5 of the Best Musical Performances on Letterman

David Letterman has been in the news a lot lately for the content of his jokes. Hopefully that won’t overshadow the fact that for the past three decades he’s consistently featured some of most established and up-and-coming musical acts of the day.

Below are five musical moments on Letterman we think are pretty wonderful. If you don’t agree, tell us which ones you think are the best and maybe we’ll do a follow-up story to this one. If you agree with us, tell us that too. Either way, leave a comment … we love to read them in our spare time.

At The Drive-In

It’s hard to imagine what your average Letterman viewer thought when they turned on the TV to see two guys with huge afros seemingly going into seizures as they played their instruments, but that’s exactly what happened when At The Drive-In performed their track “One Armed Scissor” on the show. Frontman Cedric Bixler bounced around the stage like a madman while guitarist Omar Rodriguez swung his guitar around like a toy, yet the group still managed to sound incredibly tight. We just feel bad for the camera operators who had to try to capture this all on tape.

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The Gaslight Anthem

The Gaslight Anthem’s appearance may be from earlier this year, but it still stands up as one of the most impressive performances we’ve seen in a long time. The group played the title track from their album The ’59 Sound in a way that sounds as good as the original recording, but they also bring a newfound visceral energy to their performance that makes it impossible to keep your eyes off them. We’d imagine it’s difficult for a band who grew up playing in small clubs to perform in a sterile TV studio, but the Gaslight Anthem totally kill it during this epic performance.

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Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon’s 2002 performance on Letterman was a bittersweet one. Zevon, who was an occasional bandleader on the show had recently been diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer and Letterman dedicated the entire show to his guest. At the request of Letterman himself, Zevon’s final public performance was “Roland The Headless Gunner” — and as you can see, even though Zevon knew he wouldn’t be around much longer he gave this performance all he had. If you haven’t checked out any of Zevon’s recordings, we recommend Genius: The Songs Of Warren Zevon.

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Dinosaur Jr.

We sincerely wish that the mainstream music world would embrace non-traditional rock acts like Dinosaur Jr — but until that changes we still have this unbelievable rendition of “The Wagon” from the band’s album Green Mind. We have no idea what auxiliary guitarist was thinking trying to solo over the second verse, but Mascis blows him out of the water with his own impassioned soloing. In the end this performance plays out more like a duel than a typical performance, but the added tension just makes the whole experience that much more powerful.

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Before Rivers Cuomo was a Brian Wilson-esque recluse who penned hundreds of songs and grew an epic beard, he was just a skinny kid in baggy clothes who was able to write some of the most impressive rock songs of all-time. This 1995 rendition of “Say It Ain’t So” with the band’s original lineup may not be as energetic as At The Drive-In, or as meaningful as Warren Zevon’s performance, but it’s a perfect snapshot into the humble beginnings of one of the world’s biggest rock acts — and as much as we love Weezer’s current material, we’d give anything to have seen that performance live.

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