Music, though generally created in enclosed personal rooms, was meant to be shared. It's these expressions built, that when felt alongside a captivating and eager audience, give life to some of the greatest moments in modern history.
While a list of great live recordings could fill volumes of books, the following sets are a select few that stand out for a myriad of reasons. Note that these gems are not ranked in order of their popularity, but rather a chronological compilation and exploration of their contribution to live music as a whole. From Johnny Cash to Beyoncé, check them out below.
February 24, 1969 at San Quentin Prison in CA
Could any other live recording be more quintessentially American than Johnny Cash live at San Quentin? One of the most endearing and raw artists of all time, live at one of America's oldest and most notorious prisons. Never could 34 odd minutes pack such feeling, rawness, and musical showmanship quite like this one. Opening with “Wanted Man” and ending on “Folsom Prison Blues,” the inmates at San Quentin were given a hell of a show including an immediate encore of “San Quentin” at the request of the crowd. Numerous stories linger regarding this live recording, which ultimately gave us some of the most iconic Cash images (including him flicking his middle finger towards the camera and his general banter with inmates and warden). No other live recording could match the sheer intensity and mutual love admiration between the inmates and Cash.
January 1, 1972 at the "Sunshine '72" Festival in Diamond Head, Honolulu, HW
The list of live Santana shows that deserve mention could make up an entirely separate list, but when set aside, its the duo of Buddy Miles and Santana that emphasize the limitless range live rock could have. Recorded out at Hawaii's equivalent of Woodstock, Sunshine, Santana and Miles relinquish intense energy for 45 straight minutes, making it feel like a magnum opus of styles and collaboration. Together, they absolutely melt through "Evil Ways", climax at "Them Changes," and perfectly dismount on "Free from Funkadelic Filth". These two pillars, made up of their respective instruments, both shy bright and support one beautifully.
September 13–14, 1972 at Apollo Theater in New York City, NY
Highlighting both the prowess of soul legend, James Brown, and the majestic spirit of landmark venue, Live at the Apollo, this show is a testament to the ability and power of music. During this two night spectacle, Brown becomes the MC of a showcase of soul and funk unlike any of his previous recordings. Seemingly almost made for the current climate, he provides commentary in fluid speech about the African American experience in media, resonating like a Sunday Service but with The Godfather of Soul at the helm. It's not only special to see an archetype like Brown take a seat at the table of musicians he supported and toured with over the years, but it's also a refreshing way to appreciate the best of the Apollo.
July 10-13, 1974 at Tower Theater in Philadelphia, PA
The epitome of Bowie for the ages, this live show recorded in the summer of '74 showcases the range of all that Bowie could be. Coming off successful tours as Ziggy Stardust, this is Bowie in a pivotal transition period between the releases of Aladdin Sade and the string of new developments in what would become Pin Ups and Diamond Dogs (and before the dawn of Bowies plastic soul in Young Americans). A mix of what was to come and blips of Ziggy, the concert ends in what might be the rock icon's best rendition of "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," making this a truly special concert. To learn more about this performance, Alen Yentob captured the powerful show and the notorious days of Bowie in his documentary, Cracked Actor.
May 28, 1979 at Rossiya Concert Hall in Moscow, Russia
As part of the Single Man tour, this show was a stripped down, bare bone production that spotlighted Sir Elton and his insane ability to mesmerize crowds. Add years of political pressure to the mix, and the the fact that he was the first western artist to perform in then Soviet Russia, and you've got yourself a truly one-of-a-kind experience. Elton John delivers an essential must-listen live in Moscow, a show which was broadcasted on the BBC and was part of the documentary related to his visit to the USSR. This is a showing of one our most audacious stars in the midsts of such a unique historical period that it begs to be explored (and revered for the medley of hits and pugnacious energy exhibited).
April 10, 1996 at Brooklyn Music Academy in New York City, NY
After an arduous two-year hiatus, Layne Stanley and Alice in Chains would find themselves at the Brooklyn Music Academy surrounded only by candles purchased from Pike Place Market in Seattle. It's here that Alice in Chains would deliver a masterpiece—like time had not passed—and mark the last time they'd perform live, giving this concert an unmatched aura and a voice in longing. With their context and timing, Alice in Chains thoroughly cemented themselves, and this performance, as one of the most honest and evocative Unplugged series. The opening "Nutshell," set the tone for some of AIC classics to come like "Heaven Beside You" and "Angry Chair". One of the best moments of this live show is the tease of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” and an accompanying camera zoom of Mike Inez bass donning the line, “friends don’t let friends get friends haircuts,” a seemingly playful jab at Metallica’s new looks.
March 1, 1997 at Markthalle in Hamburg, Germany
The repertoire for Phish Live recordings is vast and insurmountable, but one of its diamonds comes from across the pond in Slip Stitch and Pass in Germany. This show completely demonstrates the passion Phish-heads all over the world have known and admired since their inception. Phish is not only a feeling and a vibe, but a musical mastery and fluidity. This live performance is also a teaser for what Phish would come to accomplish in the following decades. Staples such as "Weekapaug Groove" and "Mike's Song" made it onto an official record, making this release highly coveted. Also mastering the such classics, Phish delves into their influences with covers of “Cities” by the Talking Heads and “Jesus Left Chicago” by ZZ Top. Further, a la Phish, the ending of this performances teases and samples hits like Pink Floyd's “Careful with that Axe Eugene”, “The End” by The Doors, and The Stones' “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”.
24 July 1997, Roseland Ballroom in New York City, NY
If asked to what concerts captures the spirit of the 90’s, it would be Roseland Ballroom in '97 when Portishead performs. The crowd is beyond captivated, making the entire concert feel like a pseudo ritual, as all the faces in the crowd focus on Beth Gibbons as their heads bob to the grainy, yet soulful renditions of "Mysteryons", "Numb", and "Roads". The addition of strings adds a new aura to Portishead's vibe, shifting it to an undistinguished one filled with dark shadows, as Beth chain-smokes cigarettes and creates a juggernaut of feelings and sound. To further said feeling, the documentary of the show cuts off to seemingly random and innocuous everyday New York landscapes, further adding to the clashing of images.
Spring 2004 in Tuscon, AZ & Tijuana, MX
This is the only non-English entry on this list, but nonetheless a testament to live rock. Los Enanitos Verdes (Little Green Dwarves), Argentina's most famous rock trio, truly show why they dominated the '90s, a continent, and its people. For a few dates on the spring of 2004 through Mexico and the American Southwest, LEV unfold their four decades of prowess by captivating audiences with their classics "Lamento Boliviano", "Por El Resto", among others. The group thoroughly shows their range by covering two of the most classic famous Latin-American tracks in "Tu Carcel" and "Mil Horas" made famous by Marco Antonio Solis from Los Bukis and Los Abuelos de la Nada, respectively.
June 16, 2006 at Bonnaroo Arts and Music Festival, TN
Making the list because of its rarity, is Oysterhead (the wicked brain child of Primus Frontman, Les Claypool). Asked in 2002 to form a one-time performance band for New Orleans Jazz Fest, Claypool taped Trey Anastasio from Phish and Steward Copeland from The Police. After one performance, one album, and eventually a very small intimate tour, Oysterhead cease to exist—until June 2006 when Bonnaroo asked Claypool to reunite the supergroup. On a sweaty Friday afternoon, they delivered two hours of nonstop, mind-bending music that could only come from these great minds. A highpoint was when 2001’s “A Great Pecking Order” was played in its entirety, creating a forever moment for rock lore.
April 14 and April 21, 2018 Coachella Music Festival, CA
No live performance compilation can exist without mention of the queen herself. Beyoncé’s Coachella performance in 2018 marked the first time an African American woman headlined the festival. A year removed from her cancellation due to pregnancy, Beyoncé delivers one of the most iconic and pivotal live performances of the decade. Honoring historically black colleges and universities—dubbed Beychella—this show included full marching bands, step teams, and appearances by both Solange Knowles and Destiny's Child. The poignant parade of black expression, especially in this context, solidified Beyoncé once again not only a musical legend, but a cultural icon.
West Fillmore 71 by Allman Brothers Band
Live at Leeds by The Who
Cheap Trick at Budokan
Europe 72 by The Grateful Dead
Frampton Comes Alive by Peter Frampton