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My Top 5 Greatest Live Song Performances From Musicians Who Are No Longer With Us

Late one night I was enjoying searching through YouTube watching some past live performances of musicians that have since passed on. I noticed a lot of the videos I found weren’t of very good quality and didn’t really capture the essence of that moment enough but that’s not to say they aren’t out there, I just had to dig a little bit to find them. Once I found one that was filmed properly and with good recording equipment, it felt like YouTube was my time portal, transporting me into a moment in time with one of the best seats in the house. Of course it isn’t, but it is all we have for now, so I thought to myself, “It would be a shame if people who are fans of this artist, never got to see performance or even if they have never seen this artist, this is the live performance that will make them understand why they were truly considered great.”

So I figured why not put together a Top 5 list of those iconic moments to share amongst ourselves? The only criteria is that obviously the artist has to be dead, and it has to be from only a single song from that live performance. Include a link to that video for all to see and we can all get a chance to see some legendary performances that may have otherwise gone unseen. If you’re having trouble picking a video, just imagine an Alien beamed down from space and asked you to show them 1 live performance that defined that artist to you. Feel free to share in the comments section and to start it off here is my Top 5 Live Song Performances From Musicians Who Are No Longer With Us.

#5 Bob Dylan – Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, Newport Folk Festival. 1964

So I’m starting off this Top 5 list by cheating. Yes I know Bob Dylan is still alive and I have potentially ruined this entire list, however I would like to make the argument that Bob Dylan’s style has evolved so much over the years that this version of Dylan has been dead for decades and is never coming back (also, depending on how much of a conspiracy theorist you are, you might believe that Dylan was killed by the CIA back in the 60’s and replaced by a look a like.) This to me, is what Bob Dylan truly is. A brave, masterful musician/lyrists, folk singer, who was able to go up on this big of a stage with only a guitar, harmonica, and his controversial voice, and play one of the most beautiful songs ever written. It’s so good that Hunter S. Thompson requested that when he died and was cremated, that his ashes were to be shot out of a cannon to this song. To me, this video of Bob Dylan not only captures his essence and voice at it’s prime, but it also shows Dylan as he was starting to become a huge world renown star. His world renowned “Giving 0 fucks” attitude is particularly evident as he looks so calm while getting ready for the song in the beginning of the video. It’s also a great recording that shows multiple angles of this performance which makes it a lot more enjoyable to watch. This is Bob Dylan in all his glory in my opinion and one of the best live versions of one of the best songs in the history of music.

#4 Bob Marley & The Wailers War / No More Trouble – Dortmund Germany 1980

Yes I know 2 Bob’s in a row but enough can’t be said about this live performance of the song War in all places… Germany. Bob seems to be particularly aware that this song would resonate astoundingly well in the place that has seen 2 World Wars, a holocaust, and communist oppression, all in only a 40 year timespan. Bob really unleashes his peaceful spirit in full force, with his dreadlocks fiercely swinging around his head, and his voice wailing at full Rastafari force. Bob unleashed a powerful performance that night which surely left the crowd in awe of his legendary performance skills. You’d have to be blind not to see the passion that he exerts in every note that he sings, with his voice on the verge crackling out any second due to the sheer force of his effort. I particularly love the close ups of this video and the fact that this is probably one of the most fitting places ever to deliver this song.

#3 Stevie Ray Vaughn – Lenny, Toronto 1983

This is quite possibly one of the most beautiful guitar songs ever written played by one of the most talented axe shredders in guitar history. It’s starts as very slow and methodic, then Vaughn erupts into a series of howling, goose bump creating blues riffs that leaves you in absolute awe that this guy can shred to that degree. To top it off, the recording has great clear shots of not only him playing the fretboard so you can see that this isn’t some sort of voodoo magic, but it also zooms in on his face where you can plainly see, he is putting his entire being into playing this song. Coolest part is definitely watching him finish smoking a cigarette with it aimed down, drenched in sweat, mid shred, completely entranced in the song and somehow the ash stays intact! Without a doubt one of the greatest live performances on an electric guitar that everyone should watch at least once in their life.

#2 Nirvana – MTV Unplugged, New York 1993

I know I know, this performance doesn’t necessarily capture the “essence” of Nirvana. But there does need to be some context to be laid forth. Before this incredible performance, the band had never done an acoustic performance. Sticking mostly to raging and wild grunge rock shows. So it was particularly shocking to see that Nirvana even wanted to participate in MTV’s Unplugged series. They absolutely crushed it to rave reviews and demonstrated a side of them that no one saw coming. In effect, it elevated their musician status well and above a simple grunge band, and the masses were really starting to understand the generational talent that was Kurt Cobain. Although you need to watch this entire concert in its entirety, the one song that sticks out for me is “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” by Leadbelly. I mean come one who doesn’t like a song that starts out with the lead singer saying “Fuck you this is our last song for the night” and proceeds to crush a cover of an old school blues song? My favorite part is towards the end at the 4:50 mark, where Cobain is belting out the final chorus. He pauses, opens his eyes and it looks like he just realized how deep of a musical trance he was in, regroups, and caps off the song with his signature sound of harmony and boiling nails. Definitely not a typical Nirvana song, but for sure a legendary performance and unfortunately the last we would have seen from this once in a lifetime band. Also quick side note, in the beginning of the video Kurt is talking about someone from the Leadbelly estate reaching out to him to buy Leadbelly’s original guitar for $500,000. Kurt’s seems shocked that a guitar would be worth that much. Little did he know that the exact same guitar he was playing that night, would sell for over $1,000,000 27 years later.

#1 The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Purple Haze, Berkeley California 1970

Sorry it’s not Jimi burning the guitar at the Monterey Pop Music Festival, nor is it the Star Spangled banner at Woodstock, it is Jimi playing Purple Haze at Berkeley. I particularly love this version as it has such a clear and unwavering shot of him taking shred to a whole new level on his signature white Stratocaster. In this performance he pulls out all of the tricks. The tongue licking riff, the cobra dance/banging the guitar, and the infamous playing guitar with his teeth. I particularly love at the 2:30 mark where he belts the last Purple Haze chorus unusually strong and full of energy. I have never seen him do that in such a strong way and my theory is that since this was 4 months before his death, he must’ve played this song so many times that he had it absolutely mastered it and stripped it void of any fat. I love that in this 3 minute clip, you can truly get a sense of just how much of a force he really was and this was AFTER the aforementioned legendary moments. If only we would could have had him for a few more years, I’m sure we would have many more moments from this timeless musician.

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