The 5 Most Epic Classic Rock Live Performances Ever

Classic rock bands can release all the classic singles and albums they want. If they can’t bring it live, well, then maybe they’re not that classic after all. This list includes five performances that are epic for different reasons. In some cases, it was the context of the performance that made it so memorable. And in other cases, the band itself stepped up to create an ethereal and iconic moment. Let’s get into the time machine and look back at five occasions when classic rock bands gave live performances that no one who witnessed them will ever forget.

Videos by American Songwriter

1. The Beatles at Shea Stadium (1965)

There are several different points in The Beatles‘ journey you might say would qualify as the apex of their career. Their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show that introduced them to American audiences, the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or even the success of the “Hey Jude” single all have arguments. But when the Fab Four were helicoptered into Shea Stadium to perform in front of a then-unheard-of audience of 55,600 fans, they’d reached a pinnacle of rock and roll success few could have ever imagined possible.

With all the screaming and the primitive public address system they were singing through, it’s a bit of a shambolic performance to hear now. And the group themselves might have been succumbing some to the pressure, as perhaps evidenced by John Lennon’s playing the keyboard with his elbows during “I’m Down” (and cracking up his bandmates in the process). But it was a monumental moment nonetheless, a precursor to every rock and roll stadium performance in its wake.

2. The Band’s Last Waltz (1976)

The Band’s run as one of classic rock’s most hallowed outfits had pretty much run its course when they decided upon a farewell concert on Thanksgiving 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. They invited a host of luminaries to play along with them, all of which was captured for Martin Scorsese’s masterful documentary of the event.

But for all the bright, shining stars around them, the chemistry of these five men was the most memorable part of the festivities. Whether supporting the other acts or stepping out into the spotlight on their own classics like “Up on Cripple Creek” or “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” The Band left everyone wanting more with their stunning efforts. Considering that version of the group never fully reunited, we’re grateful to have the film to remember them by.

3. Elvis Costello and the Attractions on ‘Saturday Night Live’ (1977)

Is it fair to include a performance of one song (and a tiny bit of another one) on a list like this? It is when said performance was the U.S. introduction (for most) of an artist and band who have become classic rock legends. And it’s doubly fair when it exemplifies both the talent and the integrity of the artist leading the way, one Elvis Costello.

[RELATED: The Top 20 Elvis Costello Songs of All Time]

Costello was annoyed that his record company was insisting he play the song “Less Than Zero,” which he felt had little relevance for an American audience. Just a few seconds into the song, he stopped his band and instead cued them into a searing version of “Radio, Radio,” a castigation of media conglomeration that didn’t please the folks at NBC, both because of the message and the unexpected live-television switch. It earned Costello a ban (eventually rescinded) from SNL and the admiration of those who loved his take-no-guff attitude.

4. Pink Floyd on The Wall Tour (1980-81)

Ironically enough, Roger Waters’ concept for The Wall came out of a bad concert experience: Feeling disassociated from the audience at one Pink Floyd show, he spat on one concertgoer who raised his ire. Waters imagined a band playing behind a wall, and that idea expanded to the album and then to the subsequent tour.

Because of the logistics of the show, it wasn’t a proper tour, but rather a series of residencies (including one, pointedly, in West Germany). The band brought the behemoth of a double album to life over 31 unforgettable shows, with each show peaking at the iconic moment when David Gilmour played his guitar solo for “Comfortably Numb” from the very top of the wall. That particular version of Pink Floyd would never tour again, which added special meaning to these massive shows.

5. Queen at Live Aid (1985)

“You bastards, you stole the show.” That was what Elton John griped to his buddy Freddie Mercury after the latter and his band, Queen, hustled back to their dressing room following their performance at Live Aid in 1985. Considering the talent gathered on both sides of the Atlantic for the benefit shows, Queen’s preeminence was a bit of a long shot, especially considering that their commercial popularity was in a bit of a lull at the time. After hesitantly accepting the gig, they wisely went out and rehearsed their five-song set for a week to get everything down pat. None of that would have mattered, of course, without the undeniable charisma of Mercury, who had the massive audience hanging on every word and fist pump.

Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Leave a Reply

Jelly Roll Offers Bail Money to Fan Who Climbed Blossom Music Center Roof During His September 30 Concert

Paul Rodgers Admits He Turned Down an Offer to Be Inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame