From the Beatles to David Bowie to Kanye West: the six best concerts from the past six decades
Veteran music critic Corbin Reiff picks the most momentous shows from each decade, from the 1960s to the present. These concerts redefined touring and the art of playing live, and influenced generations of future musicians
When great artists take innovative music on tour, they not only provide a novel and memorable experience for fans, but can also shape the future of music in unexpected ways.
In his new book, Lighters in the Sky: The All-Time Greatest Concerts 1960-2016, veteran music critic Corbin Reiff catalogues a well-researched, year-by-year breakdown of the most seminal concerts in each of the past six decades.
Reiff speaks about six of the many notable concerts he covers in the book, focusing on one defining show from each decade.
From a massive Beatles concert to the monumental stage design of Kanye West’s “Yeezus Tour” in 2013, these shows have had a striking influence on the history of live music.
Here are six of the best concerts of all time:
1960s: the Beatles – 1965 US tour
Notable show: Shea Stadium, New York, August 15, 1965
In 1965, The Beatles kicked off their second US tour in front of the largest crowd they had ever played in front of: a packed house of about 55,000 people at Shea Stadium.
“No rock band had ever played a single venue of that enormity before,” Reiff says. “It kind of justified The Beatles as a potent force in rock music, and it made people in America and beyond take rock music more seriously than they might have otherwise.”
Cranking through a set list that included early hits like Can’t Buy Me Love and A Hard Day’s Night, the show stood as a seminal live moment in the trajectory of a band that would stop touring altogether just over a year later.
“It was a high-water mark in their live career,” Reiff says. “Even though they didn’t play very long, and the amplification wasn’t great, it was a spectacle the likes of which had never been pulled off before, and they really did pull it off.”
1970s: David Bowie – “Ziggy Stardust Tour”, 1973
Notable show: Hammersmith Odeon, London, July 3, 1973
On July 3, 1973, David Bowie officially retired “Ziggy Stardust”, an extraterrestrial rock persona that brought him critical acclaim and a legion of fans.
After the “Ziggy Stardust” tour’s high production value proved to be unsustainable for his management, Bowie decided to abandon “Ziggy” in a London show that Reiff described as a celebratory “wake”.
The performance was filmed by D.A. Pennebaker, a documentarian who made the iconic, 1967 Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back.
“Bowie, being the genius that he is, saw that opportunity, and knew that the cameras were rolling,” Reiff says. “He knew he had this audience that extended beyond the building that could kind of create this legend for him, and he made the most of it.”
1980s: Prince – “Purple Rain Tour”, 1985
Notable show: The Forum, Inglewood, California, February 23, 1985
In the final show of an extended residency at Inglewood’s The Forum, Prince ran through a career-spanning set list that centred around his blockbuster 1984 LP Purple Rain.
Reif says: “1984, 1985, that era after Purple Rain, was maybe the most commercially potent and critically potent of his entire career.”
That particular Inglewood show featured a guest guitar solo from Bruce Springsteen, and a side-stage appearance of Madonna dancing.
“It represented this defining cultural moment of the ’80s to have those three figures interacting with each other in front of a live audience,” Reiff says. “To go back in time and witness something like that would really just blow your hair back.”
1990s: Radiohead – “OK Computer Tour”, 1997
Notable show: Glastonbury Festival, Pilton, England, June 28, 1997
Radiohead released their landmark third album, OK Computer, several weeks before headlining London’s Glastonbury Festival in June 1997.
“That album is considered by many people to be the greatest of the past 20 years, at least,” Reiff says. “And that show was amazing. Just the way Thom Yorke interacted with the crowd and the material. They were these new scions of English rock’n’roll, taking over from Oasis.”
Performing previous hits like Creep and High and Dry, alongside most of the songs on OK Computer, Radiohead ushered in an eccentric and influential style of rock. “It was like a coming-out party that marked the beginning of a different era,” Reiff says.
2000s: Outkast – “Stankonia Tour”, 2000
Notable show: The House of Blues, Los Angeles, California, October 26, 2000
Five days before the release of their seminal LP Stankonia in 2000, Outkast took on LA’s House of Blues with a thundering clique of guitarists and other live instrumentation.
The Atlanta duo ran through old hits, like Rosa Parks, and closed the show with its new single, the pumping anthem Bombs over Baghdad.
“Just playing a fast-and-furious show, packed with some of the greatest rap songs of all time,” Reiff says. “Beyond Eminem, there’s almost no entity in rap more commercially or critically adored than Outkast.”
“To see that duo in a space with about 1,000 people, on the eve of that album, which many consider to be one of the greatest of all time,” he continues. “I mean, I would loved to have seen that show.”
2010s: Kanye West – “Yeezus Tour”, 2013
Notable show: Key Arena, Seattle, Washington, October 19, 2013
Kanye West took performance art to monumental levels on his 2013 Yeezus Tour.
Built around the songs of Yeezus” his edgy and divisive sixth album, West wore wild masks and rapped on top of and beneath a 15-metre mountain. He was followed by a crew of creepy backup dancers and a frightening yeti with fire red eyes.
“With Kanye West, for me, I don’t think there’s a better performer in the 21st century,” Reiff says. “Just the way he thinks through the concept of a show, whether it be Yeezus, which I think is probably the greatest live rap presentation that’s ever been undertaken, or Watch The Throne, Glow in the Dark or even Saint Pablo, which he just did with the floating stage.
“There’s just a level of thought that he puts into the way he presents his music that extends so far beyond the music itself. It’s almost Broadway in its scope,” he continues. “You buy a ticket to Kanye West not knowing anything about the guy coming in, I think you’ll come away wowed at least.”
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