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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.

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.”

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
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!”

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.”

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
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
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 did