This may be weird, but I always think of concerts as a kind of consummation — like finally getting the chance to be alone with that special squeeze you’ve been sweatin’ for a while. The relationship between you, a band, and a song are finally at the most intimate, whether you’re in the corner of a bar or on the muddy fields of Glastonbury. And for all the time you’ve spent peeling away the layers of a track, analyzing every note, every word, every minute detail about down to the the last wavelength, in concert the pressure is now on the band. Do they really look like their profile pic?
It’s nerve-racking when the moment comes. Some bands have performance anxiety, or were just plain lying about what they were actually packing. Most bands are satisfyingly WYSIWYG, and remain true to their promises. These bands and these songs below, however, represent the most powerful moments in a connection between audience and performer — moments of dynamic expansion that open up whole new parts of the song that you never even knew existed. At the time it’s a revelation, and in retrospect it can be a rediscovery, but it’s always something unique.
We tried to compile a list of songs that resonated on several levels. There are cultural turning points, fan favorites, canonical benchmarks, and most importantly, personal experiences. Name another art form where you’re allowed to feel something so personal, so moving, so hair-raisingly beautiful in the company of hundreds or thousands of other people possibly feeling and relating to the exact same thing you are (MDMA levels notwithstanding). The subjectivity of a live performance is almost more apt than a studio recording, but these here are songs we felt transcended personal preference and reached out to even those who weren’t there (Or: you’ll probably get chills from watching these videos).
But there are more memories than there are YouTube videos™. There will be concerts from an unknown band in the middle of nowhere that will leave a stronger impression than being front row at Radiohead or backstage at The Boss, and that’s a fact. These songs give your personal experiences a run for their money, and while you may not believe that anything will ever top the time the lead singer of Ulterior Motifs set his guitar on fire and suplexed the bass player into the floor tom, we hope you spend some time co-opting the magic that was created with these performances– live performances that deepen, expound, and straight-up own the studio versions.
–Jeremy D. Larson
Joy Division – “Transmission”
On record, they were clean. On stage, they were clean. So, what’s the difference? With “Transmission”, Curtis doesn’t spit out the lyrics so much as he threads together a fragile yet magnificent rope, from which he swings around and around. No one will ever dismiss Martin Hannett’s timeless and unorthodox mixing on Unknown Pleasures, it’s an indefectible example of diamond production work. But in hindsight, the radical producer simply trapped the group’s carnal tendencies. Inside the album existed what only a few knew at the time: This Manchester quartet was working with something otherworldly, and watching “Transmission” live proves this. It’s just a tad spooky, that’s all. –Michael Roffman
The Flaming Lips – “Race For the Prize”
Balloons, smoke machines, confetti, 40-foot projection screens, colored lights, and background dancers wearing plush animal costumes – “Race for the Prize” not only marked a turning point in the band’s recording career, but the transformation of their live performances into the sensory-overloading grand spectacle they’re known for being today. After The Soft Bulletin, it no longer seemed as if we were just watching a band perform on acid, but as if the entire audience were tripping along with them. Now a staple on their setlists, there isn’t a song in The Flaming Lips’ catalog better-suited for setting the tone for their loony live shows than the soaring acid-pop of “Race for the Prize”. –Austin Trunick
Tool – “Third Eye”
“Think for yourself…question authority,” the opening monologue begs of its listeners, just before one of Tool’s most prestigious and haunting musical numbers hushes a live audience. “Third Eye” is the closing track from 1996’s Ã†nima, and from this 1998 concert recording, fans can reminisce on days when Maynard James Keenan could dole out a scream that made people question their own identity. A version similar to the one presented here can be found on Tool’s Salival compilation per secondhand purchase, as it’s now out of print. –David Buchanan
John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things”
John Coltrane took Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway classic “My Favorite Things” for a spin just two years after it hit the stage in the Sound of Music by stretching the showtune into a madcap 13-and-a-half minute jam that’s considered one of the most essential jazz records of all time. Leave it to John Coltrane, though, to turn his own hit on its head whenever he and his band played it live, most notably at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival. In perhaps the finest performance of his career, Coltrane and his sidemen take the tune on an extended, 17-minute jaunt so hypnotic and memorable, you’ll never whistle that chipper little melody the same way again. -MÃ¶hammad Choudhery
Massive Attack- “Angel”
On tour, “Angel” takes on a whole new life with the help of the band’s signature moody light show and a stellar live band that includes two live drummers. Ominous hi-hats and a pitch-black guitar line give way to an apocalyptic burst of bass/guitar/drums just as Horace Andy gets done muttering the line, “love you, love you, love you.” Here, Massive Attack tackle their signature song before a crowd of thousands at Glastonbury 2008. The best part? That split-second of awed silence right as the band kicks in and the crowd explodes. -MÃ¶hammad Choudhery
Okkervil River – “Westfall”
Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff was inspired to pen this eerie tune after hearing the gory details of the Yogurt Shop Murders in Austin, Texas. While the album version successfully explores the confounding nature of true evil, only the raucous live rendition is able to capture the savage spirit of the murders themselves. The song begins minimally, conjuring a stark atmosphere with guitar, mandolin, and bass drum before an ominous string chord kicks off the pounding coda “evil don’t look like anything,” as Sheff howls and the rest of the band falls apart around him. The same crescendo occurs on record, but it feels tight rather than chaotic. –Dan Caffrey
Talking Heads – “Psycho Killer”
Director Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads’ 1984 masterwork, Stop Making Sense, is the concert film. While many reasons exist for backing such an argument, only one truly matters — David Byrne’s jaunty opening rendition of “Psycho Killer”. Sharp outfit, syncopated beats, cassette tape, acoustic guitar, and a man whose gait could be translated to mental imbalance or physical comedy…forget Andrew WK and the Beastie Boys; Byrne’s boombox beats you to the punch. -David Buchanan
LCD Soundsystem – “Yeah”
James Murphy says “Yeah” a total of 577 times in this video (you don’t have to count it — it’s all there). That’s more times than I’ve ever said anything in my entire life, and still you never get sick of it. Against that disco drum and bass, the band stretches the song’s poles to the max, and if you happen to be in the crowd during “Yeah”, you will find yourself screaming all 577 “Yeah”s right along with him. Trance-punk was given a live birth. –Jeremy D. Larson
Bruce Springsteen – “Thunder Road”
Aside from being a fantastic live version of the side-one, track-one to his untouchable Born To Run, this six-minute clip, recorded in his native New Jersey in 1978, is a tiny encapsulation of exactly what The Boss’ live show is all about. From the energy and charisma emitted by Springsteen, the signature Fender Telecaster, his supporting cast (Max Weinberg on drums, old friend Steve Van Zandt on guitar/shaky backup vocals, and the late Clarence Clemons – whose chilling sax solo means more this week than it did a month ago), to his faithful, adoring fans cheering “Bruuuuuuuuuce!” as the video comes to a close, this is what Springsteen is (and has always been) about. –Winston Robbins
Sufjan Stevens – “Impossible Soul”
On “Impossible Soul”, Age of Adz’s cathartic 25-minute closer, Sufjan Stevens redefines melodrama and virtuosic, genre-leaping scope. Stevens, in his typically ostentatious fashion, opted to close out every show on the Age of Adz tour with the whole damn thing. “Impossible Soul” is a roller-coaster ride through Stevens’ right brain: from the crestfallen call and response intro, through an atypical vocoder segment, into the stirring metaphysical rally song mid-section that finally leads into a heartrending, finger-picked outro. Woah. -MÃ¶hammad Choudhery
Bob Marley – “No Woman, No Cry”
This version is so deep in the groove I’m not sure how anyone gets out of it when it ends. Before Ska sped things up, Bob Marley slowed things down when he took “No Woman, No Cry” to the stage, which is the version that most people are familiar with. The studio version has its merits, but this is the only option for a campfire mixtape or memorial tribute. Plus, when you tell someone that “everything’s gonna be alright”, you never want to rush it. –Jeremy D. Larson
Phish – “Fluffhead”
There was no greater news to New England in the winter of 2009 than the word that Phish was getting back together for a three-night run at the Hampton Coliseum. What started out as three (very thorough) reunion shows turned into the next leg of the Vermont quartet’s career, and they kicked everything off with “Fluffhead”. Out of their entire catalog, “Fluffhead” has always been a big fan favorite that made occasional appearances within their setlists, but this time, it was the charge to start everything off. While the studio version off 1986’s Phish (or, The White Tape) sounds like a playful demo, the Hampton ’09 version is like a musical call to arms (or to jamming). As that wonderful C-D-G-F progression rang out into the spring Virginia night, it was clear that the only people more excited about this reunion than Anastasio, Gordon, Fishman, and McConnell…were the phans. –Ted Maider