‘Lighters In The Sky’: How Corbin Reiff Chronicled All The World’s Best Concerts

If you only know one thing about Corbin Reiff it’s this — he loves live music. After working alongside him at Uproxx for the last six months or so, we’ve shared hundreds of conversations about classic shows, what makes a great concert, and the particular power of seeing a band live. Late last month, we even shared the experience of seeing Eric Clapton live at the LA Forum, a show neither of us will soon forget.

So, when I finally had the opportunity to read the book he’d submitted right after he began working with us, I knew a bit about what to expect. I knew the writing in Lighters In The Sky would be passionate, personal, and articulated from the lens of a masterful historian with a sharp interest in the topic. I knew that Corbin’s eye as a critic allows him to draw elegant parallels between greater pop culture moments and trends, and the minutia of a specific band or musician’s personal history.

And I also knew that there would be a good deal of humor, respect, and compassion for the artists — and humans — that he writes about through the lens of live music. There are a number of moments that made me laugh out loud in this book, something I wouldn’t totally expect from a book of historical rock criticism. Reiff’s writing is formal in that it contains esoteric knowledge and historical context, but it’s also very informal in style and tone, which draws in someone who doesn’t have any expertise on this kind of stuff — AKA, me.

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Despite all the things I know about Corbin’s work, what I still wasn’t prepared for was the enormous scope and level of detail that went into Lighters In The Sky. Reiff has sifted through over half a century’s worth of concerts to select the beacon live music event for each year, along with an honorable mention that often fleshes out the story of what was happening in music culture during that moment. Every entry also includes the No. 1 single and album of that year, along with liner notes like setlists, and occasionally, lists of band members, embedded alongside the text.

The result is a book that feels immersive without being stuffy, authoritative without being dismissive, and historical without being boring. It takes a rare writer to cover acts as disparate as Van Halen, The Dixie Chicks, and NWA with equal gravitas and knowledge, but in Lighters In The Sky Reiff has done just that. This is a book composed by a writer who is first and foremost a music fan, a characteristic that is often derided by the old school who demand faux-objective remove must inform good criticism. But Corbin’s criticism is uplifted by his generous, spirited enthusiasm, which comes through strongly on every page.

Ahead of the release of Lighters In The Sky: The All-Time Greatest Concerts 1960-2016, I spoke with Corbin about what motivated him to craft this collection, the highs and lows of the writing process, and the concert that made him sob uncontrollably.

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When did it first strike you that chronicling live shows was the thing you wanted to write your first book on?

More than almost anything in the world, I love going to concerts, and as I looked around the Internet and the book world, I saw a lot of different facets of the music world getting their due, but concerts, as opposed to albums, singles, singers, and guitarists, always seemed to get the short shrift. Also, any excuse I could use to listen to live albums, bootlegs and video footage of amazing shows for a year was more than fine with me!

What is it, for you, that separates the live show from listening to an album?

I think energy is the first thing. Intensity. Immediacy. There’s something special that happens when an artist gets on stages and plies their craft in front of a crowd of hundreds or thousands of people; an exchange of energy that you just don’t get when you listen to a record. Concerts are not meant to be permanent. They are here and now. Records are made for posterity, they are fine-tuned and perfected in every way imaginable. Concerts are a glorious mess and often, it’s the mistakes that you remember and love the most.

The write-ups obviously capture some of what you’re talking about, but book is also set up contextually with a lot of historical touchstones, No. 1 album and No. 1 single of the year, as well as context from the event like setlist, and an honorable mention from another concert that year. What went into including all those additional elements for you?

Because the book is broken down in a chronological style, with each chapter being given to one particular show, I felt that adding context was key. The way I thought about what shows made the book and what shows didn’t was like this: If you had x amount of dollars in 1967, or 1975 ,or 2013 and could only buy a ticket to one concert, which would you choose? I think understanding what was happening outside of that show, what other awesome concerts took place, what was on the radio, what the band or the artist performed during the set go a long way to helping readers get a better sense of the moment.

What was the year where it was the most difficult tie-breaker between top slot greatest concert and honorable mention?

Wow, that’s a great question! Hmmm. 1990 was really hard, going back and forth between Madonna and Janet Jackson. 2011 was another tough one choosing between Kanye West and Adele. 1978 was a doozy, Bruce Springsteen and Cheap Trick. 1976, The Last Waltz vs. the Sex Pistols. There were quite a few in there that gave me some major anxiety.

What was the overall most important factor that went into that final choice, despite the myriad of elements?

The performance had to pop. It’s one thing to want to see somebody live because they’re riding a cultural moment, or put out a great record and are the biggest thing in the world, but it’s an entirely different consideration whether they could deliver live. The Eagles, for instance, sold more records than God, but live, they really didn’t deviate much from what they did in the studio. Someone like The Who or James Brown, on the other hand, took what they created and made magic out of it. That’s why Live At Leeds and Live At The Apollo keeps people coming back. You wish you could’ve been in the room every single time you crank one of those records.

I would ask you the worst show you’ve ever been to, but we’re not really in the habit of throwing anyone under the bus. What is it, though, that you think can make a live show absolutely horrible?

In a word? Apathy. It’s one thing to go and see a trainwreck. Trainwrecks can actually be kinda fun, like when Liam Gallagher walked offstage after playing just three songs during his set at Lollapalooza earlier this year. What really sucks is when you can tell the person onstage doesn’t care. When you can see the clock running down in their head to when they can collect their paycheck and go home. Artists think that audiences can’t tell when they’re phoning it in, but we absolutely can.

What was the hardest chapter to write?

Every single one of them had their challenges in some way or another. I suppose Kanye West in 2013 was especially hard for me because that was a show I attended and wrote about from a first-person perspective. There are a lot of different models between the chapters, like the oral history of the Allman Brothers show for 1971, the ranking of the performances at Woodstock in 1969, the interview I did with Kelefa Sanneh for the Strokes/White Stripes chapter in 2002, but for whatever reason, I found it a little difficult to change the perspective for that 2013 chapter and relate my own experience.

Was that one also your favorite chapter? Or, which one was?

It was definitely a favorite for me, absolutely. That show meant a lot to me from both a personal and professional standpoint, so I felt very proud of it. I think my favorite chapters to write about though were the shows that I missed out on. It was really fun piecing together the Stones in 1972 and Jay-Z at Summer Jam in 2001 when he went off on Prodigy and brought out Michael Jackson. Being the enormous Led Zeppelin fan that I am however, I really enjoyed watching that Earls Court gig in 1975 over and over again, haha.

You kick off the book in the intro with your first show — Queens of the Stone Age and Nine Inch Nails. Has anyone ever topped that initial NIN show for you? I know you saw them again very recently, did they, or another band come close to that first one?

That first show was a gauntlet for sure. I think I mentioned in a piece that I recently wrote that I didn’t realize how good that performance really was until I started seeing different concerts after that one. There have been a few shows that have reached that same quality or emotional heft for me, but it’s a short list. Kanye in 2013 for sure. The first time I saw Robert Plant. The first time I saw Bruce Springsteen. There might be others, but I can’t think of them right now.

If you had to choose a concert for 2017 to add, what would it be?

Given all that I’ve seen and all that I’ve heard this year, I think I’d have to give it to Kendrick Lamar. The DAMN. tour was so good that I actually saw it twice here in Chicago, the first time in a professional capacity and then again just because I wanted to relive the experience. If I were to get specific, I think I’d pick the show at the Forum where he brought out SZA, Jay Rock and ScHoolboy Q, just because TDE is having such a moment right now, and that really felt like a watershed experience. He brought out Chance The Rapper the first time I caught him at the United Center though, and that was pretty damn dope!

Have you already begun working on your next book?

Let’s just say that there’s definitely some stuff percolating that I’m really excited about. Doing some really cool research, talking to some really cool people. Stay tuned!

What concert in 2018 that’s been announced — or maybe that is anticipated — are you looking forward to the most?

Well, not to beat a dead horse, but I personally think Kanye West is one of the greatest live performers on the planet, so I’m hoping he’ll hit us with a new project and live show. Jimmy Page if he ever decides to stop digging through the archives and strap on a guitar. I’d love to see the Smashing Pumpkins put their original lineup back together and rock some place like the Metro in Chicago. Jack White has a record coming and he’s always great live. Then you have the legacy bands who remain road warriors, but won’t be around much longer. I think it’s important to see those people while we can still enjoy them. Who knew that Soundgarden would play their last concert ever this year for instance? I’m also excited to discover some new band or rapper I’ve never heard of in an opening slot or at a festival. My advice for anyone out there, if you’re on the fence about a concert, just go. 99 times out of 100, you won’t regret it.

I’m not a huge rock history buff, but one thing I appreciated is that you included Madonna and Beyonce alongside acts like Cream or The Who. That feels rare in these kinds of books, or I maybe I just enjoy reading about concerts I was alive for more. I was particularly struck by the chapter on the Dixie Chicks where they denounced George W. Bush. Looking back on that, and the moment we’re living in now, that feels like such a huge milestone, not just in live music history, but also the culture at large. How did you feel researching that one?

That show was really unlike any other concert that I chronicled in the book. There are a lot of shows that carried a historical impact in Lighters In The Sky, but nothing touched what the Dixie Chicks did in London in 2003. They basically torpedoed their entire career in a single night standing up for what they believed in. I thought that was an amazing thing. I had a hell of a time imagining what it must have been like for them to be back in the dressing room, watching tanks roll out in Kuwait just days before the Iraq war and then hitting the stage and playing something like “Goodbye Earl” 20 minutes later. It was the key event in their career and a seminal moment in our history as a country. I think you can gather from the way the Nashville establishment has handled the Trump Presidency that that relationship between country music and patriotism is still pretty perilous.

Finally, I noticed that you dedicated the book to your wife, Jenna. What’s your favorite show that the two of you have been to together?

Wow, we’ve been to so many together! Well, I mentioned it above, but the first time we saw Robert Plant in Vancouver, B.C. I was an emotional wreck. Like, he came out, and launched into a “Ramble On” and I just started sobbing. Not the single tear from the eye. Not the silent crying. I’m talking shoulders shaking, moans, the works. She was right next to me for that, arm draped around my shoulder shooting dirty looks at the people arching their eyebrows. I don’t know if it was the best performance we’ve seen together, but she was just so there for me for that one. [Editor’s note: Jenna is a keeper.]

Lighters In The Sky is out 10/10 via Lesser Gods Books. Pre-order a copy here.