Tracing The Rolling Stones’ live concert record like peering into a cross-section of the late-20th century. As one of the most revered British bands of the 1960s, The Stones came to embody not only the pinnacle of rock ‘n’ roll excellence but a burgeoning youth movement in which music played an essential part.
Formed in 1962, The Rolling Stones blended the classic blues sound with a distinctly British outlook. The riffs were just as ecstatic as those of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Cliff, and Buddy Guy, but there was something ever so slightly maudlin about their songcraft. Maybe it was the drizzly British weather.
As the years went by and the Stones became more embedded in the countercultural milieu of the 1960s, they seemed to grow increasingly untethered from their British roots, embarking on extensive tours across America and living as tax exiles in France. But all the while, they continued absorbing the rapidly evolving sound of American culture and filtering it through that same English lens, whether it was R&B, soul, funk, or disco.
Their live shows also reflected the ever-shifting nature of America at this time. Take their 1969 performance at the Altamont Speedway, for example. Just a few months before, the group had held a tribute concert that has the very embodiment of hippiedom. Shortly after, that dream died with the fatal stabbing of a fan who pulled a gun on another audience member.
But, more than anything, The Rolling Stones’ live concert history is a brilliant document of the various changes the band went through during their career: the influences they adopted and jettisoned, the songs that ensured and the ones that didn’t. So, without further ado, here are 10 of the best performances by the immortal Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones’ 10 most memorable concerts:
Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1964
What better place to start than with The Rolling Stones’ first concert in a major venue? Filmed live, in front of an audience of 2,600 screaming teenagers at California’s Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the T.A.M.I show also saw performances by the likes of James Brown, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, and The Supremes – all of whom were flanked by Go-Go dancers choreographed by David Winters.
Following an earth-shattering performance by James Brown, The Stones began ploughing through a setlist that included ‘Time Is On My Side’, ‘I’m Alright’, ‘Around and Around’ and ‘It’s All Over Now’. Those who were there remember being struck by the sheer power of the Stones’ set. Nobody, it seemed, had ever played rock music that loud. In this way, the concert marked a shift in the trajectory of rock ‘n’ roll and established The Rolling Stones as one of the leading groups of The British Invasion.
Hyde Park, 1969
The Stones’ 1969 concert in Hyde Park was tinged with sorrow. It took place just two days after the tragic death of Brian Jones, the band’s former guitarist, who had recently been fired. Not wanting to let down the enormous crowd that had gathered (between 250,000 and 500,00 people are estimated to have attended), The Stones decided that the show should go on.
While a few of The Stones’ more cynical critics noted that the guitars were noticeably out of tune and that Mick Jagger’s voice seemed tired and frail, the event turned out to be an altogether wholesome and celebratory affair. Mick Jagger even read Percy Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ in tribute to Jones, later releasing hundreds of white butterflies into a crowd of fans all clutching lit candles.
Altamont Speedway, 1969
Iconic for all the wrong reasons, The Rolling Stones’ performance at the Altamont Speedway has gone down in history as one of the most controversial live concerts of all time. The free concert featured The Rolling Stones as headliner, with Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and The Grateful Dead also on the bill.
The concert couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. The moment Mick Jagger arrived at the venue, he was punched by a fan. The Grateful Dead later decided to leave before playing because the crowd had become too violent. Then, after The Stones had called for calm numerous times, a fan, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed after pulling out a revolver. And with that, the hippie dream died.
The Marquee Club, 1971
While certainly legendary, the reasons for The Rolling Stones’ 1971 UK tour, their first since 1966, wasn’t exactly romantic. All five members of The Stones had decided to relocate to France, and they needed to leave the UK before the start of the new tax year in April 1971.
The last (unofficial) concert of that tour took place in London’s Marquee Club on March 26th. The band played for a small group of the UK’s rock elite, including Eric Clapton, Ric Grech, Andrew Oldham, and Jimmy Page. A film crew captured The Stones deliver four of the nine tracks from Sticky Fingers as well as tracks such as ‘Live With Me’ from Let It Bleed, which was backed by a new horn section led by Jimmy Price and Bobby Keys.
Madison Square Garden, 1972
The Rolling Stones 1972 North American tour was utter chaos. Shortly after a Canadian fan planted a bomb in their gear, the group arrived at New York’s Madison Square Garden for the three final shows of the tour. With everything that had happened: the ten arrests on the first night, the injured policeman, no wonder they were so relieved to be heading home.
The joyous energy of that final night was further heightened by the fact that it coincided with Mick Jagger’s 29th birthday. In celebration, he was presented with a cake and a furry panda, before starting a pie fight with the audience. Some people never grow up.
Some Girls: Live In Texas, `1978
Wiley regarded as one of the best Rolling Stones concerts of all time, Live In Texas was part of the band’s 1978 US tour in promotion of their album Some Girls. The performance took place in Fort Worth, Texas, on July 18th and attracted some 25,000 fans.
That unforgettable night was all about the music. There were no costume changes, no horn section or backup dancers, just pure, high-grade rock ‘n’ roll performed with ecstatic energy. The high Octane energy of that concert was helped by the fact that Some Girls was already Number One in the US charts by the time they took to the stage. The whole concert was captured on 16mm film and recorded to multitrack tapes, meaning that, although it might be impossible to travel back in time and attend the concert in person, we can get pretty damn close.
The Checkerboard Lounge, 1981
The Rolling Stones’ performance at The Checkerboard lounge in 1981 was a celebration of the blues music that made them. The Chicago club opened in 1972, with Buddy Guy as its first-ever act. Nearly ten years later, on November 22nd, 1981, the venue put on Chicago local Muddy Waters and his band, who were joined by The Rolling Stones, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Lefty Dizz for a night of unstoppable blues.
The Stones ended up joining Muddy onstage during ‘Baby Please Don’t Go,’ after which they performed the likes of ‘Hoochie Coochie Man,’ “Long Distance Call,” and ‘Mannish Boy,’ before a climactic finale of ‘Champagne & Reefer.’ The concert would be the only time The Stones would perform live with Waters, who had been their hero since they were teenagers.
The Tokyo Dome, 1990
Following the release of their 1989 record Steel Wheels, The Rolling Stones embarked on a gargantuan world tour, which marked the band’s return to the stage after eight years of absence. Determined to make it worth the wait, The Stones took their music to all corners of the globe. Kicking off in Philadelphia in 1989, the tour would last 12 months, culminating with a show at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1990.
I would have chosen that homecoming concert, but their 10-night residency at the Tokyo Dome is far more monumental, largely because the shows were the first The Rolling Stones had ever played in Japan, where they’d been popular since the 1960s. The performances attracted swathes of adoring fans who had waited a lifetime to see the group in concert. The final concert was also bassist Bill Wyman’s last performance with The Stones.
Copacabana Beach, 2006
Part of the band’s ‘A Bigger Bang Tour’, Live at Copacabana Beach was one of the biggest free concerts in rock music history. With fans watching on land and on water, over 1.5 million people came out to see The Rolling Stones cross the specially-constructed bridge from the Copacabana Palace Hotel to the stage and deliver one of the most frenetic performances of their career.
With tracks like ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, ‘It’s Only Rock’ n’ Roll (But I Like It)’, ‘Tumbling Dice’, and a beautiful rendition of ‘Wild Horses’, the concert was a testament to The Stones’ ability to play in front of literally a million people and connect with every single one of them.
Better late than never: in 2013, The Rolling Stones made their triumphant Glastonbury Festival debut, performing to a crowd of beleaguered wellie-wearers, who were swiftly sent into a joyful frenzy to the sound of classic tracks like ‘Paint It Black’.
Taking a breather, before jumping into that 1966 track, Jagger said: “I’m going to tell you something, you know it’s great to be here doing this show. You all look amazing; after all these years, they finally got around to asking us. Thank you, Michael [Eavis].” And with that, flares were lit and what seemed like the entire Glastonbury Crowd began swaying in unison. the iconic performance also featured an appearance by former guitarist Mick Taylor who joined the band for an extended rendition of ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking ‘, much to the crowd’s delight.