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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.

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.