10 Historic Live Musical Performances

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There are certain moments in musical history when we wish we could say I was there (although not in some cases). Here is a list, in time order, of some of those events, the controversial, the groundbreaking, the political, the tragic, and the wonderful.

David Tudor (composer – John Cage)

August 29, 1952 – Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock, New York

Silence is golden! However, it’s not as simple as that. John Cage was the leading pioneer of experimental music and his most famous and controversial piece was titled 4’33’’. Conceived as three movements, the easy description is to say that it is four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. What Cage demonstrated was that there is no such thing as silence. Not a note is played in 4’33’’, but the composer wanted the audience to listen to the incidental sounds in the environment. It challenged the very definition of music. The premiere, overseen by David Tudor, in Woodstock was part of a program of contemporary piano music.

James Brown

October 24, 1962 – Apollo Theater, Harlem

James Brown and the Famous Flames brought the house down in the famous Apollo. Following success in the R&B charts and a following in the Southern states, this is the show that turned Brown into a national figure. He financed the show himself and used his own money again to put out the live LP from the show, against the wishes of his record label boss. Brown was vindicated when ‘Live at the Apollo’ reached Number 2 in 1963. Known as the Godfather of Soul, Brown was one of the great showmen on stage.

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez

August 28, 1963 – March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC

This gathering of between 200,000 and 300,000 people was a political rally for civil rights. The march began at the Washington Monument and finished at the Lincoln Memorial. There was a series of speakers and Bob Dylan performed several songs, including ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ and a duet with Joan Baez on ‘When the Ship Comes In’. Baez also performed Pete Seeger’s protest anthem, ‘We Shall Overcome’. The highlight of the event was not a musical performance however, but Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. The Civil Rights Act was passed the following year.

Bob Dylan

July 25, 1965 – Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island

Dylan was a favorite at the prestigious folk gathering, having performed there in 1963 and 1964. His late decision to perform an electric set when headlining in 1965 resulted in one of the great musical controversies. This was the first time that Dylan had ‘plugged in’ for a live concert in his professional career. He took to the stage backed by members of the electric blues band, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Al Kooper on organ. A section of the crowd began to boo and an upset Dylan walked off. He was persuaded to return but there were no more electric arrangements rehearsed, so he performed two songs acoustically. This time, there was general applause and a call for more. The popular explanation is that folk purists in the crowd thought that Dylan had ‘sold out’. Some people say the negative reaction was more to do with the poor sound quality and the shortness of the set. Some say the accounts of booing were exaggerated. Whatever really happened, Dylan did not return to the festival for another 37 years.

The Beatles

August 15, 1965 – Shea Stadium, New York

The world was in the grip of Beatlemania when the band embarked on their North American tour in 1965, opening at the home of the New York Mets baseball team. It was the first concert to be held in an outdoor stadium and it set a record attendance for a live show, of 55,600, which was not beaten until 1971. Arriving in a Wells Fargo armored truck, John, Paul, George, and Ringo ran to the small stage in the middle of the field, wearing their beige safari jackets. 2,000 police officers were in charge of security. The noise from the crowd was absolutely deafening and overpowered the music. Even the Beatles couldn’t hear what they were playing! They performed twelve songs, including ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, and ‘Twist and Shout’, and their set was all over in 30 minutes.

Jimi Hendrix

June 16, 1967 – Monterey Pop Festival, California

Hendrix was already popular in Europe but had yet to break through in his home country. His dynamic set at Monterey put that to rights. The festival was a huge success and presented an eclectic mix of music, which included The Who, Ravi Shankar, Grateful Dead, and Otis Redding. Hendrix performed his magic on ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, and ‘Purple Haze’. It was his final song, ‘Wild Thing’ however, that literally set the place on fire. He had burned guitars on stage before but this occasion was captured on film and in photographs and it became his most iconic image. He kneeled over the Stratocaster, poured lighter fluid over it, set it alight, and then smashed it, throwing pieces into the crowd. Don’t try this at home.

Phil Ochs

August 27, 1968 – Democratic National Convention in Chicago

The 4-day convention attracted thousands of protestors to the city’s streets to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. Violence erupted between the demonstrators and the police and National Guard, involving baton charges and the use of tear gas. Phil Ochs gave the protestors a focal point when he performed his signature anti-war song, ‘I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore’. His performance inspired hundreds of people in the crowd to hold up their draft cards and burn them. This act of defiance was caught on film. When the organizers of the protests, known as the Chicago Seven, were later put on trial for inciting to riot and conspiracy, Ochs was called as a witness. The defense wanted him to sing his anthem in court but the judge would not allow it. Instead, Ochs read out the lyrics.

The Doors

March 1, 1969 – Dinner Key Auditorium, Miami

By the time Jim Morrison got to the concert hall in Miami, he was drunk. The resulting gig was shambolic with Morrison ranting at the audience and abandoning songs. It was alleged by some eyewitnesses that he exposed himself briefly. There is no photographic evidence to support this. The warrant for his arrest was issued a few days later and he was charged with indecent exposure and profanity. Shows were cancelled and radio airplay lessened but the band started touring again in June. The trial took place in August 1970 and the plea was not guilty. Morrison was found guilty and returned to court in October for sentencing. He was given 6 months hard labor for the indecent exposure charge and 60 days hard labor for the profanity charge. His defense filed an appeal. Before the matter could be resolved, Morrison died in Paris in July 1971. Whether the exposure incident actually took place or not, it was clear that Morrison was frustrated at his sex symbol status and wanted to be taken seriously as a songwriter and poet. Miami was a low point in a brief but unforgettable career.

The Rolling Stones

December 6, 1969 – Altamont Speedway Free Festival, California

This concert came to symbolize the death of the optimistic spirit of the 1960s. The Stones headlined the show, which also featured Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. They hired local members of the Hells Angels as security to guard the low stage. The bikers were paid in beer and many of them were drunk by the time the Stones started to perform. The peaceful gathering had deteriorated with fights breaking out between the Hells Angels and individuals in the crowd who were high. During ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, Mick Jagger stopped to appeal for calm. The tragedy took place when they performed ‘Under My Thumb’. 18-year-old Meredith Hunter got into a scuffle with some Angels when he attempted to go on stage. He pulled a gun and one of the Angels stabbed him and others kicked him where he lay. During the investigation into his death, it transpired that Hunter had been high. The Angel responsible for the stabbing pleaded self-defense and was acquitted. The Rolling Stones had finished their set, completely unaware of the death until afterwards. The incident was caught on camera and shown in the 1970 documentary, ‘Gimme Shelter’.

The Sex Pistols

June 4, 1976 – Lesser Free Trade Hall, Manchester, England

This gig is often cited as the catalyst for the local punk music scene that spread out into the rest of the UK and the world. There were only approximately 40 people watching in the small venue but some of those that were there that night were inspired to form their own bands. The Buzzcocks were there because two of their members organized the gig. Other fans said to be present include Morrissey (The Smiths), Mark E. Smith (the Fall), and future members of Joy Division. The Sex Pistols had formed in 1975 and they led the British punk revolution, shocking the general public with their clothes, swearing, and raw music. This was their first appearance in Manchester and they were asked back for a second gig at the hall the following month. The performance was re-staged in the 2002 film, ‘24 Hour Party People’. The gig is now part of punk mythology. A lot of spit has flown under the bridge since then.

Honorable Mentions

  • The Beatles – January 30, 1969, Apple Studios Rooftop, London
  • Brian May (of Queen) – June 3, 2002, Buckingham Palace Rooftop, London – Playing ‘God Save the Queen’ at Party in the Palace to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

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20 Comments

  1. When it comes to Jimi Hendrix, I'd say antoher equally historical performance from him is the Woodstock '69 gig where he played Star-Spangled Banner. I'm pretty sure you considered that too, but as you've said earlier, you can have only 10 items in the list.

  2. What about the George Harrison concert for Bangladesh in 1971.

    With Bod Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston and Ravi Shankar.

    Besides the performers quality, the purpose of raising money for a country is important too

  3. Pink Floyd/ Roger Waters doing the Wall at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany. I read and saw on CD that there were approx 1 million people in attendance.

  4. Not to denigrate the huge influence the Sex Pistols had on the evolution of punk, but it was the Ramones who were the pioneers (and pied pipers) of the genre. The basic sound and style of punk was invented in NYC in the mid 70's. From there it spread to disaffected youth in underground rock scenes all over the world. The Brits simply added their own twist to this basic style, much like they had done with rock n roll and the blues in earlier decades.

    A fledgling Sex Pistols doing a weak cover of a Stooges song (No Fun) doesn't quite make for a compelling historical video. They were still a year away from ruling the punk rock roost.

    • Yes, punk / new wave – whatever you want to call it – started at the CBGBs. I guess you're referring to that. A lot of Brits don't realise that and don't give credit so thanks for bringing it up.

      All I want to add is Horses! Horses!

    • I'd agree.

      Specifically U2's performance, which truly catapulted them to greater and greater heights, and Queen's performance. The vista of the crowd clapping in unison during 'Radio Ga-Ga' always gives me goosepimples.

  5. Todd Stockslager on

    Good list. Two for consideration:

    Dylan’s Rolling Stone at the Manchester Free Trade Hall (the “Judas” performance)–the angriest howl directed at an audience I’ve ever heard. It makes my hair stand on end every time I hear it. Honorable mention would be Tambourine Man from the acoustic portion that concert, where the quietly tense and self-contained performance reveals that these lyrics are much more literal than we realized.

    Springsteen’s Land of Hope and Dreams on the Live in New York City album. It can bring me to tears of joy and hope on the right day (like the day after my Steelers lost the Super Bowl!). Bruce has never been more desirable as both one of us and our Pastor of Rock and Roll as he is on this song, and Mighty Max drives the thing with his persistent rhythm that is deceptively complex yet sounds so simple and perfect it alone brightens the heart.

  6. George Gaines on

    I was at that James Brown Concert. I lived about 12 blocks from the Apollo. So I saw everybody there. I cannot tell you how intimate that Theatre is. You had the Orchestra, The lower Balcony and the Upper Balcony. And that Upper Balcony would literally Rock. You will never see a Top act today in a small auditorium like the Apollo. And the attendees will never have an experience like the one’s enjoyed at The Apollo and other local Theaters. I remember as a child, Dee Dee Sharp came to the edge of the stage and looked down into my eyes and sang “I really love you, baby, baby, baby, yes I do!”. I cannot begin to tell you how impactful that type of experience is. At that young age I was able to connect with a Star. Even now I say Wow! I saw a lot of acts at the Apollo, but James Brown was the only act I ever saw that had a line that started in front of The Apollo and went west to 8th Ave, Up to 126th Street, back to 7th Ave back down to 125th St and back to the front of the Apollo. And if you got there at the right time, you could sit so close to James Brown that his sweat would land on you.

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