Gigs. They’ve been around since the dawn of time. Since man worked out how to make noises of varying tone, crowds have gathered, and followers have listened. Some say the very same site where the guitar was invented became a gathering spot for thousands of tourists. That place was called Glastonbury. Uhh, probably, anyway.
The point is, gigs are great. Everyone loves them. And now, more than ever, we all miss them. So in the spirit of that, I’m going to take a look back at the some of the concerts that stood out above all the rest – some that, if I mastered the art of time travel, I would experience first-hand. This isn’t going to be a list of the best ever. I’m afraid to say Woodstock won’t make an appearance, nor Bowie’s mythical appearance at 2000’s Glastonbury. But nevertheless, I feel these gigs were just too damn legendary to forget in their own ways.
INXS – Wembley Stadium, July 13th 1991 – As part of the band’s ‘SummerXS Tour’, INXS hit the iconic Wembley Stadium in 1991, on the exact same date at legendary Live Aid, just six years earlier. At that point, INXS were the biggest they could ever be. Kings of the world. Still riding the highs of their 1987 release, Kick, the group’s seventh album, X, was unveiled just a year earlier – bolstered with singles like ‘Bitter Tears’, ‘Suicide Blonde’ and ‘Disappear’. The result was a gig that proved nothing short of electrifying.
In 2019, Giles Martin himself embarked on a restoration project to remaster and reissue the video of that gig; releasing it as a one-night only event across several countries. Live Baby Live was phenomenal to watch in the cinema, and I came out feeling stunned by the raw charisma of frontman Michael Hutchence. The iconic red suits of Kirk Pengilly and Tim Farriss, the stomping opener in ‘Guns in the Sky’, this one had it all. Now just imagine being there. The setlist was a perfect fusion of earlier hits (‘Original Sin’, ‘I Send A Message’, ‘What You Need’) and newer stomps. The one-and-a-half hour performance is a real testament to how big the band were fated to be, and I only wish I could have been there to see it myself.
Styx & REO Speedwagon – Riverport Ampitheatre, June 9th 2000 – Styx and REO Speedwagon are perhaps two bands that best sum up the ‘Dad rock’ genre, and that’s meant as no disrespect to either outfit. After all, classic rock that stands the test of time is nothing to gawk at. Way back when the millennium was fresh in the minds of everyone, these two colossal powerhouses of stadium pop-rock came together and performed some of their best-loved hits, from ‘Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man’ and ‘Renegade’ to ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling’ and ‘Keep On Loving You’. The evening rounded off in joint renditions of ‘Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)’ and impossibly feelgood ‘Roll With the Changes’. This entry may seem like a more mundane one, but it sounds killer nonetheless. Just listen to the live recording. Flawless.
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, November 24th 1991 – Into the Great Wide Open is the album that really cracked open the skill of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to me. At the beginning of a new decade, it combined the glossy production of Jeff Lynne – evident on Petty’s solo debut, Full Moon Fever – with lowdown, American rock ‘n roll the band was synonymous with. It’s a whole record of rockers, and they only translated word-for-word onto the stage. Petty’s performance at the Oakland Coliseum is just immense. Later released on home video as ‘Take the Highway Live’, it opened with the Midwest anthem of ‘King’s Highway’ – the kind of music you play jetting down the open road to, followed up with ‘Too Good to Be True’, ‘I Won’t Back Down’ and ‘Free Fallin’’.
The whole set design was nothing short of a marvel, too – with the band playing around an enormous, artificial tree. The show made use of theatrics and props; including a dragon dressed in a white suit, dubbed the, ahem, ‘psychedelic dragon’. Drummer Stan Lynch got to show off his vocal prowess on a cover of ‘Psychotic Reaction’, and keyboardist Benmont Tench got his own boogie. Whilst admittedly played the night after, the tour saw a live performance of ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More’ that’s one of my favourite live tracks of all time. You could feel the power onstage that night. And the one before. Petty always promised an energetic show, and he delivered.
Queen – Magic Tour, 1986 – Queen’s last tour with Freddie Mercury. That alone should tell you all you need to know; that alone is why any stop on this mind-bending tour would be worth seeing. If I had to pick one, though, their July 9th performance in Newcastle strikes a chord with me; my mother was there. Or three days later, when Mercury, May, Taylor and Deacon stepped out onto Wembley’s stage (this was filmed and later released as both a CD and DVD). But the tour’s last stop; a nigh-mythical performance at Knebworth Park may be my pick. The last time Mercury played live. The last time John Deacon played bass with the rest of the boys. The setlist could be up to 26 songs long; covering a downright awesome legacy of work – from ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ and ‘In The Lap of the Gods… Revisited’ to then-current classics in ‘One Vision’ and ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’.
Any and all recordings of this tour are enrapturing; Freddie Mercury shone at his best here, a star that could never possibly wane. A year after the tour, sadly, he would learn of his AIDS diagnosis, and pass away in 1991. If ever there was a ‘last hurrah’ to witness in person, this has to be it.
Farm Aid – Memorial Stadium, September 22nd 1985 – Farm Aid began in 1985; the brainchild of performers Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. It took the form of a benefit concert designed to help farmers struggling to pay increasing mortgage debt, and its first incarnation – on the 22nd September – boasted the likes of Bon Jovi, Bob Dylan, Foreigner, Merle Haggard, B.B. King, Billy Joel, Roy Orbison and Eddie Van Halen. And that’s barely half of the star-studded ensemble. What followed was a night of mind-blowing performances; a melting pot of roots, country, rock and pop. Farm Aid is never given the recognition it deserves, and the very first line-up threatened to rival that at Wembley just two months earlier. There’s no way I could miss this one.
Ghost – Palacio de los Deportes, March 3rd 2020 – Ghost’s 2018 appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, London, nearly made the list, but I couldn’t leave this one out. Everyone knew something special was coming when Ghost started promoting, ‘A Final Gig Named Death’. It was obvious; Mexico was going to see the appointment of Cardinal Copia as the new Papa – the fourth in Ghost’s long line of lascivious frontmen. I still remember the fans refreshing the band’s social media after every song, and every intermission.
The Palacio de los Deportes saw the full ascension of our new Papa, and it was just incredible. The setlist was already impressive – with incense-clouded ‘Con Clavi Con Dio’ making a reappearance; but as everyone’s favourite Satanic cardinal was stripped bare and clad in the finest robes you’ve ever seen, I was just stunned. The front row at that gig will have tales to tell for years to come. And how I wish I could be one of that chosen few.
David Bowie – The Glass Spider Tour, 1987 – Snubbed by critics, 1987 saw renowned, chameleon popstar David Bowie take the stage in promotion of his 17th studio album, Never Let Me Down. The record itself was a mixed bag of thoughtful, dystopian rockers and needlessly long, pretentious poetry. Such was the tour Bowie created for it, too; performing under a colossal, metallic arachnid that measured sixty feet high and just as wide. The setlist was an interesting fusion of recent hits, and only sparse recollections to the past. It was equal parts theatre and actual concert. But the inner fantasy nerd in me adores all the little flourishes a giant such as Bowie made reality.
From an unforgettable joint opener of ‘Up the Hill Backwards’ and ‘Glass Spider’ to ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘China Girl’ and 1974’s ‘Big Brother’, each night promised hours of incredible performance, and Bowie at his best – changing outfits and being lowered onto the stage with mechanical wings. Part 2 of the setlist treated fans to Never Let Me Down’s real shining jewel, ‘Time Will Crawl’, and ‘Blue Jean’; a simplistic rocker from ‘84’s Tonight. This is certainly a set of gigs not to miss, standing out above the highs of Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour.
Live Aid – John F. Kennedy Stadium, July 13th 1985 – Live Aid had to be on the list. No matter who you are or what you like, you would have gone back to that date. But with the UK and US rocking out in unison, where would you rather be? Being at Wembley Stadium would be incredible; with the likes of Status Quo, Adam Ant, U2, Bowie and Queen.
But oft neglected is the set that took place that same day in Philadelphia, which saw artists like Judas Priest, Bryan Adams, the Beach Boys and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (we don’t mention Led Zeppelin). Such titans of pop and rock played their very own part; and who could resist the highs of Rob Halford belting out ‘Living After Midnight’ or the band’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Green Manalishi’? The next half hour was comprised of ‘Summer of ‘69’, ‘Cuts Like A Knife’ and ‘Good Vibrations’ – what a gig. No matter what people say, both sides of the Atlantic brought the skies down that day. I’d happily take either.
The Stone Roses – Spike Island, May 27th 1990 – If Oasis’ 1996 appearance at Knebworth is the stuff of legend, then The Stone Roses’ titanic Spike Island gig just six years earlier might as well be rock and roll scripture. Their 1989 debut is, in my humble opinion, one of the best first records of all time – and clearly undisputed; if it gave them the chance to perform to 30,000 people off the back of just that (and a handful of catchy singles). Ian Brown et. al were really a force to be reckoned with that night, enthralling the eyes and ears of every young person who had a television. ‘I Wanna Be Adored’, ‘Elephant Stone’ – one of my favourites – ‘She Bangs the Drums’ and ‘Sally Cinnamon’. Oh, and the set finished with the almighty ‘I Am The Resurrection’. There’s a reason Spike Island became the subject of a whole movie years down the line. Its where young people worshipped at the altar of early Britpop; and maybe, just maybe, where it was truly birthed.
Fleetwood Mac – Warner Bros. Studios, May 23rd 1997 – The Dance was the first live album I ever bought; and back then, I never bought live albums. Too often they’re just hastily scrapped-together, inferior renditions of their studio counterparts. But not with Fleetwood Mac. Never with Fleetwood Mac. From titular Mick Fleetwood’s bombastic drumming to Stevie Nicks’ trademark twirls and Lindsey Buckingham’s blistering, outrageous solos (though not anymore), the Mac are always guaranteed to put on a show.
When they came together in Burbank, California for one night in ’97, they put on one hell of a show. It was the first time they’d appeared in their classic ‘Rumours line-up’ since Tango in the Night, a whole decade earlier (they did, however, reconvene for Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993). And any bad blood between the band’s members died away in an instant. From show-stopping performances of ‘Don’t Stop’ and ‘Tusk’ – complete with marching band – to exclusive debuts (‘Temporary One’, ‘My Little Demon’) and old favourites (‘The Chain’, ‘Silver Springs’), this gig had it all. Just explosive. And not one to miss, an eclectic masterstroke of classic rock, blues and mainstream pop. Shimmering.
So there. Ten performances that stand out to me as essential viewing. If I had a time machine, I’d waste no time in traveling back and experiencing them for real. We take music for granted sometimes; and gigs with it. But each and every one is entirely unique; some just happen to pass on into the annals of entertainment history. I can’t wait till the day those doors open again, and a thousand adoring fans are waiting, chanting, for that thing which makes us tick. Only one question remains. Where would you go?