The 30 Best Live Versions of Songs, Vol. II

From Arcade Fire to Dre, OutKast to Radiohead -- you're gonna like what you experience.


Photo by Robert Altman

We had an idea going into our first installment of The 30 Best Live Versions of Songs that no one list could cover the topic. Simply put, there are just too many amazing performers, too many songs that thrive in community to not give credit to another batch. Concerts are intensely personal things, and new discoveries or YouTube clips of old favorites can snap into a place of reverence rather quickly. But, as we argued in our first list, these aren’t merely happy memories.

For our second volume, we again paid special attention to songs that excel live inf ways that maybe they couldn’t on record. Songs that produce moments of union, between performer and audience, or between two strangers standing next to each in a dark venue. Of course, the videos in this list won’t match the power of actually attending any of these shows, but the life still crackles through, bringing you as close as you can get without a Delorean.

So, click through and relive 30 more breathtaking live moments.

“Kiss Off”

Violent Femmes

“Kiss Off”, Gordon Gano’s angst-ridden tribute to lost love, was always a runaway train in the live setting, its folk rock rungs receiving an angry punk makeover. “You can all just kiss off into the air/ Behind my back I can see them stare,” he sings, the song’s tempo spiraling out of control into a furious, post-breakup tizzy. Who knew people could slamdance to a melody built on barely amplified acoustic guitars? –Dean Essner

“Pursuit of Happiness” (Kid Cudi feat. Ratatat cover version)


American folk rocker Lissie (real name Elisabeth Corrin Maurus) impressed live attendees and YouTubers alike by closing her set at Brighton’s Great Escape Festival with a tequila-soaked rendition of Kid Cudi’s most well-known track. The energized fervor Lissie pours into her gripping performance helps the solemn tune find a new emotional richness that stands in contrast to Cudi’s more sullen approach to the song. The grainy melodies and high-flying guitar solo also depart from Ratatat’s more polished original production, leaving fans with a beer hall jam that’s equal parts triumph and inspiration. –Dan Pfleegor

“Common People”


During their co-headlining performance at Reading, Jarvis Cocker introduced “Common People” by revealing, “if Pulp were only remembered for this song, I don’t care. It’s a good song.” It’s a refreshingly healthy attitude towards one’s biggest hit and completely understandable. Cocker and his sleazed hyper-showmanship know exactly how to ignite the desire for the cathartic act of singing along with the common people, because Pulp’s anthemic tale of class tourism inspires festival-stealing bedlam wherever it goes. –Frank Mojica

“Remade Horizon”

Dirty Projectors

Before seeing it in person, the ping-ponging vocals (or, as it’s properly called, hocketing) that have come to be an important element of the Dirty Projectors sound were a bit of beautiful magic. And seeing it happen takes away none of the mystery; the fluid precision with which Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle interlock their voices is a mesmerizing feat. When the Projectors break out the epic “Remade Horizon” onstage, they follow that trick with an equally impressive one, Coffman and frontman Dave Longstreth stitching together rapid guitar figures. Hocketing isn’t necessarily something you have to see to believe, but it sure makes it much cooler. –Adam Kivel

“Sister Ray”

The Velvet Underground

At this point, the legend behind The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” has outlived and outshone the song itself. You probably already know the story: Lou Reed and company recorded the 17-minute song in one, scuzzy take, refusing to edit out any mistakes along the way. I believe even the sound engineer left the booth while the band was in mid-jam, believing that his presence was no longer needed. Apart from its iconic background, “Sister Ray” is both a fascinating exercise in simplicity and a damn good rock song. And thanks to this rollicking live performance, which is like the White Light/White Heat version only dirtier (if that’s possible), we can finally enjoy the fruits of the original composition without having to think about its legend. –Dean Essner

“Eyes of the World”

Grateful Dead

First heard nestled between “Here Comes Sunshine” and “Weather Report Suite” on side two of 1973’s Wake of the Flood, “Eyes of the World” quickly became one of the Grateful Dead’s most beloved songs and eventually was played live a total of 383 times. During the ’70s and ’80s, “Eyes” was usually performed in a quick, almost hurried, tempo and was often heard slipped in between “Estimated Prophet” and “Drums”; however, that wasn’t the case in late March 1990. The Dead opened their second set that evening with “Eyes of the World”. Unusual enough to not be tucked into its normal place, much less, open the set, this rendition of “Eyes” is also noted for being a far more relaxed and gentler performance, slowing the tempo down and riding its groove rather than trying to outrun it. Of course, the biggest reason for this particular performance’s recognition and love among Deadheads is the presence of a special guest.

The Dead were no strangers to having guest musicians walk on during their sets, and on this particular evening that honor went to jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis. First popping onstage during set 1’s performance of “Birdsong”, Marsalis returned during the second set, laying down a silk-laden layer of woodwind that as one fan put it, “Even breathed life into ‘Throwing Stones’.” After years of steadily jamming and speeding up the playing of “Eyes” (the early to mid-’80s often saw them perform this song in a manner often described as ‘hyperspeed’), the Dead reimagined and redefined “Eyes of the World” for the ’90s. Easily one of the best performances of this song, it is no wonder that Phil Lesh, bass player and the gatekeeper to the Dead’s live material, chose this version for placement on the Dead’s live compilation Without a Net. –Len Comaratta

“Forgot About Dre”

Dr. Dre & Eminem

The Up in Smoke tour brought together a handful of rap legends, and gems like “The Next Episode” and “Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang” from those performances all nearly make the cut here. But no performance could match the captivating pairing of Dr. Dre and Eminem. Other parts of the show saw giant chattering skulls and bouncing low riders, but the classic “Forgot About Dre” finds Em and Dre going without the theatrics, Eminem’s spitfire delivery off the hook and Dre’s fiery verses drawing in every last person in the massive arenas, and even now drawing magnetically through the screen. –Adam Kivel



“Suggestion”, Fugazi’s misandrist anthem written from the perspective of an objectified female narrator, was always begging to be sung by a woman. With this version, Ian Mackaye seems to have found that woman in Fire Party’s Amy Pickering, whose vocals are even gnarlier and nastier than Mackaye’s on record. Also note: Nation of Ulysses frontman and D.C. mainstay Ian Svenonius going bonkers in the background. –Dean Essner

“Written in Reverse”


Though he released his first LP more than 20 years ago, Spoon’s Britt Daniel is still one of the most captivating performers on the scene today. Daniel’s fervid vocal delivery, paired with a rare ability to seamlessly toggle between smooth falsetto and guttural howls, infuse his songs with a bewitchingly schizophrenic vibe that few can replicate without the help of studio bells and whistles.  “Written In Reverse” showcases the flaxen-haired Texan’s dynamic range, as he injects his lyrics with the pain of alienation (“I’m not standin’ here”) before turning on a dime to exude ferocious fury (“I hear that famous song / And I hear that can’t be wrongggg-ahhh!”).  Pattering keyboard lines and a distorted Gibson Electric Spanish threaten to obfuscate his words, but Daniel rises to the occasion by yowling over the instrumental ruckus like a man possessed. With Spoon hard at work on their eighth album, there’ll be ample opportunity to catch the Austin stalwarts on tour later this year. –Henry Hauser



There’s something indescribably special about this version of “Roses”. Sound-wise, it’s quite faithful to the original, but only on this version is the sheer breadth of Andre 3000’s coolness finally conveyed: the effortless falsetto, the hilarious ad-libbing, the swaggering dance moves. Quirky Letterman sidekick and bandleader Paul Shaffer on piano is also priceless, but when Big Boi comes out from the crowd like a Late Night audience member dying to join the party, things get better. We can only hope that OutKast’s live show this summer is as fun and wacky as this performance. –Dean Essner

“Where Is My Mind?” (Pixies cover)

Kings of Leon

While this Pixies standard might seem like an unconventional choice for dude-rockers Kings of Leon, anyone who saw the brothers Folowill perform “Where Is My Mind?” at Bonnaroo 2010 knows how well they brought out the weird original nuances while adding their own dash of hard rock charm. This was a song that was meant to be played live, and knowing how to deliver on a classic while making it your own is key to pulling off a memorable live cover. In 2010, in the smothering heat of Bonnaroo, Kings of Leon more than pulled it off. –Katherine Flynn



Merril Garbus a.k.a tUnE-yArDs topped the critics’ 2011 Pazz & Jop albums poll with w h o k i l l, a collection of experimentally minded pop, blending afro-beat, electronic, and lo-fi. Live, Garbus deconstructs and reconstructs the songs on the album, looping bits and pieces to slowly build the track. Blaring saxophones start off this version of standout “Bizness” followed by eerie loops of her voice. Once the song really begins to take hold, it’s obvious that Garbus is one of the most interesting and adventurous artists making music right now. Captured by Seattle’s KEXP, it showcases Garbus’s mad scientist approach to song creation, and the final, layered product is absolutely incredible. –Josh Terry

“Shore Leave”

Tom Waits

“Shore Leave”, originally off of Swordfishtrombones, is a recollection of misadventure, Tom Waits’ most convincing attempt at writing nomadic beat poetry a la Kerouac and Ginsberg. However, on the live compilation Big Time, his story gets thrust from the retrospective into something visceral and real before our eyes. “Well I was pacing myself/ Trying to make it all last/ Squeezing all the life/ Out of a lousy two-day pass,” Waits growls, like a cold and hungry Midwesterner trying to navigate the sordid, rat-infested back alleys of New York City. Yes, he’s onstage, dry and likely well-fed. But you don’t doubt for a second, amidst the theatricality in this video, that the memory, or at least the sentiment, still lingers. –Dean Essner

“Two Steps Forward”

Emmy the Great

Sometimes sets just aren’t long enough, especially when the artist in question is one of several on a bill. During a rare stateside performance from Emmy the Great at Pianos in New York City, a couple from Florida seized their visitors-from-afar status and asked if it warranted a request. It did, and their desired song was “Two Steps Forward”. Emmy’s set time was up, so everyone gathered outside on the sidewalk to be charmed by a solo rendition of one of her earliest and most personally vivid songs. It had been a while since the poetic heartbreaker was last performed, and Emmy got hung up on the lyrics at one point, but the adoring fans were more than ready to set her back on track. Random passersby joined in the fun, likewise captivated and wondering, “Did she really just say what I think she said?” She did. –Frank Mojica

“Uncontrollable Urge”


As a band, Devo has always been part performance art, and their live shows have always featured elaborate costumes, choreography, and character work. The shout-along catchy “Uncontrollable Urge” summed many of their trademarks, including the iconic yellow jumpsuits, the musicians pivoting robotically in time without missing a single chug on that massive guitar riff (which sometimes seems to have revved up even harder than on the record). –Adam Kivel


Van Morrison and The Band

Immortalized in the Martin Scorsese-directed concert film The Last Waltz, The Band played their last show ever on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, in San Francisco with an all-star cast of guest performers like Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. While that legendary set is full of highlights, Van Morrison’s appearance performing his Moondance cut “Caravan” stands out above the rest. That night Morrison was absolutely feeling it, a powerful enough vocalist to even make scatting work. The whole thing—the horns, its euphoric final minute, and Morrison’s exit—makes us wish he had worked more with The Band. –Josh Terry

“Rock Lobster” (B-52’s cover)

Sleater-Kinney feat. Calvin Johnson

In our skewed, music-loving world, Olympia, Washington, is synonymous with K Records, the indie label that helped give artists such as The Microphones and Beat Happening a small, but devoted audience. Here, its lanky, baritone-voiced founder Calvin Johnson, also a member of Beat Happening, is brought up onstage to join fellow Olympians Sleater-Kinney in a sloppy, sweaty rendition of The B-52’s “Rock Lobster”. For one, he makes a convincing Fred Schneider. But this spontaneous collaboration is formative for a different reason: it’s an early snapshot of one of the most important music scenes ever. –Dean Essner

“At Least That’s What You Said”


A Ghost Is Born was always inscrutably quiet and quietly inscrutable, but it’s on accompanying double-disc live set Kicking Television — a ’70s indulgence if Wilco ever had one — that songs like “Hell Is Chrome” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” reach their logical feedback-coated conclusion. None hits with more gut-clenching force than “At Least That’s What You Said”, a series of thundering piano blasts that give way to the sort of squalling guitar heroics that’d make Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere-era Crazy Horse blush. “At Least That’s What You Said” is a mesmerizing slice of tension and release — before the group’s jammy tendencies resulted in the more tepid waters of Sky Blue Sky. –Zach Schonfeld

“Like Spinning Plates”


You remember Thom Yorke for his anemic falsetto, his erratic bodily presence, and, lately, a ponytail that’s nearing sentience. But Radiohead’s bandleader has a secret weapon: he can power a piano like it’s a steam engine. It’s an easy one to forget–most Radiohead songs written on the keys end up translated to a mutant sci-fi burble–but put Amnesiac climax “Like Spinning Plates” on a stage and you’ll hear Yorke churn through a set of eerie, revolving chords in place of the studio cut’s static drones. And while his nauseating reverse-tape vocals on the record might be nightmare stuff, it’s neat to actually hear Yorke pronounce the song’s lyrics–especially after he’s just dedicated them to Tony Blair, George Bush, and their very best friends. –Sasha Geffen


The Frames

Forget U2. For the last 20-plus years, The Frames have been the dark horse in the running for best Irish live band. Led by Glen Hansard, of Once and The Swell Season fame, Frames concerts have developed a cult reputation for rousing, memorable, and cathartic performances–with “Revelate”, the 1995 single that kick-started the band’s career, becoming a set staple. Another great rendition of the song opens up The Frames’ 2003 live album, Set List, but their performance in the 2013 documentary In the Deep Shade shows how much vitality is still left in the Irish rockers. While the Werner Herzog-inspired “Fitzcarraldo” might be a fan favorite, “Revelate” is where it all began. –Josh Terry



Now that the Pixies have been a successful reunion act for over 10 years, it’s easy to forget how under-appreciated they once were. It took that long gap between 1991’s Trompe Le Monde and 2003’s Coachella performance for everyone to realize both their influence on music and their fundamental brilliance as a four-piece rock band. And here they seem to be savoring every last moment: Frank Black stretching out the gorgeous opening guitar melody for a few seconds longer, screeching “Re-pent” just a little bit louder. Post-performance, the Pixies go on to years and years of success, as we now know. But on this version of “Caribou”, in front of thousands of fans, the recognition feels like a delicious surprise. –Dean Essner



The song is coming to a close, so let’s applaud and maybe cheer. But wait, it’s not; the band is still playing. As uncool as it may be, this phenomenon has happened to all of us at least once. Take this performance of Warpaint’s “Beetles” from Rock Werchter, for example. After four and a half minutes, the uninitiated inevitably assume the song is winding down to a close, and will do so again at least once or twice before all is said and done, but Warpaint is really just getting started. What follows is a much-extended jam of spiraling guitar psychedelia and a rhythm section that hypnotizes with a slinky groove before shattering the mind with supernatural drum pummeling. During “Beetles”, Warpaint reveal themselves to be not just a band, but rather a group improvising and playing off each other the way only musical soulmates can. –Frank Mojica

“In My Room”

The Beach Boys

“In My Room” is a wistful ode to seeking solitude, but you wouldn’t know it from its rendition here. Brian Wilson still croons the same lines – “There’s a world where/ I can go/ And tell my secrets to” – only he’s far from alone. Like the famous Beatles televised gig on the Ed Sullivan Show, the band is drowned out, in places, here by a horde of screaming female fans. Yet, this is a noteworthy performance for a few reasons. First off, there is virtually no suggestion or signs of tension. The Beach Boys seem to be in sync, allowing for their vocal harmonies to mesh and intertwine as well as ever. Secondly, their future potential seems so far yet so imminent, a duality that makes me feel giddy every time I watch this video. It’s crazy to think that three years after this, Brian will go on to write Pet Sounds, arguably the best record of all time. Here, he’s just a whiz kid pining for his childhood bedroom. –Dean Essner



Good luck getting Radiohead fans to agree on even a shortlist of favorite songs. Despite the lack of consensus over Radiohead’s wide and varied catalog, “Idioteque” stands out as a universal crowd-pleaser. On record, it’s a charming experiment that samples an ancient computer music composition from Paul Lansky. In a live setting, “Idioteque” sparks to life as a show-stopping dance-athon with the urgency of an impending apocalypse. And leading us into the new ice age is a seizure-dancing Thom Yorke. –Frank Mojica

“Television Rules the Nation/Crescendolls”

Daft Punk

Daft Punk’s recent public persona has been as captivating as a pair of French mimes who don’t even bother pantomiming that they give a fuck anymore. But 2007’s Alive tour was a much different story. Decked out atop an Illuminati pyramid, the duo’s crazed energy had them Frankensteining pieces from several albums to deliver a pumped up version of “Television Rule the Nation”. The cannonball bass shot back and forth as “Around the World” ping ponged from foreground to background, creating a track that manages to surpass the sum total of its own source material. Hopes are high that Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter will chug some robotic Red Bull before kicking off the Random Access Memories tour, because if not, it will be quite a challenge to put together a live performance that could soar any higher than this. –Dan Pfleegor

“I’m Writing a Novel”

Father John Misty

Hearing Father John Misty perform live is both rousing and unsettling. Onstage, he channels a lewd, haphazard intensity that blends freak folk, glam rock, and self-deprecating sarcasm. Hurling his arms in the air like a Baptist preacher on Benzedrine, “I’m Writing a Novel” has Josh Tillman crafting a surrealistic scene atop rambling, throwback country grooves. Singing of Canadian shaman, garrulous canines, and existential philosophers “Heidegger and Sartre drinking poppy tea,” the frontman eerily stares off into the distance as if terrified by an apocalyptic omen. Tillman’s live rendition is more gutsy and fiery than the version appearing on Fun Times in Babylon; his bawdy charisma animates the track with a reckless and naughty energy that the studio cut doesn’t even come close to replicating. –Henry Hauser

“Creature Fear”

Bon Iver”

Top-lining the Haldern Pop Music Festival in 2009, Justin Vernon and crew transformed For Emma, Forever Ago‘s quiet but swelling sleeper hit “Creature Fear” into a five-minute sonic freak-out that falls in and out of meter faster than you can point out that Vernon looks more like Workaholic’s Karl Hevacheck than his normal easy-to-mistake-for-a-middle-school-science-teacher self. What starts with Vernon’s calm crooning and guitar accompanied by a slow brush stick on the drums quickly dissolves into a dissonant but oddly pleasing mess when all the necessary lyrics are finally out of the way. Both guitarists drop to their knees to seemingly fool around with effects pedals, creating an intricate web of rhythms before a strong bassline pulls the whole thing back together. It’s truly a beautiful disarray, an exhibit in complete control over your craft. –Pat Levy

“Nice Girls/Zoothorns”


On record, HEALTH balance gnashing, pounding intensity and eerie fragility, but live, each half of that equation is compounded by the other, exemplified by their fusion “Nice Girls” and “Zoothorns”. The former (off of their 2009 album, Get Color) finds Jake Duzsik’s chilling vocal arcing over a cascade of mechanized guitar and a roll of percussive thunder; then, as the tightly composed song fades back into the ether, BJ Miller beats out a rhythm and the other band members scramble for their zoothorns, microphones plugged into their myriad electronic effects, primed for screaming and feedback. On their 2007 self-titled debut, “Zoothorns” was a noisy interlude, but live it becomes the visceral coda to “Nice Girls”, the visual effect of Duszik, Jupiter Keyes, and John Famiglietti howling and bouncing across the stage redoubling the record’s manic power. –Adam Kivel

“Wake Up”

Arcade Fire

Who the fuck is Arcade Fire? How did they become so beloved and popular? Luckily, there’s a crash course for the band in the form of a live performance of “Wake Up”. When performed live, “Wake Up” shines a blinding light on the band’s earnestness and formidable emotional power. It’s a jolt to life, a spiritual awakening, a pinnacle of catharsis, or whatever the listener needs it to be. Best of all, it’s the rare song to which everyone can sing along regardless of whether or not they know the words. –Frank Mojica

“Don’t Let Me Down”

The Beatles

Reason No. 3,471 Phil Spector was Insane: He dropped “Don’t Let Me Down” from Let It Be. Why? Perhaps he didn’t hear it this way, on the rooftop, unhinged, and as honest as ever. Now, there are three performances I’d gladly shed five years off my lifespan to see: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged gig, the taping of Stop Making Sense, and this one. To have been on the rooftop in 1969 with the band’s future on ice and the ’70s just around the bend… Christ, it’s exhilarating to daydream about.

They were rugged frontiers, ready to embark on their first adventures alone, but for this one moment, they just let things hang and enjoyed the snapshots. Watch the way Lennon rolls around the verses and how Ringo appears glazed behind the kit. Pocket McCartney’s rock ‘n’ roll smiles and marvel at Harrison’s cozy complacency. You could just doze off to Billy Preston’s organ fills, too. And their hair! It all just dances in the wind, floating away like their legacy at hand.

Okay, I’ll throw a bone to Spector; there really is no other substitute for this. –Michael Roffman