Any list of the greatest live performers in music today rightfully begins with the legends — the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, U2, Neil Young, and my vote for the greatest live performer of all time, Bruce Springsteen. And it’s understandable, they have iconic catalogs and, more importantly, decades of experience performing.
But if you take the legends off that list who are the greatest live performers in the world today? Watching John Mayer’s brilliant opening night performance at L.A.s’ Forum this week, the first of his three sold out shows, I realized Mayer might be at the very top of that list.
So I started to think about who are the greatest live performers of the past 30 years. The only criteria for being included in this discussion is an artist’s debut album has to be released in 1992 or after.
I have been fortunate to see every major artist who fits that criteria. So thinking about who is number one it’s almost impossible to select one between three iconic acts — Mayer, Eminem and Beyonce. Each has their own unique skill that distinguishes them as a truly great performer. That is the case for every artist that makes this list.
So, here ranked in tiers like in Fantasy Football rankings, are the greatest live artists to emerge post 1992 and why they are can’t miss in concert (Linkin Park, if still active, would have absolutely made the list. Also Portishead, while still together, don’t tour enough, or they would have been on the list. Finally keeping strictly to the 1992 or later, Alanis Morissette, who would have been on as well, is ineligible since her first album came out 1991).
Thinking last night about how to write about Mayer and what consistently makes his shows so special I had a thought. If John Mayer was a character in a music movie the script writers would be ridiculed for making a musician so unreal. Think about it: here is a guy with the ability to write hit pop songs that both top the charts and win awards (“Daughters” won the Grammy for Song Of The Year in 2005), he has matinee idol good looks, he is funny enough to host his own talk show and, oh, by the way, a gifted enough guitarist and passionate enough music fan to have played with the likes of Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Eric Clapton. Yet, Mayer is real. And when you see him in concert, he puts all of that together just as he did at the Forum last Sunday. You get a performer who delivers an incendiary guitar solo like the one he does in “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” and can riff hilariously on a sign that reads “W.O.B.M. Who Love John Mayer,” which turns out to have meant wives of bald men who love John Mayer, and you have a hell of a fun night. But the greatest thing about Mayer live besides the superior musicianship is his authenticity. At one point during the show Sunday he thanked the crowd, with a heartfelt speech, for allowing him to have his career in music. That is a win-win for all involved.
If every great performer has that one trait that separates them from their peers, Eminem’s is also easily spotted. It was on display at the Super Bowl halftime show. And it can be found in the opening lyrics to the Oscar-winning “Lose Yourself. “Look, if you had one shot or one opportunity/To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment/Would you capture it or just let it slip?” What is amazing about Eminem is that despite being arguably the biggest rock star of the twenty-first century he still approaches every single show as if he is an unproven artist fighting for his first contract. His intensity and ferocity on stage are unmatched, making every show absolutely riveting.
Beyonce’s defining trait — star power. As Beyonce showed at her legendary Coachella performance, when she is on stage the whole world is fixated on her. She has the kind of generational star power of a Mick Jagger or Prince. Combine that with her renowned perfectionism and ambition and you have the unquestioned pop star of her generation.
Fun. That is what every Foo Fighters show starts with. For the last three decades the Dave Grohl-fronted band has been the most joyous rock and roll party on the planet. From Bee Gees and Queen covers to rock star cameos, the Foos know how to throw a party second to none.
Florence + The Machine
To know what makes Florence and her Machine one of the best live bands in the world just watch a video of them performing “Dog Days Are Over.” Exuberant and passionate, their live rendition, where the crowd jumps along as Welch exhorts them on, is as exhilarating as any in music right now. And they keep that zealousness and vibrancy going throughout their whole can’t miss show.
There used to be a saying when there were such things as phone books that James Earl Jones could read the phone book and make it interesting. Well, in the contemporary version, the exquisite voice of Apple could sing a Reddit thread and make it gorgeous. Quite simply her intense and beautiful vocals make every performance magical.
Featuring maybe the best songwriting of any band in this century, The National have translated that incredible diversity in songs that range from the gorgeous “Slow Show” and “Pink Rabbits” to the ferocious “Mr. November” and “Bloodbuzz Ohio” into a stellar live show, one that takes concertgoers on an incredible journey from start to finish.
A member of both the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame, Jay-Z is cemented in music as an all-time great. And you see that success translate into a swagger and bravado every time he takes the stage. He knows fans expect greatness when they come to see him. And he delivers.
Rocky is one of the most personable people you will ever meet, able to work with everyone from Mercedes to Guess and fit right in. And he brings that same charisma to the stage, combined with his passion for music and the fervent energy of old punk rock shows like Blackflag and Circle Jerks.
Like Apple, Carlile is gifted with one of the most compelling and magnificent live voices you will ever see. And onstage she bridges those vocals with the laidback ease and relaxed candor of a natural emcee. The result is always an evening of pure joy.
Rage Against The Machine
Rage guitarist Tom Morello has played with some incredible lead singers, including Chris Cornell, Springsteen and Chuck D. But he has said on multiple occasions Rage frontman Zack de la Rocha is the best frontman he has played with. It’s easy to see why. When the four members of Rage come together there is the potential of a musical explosion every tine that propels the foursome to greatness.
Adele might be blessed with the best voice in music since Aretha Franklin. That alone is enough to have her on this list. But what she does so brilliantly is not just rely on her impeccable voice. She is a master entertainer, making the crowd feel as if she is one of them despite being maybe the biggest superstar in the world today. So when you see Adele not only will you be blown away musically, you will be damn entertained and laugh quite a bit in between the musical highlights.
Swifties swear by their hero’s superb songwriting, likability and top of the line production as to why her shows are so compelling. All of that is indeed there. And so is, just as importantly, the feeling of being relatable. Like Adele, Swift makes her fans feel she is one of them, despite being a megastar. And that ease translates to her live shows.
Dave Matthews Band
One of the biggest touring bands not just of the last 30 years, but the rock era, DMB, as they are known, show why night after night. Blend a band with virtuoso musicianship and the ability to craft accessible, friendly songs and you have DMB and a fiercely loyal audience.
Philadelphia’s The Roots are now known to many for being the house band for years on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. But music devotees know the band got that gig by being one of the best live bands on the planet. Whether it’s their annual picnic or their legendary Grammy week jam sessions, The Roots have become the band of choice for the best musicians today. One show will prove why.