Music festivals aren’t always conducive to great performances. Most artists don’t get as much time as they’re used to, and they’re forced to play for audiences that haven’t necessarily turned up specifically to see them. And yet some musicians rise to the challenge and create moments that resonate long after everyone has gone home.
Spanning a half-century, from Monterey Pop to the present, the 50 greatest performances in the history of music festivals prove that some things are worth sloshing through a giant muddy field to see. How many of these were you lucky enough to see in person -- and tell your grandkids about someday?
50. Jack White, Coachella, 2015
During his red-hot set at Coachella 2015, Jack White asked the audience to remember that “music is sacred.” Lest anyone doubted the mystical power of guitar, bass, and drums, the enigmatic Detroit rocker regaled the crowd with solo jams, side-project cuts and such White Stripes chestnuts as “Hotel Yorba” and “Dead Leaves And the Dirty Ground.” Fans summoned White back to the stage for an encore by singing the hook from “Seven Nation Army,” a tune he used to conclude his set in triumphant fashion.
49. Dolly Parton, Glastonbury, 2014
Glitzy as ever in a white, rhinestone-covered pantsuit, Dolly Parton pulled out all the stops at Glastonbury. The country queen rapped about mud, rocked with Richie Sambora on a gospel rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” and played the Benny Hill theme twice on her saxophone. Naturally, the instrument was covered in rhinestones, and it sparkled like every second of the show itself.
48. The Replacements, Riot Fest, 2013
For their first U.S. show in 22 years, shoulda-been-huge college-rock gods the Replacements didn’t exactly turn back the clock to the ‘80s. In their heyday, they were known for boozy, hit-or-miss shows, while this Chicago reunion gig was fairly tight and tidy, despite a few flubbed lyrics by singer Paul Westerberg. But the professionalism only enhanced songs like “Bastards of Young,” “I Will Dare” and “Hold My Life,” timeless anthems that younger fans had only dreamed of hearing live.
47. Questlove, John Paul Jones, and Ben Harper, Bonnaroo, 2007
Bonnaroo is known as the jammiest of America’s major festivals, and the annual “Superjam” has become one of the event’s signature attractions. These jam sessions sometimes bring together loads of musicians from different backgrounds, but in 2007, it was just Questlove, Ben Harper, and iconic Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. The unlikely collaborators followed Zep classics “Good Times, Bad Times” and “Dazed and Confused” (the latter 25 minutes long!) with a funky encore medley that combined Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” with the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” and Sly Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher.” The term “power trio” is rarely so apt.
46. Blur, Glastonbury, 2009
After a series of intimate warm-up gigs, Britpop heroes Blur proved they could still command the main stage at Glastonbury, a festival they’d last headlined 11 years earlier. Damon Albarn and the gang turned in a career-spanning set that culminated with an emotional encore run-through of “The Universal.” Albarn got a little misty-eyed, and the crowd sang its bloody guts out.
45. Outkast, Coachella, 2014
Atlanta’s kings of boundary-pushing hip-hop launched their reunion tour at Coachella, and luckily, they had two weekends to hone their act. Following a disappointing performance on April 11, the duo crushed it seven days later, packing hits like “B.O.B.,” “So Fresh, So Clean,” and “Hey Ya” into a tight, thrilling set.
44. Pearl Jam, Lollapalooza, 2007
Fifteen years after playing a daytime slot on the second Lollapalooza tour, Pearl Jam presided over Chicago’s Grant Park like the stadium champs they’d become. In their only major North American show of 2007, the Seattle grunge survivors mixed hits like “Even Flow” and “Do the Evolution” with covers of Pink Floyd and Neil Young classics. It was a moment for the band and the festival to take stock of how much the world had changed since the dawn of the alt-rock revolution.
43. Skrillex, Ultra Miami, 2015
To cap what had already been a guest-packed Ultra 2015, Skrillex enlisted pals like Jack Ü collaborator Diplo, Canadian singer Kiesza and pop superstar Justin Bieber to deliver a headline-hogging performance. Also on hand: Diddy, who rocked a bucket hat and played hypeman.
42. Arcade Fire, Lollapalooza, 2005
Under a blazing Chicago sun, Arcade Fire made good on the buzz surrounding their just-released debut album, Funeral, and turned in an epic breakthrough performance. During “Neighborhood #2 (Laika),” the many members of this Montreal orch-rock crew used drumsticks to beat out the rhythm on whatever they could find, including each other’s bodies. Win Butler and company would soon return as headliners, but already, they were playing like all of Grant Park belonged to them.
41. Phish, Bonnaroo, 2009
Jam legends Phish finally got around to playing Bonnaroo in 2009, and naturally, they got two nights to work their freaky virtuosic magic. Closing the fest on Sunday, Phish teamed with fellow headliner Bruce Springsteen for three songs: the rock staple “Mustang Sally” and Bruce’s own “Glory Days” and “Bobby Jean.” The Boss didn’t sport tie-dye or anything, but it looked like he was having a blast.
40. Paul McCartney, Bonnaroo, 2013
Just because you know more or less what you’re going to get from Paul McCartney, it doesn’t make his concerts any less amazing. Headlining Bonnaroo in 2013, Sir Paul offered nearly three hours of classics, leaning heavily on Beatles tunes and throwing in some Wings hits and deep cuts for good measure. The regular set ended with a humongous “Hey Jude” singalong and a pyro-fueled “Live and Let Die.” And to think, there were still eight more encore gems to come.
39. Nine Inch Nails, Woodstock, 1994
While Green Day’s sullied duds at Woodstock ‘94 were due to a mud fight with the audience, Nine Inch Nails actually arrived onstage caked in slop. Trent Reznor told MTV there’d been some sort of mud-wrestling mishap with his bandmates; whatever went down, it was for the good of the show -- the griminess totally fit with industrial clangers like “Terrible Lie” and “Closer.” Of course, mud and electronics don’t really mix, so Trent had to smash a few malfunctioning keyboards with his mic stand. Small price to pay for such a quintessentially ‘90s moment.
38. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Lollapalooza, 2009
When the Beastie Boys had to cancel their Lolla ‘09 appearance following MCA’s cancer diagnosis, organizers rightfully looked to another groundbreaking NYC trio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Hot on the heels of their groove-packed It’s Blitz! album, Karen O, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase kept the masses enraptured throughout their 16-song set. The highlight: "Phenomena," where the band ended with 16 funky bars of the Beasties’ "So Wat'cha Want.”
37. Bruce Springsteen, Bonnaroo, 2009
It’s rare that Bruce Springsteen plays to anything but diehard fans who’ve lined up for hours just to see him. But that was the situation at Bonnaroo, where the Boss wowed the faithful and won new converts with a 28-song, career-spanning set. He even honored a request for “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” creating Christmas in June for all the true believers in the land.
36. Pulp, Glastonbury, 1995
Just prior to Glasto ‘95, Stone Roses guitarist John Squire broke his collarbone in a cycling mishap, forcing his band to withdraw. Fortunately, this was the Britpop era -- a time marked by no shortage of excellent U.K. guitar acts -- and up stepped Pulp to fill the void. The band played a massive set that included the Roses-inspired “Sorted for E’s” and “Common People,” which had just broken a month earlier. Speaking with Dazed & Confused magazine years later, Pulp leader Jarvis Cocker said of the super-receptive audience: “I think they threw more roses than stones.”
35. Santana, Woodstock, 1969
Thinking he wouldn’t take the stage until 8 p.m., Carlos Santana treated himself to a little mescaline when he arrived at Woodstock at 11 a.m. As it turned out, Santana and his eponymous Latin fusion psych-rock band played at 2 p.m. Despite hallucinating that his guitar was a snake -- or you know, maybe because of that -- Santana pulled off a star-making performance that still looks wild a half-century later.
34. Kanye West, Lollapalooza, 2008
Weeks after a calamitous Bonnaroo, where he didn’t take the stage until 4:30 a.m., Kanye West looked to rebound at Lolla in front of his hometown Chicago crowd. Beginning promptly at 8:30 p.m., Yeezy was magnificent as he cycled through his hits (“Flashing Lights,” “Through the Wire,” “Stronger”), reminding everyone why they cared about him in the first place -- as a tremendous songwriter and performer who can get people talking for the right reasons.
33. Black Sabbath, Ozzfest, 2004
“I'm getting to sing for one of my favorite bands in the world,” said Rob Halford at the Camden, N.J., stop of Ozzfest 2004, where he subbed for a sick Ozzy Osbourne and fronted Black Sabbath. Halford had helmed the group twice before in 1992, back when Ronnie James Dio was lead singer, so this wasn't technically a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Hearing him belt out tunes like “War Pigs” and “Iron Man” was pretty damn special, though.
32. Deadmau5, Lollapalooza, 2011
Proof that EDM had truly gone mainstream came at Lolla ‘11, where Deadmau5 became the first-ever electronic artist to play the festival’s main stage. Positioned at the center of a rotating Rubik’s cube and looking like a demonic Mickey Mouse, the helmeted DJ thrilled an audience that included festival founder Perry Farrell, who watched with his young son riding piggyback. Father Farrell knew best: Deadmau5’s breakout moment was not to be missed.
31. The White Stripes, Coachella, 2003
Weeks after releasing their acclaimed fourth album, Elephant, the White Stripes made their one and only Coachella appearance. As they’d done for years in much smaller settings, Jack and Meg White proved that guitar, drums, vocals and personality are all you need to blow people's minds. Fellow ‘00s rock ‘n’ roll revivalists Interpol, the Hives, and the Libertines also played that weekend, but the Detroit duo’s revved-up performance is the one that fans are still raving about.
30. James Brown, Woodstock ‘99, 1999
Before Woodstock ‘99 turned ugly, the festival got off to a funky start with surprise opener James Brown. Not everyone was into the Godfather of Soul -- some teen attendees preferred to send emails or visit the Playstation trailer, according to a New York Times report -- but fans who took a chance on Brown surely weren't disappointed. His set included “Cold Sweat,” “Living in America,” and of course “I Got You (I Feel Good),” an ironic precursor to everything that followed.
29. Joan Osborne, Lilith Fair, 1997
When the pioneering all-female Lilith Fair pulled into Houston in 1997, the folks in charge at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion banned Planned Parenthood from setting up info booths. That didn’t sit right with festival founder Sarah McLachlan or Joan Osborne, who called a press conference and got the venue to reverse its decision. Osborne later took the stage in a Planned Parenthood t-shirt and declared, “I'm the face of pro-choice Texas” -- an act of defiance that reportedly got the “One of Us” singer banned from the venue for life.
28. The Rolling Stones, Glastonbury, 2013
“So, they finally asked us,” joked Mick Jagger as the Stones, then celebrating their 50th anniversary, made their long-overdue Glastonbury debut. Mick and his fellow Glimmer Twin, Keith Richards, were in good spirits as they delighted fans with hits like “Satisfaction,” “Wild Horses” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” During “Sympathy for the Devil,” a metal phoenix on top of the stage burped fire. It looked pretty hellacious, but this was heaven on earth for generations of adoring fans.
27. The Who, Woodstock, 1969
As the sun rose Sunday morning at Woodstock, the Who made sure everyone was wide awake by blazing through much of their rock opera Tommy, plus older hits like “I Can’t Explain” and “My Generation.” At one point, Pete Townshend whacked activist Abbie Hoffman in the head with his Gibson SG, and he ended the set by tossing the guitar into the audience. Bassist John Entwistle later called it “probably the worst-ever festival experience we ever had,” but the Who’s Woodstock wakeup call remains one of the festival’s defining moments.
26. Rage Against the Machine, Coachella, 2007
With George W. Bush waging a divisive war in Iraq, rap-rock firebrands Rage Against the Machine felt compelled to regroup and rock the masses for the first time since 1999. During the closing “Wake Up,” singer Zach de la Rocha called the president and his cronies “war criminals” who needed to be “tried, hung, and shot.” Although that was the night’s only real tirade, the L.A. foursome was plenty incendiary as they kicked weapons-grade jams like “Testify,” “Bulls on Parade” and “People of the Sun.”
25. Swedish House Mafia, Ultra Miami, 2013
Confetti and fireworks were in abundance as EDM titans Swedish House Mafia closed out their One Last Tour global victory lap at Ultra Miami. The trio blazed through favorites like “Don’t You Worry Child,” “In My Mind,” and “Save the World,” giving fans something sweet (and sweaty) to remember them by.
24. M.I.A., Bonnaroo, 2008
Truly great performers treat every show like its their last. M.I.A. took that idea a step further in 2008, telling the Bonnaroo faithful, "This is my last show ever, and I’m glad I’m spending it with all my hippies.” The announcement added to the show’s intensity, which is really saying something, since the British singer-rapper-troublemaker always comes hard. And with luck, she’ll continue to for years, since that retirement thing didn’t really take.
23. Metallica, Download, 2003
After promoters shot down rumors that Metallica would play a surprise set, metal’s biggest band dropped by Download ‘03 in Donnington, England, for an unannounced 10-song throwdown. Because it was on a side stage, a mere 8,000 of the fest’s 40,000 attendees got to see ‘Tallica tear through tunes old ("Master of Puppets") and new ("St. Anger"). Some lucky young metal-heads even threw devil horns while perched on their dads’ shoulders.
22. Temple of the Dog, Lollapalooza, 1992
Featuring Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell and three dudes from Pearl Jam, short-lived grunge supergroup Temple of the Dog had only played one full concert before Lolla ‘92. Fortunately, both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were on the bill, and at the fest’s finale in Irvine, California, they came together for “Hunger Strike,” the hit single featuring vocals from Eddie Vedder. It was a rare performance of an era-defining classic that will sadly never be aired live again.
21. David Bowie, Glastonbury, 2000
According to many fans and journalists -- not to mention festival organizer Michael Eavis -- David Bowie’s encore airing of “Heroes” was the best moment of the greatest performance in Glastonbury history. The rest of Bowie’s 2000 set was pretty amazing, too, as the rock legend set aside the drum-and-bass stuff he’d been touring behind and treated fans to a greatest-hits extravaganza. “I have not been here for 30 years,” Bowie told the crowd, “and it’s fucking great.”
20. Green Day, Woodstock, 1994
Green Day weren’t yet a big deal in August 1994. They played the rebooted Woodstock on a side stage, where rowdy kids who didn’t care about topliners like Bob Dylan or the Allman Brothers were game to get dirty and throw some mud. And thank goodness for that -- the utter slop-fest that was Green Day’s set helped transform the California punks into MTV stars. One of the most enduring images of the fest is that of a blue-haired Billie Joe Armstrong flinging muck at kids who either already owned Dookie or were going to buy it very, very soon.
19. Notorious B.I.G., Summer Jam, 1995
Biggie pulled double duty at NYC radio station Hot 97’s second annual Summer Jam. He appeared first in white linen during a set by the R&B girl group Total, then returned in a three-piece suit (complete with bowler hat and cane) to play his solo hits. Before he was a contender for Greatest Rapper of All Time, Biggie was the King of New York, and Summer Jam ‘95 cemented his royal status.
18. Courtney Love, Lollapalooza, 1994
Nirvana had been slated to headline Lollapalooza ‘94, but the band pulled out just one day before Kurt Cobain was found dead in Seattle. When the tour hit Philadelphia that August, Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, took the stage during a performance by her pals Smashing Pumpkins and played a pair of Hole tunes. On “Miss World,” she changed the lyrics to “Why'd you have to die?" and she later called for "a moment of silence for my husband." With a little shushing, the crowd mostly kept mum.
17. Sly and the Family Stone, Woodstock, 1969
Anyone who went to bed early on Saturday night at Woodstock sure missed a scorching a set by genre-melting funk-soul greats Sly and the Family Stone. The band took the stage at 3 a.m. on Sunday morning and offered nine songs of pure uplift. Sly and the gang drew largely from their recently released Stand! album, which included the hits “Everyday People” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” With their mixed-race, mixed-gender lineup, the group was ‘60s idealism personified, and the music made the whole dream seem possible.
16. Questlove’s “Superjam,” Bonnaroo, 2012
Questlove is very possibly the best-connected man in music, so when he’s tasked with organizing an all-star jam, he doesn’t mess around. For Bonnaroo 2012 -- his third “Superjam” -- the Roots drummer grabbed members of Parliament Funkadelic and the Time, plus his own band. Oh yeah, and he also got reclusive neo-soul superhero D’Angelo to play his first U.S. show in 12 years. As the ensemble cruised through tunes by the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Funkadelic, Sly & the Family Stone, Questlove secured another chapter in the history books.
15. The Clash, US Festival, 1983
In the early ‘80s, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak launched the US Festival as a means of bringing together technology and music. He booked the Clash to headline “New Wave Night” in 1983, and while it wasn't the greatest gig the legendary punk group ever played, it was perhaps the angriest. In between sloppy, snarling renditions of classics like “Know Your Rights” and “I’m So Born with the USA,” singer Joe Strummer berated the audience while soon-to-be-fired guitarist Mick Jones radiated angst.
14. Joe Cocker, Woodstock, 1969
Everyone remembers Joe Cocker’s Woodstock performance for the final eight minutes, when the gruff-voiced English soulman offered a stirring rendition of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends.” But that wasn't the only gripping moment in his 11-song set, which took place on Sunday morning, just before a thunderstorm hit. Cocker also nailed a trio of Bob Dylan tunes -- including a stunning “Just Like a Woman” -- and a fest-appropriate Ray Charles joint, “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” Cocker’s star soared after Woodstock, and by the following year, he’d notched an American Top 10 hit with his cover of the Box Tops’ “The Letter.”
13. Lady Gaga with Semi Precious Weapons, Lollapalooza, 2010
Hours before headlining the mainstage, Lady Gaga got up close and very, very personal with fans during a side-stage set by her buds Semi Precious Weapons. As the New York glam-rockers ripped into “Magnetic,” Mother Monster emerged by surprise to play drums, make out with frontman Justin Tranter, and stage-dive into a sea of eager hands -- all while wearing a fishnet bodystocking and pasties.
12. My Morning Jacket, Bonnaroo, 2008
As the rains poured down, ‘Roo faves My Morning Jacket unleashed torrents of weird and wonderful psychedelic indie-rock. The set lasted nearly four hours and included funky covers like "Kool & the Gang's "Get Down On It," James Brown's "Cold Sweat," and Funkadelic's "Hit It and Quit It." Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett ripped a mean solo on MMJ’s own “One Big Holiday," and comedian Zach Galifianakis helped to sing Motley Crue’s monster ballad “Home Sweet Home” while dressed as Little Red Riding Hood. MMJ were equally amazing sans gimmicks, delighting the soggy faithful with tunes from across their catalog.
11. Big Brother and the Holding Company, Monterey Pop, 1967
Only one act got to play twice at Monterey Pop, and that was Big Brother and the Holding Company. The group featured a powerhouse 24-year-old Texas singer named Janis Joplin, who positively slayed the audience on Saturday afternoon. Organizers were so impressed that they invited the relatively unknown group to perform again on Sunday, so that filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker could capture Joplin on camera. Although the band only did two songs -- ”Combination of the Two” and Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” -- Pennebaker’s footage reveals a fully formed, free-spirited frontwoman who could belt out gut-wrenching blues like nobody’s business. On the strength of their Monterey performance, Big Brother inked a deal with Columbia Records, ensuring that people all over would soon experience the awesome power of Janis.
10. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Hologram Tupac, Coachella, 2012
The most talked-about performance at Coachella 2012 came from a guy who’d been dead for more than 15 years. That, of course, was Tupac Shakur, who appeared in hologram form during the headline set by West Coast hip-hop kingpins Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. The star-studded show also featured Eminem, 50 Cent, Wiz Khalifa, and a not-yet-humongous Kendrick Lamar, but it was ‘Pac -- who magically served up "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted" and "Hail Mary" -- that kept everyone’s heads ringin’, to paraphrase a Dre song that somehow didn't make the 25-song set. It took a team of 20 tech wizards to create the 3D ‘Pac projection, and from a shock standpoint, it was well worth it. After years of posthumous albums, the rap legend was back onstage, sparking controversy just like he did when he was alive.
9. Nirvana, Reading, 1992
For the 50,000 fans lucky enough to catch Nirvana at Reading in ‘92, the trio’s performance was a revelation. For drummer Dave Grohl, it was a relief. As Grohl would reveal years later, the group was strained at that point, due in part to Kurt Cobain’s recent stints in rehab, and they’d only rehearsed once -- the night before the gig. Kurt and co. hardly sounded rusty as they barreled through 90 minutes of gnarly punk-rock goodness, drawing heavily from their first two albums, Bleach and Nevermind. There were even some moments of levity, as Cobain arrived onstage in a wheelchair and later goaded the crowd into chanting, “Courtney, we love you!” Bootlegs of the show circulated for years before the official release of Live at Reading in 2009. More than just a brilliant live album, it’s a snapshot of the last truly important rock band at the peak of its powers. It’s that rare cultural document that happens to sound great in your car.
8. Daft Punk, 2006, Coachella
Nobody knew what to expect from Daft Punk at Coachella ‘06 -- not even their manager, who wasn’t allowed to see the lights on the now-famous pyramid stage before it was unveiled to a crowd of 40,000 festival-goers. The LED display was only part of the story, though. Mysterious as always in their robot gear, the French duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter refused to simply play canned versions of their best-loved tunes. They used on-the-fly editing and remixing to challenge perceptions of how electronic music could sound in the live setting. In doing so, they kickstarted the EDM revolution with a moment that none of their followers have yet to top.
7. JAY-Z, Summer Jam, 2001
Had JAY-Z only brought out Michael Jackson after performing "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" -- which of course samples the Jackson 5 -- his appearance at Summer Jam 2001 might rank as the most memorable in the fest’s history. But getting the reclusive King of Pop to step onstage and wave wasn’t all Jay did on that June night. In debuting the diss track “Takeover,” Jigga escalated beefs with not one, but two Queens MCs: Prodigy of Mobb Deep and Nas. "When I was pushing weight back in ’88 / you was a ballerina / I got the pictures,” Jay rapped at Prodigy, right before using the giant video screen to display a shot of a young Prodigy at his grandmother’s dance studio. Later, Jay rapped, “Ask Nas -- he don't want it with Hov." In fact, Nas was game to tangle, and his response track “Ether” arguably won him the rap battle. Nevertheless, Jay’s bold moves at Summer Jam got everyone talking and gave hip-hop one of its key storylines for the next few years.
6. Radiohead, Bonnaroo, 2006
In 2006, Radiohead gave what many consider the finest performance in Bonnaroo history and the greatest concert of their career. Why so much love for this 28-song set? The group swapped out a bunch of its hits for unreleased material, treating the audience of 70,000 to “15 Step,” “House of Cards,” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” and “Bodysnatchers,” all of which would appear on the forthcoming In Rainbows. There were also songs from OK Computer, Hail to the Thief, The Bends, Amnesiac, and Kid A -- every album but the group’s 1993 debut, Pablo Honey. Radiohead aren't exactly a good-time dance band, so for these moody art-rockers to turn in a performance that nearly everyone agreed was an instant classic says a lot about the passion and intensity they projected.
5. Prince, Coachella, 2008
In addition to being one of the most innovative pop composers of all time, Prince was a gifted interpreter of other people’s songs. Here’s a partial list of the tunes he covered during his jaw-dropping performance at Coachella 2008: the Beatles’ “Come Together,” the B-52’s’ “Rock Lobster,” Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” and Radiohead’s “Creep,” a left-field pick he stretched into an eight-minute epic. Although he changed (or botched) Thom Yorke’s lyrics, Prince must’ve connected with the outsider vibe. Not that he was alone that night in Indio. The Purple One rocked with longtime pals the Time and Sheila E. on the opening three numbers and spent the rest of the set in the company of his own classics, which included “Controversy,” “Housequake” “Cream,” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” In the wake of Prince’s death in 2016, many fans revisited video of this performance to remind themselves just how very special this guy was.
4. Otis Redding, Monterey Pop, 1967
In June 1967, the Monterey International Pop Festival marked the unofficial start of what would be dubbed the “Summer of Love.” The lineup was heavy on rock acts (the Who, Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane), and that created a golden opportunity for soul great Otis Redding. Backed by Booker T. & the M.G.’s, the house band at Stax, Redding was mesmerizing during his brief five-song set. Highlights included a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” and Redding’s own “Respect,” which he jokingly said “a girl took away from me,” referring to Aretha Franklin’s iconic cover. “This is the love crowd right?” Redding asked at one point. “We all love each other don’t we?” The triumph in Monterey was to be Redding’s last major appearance, as he died in a plane crash less than six months later.
3. Beyonce, Glastonbury, 2011
Secretly three months pregnant, Beyonce lived her wildest dreams at Glastonbury 2011. “I always wanted to be a rock star!” she told the audience, and that night -- by virtually any measure -- she was one. Bey opened with what lesser performers might’ve saved for the finale: “Crazy In Love,” which she sang after rising onto the stage via a hydraulic platform as fireworks signaled her arrival. From there, she ripped through solo hits, Destiny’s Child favorites, and covers ranging from Etta James’ “At Last” to Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire.” "I want you to get lost in this music tonight,” Beyonce said. "I want to make beautiful memories and be free tonight."
2. Bob Dylan, Newport Folk Festival, 1965
Few events in music history have been more mythologized than Bob Dylan’s performance at Newport on July 25, 1965. This was the day the politically minded folkie “went electric,” ushering in a new era of smart, restlessly creative pop music that would define the decade. Dylan and his band played just three amplified songs, including “Maggie’s Farm,” off Bob’s half-electric Bringing It All Back Home, and “Like a Rolling Stone,” from his then-forthcoming game-changer Highway 61 Revisited. Some in the audience booed, either because they were mad at Bob for betraying his folk roots, or because they were unhappy about the poor sound quality and short duration of the set. Either way, this was rock ‘n’ roll’s moon landing: one small step for Dylan, one giant leap for a young form of music that was about to explore some incredible new worlds.
1. Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock, 1969
Thanks to weather and technical hiccups, Woodstock stretched well into Monday morning. Jimi Hendrix had the option of playing at midnight the night before, but he opted to close the festival with a set that began at 9 a.m. By then, the crowd of 500,000 had dwindled to 200,000 or fewer stragglers, and those were the lucky ones who witnessed nearly two hours of Hendrix. Presiding over a temporary band (the Jimi Hendrix Experience had broken up), Jimi played hits like “Purple Haze” and “Hey Joe,” a handful of new songs, and of course, his iconic three-minute version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Jimi’s tattered, moaning, violent rendition of the national anthem captured the mood of Woodstock perfectly. It was defiant, hopeful, and beautiful -- all of which Hendrix communicated without saying a word.