Let’s reflect on the concerts that have left an impression, from Billie Holiday to Billie Eilish, five decades after David Bowie’s seminal tour.
Café Society, New York City, early 1939
When Billie Holiday, then 23 years old, started her residency at this liberal New York club in 1939, she was mostly unknown outside of the jazz world. Strange Fruit, a horrifying depiction of lynchings in the south, established a unique new vocal sound famous worldwide with her understated, sweetly implacable debut.
The birth of bebop
Minton’s Playhouse, New York City, 1941
In 1941, rising young originals like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and guitarist Charlie Christian supported themselves through commercial swing gigs, but they forged the revolutionary modern jazz style known as bebop in tumultuous after-hours Harlem jam sessions, where Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke were in the house band.
Buddy Holly and the Crickets
UK tour, March 1958
Before March 1958, Britain had never seen a rock band. Then came the first true rock band — guitar, bass, and drums, a revolution in horn-rimmed specs – for 25 nights in a row. Many future stars would see Buddy Holly on TV during his visit to London, when he appeared on Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
Newport folk festival, Rhode Island, 25 July 1965
At Newport in 1965, a Sunburst Fender Stratocaster stole the show. The crowd was surprised by Dylan’s decision to play an electric guitar on an acoustic bill, with many booing and jeering. Audiences for his world tour were similarly divided, with one enraged heckler shrieking “Judas!” at the erstwhile folk hero in Manchester. It was essentially the genesis of folk rock — the evolution of a genre in real time.
Candlestick Park, San Francisco, 29 August 1966
The Beatles’ final live performance was a dud. The stadium was half-empty, and the band was at their wit’s end, attempting to reproduce the sound of their most recent recordings. However, it signalled a revolution in rock music: no more Beatles concerts meant more time in the studio – and albums that would once again transform everything.
The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream
Alexandra Palace, London, 29 April 1967
The coming-out party for the British counterculture. Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Tomorrow, and the Pretty Things were among the psychedelic luminaries who performed. Yoko Ono did performance art, and the feeling that the audience was as much a part of the show as the artists foreshadowed 80s rave culture.
Cook County jail, 10 September 1970
The blues great King performed in Chicago to an audience of 2,000 prisoners, primarily young and black, two years after Johnny Cash’s visit at Folsom prison. A following live album brought attention to the jail’s poor conditions, assisting in the implementation of prison reform, which became a lifelong goal for King.
Wembley stadium, London, 13 July 1985
Almost every big rock act performed Bob Geldof’s “global jukebox,” which was aired to a billion people and held simultaneously in Wembley and John F Kennedy stadium in Philadelphia. Generating millions for famine relief, it birthed a new generation of legends as Queen and U2’s spectacular performances ushered in the era of the mega rock event – and enshrined the white saviour act.
Blond Ambition tour, April-August 1990
Madonna changed the model for current pop shows with this combination of narrative, dance, high production values, and fashion when touring her fourth album, Like a Prayer. Its impact was cemented by the fact that it was a taboo-busting examination of sexuality and religion: she was almost arrested in Toronto for mimicking masturbation, and Pope John Paul II dubbed it “one of the most satanic shows in the history of humanity.”
Coachella festival, California, 14 April 2018
This magnificent display of artistic and musical creativity upended and decolonized the homogeneous modern festival culture. It revolutionised the festival headline set, drawing on the traditions of historically black colleges and universities, black feminism, and a veneration and sense of restitution for Beyoncé’s black musical forefathers.
American Airlines arena, Miami, 9 March 2020
Eilish debuted the Not My Responsibility video on the opening night of her global tour (which was cut short by the pandemic a few days later), in which she rejected the toxic narrative around her body image. It took a lot of guts for her to accuse her audience and say, “I am not yours.” Eilish’s self-preservation-first interpretation of pop success was epitomised by this pointed separation of church and state, which ruptured the generations-old contract between teen stars and their fans.