For rockers and metalheads, one of the standout features of the genre is the live performance of songs we love. Going to concerts and moshing or rocking out to songs is one of the greatest allures of rock and metal music. For some bands, like Iron Maiden, their live performances are what elevate them to being Metal Gods and for many Rock/Metal Songs, their live execution is what makes them become immortal rather than just the studio versions.
This list though, isn't just about great rock/metal bands and songs. This list focuses on performances of songs that have been altered from their regular studio versions or are memorable particularly for their live versions, either in standalone performances or have become a part of the regular tour experience.
1) Megadeth - She Wolf - Rude Awakening live DVD
Let's start off with one of the best examples of what this list is all about. Megadeth aren't really a band that are known for experimenting live too much. Sure you'll have the occasional guitar solo section where the Megadeth lead guitarist at the time is allowed his 15 minutes to shine showing off his skills, but most of the time Megadeth live performances are showcases of how perfectly the band reproduces the intricate songs in their vast discography.
One of the few exceptions for some time was the song She-Wolf. I'll be honest, even though it seems to be a fan favorite, the studio version of the song really doesn't do it for me. The standard thrashy/chuggy E-string riff and the melodic chorus sections are nice but the song overall is just not too memorable for me, not to mention the solo of the song is more about twin-guitar melodies rather than the blazing runs Mustaine and co are known for. I guess Mustaine wanted to inject something more into it too as he extended the solo section back in Woodstock 99 itself, when Friedman was still his six-string partner. However, this version, with Al Pitrelli on guitars is the perfect live version of the song for me.
Not only is the performance extremely tight (the Woodstock version looks like they're all high), the fact that Al has less personality than Marty actually works for the song, with him just doing his parts and not trying to overtly show his take on the song.
First off, the intro is perfect, with Mustaine walking out of the dark to play that intense main riff. The sound is perfectly balanced, with the drums and the bass clearly made out which is key, Pitrelli and Dave Jr also give pretty adequate backing vocals during the chorus.
And then we reach the main event of the song, the instrumental section of the song. In the video embedded, Mustaine kicks it off with his solo section at 2:37, showcasing a nice sustain at the 3 minute point. He then plays a few, choice licks with Dave Ellefson giving a rock-solid bass line underneath (so key to live performances) as Mustaine builds up to a play-off between both guitarists at 3:45 as they first trade guitar solos, then combine for some wicked twin guitar licks starting from 4:18. The dual bends in this section moan beautifully and the vibratos are perfectly in sync.
The way the twin guitars keep increasing from here in intensity and speed is perfect (one of the licks used became the main riff for a future song, Washington is Next), and what makes it extra special is that pause right at the breaking point at 5:26, like a sudden stop to a raging tornado; The echo of the guitar reverb as Mustaine briefly surveys a crowd gone crazy with ecstasy is a perfect candid moment, this just before he launches into another twin guitar section with Al and then suddenly breaks off at 5:49 for the rarest of things in a Megadeth concert, an extended drum solo section by Jimmy DeGrasso which goes on for nearly a whopping two minutes till 7:27 as the band all come back together to finish the song off in perfection.
What was once a standard 3 and a half minute Thrash song becomes a bonafide metal epic with this performance, showcasing everything perfect about Megadeth - the snarling vocals, the interplay between ferocity and melody, the intense guitars and solid rhythm section. It may have not ended up being their farewell, but what a way to go if it had been.
2) Metallica - Creeping Death - Monsters of Rock '91
And from the mechanical precision of Megadeth, we go to the Charismatic Showmanship of probably the biggest Metal band in History (Note - Biggest, not necessarily Best) - Metallica. Right from the get go, Hetfield and co realised that having a great live show was part and parcel of greatness, and they have had many iconic songs over the years that are almost tailor made to have audience interaction in them.
However the song that most stands out for me as a live attraction, and will probably leave the largest mark in terms of live metal performance impact is probably the most quintessential song of Early 80's Metallica.
Creeping Death is one of the most in-your-face yet catchy-as-heck songs ever written, period. It also represents exactly what Metallica were bringing to the metal game at that point of time, a faster, more precise and more dangerous brand of heavy metal.
I chose this particular performance of the song, the Monsters of Rock performance because
(a) The early 90s incarnation of Metallica are the best to listen live to. They had truly developed their chunky, crushing sound by then, each band member completely at the height of their individual powers.
Lars' kit literally pounded your head in, Kirk was still blazing fast and his errors weren't as frequent, Hetfield's voice had matured to its commanding best and with all due respect to Cliff, Jason was the best live bassist they've had as what Jason lacked in songwriting ability he made up for in sheer energy and exuberance, not to mention his backing vocals were perfect for Metallica.
(b) It's literally the largest metal concert ever, with the largest audience for a metal band performing with over 1 and a Half Million people in attendance. I realize 'Tallica weren't the only ones performing but the crowd by and large came for them.
Metallica had already whipped the crowd to a frenzy with Enter Sandman, when Hetfield rolled out 'Creeping Death' (after a sinister laugh at 0:04 in the video) and proceeded to the pummeling intro riff. Such a simple riff in terms of its chords, but those quadruple low end chugs just before each Chord, the accompanying octave chords in the repeat, with the drums pounding along with the bass in unison perfectly introduced Metallica's brand of thrash heaviness to the world.
Then the pause as Hetfield laughs again and launches into the now world-famous Creeping Death Main riff, that snarling roar of a simplistic E chord strummed to precision riff followed by the quick lick after it, it literally sounds like a lion snarling and charging at you as the crowd and the band joins in as Hetfield shouts 'Come on'.
Hetfield's voice is in perfect military bark as he shouts out his lyrics describing the 9 plagues descending down on Egypt. As the song quickly moves to Kirk's solo at 2:52, Metallica have set the crowd up perfectly for what comes next.
Say what you will of Kirk's limited ability, this solo showcases why he got his ripper nickname to perfection. He first starts off slashing a progression up the guitar sounding like he's cutting a swath through the pharaoh's soldiers, then moves onto some lightning quick, though admittedly messy picked sweeps. Even his oft-criticized shrilly vibrato fits in perfectly with the motif of the song here. The progression he does at 3:12 literally brings to mind a swarm of locusts descending down on you and in a moment of compositional brilliance, he moves from rapid fire shredding to a wonderful melodic line at 3:21 which builds up to a crescendo of Three note licks. And THEN.
Like. Literally. HITS.
It's key to listen to the solo preceding this section to truly understand the weight and significance of this moment. We'd just been through the rapid fire of a breakneck thrash song about the Biblical plagues and a blazing guitar solo when we literally hit a full stop.
As Hetfield pick scrapes across his guitar and Jason Newsted contorts like he's suffering a seizure we suddenly hit the Mother of all Breakdowns. Now, what is a Breakdown? To put it simply, a breakdown is when the tempo of the song is suddenly shifted and the riff as well as the whole shape of the song is literally 'broken down'. Creeping Death may not have had the first Breakdown in Metal music (That could go to Black Sabbath's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath), but it was definitely the first to have such a profound impact on how a song can change its atmosphere and be used to influence the audience live.
The riff that makes the breakdown is epic and completely stands out due to its marching, thudding heaviness as opposed to the lightning fast running prior to it. As the drums keep pounding out the beat and the guitars die down to let the bass groove to the drums, the atmosphere becomes almost Tribal in feel. THIS is why Metal connects so well to a primal part of ourselves, showcased to perfection. You can literally feel the swaying of the bodies as the people scream to the pounding of the drums. And as Hetfield steps up and asks the crowd to scream 'Die' in unison to the drum beat, you can literally feel the power normally reserved to cults of personalities like a Hitler or a Napoleon. I don't know whose idea it was to incorporate this section into the song, especially since I can imagine it being incredibly tiring for Lars to keep it up, especially as long as he does in this vid, but kudos to whoever it was, because it highlights just how much power Metallica had and to an extent still have.
Even as you think the crowd might lose stamina, Hetfield and co start up again joining the crowd and seguing the section back to the main riff with perfection. Jason singing the final verse in his punkish scream is the icing on the cake to show off the complete arsenal of Metallica's guns. And as James and Kirk join up together to finish off the song with their dual guitars, the band is in perfect sync as they hammer out the opening riff again to close off the song in epic fashion. Perfect.
3) Whitesnake - Still of the Night - Live in the Still of the Night
From one side of the 80's metal scene to its polar opposite, from Thrash to Glam, we move to one of the quintessential Glam Metal bands, Whitesnake. This song, is one of my favorite songs ever, period. Even the studio version itself is glam metal perfection (with one of the most perfectly 80s videos ever to accompany it), which makes it even more impressive that this live performance stands out to me. More often than not, when a song hits the zenith of perfection I find the live performances fall short. Unless you're talking about rare performances like this one.
Forget the fact that this doesn't have the great John Sykes on it (More on that later), forget that it's Whitesnake trying to recapture former glories, sure its a 21st century incarnation of the band, but Coverdale's voice still hits those ridiculous high pitches though admittedly it has lost its raw power.
Still of the Night for me, like I've mentioned to certain people before, is sex in song form (albeit a raunchy 80s version of sex) for me, a song that screams out carnal pleasure and they capture it perfectly here.
First that intro, that perfectly glam metal intro. As Coverdale and the crowd sing back and forth, you can literally feel the guitars screaming that awesome Led Zepp influenced lick out. As the song moves from its stop-start intro onto that awesome chug of a main riff, Coverdale belts out more lyrics on 'making love and feeling body heat'. Again, forget the aging face singing it, focus on the young men who wrote it initially. And then after another quick raunch of the verse, we move into the most epic of Glam metal breakdowns ever conceived. Up till this moment, the song is still more or less true to form. Up till this moment, we're in familiar territory.
Then as Coverdale does his vocal range defying scream at 1:56, and the synth and bass kick in, you realize there's something special at work. Reb Beach's subtle guitar volume swells like a violin as the synth and bass plant a foundation for Doug Aldrich's guitar to let out a low scream. Then as the clean guitar plucks in and Coverdale moans and screams like a dog in heat, we move into *that* riff, that orchestral riff at 3:17. Hips automatically sway and heads shake from side to side as Reb Beach adds an even more ethereal input with his higher octave dual riffing, and then 3:55 hits as we move into that HUGE John Sykes riff that forms the base for the rapid fire pentatonic solo and we move back into the verse riff right after. As the song reached its end, every instrument, both vocal and otherwise, band and audience alike, all join together in unison to sing 'In the Still of the Night' as the song reaches it conclusion. Bravo Coverdale, a brilliant orchestral version of the raunchiest epic ever written in Rock history.
4) John Sykes - Still of the Night - Live in LA 1995
Ok, Yes I'm kinda cheating, lol. I'm actually putting two spots on my list for 1 song. But hear me out, I have a very good reason for this. Yes, I already said I love this song, but that isn't why. As I've said earlier, Still of the Night is sex in song form for me. Everything from the intro to the chorus to the groove of it all, from the breakdown in the middle to its buildup to the violin riff and the intense solo after, to its screaming outro, Still of the Night is sex in song form. The previous entry to this list is Whitesnake, aka David Coverdale's perfect version of it. It's the 'orchestral', stadium rock version of the perfect Still of the Night song.
However, in a bid to make it more epic and feely, I feel Coverdale's version kind off eschewed that raw, dirty appeal the song had too, one with minimal instruments and more instrumental feel. And THAT is why this version of the song appears here. Because it appeals more to the guitarist in me, and the instrumental parts are given more focus as opposed to the vocals.
For those who don't know, Still of the Night was one of the songs both Coverdale and Sykes wrote together and so both of them are free to perform it in the way they wish to live.
First, let's get this out of the way, Sykes is a pretty good rock vocalist but he's no Coverdale. However, he doesn't try to be, and prefers to go for a laidback approach to the vocals as opposed to the range and power of David Coverdale. Once you get over that, you can feel his sleazier, cooler sly approach.
That apart, let's move ahead to the part of the song that truly marks it out as unique, and yes, it's the breakdown. Sykes' band hits it around the 2 minute mark.
And that bass. Marco Mendoza might have been poached by Coverdale later on (he's the bassist playing in the previous entry too) but he was never given as much space to move in as he was here. While still keeping the foundation steady, he manages to get some of the most delicious bass licks around into that bass solo section. Sykes doesn't distract from the focus on the bass and just provides some ample clean guitar picking so that we get into the unbelievable groove Marco plays all on our own. But then, this IS John Sykes' solo band, and so the guitar must be given the highlight.
And when he does come in, at 3:08, HOLY HECK!! This man is credited with having one of the sexiest, if not THE sexiest, vibrato in all of rock guitar history and with that monster of a tone, he completely showcases it here. Sykes may be called a Gary Moore clone by some, but with all due respect to Gary, Sykes' vibrato is in a class of its own. Sykes' extended solo lasts for a minute or so...I think. I say, I think because I can never really time it when I hear the solo, it seems to be too brief while lasting an eternity at the same time. Such beauty and raw power, it feels like I float on a cloud of tightly wound notes whenever I hear his guitar sing. My video player does say that the solo ends and shifts to the violin riff at 4:48 so do the math if you wish, but its ethereal impact is timeless for me. Sykes makes up for the lack of a secondary guitar with some nice delay and echo effects as he builds up to *his* solo, and finishes off the song in the true extended outro, another thing which Coverdale 'borrowed' from him and implemented into his version.
So yes, I admit, this entry was purely motivated by its impact on me as a guitarist and as a lover of Sykes' playing, but hey, it's my list. So there!
5) Machine Head - Halo - Sonisphere Knebworth 2009
The most recent entry on the list, and in my honest opinion, the best live metal performance of the entire 21st century so far. Machine Head were starting to get a lot of positive reviews from the metal community around the end of the last decade, with the promising release of Through the Ashes of the Empire, but I wasn't about to jump on that bandwagon because I was at a stage where I positively hated anything connected with Nu-metal (as opposed to just merely annoyed with it now), and the majority of their output, not counting Davidian and Old, that I had heard was very much nu-metal.
Even when The Blackening was released and got rave reviews, I was hard pressed to try their stuff out.
That was, until I came across this video. Now, every new band that has a vocalist/guitarist and dabbles with a bit of thrash metal always gets branded the new Metallica, ala Trivium, but until I saw this vid, I never really took any of it seriously.
Let's get this out of the way first, I'm not too big a fan of the whole NWOAHM movement, the movement that includes such Industry heavyweights like Slipknot and Lamb of God. I get the groove and heaviness behind the music, but it seems too samey and heavy for the sake of heavy at times for me. Metallica, Megadeth et al were heavy sure, but they had engaging song structures that weren't just built around making everyone mosh as much as possible. Imagine when I first heard MachineHead circa 2009 and they took the best of both worlds and somehow managed to fuse them together in their landmark album The Blackening.
Halo is not a typical song of the album though, in fact it's the closest the album comes to a slow number. Halo is the closest Machine Head has come to a proper melodic power ballad, but that should give you an idea of how heavy that album was.
Now, this performance is not really perfect in that there were a few errors sprinkled here and there, most notably in the guitar parts, and the live performance doesn't really stray too much from the actual studio version in terms of song structure.
The reason this performance makes this list is for one reason and one reason only. Rob f'in Flynn.
If anything, the reputation of Rob Flynn as bandleader and as a new-age James Hetfield were totally justified in this performance alone, as he leads not only his band in cohesion, but the entire crowd to not only sing along, but directs them when to mosh and when to shout, bringing them all into the fold and sharing his obvious love for the music with everyone present.
Observe as he introduces the song, and MachineHead's now trademark guitar harmonics slide the song in. As the bass and drums build up the tension, the entire crowd claps along to the beat as Rob urges them on. And when that main riff hits at 1:11 (RIP Skirt girl in the vid), the entire crowd goes wild, circle moshing and crowd surfing. Note the crowd singing along to every word, which just becomes more epic as the chorus hits in. The dual guitar beneath the chorus is another genius touch to the song. At 3:45 as the song seems to start from scratch again (just love that sound his guitar does at 3:55 as if its a monster waking from the depths) he once again gets the entire crowd to participate. 2009 and an entire sold out crowd clapping their hands together for a metal song. And what a jackhammer of a riff at the apex of that build up, not to mention the slowdown again which lurches towards the best melodic thrash solo I've heard in a long, long time. Not since Fade to Black have I seen a melodic solo have the moshing effect this song has on the audience, and Holy HECK the goosebumps at 6:35 as Rob and Phil Demmel stood shoulder to shoulder, pushing the boundaries of manly cheesiness as they played that epic dual guitar melody. And that moment from 7:00 to 7:20 that only serves to set up that hair-raising part at 7:30 where the ENTIRE Knebworth crowd sings the chorus as the band play the music and Rob is overcome by musical emotion. Then the buildup to epic heaviness in a short few seconds and to finish off in a show of a band in its cohesive prime only serve to underline Machine Head's complete control over the crowd.
The 'Head may have fallen short of becoming the new Metallica, though they do remain one of the leaders of the current metal scene, but for a brief few years, they gave hope that a fallen band could rise from the ashes to deliver quality metal, and that helped solidify the ongoing re-emergence of metal from the underground at the time.