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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

Joy Division – “Transmission”

On record, they were clean. On stage, they were clean. So, what’s the difference? With “Transmission”, Curtis doesn’t spit out the lyrics so much as he threads together a fragile yet magnificent rope, from which he swings around and around. No one will ever dismiss Martin Hannett’s timeless and unorthodox mixing on Unknown Pleasures, it’s an indefectible example of diamond production work. But in hindsight, the radical producer simply trapped the group’s carnal tendencies. Inside the album existed what only a few knew at the time: This Manchester quartet was working with something otherworldly, and watching “Transmission” live proves this. It’s just a tad spooky, that’s all.  –Michael Roffman

The Flaming Lips – “Race For the Prize”

Balloons, smoke machines, confetti, 40-foot projection screens, colored lights, and background dancers wearing plush animal costumes – “Race for the Prize” not only marked a turning point in the band’s recording career, but the transformation of their live performances into the sensory-overloading grand spectacle they’re known for being today. After The Soft Bulletin, it no longer seemed as if we were just watching a band perform on acid, but as if the entire audience were tripping along with them. Now a staple on their setlists, there isn’t a song in The Flaming Lips’ catalog better-suited for setting the tone for their loony live shows than the soaring acid-pop of “Race for the Prize”.  –Austin Trunick

Tool – “Third Eye”

“Think for yourself…question authority,” the opening monologue begs of its listeners, just before one of Tool’s most prestigious and haunting musical numbers hushes a live audience. “Third Eye” is the closing track from 1996’s Ã†nima, and from this 1998 concert recording, fans can reminisce on days when Maynard James Keenan could dole out a scream that made people question their own identity. A version similar to the one presented here can be found on Tool’s Salival compilation per secondhand purchase, as it’s now out of print. –David Buchanan

John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things”

John Coltrane took Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway classic “My Favorite Things” for a spin just two years after it hit the stage in the Sound of Music by stretching the showtune into a madcap 13-and-a-half minute jam that’s considered one of the most essential jazz records of all time. Leave it to John Coltrane, though, to turn his own hit on its head whenever he and his band played it live, most notably at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival. In perhaps the finest performance of his career, Coltrane and his sidemen take the tune on an extended, 17-minute jaunt so hypnotic and memorable, you’ll never whistle that chipper little melody the same way again.  -Möhammad Choudhery

Massive Attack- “Angel”

On tour, “Angel” takes on a whole new life with the help of the band’s signature moody light show and a stellar live band that includes two live drummers. Ominous hi-hats and a pitch-black guitar line give way to an apocalyptic burst of bass/guitar/drums just as Horace Andy gets done muttering the line, “love you, love you, love you.”  Here, Massive Attack tackle their signature song before a crowd of thousands at Glastonbury 2008. The best part? That split-second of awed silence right as the band kicks in and the crowd explodes. -Möhammad Choudhery

Okkervil River – “Westfall”

Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff was inspired to pen this eerie tune after hearing the gory details of the Yogurt Shop Murders in Austin, Texas. While the album version successfully explores the confounding nature of true evil, only the raucous live rendition is able to capture the savage spirit of the murders themselves. The song begins minimally, conjuring a stark atmosphere with guitar, mandolin, and bass drum before an ominous string chord kicks off the pounding coda “evil don’t look like anything,” as Sheff howls and the rest of the band falls apart around him. The same crescendo occurs on record, but it feels tight rather than chaotic. –Dan Caffrey

Talking Heads – “Psycho Killer”

Director Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads’ 1984 masterwork, Stop Making Sense, is the concert film. While many reasons exist for backing such an argument, only one truly matters — David Byrne’s jaunty opening rendition of “Psycho Killer”. Sharp outfit, syncopated beats, cassette tape, acoustic guitar, and a man whose gait could be translated to mental imbalance or physical comedy…forget Andrew WK and the Beastie Boys; Byrne’s boombox beats you to the punch. -David Buchanan

LCD Soundsystem – “Yeah”

James Murphy says “Yeah” a total of 577 times in this video (you don’t have to count it — it’s all there). That’s more times than I’ve ever said anything in my entire life, and still you never get sick of it. Against that disco drum and bass, the band stretches the song’s poles to the max, and if you happen to be in the crowd during “Yeah”, you will find yourself screaming all 577 “Yeah”s right along with him. Trance-punk was given a live birth. –Jeremy D. Larson

Bruce Springsteen – “Thunder Road”

Aside from being a fantastic live version of the side-one, track-one to his untouchable Born To Run, this six-minute clip, recorded in his native New Jersey in 1978, is a tiny encapsulation of exactly what The Boss’ live show is all about. From the energy and charisma emitted by Springsteen, the signature Fender Telecaster, his supporting cast (Max Weinberg on drums, old friend Steve Van Zandt on guitar/shaky backup vocals, and the late Clarence Clemons – whose chilling sax solo means more this week than it did a month ago), to his faithful, adoring fans cheering “Bruuuuuuuuuce!” as the video comes to a close, this is what Springsteen is (and has always been) about. –Winston Robbins

Sufjan Stevens – “Impossible Soul”

On “Impossible Soul”, Age of Adz’s cathartic 25-minute closer, Sufjan Stevens redefines melodrama and virtuosic, genre-leaping scope. Stevens, in his typically ostentatious fashion, opted to close out every show on the Age of Adz tour with the whole damn thing. “Impossible Soul” is a roller-coaster ride through Stevens’ right brain: from the crestfallen call and response intro, through an atypical vocoder segment, into the stirring metaphysical rally song mid-section that finally leads into a heartrending, finger-picked outro. Woah. -Möhammad Choudhery

Bob Marley – “No Woman, No Cry”

This version is so deep in the groove I’m not sure how anyone gets out of it when it ends. Before Ska sped things up, Bob Marley slowed things down when he took “No Woman, No Cry” to the stage, which is the version that most people are familiar with. The studio version has its merits, but this is the only option for a campfire mixtape or memorial tribute. Plus, when you tell someone that “everything’s gonna be alright”, you never want to rush it. –Jeremy D. Larson

Phish – “Fluffhead”

There was no greater news to New England in the winter of 2009 than the word that Phish was getting back together for a three-night run at the Hampton Coliseum. What started out as three (very thorough) reunion shows turned into the next leg of the Vermont quartet’s career, and they kicked everything off with “Fluffhead”. Out of their entire catalog, “Fluffhead” has always been a big fan favorite that made occasional appearances within their setlists, but this time, it was the charge to start everything off. While the studio version off 1986’s Phish (or, The White Tape) sounds like a playful demo, the Hampton ’09 version is like a musical call to arms (or to jamming). As that wonderful C-D-G-F progression rang out into the spring Virginia night, it was clear that the only people more excited about this reunion than Anastasio, Gordon, Fishman, and McConnell…were the phans. –Ted Maider

Led Zeppelin – “Dazed and Confused”

By the time the Royal Albert Hall gig rolled around in January 1970, Led Zeppelin had already begun to take over the world. But this show in particular would showcase their improvisational prowess on “Dazed and Confused”, turning the original six-and-a-half minute recording into a majestic 16-minute opus. Already a mainstay in their live repertoire, there was just something about the track this time around that really stuck. To date, it still makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. This is how it’s done.  -Megan Caffery

My Morning Jacket – “Dondante”

The slow, intimate start leads to an emotional blast of soaring vocals followed by some of the most powerful saxophone playing this side of John Coltrane. When done the right way – and My Morning Jacket usually do it the right way – it can truly be a transcendental experience. For a well respected live band with countless good “live versions”, the fact that “Dondante” usually comes away as the highlight to their shows says it all. –Carson O’Shoney

Radiohead – “Everything In Its Right Place”

How do you play any of Kid A live? How do you even write an album like Kid A? And how on earth does a distorted, confused and recycled Thom Yorke sing along with a real Thom Yorke, playing a keyboard that gets recycled and cut up too, until the band can leave the stage while their music goes on, slowly eating itself? Ask any Parisian that watched them in 2001 above. –Chris Woolfrey

Arcade Fire – “Power Out/Rebellion”

Not many songs can slow the tempo down while doubling the audience energy at the same time. Yet that’s what Arcade Fire does for every concert. Whether it segues out of an explosive “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)” or more recently “Month of May”, “Rebellion (Lies)” is the pinnacle of a live performance. There’s the subtle moment where the bass and keys start to peek through the thrashing guitar noise of the previous song, sending those shivers down your spine. Then there’s the singalong. When the band scream out “Lies!” so does the everyone in the crowd. Like, everyone. —Joe Marvilli

The Beatles – “Get Back”

“Four people playing as they never would again” is how The Beatles’ rooftop concert has been described, and it’s easy to see why. This is a band with tensions rife from about a decade in the public eye among other things, rallying round for a knock-out final performance. “Get Back”, set against the police bearing down on the group as the quartet brought the music to a kind of anti-climactic diminuendo, closed their impromptu set on top of the Apple office on Savile Row. Nobody knew it then, maybe not even The Beatles, but this song was the last song they would ever play together in concert, and it’s beautiful precisely because that future was so uncertain. In the words of John Lennon: “I’d like to say ‘thank you’ on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.” -Chris Woolfrey

U2 – “Where The Streets Have No Name”

This is the song that every U2 fan waits for at every show. No matter what else is played or whether the band is on or not, “Where the Streets Have No Name” is guaranteed to be spectacular. First, there’s the red screen that brightens up as the opening organ comes in. Edge arrives with that icy arpeggio that blooms into every corner of the venue. The drums kick in, all the lights shine on, and Bono and the boys are off. Everyone sings and dances along, being together in this moving experience that can’t be just described. You have to see and hear it to believe it. –Joe Marvilli

My Bloody Valentine – “You Made Me Realise”

“You Made Me Realise”, besides being My Bloody Valentine (MBV)’s go-to rocker, is noted for closing the band’s reunion shows in an extended “holocaust” of white noise. Lasting between 10 minutes and 30 (compared to less than a minute on the studio version), MBV holds the final chord before the final verse, strikes it at a deafening level, and by the time the band explodes back into the main riff — if it even bothers — most of the crowd has forgotten what song was playing. Anyone who saw MBV in 2008/2009 is well aware every venue was stocked to the roof in free earplugs, and “Realise” is the reason why. -Harry Painter

Animal Collective – “Fireworks”

There was plenty to fall in love with during this epic, show-closing rendition of Strawberry Jam‘s adrenaline-pumping “Fireworks”.At around 13-minutes long, the band begins by teasing fans with the signature helicopter pulse-rhythms of “Fireworks”, while beginning Hollinndagain‘s “Lablakey Dress”, ultimately morphing that deep-cut into a 10-minute exploration of “Fireworks” pushing the thing to its absolute limits–including a mid-song layover in Danse Manatee‘s “Essplode”.But while Geologist’s headlamp bops around, clashing with the epileptic lightshow, and while Avey Tare chants the song’s infectious melody over his washed-out strums, just watching Noah Lennox feverishly attack his minimal, high laying drumset in syncopated thrusts is one of live music’s most breathtaking experiences.As is usually the case with these Animals, it’s hard to tell what’s really going on, but with a result so utterly awe-inspiring, it really couldn’t matter any less. –Drew Litowitz

Rage Against The Machine – “Freedom”

Back in the ’90s, Rage Against the Machine was one of the finest live acts to grace the mainstream, and it brought a lot of sadness in 2001 when they announced their breakup. To finish off their (first) run, the band booked two nights at Los Angeles’s Grand Olympic Auditorium. Their finale, “Freedom”, remains a staple of their live show, primarily due to Zack de la Rocha’s improvisational lyrics he would throw into the mix (“Forget about your history and just buy…and just buy”). The live version (particularly this one) was the sonic equivalent of a Washington D.C. riot, as de la Rocha screamed “Freedom! For Mumia! Freedom! Yeah!” for what appeared to be the last time. Luckily though, it wasn’t. –Ted Maider

The Grateful Dead – “Dark Star”

(Part 1)

(Part 2)

(Part 3, Part 4)

“Dark Star” is the quintessential Dead song. Consisting of no more than a couple of riffs and two short verses, the real meat is the improvisation between those elements, often stretching to over 20 minutes of mind-blowing psychedelia. There’s a studio version, a paltry 2:40 long, that should never have existed in the first place. So of all the stellar live versions, why 8/27/72? Although the legendary Live/Dead version represents the primal 1969 sound, the 1972 Veneta performance fuses the Dead’s early ’70s modal jazz style with the searing controlled chaos of the ’60s, propelling this show into “best ever” contention. –Jake Cohen

Duke Ellington Orchestra – “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue”

As you will be able to tell in the scrolling story of the clip, this song is the stuff of jazz legends. Maybe not quite on par with Max Roach throwing a crash cymbal at Charlie Parker, or Buddy Rich cussing out the tour bus every night, or Charles Mingus shooting his bass with a gun (yes), but definitely a solid #4. Paul Gonsalves’ 28 choruses of blues solo instigated what passed for a “riot” at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956. If only for 10 minutes, the spirit of Big Band was reanimated due to a tenor sax player’s passion and groove. –Jeremy D. Larson

Radiohead – “The Gloaming”

On Hail to the Thief, “The Gloaming. (Softly Open Our Mouths in the Cold.)” is unassuming, the only sign of life being the coronary pulse of the repeated bass note. Either out of a need to keep concert-goers awake, or out of Thom Yorke’s love for uninhibited dorky dancing, Radiohead turns it into just that, a high-energy dance number. It’s a win-win, because not only does the rhythm section of Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway find themselves with something to do, but thanks to Yorke’s scattered and looped vocals, “The Gloaming” retains the album version’s sense of distorted obtuseness. –Harry Painter

Iron & Wine – “Upward Over the Mountain”

If you had told me back in 2002 (damn, I’m getting old) that one day I’d be getting the fuck down–I mean literally losing my shit –to The Creek Drank the Cradle‘s “Upward Over The Mountain” at 2008’s Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, I’d probably have told you to pull yourself together, lay off the acid, and to stop listening to your bootleg of The Grateful Dead’s 1976 Show at the Beacon Theater. When the time came, Sam Beam jumped onstage as pilot to a well-oiled and irresistible jam machine.And on the set’s highlight, “Upward Over the Mountain”, the bearded folkie stretched out one of his sparse, slow-rolling lo-fi gloomers into a full-fledged rock epic, fit with percussion, pedal steel, and a penetrating slide guitar melody parsed from the dust-speckled, minimal offerings of one of Beam’s mellowest recordings. –Drew Litowitz

Daft Punk – “Around The World/Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”

I once described Daft Punk’s live album Alive 2007 as sounding “a lot more like a seamless greatest hits collection than a live effort.” That declaration goes the same for this video clip as it did for the album. Daft Punk’s unforgettable Alive Tour was not only visually spectacular production, but one of the most musically cohesive. This particular cut is a combination of their biggest hit from the ’90s, “Around the World”, and their biggest hit from the ’00s, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”. As the two tracks seamlessly bleed in and out of one another with lights, pyramids, and robot suits to boot, it’s not hard to see the allure behind the French duo and why they’re arguably the most popular dance/electronic DJs of this generation. –Winston Robbins

Atoms For Peace – “Harrowdown Hill”

Among all the computer loops and slanted rhythms found on The Eraser, “Harrowdown Hill” is certainly the grooviest. When you have a bassline that infectious, you need the funkiest bassist around to give it some extra slap and pop. Enter Flea, whose body-shaking performance compliments Thom Yorke’s sporadic dancing perfectly. Add in a hard-hitting, organic performance from the rest of the band and you have the highlight of any Atoms for Peace concert. –Joe Marvilli

Peter Frampton – “Do You Feel Like We Do?”

For over 20 years, Frampton Comes Alive! was the best selling live album of all time, and “Do You Feel Like We Do?” is its most iconic track. Free of the pop fluff of “Baby, I Love Your Way” or “Show Me The Way”, the nearly 15 minute “Do You Feel Like We Do?” features Frampton’s most virtuosic and exciting use of his trademark talk box. The studio version (did you even know one existed?), with its lethargic tempo and no talk box, shrinks the three-chord jam from 10 to barely more than one minute. It seems a mere technicality compared to the live beast. –Jake Cohen

The National – “Mr. November”

Fans of The National will know this as their famous closer (though “Terrible Love” has rightfully overtaken that spot of late) and it’s the part in the show where Matt Berninger stumbles through the audience with glazed eyes and screams “I won’t fuck us over, I’m Mr. November” with one and all. However, at 2010’s Lollapalooza, Berninger scaled a wall and crouched down to a toddler and gave the crowd the most endearing radio edit you’ve ever heard. I mean, if that doesn’t make your heart melt a bit, you better pray for a girl from Kansas to show up and oil your joints. –Jeremy D. Larson

Blur – “Tender”

Sometimes what makes the live performance of a song a truly special event is the crowd itself. At Blur’s big Glastonbury comeback, the unique rapport between the band and the crowd can be summed up in one word: “Tender.” Not only was Blur back, but Graham Coxon was along for the ride, and a hundred thousand fans expressed their gratitude by shouting along Coxon’s lines at the top of their lungs and enabling the transformation of “Tender” into a nearly-10 minute singalong. This Glastonbury moment elevated the emotions so high for the rest of the evening that Damon Albarn later broke down and cried on-stage, and fans went on to sing en masse “Oh my baby, oh my baby, oh why, oh my” during the encore breaks and on the way back to their tents.  –Frank Mojica

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