The first live gig I attended was Santana at the Empire Pool Wembley, Sat 6th Nov, 1976, I had a mid- priced ticket at £2.50. Unbilled supports were Journey, who were dreadful, and Eric Burdon who was wonderful. Hunched, almost motionless, apart from that voice. “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” “It’s My Life” “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” and House of the Rising Sun”, what an introduction to live music. What it is capable of, what is possible. Santana? They were a bit boring. Fortunately, I have been to thousands of live gigs since, some brilliant, some ordinary, a few poor, but that expectation of a live show, and my appreciation of when a live performer hits the heights of performance, is undimmed. Even with the best shows, very few artists can sustain that mysterious musical epiphany for an entire set. For most, it is a song, or a few songs. Via You Tube, what follows is a selection of my favourite live performances.
This only just qualifies as a live performance, but it is sung live in front of an audience, albeit in a television studio. Simon & Garfunkel rightly have a place at the top table of harmony singers, so why invite in Andy Williams to sing the classic “Scarborough Fair”? Listen, and you will find out, almost fifty years old now, but timeless perfection.
I despise Toto. All excellent musicians, all born without a heart or soul. A painting by numbers band. Their rendition of “Africa” epitomises that emptiness. Yet along comes an acapella choir, and all of a sudden the song ignites. The problem it turns out was not the song, but the band playing it. With a new arrangement, it comes alive and delights, watch:
After the excitement of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, popular music stagnated. Rock in particular became bloated, self- indulgent and self important. Then came punk. It is impossible to overstate the impact it made. Urgent, raw and visceral. This set- opener from the Ramones tells you all you need to know, short, catchy and like an adrenaline shot to an ailing heart. “Hey ho. Let’s go!”
Dolly Parton is a C&W legend and much loved by devotees, she deserves a wider audience. Not only does she write great songs she also knows how to perform, and arrange them too. Glastonbury was not the most obvious showcase for her, she triumphed, with “Jolene”
David Bowie was at his best as a collaborator. He included Jacques Brel’s “My Death” within his live set on and off for most of his career. But it was when Mike Garson joined him and played around with new pared down arrangements featuring piano that the song reached new heights. This comes from a short set at an awards show, it ebbs and flows, rises and falls with breath taking intensity.
When I heard that Paul Rodgers was touring with Queen I was hugely sceptical. How wrong I was. Rodgers brought a new dimension to Queen’s songs, but the big surprise came with how much Queen added to Paul Rodger’s songs, underscoring Brian May’s status as one of rocks greatest guitarists, but also showing what a great drummer Roger Taylor is. “Bad Company” is a rock classic, Queen take it up yet another notch
I never saw Whitney Houston live, and always thought her over rated. Then I saw this performance and her status of one of the great female singers, and performers of the modern era became apparent. With perspiration pouring off her, she drains every last bit of emotion out of this great song, which in the wrong hands can sound cloyingly sentimental, but in hers soars to the heights of magnificence:
I am not a big fan of supergroup performances, invariably egos get in the way. But here, a strange alchemy reveals itself. This Harrison/ Beatles composition, performed as a tribute, is a rarity, it is less a homage, more a muscular reboot. Jeff Lynne’s vocal is spot on, as is Tom Petty’s harmony. Steve Winwood’s keyboards add a new dimension- then Prince’s guitar solo kicks in… I love the way that he tosses his guitar in the air, then walks off without looking back, his job done.
Ritchie Blackmore is a truculent, awkward heavy rock guitar god. Candice Knight is a gorgeous little celebrated folk singer. Yet when they combine for Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust” something remarkable happens. Ritchie is the paragon of self- restraint and sophisticated arrangement, Knight wrings so much more out of this song than Baez does, enjoy.
You may think this an unlikely one. But Kylie is considerably more than the sum of her talents. Sassy, and oozing charisma, she takes hold of this big production number and is so obviously having such a great time. Your disco needs you!
The Who in their heyday were an imperious live act. Incredibly, Pearl Jam achieve the impossible and top the original versions of this song, the moment when they kick into “the Real Me” is spine tingling.