We know, we know — the best concert of all-time is your friend’s obscure indie-punk band playing a sweaty neighborhood basement back in ‘94. We admit that one slipped through the cracks.
Maybe it’s a fool’s errand, but this list is our attempt to narrow down three and a half decades of worthy live music events — legendary festivals, headlining tours from major artists, one-off stage collaborations, multimedia spectacles — into an eclectic and satisfying blend. – Ryan Reed
35. Heilung at Castlefest (8/5/2017)
Music-related viral clips tend to be silly and easily digestible, like the dude riding a skateboard to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” while sipping on Ocean Spray. So it’s heartening that Heilung’s debut live show, a menacing and meditative performance at Castlefest in the Netherlands, has earned nearly 5 million YouTube views (as of this writing). The 2017 gig, later released as a concert film/LP under the title Lifa, presented the band’s multi-cultural “amplified history” to the wider world — using primal throat singing and chants, booming frame drums, crackling human bones and words inspired from ancient texts. – Ryan Reed
34. 2Pac and Biggie at Madison Square Garden (10/24/1993)
Even before the war of words and bloodshed, there was always a rivalry between the coasts. During a late November 1993 show at New York City’s Madison Square Garden billed as Budweiser Superfest, Big Daddy Kane brought out a young California rapper named Tupac Shakur, best known for his performance opposite Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice. Also on hand was a Brooklyn up-and-comer named Notorious B.I.G (or Biggie Smalls), who had a spot on the Who’s the Man? soundtrack that year and was emerging as a force within the New York rap community. According to DJ Mister Cee, Kane told him to invite B.I.G. to the show. “’Pac, Big, the Rugged Child Shyheim. We just brought all of them onstage, and the magic happened. I recorded that on a cassette inside Madison Square Garden,” Cee told MTV in 2010. It proved to be both a magic and tragic what-if — glimpsing what could have been in both artists’ careers had things gone differently. – Daniel Kohn
33. Genesis Reunion Tour (2007)
Genesis’ beloved ’70s lineup — Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks and Phil Collins — met in 2005 to discuss a possible reunion, but the talks quickly fizzled. Luckily, the latter trio carried on for the Turn It On Again trek: the first Genesis run since 1998 and first with Collins since five years prior. Given the frontman’s lowered range, they had to lower the keys of almost every track — a jarring change. But the band’s chops remained in-tact, and the career-spanning setlist seamlessly mingled prog epics (“In the Cage”) with pop ballads (“Hold on My Heart”). The tour wrapped that October with a North American leg, but the most memorable show came three months earlier at the Circus Maximus in Rome; an estimated half-million fans attended the rapturous, free gig, documented on the live DVD When in Rome 2007. – R.R.
32. Pearl Jam at Chicago’s Wrigley Field (7/19/2013)
Pearl Jam avoided playing U.S. stadiums for years — except in Eddie Vedder’s hometown. The band commanded Soldier Field in 1995 with a set immortalized as part of the band’s Vault series. Twelve years later, having conquered the house of Butkus and Payton, they rode up Lake Shore Drive for one of the first concerts at Wrigley Field, fulfilling a lifelong dream for (then) long-suffering Cubs fan Vedder. After gliding through seven songs under a scenic Chicago sky, a dangerous thunderstorm derailed the show for nearly three hours. But calm prevailed, and the band returned for the doubleheader: They steamrolled through an additional 26 tenacious songs, debuting two new cuts and even bringing Cubs legend Ernie Banks onstage. – D.K.
31. Questlove’s Bonnaroo Superjam With D’Angelo (6/9/12)
Bonnaroo’s Superjam became a festival tradition, often pairing musicians you’d never expect to share a stage. But the 2012 installment was more of a soul-funk party than a “roll the dice” mash-up, with Questlove curating an A-list band that featured Roots bandmate Captain Kirk Douglas (guitar), session wizard Piano Palladino (bass), the Time’s Jesse Johnson (guitar) and, most famously, D’Angelo. The reclusive R&B star hadn’t played a U.S. show since the 2000 world tour behind his second LP, Voodoo — so seeing him in the flesh, smiling and vamping on the keys, would have been enough. But the 14-song set was pure fire from start to finish: Focusing entirely on covers (including Funkadelic’s “Funky Dollar Bill” and “Hit It and Quit It”), he was loose and exuberant — freed from the heavy expectations of following his studio masterpiece. (Luckily, that album finally arrived three years later as the mighty Black Messiah.) – R.R.
30. Tom Petty’s Final Show (9/25/2017)
No one in attendance understood the historical importance of this show — how could they? Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 40th-anniversary tour had been a massive success, as they went deep into their catalog to play rarities alongside the standard classics. But the Hollywood Bowl’s reliable magic put this performance a cut above, even without the hindsight knowledge that Petty would never perform again. The frontman — who died from an accidental overdose one week later — reveled in playing near his backyard, offering a laid-back swagger reflected in the band’s razor-sharp set. The buzz leaving the Bowl after “American Girl” proved the band was still in prime form and had many great years to come. If we only knew. – D.K.
29. OutKast at Emory University (September 1999)
The late ‘90s/early 2000s was a great time to be a college student. The alternative dream was still alive, and music discovery was everywhere — even in your backyard. In this case, literally. Native ATLiens OutKast stepped aside from recording Stankonia to play a free late Thursday afternoon show for a bunch of excited drunk college kids — right behind my dorm. Andre 3000 and Big Boi were heading into their commercial prime, and they were on fire from the jump. Highlighted by fiery performances of “Rosa Parks” and “Skew It on the Bar-B,” with a mosh pit opening up on the latter, the crowd at this little-remembered hometown show saw a group on the brink of conquering the world. Literally an hour later, the duo hopped offstage into their idling Landcruisers just in time to beat that dreaded ATL rush hour traffic. – D.K.
28. My Morning Jacket at Bonnaroo (6/13/2008)
These Louisville sluggers went well beyond their scheduled three hours at Bonnaroo 2008, embracing the eclecticism of a festival at its most open-armed. As the rain pelted the Which Stage, thinning out the fair-weather fans, Jim James and crew pummeled through a career-spanning, 35-song set full of deep cuts (the twangy “Sec Walkin” from their recently issued Evil Urges), regular heavy hitters (a raw “One Big Holiday,” featuring Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett), left-field guest spots (comedian Zach Galifianakis on an encore rendition of Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home”) and enough covers to fill an entire mini-show (from Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'” to a horn-backed take on James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”). – R.R.
27. Vans Warped Tour (2004)
For music fans who came of age after the grunge boom, just hearing the phrase “Warped Tour” conjures images of angsty mosh pits, chain wallets and spiky haircuts. It also calls to mind lots of middling rock bands who never escaped the pop-punk bubble. But the traveling tour — which launched in 1995 with backing from every skateboarder’s favorite shoe company, Vans — was innovative in its evolution, uniting guitar-obsessed outsiders in a way that always felt organic. Warped 2004 was the ultimate, sprawling from emo (Taking Back Sunday) to prog-metal (Coheed and Cambria). – R.R.
26. Green Day at Woodstock (8/14/94)
“It was punk as fuck, and nobody expected that to happen,” Tré Cool told the Member Guest podcast. He could be referring to Green Day’s commercial breakthrough on their diamond-selling masterpiece, Dookie. Instead, he’s pointing to the band’s infamous set six months later at Woodstock ‘94. As the trio powered through nine songs (including that album’s anthemic singles “When I Come Around” “Basket Case” and “Longview”), frontman Billie Joe Armstrong coaxed the crowd into starting a mud fight that eventually spilled onstage. By set’s close, bassist Mike Dirnt was playing on his back as Armstrong slung massive mud clumps into the audience, the band’s instruments now plastered brown. “I’m not going to become a mud hippie,” he shouted. ”I don’t care what you say!” Green Day’s “punk as fuck” show drew the fest’s biggest buzz, only further propelling the band into the spotlight. “It was a crazy set – one set that changed our whole lives, really,” Cool added. “After that day, tons of people were showing up at our shows. That was kind of the pivot moment – that was like the green-jacket moment for this band.” – R.R.
25. First Farm Aid (9/22/1985)
Two months after Bob Geldof’s more famous benefit event, a trio of top-shelf songwriters — Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson — staged the first Farm Aid in Champaign, Illinois. The 14-hour festival brought in over $9 million in relief for American farmers ravished by economic and environmental struggle — and on the musical front, its innovative lineup united giants in rock and country. The three organizers were major draws, alongside Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, Billy Joel, George Jones, Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty, Lou Reed and, in their first public performance since pairing up in Van Halen, Sammy Hagar and Eddie Van Halen. Not even rainy conditions could tamper the show’s optimism: “A little bad weather helps these things — it kinda makes it just one more thing to overcome,” Young said from the city’s Memorial Stadium. “People are undaunted by weather, and I hope that’s the way we can be with the farm problem.” – R.R.
24. Janet Jackson’s Janet World Tour (1993-1995)
Janet Jackson peeled back her militant Rhythm Nation-era layers with 1993’s janet., her most sensual album to date. She was transforming into a bonafide sex symbol, and she celebrated the title with the Janet World Tour. janet. was a stunning genre fusion — soul, pop, jazz, opera, hip-hop and house — and Jackson brought the range to life onstage. It felt more like a variety show, as the singer (whose debut role in Poetic Justice premiered just four months prior) fearlessly leaned into her theatrical side. The opening acts on each leg — Tony! Toni! Toné!, Mint Condition, MC Lyte and Tevin Campbell — help set the mood just right. And the setlist was perfectly curated to highlight Jackson’s most romantic songs: Control’s “Let’s Wait Awhile” and “When I Think of You,” Rhythm Nation 1814’s “Miss You Much” and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” and janet.’s “Throb” and “Any Time, Any Place”. There were seven costume changes, including the Southwestern ranger-meets-circus ringmaster getup for the tightly-choreographed “If” opening act, the vintage zoot suit for a cheeky performance of “Alright” and the quintessential ‘90s outfit (baggy ripped jeans, oversized flannel, leather bustier crop top that showcased Jackson’s rippled abs) for “That’s the Way Love Goes.” After sending four continents and 18 countries into an amorous tailspin, the entertainer had clearly cemented her journey to icon status. – Bianca Gracie
23. Run DMC/Beastie Boys in Miami (7/11/1986)
In the early ‘80s, hip-hop was mostly scoped out at underground clubs. By 1986, Run-DMC were packing arenas. On the strength of their mainstream breakthrough, a collaborative version of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” that rejuvenated the latter’s career, Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay conquered the world. Pairing up with the Beastie Boys, their Def Jam labelmates, longtime pals and soon-to-be-stars in their own right, was the perfect launching pad for stadium rap. This summer show from the Raising Hell tour crystallized the power: The most iconic moment, immortalized in Beastie Boys Book, was Steven Tyler and Joe Perry showing up for “Walk This Way,” with a drunk MCA helping out on bass. “They walk out, and the crowd goes wild. But . . . now there’s also some other guy onstage. Yauch. And he was LIT UP,” Ad-Rock recalled. “We all were. Super drunk all day, waiting for this moment. And Yauch fucking delivered: majestically. The look on the Aerosmith guys’ faces was fantastic bemusement. Who is this dirty drunk guy onstage? And why is he playing bass? With us? Throughout the whole song, Yauch kept trying to go back-to-back rock-guitar-player-style with Joe Perry, who was having none of it. It basically turned into Yauch chasing him around the stage, running backward after him.” Those in attendance got to witness a changing of the guard in real-time. – D.K.
22. Oasis at Knebworth (8/10/1996)
The outstanding 2016 documentary Supersonic starts and ends with Oasis at the height of their powers: Knebworth. The band’s two-night stand drew over 250,000 fans and had nearly 5% of the entire country (!!!) attempting to procure tickets. It was Britpop at its crescendo, and everyone was Mad Fer It. Flying from London found the band at their height of rock star excess, but the Gallagher brothers flashed boyish grins as they arrived to find a mass of people waiting for them. The show itself was full of gusto, singalongs and shitkicking rock that, for a brief moment, put Oasis on top of the world. – D.K.
21. Bob Dylan Tribute Concert at Madison Square Garden (10/16/1992)
By 1992, almost everyone thought Bob Dylan was washed. Why else would Columbia Records have staged a 30th-anniversary party in the bard’s honor? In fairness, Dylan’s output at that point in the 1980s left little to be desired [at least back then], and his 1992 collection of standards, Good As I Been to You, didn’t light the charts on fire. But this powerful tribute provided the spark, highlighting the resilient power of Dylan’s songs. A mix of peers (Neil Young, George Harrison), pals (Johnny Cash, Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty) and up-and-comers (Tracy Chapman, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready) reinterpreted Dylan’s vast catalog of hits and oddities in a manner fit for a rock king. This one or two song-per-person tribute became the template for future tribute shows, but none packed quite the power of this one. – D.K.
20. Brian Wilson at Royal Festival Hall (2/20/2004)
Anyone familiar with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys knew the importance of this show. They knew of Wilson’s struggles with mental illness. They knew he abhorred playing live. And they knew that, based on the various SMiLE songs trickled out over the previous three-and-a-half decades, that his mythical, unfinished Pet Sounds sequel was still hiding in his back pocket. Wilson’s late ’90s renaissance allowed him to reemerge onstage — and, in 2004, to debut his finally fleshed-out “teenage symphony to God” before a live audience in London. Despite the lengthy delay, anticipation was high to hear the maestro’s magnum opus, which Wilson completed with lyricist Van Dyke Parks and keyboardist Darian Sahanaja. The show lived up to the impossibly high expectations: It led to a solo SMiLE studio album seven months later, even if it left fans with more “what if”s about the original Beach Boys sessions. – D.K.
19. Metallica at Moscow Monsters of Rock (9/28/1991)
One month after the failed August Coup and three months before the Soviet Union’s official collapse, America’s metal royalty played to a surreally massive audience — reportedly between 150,000 and 1.6 million — as part of Moscow’s Monsters of Rock festival. The location alone is bonkers: The Tushino Airfield was used to conduct military exercises during the Cold War. So was the 13-song set: Metallica blitzed through staples (“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” an abridged “Master of Puppets”), covers (the Misfits’ “Last Caress,” Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil?”) and a pair of cuts from their recently issued, self-titled blockbuster LP — all while military helicopters flew overhead. – R.R.
18. Prince at Coachella (4/26/2008)
By the time he landed at Coachella, Prince’s comeback was just about complete. Following a tumultuous 1990s that saw him war with Warner Bros. and release several non-commercial albums, the Purple One experienced a renaissance starting with 2004’s Musicology, which went double-platinum and secured two Grammy awards. His free-spirited, unannounced live performances/late-night jam sessions were becoming legendary, but bringing that vibe to tens of thousands in the middle of the desert was a next-level move. Prince exerted his might during a Saturday night set featuring special guests Morris Day and Sheila E. — and widely considered one of his finest moments. Alongside a handful of his own staples (“Little Red Corvette,” “Controversy,” “1999,” “Purple Rain”), he busted out covers of the Beatles, Santana, the B-52s, Sarah McLaughlin, and, most memorably, Radiohead (“Creep”). The show still serves as a reminder that few musicians, if any, could match Prince when he was “on.” – D.K.
17. Pink Floyd Reunite with Roger Waters at Live 8 (7/2/2005)
Bob Geldof tried to capture lightning in a bottle twice. The first time, at Live Aid, he managed to secure a Led Zeppelin reunion — but he pulled off an even bigger shocker two decades later at Live 8: reuniting Pink Floyd with Roger Waters. Since Waters’ 1985 departure, the two parties’ acrimonious relationship was on par with dogs and postal workers. But they put aside their longstanding differences for a tight, pristine, four-song set. After David Gilmour’s monumental solo to close “Comfortably Numb,” the four musicians joined arms harmoniously, raising hopes for a full-fledged reunion tour. Alas, they stuck to their word with the one-night-only show, ending the quartet’s live story on a high. The show resonates even more deeply in hindsight, given the 2008 death of keyboardist Richard Wright. – D.K.
16. Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn Residency (2014)
It’s sad and ironic that Kate Bush, who embraced theatricality more than most pop artists, only staged one brief concert trek: 1979’s The Tour of Life, which incorporated mime, choreography and costumes throughout 24 now-mythical dates. The singer-songwriter only made a few brief live appearances after that point, including a 2002 guest spot with David Gilmour in London to sing on Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” But after a flurry of studio activity in the 2010s, Bush booked Before the Dawn, a 22-date concert residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo. Fans, who’d daydreamed about the prospect over the previous 35 years, snatched up the tickets in 15 minutes — and the resulting production, documented on a 2016 live album of the same name (and hopefully, eventually, a concert film), lived up to the monumental hype with a multimedia extravaganza. Between the dancing, puppetry, visual illusions and scripted dialogue, Bush commanded the shows with a voice deepened both in range and emotion. And the material — highlighted by the bulk of her 1985 opus, Hounds of Love, most making its live debut — was enriched by the organic touch of her ace live band. If no shows rise After the Dawn, we can live with that. – R.R.
15. Allman Brothers Band’s Final Show (10/28/2014)
After years of tragic deaths and personnel shifts, the Allman Brothers’ final lineup became their longest-lasting — and part of that sturdiness was an annual, month-long run at New York City’s Beacon Theatre. When guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks announced their plans to depart the group in 2014, the band decided to close up shop altogether, ending with one last stand at the Beacon. The final show sidestepped the guest players (sadly, not even co-founding guitarist Dickey Betts) and extensive covers that had become tradition — but that allowed them to tell the Allman Brothers story with precision and poignancy. The concert, structured into three sets and spilling out over four hours, showcased the band’s trademark guitar harmonies and stacked percussion on staples like “Hot ‘Lanta,” “Blue Sky,” “Melissa” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” And it ended with the biggest rarity of all: Frontman Gregg Allman, in a brief speech, recalled the band’s first jam session in 1969, introducing the encore finale of the blues standard “Trouble No More.” “Never did we have any idea it would come to this,” he told the crowd, marveling at their longevity and success. But the Beacon show was a reminder of what we all knew for decades: Few bands, if any, sparked more joy playing their instruments in the same room. – R.R.
14. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and the 2Pac Hologram at Coachella (4/15/2012)
From top to the bottom, Coachella 2012 was the fest’s high-water mark. The lineup was incredible — how else would future superstars Gary Clark Jr. and Frank Ocean perform on side stages, with Childish Gambino on a mid-afternoon slot? Not to mention the reunions of At The Drive-In, Refused, Mazzy Star and Pulp. All A Big Fucking Deal. But the Sunday headliners completely changed the trajectory of live shows. Marking the 20th anniversary of their first collaboration on The Chronic, the reclusive Dr. Dre teamed with Snoop Dogg to salute their rich history. They also enlisted members of their hip-hop family, including Warren G, Wiz Khalifa, Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent, Eminem and 2Pac. Yes, the late 2Pac, who graced the stage as a hologram for four songs, moving with a lifelike bravado and swagger. Ever since then, various companies and musicians have attempted to replicate this effect to little fanfare. Dr. Dre changed the game with the 25-song set — and he hasn’t headlined another show since. – D.K.
13. Guns N’ Roses in Las Vegas (4/8/2016)
Guns N’ Roses disintegrated as quickly as their Sunset Strip excess conquered the world. By 2012, the year of their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, the band’s legacy was so faded — and so controlled by Axl Rose — that the odds of a classic lineup reunion seemed impossibly slim. When TMZ asked the singer about such a venture, he replied, “Not in this lifetime.” Almost four years later, Rose teamed with two of his former bandmates, guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan, for one of rock’s most surprising semi-reunions. Of course, that first major show, Las Vegas in April 2016, didn’t go off without a hitch: Rose broke his foot at an L.A. warm-up gig the week before, causing speculation about the tour crumbling before it started. With an assist from Dave Grohl’s stage throne, the GNR reunion exceeded expectations — Vegas fans witnessed a band that once threw it all away return to their arena-packing peak. – D.K.
12. Tibetan Freedom Concert (1998)
The late ‘90s were a weird time for activism. The Clinton years were mostly stable for the U.S internationally, and with the Cold War in the rearview mirror, musicians were inspired to champion other causes. The Tibetan Freedom Concert, organized by Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch in 1996, aimed to raise public awareness about China’s human rights violations towards Tibetans — the first installment reportedly raised $800,000 for the Milarepa Fund, co-founded by Yauch. “If everyone focuses simultaneously on this one issue, then Tibet will quickly become free,” the Beastie Boy told Rolling Stone of the event. “This can become a springboard for change all over the world and exemplify nonviolent struggle and using compassion to stop hatred.” For three years, the biggest names in alternative music performed at the show: The still-impressive 1998 lineup — featuring Pearl Jam, Beastie Boys, Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E.M. — marked the pinnacle of MTV-era alternative rock. – D.K.
11. Led Zeppelin Reunion in London (12/10/2007)
Led Zeppelin’s classic quintet played their final show on July 7, 1980 — less than three months before the tragic death of drummer John Bonham. And reunion chatter followed their every move from that point on. The surviving trio — singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones — regrouped for two ill-received mini-shows that decade: a 1985 spot for Live Aid (with Phil Collins and Chic’s Tony Thompson on drums) and a 1988 event at Madison Square Garden celebrating Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary (with Bonham’s son Jason behind the kit). If anything, the awkwardness and tentativeness of those gigs only fueled cravings for a proper reunion. And it finally arrived in 2007, when Plant, Page, Jones and the younger Bonham regrouped at London’s 02 Arena during a benefit for late Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun. There were 20 million ticket requests, setting a Guinness World Record — and Led Zep delivered on that insane hype with their 16-track set, tackling the unimpeachable staples (“Kashmir,” “Black Dog”) and a couple unexpected curveballs (Presence deep cuts “For Your Life” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”). Thankfully, for the millions who didn’t catch the historic show, they also preserved the reunion on the Celebration Day film and DVD. – R.R.
10. Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Tour (1993-1994)
Peter Gabriel has always recognized the crucial intersection of sound and image — from the startling costumes (the fox head, the phallic Slipperman) he donned onstage with Genesis to his innovative work in the music video medium (the stop-motion kookiness of “Sledgehammer”). But his ambitious Secret World tour, promoting 1992’s Us, reached another level of visual splendor: The trek — conceived with writer-director Robert Lepage and documented on a 1994 concert film/live album — featured intricate choreography, stage props, projections, experimental technology and multiple stages, all drawing on the meditative lyrics of Gabriel’s latest LP. “The square stage represents the male and the round domed stage the female, the walkway between them providing communication and the link between the sexes,” Lapage told Box Magazine in 1993. “The link also becomes a road or a river, a place of travel and transformation, from one stage literally to another.” The melodrama — Gabriel traversing a steamy conveyor belt on “Across the River” and reaching out from a phone booth in “Come Talk to Me” — adds another dimension to his immaculately arranged music. – R.R.
9. Beyonce and Jay-Z’s On the Run Tour (2014)
Having each concluded solo outings — Beyoncé with the Mrs. Carter Show World Tour following her surprise self-titled album, Jay-Z with the Magna Carter World Tour — music’s biggest power couple launched their massive, co-headlining On the Run jaunt in June 2014. The husband and wife used an outlaw theme for the video snippets played on stadium screens, starring in broad-daylight shoot-outs and desert getaways. But the most cinematic moments happened onstage, as the pair traded songs before teaming up for their signature hits — from the namesake “Part II (On the Run)” to the iconic “Drunk in Love.” As documented in the HBO concert special, the stage was mostly bare — few decorations could handle the demands of even one of their catalogs. As a result, the show’s beauty is how the two artists played off of each other: Across the numerous costume changes, they alternate black-and-white motifs, lend ad-libs and verses to each other’s songs and perform solo songs about relationship pains (Jay-Z’s “Song Cry” and Bey’s “Resentment”) before joining each other with “Wanted” posters of their faces brightly lit behind them. By the show’s end, they were greater than the sum of their parts — two superstars joining forces to become notorious. – Tomas Miriti Pacheco
8. Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium (August/September 1985)
It took Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band five albums to have a hit: “Hungry Heart” from The River. His label had almost dropped them before the (relative) success of Born to Run saved them. But after releasing that album in 1984, with its seven top ten hits, Springsteen was the biggest rock star in the world, and pretty universally regarded as having the greatest live show. So in support of the album on his U.S. tour he played stadiums, joining a then very rarified group of artists to have done that. In August and September 1985 he staged six mesmerizing, legendary shows at his home state New Jersey’s Giants Stadium. I was there for two of them. I remember being utterly transported, alternately aware and unaware of being among 70,000 people, equally spellbound, all of us singing along with him. He had no set decorations: It was just him and the band on a naked stage, with giant screens magnifying them to the colossuses they all were, for three-plus hours that felt timeless and, in the end, too short. I thought at the time that his charisma was almost terrifying for the power he held over us. “Who could have ever have been bigger than this?” I wondered. “Not Elvis, not the Beatles or the Stones,” I thought, before chillingly concluding, “perhaps only Hitler.” – Bob Guccione, Jr.
7. U2 in Sarajevo (9/23/1997)
This was one of the most emotional, and famous, concerts of the last 35 years, and, given the circumstances, perhaps the most appreciated. Recovering from the war in Bosnia, decimated Sarajevo, which had been under relentless, brutal siege for over three years, was the unlikely venue for U2 to make a diversion from their 1997 Pop Mart tour. But the band had become talismanic to Sarajevans during the siege, thanks to the efforts of relief worker (and former SPIN writer) Bill Carter, who wanted the world not to forget Sarajevo and got the band to show nightly video uploads from the city while on tour. Yours truly actually produced the concert — here’s a link to the full story, and a clearer sense of why the word “produced” shows how elastic a word can be — and at first the band didn’t want to do it. But then they did, and it was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience, staged in the city’s rickety, somehow still standing soccer stadium. Bono lost his voice and it didn’t matter because 45,000 people took the singing upon themselves. That “allowed room for Sarajevo to take the gig away from us,” said Bono at the time. Larry Mullen said, “if I had to spend 20 years in the band just to play that show … I think it would have been worthwhile.” – B.G.J.
6. Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour (1990)
For Madonna, her 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour was more than just shock factor: It was meant to transform live pop music. With complete creative control, the pop icon supported her fourth LP, 1989’s Like a Prayer, with a dizzying production that combined sex, death, religion and cone-shaped bras. The tour was high camp and at times more theater than concert. Divided into five acts — Metropolis, Religious, Dick Tracy, Art Deco and Encore — the trek referenced everything from A Clockwork Orange to the AIDS epidemic. Of course, not everyone was pleased: The Pope and other religious groups blasted her use of religious iconography, and she was almost arrested in Toronto for breaching obscenity laws thanks to her performance of “Like a Virgin,” where she simulated masturbation onstage between two men sporting faux breasts. If anything, the drama around Blonde Ambition just elevated her fame, helping Madonna reclaim her narrative and power as the tabloids (wrongfully) deemed her a villain. By then, she’d ignited a blonde revolution. – Ilana Kaplan
5. Nirvana at Reading (8/30/1992)
Kurt Cobain was done. At least that’s what the tabloids said. They also said that Nirvana was on the brink of collapse, that the singer was so strung out on heroin that he might not even show up to the band’s headlining slot at Reading. Cobain heard the rumors and laughed. As the band went on stage for their headlining set, the frontman, decked out in a hospital gown, was pushed in a wheelchair before slowly getting up and “collapsing.” After a brief moment, Cobain arose and grabbed his guitar, with the band ripping into the one-two punch of “Breed” and “Drain You” — the start of what became their final U.K. show. Antics aside, Nirvana were their rawest, blending songs from their first two albums with previously unheard In Utero tunes “All Apologies” (dedicated to Courtney Love) and “Dumb.” After closing with “Territorial Pissings” (and destroying their instruments), Nirvana left the British crowd shocked and mesmerized. – D.K.
4. Radiohead at Bonnaroo (6/17/2006)
Radiohead were sinking in creative quicksand back in 2005: Working without producer Nigel Godrich for the first time in a decade, they trudged through rudderless recording sessions as Thom Yorke’s famous blackboard of song ideas kept filling up. They found a solution the following summer, shaking off their collective struggle on the road: This legendary Bonnaroo set — which Radiohead recently preserved online — documents the band’s rejuvenation, as they bounced from ghostly electronics (“The Gloaming,” “Idioteque”) to fractured art-rock balladry (“Pyramid Song”) to triple-guitar alt-rock (“The Bends”). They also workshopped their in-progress songs, highlighted by a feral, slow-climbing take on “Videotape.” (These shows clearly helped them figure shit out: That tune wound up with a drastically altered electronics-and-piano arrangement on 2007’s In Rainbows, produced by their old pal Godrich.) Bonnaroo 2006 is revered by Radio-heads and the band itself: Multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood described it as “easily, comfortably, the best festival experience [he’s] ever had in America.” – R.R.
3. Lilith Fair (1997-1999, 2010)
Before the Women’s March, there was Lilith Fair. Powered by the most influential women in music, Planned Parenthood booths and even protesters, the all-female touring festival that took place between 1997 and 1999 — with a revival in 2010 — was one of the most successful in history. The brainchild of singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, Lilith Fair proved wrong music business naysayers who said an all-women lineup wouldn’t sell. Throughout its tenure, it featured major artists across alt-rock, country and pop, including Liz Phair, Lisa Loeb, Joan Osborne, the Pretenders, Bonnie Raitt, the Chicks, Missy Elliott and Erykah Badu. Despite pushing boundaries at the time, the festival has still been criticized for its lack of diversity over the years. Should it ever be revived again, hopefully organizers wouldn’t make that same mistake. – I.K.
2. Queen at Live Aid (7/13/1985)
At this point, what isn’t there to be said about Live Aid’s centerpiece performance? Though it’s not quite the fan-fic that Bohemian Rhapsody hyped it up to be, this early evening set was still Queen at their pinnacle. Onstage at London’s Wembley Stadium, the band opened with a tease of their prog-pop anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody” before firing off five other hits (“Radio Ga Ga,” “Hammer to Fall,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and the requisite arena duo of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions”). Though they did map out one final tour with Freddie Mercury (and move forward with varying degrees of success with different frontmen years later), this brief concert became a cultural time capsule moment — showcasing a legendary rock band in full flight and becoming a blueprint for how to stand out amid a crowded festival lineup. – D.K.
1. First Lollapalooza Tour (1991)
Lollapalooza changed the trajectory of the ‘90s, helping usher the alternative era into the mainstream. The tour, the brainchild of Perry Ferrell and Marc Geiger, was meant as a friendly farewell to Jane’s Addiction, as the group first dissolved following the 1991 tour. But it became something bigger. With a wide-ranging lineup — including Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T & Body Count, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Living Colour, Rollins Band and Violent Femmes — Lollapalooza provided a common home for artists on the mainstream periphery. Hitting sheds across the States, the five-week jaunt proved a success: With its carnival-like atmosphere, extracurricular activities (a circus sideshow, environmental activism) and genre-fusing approach, Lolla became the template for what became the modern American festival. – D.K.