This week’s question takes the old “best live act you’ve seen” question and restricts it to artists performing on the set of a television show:
What’s the best musical performance you saw on a TV show?
The October 14, 1978 episode of Saturday Night Live exists at a three-way intersection of my personal tastes: Original SNL cast (minus Chevy Chase, plus Bill Murray) and host Fred Willard, plus musical guest Devo, who introduced themselves to a nationwide audience by twitching through their cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” As the song builds itself up, one herky-jerky layer at a time, Mark Mothersbaugh launches into an approximation of Keith Richards’ “Satisfaction” riff, forcing the bluesy guitar-lesson staple into Devo’s unbalanced-washer-load meter. It’s like he’s saying, “Yes, it’s live, and no, the tape isn’t sped up.” I’ve watched this clip dozens of times, and I’ve never quite figured out how they pulled it off with such precision, other than to say that the band was just this tight in late 1978, having gigged extensively and worked toward new levels of ferocious velocity after their initial exposure to the punks at CBGB. In high school, I would play my bass along to a VHS recording of the performance, always attempting to nail the synchronized, backward leap on the final note. I never could. I was not man, and I was not Devo.
Like David Letterman, my favorite Foo Fighters song—by a country mile—is the band’s big finisher, “Everlong.” The song essentially became Letterman’s personal anthem over the years, most famously when the band flew back to the States in the middle of a tour to welcome the host back to his show after heart surgery in 2000. They also played the song for Dave on the very last moments of his show in 2015. But my favorite Late Show “Everlong” comes from several years earlier, in 1997. “Everlong” is great in part because of its melancholy bombast, and the version the band played during that particular appearance has always stuck out to me for being a little quieter, a little sadder than the rest. Really, I could have just said “every single Letterman ‘Everlong’” and walked away from this one with an easy conscience, but the 1997 performance manages to just barely eke out the win.
The first time I really enjoyed Bruce Springsteen was after September 11, and his The Rising album was all over TV and radio. What I knew of Springsteen was through that record—uplifting pop singles meant to be sung to the top of the arena rafters. I did not know about ’70s-era Bruce and the long 15-minute extended takes he’d perform with the E Street Band. Which made this cover of “Kitty’s Back,” from a 2002 episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, such a mindblower for young, impressionable me. This was a performance that broke late night television conventions: 10 minutes long, with solos from the horn section of the Max Weinberg 7. It opened me to the vast world of bootleg Springsteen concerts, and for this I have NBC to thank.
I’ve written about the moment Okkervil River lost me before, but I can also pinpoint one moment when the band totally blew me away: October 31, 2009. That’s when I saw Okkervil River on PBS’ Austin City Limits alongside M. Ward, mostly playing songs from the then-recent albums The Stage Names and The Stand Ins. The real standout of the performance, though, was a relatively stripped-down take of Black Sheep Boy’s “For Real.” I really like the album version of the song, which alternates between ominous acoustic bits and sharp crescendos, but frontman Will Sheff turned the Austin City Limits version into a moody piano ballad that very slowly builds until the very end when it suddenly transforms into a big, discordant rock song. I don’t know if it’s the best version of “For Real” that Okkervil River has ever done, but it was so raw and unhinged that I totally loved it.
As an early-to-bed, kind-of early-to-rise type, I rarely catch the late-night shows. Future Islands performing “Seasons” went viral, though, thanks to frontman Samuel T. Herring’s cuckoo-bananas performance. I had never heard the song and didn’t know the band when it performed on the Late Show With David Letterman in 2014. But Herring found people like me with the bombastic energy he brought to the stage. From the very first sound of drums and synth, he starts his box-step/body-dipping/head-bobbing/shoulder-shimmy/chest-beating thing. This nameless dance is captivating. Then there’s the vocals: Go to 1:03 in the video above and you’ll hear the throaty growl on the “I’ve” in “I’ve been waiting on you,” which he repeats here and there throughout the song (it’s extremely intense at 2:29 and again at 3:30). The stoicism of the rest of the band only highlights the frontman’s exuberance, and when Herring looks into the audience so earnestly during the chorus it’s both endearing and a bit alarming. He’s totally unhinged but also totally in control. I’ve never seen anything else like it.
Biggie belonged on boats. Some of our most iconic images of him are bouncing around on pleasure cruises, at once evoking images of Miami vice and luxe life opulence. On MTV Spring Break ’95, he performed “Big Poppa” on a barge in a short-sleeve Gucci sweater. I used to spend a lot of time watching MTV Spring Break, vaguely confused but enthralled by it all; over the years, it would turn increasingly salacious, or my interest in it would, with performances amidst swimsuit competitions, stages designed like runways. Here, though, it’s just Big, rapping from his normal feet-planted posture amidst a sea of primary-color t-shirts and denim crop tops. A lot of rappers get too hype while performing live, shouting all the verses so they become an unintelligible blur, but Biggie sort of always rapped that way, able to emote even while booming. Accordingly, he sounds great in what must’ve been a busy, difficult setting, his presence a calming force. It’s magic-hour rap, full of soft-jazz vibes and west coast synths and lines that even then were worming their way into hip-hop’s collective unconscious. In an age of golden era rap bio-pics, it’s becoming increasingly easy to forget what made these figures so important in the first place, but Big’s live performances never age, and this is one of his best.
At the risk of oversaturating this list with earnest white dude guitar rock, if I’m being honest, the live performance that had the greatest impact was, unquestionably, Neil Young and Pearl Jam doing “Rockin’ In The Free World” at the 1993 MTV VMAs. Pearl Jam was at the zenith of its cool that year, while Young was, to snotty teen idiots like me, just a noble relic of my dad’s LP collection. But their seven-minute rendition of Young’s 1989 single was a revelation: Loud, pissed-off, ending in a chaos of feedback peals and smashed guitars, it was everything that Harvest cuts like “Old Man” weren’t. It instantly made me reevaluate what I thought I knew about Neil Young and “classic rock” in general; even my shitty high school garage-rock band soon worked up a cover. Every awards show since has tried this kind of alchemical rookie/veteran duet, but they’ve never come close to matching its power.
I came across my favorite musical performance in that way all good things of providence occur: by letting YouTube auto-play after I was done listening to a song. That’s where I first saw an excerpt from a 1984 episode of Soul Train where beloved R&B and gospel group, the Staple Singers, performed a one-off cover of the Talking Head’s “Slippery People”. The combination of Mavis Staples’ deep, confident delivery woven through with Pops Staples, sly elfin voice gives the song a smoother, more languid vibe than David Byrne’s abrupt and urgent delivery. It’s a completely unique take on the song, an opinion shared by many. More importantly, it introduced me to the Staple Singers catalogue beyond their biggest hit, “I’ll Take You There” and helped me appreciate an amazing group I had otherwise neglected. Sadly, the Soul Train video was deleted from YouTube over licensing issues, and the only version available online is this inferior, audio-only version. So you’re going to have to supply your own dance moves.
Chappelle’s Show hosted numerous great musical performances during its short run, none more famous than Common and Kanye West performing “The Food.” The College Dropout had been released just a couple of weeks before the episode aired on March 3, 2004, so West was still best known as a producer—”The Food” was one of his tracks for Common’s upcoming album, Be. West was an untested rapper, and Chappelle’s Show his TV debut. Where performances on late-night shows tend to feel antiseptic, Chappelle’s Show staged this one inside an actual kitchen, with Common and West roaming around between their turns on the mic. Rocking the backpack that was his early signature, West turns on the faucet and gets a paper towel. Common opens the fridge and looks in the microwave. All the while, DJ Dummy and Chappelle sit at a long table in the foreground. It’s perfectly low-key and unassuming, two adjectives no one associates with West 13 years later. It’s great—so great that when Be dropped in January of 2005, Common used audio from this performance instead of the studio version.
I have to admit Sean stole my original answer for this, so I’m going to go with one I still return to because of how off-guard it caught me. When I was flipping through channels one night back in 2011 and saw that Beyoncé would be performing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, I figured I’d give it a look. Stupid me: I had no idea just how genuinely charismatic of a performer she would be doing nothing but standing on that little NBC stage, holding a mic, and just bringing the house down with an almost embarrassingly cathartic version of “Countdown.” With The Roots backing her, the song turns into a full-blown big-band anthem, and with every line she gets better, until by the end of the song it’s hard to imagine a more kinetic and compelling performance from someone literally just standing there, belting it out. This is Beyoncé at the height of her powers, and it is something to behold.