 14-year absence for this. The L.A.-based punks hadn’t released an album since 2003’s Coral Fang, so the question was: Could Dalle come back as strong as she once was? The answer: stronger. After the first few lines of opener L.A. Girls, it was apparent that both Dalle and the band were in top form. This was ultimately a warm-up show for a bigger visit at The Observatory in September, but it’s hard to imagine a better set than the one they delivered in April.
5.4: Khruangbin @ Belly Up
Even though the best place to see this mostly instrumental, Texas-born, three-piece would be on a beanbag chair in a renovated opium den, the Belly Up is probably the best local choice. Unfortunately, instrumental music tends to give way to audience chatter, and this night was certainly no exception. But if you went in with knowledge of trio’s fantastically groovy catalog, there’s no way you could have left disappointed. The sound was fantastic. They played again in North Park later in the year, but this band is definitely best enjoyed in cozier confines.
5.10: Slayer @ Valley View Casino Center
I’ve seen Slayer at all kinds of different venues — including Iguana’s in Tijuana (and survived the pit!) — but there was only one reason to make the pilgrimage to Point Loma in May. Thrash metal’s most dangerous band had decided to hang it up after 37 years of incessant head banging and moshing. And, despite the 2013 death of founding guitarist and fundamental contributing member Jeff Hanneman, the band’s local farewell show still sounded as loud and dangerous as ever.
5.13: Kendrick Lamar @ Mattress Firm Amphitheatre
Although this show was technically billed as Top Dawg Entertainment: The Championship Tour, it was really a victory lap for Lamar and his record label. The multiple Grammy-winning rapper was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music in April, and label mates SZA, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, and Sir Lance Skiiiwalker were there that night to help him celebrate the monumental occasion.
8.22: Mura Masa @ Observatory North Park
The extremely young and talented beat maker and producer story is old hat by now. But Mura Masa’s story is one that still deserves to be told. The 22-year-old Grammy-nominated DJ, producer, and multi-instrumentalist’s 2017 self-titled debut showcased his ability to masterfully design sonic backdrops for a diverse roster of vocalists from A$AP Rocky and Charli XCX to Damon Albarn and Christine & The Queens. Those chops, and then some, were on full display at this show in August.
9.5: Leon Bridges @ CCCU Open Air Theatre
How you felt about this concert is probably directly related to how you felt about the Fort Worth, Texas, songwriter and soul singer’s second studio album, Good Thing. Those that embraced Bridges’ expansion of the retro sound on his hit debut by adding elements ranging from pop to R&B probably loved it. Those who wanted to stay in his retro pocket probably didn’t. I was part of the former. Bridges is a big-stage star with too much talent to try and corral it into a specific sound. This was on display in September when he played Good Thing’s best song Bad Bad News. The low-key funk and jazz of the slyly upbeat jam helped to showcase Bridges’ ability to take the helm on any number, and it all seemed perfectly at home under the big, bright lights.
9.27: Jay-Z and Beyoncé @ SDCCU Stadium
Almost more of a public event than a concert, contemporary musical royalty held court in San Diego and the public was invited to watch. After surprise-releasing their 9-track collaborative debut, EVERYTHING IS LOVE, Jay and Bey followed it with their massive OTR II Tour through 48 cities. The two-and-half-hour-long spectacle was replete with costume changes, LED screens, dancers, pyrotechnics, and a 40-song set-list.