CoS Exclusive FeaturesHotList 'Em Carefully

The 30 Best Live Versions of Songs

on July 08, 2011, 2:15pm
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This may be weird, but I always think of concerts as a kind of consummation — like finally getting the chance to be alone with that special squeeze you’ve been sweatin’ for a while. The relationship between you, a band, and a song are finally at the most intimate, whether you’re in the corner of a bar or on the muddy fields of Glastonbury. And for all the time you’ve spent peeling away the layers of a track, analyzing every note, every word, every minute detail about down to the the last wavelength, in concert the pressure is now on the band. Do they really look like their profile pic?

It’s nerve-racking when the moment comes. Some bands have performance anxiety, or were just plain lying about what they were actually packing. Most bands are satisfyingly WYSIWYG, and remain true to their promises. These bands and these songs below, however, represent the most powerful moments in a connection between audience and performer — moments of dynamic expansion that open up whole new parts of the song that you never even knew existed. At the time it’s a revelation, and in retrospect it can be a rediscovery, but it’s always something unique.

We tried to compile a list of songs that resonated on several levels. There are cultural turning points, fan favorites, canonical benchmarks, and most importantly, personal experiences. Name another art form where you’re allowed to feel something so personal, so moving, so hair-raisingly beautiful in the company of hundreds or thousands of other people possibly feeling and relating to the exact same thing you are (MDMA levels notwithstanding). The subjectivity of a live performance is almost more apt than a studio recording, but these here are songs we felt transcended personal preference and reached out to even those who weren’t there (Or: you’ll probably get chills from watching these videos).

But there are more memories than there are YouTube videos™. There will be concerts from an unknown band in the middle of nowhere that will leave a stronger impression than being front row at Radiohead or backstage at The Boss, and that’s a fact. These songs give your personal experiences a run for their money, and while you may not believe that anything will ever top the time the lead singer of Ulterior Motifs set his guitar on fire and suplexed the bass player into the floor tom, we hope you spend some time co-opting the magic that was created with these performances– live performances that deepen, expound, and straight-up own the studio versions.

–Jeremy D. Larson

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April 30, 2012 at 7:13 pm

J. Geils lost should be #1

March 16, 2012 at 11:41 am

Here’s an idea. Let’s mandate every list, on every site, on every subject be mandated to be politically correct. Each list will be required to have representatives from every victimized group; one gay, one female, one hispanic, one dwarf…the list is quite long.

Let’s pass a law. Then we can feel good about ourselves…and superior to neanderthals who disagree with us. Oh, kumbayah….

December 4, 2011 at 4:55 am

OAR- crazy game of poker should be on here…

July 19, 2011 at 4:50 am

Janis Joplin, Ball & Chain at Monterey Pop!

July 18, 2011 at 4:27 am

Blue Veins should be on here.

Len Comaratta
July 15, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Re: the Ellington at Newport – It should also be noted that Ellington’s career had been suffering a long slump and his appearance at the Newport Festival amounted to one of the greatest comebacks in music. 

July 14, 2011 at 11:27 am

I love going to concerts especially if the featured artists are my favorites. This is a great post and this one nailed it. Thanks for a wonderful post and keep those ideas coming.

rijke pa arme pa

July 13, 2011 at 12:21 am

Raconteurs performing Blue Veins at Bonnaroo 08 is awesome just for Jack White wigging out.

July 12, 2011 at 3:22 pm

Dead Weather – Will There Be Enough Water is way better live

July 12, 2011 at 2:34 am

I was going to flip if you guys didn’t include something from Zeppelin’s RAH concert film… good job. 

Jeremy Larson
July 11, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Really? Fish gets bigger and bigger I guess. Do you know the video that this is from?

Duffy 120
July 11, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Bjork should definitely be on this list.

July 11, 2011 at 3:27 pm

No Dylan from his ’66 tour ???

Jeremy Larson
July 11, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Good point — I would say that several tUnE-yArDs songs would easily make this list (Hatari, My Country), and there’s some younger Womankind bands that are kicking ass right now.  Maybe women don’t have a tendency to jam? Are there any all-women jam bands? That’s a market that’s been dominated by men, right?

trent morrison
July 11, 2011 at 4:27 am

a best live version list without The Knife “Heartbeats” is an invalid list.

Duffy 120
July 11, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Agreed. Or even Kino live.

July 10, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Drive By Truckers – 18 Wheels of Love

Unfortunately, for the fans and people involved, this live rendition which included one of the greatest rock monologues to ever simultaneously touch your heart and brain’s pleasure center will never be played the same again. I first heard the live version on their “Alabama Ass Whuppin’” and was moved by Patterson’s authenticity and excellent raconteurmanship. The tale which precludes the song is of his mother’s divorce, her depression, her re-entering into the work force, and finally meeting the man of her dreams, he’s 300 pounds of solid muscle and gut and has been purposely fucking up his driving logs for the last six months to have an exccuse to be in her fiery presence. The two are soon married in Dollywood and Patterson, too broke to give a weeding present, writes “18 Wheels of Love” for his mother and Chester.

Several years later Chester devoloped cancer and was brought into hospice care to die. Patterson added these all too real and somber events to the tale including that Chester would never get the chance to walk his daughter in California down the aisle.

I finally caught my first Truckers show in 2008 (I live in Canada) and was practically loosing my shit when I heard the opening chords to “18 Wheels of Love”. Patterson expertly had the crowd in palm of his hands as he ran through the above story, but then told us all he had more to add to the tale. He said Chester’s condition worsened and all his family and grandkids flew out to say their  goodbyes to him. Chester seemed to be more delusional and continued to ask his hospice nurse when he could drive once again. Patterson then relayed he recieved a call some months later while out on tour and that the call was from Chester. He said not only was it from Chester, it was a call from Chester who was sitting behind the wheel of an 18 Wheeler bound for California and ultimately to his daughter’s wedding. The crowd erupted in a way I’d never experienced before, to which Patterson yelled “YOU THINK I’M MAKING THIS SHIT UP?” “I COULD NEVER MAKE THIS SHIT UP! THIS SONG IS CALLED 18 WHEELS OF LOVE AND EVERY GODDAMN WORD IS TRUE!!”

Since then I’d seen the Truckers a number of times and enjoyed in the same enthralling experience of the 18 Wheels story with many different friends and strangers. At Sasquatch ’10 it was revealed that the tale of Chester had finally come to its end. Chester had passed away 3 days prior to the festival. To most of the very young crowd who was gathered for Passion Pit, this news fell on deaf ears. But for me and my friends it was unexpectedly very emotional, more than I thought any personal story of a guy in a band who I liked could ever personally be to me.


July 10, 2011 at 11:54 pm

I should add that there is a version of Chester beating cancer and driving to California on their Live at Austin City Limits, but it it’s not the best interpretation of it. I think they were told to limit their profanities because all the “bad words” are removed from this version. I mean I still like it, but it lacks the emotional and euphoric punch I’ve heard so many times at a DBT show.

December 7, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Stefan, you have captured the experience masterfully and second only to actually standing in the crowd as Paterson tells the story. Hood, and the Truckers, will probably never receive the acclaim they deserve for the caliber of music they make. 18 Wheels is a perfect example of a piece that showcases his talent as a musician and showman. Like many great acts removed from the mainstream, it is perhaps better that they are a secret known only to those of us fortunate enough to have stumbled across them. Appreciate that you relayed your ’10 concert experience as 18 Wheels was in my rotation today and was searching for info on how old Chester was doing. Hope he got to drive one last time.

July 9, 2011 at 8:59 pm

The lack of Manu Chao is a bit sad.

Evan Lummer
July 9, 2011 at 6:00 pm

muse stockholm syndrome – glastonbury 2004

July 9, 2011 at 5:36 pm

God damn; I loved this list. Especially when I saw Daft Punk.

July 9, 2011 at 2:59 pm

honorable mentions
nine inch nail – head like a hole
gorillaz – dirty harry

July 9, 2011 at 2:59 pm

honorable mentions
nine inch nail – head like a hole
gorillaz – dirty harry

Justin Rector
July 9, 2011 at 4:33 am

Jeff Buckley’s live version of “Hallelujah” could honestly be the only way that song became more powerful than the album version.

July 9, 2011 at 9:20 am


Robert Carter
July 9, 2011 at 8:34 pm

If I had to chose, I’d go with his live cover of “The Way Young Lovers Do”. Fourteen minutes of him, his guitar, and a scat-jam crescendo.

Jeremy Larson
July 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm

That’s one of my favorite recordings, but we decided not to include live covers just to narrow it down a bit. 

July 8, 2011 at 11:10 pm

I disagree that you picked the wrong Arcade Fire song. At the show I attended in May, Power Out/ Rebellion combo was the climax of the show even with Wake Up following it.

July 8, 2011 at 10:52 pm

Wilco should really be on this list. Not only are the songs incredible, but since Nels Cline joined they have re-worked and continued to re-work their songs for a live setting making them totally unique from the album. “Misunderstood” and ”Via Chicago” are always standouts as is Nels’ freak out on “Ashes of American Flag”.

Recently I got a download of a 22 song set from Dylan’s “Rolling Thunder Revue 1975″. This has got to be one of the best live recordings I’ve ever heard. The band (which changed often throughout the tour) is beyond tight and dynamic. Dylan is damn right ferocious on “Hattie Cane” and “Hurricane” (a song I always liked but was never crazy for, on this album it is mind melting). I seriously can’t stress how insane the musicians’ intuition is here. Dylan is free to control the pace and dynamics of the song on a dime without any hesitation from the rest of the band. It really is a marvel.

To anyone whose seen Caribou live, especially off of the Swim tour, you know how incredible those shows are. To me, in terms of modern bands, there is no comparison to him (and his band) and what they deliver each night. They are like a jazz combo and jam band all rolled up into one psychidelic dance party.

Neil Young, see any song live.

Lastly, The Residents need to be on here. They broke the mould on what a “live” show means and where the live and the recorded end (if they do). I don’t think there is a group who has inpired more bands on this earth. 

July 8, 2011 at 8:12 pm

amazing list but wake up really needs to be arcade fire’s

July 8, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Excuse me — PINK FLOYD – ECHOES????

July 8, 2011 at 7:00 pm

You got the wrong Tool song!  Go forward 2 tracks on Salival to the live version of Pushit.  Insane!!

July 8, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Jesus, you guys are grasping for page hits huh?

Bad choice for Arcade Fire. “Wake Up” live at Glastonbury is much better. 

Evan Lummer
July 9, 2011 at 5:58 pm

at reading 2010 it’s even better

July 8, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Who ever came up with this needs to listen to The Tragically Hip – Highway Girl (double suicide version)

July 8, 2011 at 6:16 pm

you put Where the Streets have no Name on here, the list is legit


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