50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time: Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash - Rolling Stone
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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. 

Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, 'Live Bullet'

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'

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

The Quintet, ‘Jazz At Massey Hall’ (1953)

The Quintet, ‘Jazz At Massey Hall’ (1953)

"The atmosphere was pretty difficult," Quintet drummer Max Roach recalled of this 1953 gig. "The people in that dressing room and the issues and problems they all had, it would need a whole conference of psychologists to work it all out." Geniuses, addicts, brawlers, goofs. Pianist Bud Powell had been institutionalized and labeled legally "incompetent"; saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie had history (this would be the last time they'd record together), bassist Charles Mingus might punch out those whose solos offended him. Here came bebop's original wild bunch, Parker armed with a borrowed plastic sax. "It was pure spontaneity. That's the thing about that date," said Roach. "We just went on the stage, and things began to happen." They played definitive versions of bop standards "Night in Tunisia" and "Salt Peanuts," as well as proto power ballad "All the Things You Are." At the end of the night the promoter paid them with recordings of the show, and Mingus ended up re-recording his solos before it was released. RJ Smith

Led Zeppelin, 'How the West Was Won'

Led Zeppelin, ‘How the West Was Won’ (2003)

Led Zeppelin are undoubtedly one of the greatest live acts of the 1970s, but their only live album from the era — the soundtrack to 1976's The Song Remains The Same — captured them on a rather limp night. This situation was finally resolved in 2003 when Jimmy Page combed through hours of tapes from the band's 1972 tour and cobbled together this killer 18 track set. There are tons of Zep bootlegs floating around, but none of them sound this crisp and alive, even though they occasionally cheated and combined multiple versions of a song into one. Highlights include a ferocious "Immigrant Song," a 25-minute "Dazed and Confused" and a 23-minute "Whole Lotta Love" jam. "It's Zeppelin at its best," Page said in 2003. "Every single member of the band is in tip-top form. It's the magic point where it takes on a fifth element." Andy Greene

The Band, 'Rock of Ages'

The Band, ‘Rock of Ages’ (1972)

The Last Waltz is the Band's most famous live album — it's the one with the big-name guests, the end-of-an-era gravitas and the Scorsese film. But it's not the Band's best live album. That would be Rock of Ages, recorded four years earlier in New York, capturing one of rock's greatest live acts at their peak. They're on fire from the opening cover of Marvin Gaye's "Don't Do It" (a showcase for Rick Danko's sly low-end groove-itude) through ridiculously tight deep cuts like "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show," "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" and "The Unfaithful Servant," many of them featuring horn arrangements by Allen Toussaint. Organist Garth Hudson's mad jam on "The Genetic Method" into "Chest Fever," taking up nearly an entire side of the double LP, is the stuff of psychedelic roots-rock legend. This is the sound of five guys in telepathic sync, before they got jaded. The Last Waltz tells you that the Band were great; Rock of Ages shows you. Simon Vozick-Levinson

Miles Davis, 'The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965'

Miles Davis, ‘The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965’ (1995)

Near the end of a tour in 1965, one date to go, the Miles Davis Quintet cooked up a berserk idea: Everything people expects us to play, we'll play the opposite. When the band (Davis with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams) got to the Chicago club, they discovered label reps setting up to record the stand. This amazing 8-CD package captures every note over two nights of anti-music, jazz upended and shot through with quiet. At first trumpeter Davis is tentative, but by the end he's leagues ahead at the band's own game. "When I heard those guys dropping the bottom out from under me, I knew it was 'Go for it' time!" Shorter recalled. "I'd been in the band for a little over a year, and the next thing I knew we were way out there. It was like…this is what freedom means." RJ Smith

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, ‘Live/1975-85’ (1986)

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, ‘Live/1975-85’ (1986)

A guy who once said "I cannot allow myself anything less than to produce the best live LP ever," Bruce Springsteen had a lot to prove on his first live album. He had built a reputation around his live shows, and when it came time to illustrate the point on record, he thought big: assembling 40 songs spanning Hollywood gin joints to Jersey arenas, boardwalk hood rat to Rambo Bruce, filling five LPs (or three CDs). The core of this epic box is four sequential songs: "Born in the U.S.A.," "Seeds," "The River" (with a deep story about Springsteen, his dad and the draft) and Edwin Starr's "War." "These four songs together were telling different things, things never heard  before on any of our albums," said manager/producer Jon Landau. RJ Smith

Grateful Dead, 'Europe '72'

Grateful Dead, ‘Europe ’72’ (1972)

Steppin' Out was the original title of this triple-vinyl distillation of the Dead's first extended European tour. With Bill Kreutzmann masterfully drumming alone following the resignation of Mickey Hart, and augmented the previous fall by Keith Godchaux's elegant piano, the Dead leaned toward the pared-down sound they'd perfected on their previous studio albums, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. Indeed, Europe '72 arguably completes an acid-Americana trilogy insofar as it features a handful of sepia-toned new tunes: "He's Gone," "Jack Straw," "Brown-Eyed Women," "Ramble on Rose," and "Tennessee Jed." It also eliminates nearly all crowd noise and contains enough post-tour overdubs (mainly in the vocals department) to suggest a live-studio hybrid, with Jerry Garcia's joyously apocalyptic "Morning Dew" as its show-stopping closer. The Dead's best-selling live album also marked the group's final recording with singer-keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, who died the following year. Richard Gehr

Jimi Hendrix, 'Jimi Plays Monterey'

Jimi Hendrix, ‘Jimi Plays Monterey’ (1986)

These nine songs from the iconic, guitar-charring 1967 show have appeared in many editions, first as the incomplete Historic Performances Recorded at the Monterey International Pop Festival, a wonderfully strange split album which contained about half of the Jimi Hendrix Experience's set and all of Otis Redding's. The complete 1986 edition marked the first full performance, wherein Hendrix updates the blues ("Killing Floor"), shouts out his hero Bob Dylan ("Like a Rolling Stone"), turns one garage rock standard into electric mourning ("Hey Joe") and soaks another one in feedback before soaking it in lighter fluid and creating the most important free noise coda ever caught on tape ("Wild Thing"). Joe Gross

The Rolling Stones, '"Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!" The Rolling Stones in Concert'

The Rolling Stones, ‘”Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” The Rolling Stones in Concert’ (1970)

to GoldmineBlues guitarist Mick Taylor had joined the Rolling Stones in 1969, and they entered a new deep groove, one sparked by guitars nipping each other like wolverines in a barrel. The concept of Ya-Ya's was just to document their brilliant sound: "It's about as un-tampered with as possible," Keith Richards said. Live, every part of the band was louder and meaner; never before had drummer Charlie Watts sounded so sure of himself. Bassist Bill Wyman to Goldmine: "The Stones were a better live band then any other band at that time…. Me and Charlie were really always on the ball, always straight, always together and had it down. If we had our shit together we got it right." Recorded just a week before Altamont, the Rolling Stones play two Chuck Berry songs, "Sympathy for the Devil," "Stray Cat Blues" and what might be the definitive "Midnight Rambler." RJ Smith

Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Live at the Star Club, Hamburg’ (1964)

Jerry Lee Lewis, ‘Live at the Star Club, Hamburg’ (1964)

Recorded at one of the Hamburg clubs where the Beatles cut their teeth two years earlier, Live at the Star Club remains one of the most electrifying performances from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's inaugural class. The concert took place six years after the rock icon's career plummeted after the public learned he had married his 13-year-old cousin, but at age 28, Lewis was at a musical peak. He blazes through "Great Balls of Fire" in less than two minutes and sounds like he's dismantling his piano in "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." And on wild covers of "Money" and "Hound Dog," he slays the audience who cheer throughout. "Oh man, that was a big monster record," he said in his 2014 semi-autobiography. Kory Grow

John Coltrane, 'Live! At the Village Vanguard'

John Coltrane, ‘Live! At the Village Vanguard’ (1962)

The four nights in November, 1961 that John Coltrane and various lineups of his group were recorded at a Manhattan club yielded a lot more music than the three tracks here — most of his subsequent album, Impressions, was drawn from those gigs, too. But Live! At the Village Vanguard is an argument as much as it is an album. At the time, the jazz world was bitterly divided over whether what John Coltrane's extended, discursive soloing was brilliant innovation or, as one review called the album, "musical nonsense…being peddled in the name of jazz." When DownBeat magazine asked Coltrane to defend himself upon its release, he patiently explained that "the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe." The music on Live! At the Village Vanguard puts it more bluntly: We are the train to the future, and you'd better chase us. Douglas Wolk

Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke, ‘Live At the Harlem Square Club, 1963’ (1985)

The elegant Sam Cooke was one of the most successful crossover R&B stars of the Sixties. On this January night in 1963, performing for a black audience in a packed Miami club, he let his raw, soulful side break free ("don't fight it," he tells the audience, "we're gonna feel it"). Cooke's connection with the rapturous crowd is electric, the band swings like crazy and his versions of classics like "Having A Party" and "Bring It On Home To Me" rock as hard anything else going at the time. RCA Records found the results a too intense for his pop image, and shelved the performance — when they did release a live album it was 1964's comparatively toned down At the Copa. The album was finally released 20 years later to critical acclaim. Jon Dolan

Cheap Trick, 'At Budokan'

Cheap Trick, ‘At Budokan’ (1979)

By the end of 1978, Cheap Trick had three albums on the shelves and a great catalog of songs like "Surrender" and "I Want You to Want Me," but they'd yet to attract a big audience in America. They did have a huge following in Japan and were treated like the Beatles when they arrived in April of that year, leading to a wild night of music at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan. Originally released solely in Japan, the label wisely released it in America after radio stations began playing the live version of "I Want You to Want Me" and import copies began selling at hugely inflated prices. The album came out in the States in February of 1979, and "I Want You To Want Me" hit Number Seven on the Hot 100. Their cover of "Ain't That A Shame" by Fats Domino also got tons of airplay. "We owned that material," guitarist Rick Nielsen said in 2013. "We played everywhere we could, we toured constantly, we knew what we were doing." Andy Greene

Muddy Waters, 'At Newport 1960'

Muddy Waters, ‘At Newport 1960’ (1960)

Bob Dylan going electric at Newport's sister festival gets all the lore, but Muddy Waters beat him to the plugged-in punch by five years. At the height of the folk revival, the Chicago electric-blues icon brought an amped-up, scarifying-ly powerful combo into Newport Jazz Festival. Between Waters' bull-roar voice, stinging guitar and swinging band, nobody could stand still, not even Muddy — during "I've Got My Mojo Working," he left the mike long enough to do a twirl with harmonica player James Cotton as the crowd shrieked. For a finale, poet Langston Hughes wrote "Goodbye Newport Blues" on the spot, and pianist Otis Spann sang it because Waters was too worn out from "Mojo" to sing anything further. At Newport quickly became a guidebook for young blues-rock enthusiasts: Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were among those paying close attention. David Menconi

Talking Heads, 'Stop Making Sense'

Talking Heads, ‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)

Over the course of Stop Making Sense, Talking Heads gradually grow from David Byrne with an acoustic guitar and a boombox into a supercharged nine-member funk machine — the band supplemented by Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell and Brothers Johnson guitarist Alex Weir, among others. "If the curtain opened and everything was there, there'd be nowhere to go," Byrne once said in a pseudo-interview with himself. "[The film] tells the story of the band, and it gets more dramatic and physical as it builds up. It's like 60 Minutes on acid." Directed by future Oscar winner Jonathan Demme, the band-funded concert film combined tapings from three shows at Hollywood's Pantages Theater supporting Speaking in Tongues in 1983. "It was also the band's decision to put it into very small college theaters and art houses around the country instead of trying to open big," drummer Chris Frantz later told Rolling Stone. "That's one reason that it succeeded as well as it did: It was able to have long runs at art theaters. The audience would keep coming back." Even without the visual of Byrne's refrigerator-sized suit, this album showcases the band's manic creative peak. Reed Fischer

Nirvana, 'MTV Unplugged in New York'

Nirvana, ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’ (1994)

Strip away the fuzz and bluster and Nirvana were nothing but raw emotion. For a taping of MTV's Unplugged series, they gave the most legendary performance of their brief career, stripping down deep cuts and select covers to acoustic guitars, softly played drums and Kurt Cobain's gravelly, heartbreaking voice. Special guests and underground heroes the Meat Puppets joined the band on stage for a trio of songs ("[MTV execs] thought a bus from Seattle was gonna come down and Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were all gonna come out and and jam with Nirvana," said director Beth McCarthy-Miller with a laugh), but it's the hauntingly unhinged delivery of the Leadbelly arrangement of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" that steals the show, capping off the series' most iconic episode on an unsettling note. As revealed in Charles Cross' biography of Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven, the melancholy nature of the show had been aesthetically intentional: the singer confirmed to the show's producers that the set should be decorated "like a funeral." Brittany Spanos

Bob Dylan, 'The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966: The "Royal Albert Hall Concert"'

Bob Dylan, ‘The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall Concert”‘ (1998)

In the three decades before its official release in 1998, this was the most famous live bootleg around, breeding both mythology (a heckler calls Dylan "Judas"; Dylan yells back, "I don't believe you! You're a liar!") and myths (it was recorded in Manchester, not at London's Royal Albert Hall). The legend goes that Dylan's shift from acoustic folk revivalism to electric rock & roll had left his old fans feeling betrayed, and he and his new band (assembled mostly from members of Ronnie Hawkins' group) had to win over a hostile audience by force. In fact, he opened the show, like every show on that tour, with an acoustic set. However, on the electric half of the concert he becomes maniacal and riveting, spitting out every word like a curse. "It could be arsenic music, or perhaps Phaedra music," he told Playboy that year. "Folk music is a bunch of fat people." Douglas Wolk

MC5, 'Kick Out the Jams'

MC5, ‘Kick Out the Jams’ (1969)

Forget flower-power, the crash-bang throttle of the first 10 minutes of the MC5's debut made garage-rockers of the era sound weak and tentative by comparison. "I wanna hear some revolution out there," unapologetically militant singer Rob Tyner, quoting Eldridge Cleaver, screams. And while not everyone was ready for revolution — writing for Rolling Stone in 1969, Lester Bangs said the Motor City 5 used noise and aggression to "conceal a paucity of ideas." — history shows the album pushing underground rock towards an aggression precipice. It's quaint to think of now, but the opening command — "Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!" — so riled the band's label, Elektra, that the company prepared both edited and unedited versions. Peter Doggett reports in his book There's a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars and the Rise and Fall of '60s Counter-Culture that an unedited batch went to the retail chain Hudson's. When they sent back the stock and refused to stock either version, the band had an even more choice message to them in a series of national ads: "Fuck Hudson's!" Arielle Castillo

Grateful Dead, ‘Live/Dead’ (1969)

Grateful Dead, ‘Live/Dead’ (1969)

Live/Dead may not have been the first instance of a band refinancing their studio bills with a relatively inexpensive live release, but it may have been the most successful. The Grateful Dead — $180,000 in debt to Warner Bros. — jacked into the first 16-track mobile facility in early 1969. "We were after a serious, long composition, musically and then a recording of it," said Jerry Garcia. The double-vinyl Live/Dead opens with a side-long "Dark Star," explores the cosmos further in "St. Stephen" and "The Eleven," continues with Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's lascivious side-long take on Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Turn on Your Love Light," and brings it all back home with a Rev. Gary Davis blues followed by "Feedback" and an a cappella "And We Bid You Goodnight." On the greatest advertisement for a band's in-concert capabilities recorded to date, the Dead proved themselves both serious avant-gardists and impeccable roots revisionists — and spent the rest of their career reaffirming it onstage. Richard Gehr

Kiss, Alive! (1975)

Kiss, ‘Alive!’ (1975)

"You wanted the best, and you got it — the hottest band in the land!" From that swaggering intro all the way through guitarist Paul Stanley's banter about audience members' preferred beverages, Alive! neatly summarized Kiss's gritty early-Seventies catalog and extremely outsized charm — in turn, the 1975 double LP wound up being the band's first Top 10 album. Muscular takes on white-knuckle glam classics like "Strutter" and "Cold Gin" reveal just how much sweat seeped into the band members' makeup on any given night. Chatter over just how much of the album was sweetened in the studio persists to this day, but that hasn't dimmed its legacy. Not only has Alive! spawned multiple sequels, the 2015 lineup of Kiss will recreate it in full on this fall's sailing of the Kiss Kruise. Maura Johnston

B.B. King, 'Live at the Regal'

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'

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'

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'

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

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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