25 Greatest Live Bands Now!
Take a sneak peek at this feature from Spin's Sept. issue!
Sure, you can stay at home and download music to your ears’ content. But sometimes it’s all about the Show. Whether in a dingy club, on a muddy festival field, or in a shining stadium, these artists are guaranteed to set off rock’n’roll pyrotechnics, literal or otherwise.
WRITTEN BY: Charles Aaron, Andrew Beaujon, Doug Brod, Rob Kemp, Melissa Maerz, and Brian Raftery
COMETS ON FIRE
Years back, with Ethan Miller’s roaring guitar, Utrillo Kushner’s splattering drums, and Noel Harmonson’s disorienting Echoplex, Comets on Fire raged like a belligerent action painter hurling glops of blue, black, red, green, purple, and yellow in your face. It was, um, jarring but nothing you really needed to experience again. Now, after injecting some nuance and texture, the band, joined by folk-drone guitarist Ben Chasny, gradually unveil their kaleidoscopic sound rather than just blinding you with it. And you can’t stop staring, no matter how loud the colors get.
BEST MOMENT: The next day, when the ringing in your ears stops.
THE MARS VOLTA
The Mars Volta barely acknowledge their audience, admittedly a distraction when your songs have roughly two dozen “movements” apiece, but somehow that aloofness is more engaging than any overpaid legend trying to see which side of the arena can clap louder. Chalk that up to singer Cedric Bixler Zavala’s mutant dance moves or to a band that always manages to be tighter than guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s trousers.
BEST MOMENT: You know that part in “Drunkship of Lanterns” where everything drops away but weird belching noises, then the drummer slowly brings it back, and then Bixler Zavala wails like Robert Plant, and you suddenly understand what your loser uncle meant when he said you had to see Zeppelin to understand how amazing they were? That.
Davey Havok has conquered the fabric of time and space — just notice how whenever he jumps into the crowd, he reappears, Captain Kirk like, back onstage. And he jumps into the audience a lot, a good way to remind you that, while AFI managed to look like one of the biggest bands in the world long before they were one, their connection with their fans is absolute. So when dragged along boyfriends lift their lighters ironically during the “Morningstar” interlude, they’re quickly put in their place. Also, you gotta love between-song patter along the lines of “Thank you for being so vivacious tonight.”
BEST MOMENT: Havok stands on audience members’ hands during the set closer “Totalimmortal,” and what starts off resembling a fascist rally (taped Gregorian moans augmented by crowd chanting) begins to look a bit like church.
Have you ever watched a movie detective chase someone through a crowded nightclub and thought, “C’mon, that’s not what rock shows are really like”? Well, LCD Soundsystem shows are exactly like rock shows in the movies — lights blind the audience, the sound is deafening, the band barely moves, and the singer looks as though he does something else for a living (say, minor-league hockey team equipment manager). And it’s really hard to push through the crowd members, their arms outstretched, eyes closed, bodies vibrating more than dancing. For some reason, when frontdude (and DFA label mogul) James Murphy gets wasted and makes fun of them, they like it even more.
BEST MOMENT: Murphy — and this is not something we say lightly — is actually pretty good on the cowbell. But don’t shout “More cowbell!” He can’t hear you, and “Beat Connection” is better for it.
Matted hair, inflamed faces, black jeans and T-shirts soaked with sweaty grime. Wry, woozy grins. Spirited banter with the pit jockeys down front. When Against Me! take the stage, they look like they just drove ten desperate hours in a van to rock you arseways, then buy you a pint and crash on your floor after a red-eyed debate about what the hell it means to call yourself an anarchist after opening for Green Day in football stadiums. Then they wake up, start mainlining El Pico, and do it all over again.
BEST MOMENT: When the music drops out on “Sink, Florida, Sink” and the whole place explodes with one voice: “They make all the right reasons to fuck it up / You’re gonna fuck it up / Whoa whoa-oh-oh-oh-ohhh!”
GOGOL BORDELLOIf there’s a watering hole in Eastern Europe where the jukebox only plays polka covers of Sex Pistols songs and the bartender serves vodka to his dog, Gogol Bordello are probably the house band. With a full Gypsy-punk brigade oompahing around him, Ukrainian-born Eugene Hutz busts his best Fiddler on the Roof moves, licks his mustache, and lords over a rowdy Balkan dub-reggae boho-globalist love-in.
BEST MOMENT: When the crowd has been reduced to an undulating mass of arm-linked swaying, Hutz unveils a flag emblazoned with his take on “mission accomplished”: THINK LOCALLY, FUCK GLOBALLY.
ART BRUTLeave it to a Brit to make self-deprecation seem truly rock’n’roll. Art Brut frontman Eddie Argos often enters the stage to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” with slumped shoulders, then takes victory laps around the crowd after extolling his erectile dysfunction. But though he slags rock-star bravado, he also celebrates it in every wind-milled power chord. Those deadpan songs about the girls who’ve left him? They remind you why that spectacle is necessary, because fame means tricking someone into paying attention to you. And after the groupies have gone home, that’s what love means, too.
BEST MOMENT: Any time that Argos tells the postscript to one of his autobiographical songs, such as the sad, funny tale of what happened to the girl from “Emily Kane.”
MY MORNING JACKETHair will be flipped. Leather will be fringed. And Jim James will enter, quite possibly holding a lantern as if he’s looking for an honest man. But what he’s actually trying to do is see his way through the colitas smoke. James is the kind of frontman who mostly just wears his guitar, hitting it now and again for emphasis when he’s really feeling it. And he’s always feeling it, whether the band is rocking double lead guitars Skynyrd-style, performing in tuxedos with the Boston Pops, or doing goofy covers for encores, like theWho’s “A Quick One While He’s Away” or the Misfits’ “Attitude.”
BEST MOMENT: Okay, so it’s a cheat, but there’s more than one: First, those goofy covers; then the greatest light show this side of a Laser Floyd; and then the crazed dance party that breaks out during “Wordless Chorus.”
Somehow, these guys never heard that live hip-hop must be awful and that what they’re supposed to do is play minute-long versions of their songs punctuated by explosion noises. Like a jam band with chops, the Roots take it out live. Unlike a jam band, they’re never boring, even if sometimes there is a limit to how much beatboxing you can enjoy when not high. Frequent guests can make Black Thought seem more a master of ceremonies than an MC, but when he and drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson lock a groove, it’s like no one else is onstage.
BEST MOMENT: The ever-changing “Hip-Hop 101,” a medley that takes the form of a survey of vintage singles, a meditation on “No Diggity,” or a Stars on 45-style prï¿½cis of today’s hits.
THE FLAMING LIPS
Sometime in the early 1990s, Wayne Coyne must have noticed that there were very few indie-rock bands who were, shall we say, entertaining. Perhaps those bands were embarrassed by the trappings of celebration, because, the thinking still goes, that’s what all those horrible big-hair bands did. “Nonsense,” thought Coyne, and from 1995’s Clouds Taste Metallic on, the Flaming Lips have exuded the sheer joy that anyone should when 3,000 (or 30,000) people show up to watch you play music. Then, with the tour for 1999’s Soft Bulletin, came the climactic Wayne-explodes-fake-blood-on-his-face moment during “She Don’t Use Jelly,” and the balloons raining down on the crowd, and the overwhelming sense of bonhomie that persists to this day.
BEST MOMENT: Everyone in the hall (or field) singing along to “Do You Realize?”
Mike Wiebe never met a wall he couldn’t bounce off, a lighting rig he couldn’t hang from, a monitor he couldn’t hurdle, or a fan that wouldn’t try to rescue him from certain doom. And he’s got the bruises, gashes, and broken bones to prove it. As the frontman for punk pop’s best kept secret, Wiebe is truly the hardest-working maniac in rock, and the other guys in the band are nearly as mobile — if way more sensible.
BEST MOMENT: When it’s looking like someone’s got to call an ambulance.Happens every show.
YEAH YEAH YEAHSA blowhole gusher of beer. A mic that nearly escaped being swallowed. Four-letter verbs paired with the names of parental figures. These things you expect to come out of Karen O’s mouth. Then there’s the one thing you don’t: that voice — a gorgeous fiberglass tremble-wail that’s as delicate as it is corrosive, anchored by pipes that probably spent their early years blowing out other kids’ birthday candles and by the sense that O’s angst is earned, because above the siren screech of guitars and drums, she still has to fight to be heard.
BEST MOMENT: “Maps,” when a sing-along among fans and their dates renders “They don’t love you like I love you” both ironic and poignant.
MY CHEMICAL ROMANCE
The uniforms and armbands suggest a pretentious Boy Scout troop. The bulletproof vests bring to mind 50 Cent wannabes. And Gerard Way’s voice fails to ascend to the heights it does on record. But the makeup makes perfect sense. MCR may have a frantically anthemic sound, but they’re memorable live because of Way’s diva-like flourish. He’s an emo-goth mezzo-soprano, projecting his tears, betrayal, and pride so that all in attendance feel like their heartache is a battle they can survive.
BEST MOMENT: Just before the last chorus of “I’m Not Okay (I Promise),” when everyone freezes for a split second, and Way says coyly, “Trust me.”
TURBONEGROIs it the outlandishly swishy boa-draped keyboardist/guitarist who’s in his own schizo world? Maybe the ruddy, 12-foot-tall blond bassist in the white sailor’s cap? Or perhaps the hirsute barrel-bellied singer with abused-raccoon eyes and top hat? There are so many what-the-fuck? foci when these Norwegians hit the stage to unleash their full-bodied take on Ramones-style hard rock, you’ll either shoot beer through your nose or ask where these goons have been all your life. Quite possibly both.
BEST MOMENT: When the audience chants along to “I Got Erection.”
QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE
Queens of the Stone Age are a rock band. They walk out, pummel you for an hour and change, then smoke cigarettes, drink vodka through their eyes, then get tattoos of their victims’ names, or whatever it is you do to celebrate pummeling thousands of people for an hour and change. Yes, there are solos: on bass, on guitar, on drums, on keyboards. Yes, there are guest appearances, from Dave Grohl to the dude from Kyuss whomJosh Homme is still on speaking terms with. No, it is never less than awesome.
BEST MOMENT: When guitarist Homme switches to bass on “Burn theWitch” and you realize there is very little, instrument-wise, on which he is not a total badass.
Jack White would be the first to tell you he’s not the crucial Detroit garage-rock figure. That would be Mick Collins, who almost single-handedly reminded the world of the past, present, and future rock glories of his hometown. Although he’s led or participated in multiple groups since the ’80s, his best band is the Dirtbombs, which features two drummers, two bassists, and Collins himself on vocals and guitar. His bandmates may come and go, and the repertoire may flit from classic soul to chunky glam, but Collins’ showmanship is undeniable.
BEST MOMENT: The first time the imposing Collins removes his Ray Charles shades and gets down.
How does all that sheer audaciousness fit into a 5’2″ frame? Music flows through Prince like it did through Mozart, Duke Ellington, and James Brown. But could Mozart do that throw-down-the-mic-stand-then-kick-it-back-up trick? Did Sir Duke ever take the stage in a lace camisole? Has the Godfather of Soul ever unleashed one righteous six-string salvo after another? Prince’s records can be astonishing or astonishingly misguided, but when he walks onstage, he and his band will not rest until the crowd is as sweat-soaked as they are.
BEST MOMENT: After wailing a guitar solo during “Purple Rain,” he lets loose one of those screams.
A half hour. Normal humans can clean their bathrooms in this amount of time. But the Hives cram an utterly devastating rock’n’roll throw-down into 30 minutes, packing a 1,000-capacity club with all the thrills that the Rolling Stones need three hours and a stadium to approach. It doesn’t matter a bit that this Swedish quintet recites chapter and verse from the book of the Sonics. What does matter is Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist’s arrogance as he addresses the unworthy crowd, not to mention his scissor kicks, his bug-eyed mugging, and his band’s two- to three-minute rave-ups. Fact is, we don’t deserve more than 30 minutes.
BEST MOMENT: Some dude in the audience invariably heckles the band and receives a hilariously curt dressing-down from Howlin’ Pelle.
In 1977 the Sex Pistols and the Clash wanted to not only set the English crown ablaze, but also sell lots of records. So when Green Day struck gold with 1994’s Dookie, they hit the road hard and introduced the joys of “wuh-too-fee-faw” to mall rats and their little brothers and sisters. Green Day may be in their 30s, but they remember what it was like to be corrupted by punk rock, so they play selections from their big bag of hits hard, fast, and with punishing discipline, because every night is a night to make another convert.
BEST MOMENT: Sometimes they’ll haul out “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” which will always thrill some 13-year-olds unaware that the song was originally recorded by a bunch of ridiculous Germans.
It was a red, black, and white bolt from the blue: A couple of kids who looked as if they had avoided daylight for years make an unholy racket. “Is this a joke?” some wondered. Then they witnessed Jack White coaxing blistering tones out of his antique guitars as he bayed for blood on vintage mics. They saw Meg White, whose rudimentary percussion abilities belied a ferocity that shamed more experienced drummers. “No,” those shaken folks said to each other as they walked away, “that was no joke.”
BEST MOMENT: No set list for the Stripes: Watch as one tune is cut short by Jack and is replaced by a vicious “Little Room.”
In 2000 many feared that the newly minted Best Band in the World would, given Kid A’s excursions into electronica, retreat into an egghead’s cocoon onstage. Instead, Radiohead managed to do something that had eluded scores of superstar DJs and techno titans: They imbued drama and majesty into such unlikely pursuits as pulling tones out of an ancient oscillator or a Theremin. Then they reminded everyone why they are the heirs to Pink Floyd and U2 by thundering through a guitar-driven anthem of decay from OK Computer or The Bends.
BEST MOMENT: When the ricocheting pulse of “Idioteque” drives Yorke to careen across the stage like Ed Grimley.
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
With every record, it seems as if the Peppers are an inch closer to transforming into the Eagles. But let it be understood that Henley, Frey, and Co. have never been known to tear the roof off the sucker. Kiedis, Flea, Frusciante, and Smith have never done anything less than that very thing every single show. Here is a band that burned from the moment they hit, bringing the unhinged fury of hardcore punk to thousands-strong audiences a good three years before grunge.
BEST MOMENT: Flea begins his slinky intro to “Me and My Friends,” and there’s the anticipation that the crowd is about to go batshit in a millisecond.
ARCADE FIREBy the time of their fall 2004 tour, the still-green members of Arcade Fire were faced with absurdly high expectations from audiences, who were anticipating performances as rich and dynamic as their debut album, Funeral. Amazingly, the band delivered from the first song, with the opening chorus of “Wake Up” sounding as though it were being sung from on high. Then, Win Butler and crew demonstrated their command of the stage, shifting from the joyful tension of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” to the crisp beauty of “Haiti,” all without betraying a hint of insecurity.
BEST MOMENT: The clanging, show-stopping “Neighborhood #2 (Laka),” during which guitarist Richard Reed Parry maniacally drums away on a motorcycle helmet — often while it’s on his head.
You see this man onstage, his bare torso a roadmap of past excess, cavorting like a five-year-old who just might smear peanut butter and pieces of steak across his chest to amuse his parents’ friends. This man is Iggy Pop, and he will be 60 next year. In 2003 he reunited with the brothers Asheton, with whom he’d recorded two albums whose transcendent dirtbaggery may never be topped. The three enlisted bass kingpin Mike Watt and have since been pumping out “T.V. Eye” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” for not only aging bikers, but also young’uns who had been waiting decades to see the band that Mudhoney and a hundred others wanted to be when they grew up.
BEST MOMENT: The opening riff to “Loose,” when all hell appears to break that way.
Every generation gets the Bono it deserves, from the ponytailed shaman of the Joshua Tree tour to the leather-clad Ironosaurus Rex who hosted Zoo TV to the do-gooder of today. But despite the band’s aesthetic whimsies (especially the iffy Pop tour), U2’s must-see status has never wavered: The set lists spiffily update their vintage material, mixing requisite anthems (“Bad,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday”) with newly reenergized near classics (“The Electric Co.,” “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”). But what’s most impressive about U2’s huge tours is that the quartet can cut through the precisely timed techno clutter and deliver moments of true spontaneity.
BEST MOMENT: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” whose near-ceremonial, late-in-the-show appearance never fails to feel momentous.