50 Greatest Concerts of the Last 50 Years – Rolling Stone
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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.

Elton John Doug Weston's Troubadour

Ed Caraeff/Getty

Elton John at the Troubadour

When Elton John took the stage at Los Angeles’ Troubadour for the first night of his six-date residency, he was a little-known 23-year-old pop singer with thick glasses and greasy hair who had only recently changed his name from Reginald Kenneth Dwight. When the show was over, Elton was a sensation. The stakes couldn’t have been higher: His debut LP, which had come out that spring, wasn’t selling. After what he called a “crisis meeting” with his label, it sent him to the States. The label made sure to pack the 300-capacity club with big names like David Crosby, Graham Nash and Mike Love of the Beach Boys. “The second night, Leon Russell was in the front row, but I didn’t see him until the last number,” Elton recalled. “Thank God I didn’t, because at that time I slept and drank Leon Russell.”

Neil Diamond introduced Elton. “I’m like the rest of you,” he said. “I’m here because of having listened to Elton John’s album.”

But those who had heard his album had no idea what they were in for: a poetic singer-songwriter with the flamboyance of a rock star. Album tracks like “Take Me to the Pilot” and “Sixty Years On” were played with a punk-like energy, Elton falling to his knees like Jerry Lee Lewis and knocking the piano bench over. The set also mixed in standards like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Honky Tonk Women.” And the rapturous reception he received encouraged him to experiment with even more adventurous stagecraft. “He seemed like a very quiet, subdued person,” says drummer Nigel Olsson. “All of a sudden, in front of an American audience, he started wearing Mickey Mouse ears and jumping up and down. That’s where all the strange gear started.” Unlike Elton’s debut album, which was packed with lush strings, harp and a synthesizer, he performed that night accompanied only by Olsson and bassist Dee Murray. “We just made a lot of noise,” Murray told Rolling Stone in 1987. “It was new. Elton was experimenting. Plus, we had to make up for the orchestra. We just socked it to them.”

Elton played five more nights as word started to spread around town: “His music is so staggeringly original,” Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn wrote. In the coming weeks, “Your Song” began climbing the charts, eventually hitting Number Eight in January 1971.

Forty-seven years later, Elton still looks back fondly on that first trip to America. “It was just all systems go,” he says. “Nothing was impossible. You’re working on adrenaline and the sheer fact that you’re a success. I still love what I do, and I’m 70 years old. I love it even more.” A.G.

Aretha Franklin Fillmore 1971

Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore West

When promoter Bill Graham booked the Queen of Soul for his San Francisco venue for three nights in March 1971, no one was certain the matchup would work, including Aretha Franklin herself. “I wasn’t sure how the hippies reacted to me,” she said. As Franklin’s drummer Bernard Purdie recalls, “She’d been doing what you’d call Vegas-type shows. But this was a whole different audience.” No one needed to worry. With saxman King Curtis leading a band that included Billy Preston on organ, Franklin remade pop and rock classics in her own image — turning Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” into call-and-response gospel and reworking “Eleanor Rigby” as a funky stomp. The weekend of shows (portions of which were released a few months later as Live at Fillmore West) had an appropriately glorious finale: On the last night, Franklin pulled Ray Charles out of the crowd. Though they’d just met that day, the two traded piano and vocal parts on an epic 19-minute version of “Spirit in the Dark.” “She turned the thing into church,” Charles said later. “I mean, she’s on fire.” D.B.

B.B. King at the Cook County Jail

AP/Rex

B.B. King at the Cook County Jail

B.B. King was playing a regular club gig on Chicago’s Rush Street in the late Sixties when he was invited to do a show at the local Cook County Jail. “I knew the inmates would enjoy it,” said warden Clarence English. “And that would be something they’d be beholden to us …  If you give extra ice cream or let them stay up late at night, [they] don’t fight and destroy each other.”

King’s new manager, Sid Seidenberg – who was helping King score a career resurgence by booking him at venues like the Fillmore West – saw an opportunity. He told King to take the gig, and invited press and a recording engineer for a future live album (Johnny Cash had released the successful At Folsom Prison two years earlier). But what began as a commercial move became something much deeper. “I couldn’t help but feel the oppression,” King said later. “My heart was heavy with feeling for the guys behind bars.” With a full big band behind him, King belted burning takes on “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “How Blue Can You Get?” with a fury the loud assembly evidently connected with. The inmates booed when he took the stage, but by the end they were hypnotized. The show was released on 1971’s Live at Cook County Jail, a document of an electric-blues master at the top of his game. “There were tears in people’s eyes,” English recalled. “In mine, too.” Will Hermes

The Allman Brothers 1971

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The Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East

The Allmans were still young, hungry Georgia rockers when they booked three nights at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York in early 1971 with the idea of recording a live album. “My brother always believed a live album was what the Brothers needed to do, and the record company finally agreed,” Gregg Allman recalled. “The Fillmore was just the logical choice. I don’t think we even discussed another venue.” The LP they made there, At Fillmore East, became their defining statement.

The Allmans were initially slotted into a bill headlined by Johnny Winter. But they came out guns blazing the first night, and when the hall emptied out after their set, they were promoted to headliner. With the band order duly shuffled, the Allmans had time to stretch out on spectacular journeys — “On those long jams, you climbed in and there was no tomorrow, no yesterday,” said
drummer Butch Trucks. The gigs were hardly trouble-free. On the last night, a bomb scare delayed the start of the second show until the wee hours (“Good mornin’, everybody!” someone announced before “Statesboro Blues”). That early-a.m. set ended up becoming the keeper: “Whipping Post” sprawled over gorgeous melodic terrain for 23 minutes; “Mountain Jam” ascended for more than a half-hour. Atlantic Records engineer Tom Dowd oversaw the taping; unlike most live albums, nothing needed to be redone in the studio besides a few vocal overdubs. The LP went gold on October 25th, four days before guitarist Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident. “It’s the best-sounding live album ever,” said the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. “It’s just fuckin’ awesome.” W.H.

The Band at the Academy of Music

United Artists/Photofest

The Band at the Academy of Music

The Band’s 1978 farewell movie, The Last Waltz, is the greatest concert film of all time. But even that performance didn’t reach the heights of the Band’s four-night stand at New York’s Academy of Music at the end of 1971. The shows, which were released as a box set in 2013, captured the Band at their tightest and funkiest, injecting New Orleans R&B swagger into their harmonious folk rock. It was a period of high morale and expert musicianship for the sometimes volatile group, the result of a decade of hard touring, with Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan and finally on their own. “There was a spell that everybody was doing really, really good,” the Band’s Robbie Robertson told Rolling Stone in 2013. “It was a roll of the dice after that. You just didn’t know what condition somebody was going to show up in.”

It was a moment the Band needed. Three years on from their groundbreaking debut, Music From Big Pink, their two most recent studio albums, Stage 
Fright and Cahoots,
 had been greeted with 
lukewarm reviews.
 Aiming for some fresh 
energy, Robertson re
cruited veteran New
 Orleans band lead
er Allen Toussaint to 
put together a horn 
section for their holi
day gigs at the Academy of Music. It almost 
didn’t work out. To 
everyone’s horror,
 Toussaint’s briefcase 
full of horn arrangements was stolen on his way from New Orleans to the band’s Woodstock headquarters, where he was forced to rewrite the charts from memory. He wrote them in the wrong keys, and the Band had to relearn their songs in entirely new keys. Robertson recalled thinking, “We’re doomed.”

That anxiety lifted when they took the stage. “A chill ran through me,” Robertson said. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m feeling some magic in the air here. …’ As soon as we kicked off the first song,” he added, “we weren’t even touching the ground.”

The group set the tone with a taut, funky cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It,” and gracefully moved through its canon. The Band played with intensified warmth on “Unfaithful Servant” and “Get Up Jake” and jittery energy on deep album cuts like “Smoke Signal.” “We only did it once or twice,” said Robertson. “Levon [Helm] did an amazing job on it.” They turned “Chest Fever” and “Rag Mama Rag” into the stuff of a Crescent City street party, and returned to their roadhouse roots on Chuck Willis’ 1958 deep cut “(I Don’t Want to) Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes.”

The Band saved their biggest surprise for last. During their New Year’s Eve encore, they invited out their old friend Dylan, who had been out of the spotlight for years. Looking like his mid-Sixties self with aviators and a Telecaster, Dylan howled fiery takes of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Don’t Ya Tell Henry,” pausing only to talk through the arrangements. “We were being a little bit bold,” said Robertson. (The horns didn’t accompany Dylan, though: “He looked over and saw us, jumped back from the microphone and glared over his shades,” says tuba player Howard Johnson. “I told everyone, ‘OK, let’s just get offstage.'”)

Months later, highlights of those shows comprised the dazzling live double LP Rock of Ages, which critics immediately called one of the best live albums of the Seventies. For drummer Helm, it was simply “the most fun I ever had making a Band record.” D.B.

The Rolling Stones North American Tour

AP

The Rolling Stones North American Tour

Mick Jagger has a clear memory of being onstage in the summer of 1972, singing “Love in Vain,” the Robert Johnson song the Rolling Stones had recently reworked into a soul ballad. Jagger still marvels at the live version – particularly Mick Taylor’s searing lead guitar, which slowly took over the song and culminated in a minute and a half of mournful, melodic virtuosity. “He was playing beautifully at this point,” says Jagger. “It was chilling. It was so sad and haunting. And the horns were really just subtly there. The beats and stops were usually perfect. That was one of my favorites.”

The Rolling Stones were at the peak of their powers in the summer of 1972: Keith Richards was playing the most fearless rhythm guitar of his career; Taylor stretched out their music to improbable peaks; and Jagger stalked the stage, whipping his belt and perfecting his ability to turn music, as critic Robert Greenfield observed, into a psychodrama.

It was the band’s first North American tour since Altamont, the disastrous, deadly California festival in December 1969. Shaken by that debacle and the death of Brian Jones, the band hunkered down in the studio, recording three masterpieces: 1969’s Let It Bleed, 1971’s Sticky Fingers and 1972’s Exile on Main Street. Their Sixties peers – the Beatles, Bob Dylan – were less prolific, withdrawing from public view. In their absence, the Stones had only grown in stature. “After 10 years of playing together, the Stones had somehow become the number-one attraction in the world,” Greenfield wrote in his chronicle of the tour, A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones. “The only great band of the Sixties still around in original form playing original rock & roll … They were royalty.”

Both Jagger and Richards remember the excitement they felt ahead of the eight-week run. If the prospect of getting back on the road weren’t enough, the opening act on tour was a 22-year-old Stevie Wonder, whom Jagger made a habit of watching side-stage. “It was exciting, the feeling of anticipation – getting back in touch with what it is we did,” says Richards. Adds Jagger, “We were trying to get out of the studio, out of the South of France, and Keith had all these drug problems – so it was kind of good to get out on the road.”

The Stones’ office was overloaded with requests for tickets, priced at $6.50 (some fans sent in as many as 60 postcards each). A Dick Cavett TV special on the tour described the strange new phenomenon of scalping (plus the new concept of groupies). On opening night in Vancouver, 2,000 fans tried to force their way into the Pacific Coliseum, leaving 31 policemen injured – the first of several violent incidents. “That was in the day when people who didn’t have a ticket would show up,” says Jagger, “and be like, ‘OK, we’re here, we’re fucking going in.'”

Unlike the 1969 tour – which featured slow, slogging rhythms – the band played at breakneck speed. “Keith was doing that,” says Jagger. “I’m not trying to blame him for anything. He kept starting it.” Says Richards, “That was probably trying to catch up with lost time.” Songs like “Street Fighting Man” ran several minutes longer than the studio versions as the band ripped away. “We were probably searching for the ending,” Richards jokes.

For Richards, the highlight was playing the new songs from Exile on Main Street, recorded the previous summer. “Playing the Exile stuff for the first time was a real turn-on,” says Richards. After opening with “Brown Sugar,” the band tore through several Exile classics: “Rocks Off,” “Rip This Joint,” “Sweet Virginia.” Unlike later tours, Jagger hung around during Richards’ songs, howling away “Happy” into the same mic. “I always enjoyed doing that,” Richards says.

There were also a few throwbacks, including a horn-fueled version of “Satisfaction,” and “Bye Bye Johnny,” a Chuck Berry song that the Stones had been doing since 1963. According to Richards, they picked the deep cut for its rhythm: “There’s an interesting reverse beat going on that always intrigued us.”

On the road, the Stones encountered an older audience – one that ranged from about age 15 to 30. “There always used to be screamers, and they didn’t seem to worry much about the music,” Bill Wyman told Cavett. As a result, the band played with more focus. It helped that arena sound had improved: “Now you hear everything and you see everything, and there’s so much tension,” said Wyman.

For all the onstage professionalism, the backstage scene was as wi