Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Lighters in the Sky: The All-Time Greatest Concerts 1960-2016'

Corbin Reiff's 'Lighters in the Sky.'
Corbin Reiff's 'Lighters in the Sky: The All-Time Greatest Concerts 1960-2016.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

How does a live concert become legendary? By definition, you had to be there, and if you weren't, you weren't. For most of the rock era, music writer Corbin Reiff certainly wasn't: his first show was in 2005, when he saw Nine Inch Nails. He was a junior in high school.

Reiff's relatively young age may be part of what makes his 2017 book Lighters in the Sky so compelling: this isn't a book about the greatest nights of his life, unless you count that amazing Kanye show in 2013. It's a book about the concerts that have become part of music lore, shows that defined an era — or started one, or ended one. It's a book about the shows you've heard of even if they happened before you were born.

As Reiff acknowledges, there are different reasons shows can become iconic. They might have impossibly stacked lineups, like Monterey Pop (Hendrix, the Who, Big Brother and the Holding Company) or Dave Chapelle's 2004 block party (Kanye, the Fugees, Erykah Badu). They might represent great performers at their peak (Springsteen in '78, Prince in '85). They might contain a single immortal moment, like Ozzy Ozbourne biting the bat (1982) or the Dixie Chicks saying they're ashamed of the president (2003).

Wisely, Reiff doesn't try to compile a list of the 50 or 100 greatest concerts ever. Instead, he considers each year from 1960 to 2016 and picks a single show from each year: that one show that, if you could hop in a time machine, you'd set the dial for. Some of the picks are obvious: yes, Woodstock is Reiff's pick for 1969. Some are obvious once you learn a little bit about them, like the 1993 Big Daddy Kane show where both Biggie and Tupac hopped on stage. Others aren't obvious at all, but Reiff makes a strong case in every instance.

That's the situation in 1960, when Reiff pegs Muddy Waters at the Newport Jazz Festival. The blues luminary was still at the peak of his powers, but he also had something to prove — and prove it he did, with a face-melting performance. At the other end of Reiff's time frame, for 2016 he picks Desert Trip. Certainly not the most musically exciting event of that year, it was nonetheless a historic confluence of the Mount Rushmore of classic rock, with veteran artists playing in front of pretty much the only people they could conceivably have left to impress: each other.

Reiff spends a few pages on each show, providing set lists and band personnel in most cases. His catholic approach means that just about everyone will learn something. For example, if you're not a big fan of EDM, you might not have appreciated that it was Daft Punk's 2006 Coachella set that really broke the now-omnipresent genre in America by demonstrating that electronic dance music could be not just a party soundtrack, but a concert experience. (The band demanded most of their $300,000 paycheck up front, we learn, and spent "every penny" on an unprecedented audiovisual extravaganza.)

In a few cases, Reiff forgoes the most obvious picks. Bob Dylan, for example, is represented not by his 1965 "going electric" Newport appearance, but by the also unforgettable and more musically distinguished 1966 show where he snarled back at a fan who yelled, "Judas!" Reiff also doesn't pick Prince's 1983 concert where "Purple Rain" was recorded live at First Avenue, but instead a 1985 show in California that may have provided the fullest display of Prince's unparalleled gifts as a live performer. (Springsteen stepped out for a guitar solo, and Madonna was dancing in the wings.)

Needless to say, every reader will inevitably find a pick to debate. Replacements fans, for example, might wonder whether the band's December 1984 show at First Ave truly provided the peak 'Mats experience — and other readers might wonder if the pick from that year should really have been Reiff's "Honorable Mention" selection, Michael Jackson's Victory Tour stop with Eddie Van Halen guesting on guitar. Similarly, were Foo Fighters at Wembley in 2008 really more essential than Leonard Cohen's comeback show that year?

Every entry is worth reading, though, with Reiff providing invaluable context and background on the shows he describes. He considers Kanye West's masterful 2011 Coachella set (featuring Justin Vernon of Bon Iver) in light of the fact that West had fallen from grace with his obnoxious 2009 interruption at the VMAs — which, Reiff argues, ironically marked Taylor Swift's irreversible pivot from country favorite to pop megastar. In other cases, he taps primary sources: like members of the Allman Brothers Band, who remember their overnight Fillmore East marathon in 1971.

Maybe you made it to one of these gigs, maybe you didn't. Either way, Lighters in the Sky will leave you thinking about your own iconic shows: moments that have stuck with you, revelatory performances, unforgettable experiences.

It's Reiff's appreciation for the fact that "unforgettable" can mean a lot of things that leads him to forgo the 2012 Concert for Sandy Relief in favor of Dr. Dre's headlining set at Coachella that year. Remember why that show was a big deal? You will when you see the list of guests, which included Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, 50 Cent, and...the Tupac Shakur hologram.

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