The list below was born out of some pretty serious arguments. Was Bruce Springsteen better in 1975 or 1978? When did Kanye hit his stride? Which was more awesome, “The Joshua Tree” or “Zoo TV”? The concerts and tours that made the final cut weren’t just huge spectacles, they deepened the power of rock & roll itself – from Neil Young thrashing out 20-minute jams with Crazy Horse to Beyoncé turning stadium glitz into a personal outpouring. “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.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience Worldwide Tour
Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 debut album, Are You Experienced, established his genius. The 200-some shows he played to support the album assured his legend. Backed by his ecstatically indulgent English rhythm section — bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell — Hendrix did nothing short of liberate the electric guitar, turning each show into a pyrotechnic exploration. “I thought, ‘My God, this is like Buddy Guy on acid,’ ” Eric Clapton later recalled. For the U.S., the coming-out party was the Monterey Pop Festival, where Hendrix set his guitar ablaze, terrifying the fire marshal while leaving the crowd spellbound. As the Experience toured that year, they played alongside Pink Floyd and Cat Stevens in every type of venue, from theaters to biker bars. “We also did a graduation ball in Paris in March 1967, a really plush place,” Mitchell recalled. “There was an oompah band on before us, and they would not leave the stage. I remember one of our roadies, in a final act of desperation, pushing the trombonist’s slide back into his mouth – blood and teeth everywhere.” When the shows went right, however, Hendrix was a tour de force. His sense of showmanship went back to his years as a sideman with Little Richard; dressed in radiant psychedelic frills, he banged the neck of his guitar, bit its strings and played it behind his head. “With Jimi, it was a theater piece,” Soft Machine drummer and onetime Hendrix tourmate Robert Wyatt once observed. “The drama, the pace, the buildups and drops.” The peak Summer of Love moment came in early June, when the Experience played London. With the Beatles in the crowd, Hendrix opened with the title track from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had been released just two days earlier. “1967 was the best year of my life,” he declared later. “I just wanted to play and play.” Kory Grow
James Brown at Boston Garden
On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. In the aftermath, America burned. There were riots in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Chicago; Kansas City, Missouri; and other cities. In Boston, city leaders expected more violence to come. Amid this tension, James Brown, the most explosive African-American musician of the era, pulled off a miracle. Brown and his band were booked to play Boston Garden on April 5th. The city considered canceling all public events that night, but the concert’s promoter, local City Councilman Thomas Atkins, convinced Mayor Kevin White that calling off a show of that magnitude might lead to even more anger and violence. “If [his] concert had not occurred,” recalled local radio DJ James “Early” Bird, “we would have had the biggest problem in the history of Boston since the Tea Party.”
Frustrating to Brown was the decision to televise the show, a way of keeping people out of the streets that would also drive down ticket sales. “But he had an obligation to honor Dr. King,” says Brown’s saxophonist and bandleader Pee Wee Ellis, and after Brown obtained the fee he wanted, everything was set.
“The show went on just as it had in all the other places we had played,” says trombone player Fred Wesley. “It was a regular show.” Of course, in 1968, the “regular show” meant a display of raw energy and dynamic power unlike anything else in music. Dressed in a black suit, hair in a tight pompadour, Brown moved with lightning quickness, his screams rattling the rafters, as he drove the band through his hits. They did “I Got You (I Feel Good)” in a double-time blur, and “Cold Sweat” featured an incredible solo showcase for “funky drummer” Clyde Stubblefield.