In a lot of ways, you don’t truly understand rock n’ roll music until you see it live.
The throbbing sound, the smell of sweat and spilled booze, the visceral emotion, and the crowd’s primal catharsis can be blissfully overwhelming. And thanks to recording technology, both vintage and contemporary, we can capture culture-shaking musical performances for the world to play whenever and wherever. Below are seven of those life-changing live concerts from the rock realm — seven astounding moments in time preserved for us all. [Note: We’re focusing on rock albums that rock – which means no Unplugged albums.]
Kiss is that band — you either love ‘em or you hate ‘em. If you’re among the latter, then you haven’t heard Alive!, and that’s a mistake. Taped over a bunch of gigs in mid-1975 and later mixed in the studio, this album shows the New York City rock icons at their finest. Sure, the band flaunted their long-tongues and overt sexual innuendos, breathed fire, spat blood, and even walked over the audience in a high-wire act. But the music is rock solid, especially renditions of classics “Strutter,” “Cold Gin,” “Deuce” and “Black Diamond” that are better than the studio albums. Kiss is a live band, and this is their best live recording. Period.
Cheap Trick, Live at Budokan
The boys from Illinois essentially invented the phrase, “We’re big in Japan.” In 1978, the band leveraged their success overseas to play to 12,000 screaming fans at the historic Tokyo venue — and the result is their best-selling (and just best) album, ever. This live recording of “I Want You to Want Me” — a No. 1 hit in Japan at the time — stands as one of the most hair-raising live moments in ’70s rock history.
Jimi Hendrix, Live at Woodstock
Is there a more iconic sound or image in rock music? Jimi Hendrix — decked out in flair with bell bottoms and a Native American-style top with fringe and beads, his head wrapped in a bandanna — wailing away on a feedback-laden version of “The Star Spangled Banner” on his trademark upside-down Fender Stratocaster. This is the audio recording of not just one of rock’s greatest moments — but one of pop culture’s greatest movements, delivered at a time when political upheaval, a war in Vietnam, and a generational divide shook the nation. This is the sound of ‘60s counter culture incarnate
Bob Dylan & The Band, Before the Flood
On his 1974 tour, Bob Dylan was running to escape “Bob Dylan.” After his astounding run in the 1960s, capping with his God-given trilogy and subsequent hiatus after a motorcycle accident (which some still regard dubiously), he returned in the early ‘70s with a different sound — and voice. He found lukewarm reception, both commercially and critically, so he hit the road with his old pals The Band on a tour that featured them at their hottest and most rockin’ yet. Though billed as a joint outing, with the two groups sharing the stage and album, the highlight is a transformative Dylan, who rejiggers his classic songs into red-hot rockers for arenas across nation. Recorded predominantly at the final shows in Los Angeles, this double LP is the sound of Dylan’s rebirth.
Peter Frampton, Frampton Comes Alive!
This album proves the power of live music. Frampton was boyhood pals with David Bowie. His teenage band, The Preachers, was managed by Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman. He produced several teeny-bopper hits with The Herd by 16. At 18, he formed Humble Pie, and before he was 21, he’d join sessions with Harry Nilsson, Jerry Lee Lewis — and play guitar on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, when he’d discover a musical effect called the Talkbox. He’d then go on to record four solo records. Yet, he still couldn’t really crack America. But over four dates of his 1974 tour, he changed all that. When the live double album he recorded finally dropped in early ‘76, it soon became the No. 1 album in the U.S. — and one of the biggest-selling album of all time. With his infectious live energy, guitar God licks, bare-chested/blonde-locks good looks — and, of course, his inventive use of the Talkbox — he gave the songs from his previously released solo albums new life. It remains perhaps the most explosive live album to date.
The Who, Live at Leeds
Valentine’s Day 1970 was a wild one for students at Leeds University in England. The Who had spent most of 1969 and 1970 on tour and recorded several U.S. performances for a debut live album. But when the band returned to their native England and played back the tapes, they were unhappy — so much so that they torched the tapes in Pete Townshend’s garden. But the quartet were on fire — and they knew it — so they headed for Leeds University to rip out a set that’s been regularly called the greatest rock performance ever recorded. There are hits galore, lengthy jams — even a 16-minute-long medley around “My Generation” — and several covers, including renditions of R&B gems “Fortune Teller” and “Young Man Blues.” But, above all, this is the raw, unleashed power of one of the most wildly careening live bands at the peak of their powers. Students packed the 2,000 capacity room — forcing some to the roof to feel the musical earthquake below.
MC5, Kick Out the Jams
“And right now… right now…,” frontman Rob Tyner shouts to open the album’s title track, “it’s time to kick out the jams, motherf-ckers!” And with that, rock music changed forever. While Kick Out the Jams is in fact the Detroit quintet’s debut release, it was recorded live in concert at the Motor City’s Grande Ballroom over two nights in 1968, Devil’s Night and Halloween. How fitting. Released in 1969, amidst the hippie-peace-love revolution, this album from a band of Midwest misfits invented an all-new sound with a primal, aggressive ferocity that laid the groundwork for punk music to come.