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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.

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.