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Some of Live Music’s Most Transcendent Moments

freddie mercury

What makes a transcendent musical moment? After all, the finest musicians have charisma and chops for days. But even within that exalted group, there will be performances that get and keep our attention above the others. They often take place at a musical event that combines the alchemy of emotion, mojo, and magic. How lucky we are to have easy online access to these clips that realign our collective souls. Here are some of our favorites.

Party at the Palace, 2002 – “All You Need Is Love”

This joyous occasion honored Queen Elizabeth in the 50th year of her reign. The closing number had Sir Paul McCartney inviting the hundreds of thousands present to join in as Rod Stewart and Joe Cocker led us adeptly into the classic Beatles track. The excitement builds as darn near every musician of note files onto the enormous stage to participate, filling the room with star power and superb musicianship. The celebrity spotting is a great pleasure, as is the sight of Ozzy Osborne shyly sharing a mike with Rod Stewart, looking like a little boy on Christmas Day. Ecstatic tears can’t help but ensue as the camera pans up to a bird’s eye view of the thrilled throngs waving the Union Jack.

Aretha Sings “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” 2015 Kennedy Center Honors

Carole King gets punked – in the best way possible! The legendary singer/songwriter was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015, and the woman who portrayed King in her Broadway show gives a short, charming speech in her honor. Carole’s gracious delight turns to seizures of rapture as Aretha herself steps out to play the piano and sings the song that made legends of them both. From the Queen of Soul’s rare keyboards to her still-soaring voice and unique magnetism, Aretha thrills the audience of joyfully weeping luminaries. She hits center stage and drops her enormous fur onto the floor (like a boss) as she delivers a miracle. President Obama wiped away tears, Carole King shook with glee and blew kisses as the audience rose to their feet in an acknowledgment of this one-time musical gift.

Freddie Mercury sings “Somebody to Love,” Montreal, 1981

 It’s an extraordinarily high bar for this king of showmanship, but if one were pressed to locate the best live performance by the late great Freddie Mercury, this might be the one. Mercury had been less of a sensation at this point in his career, but his masterful rendering of one of Queen’s best tunes put him right back into the stratosphere where he belonged. This is Freddie at his Mercury-est: the ‘stache, the white Superman tank and jeans, and unmatched presence as he sings “Somebody to Love” with stunning range and beauty. He hits the keyboards, struts around the stage and hypnotizes the audience. The rest of the band is flawless as well, with crystalline guitars and percussion. Freddie trills, scats, and shares his heart and soul. A cherished performance mixed with sadness that he would leave us a mere decade later.

George Michael and Elton John, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me,” 1992

Riddled with major poignance and a beautiful surprise, this duet by two of rock and roll’s greatest voices will never cease to bring gooseflesh. In 1992, the late George Michael was at the top of his solo game, bringing his magnificent pipes to an enormous live audience. At the 2:57 mark he shocks the crowd by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Elton John!” Elton walks out to a hero’s welcome as he begins singing on a riser far from Michael. They each take elegant turns with this lush, beautiful tune, moving closer and closer until the two men are side by side and ecstatically embrace.

Prince joins Tom Petty, Stevie Winwood, Jeff Lynne, and others in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, R&R Hall of Fame, 2004

 Prince was not a gentleman to readily play with others, but he made an achingly beautiful exception with his searing guitar solo at George Harrison’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It starred an assemblage of legends who came together to honor the departed Beatle. Their rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is a spectacular collaboration of voices (Tom Petty, Stevie Winwood, and Jeff Lynne, among others) and instrumental back-up. Seeing George’s son Dhani, a young gifted guitarist with a startling resemblance to his dad, playing with the band is a thing of poignant beauty. This transcendent musical moment shows what geniuses do when they honor one another without ego. Petty and Prince’s untimely passings add to the pathos. And then, of course, there’s Prince’s effortlessly-cool guitar toss at the end…

The O’Jay’s sing “Emotionally Yours,” the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert, 1992

The Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration was held in Madison Square Garden in 1992. An array of 29 luminaries honored Dylan with unique takes on his songs. The roster included Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Tracy Chapman, Richie Havens, Chrissie Hynde, and many others. Their musical tributes to Dylan yielded a successful double album. But the band that walked away with the show (despite their divergent musical sensibilities) were The O’Jays, who sang “Emotionally Yours.” Talk about tearing the proverbial roof off the place! The O’Jays (along with their back-up singers and band) took one of Dylan’s more modest offerings and filled it with soulful harmonies and wild crescendos. The O’Jays honored the man of the hour while making it their own. And they were the crowning moment in an evening full of them.

 -Ellen Fagan

Photo: Freddie Mercury, Getty Images

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8 comments on “Some of Live Music’s Most Transcendent Moments

  1. Mark Hudson

    Great stuff. But that Prince performance of “While my guitar” is not from the “Concert for George” which took place at the Royal Albert Hall in 2002. It’s from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony 2 years later. Fab solo though!

  2. Carmine Bassano

    . . . kudos once again for Ms. Fagan but this time: totally thrilling. Unforgettable —

  3. Jamie Koch

    Stairway to Heaven by Heart — Kennedy Center Honors for Led Zeppelin

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