From Blondie to Theresa May, these are the best live performances we’ve ever seen

From left: Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Kate Bush, Theresa May and James Brown
From left: Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Kate Bush, Theresa May and James Brown

James Brown, Walthamstow Granada, 1966

By Mick Brown

It seems odd now to reflect on the fact that James Brown’s first-ever appearance in Britain, in March 1966, took place not on the hallowed ground of a West End theatre, but at the Granada cinema in the unlovely east-London suburb of Walthamstow. It took me three changes of bus to make the journey from south London to see him.

I’d been initiated – there is no other word for it – by an older cousin into the blues and R&B. I’d seen Howlin’ Wolf and Lightning Hopkins in one of the folk-blues packages that came to Britain in the mid-60s – emissaries of another, more exotic world (The names! The names!). But if they were like ancient prophets coming down from the mountain top with tablets of stone, to see James Brown in his pomp was to witness God himself – a slight, dapper, muscle-bound figure, with a pompadour hairstyle,  executing spins, twists, splits and knee-drops, wailing and hollering against the regimental precision of his band while his backing singers The Famous Flames dipped, swooped and crooned behind him.

The climax of his act was Please, Please, Please, when Brown, seemingly on the verge of cardiac arrest, face shining with perspiration, collapsed to his knees, to be helped off stage by his faithful valet Danny Ray – a coup de théâtre repeated three times until he finally departed the stage to deafening screams from the audience.

I had never seen anything so exciting in my life – and few things to match it since.

The Godfather of Soul, James Brown - Getty
The Godfather of Soul, James Brown - Getty

Andrew Manze, Royal Albert Hall, 2012

By Simon Heffer

There was a Prom in the Albert Hall 10 years ago in which Andrew Manze – a distinguished violinist and, then, a relative novice to conducting – directed the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a concert of Vaughan Williams’s three middle symphonies (4,5 and 6) that was memorable in itself. But the performance of the 6th, which I have always considered the composer’s greatest work and one of the greatest works in the classical canon, was breathtaking in its brilliance.

It was absolutely perfect in every detail – tempi, dynamics and attitude. I have never heard a live performance of this symphony, or of any other piece of music, that was so utterly immaculate, inspiring and overwhelming. Happily, you don’t have to take my word for it: it was televised and the performance is on YouTube.

Lynn Seymour in Anastasia, Royal Ballet, 1971

By Rupert Christiansen

No ballerina in my experience equals Lynn Seymour, the Canadian-born star of the 1960s and 1970s. Fonteyn was secretly jealous of her, unable to match either her vividly kooky personality or seamless musicality. A passionate abandon on stage reflected her volatile temperament; she was at her most electrifying in Anastasia, created for her by Kenneth MacMillan, portraying the woman claiming to be a Romanov Grand Duchess. Seymour’s intensity in the role pierced the heart of human darkness – on the edge of nervous collapse, existentially uncertain of her identity or the truth of her memories, she danced as if possessed.

Lynn Seymour as Anastasia - Royal Academy of Dance/ArenaPAL
Lynn Seymour as Anastasia - Royal Academy of Dance/ArenaPAL

Hariprasad Chaurasia, London, circa 1985

By Ivan Hewett

I’ve seen countless great orchestras, pianists and singers in lustrous concert halls. But what glows brightest in my memory isn’t any of these. It’s a performance given in a modest hall at an Indian cultural centre in west London sometime in the mid-1980s by Hariprasad Chaurasia, the greatest living performer of the Indian flute known as the bansuri.

It wasn’t just the lovely liquid tone and way he made that simple bamboo tube soar and sing like a wordless voice. It was the way the audience let out an audible “Ah!” at a particularly inspired moment – of which there were many.

Paul Scofield in John Gabriel Borkman, National Theatre, 1996

By Serena Davies

Some actors step on the stage with such authority they make you sit bolt upright. Mark Rylance can do this, but only Scofield, in the single time I saw him live, sat me up straight, yanked me forward and then communicated so insistently such pain and regret as the tortured anti-hero of Ibsen’s late masterpiece that I had to turn my head away. I was too young to have caught Olivier or Gielgud. Scofield towered preeminent in the generation that came after – but at 84 was preparing to bow out. He brought a lifetime’s understanding of our flawed condition to this performance.

Paul Scofield in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman at the National Theatre - Getty
Paul Scofield in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman at the National Theatre - Getty

Iestyn Davies, Royal Albert Hall, 2012

By Philip Johnston

Bach’s B Minor mass is arguably the greatest piece of music ever written, a high point of man’s artistic endeavour. I have heard it live a dozen times over the years but a Prom in 2012, with Harry Bicket directing the English Concert and Choir, did this majestic work the justice it deserves. The entire production was beautiful and deeply moving. In particular, it contained a performance by countertenor Iestyn Davies that lives long in the memory, especially his rendition of the Agnus Dei, poignant and perfect. The vast hall was mesmerised. I’ve never known 5,000 people so quiet.

Kate Bush: Before the Dawn, Hammersmith Apollo, 2014

By Ben Lawrence

I had spent my whole life waiting for Kate Bush, and when the reclusive star gave her first series of concerts in 40 years, I swiftly forked out a small fortune for a ticket. The evening started badly – an electrical fault meant a two-hour delay (“withering lights” wrote one waggish sub-editor) – but as soon as she appeared I forgot all anxieties, transfixed in a way I had never experienced, better than Bowie or Dylan or Jagger. Bush is the only performer I have ever seen who can seduce you with their charisma while refusing to play to the crowd. Eccentric and fiercely creative, she proved to me that night that the greatest artists write for themselves and themselves alone. Creative, she proved to me that night that the greatest artists write for themselves and themselves alone.

A unique talent: Kate Bush - Ken McKay/REX
A unique talent: Kate Bush - Ken McKay/REX

Brian Cox in Titus Andronicus, Barbican Pit, 1988

By Dominic Cavendish

I struck gold at the start of my theatre-going life with Brian Cox’s towering, peerless performance as Titus in Deborah Warner’s debut RSC production. Cox’s rugged Roman general entered astride a ladder through which poked the heads of his captives, the image of triumphant soldiery. He then showed you this loyal imperial retainer warped into tortured sensitivity and full-blown savagery by injustice and stomach-churning outrage (his daughter raped, and rendered bloodily mute). Cox combined macabre levity with deep inarticulable pain – mourning the death of a fly, then madly rejoicing at its demise, and finally, with chilling insouciance, serving his nemesis, Tamora, with her slain sons, baked in a pie. Some apparently fainted. I was blindsided; every jot of it was engrossing.

Blondie, Bournemouth, 1979

By Lisa Armstrong

I can’t guarantee that Blondie gave the greatest live performance ever back in Bournemouth 1979. What I do know is that I fainted from the emotional overload of being in such close proximity to my idol. Or possibly from being in such close proximity to a scrum.

Fainting was to become a leitmotif of my live performance experience. At a semi-professional production of Norma in Sicily a few years ago, I felt the familiar wave of dizziness and tried discreetly to shuffle from my seat in the middle to the exit before I passed out. Thud. I came to in the aisle with various members of the cast dressed as Druids, fanning me and taking my pulse... I’ve seen some genuinely amazing live performances, from Dustin Hoffman as Shylock to Jessie Buckley in Cabaret. But nothing’s as memorable as being spoon-fed sorbet in Sicily by a nurse post-swoon – the glories of Italian medicine.

Knockout talent: Blondie’s Debbie Harry - Richard Young/Shutterstock
Knockout talent: Blondie’s Debbie Harry - Richard Young/Shutterstock

Donny and Marie Osmond, O2, 2013

By Judith Woods

I got a pair of tickets to see Donny and Marie at the O2, with various friends offering to accompany me because it would be “hilarious”. I demurred and went alone; this gig was about nostalgia and childhood not wisecracking snarkiness. In the event it was something different again: unalloyed joy.

Not just joy either; showmanship, musicality, humour and Vegas Residency pizzazz. The band was on point, with a mash up of songs and genres – Walk This Way segued into These Boots Were Made for Walking – Donny danced Gangnam Style and Crazy Horses was a stampede of energy. It was utterly euphoric. The show of shows proving puppy love is still the very best kind.

Richard Gadd: Waiting for Gaddot, Banshee Labyrinth, 2015

By Tristram Fane Saunders

It’s 1am in a dank Edinburgh basement. The mercurial – and faintly unhinged – Scottish comic Richard Gadd hasn’t turned up for his own show. A frantic tech guy Skypes him: where the hell is he? When Gadd finally arrives, it’s 1.51. He’s bruised and wild-eyed, wearing only boxers and a pair of handcuffs. Between those two moments, all hell has broken loose.

This dangerous, delirious, impeccably devised meta-farce broke every rule of comedy, and quite possibly a few laws, too. I’ve seen something approaching a thousand Edinburgh Fringe shows, but none has knocked me sideways quite like this.

U2, Wembley Stadium, 1987

By Neil McCormick

For me, live is all about the moment coming at you with an unstoppable momentum that will have evaporated a moment later. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been so caught up, I feel I am seeing the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. The last time I had that feeling was at Glastonbury, watching Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen roar through Glory Days. The first time was in 1976, watching the band that would become U2 playing in our school gymnasium in Dublin, where I was absolutely poleaxed by the power of electric guitars, drums and vocals.

Over the next few years, I saw the same four friends become a white hot rock band, and every show from bar to arena was electrifying. Maybe the greatest ever was The Joshua Tree at Wembley Stadium in 1987. Bono pinpointing the Edge with a handheld spotlight during the monumental Bullet the Blue Sky, and leading a huge singalong of I Still Haven’t Found What I Was Looking For, 50,000 voices melded into a gospel choir. U2 are a group whose sense of mission dissolves barriers between band and audience. I had seen them achieve that in spaces where you could almost reach out and touch them. Watching them do the same in a venue as huge and impersonal as a football stadium was stunning.

U2 frontman Bono sprays the Wembley crowd with champagne - Redferns
U2 frontman Bono sprays the Wembley crowd with champagne - Redferns

Theater of the New Ear, Royal Festival Hall, 2005

By Mark Monahan

First, please believe that I didn’t hallucinate this event, although I do occasionally wonder myself, not least as I recall watching it seated next to Jeremy Irons and Paul McCartney. In spring 2005, for one night only, the “Theater of the New Ear” came from New York to London. On offer were two purpose-written “sound plays”, to be read live on stage. A little like watching a radio play being recorded?

Quite. Except, that is, for the talent involved. The first, the rambunctious Sawbones, was by Joel and Ethan Coen, and was delivered by (among others) Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Goodman. The second, Hope Leaves the Theater, was by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. And this one – a quite brilliant slice of meta-theatre – had Hope Davis, Peter Dinklage and a certain Meryl Streep up on stage, but all playing us – that is, members of the audience. “Oh!” exclaimed Streep, looking dead ahead. “Is that Meryl Streep up there? Oh, she’s wonderful!” “Who’s that dwarf?” asked Dinklage. See what I mean?

Gustavo Dudamel, BBC Proms, 2007

By Nicholas Kenyon

The eruption of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in the 2007 BBC Proms was sensational. As Proms director I was nervous about presenting the first visit to this country of the young ensemble that had grown out of the El Sistema education programme in Venezuela. Under their charismatic conductor Gustavo Dudamel they were both flamboyantly physical and superlatively sophisticated in razor-sharp Shostakovich and then a succession of encores delivered in multi-coloured Venezuelan jackets. They demonstrated the passionate belief that the orchestra could be reinvented as an inspiring, dynamic source of energy; the Telegraph later chose the concert as one of the landmark cultural events of the 2000s.

Venezuelan conductor and violinist Gustavo Dudamel - Los Angeles Times via Getty
Venezuelan conductor and violinist Gustavo Dudamel - Los Angeles Times via Getty

Jamie Demetriou, Edinburgh Festival, 2013

By Charlotte Lytton

A late night, a cramped room and very little awareness of the show I was about to see preceded my visit to People Person in 2013. So far, so Edinburgh Fringe. And all I remember of the hour that followed was laughing hysterically at a then-unknown character comic called Jamie Demetriou. Since those 60 minutes, I’ve never understood why standups bothered making dull jokes about their mothers-in-law when you could go the full Demetriou – inhabiting a precocious chorister, unhinged nanny, musician and absent father with unhinged glee. Fame via Fleabag and Stath Lets Flats has followed, but those belly laughs in a box room remain his funniest of all.

Theresa May, Conservative Party conference, Manchester, 2017

By Michael Deacon

Not strictly a cultural event, I admit. But by far the most memorable live performance I’ve witnessed. Because this was, without question, the most disastrous political speech ever made. First the embattled PM had her speech halted by a comedian handing her a P45. Then she started coughing unstoppably. Then she lost her voice. And finally, to cap it all, her stage backdrop fell apart. Watching was agony: a more intense and viscerally emotional experience than any play I’ve seen. Somehow, though, Mrs May battled heroically on to the end of her script, refusing to give up. So while it was the worst live performance, it was also, in a way, the most admirable.

What’s the most memorable live performance you’ve ever witnessed? Share your experience in the comments section below