6 of the Best Live Performances of All Time

Yep, you guessed it—I just got back from seeing Bohemian Rhapsody.

After watching Queen’s Live Aid performance no less than three times back-to-back upon my return, I began perusing the World Wide Web for other examples of electrifying live shows. I mean the kind of shows that make your hair stand on end. The kind of shows that you’d give a vital organ to go back in time and attend. What I found were these six examples of pure, musically-induced euphoria. And it’s not lost on me that every single one of these performances took place before the age of smartphones. Remember that golden era before people replaced their eyes with screens and decided it was more important to show their followers on Instagram that they were at a show rather than just actually being at a show? Me neither. But apparently it happened, and here’s the proof.

Queen at LIVE AID, 1985

Queen’s Live Aid performance is insane. Freddie Mercury just fucking nailed it. That outfit? Iconic. That voice? Flawless. That audience interaction? Next level. Playing to an enamoured crowd of 72,000 people at Wembley Stadium for Bob Geldof’s African famine fundraiser, Queen delivered the most legendary performance known to man. Broadcast to an estimated 1.9 billion people (almost 40% of the world population at that time), the 18 minute and 41 second set’s highlights include roughly 72,000 pairs of hands clapping in unison to ‘Radio Ga Ga’, and the same amount of bodies swaying while simultaneously weeping to ‘We Are the Champions.’

Rage Against The Machine at PinkPop Festival, Netherlands, 1993

When I was 12, I went to my brother’s high school talent show called ‘Star Quest.’ There was a band of students in their final year who had nailed their audition with a heartwarming cover of the Foo Fighters’ song ‘Big Me’. But when they took to the stage at the finals in front of a packed audience of parents, teachers, students, and little sisters like me, they went straight into RATM’s ‘Killing in the Name’, ending with the singer screaming “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!” while pointing to the principal. Needless to say, he was immediately expelled and escorted off the property. To this day, it is still the coolest thing I have ever witnessed. Unfortunately, no video of said performance exists, so you’ll have to settle with this one instead.

Johnny Cash at San Quentin Prison, California, 1969

Speaking of badasses, how ’bout Johnny Cash walking into San Quentin State Prison and playing a song he wrote especially for the gig that completely trashes San Quentin State Prison? File this under ‘Shit that would never happen today.’ Before he begins, he asks a prison guard to get him a glass of water, laughing as the guard is met by a chorus of boos from the prisoners. Then he casually introduces this song, dropping lyrics like, “San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell,” as prisoners cheer and clap. Sure don’t make ’em like they used to.

Metallica at the Tushino Airfield in Moscow, 1991

Are you actually kidding me with this? Look at that sea of people, all headbanging in unison to Metallica’s classic ‘Enter Sandman’. Official attendance numbers vary widely for this gig in Russia, with estimates ranging anywhere from 100,000 to one million. No one really knows, but who really cares? Even the Russian army are getting amongst it. Kinda feel okay about watching this one from the safety of my own couch, though. Something tells me some shit went down in that crowd that even the KGB would frown upon.

2Pac at House of Blues, Los Angeles, 1996

Shifting gears here to showcase an iconic performance by one of the greatest rappers of all time, Mr. Tupac Shakur. Unbeknownst to all at the time, this would be Tupac’s last recorded performance, dying just two months later of multiple gunshot wounds. The historical set went down at LA’s House of Blues, with Tupac opening for headliners Snoop Dogg and Tha Dogg Pound. How badly do you want to be at this party? How sad does it make you about the current state of hip hop? Someone send this to Drake. Not a flying car or iPhone shaped stage in sight.

Nirvana at the Paramount, Seattle, 1991

What kind of live performance list would this be with one of the greatest live bands of all time? This here is Nirvana absolutely obliterating their set back in 1991, and it’s pretty much the grungiest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s also the only footage of Nirvana shot on 16mm, and it just captures the raw nature of their sound and live show so well. Kinda makes you sweaty just watching it.

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