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In an age where technological advancements and mind bending feats of engineering are evolving festival sets into spellbinding games of one upmanship from the world’s biggest artists, there has perhaps never been a more consistently memorable era for sets that will live long in the memory.

But not everything has to be a Tupac hologram or a Beyonce ‘Crazy in Love’ Coachella reveal. Hydraulic platforms and stalking, giant, fire breathing phoenixes are not always necessary for a set to be ingrained into the memory. You don’t even need to zorb across the crowd to become a cherished part of festival folklore (although we will always appreciate the mesmeric efforts of The Flaming Lips).

The most revered sets are immortalised for their ability to speak to more than just the music. They are often cultural happenings. They are experiences. They are commentaries on a time and a place. They are stories and journeys personal to the performers, played out in front of thousands in person and millions watching around the world. They are moments in time that resonate with the masses through sheer emotion and spectacle.

Whether stripped back and raw or jet fuelled Cirque du Soleil standard grandiosity, when a set hits, it hits.

But which hits hit harder than most? Here are a few of our absolute favourite festival sets in history to whet your appetites ahead of this summer (No we’ve not included Hendrix at Woodstock. Just take some things as a given, OK?)…


In the summer of 1999, the rare confluence of someone being both the biggest and best rapper in the world at the same time occurred. DMX was a year removed from the dropping of his debut It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and hot off its follow up Flesh of my Flesh, Blood of my Blood. Bedecked in battered Timbs and blood red dungarees, he stomped onto the Woodstock stage to be greeted by an audience of angry young white men. Things could have gone horrendously south. And they would as the weekend progressed across a doomed three days in Rome, New York.

But, on home turf, DMX turned in a performance that transcended not just everything else that occurred on stage that weekend, but the rap and metal genres in their entireties. In the shadows of a horrendously corporate attempt to cash in on the Woodstock name following the financial disaster of the 1994 edition of the historic festival, X took proceedings down to street level, gifting the world a visceral performance of raw, unabashed, ferocity that pulsated into the faces of everyone in attendance from beginning to end. No gloss, no bling. Pure power. The crowd may have been full of abysmal people, but it is impossible to deny the importance of DMX’s showing that ill fated weekend in the summer of ’99. It is now retweeted ad nauseam on Twitter, often to thousands upon thousands of quote tweets, comments and likes, proving the staying power of the late, great Earl Simmons. This set was his masterpiece.


There was always a chaos to Nirvana. A kinetic energy emanating from frontman Kurt Cobain that there was no way of predicting. It could end up in triumph just as easily as it could end in disaster. Prior to the trio’s now almost deified set at the 1992 Reading Festival, only one rehearsal took place. The night before the gig itself.

That Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic even made it on stage that night was considered nothing short of a miracle at the time. Cobain was fresh out of rehab and grunge’s leading lights were reportedly dimming fast. Backstage, members of other bands on the bill were asking Grohl what he was even doing there, believing the tabloid talk that Nirvana were on the verge of dissolving. Cobain’s health was being questioned, to which he responded in typical fashion. Taking to the stage in a wheelchair and a hospital gown and wig, Cobain barely made it to his feet, sang one line from Amanda McBroom’s ‘The Rose’ and promptly ‘collapsed’. Moments later, he was vertical once more and ripping through 78 minutes of one of the most memorable sets not just in Reading history, but in history full stop. This was Nirvana at the absolute peak of their powers, tearing through Nevermind and Bleach like three young, hungry kids looking to prove a point, not the biggest band in the world. Which they were even moreso as they brought the curtain down on a scorching hour and a quarter by destroying their instruments en masse, much to the delirium of the 50,000 in attendance.


Given that even an average Prince set would still qualify as great by pretty much every other artist in history’s standards, when The Purple One really gets into his groove, forget about it. Everyone else might as well pack up and go home. You’re not topping it.

And this earth shattering set from Coachella may not have been touched in the 15 years since it happened. It takes a special sort of genius to effortlessly blend The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’, B-52’s ‘Rock Lobster’, Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Angel’ and Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ into an eight minute medley, but Minneapolis’ finest pulled it off with the casual demeanour of someone who was spitting out their chewing gum and catching it on the volley.

Rifling through his own almost unparalleled back catalogue of iconic hits the late, great, pint sized genius had the Indio crowd in the palm of his hand the entire way, not letting go until he departed and even then, he’s undoubtedly stayed with every single person in attendance ever since that night.


Before she knocked back Rehab and before she covered The Zutons to devastating effect, Amy Winehouse stood on the Jazz Stage at Glastonbury, 19-years-old and one album down. In front of her huddled a rain soaked crowd desperate to be impressed by this prodigious soul singer. Those who witnessed that mischievously tongued teenager from Southgate that day will still delight in telling you all about it, given how this performance pre-dated the explosion that was to come in the proceeding seven years until Winehouse’s tragically untimely death at the age of 27.

Soaring through her debut album ‘Frank’ Winehouse’s vocals were enough to shift the rainclouds and bring forth a rainbow, illuminating Worthy Farm in the process. Truly a force of nature.


As you’ll notice in this list, that farm down in Somerset has played host to some pretty momentous experiences in music history.

And they don’t come much more momentous than David Bowie guiding Glastonbury into the 21st century.

It’s safe to say that old Ziggy was making up for lost time, having not performed at Glastonbury since 1971 before his turn of the millennium slot that made time stand still. That ‘Heroes’ encore will never, ever get old.


By 2003, Metallica had long been the reigning overlords of heavy metal, with over 20 years of classics under their belts. So that made it all the more astounding when James Hetfield and co just rocked up, unannounced to the tiny Scuzz Stage at the first ever Download festival.

Promoters had shot down rumours that a surprise set was in the offing, which only increased the volume in Donington when the Masters of Puppets turned up, destroyed for 10 straight songs and left. It may not have been to the biggest crowd or even be a set that generates the same amount of headlines that some of the others in this list do, but that still doesn’t temper the audacity of being the biggest metal band in history randomly playing a side stage at a brand new festival in front of less than a quarter of the total audience. A very ‘Arrive. Wreck s**t. Leave’ mentality.


Any band that takes on the responsibility of filling in for The Beastie Boys at late notice deserves our respect. And when Karen O, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase deputised due to MCA’s cancer diagnosis, they did not disappoint in their fellow New Yorkers’ absence.

Powering through a 16 song setlist, the trio delivered an unforgettable performance featuring a plethora of heavy hitters from the recently released It’s Blitz! as well as a momentous blending of ‘Phenomena’ with the Beasties’ classic ‘So Wat’cha Want’.


The world feels as though it is constantly in need of Rage Against The Machine. The fact that they broke up only a few months before George W.Bush ascended to power in the United States always felt cruelly ironic. Fortunately, when Zack de la Rocha, Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilks decided to reunite in 2007, they more than made up for lost time. Armed with almost two full Bush Administration terms of pent up anger, de la Rocha unleashed a tirade of fury against America’s previous 11 presidents, labelling them as war criminals who deserved to be ‘tried, hung and shot’ in between towering renditions of ‘Wake Up’, ‘Bullet in the Head’, ‘Sleep Now in the Fire’ and, of course, set closing ‘Killing in the Name’. Well worth the seven year wait.


Bookending this list with Woodstock ’99 acts may feel utterly insane given how much of a disaster the festival was, but sometimes there is just no denying the power and audacity of a performance at a place in time. And The Godfather of Soul tearing the house down at a festival where the majority of fans had come to see Korn, Limp Bizkit and Kid ‘I’m an actual grown man who shoots tins of Bud Light on instagram now’ Rock is, undeniably, insane and worthy of all our admiration.

Also worthy of said admiration is Brown refusing to go on stage at the last second until he got paid in full. Clearly sensing how much of a s**tshow the festival was, he wasn’t risking giving away ‘Get Up Offa That Thing’ and ‘Living In America’ for free. Get paid he did and the crowd were treated to an absolute all timer of a set as a result. No one has ever done it better.