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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. 

Bill Withers, 'Live at Carnegie Hall'
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Bill Withers, ‘Live at Carnegie Hall’ (1973)

This rainy Friday night in October 1972 was less than a year and a half after Bill Withers' commercial breakthrough allowed him to quit a day job in an aircraft parts factory, but the rising soul star holds the stage at one of the world's most prestigious venues like a seasoned pro. Withers reminisces about his grandma's church ("At the funeral they used to have tie the caskets down!") and describes the dating scene (he's encountered many "ladies who are not too prone to trust anybody") as coolly as if he's entertaining guests in his own living room. His band, propelled by drummer James Gadson and led by pianist Ray Jackson, roughs up "Use Me" to accentuate its carnality and plays the sweaty closer "Harlem/Cold Baloney" like part of a revival meeting. Keith Harris

Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, 'Live Bullet'
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Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, ‘Live Bullet’ (1976)

Bob Seger had released eight albums and had been on the road for nearly a solid decade when he played Detroit's Cobo Hall on September 4th, 1974 — but he was still largely unknown outside of the Midwest. The main problem was that he simply couldn't capture the magic of his stage show on in a studio, which is likely why Live Bullet made such a huge impact. His cover of Ike & Tina's "Nutbush City Limits" got a ton of national airplay, and suddenly Live Bullet was selling like crazy. It was also fueled by "Turn The Page," a 1973 track about the rigors of touring life that has been a mainstay of classic rock radio for the past 40 years. "We were doing, like, 250 to 300 shows a year before Live Bullet," Seger said in 2013. "We were playing virtually five nights a week, sometimes six, as the Silver Bullet Band and we just had that show down." Andy Greene

Duke Ellington, 'Ellington at Newport'
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Duke Ellington, ‘Ellington at Newport’ (1956)

The gig couldn't have started less promisingly: four probably drunk band members failed to show up, and Ellington played the premiere jazz festival for all of 12 minutes before realizing they couldn't continue. But late at night they returned en masse and burned the hides off the hipsters with a set that gave his career new meaning. Everything comes down to "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," a then-decades-old dance tune that flowered at Newport into a six minute, 27-chorus jam by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves that bumped, grinded and talked in your ear. Duke shouts at Gonsalves, "Higher!" A blond woman in a black dress got up to dance, and then a lot of women did. A month later, Duke was on the cover of Time magazine. Bebop had made big band music seem almost corny, but Newport showed that mastery is mastery. "I was born in 1956, at the Newport Jazz Festival," the Duke later declared. RJ Smith