We’ve already covered 1967–1978 in Part 1, with Neil Young, James Brown, Black Sabbath, Elton John securing spots alongside a host of other exceptional acts, now it’s time to put the spotlight on the most memorable live shows from 1979 – 2016. From Crowded House’s Farewell to the World concert on the Opera House steps to Taylor Swift’s 1989 Tour, which saw her bring out special guests like Beck, St Vincent, Mick Jagger, Justin Timberlake and Alanis Morissette, here are the artists that did it best.
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.” Andy Greene
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.” A.G
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 realised 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 theatre.
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 theatres. “I’d never seen that before,” Frantz says. “Or since.” Will Hermes
Cold Chisel ‘The Last Stand’ Tour
Road fatigue and diverging agendas were the official reasons for Chisel’s shock split, but personal tensions had recently led to the temporary departure of drummer Steve Prestwich. Twenty-seven gigs, including five sold-out Sydney Entertainment Centres, found the band in blistering form; some songs seemingly thrashed at double-speed to cram 10 years into three hours. As the slippery tangle of exhausted punters traipsed home, some quietly concluded that a new tune as perfect as “Flame Trees” couldn’t really mean the end. Michael Dwyer
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.” David Browne
Run-DMC ‘Raising Hell’ Tour
“There was no concept of charts and no concept of airplay,” says LL Cool J, describing the landscape for Run-DMC’s 1986 tour, which featured LL, the Beastie Boys, Whodini and others as openers. That underground status changed two months into the tour, when Run-DMC had a breakout MTV hit with their Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way,” from their Raising Hell album. “Motherfuckers in the front row started looking like the Ramones and Cyndi Lauper,” says DMC of the new white fans who came to check out their shows. “We got a bunch of Madonnas asking for autographs.” DMC also noticed that cross-cultural appeal working the other way as a predominantly black audience embraced the tour’s beer-spraying opening act, the Beastie Boys, then months away from releasing their debut LP, Licensed to Ill. “The Beasties were crazy,” recalls rapper Ecstasy of Whodini. “They created an illusion that they were happy-go-lucky and careless, but they were on top of their shit. They were the white Run-DMC.” Competition among the artists was fierce. “I wanted to chain-saw the audience,” says LL Cool J, who was 18 years old at the time. Toward the end of the tour, a riot at a show in Long Beach, California, provided fuel for negative media coverage. But Raising Hell‘s positive legacy is undeniable. As DMC says today, “When Obama first got elected, all my white friends said, ‘That’s because of what Run-DMC did.'” Christopher R. Weingarten
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 favourite 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.” Kory Grow
Madonna Blond Ambition Tour
As Madonna’s career was taking off in the mid-Eighties, most of her tours were relatively straightforward affairs, based around her singing and dancing. But for the stadium blowouts that supported her 1989 classic, Like a Prayer, she wanted to up her game. In the process, she reinvented the pop megatour itself. “I really put a lot of myself into it,” she said. “It’s much more theatrical than anything I’ve ever done.” That year, Madonna had caused a nationwide controversy with the video for “Like a Prayer,” which daringly mixed sexual and religious imagery. Blond Ambition extended that provocation and upped the spectacle.
The show opened with Madonna climbing down a staircase into a factory world inspired by German expressionist filmmaker Fritz Lang. She sang in a giant cathedral for “Like a Prayer” and under a beauty-shop hair dryer in “Material Girl.” And, most infamously, she simulated masturbation while wearing a cone-shaped bustier on a crimson bed during “Like a Virgin.” “The Blond Ambition Tour was what really catapulted her into the stratosphere,” says Vincent Paterson, the tour’s co-director and choreographer.
Madonna took a hands-on approach to the show, working with her brother, painter Christopher Ciccone, to design sets, and creating the costumes with fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier. “I tried to make the show accommodate my own short attention span,” she said. “We put the songs together so there was an emotional arc in the show. I basically thought of vignettes for every song.”
Starting out in Japan in April 1990 and hitting the U.S. the following month, the tour grossed almost $63 million. But it didn’t go off without any complications: Madonna had to ditch the blond-ponytail hair extensions she wore early in the tour because they kept getting caught in her headset microphone. And in Toronto, the masturbation sequence almost got her and her dancers arrested in what became a bonding moment for her entire crew.
Madonna’s close relationship with her collaborators would be a major theme in the blockbuster 1991 tour documentary Truth or Dare, especially in memorable scenes where she invited her backup dancers into her bed. Today, Blond Ambition’s over-the-top intimacy is a staple of live pop music, from Lady Gaga to Miley Cyrus. In 1990, it was a revolution. “It was a kind of turning point,” says Darryl Jones, who played bass on the tour. “A lot of young girls were watching.” Steve Knopper
Public Enemy Sizzling Summer Tour
For the tour to support their groundbreaking LP Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy wanted a show to match their music’s combative assault. “OK, if we’re gonna fill a stage, everything’s gotta be moving,” leader Chuck D recalls of the band’s approach. They’d built their live rep on short, explosive sets. Now they packed an hour with Chuck as bullhorn MC and Flava Flav as his firecracker comic foil, leaping across the stage and diving into the crowd. In Houston, Ice Cube joined them to perform his guest verse on “Burn Hollywood Burn,” a song that became each night’s incendiary high point. “We didn’t need to use pyro,” says Chuck. “When I see acts use pyro, I’m like, ‘What lazy fucks.'” C.R.W.
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.” Jon Dolan
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!” A.G.
Radiohead at Glastonbury
June 28th, 1997
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 realise 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. A.G.
Crowded House Farewell To The World Tour
November 24, 1996
Ten years after the release of their debut album, Crowded House frontman Neil Finn had made the decision to call time on the band, aware that drummer Paul Hester’s departure in 1994 had changed the internal dynamic, and that the new material he was writing belonged elsewhere. Initially he thought the band’s last show should be a small busking gig, but then-manager Grant Thomas had grander plans. With Finn and bassist Nick Seymour joined onstage by Hester and onetime member Tim Finn, and with an undercard featuring Custard, You Am I and Powderfinger, Crowded House bid farewell (for a few years at least) in front of 100,000 people (though some estimate the crowd to have been closer to 250,000) on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. Beginning with “Mean To Me” and concluding 24 songs later with an emotional “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, the show was, as Finn said onstage, “more like a celebration than a funeral”. “It was a profound way to go out,” he said years later. Rod Yates
Sleater-Kinney American Tour
In early 1997, the most exciting new band in rock was a trio of young women driving their own van across the country, with only their friend Tim along as a roadie. “We’d get to the club,” recalls Sleater-Kinney singer-guitarist Corin Tucker, “and the sound man would be like, ‘Wait. You’re the band? You? You girls?'” But playing songs from its album Dig Me Out, the group bulldozed the staid indie-rock scene with unbridled punk-rock exuberance. “In Atlanta, 10 women got onstage and took their shirts off and danced with us,” says co-leader Carrie Brownstein. “I don’t know if they’d ever felt that freedom before, and I was really proud to provide the soundtrack for that.” J.D.
Pearl Jam American Tour
By the mid-Nineties, Pearl Jam were in serious danger of imploding, thanks to intraband tensions and a self-defeating war against Ticketmaster that had left them almost unable to tour. But they started over with 1998’s aptly named Yield, their most collaborative album yet, and when they hit the road with a new drummer, Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, the shows fulfilled their promise as one of rock’s all-time great live acts. New tracks (“Given to Fly,” “Do the Evolution”) were instant crowd favorites, and classics like “Alive” sounded bigger than ever. “We’re making up for lost time here,” Eddie Vedder told the crowd one night. “Thanks for waiting.” A.G.
Brian Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall
February 20th, 2004
For decades, Brian Wilson avoided even talking about Smile, the psychedelic follow-up to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds he shelved under the stresses of drug abuse and psychiatric problems. At a 2002 Pet Sounds show in London, though, someone said to the promoter, “How can we possibly top this?” The idea of a Smile tour came up. “We all kind of chuckled,” says Wilson keyboardist Darian Sahanaja. But 20 months later, after poring over the old Smile tapes, Wilson walked onstage and finally delivered on his decades-old promise of a “teenage symphony to God,” bringing rock’s most famous unheard album back to life. From the first celestial harmonies of “Our Prayer” much of the audience was in tears. Backstage afterward, Wilson was exultant, shouting, “I did it!” A.G.
Daft Punk Alive Tour
In the early aughts, electronic-dance live “performances” were rarely more than one or two dudes nodding their heads around laptops. All that changed at Coachella on April 29th, 2006, when Daft Punk unveiled their genre’s most dazzling musical spectacle. In the overheated, overcrowded darkness of the festival’s Sahara Tent, two helmeted, robot-like figures – Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo – stood inside a 24-foot aluminum pyramid covered in high-intensity LED panels and performed their catalog as a megamix to nearly 40,000 fans. “It was the most synced-up we ever felt,” Bangalter said. What might have been a legendary one-off became a 2007 tour that blew minds across Europe, the U.S., Japan and Australia, inspiring the likes of Skrillex and untold others. W.H.
Leonard Cohen Worldwide Tour
It started as a financial rescue mission. After Leonard Cohen learned, at age 70, that his manager/sometime-lover had absconded with most of his life savings, he realised that his only chance of replenishing his funds was to go on tour. Cohen wasn’t sure how many fans he had left, so he first agreed only to a test run of theatre dates in far-flung Canadian towns.
Though he’d never much enjoyed touring, Cohen was a unique ly charismatic live performer. Even those first shows stretched past the two-hour mark, mixing elegant rearrangements of 1960s classics like “Suzanne” and “Bird on the Wire” with more recent tunes like “Waiting for the Miracle” and “Boogie Street.” His voice had deepened considerably, but that only gave it more authority and character. “It’s like he was whispering into your ear,” says longtime backup singer Sharon Robinson.
The shows were spectacular, and word-of-mouth spread quickly. By 2009, Cohen was selling out arenas all over Europe, and eventually he hit 20,000-seaters in America, including Madison Square Garden. The tour eventually ran for 387 shows across five years. Even as he neared his 80th birthday, he kept adding new songs and stretching the running time to three and a half hours, even skipping offstage before the encores. “Leonard was really good at conserving his strength and blocking out distractions and prioritising his energy,” says Robinson. “He lived an almost monastic lifestyle even though he wasn’t a real monk.”
By the time he played his final show, in Auckland, New Zealand, Cohen had gone from cult favourite to cross-generational icon. After he closed that performance with a sprightly “Save the Last Dance for Me,” he doffed his hat, took a deep bow and walked off the stage, smiling. “I want to thank you,” he said to the audience. “Not just for tonight, but for all the years you’ve paid attention to my songs.” A.G.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert
October 29th–30th, 2009
The idea was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with no less than the most important multi-artist concert in history. “I knew the anniversary had potency,” said Hall of Fame Foundation chairman (and Rolling Stone founder) Jann Wenner. “I thought that we had earned the right and responsibility to do this thing. It was an opportunity not to be missed.”
The organisers were determined to put on a show that was far more ambitious than any of the previous megashows, while capturing the intimate, collaborative spirit of the annual induction ceremonies and telling the story of rock & roll. “[I kept saying], ‘If this is just miniconcerts of greatest hits, I’m bored,'” recalled co-producer Robbie Robertson. “‘What do we have to offer that you can’t get anywhere else?'”
The shows, held over two nights at New York’s Madison Square Garden, were a rock fan’s dream, with all the artists delivering blistering, unforgettable sets, no doubt inspired by the presence of so many of their peers and the event’s grandeur. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who closed the first night, performed at their absolute peak, turning themselves into a soul revue as they backed Billy Joel, John Fogerty, Tom Morello and Darlene Love. U2 brought Springsteen back the next night, but the biggest moment came near the end of their set, when they kicked into “Gimme Shelter,” and – out of nowhere – an unbilled Mick Jagger appeared onstage to the stunned delight of the crowd.
The first night began with a nod to rock’s origins: Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Next were Crosby, Stills and Nash (joined by Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and James Taylor), Stevie Wonder (with guests Smokey Robinson, John Legend, B.B. King, Sting and Jeff Beck) and a note-perfect Simon and Garfunkel. On the closing night, Aretha Franklin sang with Annie Lennox and Lenny Kravitz; Jeff Beck jammed with Buddy Guy, Billy Gibbons and Sting; and Metallica backed Ray Davies, Ozzy Osbourne and Lou Reed.
“For a lot of us here, rock & roll means just one word: liberation. Political, sexual, spiritual liberation,” Bono said onstage, before Springsteen interrupted him with the other side of the equation: “Let’s have some fun with it!” A.G.
LCD Soundsystem at Madison Square Garden
April 2nd, 2011
“It’s your show,” LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy shouted to a sold-out Madison Square Garden. The raging farewell by Murphy’s beloved group was a Last Waltz for New York’s early-’00s dance-rock scene. “I thought it would be really sad,” recalls keyboardist-vocalist Nancy Whang. “But it was just fun. The energy in the room was really charged.” Fans danced to near-exhaustion as LCD played songs from their entire catalog. With barely two months to prepare the nearly four-hour spectacle, featuring a choir, a horn section and a rickety spaceship, the band tackled a production scale beyond its experience. “It was held together with gum and string,” Whang admits. The night (captured in the 2012 film Shut Up and Play the Hits) ended in a snowstorm of balloons, culminating the band’s dream of throwing “the best funeral ever.” W.H
Jay Z and Kanye West ‘Watch the Throne’ Tour
“I’m sorry if this is your first concert,” Kanye West said to a Los Angeles crowd on the Watch the Throne tour. “It’s all downhill from here.” Supporting their triumphal 2011 LP, Watch the Throne, Jay Z and Kanye convened the greatest superstar summit in hip-hop history. The pair performed on giant, rising cubes that projected video, and, when the tour hit Paris, encored with their hit “Niggas in Paris” 12 times in a row. “People just wanted more,” says the tour’s lighting designer Nick Whitehouse. “It made people crazy.” C.R.W.
Fleetwood Mac ‘On With the Show’ Tour
The return of Christine McVie after 16 years brought the Mac’s live show to a whole new dimension. Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar solo on “Go Your Own Way” soared to new heights; Stevie Nicks seemed possessed during the nightly exorcism of “Rhiannon”; and all three voices locked seamlessly on “Little Lies.” It was all the magic of 1977 without the distractions of hard drugs and sexual soap operas. A.G.
Taylor Swift ‘1989’ Tour
“You’re not going to see me playing the banjo,” Taylor Swift warned Rolling Stone at the outset of her 1989 world tour. On her Speak Now and Red tours, she claimed her turf at the crossroads of country, pop and classic arena rock. But for 1989, Swift made her bold move into full-on dance pop. She turned up the glitz with new material like “New Romantics” and “Blank Space” (“blatant pop music,” as she put it), but she didn’t compromise on her trademark emotional overshares, whether opening up in confessional interludes or torching up ballads (“Clean”). Swift aimed for a glammier look onstage, reflecting the grown-up flair of the music, and she invited high-profile guests: In Nashville, she duetted with Mick Jagger; in L.A., she brought out Beck, St. Vincent, Justin Timberlake, Chris Rock and Alanis Morissette. It all summed up her staggeringly ambitious vision of modern pop. Rob Sheffield
Beyoncé Formation Tour
Strutting in stacked heels across the turf of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, wrapped in golden bandoleers and flanked by a Black Panther–styled phalanx of dancers, Beyoncé performed “Formation” at the 2016 Super Bowl in a cameo appearance even fiercer than her 2013 Super Bowl triumph. It was the overture to a tour that redefined stadium-scale concert staging. “She had an overall vision of what she wanted,” says Steve Pamon, chief operating officer of Beyoncé’s label, Parkwood Entertainment. “Not only in terms of a business, but in the type of experience we want to give the fans.”
Four days before the tour began, Beyoncé surprise-dropped her instant classic Lemonade. British set designer Es Devlin, who had previously worked with Kanye West and U2, created a kind of spectacular intimacy that fit the album’s personal themes. At midstage was the “Monolith,” a video-screen centrepiece standing seven stories high that projected the show in 70-foot magnification, making every seat feel front-row. On opening night in Miami, Bey burned through “Crazy in Love” and “Bootylicious” in a fire-engine-red latex bodysuit and matching boots, looking like an anime empress. The shows also dialled it down for slow jams like the breakup meditation “Mine,” during which the Monolith split in two to reveal dancers suspended on cables while Bey and a squadron in lace bodysuits rose up from beneath the stage. At the end of the show, a moving catwalk connected the main stage to a huge wading pool, where Beyoncé and her dancers splashed around in a baptismal moment that reflected Lemonade‘s journey from betrayal to rebirth.
The Formation World Tour began around the time of Prince’s death. In Minneapolis, she performed his classic “The Beautiful Ones” before a rapt crowd, honouring a hero and placing herself in his epic lineage. “I would put that tour up against any performance,” Pamon says. “By any artist at any age.” Brittany Spanos