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50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time

Rolling Stone ranks the 50 best live albums ever, from Jimi Hendrix at Monterey to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison

Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop Festival.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It’s impossible to capture the frenzy of a live show on record, but it’s not for lack of trying. Here are 50 of the best attempts from Jimi’s historic Monterey Pop guitar incineration to less than 200 people crammed into Abbey Road for Fela Kuti and Ginger Baker; from Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison to Cheap Trick at Budokan. We tried to avoid albums that are mostly overdubs (see Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps) or completely fake (the nonetheless essential Cheap Thrills from Big Brother and the Holding Company) and focused on groundbreaking moments, career-making albums and epic jams. 

B.B. King, 'Live at the Regal'
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B.B. King, ‘Live at the Regal’ (1965)

When he stepped onstage at the storied Regal Theater on Chicago's Southside in November 1964, B.B. King had 30 R&B hits but had barely creased the pop charts. Recorded that night, King's first live album would become an entry point for many white listeners, and blues aficionados still speak of it with awe — Eric Clapton was rumored to spin Live at the Regal to prep for his shows. Newcomers encountered an urbane but never slick professional, backed by a killer horn section, who belted each number with class and grit, all the better to showcase the jazzy yet terse yet economical solos he coaxed from his beloved black Gibson, "Lucille." His set here begins, as it did those days, with "Everyday I Have the Blues" — not a lament, but the boast of a touring workhorse who performed more than 300 shows each year. Keith Harris

The Who, 'Live at Leeds'
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The Who, ‘Live at Leeds’ (1970)

The Who spent most of 1969 and 1970 on the road, playing their rock opera, Tommy, as the centerpiece of epic concerts. They'd become a fearsomely powerful live band, as fluid as they were brutal: four wizards at separate corners of the stage, raising a golden demon together. The original version of Live at Leeds, recorded at a college gig on Valentine's Day, 1970, was three cover songs and three transfigured Who standards, packaged to look like a warts-and-all bootleg LP (which explained the crackles from a faulty cable). As singer Roger Daltrey later put it, it's "the end of a two-and-three-quarter-hour show…it's just the jamming bit at the end." Tommy itself was omitted, although some of its riffs show up in the course of a 15-minute jam that evolves out of the proto-punk headbanger "My Generation." Later editions have gradually added the other 27 songs played that night. Douglas Wolk

Johnny Cash, 'At Folsom Prison'
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Johnny Cash, ‘At Folsom Prison’ (1968)

Cash's 1968 live album came at the right time for the country legend who had found himself spiraling out with alcohol and drug addictions — not to mention suffering a lull in success, having not scored a Top 40 hit in four years. Though he had been performing in prisons for nearly a decade at the time he arrived at Folsom, Cash's first live recording at the site that inspired the iconic 1955 hit "Folsom Prison Blues" turned out to be exactly what his career needed. "That's where I met Glenn Sherley," said the signer in a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone, referencing the Folsom prisoner whose song, "Greystone Chapel," Cash debuted during the set. "That's where things really started for me again." Brittany Spanos

The Allman Brothers Band, 'At Fillmore East'
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The Allman Brothers Band, ‘At Fillmore East’ (1971)

Complete with Pabst-clutching roadies on the sleeve, the Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East might be a double-LP from blues-rock central casting were it not for the soaring jams on sides B, C and D. Recorded at Bill Graham's East Village venue in March 1971 and released four months later, it is the last Allman Brothers album under the stewardship of Brother Duane, whose conversational, Coltrane-influenced guitar provides transformative grace on a 23-minute "Whipping Post" and points the way beyond longhaired blues noodles. "It's like what B.B. King did on Live at the Regal, which is just like one big long song, a giant medley," Gregg Allman told band biographer Alan Paul. "He never stopped. He just slammed it." On the flipside is a portrait of an absent road manager Twiggs Lyndon Jr., then incarcerated for stabbing a Buffalo club-owner over unpaid proceeds. Jesse Jarnow

James Brown
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James Brown, ‘Live at the Apollo’ (1963)

King Records founder Syd Nathan declined to jump on James Brown's idea of a live album — they hadn't been established as a profitable venture and he wasn't particularly interested in anything but singles at the time. "Didn't nobody believe us — none of the company executives believed us," recalled hypeman Bobby Byrd. "But see, we were out there. We saw the response as we run our show down." In turn, Brown self-financed the show and was even prepared to self-release it. Though Wednesday was usually Amateur Night inside Harlem's historic Apollo Theater, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business was in his prime. Despite the 27-minute run time, he was a tease: At first, he tries alternating between the locomotive rhythms of his revue, the Famous Flames, and acting cool in formal ballads like "Try Me." The longer he tries to restrain himself, though, the more his voice quivers before he eventually caves, shouting and screaming as he begs and pleads. Christina Lee

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