SPECIAL MUSIC ISSUE: You had to be there

The 25 most legendary rock concerts in Las Vegas history

Spencer Patterson

Just how elite is our list of Vegas’ all-time greatest rock concerts? Consider for a moment what didn’t make the cut: Brian Wilson’s Railhead Smile; Iggy’s Calamity pop-in; Dylan’s Bono-aided HOB launch; Neil’s Greendale detour; Thorogood’s 50-states-in-50-days touch-down; GNR’s new lineup unveiling; two Stones club gigs; Cream at the Ice Palace; Sabbath at the Convention Center; Sly at the Sahara; Black Flag at the Breakout; U2 at the T&M; The White Stripes at the Joint; countless nights at the Teen Beat, the Armory, That’s Entertainment and Cafe Roma; and lounge residencies, bar gigs and house shows galore. Hell, even Babs couldn’t carve out a spot with her 27-years-in-waiting MGM comeback. Not alongside this company, the kinda stuff serious rock fans drool over, remember every detail about and, in some cases, brag about having seen when they were actually at home watching M*A*S*H reruns. These are the shows that blew minds, opened doors and changed history. These—we say with the confidence that can only come after digging through mounds of library microfilm, tracking down ex-promoters in China and visiting tattoo parlors to chat with longtime scenesters—are the 25 most legendary rock concerts in the history of Las Vegas.

1.) The Beatles, Convention Center Rotunda, August 20, 1964

The second stop on the Fab Four’s first U.S. tour brought them to this then-modestly sized desert locale, giving Las Vegans the chance to peep their mop tops even before folks in Los Angeles, Chicago or Philadelphia. “We were lucky enough that they found places like ours weird and interesting,” offers Dennis Mitchell, producer and host of Vegas-based syndicated radio show Breakfast With the Beatles. Every detail of their brief visit has become an indelible part of Southern Nevada folklore: the stealthy 1 a.m. McCarran landing; the mobbed Sahara Hotel arrival; John, Paul, George and Ringo huddling around in-room slot machines; ticket prices running from $2.20 to a then-outrageous $5.50; crowds of more than 8,400 apiece for afternoon and evening shows, in a hall fire-coded for 7,500. Talk to almost anyone actually present for one of those famed 25-minute sets, however, and one memory towers above the rest. “The Beatles in Vegas was the loudest concert I have ever been to,” says Michael Schivo, a longtime concert promoter present as a third-row spectator. “And that was not by decibels from the amplifiers, but from the audience itself. John Lennon walked out and got about two notes in that you could actually hear, and then, you knew the words and you could see their mouths moving, but you couldn’t hear much over the deafening roar.”

2.) Elvis Presley, International Hotel, July 31, 1969

The King’s NBC-televised ’68 Comeback Special will forever be the most celebrated touchstone of his late-1960s comeback, but his four-week Las Vegas run in the 1,500-capacity showroom of the International (now the Las Vegas Hilton) stands as the far riskier step along Presley’s return to respectability. Not only was the July 31 opening-night gig Elvis’ first show before a paying crowd since March 1961 (the Comeback Special had been recorded in segments at NBC’s studios), but Vegas had previously been the site of one of Presley’s most notorious flops, an April 1956 New Frontier run that saw him drop from headliner to opening act in the span of two weeks. A Newsweek article titled “Return of the Pelvis” reviewed his far more auspicious International debut: “Shaking, gyrating and quivering, he again proved himself worthy of his nickname, the Pelvis. Though nervousness caused him to sing ‘Love my, me tender’ for ‘Love Me Tender,’ the pasty-faced enchanter quickly settled down to work his oleaginous charms ... Oozing the sullen sexuality that threw America into a state of shock in the ’50s, he groaned and swiveled through a medley of ‘Jailhouse Rock,’ ‘Don’t Be Cruel,’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ ‘All Shook Up’ and ‘Hound Dog.’ It was hard to believe he was 34 and no longer 19 years old.”

3.) Led Zeppelin, Las Vegas Ice Palace, 1969

Though the Internet purports Zeppelin’s only Vegas-related date to have been an April 19, 1970, Convention Center cancellation (either Robert Plant was in poor health or tickets weren’t selling well, depending which version you believe), we’ve spoken to a dozen individuals who vividly recall getting the Led out at this once-hopping all-ages venue in the Commercial Center off Sahara Ave. It went down atop the wood-covered ice of a hockey arena—most likely, we deduce, on either August 11 or 12, between shows in San Diego and Phoenix—with fans of the band’s blues-driven early music fanning across the plywood floor and up the bleachers along the sides. “They were good, except when Jimmy Page pulled out that violin bow and drove me nuts with it for the next 25 minutes,” recalls Las Vegas resident Tom Burt. “It was before they were really big—they only had their first album out—but if you knew what was goin’ on, you knew who they were.”

4.) Nirvana (opening for Sonic Youth), Calamity Jayne’s, August 16, 1990

More than a year before the world had heard Nevermind and almost two months before Dave Grohl joined his band, Kurt Cobain played his first and only Las Vegas show, at an alternative rock club on Fremont Street, across from the Showboat Hotel, receiving around $300 for a short, sloppy and, apparently, poorly received half-hour set. “They were heckled offstage, basically, and it really bothered Kurt,” recalls Craig Boyle, manager for Calamity Jayne’s during its concert heyday. “When he came off he seemed frustrated by the whole situation.” Jim Palmer, the club’s talent buyer, adds: “They were just an opening band of many that had been through the place. Nobody there knew who they were.”

5.) Grateful Dead (with Santana), Las Vegas Ice Palace, March 29, 1969

At the height of their psychedelic prowess, the Dead rolled into town for their first Vegas visit (and last until 1981), playing a show that has long circulated in recorded form among the band’s horde of tape-trading followers. “The playing is at its most exploratory and concentrated form, treading the familiar ground of these tunes with increasing assurance and darting off for angular, propulsive jamming,” wrote fan Fred Heutte in 1997’s DeadBase X: The Complete Guide to Grateful Dead Song Lists. But don’t take his word for it, or ours—stream it for yourself, free, at archive.org/details/gd69-03-29.sbd.vinson.1764.sbeok.shnf. It’s hissy and missing a few bits and pieces, but there are more than enough trippy Jerry Garcia solos, booming Phil Lesh bass bombs and bluesy Pigpen attitude to guarantee lovers of the early Dead’s cosmic sound will bookmark and revisit the Ice Palace again and again.

6.) Kiss (with Rush), Sahara Space Center, April 29, 1975

Try to imagine a young, hungry Kiss midway through the “Dressed to Kill” tour, playing the Sahara Hotel’s futuristically named convention center. Can’t do it? Neither could longtime Las Vegas concert promoter Gary Naseef, until he came up with a way to sell the idea to the public. “I asked their agent if he had video on them, and he said he had a Beta[max tape], so I pulled all my advertising from the radio and put it onto Channel 5,” Naseef remembers. “I must’ve run 20 commercials a day showing these guys with their pyrotechnics and their makeup and [Gene Simmons’] tongue and blood, and it worked. I only paid Kiss $700 total for two shows that night—8 p.m. and 2 a.m.—and they sold out 4,500 seats at each show. And we also got an opening band, which was Rush. Everybody walked out of that show and said, ‘That was outrageous.’”

7.) The Doors, Las Vegas Ice Palace, 1969

Though several websites put this show—the LA quartet’s second Vegas performance (Convention Center, August 25, 1967 was the first)—on November 1, we can’t pin that date down with total certainty. Ultimately, it matters little, compared with the circumstances surrounding Jim Morrison’s arrival the same year he’d been charged with lewd and lascivious behavior, indecent exposure, profanity and drunkenness in Miami, to say nothing of his arrest on vagrancy charges during a Las Vegas visit in January, 1968. Mike Tell, who promoted some of the area’s earliest rock shows in the mid-to-late ’60s, remembers the hubbub: “The district attorney in Vegas, George Franklin, went on national TV and said, ‘If Jim Morrison does one thing wrong I’m gonna arrest him and promoter Mike Tell.’ I had more police around the stage than ever before. So I went backstage to Morrison, and I said, ‘Jim, this is the only place kids have in Vegas. Please don’t do anything.’ And he went onstage and sang ‘When the Music’s Over’ for about 45 minutes and didn’t move a muscle.”

8.) Radiohead (opening for Tears For Fears), Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts, October 28, 1993

You read that right—Radiohead has played Las Vegas. It’s just been a while. Like, so long that they only had one album out. And were an opening band. On Tears For Fears’ Elemental tour. “At that point ‘Creep’ was out, but no one was there to see Radiohead,” recalls Zack Hall, a former Las Vegas resident who attended the show. “I saw them start to finish, and you could see that they had a decent stage presence, the beginnings of the things they’re famous for now in their show. But I would have never guessed they would be as good as they’ve become.” Here’s hoping Thom, Jonny and the rest of the ’head will find their way back to Vegas someday, relegating their Aladdin set to merely the first time they graced us with their presence.

9.) Circle Jerks, Huntridge Theatre, July 28, 1995

The punk rock survivors arrived one sunny Friday afternoon to find the roof to this historic Las Vegas landmark lying on its floor. Not to be deterred, “We ended up playing the parking lot for 30 or 40 people,” frontman Keith Morris recalls. “We got about seven or eight songs in, and then the friendly, local policio showed up and said, ‘Sorry fellas, that’s it ... unless you wanna go to jail.’ We were on tour, so jail wasn’t an option. So much for punk rock anarchy, right?”

10.) Phish, Thomas & Mack Center, October 31, 1998

What would it be? Thriller? Nevermind? Exile on Main Street? Weeks of speculation ended the moment I stepped through the T&M doors, and an usher handed me a “Phishbill” with a fuzzy pink cloud on its cover. Loaded! The genius choice for Phish’s fourth—and final, as it would turn out—Halloween “costume,” the Velvet Underground’s 1970 classic, would take the Vermont foursome to divine heights before the night was over: a feedback-fueled “Rock and Roll,” an epically prolonged “New Age,” a rough-and-tumble “Train Round the Bend,” a lilting “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.” Oh yeah, and Phish managed to fit in two full sets of their own music that night as well.

11.) Ramones, Moyer Student Union, December 7, 1984

The first Vegas stopover for New York’s first family of punk took them to UNLV, where they blitzed through a collection of greatest hits, separated only by Dee Dee’s famous “1-2-3-4!” intros. “It was classic Ramones. They slammed through about 30 songs in an hour,” says Dennis Mitchell, who got ejected for taping the gig. Also tossed: veteran Vegas punk rocker “Rev.” Rob Ruckus. “I snuck in through the air conditioning grating on the side of the building and got backstage, and during the Ramones’ set I ran across the floor, tapped Joey [Ramone] on the shoulder and dove into the crowd. About 15 UNLV football players—security for that night—locked arms and took about 45 people out the door on the side and let everybody back inside except me, and then they beat the shit outta me. I couldn’t walk for two days.” So was it worth it, Rev? “Oh, hell yes, it was the Ramones!”

12.) Lollapalooza, Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, July 7, 1994

The one and only Las Vegas appearance of Perry Farrell’s alterna-rock fest kicked off its 1994 tour, bringing Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, The Breeders, Parliament-Funkadelic, L7, Boredoms, Flaming Lips, The Verve and others to town, but sadly, not Nirvana, rumored to be the headliner-in-waiting prior to Kurt Cobain’s April death. A New York Times review of the Vegas date praised The Breeders (“a virtually perfect set of intelligently warped pop-rock”), ripped Cave (“most of the set sounded like a mope-rock lounge act”) and marveled at the city’s sparse showing (“[Lollapalooza] will be attended by more than a million people during its national tour ... although the Las Vegas stop drew about 11,000 people to a stadium that holds 30,000”).

13.) Bobby Darin, Twin Lakes Twist, Summer 1962

The early ’60s were tough times for Vegas-dwelling youngsters hoping to see and hear rock ’n’ roll up close, with few venues open for all-ages events. (In other words, not much has changed.) Seventeen-year-old Mike Tell booked his first show for the outdoor pool area at Twin Lakes Lodge, near the intersection of Bonanza and Rancho. “I walked up to Bobby Darin, wearing my blue jeans, in the Flamingo Showroom, and he loved the idea,” Tell remembers. “The stage was a picnic table with speakers on it, but it sounded great.” Tell’s brother, Jay, adds of the performance: “He had the entire audience in the palm of his hand, his voice was incredible, and he sang all of his big hits—‘Splish Splash,’ ‘Dream Lover,’ ‘Mack the Knife.’” Darin’s opening-night success launched a short-lived teen hangout. “Darin got me Wayne Newton for the next night, which was the first time Wayne was billed alone and not with the Newton brothers,” Mike Tell says. “Bobby played Friday, and Wayne played Saturday, and we had a concert every weekend after that.”

14.) Beck (with Tenacious D), Tropicana’s Tiffany Theater, May 6, 1999

Beck had just released a song called “Tropicalia” ... so he played the Tropicana. Okay, we still don’t get it, but it happened nonetheless, in an old-school lounge in the last Vegas hotel you’d expect to see a hip alternative rock star near the height of his career. Stranger still, the bill’s opening act: a comedic rock duo playing its first show outside of Los Angeles. “We got there and saw a guy standing at the front of the line to get in carrying a guitar case,” remembers Weekly art director Benjamen Purvis, one of 1,100 fans lucky enough to squeeze through the door. “My friend thought he recognized the guy from some local band, but later we realized it was Jack Black. And while Tenacious D played, Beck was standing in the back, enjoying their set.”

15.) Dead Kennedys, Pinollas, December 30, 1983

The Butthole Surfers were scheduled to open for Jello Biafra’s crew at this warehouse-turned-punk-venue tucked between I-15 and Industrial, just north of Desert Inn. That is, until the cops showed up. “That’s the night I got closed down,” remembers one-time Pinollas owner Guy “Smiley” Grieble. “I knew the show was gonna be so big that I rented a warehouse next to the one I had and cut a giant hole in the wall, and it just got so outta hand. We had about 1,000 people, and Pinollas only held about 500. The cops were patrolling the area that night, and they said we had to get the show over without a riot, so they told the Butthole Surfers they couldn’t go on, and we skipped right to the DKs. But it was a great show, and then Jello [Biafra] came over and talked politics with all these punker guys all night long.”

16.) Elton John, Convention Center Rotunda, September15, 1971

Four decades before he became a Caesars Palace regular, the budding 23-year-old rock star sold out his first Las Vegas concert ... on a Wednesday night, helping to change the industry’s perception of the local market. “Back then you couldn’t get acts to play Las Vegas for two reasons: The San Francisco acts thought it was too plastic, and LA was just down the road and they got all the weekend dates,” Gary Naseef says. “You had one-third of your population working and another third that wouldn’t go, so you had to get your 7,000 people from the other third. We gave Elton top dollar and brought him in on a weekday, and he sold out. It blew everybody away. It even blew him away.”

17.) The Misfits, Design Patio Warehouse, April 9, 1983

Las Vegas’ tight-knit punk community could scarcely have been more primed to see Glenn Danzig’s badass Jersey-based horror-punk outfit at this warehouse near the corner of Tropicana and Industrial, and the Misfits lived up to their considerable hype, with Marky Souter’s review in local fanzine Civil Disobedience calling them “one of the tightest hardcore groups I’ve ever seen.” Dirk Vermin raced home after the show to swap the Iron Maiden “Eddie” on his jacket with a Misfits skull. Another scene mainstay, Todd Sampson of Vegas band Self Abuse, remembers the headliners showing up midway through his own band’s opening set. “They came in with a lot of attitude; their roadies were all big, buff guys, throwing little punks out of the way, ‘Get outta the way, the Misfits are comin’ through!’ They had that lineup of Marshall stacks with the Misfits face on it, a really great stage look. It was all very impressive. That was Las Vegas’ first real taste of a big-time punk-rock show.”

18.) Pearl Jam, MGM Grand Garden Arena, December 22, 2000

From the opening drone of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive,” something special was afoot at the Seattle warhorse’s 10th anniversary performance. The band covered Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Producer/friend Brendan O’Brien joined the quintet for a trio of encore numbers. And, to the packed house’s total amazement, Pearl Jam took its first-ever shot at “Crown of Thorns” a ballad recorded by pre-PJ outfit Mother Love Bone before singer Andrew Wood’s 1990 fatal overdose. “I’m just lost. I’m just frozen. I thought I’d cry but I can’t. I’m just transfixed in this moment, trying to burn it into my brain cells so I can never forget it,” wrote music writer/diehard fan Caryn Rose at the time. “In a million years, I never, ever, ever, EVER imagined I’d see this performed live, never thought I’d hear Ed sing it.” Hear the impact for yourself via the night’s “official bootleg,” which, by the way, climbed all the way to No. 152 on the Billboard 200 despite being released the same day as 23 other live Pearl Jam recordings.

19.) Grateful Dead, Sam Boyd Silver Bowl, April 27, 1991

We didn’t intend to tie up two of our 25 precious slots with one band, but, as former Sam Boyd facilities director Pat Christenson explains, the Dead’s first Vegas stadium concert forever changed Southern Nevada’s concert fortunes. “When we did the first Dead show, there really wasn’t a philosophy of touring shows being able to bring tourists to town, but we sold out 32,000 a show for two nights,” he says. “And after we did that first show we had a picture of a sold-out stadium, which we showed to Paul McCartney’s people, and from there all the stadium shows started coming through Vegas: McCartney, U2, The Eagles, Metallica, Lollapalooza, George Strait ... The Dead opened everyone’s eyes to Vegas’ ability to do the biggest touring shows, which later moved over to the MGM, Mandalay Bay, the Joint [at the Hard Rock Hotel] and the other casino properties.”

20.) Prince, Club Utopia, October 25, 1997

His Purple Majesty’s first Vegas after-show party began at 3:20 a.m. (after his regularly scheduled concert at the MGM on October 24), establishing a late-night tradition linking Prince and Sin City that continues to this day. “It was clear there was no setlist, with [Prince] playing a riff to start off the song and the band catching up, or them just jamming and him calling out changes,” a fan with the handle AyanO on Prince wrote in a review posted to newsgroup alt.music.prince two days later. “Total raw funky, unplanned, unrehearsed music. Only the way [Prince] can do it.”

21.) Vegoose, Sam Boyd Stadium and Star Nursery Fields, October 29 and 30, 2005

The name still puzzles us, but we’re totally behind the concept: a two-day, multistage festival blending jammy, indie and hip-hop acts, right here in our own back yard, with additional late-night shows tacked on at venues around town. The inaugural lineup—which included Dave Matthews, Beck, the Arcade Fire, Primus, the Flaming Lips, Widespread Panic, The Shins, Trey Anastasio, The Decemberists, Ween, Digable Planets, Sleater-Kinney, The Meters, Phil Lesh & Friends, Talib Kweli, Jack Johnson, Spoon, Gov’t Mule and many more—set the bar so high, Vegoose’s promoters will be hard-pressed to match its impact.

22.) NOFX, Losee Road, 1985

Word-of-mouth desert shows like this were emblematic of the D.I.Y. attitude of a small but strong mid-’80s Vegas punk scene. “When we first came to Vegas, we used to play out in the middle of the desert—they’d throw big desert parties on a generator,” reminisces Fat Mike, frontman for Orange City punk vets NOFX. The band’s close ties with locals FSP (that’s F--k Shit Piss, kiddos) brought them to the end of Losee Road, near the pig farm in North Las Vegas, the first couple of times they played here. “We’d throw a rug down, with a generator and a light bulb, and a buncha bands would just play the desert,” says Mike Fouts, drummer for FSP. “We played with the NOFX guys a lot. They’d hook us up in Southern California, and we’d hook them up here. They were new then, just kids, but they still had a following. There were probably 75 people out there the very first time they played.”

23.) Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ice Palace, April 25, 1969

How strange that two of Las Vegas’ best remembered rock shows of 1969—the Dead with Santana and Creedence—came to town courtesy of a commuting San Francisco computer programmer who didn’t reside in Nevada and had never promoted a concert in his life. Dick Lepre simply saw an opportunity and went for it. And, in his words, “lost my ass. My partner and I probably lost $8,000 or $9,000 on the two shows, which was a lot at that time, and I said, ‘That’s it, I’m not doing this anymore.’ But it was a great experience; the losing money certainly wasn’t fun, but I enjoyed everything else.” Las Vegan Dorothy Wright, who’s booked dozens of shows for Clark County’s Parks and Recreation department over the years, was in attendance that April 25. “The Ice Palace wasn’t the Ritz, that’s for sure, but Creedence had so much energy,” she says. “I had never seen anything like them.” As for Lepre, he thinks he might have remained in the concert game a bit longer if he hadn’t shot quite so high the first time out. “If I had it to do over again, I probably would have started on a smaller scale, with less expensive groups, just to establish myself,” he says. But Dick, then we wouldn’t have our Nos. 5 and 23 concerts, so we like to think everything turned out exactly the way it was supposed to.

24.) Beastie Boys, Huntridge Theatre, June 9, 2004

The Beasties could have held this MTV $2Bill show anywhere in Las Vegas, and they passed on the Strip for ... the Huntridge? Apparently, an early ’90s visit to the vintage facility so impressed Ad, Mike and MCA, they couldn’t resist its old-world charms, spiffing up the ramshackle hall enough to successfully film an intimate, 900-capacity made-for-TV gig. Fans lucky enough to score $2 tix through a line-then-lottery system previewed material from then-unreleased album To the 5 Boroughs, heard a few old faves and—depending on the future of the long-idling building—might have caught the last significant event ever housed in the once-vibrant Huntridge Theatre.

25.) Red Hot Chili Peppers (with Weezer & The Adolescents), Silver Bowl Sports Complex, July 2, 2005

Anytime 50,000 people jam onto a field to see anything, it qualifies as a special occasion. When tickets to the event are handed out for free (the City of Las Vegas did that to celebrate its centennial) and the bill teams three quality bands like these (sure, we’ve seen each burn brighter before, but we’re talking free here!), it’s simply too memorable not to hold down the final spot on our list. Plus, that Flea/Frusciante free-form jam was pretty ridiculous.

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