The Greatest Rock Concerts of All Time
From Led Zeppelin’s U.S. debut to Phish at Big Cypress, and beyond
The list below was born out of some pretty serious arguments. Was Bruce Springsteen better in 1975 or 1978? Which was more awesome, “The Joshua Tree” or “Zoo TV”? The Rock concerts and tours that made the final cut weren’t just huge spectacles, they deepened the power of rock & roll itself. “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.
Led Zeppelin World Tour
Before the private planes, mountains of cocaine and allegations of black magic, Led Zeppelin were four blokes tearing a path through America for the first time. They hit the U.S. in late December 1968, just before their debut LP hit shelves. “I remember pulling up to a theater and the marquee said, ‘Vanilla Fudge, Taj Mahal and support,’ ” Robert Plant said in 2005. “I thought, ‘Wow, here we are: support!’ ”
Everyone knew their name soon enough. A month in, they unleashed a four-hour set at the Boston Tea Party. “We’d played our usual
one-hour set, using all the material from the first album,” John Paul Jones said. “The audience just wouldn’t let us offstage.” Over 168 shows that year, as they unveiled new songs like “Whole Lotta Love,” Zep’s live fury and future promise came into view. “This group could become one of the biggest bands in history,” Jones said. “I hope we don’t blow it.”
Black Sabbath American Tour
When Black Sabbath landed at JFK Airport for their first U.S. tour, Ozzy Osbourne scrawled “Satanist” as his religion on the immigration form. Many who saw their shows – opening for the Faces, Alice Cooper and the James Gang – didn’t know what to make of the shaggy Brits. A turning point came at New York’s Fillmore East. “I tore my floor tom off the riser and threw it at the audience,” says drummer Bill Ward. “I was like, ‘Fucking move! Do something!’ Soon everyone was headbanging.” Relentless touring in Europe had turned Sabbath into a brutal assault force. “It was primal,” says Ward of the tour. “There’s a lower self that went onstage, and it was just dynamite.”
The Who at the University of Leeds
After 1969’s rock opera Tommy, The Who wanted to return to their raw roots with a live album. Pete Townshend hated the recordings they made on their U.S. tour so much he threw them onto a bonfire. But everything clicked back home in England, in front of 2,000 ravenous fans at the University of Leeds, where the band tore through 38 songs, including a nearly 15-minute “My Generation.” Townshend later called it “the greatest audience we’ve ever played to.”
Neil Young and Crazy Horse Winter American Tour
In early 1970, Neil Young had finally become a star thanks to the huge success of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. During a quick break from that band and from recording his third solo LP, After the Gold Rush, Young decided to introduce his new fans to his other band, Crazy Horse – whose garage-rock thrash sounded the complete opposite of CSNY – on a run of clubs, theaters and the occasional junior-college auditorium. “When Neil plays with Crazy Horse, he goes into this other place and plays deep from inside,” says drummer Ralph Molina. “He becomes Neil Young, the real Neil Young.”
It was a sound no one had heard before. While other early jam bands like the Allman Brothers played with virtuosic professionalism, Crazy Horse produced raw chaos. Each night began with a brief solo acoustic set before Crazy Horse came onstage. Songs like “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” sometimes stretched to nearly 20 minutes, Young trading unhinged solos with guitarist Danny Whitten. “Danny had a strong musical presence, probably just as strong as Neil,” says bassist Billy Talbot. “We started doing songs longer, which Neil had never done before.”
In March, Bill Graham booked them at the Fillmore East for four shows in two nights, where they shared a bill with Miles Davis and the Steve Miller Band. Each night, Whitten sang “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown,” a song about scoring heroin, which he’d started using heavily around this time. One night backstage, Young wrote down the phrase “I’ve seen the needle and the damage done” on a sheet of paper. Within two years, Whitten was dead, and Young’s song about him, “The Needle and the Damage Done,” would appear on Harvest, the best-selling album of 1972. “It was such a loss,” said Young. “[It taught me] you can’t count on things. You just can’t take things for granted. Anything could go at any time.”
Elton John at the Troubadour
When Elton John took the stage at Los Angeles’ Troubadour for the first night of his six-date residency, he was a little-known 23-year-old pop singer with thick glasses and greasy hair who had only recently changed his name from Reginald Kenneth Dwight. When the show was over, Elton was a sensation. The stakes couldn’t have been higher: His debut LP, which had come out that spring, wasn’t selling. After what he called a “crisis meeting” with his label, it sent him to the States. The label made sure to pack the 300-capacity club with big names like David Crosby, Graham Nash and Mike Love of the Beach Boys. “The second night, Leon Russell was in the front row, but I didn’t see him until the last number,” Elton recalled. “Thank God I didn’t, because at that time I slept and drank Leon Russell.”
Neil Diamond introduced Elton. “I’m like the rest of you,” he said. “I’m here because of having listened to Elton John’s album.”
But those who had heard his album had no idea what they were in for: a poetic singer-songwriter with the flamboyance of a rock star. Album tracks like “Take Me to the Pilot” and “Sixty Years On” were played with a punk-like energy, Elton falling to his knees like Jerry Lee Lewis and knocking the piano bench over. The set also mixed in standards like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Honky Tonk Women.” And the rapturous reception he received encouraged him to experiment with even more adventurous stagecraft. “He seemed like a very quiet, subdued person,” says drummer Nigel Olsson. “All of a sudden, in front of an American audience, he started wearing Mickey Mouse ears and jumping up and down. That’s where all the strange gear started.” Unlike Elton’s debut album, which was packed with lush strings, harp and a synthesizer, he performed that night accompanied only by Olsson and bassist Dee Murray. “We just made a lot of noise,” Murray told Rolling Stone in 1987. “It was new. Elton was experimenting. Plus, we had to make up for the orchestra. We just socked it to them.”
Elton played five more nights as word started to spread around town: “His music is so staggeringly original,” Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn wrote. In the coming weeks, “Your Song” began climbing the charts, eventually hitting Number Eight in January 1971.
Forty-seven years later, Elton still looks back fondly on that first trip to America. “It was just all systems go,” he says. “Nothing was impossible. You’re working on adrenaline and the sheer fact that you’re a success. I still love what I do, and I’m 70 years old. I love it even more.”
The Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East
The Allmans were still young, hungry Georgia rockers when they booked three nights at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York in early 1971 with the idea of recording a live album. “My brother always believed a live album was what the Brothers needed to do, and the record company finally agreed,” Gregg Allman recalled. “The Fillmore was just the logical choice. I don’t think we even discussed another venue.” The LP they made there, At Fillmore East, became their defining statement.
The Allmans were initially slotted into a bill headlined by Johnny Winter. But they came out guns blazing the first night, and when the hall emptied out after their set, they were promoted to headliner. With the band order duly shuffled, the Allmans had time to stretch out on spectacular journeys — “On those long jams, you climbed in and there was no tomorrow, no yesterday,” said
drummer Butch Trucks. The gigs were hardly trouble-free. On the last night, a bomb scare delayed the start of the second show until the wee hours (“Good mornin’, everybody!” someone announced before “Statesboro Blues”). That early-a.m. set ended up becoming the keeper: “Whipping Post” sprawled over gorgeous melodic terrain for 23 minutes; “Mountain Jam” ascended for more than a half-hour. Atlantic Records engineer Tom Dowd oversaw the taping; unlike most live albums, nothing needed to be redone in the studio besides a few vocal overdubs. The LP went gold on October 25th, four days before guitarist Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident. “It’s the best-sounding live album ever,” said the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. “It’s just fuckin’ awesome.”
The Rolling Stones North American Tour
Mick Jagger has a clear memory of being onstage in the summer of 1972, singing “Love in Vain,” the Robert Johnson song the Rolling Stones had recently reworked into a soul ballad. Jagger still marvels at the live version – particularly Mick Taylor’s searing lead guitar, which slowly took over the song and culminated in a minute and a half of mournful, melodic virtuosity. “He was playing beautifully at this point,” says Jagger. “It was chilling. It was so sad and haunting. And the horns were really just subtly there. The beats and stops were usually perfect. That was one of my favorites.”
The Rolling Stones were at the peak of their powers in the summer of 1972: Keith Richards was playing the most fearless rhythm guitar of his career; Taylor stretched out their music to improbable peaks; and Jagger stalked the stage, whipping his belt and perfecting his ability to turn music, as critic Robert Greenfield observed, into a psychodrama.
It was the band’s first North American tour since Altamont, the disastrous, deadly California festival in December 1969. Shaken by that debacle and the death of Brian Jones, the band hunkered down in the studio, recording three masterpieces: 1969’s Let It Bleed, 1971’s Sticky Fingers and 1972’s Exile on Main Street. Their Sixties peers – The Beatles, Bob Dylan – were less prolific, withdrawing from public view. In their absence, the Stones had only grown in stature. “After 10 years of playing together, the Stones had somehow become the number-one attraction in the world,” Greenfield wrote in his chronicle of the tour, A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones. “The only great band of the Sixties still around in original form playing original rock & roll … They were royalty.”
Both Jagger and Richards remember the excitement they felt ahead of the eight-week run. If the prospect of getting back on the road weren’t enough, the opening act on tour was a 22-year-old Stevie Wonder, whom Jagger made a habit of watching side-stage. “It was exciting, the feeling of anticipation – getting back in touch with what it is we did,” says Richards. Adds Jagger, “We were trying to get out of the studio, out of the South of France, and Keith had all these drug problems – so it was kind of good to get out on the road.”
The Stones’ office was overloaded with requests for tickets, priced at $6.50 (some fans sent in as many as 60 postcards each). A Dick Cavett TV special on the tour described the strange new phenomenon of scalping (plus the new concept of groupies). On opening night in Vancouver, 2,000 fans tried to force their way into the Pacific Coliseum, leaving 31 policemen injured – the first of several violent incidents. “That was in the day when people who didn’t have a ticket would show up,” says Jagger, “and be like, ‘OK, we’re here, we’re fucking going in.'”
Unlike the 1969 tour – which featured slow, slogging rhythms – the band played at breakneck speed. “Keith was doing that,” says Jagger. “I’m not trying to blame him for anything. He kept starting it.” Says Richards, “That was probably trying to catch up with lost time.” Songs like “Street Fighting Man” ran several minutes longer than the studio versions as the band ripped away. “We were probably searching for the ending,” Richards jokes.
For Richards, the highlight was playing the new songs from Exile on Main Street, recorded the previous summer. “Playing the Exile stuff for the first time was a real turn-on,” says Richards. After opening with “Brown Sugar,” the band tore through several Exile classics: “Rocks Off,” “Rip This Joint,” “Sweet Virginia.” Unlike later tours, Jagger hung around during Richards’ songs, howling away “Happy” into the same mic. “I always enjoyed doing that,” Richards says.
There were also a few throwbacks, including a horn-fueled version of “Satisfaction,” and “Bye Bye Johnny,” a Chuck Berry song that the Stones had been doing since 1963. According to Richards, they picked the deep cut for its rhythm: “There’s an interesting reverse beat going on that always intrigued us.”
On the road, the Stones encountered an older audience – one that ranged from about age 15 to 30. “There always used to be screamers, and they didn’t seem to worry much about the music,” Bill Wyman told Cavett. As a result, the band played with more focus. It helped that arena sound had improved: “Now you hear everything and you see everything, and there’s so much tension,” said Wyman.
For all the onstage professionalism, the backstage scene was as wild as any rock & roll tour before or since. The band traveled with the largest entourage in rock history up to that point – including a physician, label president Marshall Chess and a press corps Richards compared to a political campaign. The press included photographer Annie Leibovitz, and authors Terry Southern, Robert Greenfield and Truman Capote, who reluctantly joined for a Rolling Stone cover story. “For him, it was a social occasion,” says Jagger, who recalls Capote saying he hated the fact that Jagger wore the same clothes every night. “He would’ve liked it better now – I have such a bigger wardrobe.” (Capote never wrote his piece, claiming it “didn’t interest me creatively.”)
Jagger admits that the traveling party was “a bit distracting.” He had to watch his drug intake in order to perform. “I wasn’t on meth, out of my mind or anything,” Jagger says. “But I was having a lot of fun.” Richards’ favorite story “has got to be Bobby Keys and me nearly burning down the Playboy mansion,” he says. Staying at Hugh Hefner’s home, Richards and saxophonist Keys accidentally set fire to one of the bathrooms. “We were going through a doctor’s bag and we knocked over a candle,” says Richards.
At the same time, Jagger remembers “all these dark moments” on the tour. On the morning of July 17th in Montreal, dynamite exploded beneath one of the band’s vans, destroying equipment. “It was kind of scary because it was during the separatist movement of Quebec,” says Jagger. “I mean, it wasn’t just some random guy trying to blow up a truck.” The show, remarkably, went on that night, but a riot ensued when 500 fans with counterfeit tickets were turned away.
The following day, the band flew to a small airport in Rhode Island. As the entourage cleared customs, Richards took a nap on the side of a parked firetruck. He woke up to the flashing lights of a local newspaper photographer. “I just reacted,” Richards says. “I got up and hit in the general direction of the light and busted the guy’s camera. Things escalated from there. Then the fucking FBI got involved.” The photographer claimed he was assaulted, and Richards and Jagger were arrested and placed in a jail cell, while an unruly audience at Boston Garden waited. Fearing a riot, Boston Mayor Kevin White organized their release, and the band took the stage after midnight. “There was never a dull moment,” says Richards.
The offstage chaos was documented by the legendary photographer Robert Frank, who brought along a camera for a documentary that, as Jagger understood, would be “about playing and about music.” Instead, Cocksucker Blues was a cinéma vérité experiment full of lurid scenes: naked groupies having sex on an airplane, Jagger snorting cocaine, and groupie heroin use. The band blocked its release (though it became a popular bootleg). “[Robert] would initiate things,” says Jagger. “Most documentary filmmakers kind of get you to do things that you perhaps wouldn’t do if they weren’t there.” Jagger cites the famous scene where Richards and Keys threw a TV out of a Hyatt Hotel window: “Robert would probably say to Keith, ‘Keith, throw the TV out the window.’ They probably weren’t going to do that that morning.” But Richards disagrees. “Bobby Keys and I engineered that,” he says. “We called the cameraman ’round when we dismantled the TV. So that scene was directed by Bobby Keys and Keith fucking Richards.”
The tour wrapped with four shows at Madison Square Garden. Though the Stones had played 48 shows in only 54 days, they didn’t hold back. The July 25th show featured a sentimental sing-along of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and perhaps the fiercest “All Down the Line” ever played. “You almost feel like you’re levitating on the energy from the audience,” says Richards. “It’s a strange experience.” The tour ended the following night, on Jagger’s 29th birthday. Wonder joined the band for a raucous medley of “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and a revved-up, horn-fueled take on “Satisfaction” (Wonder said he wrote “Uptight” with “Satisfaction” in mind). A cake was rolled onstage, and the show ended with a pie fight among bandmates. The afterparty, thrown by Ahmet Ertegun, included Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
It was the end of an era. Afterward, Richards slid further into addiction, and was arrested on heroin and gun charges the next year. In 1974, after only five years, Taylor left the band to go solo. The Stones’ next North American tour, in 1975, featured stage props like a giant inflatable phallus, and little of the ragged charm of the 1972 tour. “There were no sort of guidelines,” Richards says. “You sort of made it up and you went along. It was a good feeling, that tour. A bit frenetic and a little blurry, like an old movie, you
know? It was a bit jerky.”
David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars World Tour
“I wanted the music to look like it sounded,” said David Bowie, who reigned over the moon-age daydream of his greatest tour as a crimson-haired, sparkly, makeup-slathered rock & roll space god. The music, thanks to the savage elegance of the Spiders From Mars, was even wilder, with an intense symbiosis developing between Bowie and chunky-toned guitarist Mick Ronson. “There was magic there,” says keyboardist Mike Garson. Ziggymania broke out across the world, and even as Bowie moved on, it never really stopped.
Van Morrison North American Tour
It takes an extraordinary band to top the studio versions of songs like “Domino” and “Cyprus Avenue,” but with the 10-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra, Van Morrison pulled it off night after night. With horns, strings and blazing jazz chops, the band was ready to “take the songs anywhere Van wanted to take them,” says guitarist John Platania. “Every performance of each song was different.” Morrison was, as usual, lost in the music, getting so into it that he gave himself backaches – the platform shoes he was favoring at the time probably didn’t help. He rarely addressed the crowd, and kept his band on its toes with subtle gestures that sparked dynamic shifts worthy of James Brown. “He had these signals behind his back,” says Platania. “He would flash his hand and spread his fingers out. We knew instantly we had to bring it down and then build it up again.” Morrison was stretching out, toying with his phrasing, elongating syllables like a jazz singer. The band ended when the tour did – but it lives on in Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, one of the most essential live albums of all time, recently released in a gloriously extended version. “We were sad to see it end,” says Platania. “But in those days, he would say stuff like, ‘The show doesn’t have to go on.'”
Patti Smith Group and Television at CBGB
Over a two-month-long residency, the Patti Smith Group went from art project to formidable band – and lower Manhattan’s CBGB was well on the road to becoming one of the most famous rock clubs in the world. Much of the material that ended up on Smith’s debut, Horses, came to life at CB’s, with Smith improvising poetic chants as the band brutalized simple chord patterns. “CBGB was the ideal place to sound a clarion call,” Smith wrote. Television, meanwhile, had just begun emphasizing the guitar-weaving tapestries they would immortalize on Marquee Moon. Rock history was being made at a club with no dressing rooms and an incontinent dog in residence – and the musicians knew it. “I remember one night standing outside CBGB, in the doorway of the derelict hotel next door, smoking a joint,” says Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, “and realizing that this was the kind of gathering of psychic energies I’d always dreamed of when, say, I would read about the San Francisco scene in 1966.”
Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue North American Tour
Bob Dylan could have played arenas when he toured to support 1976’s Desire. Instead, true to form, he did the unexpected: He booked tiny theaters with just days’ notice, charged less than $9 per ticket and took along a gaggle of friends – including Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Joan Baez. Dylan had started hanging around his old West Village haunts with buddies from his folkie days, and he wanted to take that nostalgic spirit on the road. “We all sing and sing and sing and laugh until we pass out,” Baez told Rolling Stone. “For us, it makes no difference if we just play for 15 people or 15,000.” Backed by one of his best bands ever (including guitarist Mick Ronson), Dylan stretched out shows for as long as five hours – with help from McGuinn, Elliott and others, who would do their own sets and join his. New tracks from Desire were mixed with 1960s classics (“It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Just Like a Woman”) and covers (“Deportees”). The shows were full of raw, spontaneous intimacy: Dylan duetted with his ex-lover Baez, did scorched-earth versions of “Idiot Wind,” and pleaded for the release of jailed boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. As Rolling Thunder participant Allen Ginsberg said, “Having gone through his changes … Bob now has his powers together.”
Grateful Dead North American Tour
“Our second coming,” says Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart of the band’s 1977 North American tour. Everyone knew the Dead could jam out infinitely. But that year they were discovering something new: that tight, songful concision could transport a crowd just as easily. “We had a lot of new songs and wanted to get at ’em,” says singer and guitarist Bob Weir. “And the only way to get at the next song was to finish the one you were doing.” Ironically for a band that had little use or patience for studios, it would be recording sessions that strengthened its live approach. Terrapin Station, the group’s most recent LP, was recorded with Fleetwood Mac producer Keith Olsen, who’d helmed their self-titled 1975 breakthrough; he forced the Dead to prep and rehearse more than they ever had. “Going in with Keith and having him organize and arrange all this stuff,” says Weir, “that gave us a solidity.” The results of Olsen’s whip-cracking became clear as soon as the Dead went back on the road — they tore into old favorites like “St. Stephen” and tried new combinations, like going from the fast-paced “Scarlet Begonias” into the churning “Fire on the Mountain,” and proved their newly honed chops could help sculpt jams such as the 10-minute “Terrapin Station.”
“We felt like rock gods,” Weir says. It helped that the band was in relatively good shape physically as well. “Jerry was healthy,” says Hart. “That was a big thing.” The high point took place on May 8th at Cornell University’s Barton Hall, regarded by Deadheads as the band’s greatest show ever. In the end, the 1977 tour completely changed the Dead’s sense of connection with fans, and their own musical purpose. “That was an era where it started to creep up on us that people came to hear the songs,” says Weir. “It finally dawned on us: ‘Oh, that’s what it’s all about.'”
The Ramones European Tour
The Ramones arrived in England with something to prove. The punk revolution had broken out in London in 1977, with the Sex Pistols getting wall-to-wall press and causing havoc. But no one in the nascent U.K. punk scene was ready for the precision-strike arrival of the Ramones. In his memoir, Johnny Ramone wrote that at a Pistols show on their first night in town in December ’77, “Johnny Rotten asked me what I thought of them, and I told him … they stunk.”
Three days later, the Ramones unleashed a furious assault on the audience in Glasgow, opening with “Rockaway Beach” and not taking a break until 26 songs later. Playing to a punk-crazed English audience pushed the Ramones to play their most intense shows. The tour wrapped on New Year’s Eve at the Rainbow Theatre, their 148th show of the year. “Probably the best show the Ramones ever did,” said Johnny. Amazingly, Joey had been singing through incredible pain; he’d suffered third-degree burns on his neck when a makeshift humidifier exploded on him. Said Ramones co-manager Linda Stein, “[Johnny] came to me and said … ‘Put me in a wheelchair and get me on a plane before I go insane.'” He wanted to be sedated.
The Eagles U.S. Tour
The career-defining two-year stretch of shows that followed 1976’s Hotel California saw the Eagles become a stadium band. Yet in an era in which rock shows were growing bigger and more impersonal, the Eagles’ studio perfectionists, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, found a way to recreate the feel and detail of their albums onstage, with every harmony and guitar lick seamlessly in place decades before backing tapes and Auto-Tune made that process easier. Hits like “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Take It to the Limit” were given almost impossibly pristine treatment. The tour itself was chaotic; at one point, bassist Randy Meisner and Frey got into a fistfight when Frey called Meisner a “pussy.” But you wouldn’t have known it watching their sets. “Some critic said we used to go out onstage and loiter,” Henley said. “I think we accomplished a great deal.”
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band American Tour
It had been three very long years since Born to Run made Bruce Springsteen a national star. A bitter lawsuit filed against his former manager in 1976 left him legally unable to enter a studio for two years before making Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Prove It All Night,” his new single, stalled at Number 33 on the charts. Anything radio-friendly, like “Fire” and “Because the Night,” was held off Darkness to maintain the starker atmosphere Springsteen wanted for his set of songs about the reality of everyday working life. To many, all of this was evidence that Springsteen was in decline. So he did the thing he could do better than almost anyone alive: He went on tour. “With the burden of proving I wasn’t a has-been at 28,” he wrote in his 2016 memoir, Born to Run, “I headed out on the road performing long, sweat-drenched rock shows featuring the new album.”
Springsteen and the E Street Band played 115 shows across North America, the longest series of dates they would ever play in a single year. Even the soundchecks were grueling. “Literally, we would play ‘Thunder Road’ for a half-hour and Bruce would walk around and sit in every section and make sure the sound was as good as possible,” says drummer Max Weinberg. “Look, Bruce took his fun very seriously.” Not everyone thought it was so much fun. “I thought it was a little self-indulgent and a little bit silly,” says bassist Garry Tallent. “We would do four-hour sound-checks and then a three-and-a-half-hour show. We were younger then.”
Sets featured the majority of the new album, a big chunk of Born to Run and favorites off the first two discs, like “Spirit in the Night” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” After so much time off, the band played with a stunning mix of pent-up energy and technical precision. “Anyone can be great on any given night,” says Weinberg. “To really be great every night takes a lot of willpower, a lot of dedication, a lot of self-confidence, a lot of respect for your audience – tremendous respect for the audience.”
Live, the songs completely transformed from their recorded versions. For “Prove It All Night,” the band added a piano and guitar intro that built to a furious climax, and “Backstreets” developed an emotional spoken-word interlude about lost love that eventually morphed into “Drive All Night,” from The River. “Even at that point, the whole thing was ‘You have to see them live – you can’t go by the record,'” says Tallent.
As the tour crisscrossed the nation, with five shows getting broadcast on the radio and quickly hitting the bootleg market, a new respect for the album took hold. “Night after night, we sent our listeners away, back to the recorded versions of this music,” Springsteen wrote in Born to Run, “newly able to hear their beauty and restrained power.”
One particularly great show took place at the tiny Agora Ballroom in Cleveland. Opening with a ferocious cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” and wrapping up three hours later with a wild “Twist and Shout,” it became one of the most coveted bootlegs in rock history. “It was really hot,” says Weinberg. “Just sweltering. It was incredibly exciting. Then you just get on the bus and go to the next gig. It was like that about five nights a week with two days off.”
Word of Springsteen’s glorious return prompted CBS Records to mount a huge billboard of his image on the Sunset Strip, advertising the album and tour but making no mention of the band. “It was the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” Springsteen told a radio DJ. One night, Springsteen snuck up to the roof of a nearby building with Tallent and saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Armed with cans of black spray paint, Springsteen hoisted himself onto Clemons’ massive shoulders and wrote “Prove It All Night E Street” across the entire thing. “We didn’t deface it,” says Tallent with a laugh. “We corrected it. That was our way of letting people know to not expect the next coming of Christ. It’s just a rock & roll show.”
Darkness on the Edge of Town still wasn’t a commercial hit by the end of the run, but critics across the country hailed the tour as the best of the year, and the album remained at the core of Springsteen’s set list for decades to come. “[They] are perhaps the purest distillation of what I wanted my rock & roll music to be about,” Springsteen wrote. “[On the last stand of the tour] an exploding firecracker tossed by an inebriated ‘fan’ opened up a small slash underneath my eye. A little blood’d been drawn, but we were back.”
The Clash North American Tour
They called it the Pearl Harbour Tour, and they opened each night with a slashing version of “I’m So Bored With the USA.” For an English punk band trying to break through in the States, it was an interesting marketing approach. “England’s becoming claustrophobic for us,” Joe Strummer told Rolling Stone. “I think touring America could be a new lease on life.” With a touring budget of just $30,000 from their record label (most of which they gave to opening act Bo Diddley), the Clash stormed the heartland and made converts wherever they went. During downtime on their tour bus, they watched a VHS copy of Star Wars over and over. They hit the Palladium in New York in February, blowing away a crowd that included Andy Warhol and Bruce Springsteen. “Every country has one thing in common, which is they all listen to shit music,” said co-leader Mick Jones. “We’re here to alleviate that.”
Pink Floyd ‘The Wall’ Tour
Pink Floyd’s 1979 rock opera, The Wall, was their most ambitious album to date, and when they took it on the road the next year they knew a traditional stage show would simply not do it justice. Pushing the limits of concert technology, they built an actual wall during the first half of every show, then played the bulk of the second half behind it, obscured from the audience. “Not much spontaneity,” said drummer Nick Mason, “but we’re not known for our duck-walking and gyrating around onstage.”
The logistics were so daunting that they staged it only 31 times across 16 months, hitting just four cities: Los Angeles; London; Dortmund, Germany; and Uniondale, New York. The most dramatic moment of the show happened near the end, when the wall came tumbling down. “The first couple of bricks would terrify people in the front rows,” said guitarist David Gilmour. “The audience would think they were going to be killed.”
Talking Heads ‘Speaking in Tongues’ Tour
It was an image that defined Talking Heads for a generation of music fans – skinny, nervous David Byrne on the Speaking in Tongues tour, struggling to dance in a cartoonishly huge white suit. “What I realized years before,” Byrne says, “is I had to find my own way of moving that wasn’t a white rock guy trying to imitate black people, or bring some other kind of received visual or choreographic language into pop music … I just thought, ‘No, no, you have to invent it from scratch.'”
Since forming in the mid-Seventies, Talking Heads had gone from CBGB New Wavers to one of the biggest bands in America. For the tour to support 1983’s Speaking in Tongues, their most popular album to date, they reinvented themselves, growing from a quartet to a nine-piece funk mob that included P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, Brothers Johnson guitarist Alex Weir and vocalist Lynn Mabry. Byrne also took cues from the experimental visual-art world, projecting abstract slides onto a spare backdrop, creating a stark aesthetic to match the band’s driving, uncluttered funk. The suit was inspired in part by Japanese Noh theater.
What emerged was arty dance-party transcendence. Byrne and drummer Chris Frantz recall the two-night run at New York’s Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in August as a highlight. “Madonna had just released her first record; she was walking around barefoot,” Frantz says. “I saw Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall off to the side of the stage – she was dancing, Mick wasn’t.” The Greek Theater in Berkeley the following month was a similar bacchanal. “We’d begun to get the Deadhead crowd,” Frantz says, laughing.
In late 1983, the band decided to document the tour with a concert film, and teamed up with director Jonathan Demme (who would later win an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs). “We didn’t want any of the bullshit,” says Frantz of the band’s initial idea for Stop Making Sense. “We didn’t want the clichés. We didn’t want close-ups of people’s fingers while they’re doing a guitar solo. We wanted the camera to linger, so you could get to know the musicians a little bit.”
Shot over three nights at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, Stop Making Sense may be the greatest concert movie. It begins with Byrne walking onto a deserted stage with a boombox, setting it down, pressing “play,” then reimagining “Psycho Killer” for acoustic guitar and 808 drum-machine beats. His bandmates and backing musicians join him incrementally, song by song. “It’s cut down,” Byrne notes, comparing the film to the two-hour shows, “but there were no other substantial changes.”
The effect was so real, people actually got up and danced in movie theaters. “I’d never seen that before,” Frantz says. “Or since.”
Prince ‘Purple Rain’ Tour
On each night of the Purple Rain tour, Prince and the Revolution huddled backstage for a prayer. “It was a meaningful ritual,” says bassist Mark Brown. “The crowds were so loud, and it was so crazy, that we needed each other because that was the only thing you had: each other for support.” With Prince’s movie Purple Rain catapulting the singer toward megastardom, the 98 shows he did in support of the soundtrack album were like Broadway productions. Prince began the show ascending from beneath the stage on a hydraulic lift, and went through five costume changes. “He had all these visual cues,” recalls keyboardist Lisa Coleman. “He’d throw a hankie into the air, and when the hankie hit the ground, that’s when we would stop.” At the Los Angeles Forum, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna joined Prince for the encore, which included a nearly half-hour-long version of “Purple Rain.” “He wanted to tower over everybody,” says keyboardist Matt Fink. “He was the Muhammad Ali of rock.”
Metallica Damaged Justice Tour
In 1988, Metallica released their pivotal album … And Justice for All and went from thrash-metal renegades to mainstream stars. But when their manager suggested an arena tour to support the LP, the band wasn’t convinced. “I was like, ‘Seriously?'” drummer Lars Ulrich recalls. “We knew we could do L.A., New York, San Francisco, but the American heartland didn’t seem like a great idea. No band as extreme as ours had ever done a full arena tour. So we used Indianapolis as a yardstick. If we were cool there, we were cool almost anywhere. When the tickets went on sale in Indianapolis, we ended up doing 13,000 or 14,000, which in 1988 was an insane victory.”
On the Damaged Justice Tour, Metallica learned just how many authenticity-starved headbangers were really out there. The band got the first taste of its transformative power in the summer of 1988 when it was booked onto the Monsters of Rock Tour, opening for Van Halen and Scorpions. At the L.A. Coliseum, fans responded to Metallica’s set by flinging their folding chairs at the stage to create a football-field-size mosh pit. “It was bonkers,” says bassist Jason Newsted, who had recently joined the band, replacing the late Cliff Burton. “For a kid coming off a farm and jumping into my favorite band, it was very dreamy. I didn’t sleep. Every day was another dream coming true.” He also got a lesson in how to conduct himself on the road. “I’d walk on the crew bus of a big band and there’s a pile of blow on the table in the front lounge,” Newsted recalls. “I look over there at my heroes, all red and swollen, and I’m like, ‘Guess what I’m not gonna do? That!'” The kickoff of the Damaged Justice Tour coincided with the success of Metallica’s anti-war-themed video for their new single, “One,” which quickly became an MTV hit. At the peak of bloated hair metal, Metallica were playing jagged seven-to-nine-minute-long thrash odysseys. But the crowds at their shows kept growing. “The kids know that at the end of the day there’s something very real and honest about what we do,” Ulrich told Rolling Stone in 1989. “You can’t take that away from us.”
Sonic Youth and Nirvana European Tour
In the summer before they released Nevermind, Nirvana were still a largely unknown band. They booked a series of European festival dates, opening for their friends Sonic Youth — and witnessed for the first time their power to convert and ignite huge crowds. “It was passionate. It was reckless,” says Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who also astounded audiences with their New York noise-rock. “[Nirvana] were going on at 2:00 in the afternoon, playing a 20-minute set. But there was this massive amount of pogo’ing going on.” With drummer Dave Grohl on tour with the band for the first time, and the new Nevermind material, Nirvana were received almost like headliners. Kurt Cobain biographer Charles Cross called it Cobain’s “happiest time as a musician.” Recalls Grohl, “Everything was still very innocent.” A documentary of the tour, 1991: The Year Punk Broke, captured Cobain spraying champagne all over a dressing room and Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic gleefully tearing through a backstage cheese plate. The high point for Moore was in Brussels, where security tried to stop Nirvana’s nightly ritual of smashing their gear, and Novoselic had to be pulled down as he tried to climb up the closing stage curtains. “It was,” says Moore, “the most perverse, deconstructed, psychedelic freakout concert I’ve ever seen.”
U2 Zoo TV Tour
For its first tour of the Nineties, the biggest rock band in the world had one simple goal: to completely reinvent itself as a live act. U2 had just given their sound a full-scale makeover with 1991’s Achtung Baby – a groundbreaking fusion of rock, pop, electronic dance grooves and krautrock – and they needed a tour that reflected their sleek, challenging new music. “We were drawn to anything that was going to give us a chance to get away from the Joshua Tree earnestness,” said the Edge, “which had become so stifling.”
The notion of U2 as the inheritors of rock’s social mission had been central to their Eighties stardom. But as the band was well aware, it was increasingly out of step with an era defined by groups like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, who cast a skeptical eye at sweeping Joshua Tree–style rock heroism. For the Achtung Baby tour, U2 were ready to loosen up and throw a dance party, albeit a subversive one, packed with multimedia images that were a clear break from the stark purity of their Eighties stage sets. “The tour was being conceived at the same time as the album,” Bono recalled in 2005. “Zoo radio was a phenomenon before reality TV, with so-called shock jocks such as Howard Stern. It was aggressive, raw radio, the precursor to The Jerry Springer Show. The world was getting tired of fiction. … We wanted to make a tour that referenced this zoo/reality phenomenon.”
Extensive cable news coverage was a fact of life by the early Nineties; during the Gulf War, images of Scud missiles raining down on Iraq became dinnertime entertainment. U2 essentially turned the Zoo TV set into a postmodern art installation that reflected the numbing cacophony of the cable-TV era, playing in front of a mosaic of TV screens that mashed up war footage with old sitcoms, cooking shows and everything in between.
Bono, meanwhile, came up with a new, sly persona to match the new stage set. He donned an Elvis-style leather jacket, wraparound sunglasses and leather pants that evoked Jim Morrison. He took this rock star amalgamation and created a character called the Fly. “When I put on those glasses, anything goes,” Bono told Rolling Stone. “The character is just on the edge of lunacy. It’s megalomania and paranoia.”
Zoo TV opened in Florida on February 29th, 1992. If the staging and Bono’s wild get-up weren’t enough indications this was a new U2, the band kicked things off with eight consecutive songs from Achtung Baby. “People went for it,” Bono said to Rolling Stone later that year. “The first show, you just didn’t know. ‘How is this going to go down?’ And they went for it. I think our audiences are smart and that they expect us to push and pull them a bit. They had to swallow blues on Rattle and Hum, for God’s sake! They can take it.”
The tour’s first leg coincided with the 1992 presidential race, and every night from the stage Bono called the White House and asked to speak with President Bush. “Operator Two and I had a great relationship,” Bono said. “She tried not to show it, but I could tell she was very amused, as we rang her night after night.”
Bush never took the call, but a young Arkansas governor was all too happy to talk to the band. U2 met with Bill Clinton in Chicago in September 1992 during the tour and forged what became an enduring relationship. The sitting president was unmoved. “I have nothing against U2,” Bush told a crowd in Bowling Green, Ohio, that month. “You may not know this, but they tried to call me at the White House every night during their concert. But the next time we face a foreign-policy crisis, I will work with John Major and Boris Yeltsin, and Bill Clinton can consult with Boy George.”
For opening acts, U2 chose artists who enhanced the idea of the band as a gathering point for pop music in an increasingly fragmented era – from Public Enemy to the Ramones, Velvet Underground and Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder was initially skeptical about the scale of Zoo TV, but he came around. “[I eventually] understood that these weren’t decisions they were making out of fashion or simply being clever,” Vedder said. “It was like an edict they’d created as a new philosophy for the group, to really explore the avenues of connecting to people on a large level.”
During a break in early 1993, U2 recorded Zooropa, which took the experiments of Achtung Baby further. When the tour resumed, Bono devised a new character: MacPhisto, a devilish figure with white face paint and horns. “The character was a great device for saying the opposite of what you meant,” said the Edge. “One highlight was calling the minister of fisheries in Norway, young Jan Henri Olsen, to congratulate him on whaling, which was forbidden by the European Union but legal in Norway. He actually took the call and invited Bono to come and have a whale steak with him.”
Those phone calls became a major part of each performance – some nights Bono ordered pizzas for the crowd; on another he rang Madonna on her cellphone (she didn’t pick up). As venues got bigger, U2 kept things intimate by adding a miniset to the show, playing on a tiny stage.
The wall-to-wall video screens also set the scene for every pop spectacle that followed, from Lady Gaga’s Monster Ball to Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark Tour. “Zoo TV wasn’t a set piece, it was a state of mind,” said the Edge. For Bono, the experience was life-changing: “I’ve had to stop ‘not drinking.’ I’ve had to smoke incessantly. I’ve learned to be insincere. I’ve learned to lie. I’ve never felt better!”
Radiohead at Glastonbury
The scene Radiohead encountered at 1997’s Glastonbury Festival looked more like a war zone than a concert. It had been pouring rain for days, forcing the 90,000 fans at the remote field in Somerset, England, to live like refugees in a monsoon. Two stages sank into the mud, and some fans actually came down with the World War I–era malady trench foot. Early in Radiohead’s set, Thom Yorke’s monitor melted down. The lighting rig was shining directly into his face, meaning he couldn’t see in addition to being unable to hear himself play. “If I’d found the guy who was running the PA system that day,” Yorke told a journalist, “I would have gone backstage and throttled him. Everything was going wrong. Everything blew up.”
Weeks after releasing their career-defining album, OK Computer, it looked like Radiohead might flop during a headlining set at the world’s biggest music festival. Instead, the chaos inspired one of the band’s greatest performances. Rage poured through Yorke all night long, giving extra fire to eight songs from OK Computer, plus nearly all of The Bends — and even a crowd-pleasing version of their first hit, “Creep.” It was a transcendent performance, even if Yorke didn’t realize it at the time. “I thundered offstage at the end, really ready to kill,” he said. “And my girlfriend grabbed me, made me stop, and said, ‘Listen!’ And the crowd were just going wild. It was amazing.” In 2006, Q magazine voted it the greatest concert in British history.
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.”
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.”
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.”
Fleetwood Mac ‘On With the Show’ Tour
The return of Christine McVie after 16 years brought the Fleetwood 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.
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