Tom Jones & Janis Joplin, “Raise Your Hand” on This is Tom Jones (1969)
I don’t even know where to begin. My heart can barely stand this video. So much going on: Tom Jones’s truly awesome dance moves, his face, Janis fist-pumping as always, her pants, a swingin’ shindig going on all around them. They have great chemistry. I love Janis shaking her little bootie, I love how Tom makes her laugh when he whistles, and I adore the song. And it’s all topped off with the interesting contrast of hippie and Bacharach-style genres meshing somehow perfectly. The whole thing just looks like the most fun in the world, this video is sheer heaven.
Joe Cocker, “With A Little Help From My Friends” at Woodstock (1969)
Whether or not you’ve seen Woodstock, you probably know this performance. Everything about it is iconic: Joe’s sweaty tie-dye shirt, his star boots, his matted hair, his whiny-voiced backup singers, his signature arm movments, and the famous first line that he sings in his gravelly voice: “What wouldja do if I sang out of tune?” This is one of the key performances from Woodstock, and with good reason. Joe gives the song his all, literally screaming out the lyrics in the end. It’s spectacular.
The Mills Brothers, “Caravan” Video (1930s)
The Mills Brothers were this amazing brother act who were insanely talented. They did all of the instrumental parts of their music with their mouths. “Caravan” is one of my favorite songs of theirs, and this is my favorite performance of it. This video is 100% perfect. Besides the guys themselves, the ridiculously great dancing makes my heart happy every time.
Lykke Li, “I’m Good, I’m Gone” Live Performance (2008)
Oh, an obsession, this one. Is there anything more perfect? It’s been nearly five years and I’m still in love with this performance. It was the first time I ever saw lovely little Lykke Li, and she blew my mind with her clear, strong, pretty voice; her spectacular dance moves; the song’s wonderful lyrics, and her perfect hair bun. The whole thing just looks so fun, and I really love the way Lykke sings this version. I will never, ever get tired of watching this.
Billy Preston, “That’s The Way God Planned It” at the Concert for Bangladesh (1972)
There are so many things I love about this performance. I love how happy Billy Preston is to be singing. I love how his hat bobs ferociously. I love his smile. I love how he sings “Billy will love you still”, and you know I love how he gets up and starts shaking his stuff. My love for the rip-roaring organ goes without saying. A powerful song, and a wonderful performance. There’s a reason Billy was called “the fifth Beatle”.
Leo Sayer, “The Show Must Go On” on Musik Laden (1973)
This performance had a huge impact on me. I first saw it on a random DVD, and I felt like I was watching some kind of Paul Thomas Anderson movie. Leo Sayer was standing there dressed like a mime and moving his hands around like a crazy person. The graphics were horrendous. His voice was raspy and determined. I was absolutely captivated, and I’ve loved the song and video ever since.
Jewel, “Angel Standing By” at the MTV Movie Awards (1997)
Jewel’s voice is a phenomenon to me. She can sing like a Botticelli choir cherub one minute, and then at the drop of a hat, she can turn into a room-shaking growler. I’ve always loved this performance because she obviously really wanted to sing it for everyone, and I love the way she does so: flirty eye rolls, stock-still pose as the camera swirls around her, and her signature breathy, drawn-out notes. What a wonderful moment to be in. She looks so completely comfortable inside of her own song, and the audience belongs totally to her.
Santana, “Soul Sacrifice” at Woodstock (1969)
Best…drum solo…ever. Hands down. This song is so full of energy and talent that I don’t blame that hippie girl for staring at Santana open-mouthed. Every time I watch this video, I imagine being that 20-year-old drummer, completely lost in the music in front of 450,000 people. I love when it slows way down and then rips right back into itself. Incredible.
Mick Jagger & Jack White, “Loving Cup” at the Beacon Theatre (2008)
This is the most adorable of my favorite live performances. Jack White, oh. He is just the cutest, most talented thing ever. I am in love with how happy he looks to be onstage performing with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. He looks excited, nervous, and so darn sweet! It makes me happy just watching this video. Definitely one of the greatest things I’ve ever watched in my life.
Nina Simone, “Backlash Blues” at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1976)
Want to hear something flawless? Nina can always deliver. It was hard to choose a performance of hers for this list because they’re always all so fantastic. I ended up choosing “Backlash Blues” because this is one of my favorite songs by her, and I love how she gives shout-outs to Odetta and the Rolling Stones here. She also asks the audience to “give the drummer some”, which is cute, and I’m also into how she mutters “…and Kissinger” in the middle of the song. Oh Nina, you sneaky fox.
Lana del Rey, “Video Games” Live at the Premises (2011)
This was the very first thing I ever saw by Lana del Rey. I was in love with her ten seconds in. Her voice is smoky, her lyrics are cinematic. Despite her recent dubious live performances, I love the girl. I don’t care if people think she’s phony. I don’t care if they think her accent is fake. I don’t care that she changed her name. I don’t care if people think what she’s doing is weird. I. Adore. Her. Music.
The Who, “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967)
To date, I’ve probably seen this performance about two hundred times. As a teenager, I had a huge crush on Pete Townshend, and I played this video over and over and over and over and over until my parents couldn’t take it anymore. I know not only every line, but every movement and gesture that these guys do during this performance. My favorite part of the song comes at 5:08. I still love this entire piece.
The Beatles, “I’ve Got A Feeling” on Apple Studios Rooftop (1969)
My entire introduction to the Beatles was when the Anthology came on TV in 1995. If I’m remembering correctly, they came on TV in episodes for four nights. By the last night, I was totally hooked and decided to videotape the last episode off my blurry TV. I watched it so many times, the tape broke. The Beatles’ rooftop performances happened to be on that last episode, and as a result they represent a time capsule for me.
Beck, “New Pollution” at the MTV Video Awards (1996?)
One of my first loves: crazy little Beck Hansen! When I was in high school, I wasn’t just obsessed with Beck. I lived, ate, slept, and breathed him. I was one of those people. To this day, I still buy all of his albums and remember the words to every song he ever wrote—even the early stuff. I watched any movie, TV show, or interview he was in, and I saw him in concert. I was the definition of a fanatic. And this is my favorite live performance of his. Maybe it’s because of the whip?
Frankie Lymon, “Goody Goody” on The Ed Sullivan Show (1957)
This isn’t actually the Ed Sullivan performance that is my favorite, but it’s close enough. I love all the energy that’s packed into such a short little song, and Frankie’s enthusiasm while singing it. He’s such a little showman! My favorite part is when he yells, “HEY!” and the band kicks in and he starts dancing. Oh yes, and the little driving-mime move.
Johnny Cash, “San Quentin” Live From Prison (1956)
This is most certainly one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Just listen to the lyrics and take in the inmates’ response. This is about as iconic as it gets. Prison inmates hootin’ and hollerin’ because they are absolutely loving JCash singing about something they can relate to? JCash killin it??? Yes. People get mad at me for praising this video, but I still love it. Every time I watch it, I get goosebumps.
Janis Joplin, “Work Me, Lord” at Woodstock (1969)
“Work Me, Lord” is one of my very favorite Janis songs (it’s made me cry before), and I really love this performance even though the editing is odd—sorry, Martin Scorsese. I love how she gets into the horn parts, fist-pumping the air. I just love her. Her face matches the fragility and beauty of such a gorgeous song, and her voice is, of course, just unbelievable.
John Lennon, “John Sinclair” at the Crisler Arena (1971)
They gave him ten for twoooooooooooo! The first place I ever saw this performance was on VH1 when I was a kid, and although I had no idea who John Sinclair was or what the song meant, I thought it was catchy and the footage is burned into my memory.
The Monkees, “Listen To The Band” on 33 1/3… (1969)
Hope you’re ready for some craziness! “Listen to the Band” starts off simply enough, with the Monkees playing a thin (albeit interesting) version of the song. It’s a cool thing to see for those of us who were always faithful that the guys could play their own instruments. The song’s sounding good, and then it just slips into utter madness. The scene turns nightmarish for plenty of reasons, and I highly suggest that you stop watching at the 5:00 mark. All of that said, I do love this performance because of how happy the Monkees look, and the version of the song is actually cool—to me, anyway. I’m not sure who was in on the joke and who wasn’t, but the video is downright strange and even creepy. More reasons to love it.
The White Stripes, Medley at the MTV Movie Awards (2002)
I’ll never forget this, because it was the very first time I ever heard/saw Jack White, who is one of the loves of my life. My friend Enid and I were in her basement watching the 2002 MTV Movie Awards, and all of a sudden the White Stripes appeared. I had never heard of them, but I was amazed with the performance. They had a load of people dressed in red and white come blazing in through the crowd, bursting into dance. It was so high-energy and unexpected that I just couldn’t take my eyes away. And then when I heard Jack White’s voice on “Dead Leaves & the Dirty Ground,” I almost peed myself. I looked at Enid and said, “Who are they?” And Enid, who knows everything about bands that no one has ever heard of, said, “The White Stripes. They’re new.” From then on, I realized that Jack White could do no wrong.
Janis Joplin, “Ball And Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967)
The first time I ever saw this performance, I was completely mesmerized. The song and Janis’s voice were so unique and powerful, and her band was blowing my mind. This was her breakthrough performance. After this, she was a rock star for the rest of her life. I love her little stompy feet and how Mama Cass is just dumbfounded by this wild creature onstage. You can see Cass saying, “That was really heavy stuff,” and everyone agreed. One of the crowning moments of the performance? Janis’s sweet smile as she exits the stage.
Mad Dogs & Englishmen, “The Letter” in Mad Dogs & Englishmen (1971)
The Mad Dog performances are all interesting because of unique circumstances. In the early 1970s, Joe Cocker had a few American tour dates to do, but his band had already gone back to England. So Joe decided to recruit a bunch of his friends to help him perform. The result is a giant touring commune of friends, basically. A giant touring commune that sounds amazing and loves performing together. This performance proves it.
Joss Stone, “Son of a Preacher Man” at the UK Music Hall of Fame (2006)
I’m not a Joss Stone fanatic, but this performance smacked me in the face. Just look at it! Joss making her way through the audience while absolutely killing “Son of a Preacher Man” is brilliant, brilliant. She accomplishes more here than she could with a whole army of dancers behind her. The personal interaction is wonderful, and we get to see her gorgeous legs, too. She looks amazing—so breezy and bright and effortless—and even when she gets a bit out of breath, she still owns that song all the way.
Johnny Cash, “Big River” at the Grand Ole Opry (1962)
Here’s the fabulous…Johnny Caysh! I love how people used to talk. You know anytime Johnny starts the song off using his guitar as a fake gun, it’s gonna be good. Which is pretty much every time. Oh, and it’s also nice if there are guys standing right behind you wearing long bow ties, too. This is one of my favorites not only because it’s one of my favorite JCash songs, but also because Johnny is at his best here—he’s got the song by the horns, he seems happy to be there, and those eyes are certainly doing their job.
The Beatles, “Hey Jude” in The Beatles Anthology (1968)
Another one of my beloved Anthology performances. This one was on the same recorded videocassette as the “I’ve Got a Feeling” rooftop show, and I loved watching it. Let’s face it, you’re staring into Paul McCartney’s eyes. Dreeeeeeaaamy. And although we all know he’s singing to Julian Lennon, it’s almost—almost—like he’s singing straight to you. I love how the performance goes from being pretty minimal with the guys just chillin and playing, to a madhouse of folks all clamoring to be in the shot. While the guys still just sit there, chillin and playing.
Well, there they are: a couple dozen performances that move ’n shake me. I’d love to hear some of your favorites.