50 Greatest Concerts 1959-2009: Part Two (Throwback Thursday)

August 28, 2014

Back in November 2009 we presented our list of the Greatest 50 Concerts from 1959-2009 with commentary by our staff and some special guest writers. Last Thursday we posted numbers 50-31 and the countdown continues today…

30. James Brown, Boston Garden, Boston, Mass., April 5, 1968
James Brown played the Boston Garden the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated and city officials used him to help quell the riots. He somehow convinced the government that if they broadcasted his show, then people would stay home to watch. The whole time you feel like you are on the edge of chaos, but his music is so inspirational and so universal that it seemed to unite everyone. He said “We got to get together,” and it really worked. He talked about where he came from – there was a real humbleness to the way he spoke that night. And even though his politics were a little off – he endorsed Nixon – his music was universal. Gabriel Roth, founder Daptone Records

29. Cream, Madison Square Garden, New York, N.Y., November 2, 1968
A year after Cream played the intimate confines of the Cafe Au Go Go in 1967, the band performed in a circus-like atmosphere inside the cavernous reaches of Madison Square Garden. Though it was part of a farewell tour, many New Yorkers were hearing the stunning interplay between guitarist Eric Clapton, bassist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker for the first time. The PA speakers were part of a revolving stage, so you only got to hear the band’s full sound when it was directly in front of you, a terrible production decision. Terry Reid played a terrific support set, but after Cream performed a couple of songs from the album Wheels of Fire, “White
Room” and “Politician,” the concert stopped for an onstage platinum record presentation. Then music finally got underway, starting with powerful versions of “I’m So Glad” and “Sunshine of Your Love” before running through the four epic sojourns of “Crossroads,” “Train Time,” “Toad” and “Spoonful.” John Swenson

28. Michael Jackson, Motown 25, Pasadena Civic Auditorium, Pasadena, Calif., March 25, 1983
Even if Michael Jackson had not introduced his famous moon walk on the Motown 25 television special, his performance of “Billie Jean” still would be one of the most iconic moments in pop history. The groundbreaking video “Billie Jean” was in the middle of a seven-week chart-topping run when Jackson, decked out in a flashy black suit, appeared onstage at the show’s March 25 taping. With the flip of his hat, Jackson assumed the crouching position he borrowed from Bob Fosse’s “Little Prince” as the song’s heavy beat meshed with its familiar creeping electronic bass line. He then launched into a dance routine that’s been etched into our collective memory: the hip thrusts, kicks, twirls, magical footwork and updated Fred Astaire-like classic cool poses. But it was a fleeting segment, three and a half minutes into the song, which made history: Jackson began moving backward in a way that looked as if he were walking forward. The audience erupted. He had not yet begun calling himself the “King of Pop,” but from then on, there was no question that the moon walking Michael Jackson reined supreme. Mark Kemp

27. Minor Threat, 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C., September 23, 1983
Minor Threat shot across the American punk rock landscape like a comet, from self-releasing their debut 7″ EP in the summer of 1981 to playing this seething final gig, opening for Washington, D.C. go-go legends Trouble Funk. As he had for three manic years, frontman Ian MacKaye, later of Fugazi, bellowed with a charismatic, infectious fervor as his bandmates raged. Minor Threat embodied the DIY ethos, launching the still-extant Dischord Records to document their own output and that of friends, and all the conflicts that arise when personal, and passionately held, codes of ethics meet the big, bad world. Their music developed equally fast, from the blinding thrash of the debut to the pensive melodies (with acoustic guitar, even!) of the posthumous Salad Days 7.” The title track, a lament for shattered friendships and a stagnating scene, was performed only once – at this show, under its working title of “Last Song.” Phil Freeman

26. The Allman Brothers Band, Fillmore East, New York, N.Y., June 26, 1971
The last night [at Fillmore East] was nothing but a bunch of industry people that were given special tickets and by the time we got onstage, everyone was passed out drunk – there was nothing left. But the night before was music the way it was supposed to be. Everybody right there in the moment, no tomorrow, no yesterday, just completely wrapped up in this unbelievable thing that music can be. We played our normal two and a half hour set and when we came back out, the feeling from the crowd was just incredible – I’ve never felt anything like that before or since. We kicked off a “Whipping Post” that lasted until after sunrise. It’s indescribable. We couldn’t quit. No matter what happened, just when it felt like it was going to die, somebody came up with something else and it would go somewhere else. When we finished playing, there was no sound from the crowd. No applause. Everybody just sat there. Then, somebody finally opened the doors, the sun came pouring in and people quietly started leaving. I remember Duane in front of me dragging his guitar out saying, “It’s like leaving church.” I’m very much convinced that we’re best rock and roll band that ever existed and that was the best night we’ve ever played. Butch Trucks, The Allman Brothers Band

25. Bruce Springsteen, Bottom Line, New York, N.Y., August 15, 1975
With the release of the much delayed Born To Run and the simultaneous TIME and Newsweek covers still weeks ahead, Bruce Springsteen came to New York City’s Bottom Line in mid-August for ten shows over five days. Delivering nearly six hours of original compositions and rock classics each night, with ample helpings from the forthcoming release, the group, which included new guitarist Steven Van Zandt, had become a lean, mean, fighting machine (as per Springsteen’s pre-show patter on the middle evening, which aired on WNEW and swiftly resurfaced as one of the most bootlegged shows in music history). If this was the tour that helped establish the hype then it also demonstrated how Springsteen would transcend it – via dynamic performances that proved profound and profane, raucous and revelatory, as an artist yearned, yelped and shared his soul’s music. Dean Budnick

24. U2, Red Rocks Amphitheater, Morrison, Colo., June 5, 1983
When U2 was on tour supporting the War album, the band and their manager, Paul McGuinness, sensed that the Red Rocks date was going to be special. The band decided to risk every penny they had (and then some) to help underwrite the filming and recording of the Red Rocks gig. On the day of the show, the weather was miserable and the working conditions were dangerous. A few guys got serious electrical shocks while setting up in the rain. There were mumblings of “mutiny” in the name of safety by a small faction of non-Irish crewmembers. The opening act, The Alarm, was canceled but the wet, stoic audience was told, much to their surprise, that U2 would perform. As the band stood in the wings, I saw a look of nervousness on Bono’s face that I would never see again. By the second song, everyone, especially the band, realized that this was going to be an unforgettable experience. The elements enhanced the look of the amphitheater and challenged the band to prevail. Bono was in the zone. Nothing was rehearsed. (They hadn’t even soundchecked.) He climbed the speaker stacks. He climbed the side of the mountain. He riffed on Stephen Sondheim. He beat Mother Nature. Randy Ezratty, sound engineer

23. The Ramones, CBGB, New York, N.Y., August 16, 1974
The first show we ever played was with a group called Angel and The Snake, which eventually became Blondie. The other act on the bill was The Cocketts, from San Francisco. The audience consisted of local artists, Hells Angels, drag queens and winos. We stormed onto the stage and got through our set without stopping except to tune – the drummer (myself) reached over the cymbals and tuned the guitar and bass. We occasionally stopped to have an argument about which song we should play next. One highlight was when we all started playing a different tune and didn’t realize it until we were in the middle and had to stop to get our bearings. We were using tiny little Mike Mathews amps that had a big huge sound, but they would blow up on a regular basis because we would drive them so hard. It was a wild night. Tommy Ramone

22. Grateful Dead, Fillmore West, San Francisco, Calif., March 1, 1969
In the years after 1969, the Grateful Dead would grow immeasurably. They’d make wonderful albums with superbly crafted songs ( Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty ). They’d define the cutting edge of sound technology, create their own record company, establish themselves as a functioning business – and even become legends. But in 1969, with none of that visible, they were merely the most wildly experimental improvisational string band in the land, and on a good night, they could fuse rock modalities and jazz improvisation at a level that even Miles Davis would respect. March 1st, 1969 is certainly arguable as one of those nights – it’s simply exquisite. And, like the proverbial error in all great Middle Eastern carpets (supposedly placed so as not to offend Allah by attempting perfection), they followed up two hours of heaven with an encore that was the worst rendition of “Hey Jude” in human history – the full range of the Dead in one package. Dennis McNally, author and former Grateful Dead publicist

21. Lollapalooza ‘91, Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View, Calif., July 26, 1991
There were shows on the first Lollapalooza tour that would stand out for one band in particular, and then there were shows where it seemed like every band was on fire like the San Francisco-area show. The vibe on the tour was pretty electrifying: alternative rock literally turned the corner and became a mainstream idea in a big way. Nine Inch Nails was this alternative force playing super heavy club music that got these huge crowds jumping up. There was such camaraderie on that first tour: You had Henry Rollins and his band, the Butthole Surfers and, of course, Jane’s Addiction – a lot of this was Perry Farrell’s idea. The other crazy thing about that tour is that it was literally the point in which body piercing and tattooing became a mainstream things. After Lollapalooza I started to see kids working at McDonald’s with pierced tongues. Maybe it’s because San Francisco has such history with ‘67 and the Summer of Love, but that show was special – everyone stepped up their game. Vernon Reid, Living Colour

20. Aretha Franklin, Fillmore West, San Francisco, Calif., March 7, 1971
It is easy to say that Aretha Franklin is one of the greatest singers off all time, but every time I put on [the shows recorded for Live at the Fillmore West ], it takes me to the same place. There isn’t a dull moment or a bad note – it is a journey: Ray Charles comes out and [Aretha’s] band included King Curtis, Cornell Dupree and Billy Preston. Many people don’t know this, but King Curtis’ opening set from those shows are actually the shows released on his Live at the Fillmore West. Growing up I was a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix and Santana, but the first time we played the Fillmore, the only thing that I could think of was Aretha at those shows. Those shows pop right off of the vinyl and take you right to the Fillmore. Alan Evans, Soulive

19. The Rolling Stones, Madison Square Garden, July 26, 1972
It definitely was not the summer of love. By July 1972, the counterculture’s sunny disposition had turned darker and no band better represented that mood shift than The Rolling Stones. Truly living up to their “bad boys of rock and roll” image, the Stones exuded a palpable sense of decadence and danger, and their audience, larger than ever, was primed for the band’s first American tour in three years. Touring behind Exile on Main Street, the hardest, toughest and rootsiest album of their career, the Stones crisscrossed the country, playing electrifying shows everywhere they set down. Whereas lead guitarist Mick Taylor had just been settling in during the 1969 foray, by ‘72 he was integral; pianist Nicky Hopkins and hornmen Bobby Keys and Jim Price added more muscle to the music. Following opening act Stevie Wonder, the Stones intro’ed each show with “Brown Sugar,” then offered a blistering array of their best, including “Bitch,” Keith Richards’ “Happy,” the acoustic “Sweet Virginia” and all-out rockers “Rip This Joint,” “All Down the Line” and “Rocks Off.” The Stones ended the tour with a three-show run at Madison Square Garden, the final date coinciding with Mick Jagger’s 29th birthday. For many in the audience that night, and at the tour’s other stops, The Rolling Stones truly lived up to the tag others had bestowed upon them, “the greatest rock and roll band in the world.” Jeff Tamarkin

18. John Coltrane, The Village Vanguard, New York City, N.Y., November 3, 1961
Saxophonist John Coltrane was at a turning point in his career when he brought his group to New York’s Village Vanguard for a series of shows on November 1-5, 1961 (available in their entirety on CD). Earlier that year, Coltrane had joined the forward-looking Impulse label and begun a brief but fruitful association with multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, who shared Coltrane’s fascination with African and Indian music. Though on other nights the band was joined by Ahmed Abdul-Malik on the tamboura, an Indian drone instrument, and Garvin Bushell on English horn and contrabassoon, the middle gig presented Coltrane’s classic quartet with Dolphy (though soon-to-be permanent bassist Jimmy Garrison was rotated with Reggie Workman). The beautiful conversation among Coltrane’s tenor and soprano, Dolphy’s bass clarinet and McCoy Tyner’s piano on the meditative “Spiritual” and “India” take the modal improvisations that Coltrane explored with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue to the next logical step – a journey that would lead to A Love Supreme and beyond (though, at the time, not all in the audience appreciated Coltrane’s new sound). You can hear Coltrane searching for – and finding – new pathways in the music just as he was experimenting with his lineup. “Impressions,” with Garrison, presents the sound of the classic quartet for the first time. John Swenson

17. Otis Redding with Booker T. & The M.G.’s, Monterey Pop Festival, Monterey, Calif., June 17, 1967
It was a multi-layered experience. We flew from London to Detroit to San Francisco after finishing the Stax tour in Europe and it was a culture shock. I had never really seen hippies before. We had done these shows in Europe that were greatly appreciated, but this was different because these weren’t your conservative young British kids that slipped away from home to go to the show. These were people who were making a political statement in America with their lives and they wanted us. They wanted Otis, they wanted Booker T. & The MGs. It was just one of those electric nights. They just showed Otis love that he hadn’t seen before in the United States and he was moved. And we just rode on his energy and took his cue, followed his lead. The music was like riding on the wind, I don’t know how to describe it. I see the video and listen back to the tape and I have no idea how we played that music that way, at that tempo. It was the same music but it seemed surreal. Otis Redding was our leader onstage and his energy was the energy that we rode on. Booker T. Jones

16. The Who, Grande Ballroom, Detroit, Mich., May 9, 1969
Tommy was a watershed moment, both for the rock canon and for The Who themselves. The album transformed them from a tough aggressive singles band into bona fide rock gods and sophisticated thinkers with the intermingled spiritual, musical and autobiographical themes that Pete Townshend disgorged from his messy unconscious. But Townshend didn’t see it as an exercise in rock altruism or even enduring art, remarking dryly two years after its release that a rock opera was “[G]ood thinking for a group who stopped getting hits.” You wouldn’t have thought that as attendance records for the storied venue were broken the weekend that The Who debuted their 74-minute behemoth in the U.S. while 1500 fans (who paid the princely sum of $5 for the privilege) watched rock history being made under the gilded Moroccan arches. The Who had been in Detroit all week, rehearsing at the Grande – forced to practice with music stands so they could memorize the lyrics – since they had only played the album live the month before at Ronnie’s Scott’s club in London for the British press. Afraid that the audiences would revolt – after all no one had heard any of the songs since the album wasn’t released until almost three weeks later – the band returned to the stage and performed some of its hits as well as a Chuck Berry/Bo Diddley medley. Jaan Uhelszki

15. Bob Marley, The Roxy, Hollywood, Calif., May 26, 1976
Owo! Yoyoyo! Yabba yabba yo! The exhilaration of singing along with a Wailers chant was a martial and spiritual awakening that stirred the star-studded, blasé Los Angeles audience when The Wailers played The Roxy. Would The Wailers win over local heroes like Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, Neil Diamond, Robbie Robertson, Carole King and Led Zeppelin, plus movie stars like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson? The waves of audience voices the musicians heard onstage, shouted yes. Their new album, Rastaman Vibration, functioned as a calling-card for a worldview as well as a new riddim; and with the churning, uplifting 20 minute encore of “Get Up, Stand Up,” “No More Trouble” and “War” that closed the show, changed minds and lives – and established the band’s American career. London was Marley’s second home. But this was Los Angeles – Hollywood – the home of the cowboy movies that inspired Marley to write “I Shot the Sheriff,” which helped make Marley’s name when Eric Clapton began covering it two years earlier. That night, Marley threw his all into the song, in a way he only did when his urge to communicate transformed him fully from artist to shaman. He mimicked the shooting, and his fast, soccer-trained footwork suggested how it felt to be on the run, wrongly accused. That night, though, the joy of the L.A. audience declared him not just a free man, but – creatively and spiritually speaking – one of the freest that ever lived. Vivien Goldman

14. Led Zeppelin, The Forum, Los Angeles, Calif., June 25, 1972
Led Zeppelin cognoscenti – Jimmy Page included – agree that the mighty hard rock behemoth was at the zenith of their powers for this show. They hadn’t toured immediately to promote Led Zeppelin IV, which had been released in November the year before. The break invigorated the band and when Led Zeppelin hit our shores on their eight-date North American tour, their first in three years, they were on fire, but never so much on this hot, sticky June night They were exhausted and giddy, introducing three songs from the not yet recorded Houses of the Holy – “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Dancing Days” and “The Ocean.” Plant assured fans that they wouldn’t title the next offering Led Zeppelin V, but instead Burn That Candle – a title that bootleggers misinterpreted as Burn like a Candle, misnaming the stealth recordings that flooded the market soon after the show. The temper of the crowd was as high strung as the violin bow that Page used, with a number of rowdy fans persisting in setting off firecrackers, something that Plant addressed with some improvised lyrics, later threatening to leave: “You start blowing blows and we’ll go, right? …If everybody keeps cool, we can stay here all night!” Which they did, doing a 25-minute “Whole Lotta Love” medley (one of the last times they’d do it) and a record seven encores! Jaan Uhelszki

13. Talking Heads, Pantages Theatre, Los Angeles, Calif., December 18, 1983
It was the end of the Speaking in Tongues tour in the U.S. Those shows which from that tour were truly uplifting. It had a spiritual, perhaps a church-like gospel element to it. There was a feeling of transcendence that I’m pretty sure we reached every night. The show built as it progressed – it was designed that way – the whole set was fantastic. For me, “Genius of Love” was a real high point, though objectively, it was just an excuse for David Byrne to change into his big suit. When he came back, that’s when things really started smoking (the final three songs were always “Girlfriend is Better,” “Take Me to the River” and “Crosseyed and Painless” ). People were always on their feet from like the third song till the end of the show and by the end of the show, everybody was pretty sweaty and done. Jonathan Demme shot these three shows at the Pantages for his film Stop Making Sense (celebrating its 25th anniversary on Blu-ray this year we might add) and after the last one we had an enormous reception backstage with people like Brian Wilson, Robbie Robertson, Peter Gabriel, Jodie Foster and Drew Barrymore when she was little. Every night of that tour for me, and I’m certain for the rest of the band, was a transcendent experience. Chris Franz, Talking Heads

12. Pink Floyd, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y., February 28, 1980
No less than the most elaborate stage show ever launched up until that time, Pink Floyd’s live staging of its album The Wall was unprecedented. As drummer Nick Mason reflected, “It was absurdly expensive. It’s not something other people will do, generally, because it’s just so expensive to put on – it’s simply not feasible. But it was great to have done it once.” In all, The Wall was only performed live 31 times in four cities, 12 of which took place in New York and Los Angeles. Throughout the first set, a physical wall consisting of 340 white bricks would be built to form a wall 160 ft. wide and 35 ft. tall. Giant puppets representing various characters in the narrative loomed about the stage. The second set, which began with “Hey You,” would see the wall slowly coming down – the show reaching its climax during “Comfortably Numb” as guitarist David Gilmour would appear on top of the wall seemingly out of nowhere for a searing solo. “It was a fantastic moment,” recalls Gilmour. “The audience, they’re all looking straight ahead and down, and suddenly there’s all this light up there – their heads all lift up and there’s this thing up there and the sound’s coming out and everything. Every night there was this sort of ‘gasp!’ from about 15,000 people. And that was quite something, let me tell you.” The final Nassau show would be the last Pink Floyd show to feature Roger Waters in the United States. Josh Baron

11. David Bowie, Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Santa Monica, Calif., October 20, 1972
David Bowie brought his feral androgyny and sci-fi glam-rock to the United States for the first time in Cleveland, on September 22, 1972. Bowie had released Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars earlier that year and he was inhabiting the persona of that rock and rollin’ bitch of a space invader onstage. On October 20, Ziggy and the Spiders performed a particularly excellent – and bootlegged – show that was re-released earlier this year as Live Santa Monica ‘72. The kinky link that would mutate hippie into punk had arrived on platform heels with rainbow kimono a-flowing. The Ziggy-Spiders sound was a high-voltage hybrid of rock, folk and musical theater smacked around and bruised by guitarist Mick Ronson’s scrappy blues-rock licks. According to Bowie, Ziggy was a Christ-like creation with Dionysian tendencies, the human manifestation of an alien come to save the earth five years prior to its destruction. Onstage, as one can enjoy in director D. A. Pennebaker’s 1973 film of Bowie’s final Ziggy, this translated into a triumph of style over substance amid some great tunes and an eventual “Rock and Roll Suicide.” Fortunately, by this time, Bowie had already morphed into Aladdin Sane. Richard Gehr