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Elton John’s Dublin show was one of pop’s most affecting farewells – review

Elton John’s Dublin show was one of pop’s most affecting farewells – review

We’re all living on Planet Elton nowadays. The Rocketman biopic is burning up the box office, while it’s estimated the singer’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour will have played to a cumulative audience of more than half a million by the time it finally disappears into the sunset in 2020. 

Weirdly, for Elton John himself, life for the time being proceeds much as normal. He’s living out of a suitcase – but when was it ever different? He was always a hard-toiling musician with a work ethic that belied his image as a rhinestone dipped gadfly. Nor does his retirement jaunt come with the novelty of old nuggets rescued from the archives. He’s mostly bashing out the same favourites with which he’s been entertaining his fanbase for decades.   

So though the fuss around Rocketman provides a lively backdrop for the latest leg of his marathon victory lap, the performance is Elton with shiny sleeves rolled up and head down. Spit and sawdust festooned with glitter epitomises his approach to touring and here, in Dublin, he proceeds, with a stateliness that never descends into showboating, through the edited highlights of his sparkling repertoire. 

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The songs are obviously timeless. And though he’s been on the road since last year, the now 72-year-old comes across as determined for the material  to sound rollickingly fresh, both for fans and for him too. “Bennie and the Jets”, which Rocketman reveals to have coalesced during the darkest of his druggy days, is a deliciously brooding opener, where glam funk collides with Elton’s classic ballideering and Bernie Taupin’s hall-of-mirror lyrics. 

He’s soon skewing in a more sentimental direction with Eighties epic “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues”. This is an opportunity for his veteran sidemen, including guitarist John Jorgenson and idiosyncratic percussionist Ray Cooper, to cut loose, which they do in the fashion of dads reliving their dimly remembered youths.  

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1/18 David Bowie, Rainbow Theatre, 1972

The long gone Rainbow in London’s Finsbury Park was one of the great rock venues, and though I was young at the time it would be impossible to forget the impact of Bowie in one of his first outings as Ziggy Stardust. “They haven’t even finished building the stage,” I said with breathtaking naievety to the person next to me, on observing the scaffolding and ladder. Of course, it was all part of the Ziggy theatrics, a show that began with David/Ziggy walking out to the drums of “Five Years” and continued with mime, flamboyance and songs that have all become classics. I remember his appearance being heralded by music from Beethoven’s Ninth (also used in A Clockwork Orange, the film being current at the time). In those years Bowie always used it as his theme music. I also remember being blown away by the support act – a fresh, imaginative outfit called Roxy Music. (David Lister)

Getty

2/18 Dolly Parton, Dominion Theatre, 1983

Truly charismatic performers leave an indelible impression and I marvelled at the way Chuck Berry had the crowd in the palm of his hand when I saw him in the 1970s. But few could match Dolly Parton in her prime for her larger-than-life enthusiasm and sheer sense of fun. When the country superstar came to London’s Dominion Theatre in 1983, she played some mean finger-picking banjo, sang beautifully, especially on an a capella version of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?” and even did an Elvis impression. Her concert was filmed for a video release and about half an hour after the crowd had left in, they brought in a large group of young punks and Goths (to intercut into crowd shots) and suggest an edgy young following. Happily, I had stayed around and saw her deliver this impromptu extra set, which was full of risqué jokes and blue banter. There’s no one quite like her. (Martin Chilton)

Rex

3/18 Live Aid, Dominion Theatre, 1985

You don’t usually realise you’re present at what will become a moment in history. But that sunny July afternoon at Wembley Stadium felt special right from the off, even if the off was Status Quo doing “Rockin’ All Over The World”. There were numerous stand-out moments; perhaps on paper the biggest was the return of Paul McCartney, topping the bill after nearly five years self-enforced absence from high-profile performing following the shooting of John Lennon. Somewhat sadly the sound failed for part of “Let It Be”, but we can draw a veil over that. The most stunning set of the day came from Queen: a high energy medley through “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Radio Ga Ga” to “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions”. No one fired up the crowd quite as much that day. And since the band had not been at their most visible around that time, this proved to be their resurrection. (David Lister)

4/18 BB King, Hammersmith Odeon, 1985

Blues titan BB King released two of the greatest concert albums of the 20th-century in Live at the Regal (1964) and Live in Cook County Jail (1971). Even though he was 60 when I saw him at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1985, he was still full of energy. He sang with passion and his guitar work was transcendent, especially on gloriously funky version of “The Thrill is Gone”. I skipped my graduation ceremony for the concert and had the good fortune to bump into an old family friend called Ray Bolden, who had worked at Dobell’s Record Shop in Charing Cross Road. King’s face lit up to see Ray, who had put him up in his London flat in the 1950s. The blues superstar could not have been friendlier, despite his tiredness after a long gig. Seeing Muddy Waters live in 1979 was special but BB King at full power, bending guitar notes like no one else, topped even that. (Martin Chilton)

AP

5/18 Rollercoaster Tour, Brixton Academy, 1992

When The Jesus & Mary Chain reached the status of noisenik godheads with their fourth album Honey’s Dead in 1992, they decided to put together a visceral modern rock revue tour called Rollercoaster that’s still ringing in my ears almost 30 years on. Of the three revolving support acts, Blur opened the night, mid-transformation from baggy latecomers to art-pop pioneers. With Damon Albarn flinging himself wildly around the stage and clambering up amp stacks, they premiered ferocious second-album character studies like “Colin Zeal” while screening films of the journey of meat from slaughterhouse to defecation, in reverse. Most crucially, with their all-horns-blazing new single “Popscene”, they kick-started Britpop right before our eyes. The Mary Chain, meanwhile, were at peak malicious, I left with my skull buzzing, my eyes opened and my tastes re-arranged, convinced I’d seen the new music, and I had. A gig that didn’t just make my night, it made me. (Mark Beaumont)

Getty

6/18 PIxies, Brixton Academy, 2004

When Pixies came onto a London stage on my birthday in 2004 and played Pixies songs – and music just doesn’t get better than that – it was pure relief, euphoria and dark-hearted epiphany. “Tame” sent me feral, “Gigantic” was titanic, “Bone Machine” crushed out my marrow. Black Francis snarled, barked and ranted through “Gouge Away”, “Monkey Gone To Heaven” and “Debaser”, every bit the demented pervert preacher he ever was; Kim Deal’s angelic coos and bass melodies made an unholy pact with Joey Santiago’s werewolf guitar riffs, seemingly played with a plectrum made of Satan’s fingernail. Of their four Brixton dates that week, I lost every ounce of my s*** at three. Best gigs ever, no particular order.
(Mark Beaumont)

EPA

7/18 Foals, Buffalo Bar, 2007

North London’s tiny and now-defunct, Buffalo Bar in the 2000s, hosted early gigs from the likes of Bloc Party, The Libertines, The Maccabees – or Foals. Their show took place 14 months before the release of their debut album Antidotes, and it justified their precocious reputation as a live act. That night, the energy of their high-octane math-rock was infectious; it’s not often that you see a band in their earliest days and know that this is probably the last time you’ll be able to reach out and touch them. The songs followed: “The French Open”, “Balloons”, “Hummer”, “Mathletics”, all fuelled by astoundingly complex polyrhythms, interweaving staccato synths and guitar played high on the fretboard in angular electro harmonies, set to punk-disco techno beats and urgent “new wave” vocals. I’d never seen a rock gig so precisely engineered (a sticker on the synth read “Math is for Everyone”), yet so exhilarating. There was a true sense we’d discovered something great. (Elisa Bray)

Rex

8/18 Crystal Castles, Camden Crawl, 2008

Problematic in every way given singer Alice Glass’s October 2017 statement accusing her former bandmate Ethan Kath of sexual abuse, non-consensual sex and controlling behaviour, but this short set in front of a small crowd in a Camden bar was proof that when a performer truly plugs into the mother lode, the intensity they generate can burn itself into your retinas and shake your soul. Glass was 19 years old, and for most of the set just a blur of spectral movement frozen into violent shapes by an almost incessant strobe; singing, shouting and screaming her way through songs such as “Courtship Dating”. The result was a reminder that whenever one of your heroes gets on stage to try to channel that primal essence of “rock ’n’ roll” – or whatever the hell it is – most of the time, they’re just trying to find an echo of something that once flowed through them. That can go on for 50 years or more. There’s sadness now in the memory, but on this day in April 2008, Glass had it. (Chris Harvey)

PA

9/18 Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Brighton Centre, 2008

It used to be that rock’n’roll was a young person’s game; anyone over the age of 50 still tearing it up on stage needed to calm down and have a word with themselves. Nick Cave, the latter-day harbinger of the apocalypse still identifiable by his raven hair and pallbearer’s suit, has consistently shown us the idiocy of this thinking. I’ve seen Cave perform scores of times and he has never let me down, but this show, which coincided with the release of the album Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, was a whole new level of spectacular: funny, furious, life-affirming, heavy on the biblical melodrama. Alongside the Bad Seeds, then operating as a seven-piece coolly attired in suits, open-necked shirts and slicked-back hair, Cave showed how musical talent can deepen rather than ebb in mid-life, and how he was – and indeed remains – untouchable in terms of intellect, charisma and sheer feral energy. (Fiona Sturges)

Rex

10/18 Leonard Cohen, Benicassim Festival, 2013

Leonard Cohen steps onto the stage, dressed in grey shirt and tie, black waistcoat, trilby concealing his white hair. It’s sweltering. And yet Cohen, in his mid Seventies, is barely breaking into a sweat. Much like his attire, the songs – such as “Dance Me to the End of Love” and “So Long, Marianne” – are immaculate, his voice no longer a wail but a raw, rumbling baritone. The Spanish sun is beating down and my friends and I are genuflecting before one of the greatest lyricists of all time. This was to be the only time I saw him live and no performance has ever, in terms of pure emotional intensity, targeted me with such laser-guided precision as his rendition of “Hallelujah”. The song’s been covered by everyone from Jeff Buckley to Alexandra Burke, but sung by him that day, it’s surely never felt as moving. (Patrick Smith)

Getty

11/18 Bobby Womack, Latitude, 2013

The great Sixties and Seventies soul singers are nearly all gone now, and I doubt we’ll ever see their like again. Bobby Womack had recovered from colon cancer but was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, and less than a year from his death in June 2014, when he played the UK in the summer of 2013. He came on stage on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the Latitude festival, to play songs from his brilliant comeback album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, to a basking, picnicking audience. “All soul singers come from gospel,” he told them. Womack’s voice still seemed like a gift from God. The years of cocaine addiction hadn’t altered its richness and warmth. To be in the presence of Womack that day, knowing it would likely be the last time, was very special.
(Chris Harvey)

PA

12/18 St Vincent, End of the Road, 2014

Most rockstars, terrified of seeming to be trying too hard, would never dream of hiring a choreographer. But St Vincent, AKA Annie Clark, is no ordinary rockstar. For her Digital Witness tour, the musician recruited Annie B Carson to help her dream up a procession of strange, shuffling moves to perform alongside her brilliant self-titled fourth album. At End of the Road Festival – a small, Dorset delight which she had played with David Byrne a year earlier – her headline set was scuzzy, eccentric, and thrilling. At one point, without missing a lick on her guitar, she rolled herself down an oversized flight of white stairs like a glitching robot. Then again, no robot can play guitar like that. (Alexandra Pollard)

Getty

13/18 Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo, 2014

After 35 years away from the stage it was a moment Kate Bush fans never thought would happen. Beforehand, I was reporting from outside the venue for NME and the excitement and energy was extraordinary, like nothing I’ve ever experienced. One woman told me it would be fine if she died after the gig because she would die happy. The show started with a “greatest hits” section. And then it all got a bit more, well, Kate Bush, with a dramatic adaptation of “The Ninth Wave”. Sinking ships, confetti cannons, surreal fish people and a soliloquy about sausages. Act three was more pastoral. The second side of “Aerial”, “The Sky of Honey”, was performed in front of the most beautiful visuals I’ve ever seen: birds, a red sun, a moon tilting on its axis and then Kate suspended into the air. Pure theatre. As we filed out, there was a sense that the audience was stunned. I still am. (Lucy Jones)

Rex

14/18 Patti Smith, Field Day, 2015

Patti Smith was celebrating the 40th anniversary of her seminal 1975 album Horses at Field Day in Victoria Park, London, 2015. The sky was a perfect blue, and the sun was still blazing hot at 7pm. “I’m sorry about the dark glasses,” Smith said by way of introduction. “I’m not trying to be cool, it’s just, you know… the sun.” “You’re the f***ing coolest!” a fan screamed back. From there, she and her band, including long-serving guitarist Lenny Kaye, embarked on a blistering set that had myself, and many other audience members, in tears. Smith is a ferocious performer, she spat and snarled and howled; tearing up her guitar as though it just insulted one of her favourite poets. It didn’t matter if she messed up, as she did on “Break it Up”, because she offered the instantly immortal words: “I don’t do nothing perfect. I only f*** up perfect.” You felt you were in the presence of something momentous. (Roisin O’Connor)

Getty Images

15/18 D’Angelo, Hammersmith Apollo, 2015

When D’Angelo released his surprise third record – the politically fraught Black Messiah – it ended the 14-year hiatus that followed 2000’s Voodoo. It also reminded music fans that the American hip-hop artist was still as monumentally talented as he was back then. Accompanied by his eight-strong band The Vanguard, his show at the Hammersmith Apollo was a visceral, quasi-religious experience. Jesse Johnson, formerly of Prince-produced outfit The Time, added funky hooks to “Sugah Daddy”, while legendary bassist Pino Palladino took time out from The Who’s live shows to join in the fun. At one point D’Angelo led a classic James Brown funk staple, holding three fingers in the air so the band could respond with three loud vamps. One encore was followed by a second that broke the curfew with free abandon, until D’Angelo was left on stage alone, reflective and blissful. It inspired a divine kind of worship, for a show that was appropriately titled “The Second Coming”. (Roisin O’Connor)

Corbis

16/18 Lorde, Brighton Centre, 2017

A week before she played Brighton, I reviewed Lorde’s Alexandra Palace show in London. It was a five-star performance – the New Zealand musician exorcised the pain of the break-up she’d chronicled on her brilliant second album Melodrama, twitching and twirling as an abstract house party played out in glass boxes around her. The stage design was so good, in fact, that Kanye West may or may not have nicked it a year later. Seeing her in Brighton the following week, without a notepad in my hand, I saw even more clearly all the intimate nuances of her performance – and was free to give in entirely to the exhilarating, heartbreaking melodrama of it all. (Alexandra Pollard)

Getty Images

17/18 David Byrne, Brighton Centre, 2018

When you’ve been going to gigs for decades, you tend not to expect anything new, just variations – some mind-blowing, others not – on what you have seen before. So when I saw David Byrne’s American Utopia show, it felt like stumbling on the Ark of the Covenant. Here was a man who had been working in music for 40 years completely redrawing the rules of pop performance – no drum riser, no cables, no visible amps or microphones – and taking it deep into the territory of experimental theatre. In opposition to the usual freeform live music set-up, this tour was the result of fastidious planning, with everything rehearsed to the last nanosecond. And yet, forever on the move, dressed in matching grey suits and dancing barefoot in formation, Byrne and his 12-piece band were loose-limbed, unfettered and joyous to watch. And the music was pretty great too. (Fiona Sturges)

EPA

18/18 Christine and the Queens, Hammersmith Apollo, 2018

Before her short run at Hammersmith Apollo last year, Héloïse Letissier – known as Christine and the Queens, though she dropped all but the “Chris” for her second album – tweeted: “I think we finally have some surprises for those who come to the shows!” She delivered on that promise – falling snow and sand, and a balcony homage to Romeo and Juliet – as she redefined what a pop show could be. With a gender-fluid cohort of athletic dancers, she brought to theatrical life her tumultuous journey towards embracing her pansexual identity, and finding liberation. And we went through all those emotions with her, those alternately tender and powerful vocals never faltering despite the restless dance routines. Everyone was on their feet dancing, and her declaration of inclusivity could not have been more empowering: “Vive everyone!” We left thrilled and elated. (Elisa Bray)

REX

1/18 David Bowie, Rainbow Theatre, 1972

The long gone Rainbow in London’s Finsbury Park was one of the great rock venues, and though I was young at the time it would be impossible to forget the impact of Bowie in one of his first outings as Ziggy Stardust. “They haven’t even finished building the stage,” I said with breathtaking naievety to the person next to me, on observing the scaffolding and ladder. Of course, it was all part of the Ziggy theatrics, a show that began with David/Ziggy walking out to the drums of “Five Years” and continued with mime, flamboyance and songs that have all become classics. I remember his appearance being heralded by music from Beethoven’s Ninth (also used in A Clockwork Orange, the film being current at the time). In those years Bowie always used it as his theme music. I also remember being blown away by the support act – a fresh, imaginative outfit called Roxy Music. (David Lister)

Getty

2/18 Dolly Parton, Dominion Theatre, 1983

Truly charismatic performers leave an indelible impression and I marvelled at the way Chuck Berry had the crowd in the palm of his hand when I saw him in the 1970s. But few could match Dolly Parton in her prime for her larger-than-life enthusiasm and sheer sense of fun. When the country superstar came to London’s Dominion Theatre in 1983, she played some mean finger-picking banjo, sang beautifully, especially on an a capella version of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?” and even did an Elvis impression. Her concert was filmed for a video release and about half an hour after the crowd had left in, they brought in a large group of young punks and Goths (to intercut into crowd shots) and suggest an edgy young following. Happily, I had stayed around and saw her deliver this impromptu extra set, which was full of risqué jokes and blue banter. There’s no one quite like her. (Martin Chilton)

Rex

3/18 Live Aid, Dominion Theatre, 1985

You don’t usually realise you’re present at what will become a moment in history. But that sunny July afternoon at Wembley Stadium felt special right from the off, even if the off was Status Quo doing “Rockin’ All Over The World”. There were numerous stand-out moments; perhaps on paper the biggest was the return of Paul McCartney, topping the bill after nearly five years self-enforced absence from high-profile performing following the shooting of John Lennon. Somewhat sadly the sound failed for part of “Let It Be”, but we can draw a veil over that. The most stunning set of the day came from Queen: a high energy medley through “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Radio Ga Ga” to “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions”. No one fired up the crowd quite as much that day. And since the band had not been at their most visible around that time, this proved to be their resurrection. (David Lister)

4/18 BB King, Hammersmith Odeon, 1985

Blues titan BB King released two of the greatest concert albums of the 20th-century in Live at the Regal (1964) and Live in Cook County Jail (1971). Even though he was 60 when I saw him at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1985, he was still full of energy. He sang with passion and his guitar work was transcendent, especially on gloriously funky version of “The Thrill is Gone”. I skipped my graduation ceremony for the concert and had the good fortune to bump into an old family friend called Ray Bolden, who had worked at Dobell’s Record Shop in Charing Cross Road. King’s face lit up to see Ray, who had put him up in his London flat in the 1950s. The blues superstar could not have been friendlier, despite his tiredness after a long gig. Seeing Muddy Waters live in 1979 was special but BB King at full power, bending guitar notes like no one else, topped even that. (Martin Chilton)

AP

5/18 Rollercoaster Tour, Brixton Academy, 1992

When The Jesus & Mary Chain reached the status of noisenik godheads with their fourth album Honey’s Dead in 1992, they decided to put together a visceral modern rock revue tour called Rollercoaster that’s still ringing in my ears almost 30 years on. Of the three revolving support acts, Blur opened the night, mid-transformation from baggy latecomers to art-pop pioneers. With Damon Albarn flinging himself wildly around the stage and clambering up amp stacks, they premiered ferocious second-album character studies like “Colin Zeal” while screening films of the journey of meat from slaughterhouse to defecation, in reverse. Most crucially, with their all-horns-blazing new single “Popscene”, they kick-started Britpop right before our eyes. The Mary Chain, meanwhile, were at peak malicious, I left with my skull buzzing, my eyes opened and my tastes re-arranged, convinced I’d seen the new music, and I had. A gig that didn’t just make my night, it made me. (Mark Beaumont)

Getty

6/18 PIxies, Brixton Academy, 2004

When Pixies came onto a London stage on my birthday in 2004 and played Pixies songs – and music just doesn’t get better than that – it was pure relief, euphoria and dark-hearted epiphany. “Tame” sent me feral, “Gigantic” was titanic, “Bone Machine” crushed out my marrow. Black Francis snarled, barked and ranted through “Gouge Away”, “Monkey Gone To Heaven” and “Debaser”, every bit the demented pervert preacher he ever was; Kim Deal’s angelic coos and bass melodies made an unholy pact with Joey Santiago’s werewolf guitar riffs, seemingly played with a plectrum made of Satan’s fingernail. Of their four Brixton dates that week, I lost every ounce of my s*** at three. Best gigs ever, no particular order.
(Mark Beaumont)

EPA

7/18 Foals, Buffalo Bar, 2007

North London’s tiny and now-defunct, Buffalo Bar in the 2000s, hosted early gigs from the likes of Bloc Party, The Libertines, The Maccabees – or Foals. Their show took place 14 months before the release of their debut album Antidotes, and it justified their precocious reputation as a live act. That night, the energy of their high-octane math-rock was infectious; it’s not often that you see a band in their earliest days and know that this is probably the last time you’ll be able to reach out and touch them. The songs followed: “The French Open”, “Balloons”, “Hummer”, “Mathletics”, all fuelled by astoundingly complex polyrhythms, interweaving staccato synths and guitar played high on the fretboard in angular electro harmonies, set to punk-disco techno beats and urgent “new wave” vocals. I’d never seen a rock gig so precisely engineered (a sticker on the synth read “Math is for Everyone”), yet so exhilarating. There was a true sense we’d discovered something great. (Elisa Bray)

Rex

8/18 Crystal Castles, Camden Crawl, 2008

Problematic in every way given singer Alice Glass’s October 2017 statement accusing her former bandmate Ethan Kath of sexual abuse, non-consensual sex and controlling behaviour, but this short set in front of a small crowd in a Camden bar was proof that when a performer truly plugs into the mother lode, the intensity they generate can burn itself into your retinas and shake your soul. Glass was 19 years old, and for most of the set just a blur of spectral movement frozen into violent shapes by an almost incessant strobe; singing, shouting and screaming her way through songs such as “Courtship Dating”. The result was a reminder that whenever one of your heroes gets on stage to try to channel that primal essence of “rock ’n’ roll” – or whatever the hell it is – most of the time, they’re just trying to find an echo of something that once flowed through them. That can go on for 50 years or more. There’s sadness now in the memory, but on this day in April 2008, Glass had it. (Chris Harvey)

PA

9/18 Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Brighton Centre, 2008

It used to be that rock’n’roll was a young person’s game; anyone over the age of 50 still tearing it up on stage needed to calm down and have a word with themselves. Nick Cave, the latter-day harbinger of the apocalypse still identifiable by his raven hair and pallbearer’s suit, has consistently shown us the idiocy of this thinking. I’ve seen Cave perform scores of times and he has never let me down, but this show, which coincided with the release of the album Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, was a whole new level of spectacular: funny, furious, life-affirming, heavy on the biblical melodrama. Alongside the Bad Seeds, then operating as a seven-piece coolly attired in suits, open-necked shirts and slicked-back hair, Cave showed how musical talent can deepen rather than ebb in mid-life, and how he was – and indeed remains – untouchable in terms of intellect, charisma and sheer feral energy. (Fiona Sturges)

Rex

10/18 Leonard Cohen, Benicassim Festival, 2013

Leonard Cohen steps onto the stage, dressed in grey shirt and tie, black waistcoat, trilby concealing his white hair. It’s sweltering. And yet Cohen, in his mid Seventies, is barely breaking into a sweat. Much like his attire, the songs – such as “Dance Me to the End of Love” and “So Long, Marianne” – are immaculate, his voice no longer a wail but a raw, rumbling baritone. The Spanish sun is beating down and my friends and I are genuflecting before one of the greatest lyricists of all time. This was to be the only time I saw him live and no performance has ever, in terms of pure emotional intensity, targeted me with such laser-guided precision as his rendition of “Hallelujah”. The song’s been covered by everyone from Jeff Buckley to Alexandra Burke, but sung by him that day, it’s surely never felt as moving. (Patrick Smith)

Getty

11/18 Bobby Womack, Latitude, 2013

The great Sixties and Seventies soul singers are nearly all gone now, and I doubt we’ll ever see their like again. Bobby Womack had recovered from colon cancer but was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, and less than a year from his death in June 2014, when he played the UK in the summer of 2013. He came on stage on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the Latitude festival, to play songs from his brilliant comeback album, The Bravest Man in the Universe, to a basking, picnicking audience. “All soul singers come from gospel,” he told them. Womack’s voice still seemed like a gift from God. The years of cocaine addiction hadn’t altered its richness and warmth. To be in the presence of Womack that day, knowing it would likely be the last time, was very special.
(Chris Harvey)

PA

12/18 St Vincent, End of the Road, 2014

Most rockstars, terrified of seeming to be trying too hard, would never dream of hiring a choreographer. But St Vincent, AKA Annie Clark, is no ordinary rockstar. For her Digital Witness tour, the musician recruited Annie B Carson to help her dream up a procession of strange, shuffling moves to perform alongside her brilliant self-titled fourth album. At End of the Road Festival – a small, Dorset delight which she had played with David Byrne a year earlier – her headline set was scuzzy, eccentric, and thrilling. At one point, without missing a lick on her guitar, she rolled herself down an oversized flight of white stairs like a glitching robot. Then again, no robot can play guitar like that. (Alexandra Pollard)

Getty

13/18 Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo, 2014

After 35 years away from the stage it was a moment Kate Bush fans never thought would happen. Beforehand, I was reporting from outside the venue for NME and the excitement and energy was extraordinary, like nothing I’ve ever experienced. One woman told me it would be fine if she died after the gig because she would die happy. The show started with a “greatest hits” section. And then it all got a bit more, well, Kate Bush, with a dramatic adaptation of “The Ninth Wave”. Sinking ships, confetti cannons, surreal fish people and a soliloquy about sausages. Act three was more pastoral. The second side of “Aerial”, “The Sky of Honey”, was performed in front of the most beautiful visuals I’ve ever seen: birds, a red sun, a moon tilting on its axis and then Kate suspended into the air. Pure theatre. As we filed out, there was a sense that the audience was stunned. I still am. (Lucy Jones)

Rex

14/18 Patti Smith, Field Day, 2015

Patti Smith was celebrating the 40th anniversary of her seminal 1975 album Horses at Field Day in Victoria Park, London, 2015. The sky was a perfect blue, and the sun was still blazing hot at 7pm. “I’m sorry about the dark glasses,” Smith said by way of introduction. “I’m not trying to be cool, it’s just, you know… the sun.” “You’re the f***ing coolest!” a fan screamed back. From there, she and her band, including long-serving guitarist Lenny Kaye, embarked on a blistering set that had myself, and many other audience members, in tears. Smith is a ferocious performer, she spat and snarled and howled; tearing up her guitar as though it just insulted one of her favourite poets. It didn’t matter if she messed up, as she did on “Break it Up”, because she offered the instantly immortal words: “I don’t do nothing perfect. I only f*** up perfect.” You felt you were in the presence of something momentous. (Roisin O’Connor)

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15/18 D’Angelo, Hammersmith Apollo, 2015

When D’Angelo released his surprise third record – the politically fraught Black Messiah – it ended the 14-year hiatus that followed 2000’s Voodoo. It also reminded music fans that the American hip-hop artist was still as monumentally talented as he was back then. Accompanied by his eight-strong band The Vanguard, his show at the Hammersmith Apollo was a visceral, quasi-religious experience. Jesse Johnson, formerly of Prince-produced outfit The Time, added funky hooks to “Sugah Daddy”, while legendary bassist Pino Palladino took time out from The Who’s live shows to join in the fun. At one point D’Angelo led a classic James Brown funk staple, holding three fingers in the air so the band could respond with three loud vamps. One encore was followed by a second that broke the curfew with free abandon, until D’Angelo was left on stage alone, reflective and blissful. It inspired a divine kind of worship, for a show that was appropriately titled “The Second Coming”. (Roisin O’Connor)

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16/18 Lorde, Brighton Centre, 2017

A week before she played Brighton, I reviewed Lorde’s Alexandra Palace show in London. It was a five-star performance – the New Zealand musician exorcised the pain of the break-up she’d chronicled on her brilliant second album Melodrama, twitching and twirling as an abstract house party played out in glass boxes around her. The stage design was so good, in fact, that Kanye West may or may not have nicked it a year later. Seeing her in Brighton the following week, without a notepad in my hand, I saw even more clearly all the intimate nuances of her performance – and was free to give in entirely to the exhilarating, heartbreaking melodrama of it all. (Alexandra Pollard)

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17/18 David Byrne, Brighton Centre, 2018

When you’ve been going to gigs for decades, you tend not to expect anything new, just variations – some mind-blowing, others not – on what you have seen before. So when I saw David Byrne’s American Utopia show, it felt like stumbling on the Ark of the Covenant. Here was a man who had been working in music for 40 years completely redrawing the rules of pop performance – no drum riser, no cables, no visible amps or microphones – and taking it deep into the territory of experimental theatre. In opposition to the usual freeform live music set-up, this tour was the result of fastidious planning, with everything rehearsed to the last nanosecond. And yet, forever on the move, dressed in matching grey suits and dancing barefoot in formation, Byrne and his 12-piece band were loose-limbed, unfettered and joyous to watch. And the music was pretty great too. (Fiona Sturges)

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18/18 Christine and the Queens, Hammersmith Apollo, 2018

Before her short run at Hammersmith Apollo last year, Héloïse Letissier – known as Christine and the Queens, though she dropped all but the “Chris” for her second album – tweeted: “I think we finally have some surprises for those who come to the shows!” She delivered on that promise – falling snow and sand, and a balcony homage to Romeo and Juliet – as she redefined what a pop show could be. With a gender-fluid cohort of athletic dancers, she brought to theatrical life her tumultuous journey towards embracing her pansexual identity, and finding liberation. And we went through all those emotions with her, those alternately tender and powerful vocals never faltering despite the restless dance routines. Everyone was on their feet dancing, and her declaration of inclusivity could not have been more empowering: “Vive everyone!” We left thrilled and elated. (Elisa Bray)

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The title track from the new movie, of course, makes an appearance, with Elton strapping on figurative rocket boots and blasting for the stratosphere. Alas, there is no repeat of  the previous weekend’s cameo in Brighton by Rocketman star Taron Egerton, who popped up to duet on “Your Song”

Not that the already busy production requires further embellishment. Around the stage, gold adornments nod to past Elton triumphs such as The Lion King and the Billy Elliot musical. Highly stylised background videos, meanwhile, reference the chip butty-and-deckchair seaside holidays of the singer’s childhood, his headlong plunge into fame in the Seventies and the enduring fealty of hardcore Elton-heads.

Not every flourish comes off. During “Candle In the Wind”, as the screen flashes montages of Marilyn Monroe, his piano creeps across the stage on a rail. Few things in pop are less dignified than a mobile grand piano and even Elton struggles to maintain his poise. 

Still the instrument is soon back where it began and Elton is praising his audience and their decades of loyalty. “I’ve had enough applause to last a million lifetimes,” he says. “Thank you, Ireland, from the bottom of my English heart”. Asking if anyone in the room has seen Rocketman – obviously quite a few have – he also makes an emotive speech about his struggle to overcome addiction, before finally cleaning up in 1990.

Two and a half hours in, it all winds to a close with the devastating encore one-two of “Your Song” and the title track from 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. That album’s cover depicts Elton wearing those famous bug-eyed spectacles and glancing to one side as he sets off on an adventure. But now those wanderings are coming to an end, which he seems to acknowledge as he negotiates the ballad with a crack in his voice. It’s a poignant leave-taking from an artist treating us to what is surely one of the most affecting long-goodbyes in pop.  

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