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Lighters in the Sky

The All-Time Greatest Concerts, 1960–2016

Corbin Reiff

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Must-read . . . Music fans love a good debate — and this year-by-year chronicle of notable concerts, from Oasis at Knebworth Park to Beatles at Shea Stadium, will no doubt spawn plenty of (playful) heated conversations.” —Salon

Passionate, personal, and articulated from the lens of a masterful historian with a sharp interest in the topic. . . . A book that feels immersive without being stuffy, authoritative without being dismissive, and historical without being boring. It takes a rare writer to cover acts as disparate as Van Halen, The Dixie Chicks, and NWA with equal gravitas and knowledge, but in Lighters in the Sky Reiff has done just that.” —UPROXX

Performance. Energy. Spectacle. These Shows Are Legendary.

Here’s How They Went Down.

Live. In the age of the studio and digital downloads, that four-letter word stands as the true test of the performer’s talent and the fan’s commitment.

The true greats deliver in concert, and every once in a while they deliver with a sound and fury that rings through the ages. James Brown at the Apollo. Led Zeppelin at Earl’s Court. Nirvana at Reading. The night Tupac, Biggie and Big Daddy Kane found a stage big enough to share at Madison Square Garden. Radiohead at Glastonbury. Some shows crystallize a particular moment in a great performer’s career, like Bowie’s farewell to Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith and Prince’s epic set at the Forum at the height of his purple reign. Some—the original Woodstock, The Last Waltz, Lollapalooza ’91 and Coachella ’99—define an era.

The live moment can be hard to capture with a microphone or a camera, let alone on the page. In veteran music writer Corbin Reiff’s deep dive through decades of epic gigs—often including interviews with the participants—he brings these concerts crackling back to life with revealing and lost details about what it was like on the stage and in the hall. Here are the cultural contexts, the backstage dramas, the split-second artistic decisions and the technical details behind the best shows of our amplified age. Year by year, concert by concert, this is a book that’s loud and guaranteed to start an argument.

October 2017
8 x 10 | 224 pp
Paperback $18.95 | CAN $25.99
978-1-944713-18-8

Upcoming Events

  • Tuesday, November 7, 7 pm, Volumes Bookcafe (Chicago, IL): Corbin Reiff will be reading from Lighters in the Sky and talking about what a concert great. He’ll answer questions from the audience and sign books afterward. Books will be available for purchase. Click here for more information.

The Best Concert of 2017: Kendrick Lamar

The Staples Center—Los Angeles, CA

August 9, 2017

People didn’t expect to hear anything new from Kendrick Lamar in 2017. The Compton MC had maintained a respectable radio silence after releasing and promoting his jazz-inflected masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly, and the cutting-room–floor collection untitled.unmastered. He had to be working on something, but no one was sure what it was or when they’d get it. It didn’t help that Lamar’s label, TDE, had a history of slow-rolling projects.

Then, out of nowhere, he dropped a new track, “The Heart Part 4,” where he declared himself “the-great-est-rap-per-a-live” and set the music world on fire. That was followed by the bouncy, infectious single “Humble” and the announcement of a brand-new album, DAMN. People went crazy when it dropped on April 17. DAMN sold 603,000 copies in its first week alone, taking the top spot on the charts and earning two platinum plaques. Drake’s expansive “playlist,” More Life—the best album of his career, in my opinion—quickly became an afterthought.

Just days after DAMN entered the world, Kendrick was the de facto headliner at Coachella, where he aired out songs that would take over the summer. He pulled out all the stops, bringing out Kanye West protégé Travis Scott and his TDE labelmate ScHoolboy Q. Kendrick showed out with an insane amount of energy for old favorites like “Swimming Pools” and “M.A.A.D. City” as well newer stuff like “DNA” and “Element.” He returned for the second week of the festival, dropping just as many jaws, and went back-to-back with Future on a remix of his flute-filled banger “Mask Off.” These incredible performances were merely a prelude to the show he brought to cities across the country in the months to come.

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Kendrick Lamar onstage (Photo: Corbin Reiff)

Before Kendrick can make his final appearance of a three-night run at the Staples Center, the crowd is treated to an awe-inspiring performance by show-opener Travis Scott. Scott made a name for himself in the last couple of years by putting on some of the craziest, most energetic, out-of-control live performances folks had seen in a minute. At some of his gigs, fans jumped off three-story balconies. At others, they incited full-blown riots.

On the DAMN tour, some of the mania is tamped down because he’s the opener—and because he raps hits like “Goosebumps,” “Butterfly Effect” and “4 AM” while standing on a giant, mechanical eagle that’s floating precariously above those in the general admission pit. Even with a high bar like that to clear, Kendrick is more than ready to give his hometown crowd a show they’ll never forget.

A large video screen flickers to life, playing a psychedelic, ’70s-style training montage titled “The Damn Legend Of Kung Fu Kenny,” depicting Kendrick as a martial arts apprentice. As the film progresses, a steady drum beat quickens. The pace of the footage matches the music, until it all stops.

Darkness and silence fill the room, then BOOM! An explosion of pyro. The lights go up a little to reveal Kendrick through a cloud of smoke, crouched down at the center of the stage. The crowd goes bananas. He doesn’t move as the voice of two Fox News anchors crash out of the speakers to excoriate him over his lyrics, then BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! “I got, I got, I got, I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA!”

Clad in a yellow jumpsuit à la Uma Thurman’s character, The Bride, from Kill Bill, Kendrick whips back and forth across the stage, practically screaming into his microphone. All around the arena, fans go nearly word for word with him. Near the song’s end, the screen advises everyone to “Look Down.” A samurai ninja pops out wielding a sword and whips it around Kung Fu Kenny, who seems oblivious to the danger.

Another DAMN song, “Element” comes next, and then Kendrick addresses the crowd for the first time while the beat from “Yah” plays overhead. “I go by the name of Kung Fu Motherfucking Kenny and this is the Daaaaaaamn tour!” he says. “I’d like to thank everybody for coming out tonight. We gonna make sure we get it right!” He barely finishes his thought when “King Kunta” blasts out of the speakers. That’s followed by two tracks from untitled.unmastered and a pair of covers: Future’s “Mask Off” and ScHoolboy Q’s “Collard Greens.” Then he digs into two of the best songs off Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, “Swimming Pools” and “Backseat Freestyle.”

Thirty minutes after the show began, the lights go out. Kendrick disappears, only to reemerge on a tiny, concealed stage in the middle of the arena. He starts rapping out “Lust” while a cage made of blinking LED lights rises out of the floor and surrounds him. He plugs away on the song as the stage slowly elevates him above the cage. By the time the stage reaches its highest point, the music shifts into “Money Trees.” Kendrick is bringing the heat now. You can see the small puffs of spittle through the lights as he recites the words with fury. Before it ends, the crowd is treated to the first surprise of the night, when Jay Rock, Kendrick’s TDE labelmate, brings his verse to life on the main stage.

Jay Rock is only the first member of the TDE crew to make an appearance. Kendrick and his boss, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, have decided to make this last night at the Staples Center a family affair. At one point, Kenny introduces SZA, who runs through her lithe single “Love Galore.” Shortly afterward he brings out the Robin to his Batman, ScHoolboy Q, who gets the crowd turnt up with his hit “THat Part.” In many ways, this night is a defining moment for TDE. It’s their self-coronation as the most impactful crew of rap talent since Death Row or Bad Boy.

To end the concert, Kendrick busts out “Humble,” which recently became the first No. 1 hit of his career. The crowd takes it away from him, rapping mostly acapella, while the man onstage spurs them on. It’s an incredible display of love and respect between audience and performer, and Kendrick seems moved. When they finish, he runs it back solo and then leaves.

The L.A. crowd screams and stomps for more, and he rewards them for their fanaticism. He could’ve pulled out a big hit, another anthem or a high-energy banger, but he doesn’t. Instead he raps the elegiac deep cut “God.” Standing in the midst of 18,000 disciples, he openly declares, “This what God feel like.” If that’s not exactly true, it’s DAMN close.

Set List

DNA

Element

King Kunta

Untitled 07

Untitled 02

Mask Off

Collard Greens

Swimming Pools

Backseat Freestyle

Loyalty

Lust

Money Trees (with Jay Rock)

XXX

M.A.A.D. City

Pride

Love

Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe

Love Galore (with SZA)

Broccoli (with DRAM)

THat Part (with ScHoolboy Q)

Alright

Humble

God

Honorable Mention

One Love Manchester at Old Trafford Cricket Ground

Manchester, U.K. (June 4)

At an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena on May 22, a terrorist detonated a homemade, shrapnel-filled bomb, killing 23 people and wounding 250. The tragedy shocked and stunned the world. Rather than retreat from the horror of the occasion, just a few weeks later Grande returned to Manchester to host a star-studded benefit concert, with all proceeds donated to the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund. Grande was joined by some of the biggest names in music, including Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Robbie Williams, Pharrell, Katy Perry, the Black Eyed Peas and Manchester’s own Liam Gallagher. One of the most cathartic moments occurred when Grande joined Coldplay to recreate the immortal Oasis hit “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” It was a hopeful moment—and a defiant one. “I want to thank you so much for coming together and being so loving and strong and unified,” Grande told the 50,000 people gathered before her. “I love you guys so much, and I think that all the love and unity you’re displaying is the medicine the world needs right now.”

Additional Coverage

Ultimate Classic Rock: The Rolling Stones Hit Their Peak: Exclusive ‘Lighters in the Sky: The All-Time Greatest Concerts, 1960-2016’ Excerpt

UPROXX: ‘Lighters in the Sky’ Exclusive: Van Halen’s 1979 Concert at the LA Coliseum Set a New Bar for Insanity

Okayplayer: Did Outkast or D’Angelo Have the Greatest Concert of 2000? Corbin Reiff’s New Book Has the Answer

Okayplayer: Thirteen Years Ago Dave Chappelle Put On the Greatest Concert of the Year

Well-researched, well-argued . . . A music lover reflecting on the brilliance of live music. A great read for any music fan.” —NeuFutur

“In his carefully researched tome, Reiff captures the best performances of the last 50-plus years. . . . It’s a way to travel back and vicariously live these shows.” —Consequence of Sound

“Corbin has brilliantly captured the magic and excitement of being in the crowd at a historic concert. If you were born too late to see Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town tour or you couldn’t score tickets to Kanye West’s Yeezus show, you missed out—but reading this smart, insightful, deeply researched book is the next best thing.” —Simon Vozick-Levinson, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, MTV News

“Both a comprehensive history of memorable concerts over nearly 60 years and an instant conversation starter.” —Steven Hyden, author, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me

“Reiff does a commendable job of translating a half-century of intangible musical energy into a compelling panorama of cultural evolution.” —Will Toledo, Car Seat Headrest

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