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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 wild as any rock & roll tour before or since. The band traveled with the largest entourage in rock history up to that point – including a physician, label president Marshall Chess and a press corps Richards compared to a political campaign. The press included photographer Annie Leibovitz, and authors Terry Southern, Robert Greenfield and Truman Capote, who reluctantly joined for a Rolling Stone cover story. “For him, it was a social occasion,” says Jagger, who recalls Capote saying he hated the fact that Jagger wore the same clothes every night. “He would’ve liked it better now – I have such a bigger wardrobe.” (Capote never wrote his piece, claiming it “didn’t interest me creatively.”)

Jagger admits that the traveling party was “a bit distracting.” He had to watch his drug intake in order to perform. “I wasn’t on meth, out of my mind or anything,” Jagger says. “But I was having a lot of fun.” Richards’ favorite story “has got to be Bobby Keys and me nearly burning down the Playboy mansion,” he says. Staying at Hugh Hefner’s home, Richards and saxophonist Keys accidentally set fire to one of the bathrooms. “We were going through a doctor’s bag and we knocked over a candle,” says Richards.

At the same time, Jagger remembers “all these dark moments” on the tour. On the morning of July 17th in Montreal, dynamite exploded beneath one of the band’s vans, destroying equipment. “It was kind of scary because it was during the separatist movement of Quebec,” says Jagger. “I mean, it wasn’t just some random guy trying to blow up a truck.” The show, remarkably, went on that night, but a riot ensued when 500 fans with counterfeit tickets were turned away.

The following day, the band flew to a small airport in Rhode Island. As the entourage cleared customs, Richards took a nap on the side of a parked firetruck. He woke up to the flashing lights of a local newspaper photographer. “I just reacted,” Richards says. “I got up and hit in the general direction of the light and busted the guy’s camera. Things escalated from there. Then the fucking FBI got involved.” The photographer claimed he was assaulted, and Richards and Jagger were arrested and placed in a jail cell, while an unruly audience at Boston Garden waited. Fearing a riot, Boston Mayor Kevin White organized their release, and the band took the stage after midnight. “There was never a dull moment,” says Richards.

The offstage chaos was documented by the legendary photographer Robert Frank, who brought along a camera for a documentary that, as Jagger understood, would be “about playing and about music.” Instead, Cocksucker Blues was a cinéma vérité experiment full of lurid scenes: naked groupies having sex on an airplane, Jagger snorting cocaine, and groupie heroin use. The band blocked its release (though it became a popular bootleg). “[Robert] would initiate things,” says Jagger. “Most documentary filmmakers kind of get you to do things that you perhaps wouldn’t do if they weren’t there.” Jagger cites the famous scene where Richards and Keys threw a TV out of a Hyatt Hotel window: “Robert would probably say to Keith, ‘Keith, throw the TV out the window.’ They probably weren’t going to do that that morning.” But Richards disagrees. “Bobby Keys and I engineered that,” he says. “We called the cameraman ’round when we dismantled the TV. So that scene was directed by Bobby Keys and Keith fucking Richards.”

The tour wrapped with four shows at Madison Square Garden. Though the Stones had played 48 shows in only 54 days, they didn’t hold back. The July 25th show featured a sentimental sing-along of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and perhaps the fiercest “All Down the Line” ever played. “You almost feel like you’re levitating on the energy from the audience,” says Richards. “It’s a strange experience.” The tour ended the following night, on Jagger’s 29th birthday. Wonder joined the band for a raucous medley of “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and a revved-up, horn-fueled take on “Satisfaction” (Wonder said he wrote “Uptight” with “Satisfaction” in mind). A cake was rolled onstage, and the show ended with a pie fight among bandmates. The afterparty, thrown by Ahmet Ertegun, included Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

It was the end of an era. Afterward, Richards slid further into addiction, and was arrested on heroin and gun charges the next year. In 1974, after only five years, Taylor left the band to go solo. The Stones’ next North American tour, in 1975, featured stage props like a giant inflatable phallus, and little of the ragged charm of the 1972 tour. “There were no sort of guidelines,” Richards says. “You sort of made it up and you went along. It was a good feeling, that tour. A bit frenetic and a little blurry, like an old movie, you
know? It was a bit jerky.” Patrick Doyle

Bowie Ziggy Stardust Tour

Rex

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.”