When It Was Cool Best Ever Live Performance Moments

Concert moments, live performances, and times when everything worked together to be unforgettable.

By: Karl Stern (@dragonkingkarl, @wiwcool, karl@whenitwascool.com)

Sometimes everything just works magically.  There are times of perfect synergy, mood, and circumstance that make a musical performance unforgettable.

It's like that time when Peter Cetera came back and performed with Chicago or Steve Perry returned to perform with Journey... except that never happened.  But these really awesome moments did.

I have been fortunate to see a few of those moments in concert myself.  I saw Robert Plant mesmerize a crowd with Immigrant Song.  I witnessed Ozzy Osborne do an unforgettable performance of War Pigs.  I saw Rush do a perfect play-through of Tom Sawyer.  I saw Metallica kill it on One in 1989.  I was stunned by Stevie Nicks doing an incredible rendition of Gold Dust Woman.  There were others that came close but those three stick out in my mind from my personal concert experiences.  Here are a few caught on film that, either through intensity or energy, captured the moment perfectly.

Neil Young - My, My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) Farm Aid 1985

There are a couple of versions of this song and it's variation Hey, Hey My My (Into the Black) that I struggled between but settled on this one from Farm Aid 1985 since it is the most memorable.  Historically, I have not been a big Neil Young fan but the older I get the more I find his music very interesting and, apparently, I am becoming a big fan because there are two Neil Young songs on this list so stick around.  Why it's on the list:  Neil Young's intensity and the crowd going nuts for everything.

 

Queen - Radio GaGa - Live Aid - 1985

Sometimes it's more than just a song.  Freddie Mercury, my gosh, what can you say about the man?  Charisma, talent, and command of the audience - it's all there.  There are many Queen moments that are legendary but this one stands out among the greatest.  Queen was 100% perfect on this day in 1985 with tens of thousands of fans soaking up every movement of Freddie Mercury.  

Queen was in a slump at the time.  They were nervous, even bickering backstage.  No one really paid attention to them on that star studded day... until... until Freddie Mercury strutted onto the stage and stole the show with the very first song of their set.  Radio GaGa wasn't even close to being one of Queen's greatest songs but because of this performance it may be one of their most iconic.  On a day when Phil Collins played on multiple continents, Def Leppard's drummer returned after losing his arm, and LED FREAKIN' ZEPPELIN reformed it was Queen that stole the show.  Follow that!  Why it's on the list:  When many people think of "legendary concert moments" this is precisely the one playing in their heads.

 

Prince - Purple Rain - American Music Awards 1985

Take a supremely talented artist like Prince, who has a mastery of charisma and performance then put him on an awards show at the peak of his talented powers and you get an unforgettable performance that is still talked about over thirty years later.  We have sang (pun intended) the praises of Prince many times at When It Was Cool but... well... see for yourself.  Why it's on the list:  An absolute master's course in captivating a crowd.

 

Jimi Hendrix - Set's Guitar on Fire - Monterey Pop Festival June 1967

If you have ever seen Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix on video there is a strong likelihood it is from the Monterey Pop festival as the most circulated version of that song is from that show.  Jimi Hendrix was on fire that night and at the end of the show went all rock & roll on his guitar, setting it on fire too and smashing it into bits.  It still stands as one of the most famous scenes in rock history.  This is not the last time that Jimi Hendrix makes the list.  Why it's on the list:  Iconic rock and roll imagery.

 

Fleetwood Mac - Silver Springs - The Dance 1997

After years apart and a successful (commercially and critically) solo career of Stevie Nicks and a successful (critically) solo career of Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac reunited in 1997 and filmed a fantastic television special titled "The Dance".  The concert was so well received that Fleetwood Mac reformed for another run with sold out concerts all over the world for a number of years.  

Nestled into the hit parade of songs was a deep cut track that never really got much attention before, a Stevie Nicks penned song called Silver Springs.  The song was beautiful and well performed but during the performance something happened.  It's one of those moments that organically developed.  Former star-crossed lovers Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham playing together on stage for the first time in many years.  Stevie starring at Lindsey.  Lindsey eventually notices.  Stevie emotionally and intensely sings the wrenching lyrics directly to Lindsey who plays his impassioned guitar right back to her.  An unforgettable moment which they tried many times over the years to recreate but never as successfully as the first time.  Why it's on the list:  The closing several minutes of the song are an organic and emotional masterpiece.

Neil Young - Keep on Rockin' In the Free World - Saturday Night Live 1989

I remember this performance very well.  I was a senior in high school when this happened and I remember everyone talking about it.  I have always been a fan of songs with "cheerleader" choruses surrounded by dark lyrics.  It's the perfect "I gotcha" from an artist to have a bunch of drunken morons screaming your cool chorus completely oblivious to the meaning of the song.  Bruce Springsteen's Born In the U.S.A. is a great example.  Politicians and sports fans for ages have screamed and shook their beers at "Born In the U.S.A.", a song about the utter failure of America during the post-Vietnam era.  This song strikes that same chord with a cheerleader chorus and some of the darkest lyrics you'll ever hear.  Keep on rockin' indeed.  Why it's on the list:  Because Neil Young is rocking like a maniac and the SNL crowd is exactly the people that deserve this kind of song.  Remember- when this aired people had no idea "grunge" was a thing that was still coming.  If you thought Nirvana launched grunge, I'd argue Neil Young did it right here on this night a year and a half before Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the airwaves.

 

Rush - YYZ- Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 2002

Of course I am going to include Rush, duh.  But I have some evidence to back this one up.  Spin magazine website also included this one in their greatest concert performances list too- here.  But take my word for it or not, 60,000 Brazilians are singing along... to an instrumental song.  How often does that happen?  See for yourself.  Rush is really at their peak here.  Why it's on the list:  60,000 people are so into an instrumental song that they have to sing along with it.

 

Jimi Hendrix - Star Spangled Banner - Woodstock - 1969

This bit of rock and roll history has been mimicked many times over the years.  While to the casual observer it has been criticized as "noise" and "freestyling", it was actually a well orchestrated piece protesting the war in Vietnam.  The random "noise" was actually representative of bombs and screaming.  Why it's on the list:  One of the most iconic rock and roll moments ever.

 

George Michael & Elton John - Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me - Chicago, IL 1991

Despite the fact that I really love this song, I hesitated to include it on this list.  However, many people know this song and the song was recorded live in Chicago, IL in 1991.  The late George Michael's Cover to Cover tour included the song, and for the show at Wembley Arena in London on March, 23 1991, Michael brought out Elton John as a surprise guest to sing it with him.  This led to the same thing happening later in Chicago, IL and due to John's massive reaction, that version was used as the popular radio version.  The video, however, was pieced together over several shows and part even filmed in an empty aircraft hanger.  So, while in totality, this video is not the "magic" concert moment you might be lead to believe, the song itself does capture the moment.   Why it's on the list:  One of the highest charting "concert" moments of all time and the vocals are amazing.

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