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The 50 Greatest Concerts of the Last 50 Years

From Led Zeppelin’s U.S. debut to Jay Z and Kanye West’s ‘Watch the Throne’ spectacle, and beyond

The list below was born out of some pretty serious arguments. Was Bruce Springsteen better in 1975 or 1978? When did Kanye hit his stride? Which was more awesome, “The Joshua Tree” or “Zoo TV”? The concerts and tours that made the final cut weren’t just huge spectacles, they deepened the power of rock & roll itself – from Neil Young thrashing out 20-minute jams with Crazy Horse to Beyoncé turning stadium glitz into a personal outpouring. “You’re almost levitating on the energy from the audience,” says Keith Richards. “And I miss it when I’m not doing it.” Here are the people who’ve done it best.

Bowie Ziggy Stardust Tour

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David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars World Tour

“I wanted the music to look like it sounded,” said David Bowie, who reigned over the moon-age daydream of his greatest tour as a crimson-haired, sparkly, makeup-slathered rock & roll space god. The music, thanks to the savage elegance of the Spiders From Mars, was even wilder, with an intense symbiosis developing between Bowie and chunky-toned guitarist Mick Ronson. “There was magic there,” says keyboardist Mike Garson. Ziggymania broke out across the world, and even as Bowie moved on, it never really stopped. A.G.

Van Morrison

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Van Morrison North American Tour

It takes an extraordinary band to top the studio versions of songs like “Domino” and “Cyprus Avenue,” but with the 10-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra, Van Morrison pulled it off night after night. With horns, strings and blazing jazz chops, the band was ready to “take the songs anywhere Van wanted to take them,” says guitarist John Platania. “Every performance of each song was different.” Morrison was, as usual, lost in the music, getting so into it that he gave himself backaches – the platform shoes he was favoring at the time probably didn’t help. He rarely addressed the crowd, and kept his band on its toes with subtle gestures that sparked dynamic shifts worthy of James Brown. “He had these signals behind his back,” says Platania. “He would flash his hand and spread his fingers out. We knew instantly we had to bring it down and then build it up again.” Morrison was stretching out, toying with his phrasing, elongating syllables like a jazz singer. The band ended when the tour did – but it lives on in Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, one of the most essential live albums of all time, recently released in a gloriously extended version. “We were sad to see it end,” says Platania. “But in those days, he would say stuff like, ‘The show doesn’t have to go on.'” D.B.

Patti Smith CBGB 1975

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Patti Smith Group and Television at CBGB

Over a two-month-long residency, the Patti Smith Group went from art project to formidable band – and lower Manhattan’s CBGB was well on the road to becoming one of the most famous rock clubs in the world. Much of the material that ended up on Smith’s debut, Horses, came to life at CB’s, with Smith improvising poetic chants as the band brutalized simple chord patterns. “CBGB was the ideal place to sound a clarion call,” Smith wrote. Television, meanwhile, had just begun emphasizing the guitar-weaving tapestries they would immortalize on Marquee Moon. Rock history was being made at a club with no dressing rooms and an incontinent dog in residence – and the musicians knew it. “I remember one night standing outside CBGB, in the doorway of the derelict hotel next door, smoking a joint,” says Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, “and realizing that this was the kind of gathering of psychic energies I’d always dreamed of when, say, I would read about the San Francisco scene in 1966.” W.H.

Bob Marley at the Lyceum Theatre, London

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Bob Marley at the Lyceum Theatre, London

Bob Marley’s two concerts at the Lyceum Theatre in London in July 1975 were more than just musically transcendent shows: They were the triumphant peak of Marley’s first proper tour as a solo artist and would elevate him from cult act to international icon – in part thanks to Live!, a concert document from the shows that gave him his first international Top 40 hit, “No Woman, No Cry.”

“Lyceum
was magic,” recalls Marley’s friend Neville Garrick, the Wailers’ lighting
designer and art director at the time. “It was an old theater, so the
acoustics were proper. … They took out all the seats, and people were going
from the very first song.” Booked in a small room to drive up ticket
demand, the Lyceum shows sold out in a day, and roughly 3,000 ticketless
hopefuls mobbed the streets outside the venue on Marley’s first night there,
along with a phalanx of cops. Some fans nevertheless managed to tear the fire
doors off their hinges and rush in, packing the room tighter still, shoulder to
shoulder. It was so hot, condensation was dripping from the ceiling, and roof
hatches had to be opened to let air in. Marley appeared before the crowd like a
prophet in a denim work shirt, dreadlocks bobbing, and few moments in pop are
as spine-tingling as the opening of “No Woman, No Cry,” the audience
chanting the chorus like a hymn before Marley had even sung a word. Recalled
bassist Aston Barrett, “Everyone onstage [got] high from the feedback of
the people.” W.H.

Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue North American Tour

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Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue North American Tour

Bob Dylan could have played arenas when he toured to support 1976’s Desire. Instead, true to form, he did the unexpected: He booked tiny theaters with just days’ notice, charged less than $9 per ticket and took along a gaggle of friends – including Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Joan Baez. Dylan had started hanging around his old West Village haunts with buddies from his folkie days, and he wanted to take that nostalgic spirit on the road. “We all sing and sing and sing and laugh until we pass out,” Baez told Rolling Stone. “For us, it makes no difference if we just play for 15 people or 15,000.” Backed by one of his best bands ever (including guitarist Mick Ronson), Dylan stretched out shows for as long as five hours – with help from McGuinn, Elliott and others, who would do their own sets and join his. New tracks from Desire were mixed with 1960s classics (“It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Just Like a Woman”) and covers (“Deportees”). The shows were full of raw, spontaneous intimacy: Dylan duetted with his ex-lover Baez, did scorched-earth versions of “Idiot Wind,” and pleaded for the release of jailed boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. As Rolling Thunder participant Allen Ginsberg said, “Having gone through his changes … Bob now has his powers together.” A.G.

Grateful Dead North American Tour

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Grateful Dead North American Tour

“Our second coming,” says Grateful
Dead drummer Mickey Hart of the band’s 1977 North American tour. Everyone knew
the Dead could jam out infinitely. But that year they were discovering something
new: that tight, songful concision could transport a crowd just as easily. “We
had a lot of new songs and wanted to get at ’em,” says singer and
guitarist Bob Weir. “And the only way to get at the next song was to
finish the one you were doing.” Ironically for a band that had little use
or patience for studios, it would be recording sessions that strengthened its
live approach. Terrapin Station, the group’s most recent LP, was
recorded with Fleetwood Mac producer Keith Olsen, who’d helmed their
self-titled 1975 breakthrough; he forced the Dead to prep and rehearse more
than they ever had. “Going in with Keith and having him organize and arrange
all this stuff,” says Weir, “that gave us a solidity.” The
results of Olsen’s whip-cracking became clear as soon as the Dead went back on
the road – they tore into old favorites like “St. Stephen” and tried
new combinations, like going from the fast-paced “Scarlet Begonias”
into the churning “Fire on the Mountain,” and proved their newly honed
chops could help sculpt jams such as the 10-minute “Terrapin Station.”
“We felt like rock gods,” Weir says. It helped that the band was in
relatively good shape physically as well. “Jerry was healthy,” says
Hart. “That was a big thing.” The high point took place on May 8th at
Cornell University’s Barton Hall, regarded by Deadheads as the band’s greatest
show ever. In the end, the 1977 tour completely changed the Dead’s sense of
connection with fans, and their own musical purpose. “That was an era
where it started to creep up on us that people came to hear the songs,”
says Weir. “It finally dawned on us: ‘Oh, that’s what it’s all about.'” D.B.

The Ramones European Tour

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The Ramones European Tour

The Ramones arrived in England with something to prove. The punk revolution had broken out in London in 1977, with the Sex Pistols getting wall-to-wall press and causing havoc. But no one in the nascent U.K. punk scene was ready for the precision-strike arrival of the Ramones. In his memoir, Johnny Ramone wrote that at a Pistols show on their first night in town in December ’77, “Johnny Rotten asked me what I thought of them, and I told him … they stunk.”

Three
days later, the Ramones unleashed a furious assault on the audience in Glasgow,
opening with “Rockaway Beach” and not taking a break until 26 songs
later. Playing to a punk-crazed English audience pushed the Ramones to play
their most intense shows. The tour wrapped on New Year’s Eve at the Rainbow
Theatre, their 148th show of the year. “Probably the best show the Ramones
ever did,” said Johnny. Amazingly, Joey had been singing through
incredible pain; he’d suffered third-degree burns on his neck when a makeshift
humidifier exploded on him. Said Ramones co-manager Linda Stein, “[Johnny]
came to me and said … ‘Put me in a wheelchair and get me on a plane before I go
insane.'” He wanted to be sedated. A.G.

The Eagles U.S. Tour

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The Eagles U.S. Tour

The career-defining two-year stretch of shows
that followed 1976’s Hotel California saw the Eagles become a stadium
band. Yet in an era in which rock shows were growing bigger and more
impersonal, the Eagles’ studio perfectionists, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, found
a way to recreate the feel and detail of their albums onstage, with every
harmony and guitar lick seamlessly in place decades before backing tapes and
Auto-Tune made that process easier. Hits like “Life in the Fast Lane”
and “Take It to the Limit” were given almost impossibly pristine
treatment. The tour itself was chaotic; at one point, bassist Randy Meisner and
Frey got into a fistfight when Frey called Meisner a “pussy.” But you
wouldn’t have known it watching their sets. “Some critic said we used to
go out onstage and loiter,” Henley said. “I think we accomplished a
great deal.” D.B.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band American Tour

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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band American Tour

It had been three very long years since Born to Run made Bruce Springsteen a national star. A bitter lawsuit filed against his former manager in 1976 left him legally unable to enter a studio for two years before making Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Prove It All Night,” his new single, stalled at Number 33 on the charts. Anything radio-friendly, like “Fire” and “Because the Night,” was held off Darkness to maintain the starker atmosphere Springsteen wanted for his set of songs about the reality of everyday working life. To many, all of this was evidence that Springsteen was in decline. So he did the thing he could do better than almost anyone alive: He went on tour. “With the burden of proving I wasn’t a has-been at 28,” he wrote in his 2016 memoir, Born to Run, “I headed out on the road performing long, sweat-drenched rock shows featuring the new album.”

Springsteen and the E Street Band played 115 shows across North America, the longest series of dates they would ever play in a single year. Even the soundchecks were grueling. “Literally, we would play ‘Thunder Road’ for a half-hour and Bruce would walk around and sit in every section and make sure the sound was as good as possible,” says drummer Max Weinberg. “Look, Bruce took his fun very seriously.” Not everyone thought it was so much fun. “I thought it was a little self-indulgent and a little bit silly,” says bassist Garry Tallent. “We would do four-hour sound-checks and then a three-and-a-half-hour show. We were younger then.”

Sets featured the majority of the new album, a big chunk of Born to Run and favorites off the first two discs, like “Spirit in the Night” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” After so much time off, the band played with a stunning mix of pent-up energy and technical precision. “Anyone can be great on any given night,” says Weinberg. “To really be great every night takes a lot of willpower, a lot of dedication, a lot of self-confidence, a lot of respect for your audience – tremendous respect for the audience.”

Live, the songs completely transformed from their recorded versions. For “Prove It All Night,” the band added a piano and guitar intro that built to a furious climax, and “Backstreets” developed an emotional spoken-word interlude about lost love that eventually morphed into “Drive All Night,” from The River. “Even at that point, the whole thing was ‘You have to see them live – you can’t go by the record,'” says Tallent.

As the tour crisscrossed the nation, with five shows getting broadcast on the radio and quickly hitting the bootleg market, a new respect for the album took hold. “Night after night, we sent our listeners away, back to the recorded versions of this music,” Springsteen wrote in Born to Run, “newly able to hear their beauty and restrained power.”

One particularly great show took place at the tiny Agora Ballroom in Cleveland. Opening with a ferocious cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and wrapping up three hours later with a wild “Twist and Shout,” it became one of the most coveted bootlegs in rock history. “It was really hot,” says Weinberg. “Just sweltering. It was incredibly exciting. Then you just get on the bus and go to the next gig. It was like that about five nights a week with two days off.”

Word of Springsteen’s glorious return prompted CBS Records to mount a huge billboard of his image on the Sunset Strip, advertising the album and tour but making no mention of the band. “It was the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” Springsteen told a radio DJ. One night, Springsteen snuck up to the roof of a nearby building with Tallent and saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Armed with cans of black spray paint, Springsteen hoisted himself onto Clemons’ massive shoulders and wrote “Prove It All Night E Street” across the entire thing. “We didn’t deface it,” says Tallent with a laugh. “We corrected it. That was our way of letting people know to not expect the next coming of Christ. It’s just a rock & roll show.”

Darkness on the Edge of Town still wasn’t a commercial hit by the end of the run, but critics across the country hailed the tour as the best of the year, and the album remained at the core of Springsteen’s set list for decades to come. “[They] are perhaps the purest distillation of what I wanted my rock & roll music to be about,” Springsteen wrote. “[On the last stand of the tour] an exploding firecracker tossed by an inebriated ‘fan’ opened up a small slash underneath my eye. A little blood’d been drawn, but we were back.” A.G.

The Clash North American Tour

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The Clash North American Tour

They called it the Pearl Harbour Tour, and they opened each night with a slashing version of “I’m So Bored With the USA.” For an English punk band trying to break through in the States, it was an interesting marketing approach. “England’s becoming claustrophobic for us,” Joe Strummer told Rolling Stone. “I think touring America could be a new lease on life.” With a touring budget of just $30,000 from their record label (most of which they gave to opening act Bo Diddley), the Clash stormed the heartland and made converts wherever they went. During downtime on their tour bus, they watched a VHS copy of Star Wars over and over. They hit the Palladium in New York in February, blowing away a crowd that included Andy Warhol and Bruce Springsteen. “Every country has one thing in common, which is they all listen to shit music,” said co-leader Mick Jones. “We’re here to alleviate that.” A.G.

Pink Floyd 'The Wall' Tour

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Pink Floyd ‘The Wall’ Tour

Pink Floyd’s 1979 rock opera, The Wall, was their most ambitious album to date, and when they took it on the road the next year they knew a traditional stage show would simply not do it justice. Pushing the limits of concert technology, they built an actual wall during the first half of every show, then played the bulk of the second half behind it, obscured from the audience. “Not much spontaneity,” said drummer Nick Mason, “but we’re not known for our duck-walking and gyrating around onstage.”

The logistics were so daunting that they staged it only 31 times across 16 months, hitting just four cities: Los Angeles; London; Dortmund, Germany; and Uniondale, New York. The most dramatic moment of the show happened near the end, when the wall came tumbling down. “The first couple of bricks would terrify people in the front rows,” said guitarist David Gilmour. “The audience would think they were going to be killed.” A.G.

Talking Heads 'Speaking in Tongues' Tour

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Talking Heads ‘Speaking in Tongues’ Tour

It was an image that defined Talking Heads for a generation of music fans – skinny, nervous David Byrne on the Speaking in Tongues tour, struggling to dance in a cartoonishly huge white suit. “What I realized years before,” Byrne says, “is I had to find my own way of moving that wasn’t a white rock guy trying to imitate black people, or bring some other kind of received visual or choreographic language into pop music … I just thought, ‘No, no, you have to invent it from scratch.'”

Since forming in the mid-Seventies, Talking Heads had gone from CBGB New Wavers to one of the biggest bands in America. For the tour to support 1983’s Speaking in Tongues, their most popular album to date, they reinvented themselves, growing from a quartet to a nine-piece funk mob that included P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, Brothers Johnson guitarist Alex Weir and vocalist Lynn Mabry. Byrne also took cues from the experimental visual-art world, projecting abstract slides onto a spare backdrop, creating a stark aesthetic to match the band’s driving, uncluttered funk. The suit was inspired in part by Japanese Noh theater.

What emerged was arty dance-party transcendence. Byrne and drummer Chris Frantz recall the two-night run at New York’s Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in August as a highlight. “Madonna had just released her first record; she was walking around barefoot,” Frantz says. “I saw Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall off to the side of the stage – she was dancing, Mick wasn’t.” The Greek Theater in Berkeley the following month was a similar bacchanal. “We’d begun to get the Deadhead crowd,” Frantz says, laughing.

In late 1983, the band decided to document the tour with a concert film, and teamed up with director Jonathan Demme (who would later win an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs). “We didn’t want any of the bullshit,” says Frantz of the band’s initial idea for Stop Making Sense. “We didn’t want the clichés. We didn’t want close-ups of people’s fingers while they’re doing a guitar solo. We wanted the camera to linger, so you could get to know the musicians a little bit.”

Shot over three nights at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, Stop Making Sense may be the greatest concert movie. It begins with Byrne walking onto a deserted stage with a boombox, setting it down, pressing “play,” then reimagining “Psycho Killer” for acoustic guitar and 808 drum-machine beats. His bandmates and backing musicians join him incrementally, song by song. “It’s cut down,” Byrne notes, comparing the film to the two-hour shows, “but there were no other substantial changes.”

The effect was so real, people actually got up and danced in movie theaters. “I’d never seen that before,” Frantz says. “Or since.” W.H.

Fela Kuti at Glastonbury

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Fela Kuti at Glastonbury

If anyone at the U.K.’s Glastonbury Festival didn’t already know Fela Kuti, they soon learned why he was one of the planet’s most electric artists. Before his biggest international crowd to date, Fela played big-band Afrobeat that owed as much to James Brown’s funk as to the high life of his native Nigeria. Fela managed just two songs in two hours – but the grooves were so intoxicating, no one minded. “The love the audience gave was fantastic,” recalls son Femi Kuti, who backed him on sax that day. He left a legend in his wake. W.H.

Prince 'Purple Rain' Tour

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Prince ‘Purple Rain’ Tour

On each night of the Purple Rain tour,
Prince and the Revolution huddled backstage for a prayer. “It was a
meaningful ritual,” says bassist Mark Brown. “The crowds were so
loud, and it was so crazy, that we needed each other because that was the only
thing you had: each other for support.” With Prince’s movie Purple Rain
catapulting the singer toward megastardom, the 98 shows he did in support
of the soundtrack album were like Broadway productions. Prince began the show
ascending from beneath the stage on a hydraulic lift, and went through five
costume changes. “He had all these visual cues,” recalls keyboardist
Lisa Coleman. “He’d throw a hankie into the air, and when the hankie hit
the ground, that’s when we would stop.” At the Los Angeles Forum, Bruce
Springsteen and Madonna joined Prince for the encore, which included a nearly
half-hour-long version of “Purple Rain.” “He wanted to tower
over everybody,” says keyboardist Matt Fink. “He was the Muhammad Ali
of rock.” D.B.

Run-DMC

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Run-DMC ‘Raising Hell’ Tour

“There was no concept of charts and no concept of airplay,” says LL Cool J, describing the landscape for Run-DMC’s 1986 tour, which featured LL, the Beastie Boys, Whodini and others as openers. That underground status changed two months into the tour, when Run-DMC had a breakout MTV hit with their Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way,” from their Raising Hell album. “Motherfuckers in the front row started looking like the Ramones and Cyndi Lauper,” says DMC of the new white fans who came to check out their shows. “We got a bunch of Madonnas asking for autographs.” DMC also noticed that cross-cultural appeal working the other way as a predominantly black audience embraced the tour’s beer-spraying opening act, the Beastie Boys, then months away from releasing their debut LP, Licensed to Ill. “The Beasties were crazy,” recalls rapper Ecstasy of Whodini. “They created an illusion that they were happy-go-lucky and careless, but they were on top of their shit. They were the white Run-DMC.” Competition among the artists was fierce. “I wanted to chain-saw the audience,” says LL Cool J, who was 18 years old at the time. Toward the end of the tour, a riot at a show in Long Beach, California, provided fuel for negative media coverage. But Raising Hell’s positive legacy is undeniable. As DMC says today, “When Obama first got elected, all my white friends said, ‘That’s because of what Run-DMC did.'” C.R.W.

Metallica Damaged Justice Tour

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Metallica Damaged Justice Tour

In 1988, Metallica released their pivotal album … And Justice for All and went from thrash-metal renegades to mainstream stars. But when their manager suggested an arena tour to support the LP, the band wasn’t convinced. “I was like, ‘Seriously?'” drummer Lars Ulrich recalls. “We knew we could do L.A., New York, San Francisco, but the American heartland didn’t seem like a great idea. No band as extreme as ours had ever done a full arena tour. So we used Indianapolis as a yardstick. If we were cool there, we were cool almost anywhere. When the tickets went on sale in Indianapolis, we ended up doing 13,000 or 14,000, which in 1988 was an insane victory.”

On
the Damaged Justice Tour, Metallica learned just how many authenticity-starved
headbangers were really out there. The band got the first taste of its
transformative power in the summer of 1988 when it was booked onto the Monsters
of Rock Tour, opening for Van Halen and Scorpions. At the L.A. Coliseum, fans
responded to Metallica’s set by flinging their folding chairs at the stage to
create a football-field-size mosh pit. “It was bonkers,” says bassist
Jason Newsted, who had recently joined the band, replacing the late Cliff
Burton. “For a kid coming off a farm and jumping into my favorite band, it
was very dreamy. I didn’t sleep. Every day was another dream coming true.”
He also got a lesson in how to conduct himself on the road. “I’d walk on
the crew bus of a big band and there’s a pile of blow on the table in the front
lounge,” Newsted recalls. “I look over there at my heroes, all red
and swollen, and I’m like, ‘Guess what I’m not gonna do? That!'” The
kickoff of the Damaged Justice Tour coincided with the success of Metallica’s
anti-war-themed video for their new single, “One,” which quickly became
an MTV hit. At the peak of bloated hair metal, Metallica were playing jagged
seven-to-nine-minute-long thrash odysseys. But the crowds at their shows kept
growing. “The kids know that at the end of the day there’s something very
real and honest about what we do,” Ulrich told Rolling Stone in 1989. “You can’t take that away from us.”
K.G. 

Madonna Blond Ambition Tour

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Madonna Blond Ambition Tour

As Madonna’s career was taking off in the mid-Eighties, most of her tours were relatively straightforward affairs, based around her singing and dancing. But for the stadium blowouts that supported her 1989 classic, Like a Prayer, she wanted to up her game. In the process, she reinvented the pop megatour itself. “I really put a lot of myself into it,” she said. “It’s much more theatrical than anything I’ve ever done.” That year, Madonna had caused a nationwide controversy with the video for “Like a Prayer,” which daringly mixed sexual and religious imagery. Blond Ambition extended that provocation and upped the spectacle.

The show opened with Madonna climbing down a staircase into a factory world inspired by German expressionist filmmaker Fritz Lang. She sang in a giant cathedral for “Like a Prayer” and under a beauty-shop hair dryer in “Material Girl.” And, most infamously, she simulated masturbation while wearing a cone-shaped bustier on a crimson bed during “Like a Virgin.” “The Blond Ambition Tour was what really catapulted her into the stratosphere,” says Vincent Paterson, the tour’s co-director and choreographer.

Madonna took a hands-on approach to the show, working with her brother, painter Christopher Ciccone, to design sets, and creating the costumes with fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier. “I tried to make the show accommodate my own short attention span,” she said. “We put the songs together so there was an emotional arc in the show. I basically thought of vignettes for every song.”

Starting out in Japan in April 1990 and hitting the U.S. the following month, the tour grossed almost $63 million. But it didn’t go off without any complications: Madonna had to ditch the blond-ponytail hair extensions she wore early in the tour because they kept getting caught in her headset microphone. And in Toronto, the masturbation sequence almost got her and her dancers arrested in what became a bonding moment for her entire crew.

Madonna’s close relationship with her collaborators would be a major theme in the blockbuster 1991 tour documentary Truth or Dare, especially in memorable scenes where she invited her backup dancers into her bed. Today, Blond Ambition’s over-the-top intimacy is a staple of live pop music, from Lady Gaga to Miley Cyrus. In 1990, it was a revolution. “It was a kind of turning point,” says Darryl Jones, who played bass on the tour. “A lot of young girls were watching.” Steve Knopper

Public Enemy Sizzling Summer Tour

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Public Enemy Sizzling Summer Tour

For the tour to support their groundbreaking LP Fear
of a Black Planet,
Public Enemy wanted a show to match their music’s combative
assault. “OK, if we’re gonna fill a stage, everything’s gotta be moving,”
leader Chuck D recalls of the band’s approach. They’d built their live rep on
short, explosive sets. Now they packed an hour with Chuck as bullhorn MC and
Flava Flav as his firecracker comic foil, leaping across the stage and diving
into the crowd. In Houston, Ice Cube joined them to perform his guest verse on “Burn
Hollywood Burn,” a song that became each night’s incendiary high point. “We
didn’t need to use pyro,” says Chuck. “When I see acts use pyro, I’m
like, ‘What lazy fucks.'” C.R.W. 

Sonic Youth and Nirvana European Tour

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Sonic Youth and Nirvana European Tour

In the summer before they released Nevermind,
Nirvana were still a largely unknown band. They booked a series of European
festival dates, opening for their friends Sonic Youth – and witnessed for the
first time their power to convert and ignite huge crowds. “It was
passionate. It was reckless,” says Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who also
astounded audiences with their New York noise-rock. “[Nirvana] were going
on at 2:00 in the afternoon, playing a 20-minute set. But there was this
massive amount of pogo’ing going on.” With drummer Dave Grohl on tour with
the band for the first time, and the new Nevermind material, Nirvana
were received almost like headliners. Kurt Cobain biographer Charles Cross
called it Cobain’s “happiest time as a musician.” Recalls Grohl, “Everything
was still very innocent.” A documentary of the tour, 1991: The Year
Punk Broke,
captured Cobain spraying champagne all over a dressing room and
Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic gleefully tearing through a backstage cheese
plate. The high point for Moore was in Brussels, where security tried to stop
Nirvana’s nightly ritual of smashing their gear, and Novoselic had to be pulled
down as he tried to climb up the closing stage curtains. “It was,”
says Moore, “the most perverse, deconstructed, psychedelic freakout
concert I’ve ever seen.” J.D.

U2 Zoo TV Tour

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U2 Zoo TV Tour

For its first tour of the Nineties, the biggest rock band in the world had one simple goal: to completely reinvent itself as a live act. U2 had just given their sound a full-scale makeover with 1991’s Achtung Baby – a groundbreaking fusion of rock, pop, electronic dance grooves and krautrock – and they needed a tour that reflected their sleek, challenging new music. “We were drawn to anything that was going to give us a chance to get away from the Joshua Tree earnestness,” said the Edge, “which had become so stifling.”

The notion of U2 as the inheritors of rock’s social mission had been central to their Eighties stardom. But as the band was well aware, it was increasingly out of step with an era defined by groups like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, who cast a skeptical eye at sweeping Joshua Tree–style rock heroism. For the Achtung Baby tour, U2 were ready to loosen up and throw a dance party, albeit a subversive one, packed with multimedia images that were a clear break from the stark purity of their Eighties stage sets. “The tour was being conceived at the same time as the album,” Bono recalled in 2005. “Zoo radio was a phenomenon before reality TV, with so-called shock jocks such as Howard Stern. It was aggressive, raw radio, the precursor to The Jerry Springer Show. The world was getting tired of fiction. … We wanted to make a tour that referenced this zoo/reality phenomenon.”

Extensive cable news coverage was a fact of life by the early Nineties; during the Gulf War, images of Scud missiles raining down on Iraq became dinnertime entertainment. U2 essentially turned the Zoo TV set into a postmodern art installation that reflected the numbing cacophony of the cable-TV era, playing in front of a mosaic of TV screens that mashed up war footage with old sitcoms, cooking shows and everything in between.

Bono, meanwhile, came up with a new, sly persona to match the new stage set. He donned an Elvis-style leather jacket, wraparound sunglasses and leather pants that evoked Jim Morrison. He took this rock star amalgamation and created a character called the Fly. “When I put on those glasses, anything goes,” Bono told Rolling Stone. “The character is just on the edge of lunacy. It’s megalomania and paranoia.”

Zoo TV opened in Florida on February 29th, 1992. If the staging and Bono’s wild get-up weren’t enough indications this was a new U2, the band kicked things off with eight consecutive songs from Achtung Baby. “People went for it,” Bono said to Rolling Stone later that year. “The first show, you just didn’t know. ‘How is this going to go down?’ And they went for it. I think our audiences are smart and that they expect us to push and pull them a bit. They had to swallow blues on Rattle and Hum, for God’s sake! They can take it.”

The tour’s first leg coincided with the 1992 presidential race, and every night from the stage Bono called the White House and asked to speak with President Bush. “Operator Two and I had a great relationship,” Bono said. “She tried not to show it, but I could tell she was very amused, as we rang her night after night.”

Bush never took the call, but a young Arkansas governor was all too happy to talk to the band. U2 met with Bill Clinton in Chicago in September 1992 during the tour and forged what became an enduring relationship. The sitting president was unmoved. “I have nothing against U2,” Bush told a crowd in Bowling Green, Ohio, that month. “You may not know this, but they tried to call me at the White House every night during their concert. But the next time we face a foreign-policy crisis, I will work with John Major and Boris Yeltsin, and Bill Clinton can consult with Boy George.”

For opening acts, U2 chose artists who enhanced the idea of the band as a gathering point for pop music in an increasingly fragmented era – from Public Enemy to the Ramones, Velvet Underground and Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder was initially skeptical about the scale of Zoo TV, but he came around. “[I eventually] understood that these weren’t decisions they were making out of fashion or simply being clever,” Vedder said. “It was like an edict they’d created as a new philosophy for the group, to really explore the avenues of connecting to people on a large level.”

During a break in early 1993, U2 recorded Zooropa, which took the experiments of Achtung Baby further. When the tour resumed, Bono devised a new character: MacPhisto, a devilish figure with white face paint and horns. “The character was a great device for saying the opposite of what you meant,” said the Edge. “One highlight was calling the minister of fisheries in Norway, young Jan Henri Olsen, to congratulate him on whaling, which was forbidden by the European Union but legal in Norway. He actually took the call and invited Bono to come and have a whale steak with him.”

Those phone calls became a major part of each performance – some nights Bono ordered pizzas for the crowd; on another he rang Madonna on her cellphone (she didn’t pick up). As venues got bigger, U2 kept things intimate by adding a miniset to the show, playing on a tiny stage.

The wall-to-wall video screens also set the scene for every pop spectacle that followed, from Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball to Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark Tour. “Zoo TV wasn’t a set piece, it was a state of mind,” said the Edge. For Bono, the experience was life-changing: “I’ve had to stop ‘not drinking.’ I’ve had to smoke incessantly. I’ve learned to be insincere. I’ve learned to lie. I’ve never felt better!” A.G.

Radiohead Glastonbury 1997

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Radiohead at Glastonbury

The scene Radiohead encountered at 1997’s Glastonbury Festival looked more like a war zone than a concert. It had been pouring rain for days, forcing the 90,000 fans at the remote field in Somerset, England, to live like refugees in a monsoon. Two stages sank into the mud, and some fans actually came down with the World War I–era malady trench foot. Early in Radiohead’s set, Thom Yorke’s monitor melted down. The lighting rig was shining directly into his face, meaning he couldn’t see in addition to being unable to hear himself play. “If I’d found the guy who was running the PA system that day,” Yorke told a journalist, “I would have gone backstage and throttled him. Everything was going wrong. Everything blew up.”

Weeks
after releasing their career-defining album, OK Computer, it looked like
Radiohead might flop during a headlining set at the world’s biggest music
festival. Instead, the chaos inspired one of the band’s greatest performances.
Rage poured through Yorke all night long, giving extra fire to eight songs from
OK Computer, plus nearly all of The Bends – and even a crowd-pleasing
version of their first hit, “Creep.” It was a transcendent performance,
even if Yorke didn’t realize it at the time. “I thundered offstage at the
end, really ready to kill,” he said. “And my girlfriend grabbed me,
made me stop, and said, ‘Listen!’ And the crowd were just going wild. It was
amazing.” In 2006, Q magazine voted it the greatest concert in
British history. A.G.

Sleater-Kinney American Tour

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Sleater-Kinney American Tour

In early 1997, the most exciting new band in
rock was a trio of young women driving their own van across the country, with
only their friend Tim along as a roadie. “We’d get to the club,”
recalls Sleater-Kinney singer-guitarist Corin Tucker, “and the sound man
would be like, ‘Wait. You’re the band? You? You girls?'” But playing songs
from its album Dig Me Out, the group bulldozed the staid indie-rock
scene with unbridled punk-rock exuberance. “In Atlanta, 10 women got
onstage and took their shirts off and danced with us,” says co-leader
Carrie Brownstein. “I don’t know if they’d ever felt that freedom before,
and I was really proud to provide the soundtrack for that.” J.D.

Pearl Jam American Tour

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Pearl Jam American Tour

By the mid-Nineties, Pearl Jam were in serious
danger of imploding, thanks to intraband tensions and a self-defeating war
against Ticketmaster that had left them almost unable to tour. But they started
over with 1998’s aptly named Yield, their most collaborative album yet,
and when they hit the road with a new drummer, Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, the
shows fulfilled their promise as one of rock’s all-time great live acts. New
tracks (“Given to Fly,” “Do the Evolution”) were instant
crowd favorites, and classics like “Alive” sounded bigger than ever. “We’re
making up for lost time here,” Eddie Vedder told the crowd one night. “Thanks
for waiting.” A.G. 

Phish Big Cypress

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Phish at Big Cypress

For Phish’s Trey Anastasio, this colossal
one-band festival, at a South Florida Native American reservation, was “the
culmination” of the band’s first run. “Eighty thousand people came
from all over,” he said, “and virtually nothing went wrong.” The
fest’s final set began around midnight, and went on for more than seven hours,
displaying every side of peak Phish, a singular mix of in-joke quirks and
ESP-level improv. Toward the end came an unforgettable take on the “Sunrise”
section of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” played as the sun actually
rose. “I will never listen to that tape because I know what a letdown it
would be compared to what it was actually like,” Anastasio said. “When
that sun came up, and the sky was blazing pink, it was an indescribable moment.”
W.H.

Brian Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall

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Brian Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall

For decades, Brian Wilson avoided even talking
about Smile, the psychedelic follow-up to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds he
shelved under the stresses of drug abuse and psychiatric problems. At a 2002 Pet
Sounds
show in London, though, someone said to the promoter, “How can
we possibly top this?” The idea of a Smile tour came up. “We
all kind of chuckled,” says Wilson keyboardist Darian Sahanaja. But 20
months later, after poring over the old Smile tapes, Wilson walked onstage
and finally delivered on his decades-old promise of a “teenage symphony to
God,” bringing rock’s most famous unheard album back to life. From the
first celestial harmonies of “Our Prayer” much of the audience was in
tears. Backstage afterward, Wilson was exultant, shouting, “I did it!”
A.G.

Daft Punk Alive Tour

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Daft Punk Alive Tour

In the early aughts, electronic-dance live “performances” were rarely more than one or two dudes nodding their heads around laptops. All that changed at Coachella on April 29th, 2006, when Daft Punk unveiled their genre’s most dazzling musical spectacle. In the overheated, overcrowded darkness of the festival’s Sahara Tent, two helmeted, robot-like figures – Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo – stood inside a 24-foot aluminum pyramid covered in high-intensity LED panels and performed their catalog as a megamix to nearly 40,000 fans. “It was the most synced-up we ever felt,” Bangalter said. What might have been a legendary one-off became a 2007 tour that blew minds across Europe, the U.S., Japan and Australia, inspiring the likes of Skrillex and untold others. W.H.

Leonard Cohen Worldwide Tour

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Leonard Cohen Worldwide Tour

It started as a financial rescue mission. After Leonard Cohen learned, at age 70, that his manager/sometime-lover had absconded with most of his life savings, he realized that his only chance of replenishing his funds was to go on tour. Cohen wasn’t sure how many fans he had left, so he first agreed only to a test run of theater dates in far-flung Canadian towns.

Though he’d never
 much enjoyed touring,
 Cohen was a unique
ly charismatic live performer. Even those first shows stretched past the two-hour mark, mixing elegant rearrangements of 1960s classics like “Suzanne” and “Bird on the Wire” with more recent tunes like “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Boogie Street.” His voice had deepened considerably, but that only gave it more authority and character. “It’s like he was whispering into your ear,” says longtime backup singer Sharon Robinson.

The shows were spectacular, and word-of-mouth spread quickly. By 2009, Cohen was selling out arenas all over Europe, and eventually he hit 20,000-seaters in America, including Madison Square Garden. The tour eventually ran for 387 shows across five years. Even as he neared his 80th birthday, he kept adding new songs and stretching the running time to three and a half hours, even skipping offstage before the encores. “Leonard was really good at conserving his strength and blocking out distractions and prioritizing his energy,” says Robinson. “He lived an almost monastic lifestyle even though he wasn’t a real monk.”

By
the time he played his final show, in Auckland, New Zealand, Cohen had gone
from cult favorite to cross-generational icon. After he closed that performance
with a sprightly “Save the Last Dance for Me,” he doffed his hat,
took a deep bow and walked off the stage, smiling. “I want to thank you,”
he said to the audience. “Not just for tonight, but for all the years you’ve
paid attention to my songs.” A.G.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert

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Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert

The idea was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with no less than the most important multi-artist concert in history. “I knew the anniversary had potency,” said Hall of Fame Foundation chairman (and Rolling Stone founder) Jann Wenner. “I thought that we had earned the right and responsibility to do this thing. It was an opportunity not to be missed.”

The organizers were determined to put on a show that was far more ambitious than any of the previous megashows, while capturing the intimate, collaborative spirit of the annual induction ceremonies and telling the story of rock & roll. “[I kept saying], ‘If this is just miniconcerts of greatest hits, I’m bored,'” recalled co-producer Robbie Robertson. “‘What do we have to offer that you can’t get anywhere else?'”

The shows, held over two nights at New York’s Madison Square Garden, were a rock fan’s dream, with all the artists delivering blistering, unforgettable sets, no doubt inspired by the presence of so many of their peers and the event’s grandeur. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who closed the first night, performed at their absolute peak, turning themselves into a soul revue as they backed Billy Joel, John Fogerty, Tom Morello and Darlene Love. U2 brought Springsteen back the next night, but the biggest moment came near the end of their set, when they kicked into “Gimme Shelter,” and – out of nowhere – an unbilled Mick Jagger appeared onstage to the stunned delight of the crowd.

The first night began with a nod to rock’s origins: Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Next were Crosby, Stills and Nash (joined by Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and James Taylor), Stevie Wonder (with guests Smokey Robinson, John Legend, B.B. King, Sting and Jeff Beck) and a note-perfect Simon and Garfunkel. On the closing night, Aretha Franklin sang with Annie Lennox and Lenny Kravitz; Jeff Beck jammed with Buddy Guy, Billy Gibbons and Sting; and Metallica backed Ray Davies, Ozzy Osbourne and Lou Reed.

“For a lot of us here, rock & roll means just one word: liberation. Political, sexual, spiritual liberation,” Bono said onstage, before Springsteen interrupted him with the other side of the equation: “Let’s have some fun with it!” A.G.

LCD Soundsystem at Madison Square Garden

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LCD Soundsystem at Madison Square Garden

“It’s your show,” LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy shouted to a sold-out Madison Square Garden. The raging farewell by Murphy’s beloved group was a Last Waltz for New York’s early-’00s dance-rock scene. “I thought it would be really sad,” recalls keyboardist-vocalist Nancy Whang. “But it was just fun. The energy in the room was really charged.” Fans danced to near-exhaustion as LCD played songs from their entire catalog. With barely two months to prepare the nearly four-hour spectacle, featuring a choir, a horn section and a rickety spaceship, the band tackled a production scale beyond its experience. “It was held together with gum and string,” Whang admits. The night (captured in the 2012 film Shut Up and Play the Hits) ended in a snowstorm of balloons, culminating the band’s dream of throwing “the best funeral ever.” W.H.

Jay Z & Kanye West 'Watch the Throne' Tour

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Jay Z and Kanye West ‘Watch the Throne’ Tour

“I’m sorry if this is your first concert,”
Kanye West said to a Los Angeles crowd on the Watch the Throne tour. “It’s
all downhill from here.” Supporting their triumphal 2011 LP, Watch the
Throne,
Jay Z and Kanye convened the greatest superstar summit in hip-hop
history. The pair performed on giant, rising cubes that projected video, and,
when the tour hit Paris, encored with their hit “Niggas in Paris” 12
times in a row. “People just wanted more,” says the tour’s lighting
designer Nick Whitehouse. “It made people crazy.” C.R.W.

Fleetwood Mac 'On With the Show' Tour

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Fleetwood Mac ‘On With the Show’ Tour

The return of Christine McVie after 16 years
brought the Mac’s live show to a whole new dimension. Lindsey Buckingham’s
guitar solo on “Go Your Own Way” soared to new heights; Stevie Nicks
seemed possessed during the nightly exorcism of “Rhiannon”; and all
three voices locked seamlessly on “Little Lies.” It was all the magic
of 1977 without the distractions of hard drugs and sexual soap operas. A.G.

Taylor Swift '1989' Tour

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Taylor Swift ‘1989’ Tour

“You’re not going to see me playing the
banjo,” Taylor Swift warned Rolling
Stone
at the outset of her 1989 world tour. On her Speak Now and
Red tours, she claimed her turf at the crossroads of country, pop and
classic arena rock. But for 1989, Swift made her bold move into full-on
dance pop. She turned up the glitz with new material like “New Romantics”
and “Blank Space” (“blatant pop music,” as she put it), but
she didn’t compromise on her trademark emotional overshares, whether opening up
in confessional interludes or torching up ballads (“Clean”). Swift
aimed for a glammier look onstage, reflecting the grown-up flair of the music,
and she invited high-profile guests: In Nashville, she duetted with Mick
Jagger; in L.A., she brought out Beck, St. Vincent, Justin Timberlake, Chris
Rock and Alanis Morissette. It all summed up her staggeringly ambitious vision
of modern pop. Rob Sheffield

Beyoncé Formation Tour

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Beyoncé Formation Tour

Strutting in stacked heels across the turf of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, wrapped in golden bandoleers and flanked by a Black Panther–styled phalanx of dancers, Beyoncé performed “Formation” at the 2016 Super Bowl in a cameo appearance even fiercer than her 2013 Super Bowl triumph. It was the overture to a tour that redefined stadium-scale concert staging. “She had an overall vision of what she wanted,” says Steve Pamon, chief operating officer of Beyoncé’s label, Parkwood Entertainment. “Not only in terms of a business, but in the type of experience we want to give the fans.”

Four days before the tour began, Beyoncé surprise-dropped her instant classic Lemonade. British set designer Es Devlin, who had previously worked with Kanye West and U2, created a kind of spectacular intimacy that fit the album’s personal themes. At midstage was the “Monolith,” a video-screen centerpiece standing seven stories high that projected the show in 70-foot magnification, making every seat feel front-row. On opening night in Miami, Bey burned through “Crazy in Love” and “Bootylicious” in a fire-engine-red latex bodysuit and matching boots, looking like an anime empress. The shows also dialed it down for slow jams like the breakup meditation “Mine,” during which the Monolith split in two to reveal dancers suspended on cables while Bey and a squadron in lace bodysuits rose up from beneath the stage. At the end of the show, a moving catwalk connected the main stage to a h