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The 25 Best Rock Acts with Unique Setlists

on August 22, 2016, 12:00am

05. Phish

phish paul r giunta jazzfest 001 The 25 Best Rock Acts with Unique Setlists

Photo by Paul R. Giunta

Following in the footsteps of the Dead, Phish are a great current example of what it means to change things up on a nightly basis. In fact, there are whole websites devoted to sharing and discussing Phish setlists, with their current tour featuring well over 100 different songs spread across just 25 shows. These aren’t just originals that the jam band is spreading out over their set. This year alone, Phish has covered songs from The Beatles, TV on the Radio, The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, and Stevie Wonder, just to name a few. Phish has even been known to cover whole albums as a Halloween tradition, creating unforgettable one-offs. –Philip Cosores

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04. Jack White

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Photo by Amanda Koellner

Jack White may (or may not) have 99 problems, but covering artists from any genre and/or decade isn’t one. During his 2014 tour in support of Lazaretto, White kept each performance fresh and headline-worthy by sprinkling in favored songs from his past as part of The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, and/or The Raconteurs (depending on the set) — but he didn’t stop there. He continued to switch up his setlist night after night by covering anyone and everyone from Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Metallica to Jay Z and Kanye West.

At a show in Paris, he worked six covers/mashups into his set, fusing “Seven Nation Army” with Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and “Steady as She Goes” with The Police’s “Message in a Bottle”. White’s tour ensured that every night, there would be something different and unique to that show, because let’s face it: Who doesn’t want bragging rights about what setlist they were awarded with? Even though there’s no real competition, White’s 33-song, three-hour set in Chicago was clearly his best, in my unbiased opinion. –Lyndsey Havens

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03. Radiohead

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Photo by Nate Slevin

“One of the worst things in music is when bands play the same set every night,” Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien told New York Magazine while on tour for In Rainbows. It’s a statement that encapsulates the band’s attitude toward touring. The beauty of seeing Radiohead on tour is that not only will you get to hear staple selections and tracks off their latest album, but usually you’ll also be treated to some deep cuts from the band’s ever-expanding discography.

Six crowds during Radiohead’s 2012 North American tour were lucky enough to hear the Amnesiac-era track “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy”. That tour ultimately featured 53 different songs played in varying combinations. Radiohead’s willingness to revisit and re-imagine songs into fresh live incarnations is also noteworthy, as evidenced by the vastly different-sounding versions of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and “Nude” played on their In Rainbows tour. If playing the same set night after night is one of the worst things in music, then what Radiohead does live is, unsurprisingly, the opposite. –Zack Ruskin

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02. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Bruce Springsteen

Part of the appeal of a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tour stop isn’t just the heroic length of the concert, but also the freedom that that length gives them.

Besides staples like “Born to Run” and “Badlands”, Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, Max Weinberg, Patti Scialfa, and the rest of the band wade deep into 45 years’ worth of original Springsteen material, not to mention covers. Hell, over the course of last year’s relatively brief High Hopes Tour, the band played 17 out of 20 possible songs from 1980’s The River, an album that had only two songs reach The Hot 100 (“Hungry Heart” and “Fade Away”).

As showers of “Bruuuce!” continue to rain down in venues around the world, it’s no wonder The Boss keeps his archival inventory stocked with newly packaged live albums. There’s ample variation between the shows, which, across three or four hours, reflect the whimsicality of his liveliest studio recordings. –Michael Madden

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01. Pearl Jam

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Photo by David Brendan Hall

There’s no competition when it comes to Pearl Jam. See them 2,000 miles away, 200 miles away, or in the same venue on a different night, and you’re going to get a totally unique set. That’s just the beauty of the Seattle veterans, and it’s a hallmark of theirs that they’ve maintained for over two decades. Hell, last year alone, they worked with over 160 songs and only had 32 dates to their name. Even better, three of their five top-played songs — “Lightning Bolt”, “Mind Your Manners”, and “Sirens” — were stripped right off their last record, 2013’s Lightning Bolt, keeping things relatively fresh and new.

In a 2013 interview, guitarist Stone Gossard explained the band’s rationale when it comes to setlists, saying: “That’s maybe the best thing about having all these songs. Some of the ones you thought, ‘Oh, I wrote this song and nobody really liked it,’ and then 15 years later it’s like ‘Ah! It’s a fan favorite!’ You end up having these revivals for these songs. I know the band really enjoys that.” The fans do, too, which is why they’ve always been so adamant about attending each and every set, sort of like a next generation of Deadheads.

Similarly, they’re also savvy bootleggers, which is why so many Pearl Jam shows happen to be logged online today. In fact, this culture is so expansive and dedicated that they inspired the band to issue their own official bootlegs, which have sold over 3.5 million copies since they started the program in 2000. One might say it’s a good way for the band to keep setting up hurdles for them to jump — and they most certainly have. Since then, they’ve curated their own festival, played a fan’s dream setlist, drank wine from one of their fan’s shoes, and played full albums front to back without any prior announcement.

“Life moves fast,” Eddie Vedder once said. “As much as you can learn from your history, you have to move forward.” Pearl Jam does both with ease. Whether they’re playing deep cuts off Vs., previewing a new song, or attempting an Idina Menzel cover, the band always deliver with the utmost respect, reverence, and confidence. So, until they bottle up their wine and call it a day, they’re the band to beat both on paper and on stage. Good riddance. –Michael Roffman

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