Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Random List: 10 Great Live Albums

I've been exceedingly busy lately with the tail end of my internship, graduation preparation and a job hunt, so I've watched few movies and even started to write about even fewer. However, I have had my iTunes playing nonstop as I work and fill out endless cover letters, and I've been itching to say something about the music I've been loving lately. A great deal of my recent listens have been live albums which, when great, can leave studio albums in the dust; there are even bootlegs for artists I play more than their official product. The following 10 official releases are some of the live discs I spin most often. I don't claim these to be "definitive" picks, though I've encountered few other records than can match them. So take a look at some of my favorites and see if you spot anything familiar.

10. Ramones, NYC ’78

It’s Alive gets a lot of love, but it was primarily re-recorded in a studio, and it shows: the playing lacks the true speed of a Ramones show, and the absence of a proper remaster has left it sounding enduringly quiet and static. Far better is this belated release of da Brudders a week after It’s Alive’s London show, back in NYC playing to a packed Palladium. The setlist is the same, and of course the playing the is the same (the Ramones sort of built their rep on being the opposite of one of those improvisatory, free-form bands). But the actual sound of the Ramones live immediately sets this apart from its more celebrated sibling. Blistering through nearly 30 songs in under an hour, NYC ’78 is lean, mean, and damn fun. The Ramones were still the poppiest pogo-ers around at this time, and though they played as if trying to set their instruments on fire through sheer friction, this is still a remarkably catchy, light set. Imagine someone playing a sock-hop at the wrong speed.

9. Van Morrison, It's Too Late to Stop Now

Van Morrison's reputation as an unpredictable, volatile live performer predated Axl Rose's petulant no-shows by decades. When everything came together, however, few could touch Morrison's energy. It's Too Late to Stop Now captures the mystic at his peak, leading the Caledonia Soul Orchestra through his impressionistic sketches of overwhelming emotion. No white man sang the blues like Van, which he makes amply clear from his growls on the bombastic opening "Ain't Nothing You Can Do." But when he slows down and explores the contours of his elastic range, he moves beyond blues, folk, jazz, rock, anything. Have a gander at his rendition of "Listen to the Lion" for a masterclass in hooking a crowd: after yelping and scatting with thunderous energy, he performs a live version of a fade-out, falling to a hush that gradually dissipates into silence, which is held for a few beats until someone in the audience snaps out of the trance and generates a wild wave of applause. But that's only the most obvious example of his hypnotic power, each song on the album is effortlessly heart-stopping. Morrison initially struggled with fame, but here it fits him like a glove.

8. Queen, Live at Wembley Stadium

If the Ramones’ New York show displays rock at its most stripped-down, Queen’s most grandiose statement parades the full theatricality the genre can attain. A marathon-length tour through the many, many hits of this great band, Live at Wembley Stadium admittedly can feel like an all-too-typical “greatest hits” live show. Yet it has a visceral edge underneath its absurdly oversized production and necessary taped overdubs that serves as a reminder of the band underneath all the studio trickery, the band that used to proudly announce in their album sleeves that they used no synthesizers. Give a listen to the run-through of “Tie Your Mother Down” and remember that, when you strip away the pomp, these are still four immensely talented musicians who know how to write great hooks. It’s still hard not to choke up when Mercury defiantly states they’ll keep playing “until we fucking well die,” but soon they’re off on another great song, and it’s easy to forget, if only for a moment, that he’s no longer here.

7. Otis Redding, “The Ultimate Live Otis Redding Show”

Cobbled together from various live documents of Redding to form the last disc of Rhino’s superb 4-CD box set, this is not a strict “album” in a real sense. I also do not “care” at all. Plenty of “proper” live albums are made from cutting up whole tours into one flowing CD, and plenty of “proper” live albums don’t sound half this good, nor a hundredth as vital. Redding died before he could write enough material to hold the kind of epic show he clearly had in him, so this 22-song extravaganza is the closest we’ll come. Compiling shows from different parts of his all-too-brief career, the disc cannot disguise its multiple sources. But regardless of the size of the venue or the audience, the pure intensity of Redding’s performance and the crowd’s response links everything.

6. King Crimson, Absent Lovers: Live in Montreal 1984

Recorded at the last show of King Crimson’s brief ‘80s revival, Absent Lovers shows the band at the pinnacle of their Brian Eno/Talking Heads-inspired pop-prog rock. Densely layered polyrhythms roll almost casually off Bill Bruford’s drum heads, and somehow Tony Levin can find the throughline of the various time signatures with his bass and Chapman stick. To either side are the warring guitars of Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, the latter playing most of the chords while Fripp runs down his usual laser-beam solos. It’s hopelessly complex, tribal African polyrhythms bent into some kind of futuristic digital speak, and yet Crimson has never been as danceable. Don’t believe me? Listen to Levin absolutely tear into the bassline for “Sleepless” and try not to groove along. Hell, you can even nod your head to “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic.”

5. Miles Davis, The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel

My love for Agharta should be well-established, but it’s not good primer fare. “What, and this is?” you might say of this eight(!)-disc collection of Miles at the titular Chicago nightclub. But these seven sets capture Miles in rapid evolution, his Second Great Quintet flexing in its two-night gig and offering dynamically different renditions of the same tracks. The Quintet had released one album by this point, but in these shows you can hear the band coalescing, even laying down the foundation for the upcoming upheaval in Miles’ sound. Miles’ role as the simultaneous bandleader and principal rhythm player (always guiding his band to where he wants them, but from behind like a general) shines here. He allows his young supporters (especially Wayne Shorter) to truly stretch the boundaries, only to come in and gently but forcibly shift them into new sonic areas. Not long after, he’d really send his players into uncharted territory, but the relatively tame work found in these discs is nevertheless ground zero for understanding the upcoming phase of Miles’ career.

4. James Brown, Live at the Apollo

I remember being confused and bored with this when I bought it around the age of 15 based on the hype. Where were all the hits? Finally, a few years later, I actually—*gasp*—listened to the damn thing, and suddenly everything became clear. Capturing Brown at a crucial juncture that saw him too popular a live act to contain but too modest a chart performer to truly ignite, Live at the Apollo truly announced Brown’s arrival. From the overblown introduction that brings the singer on-stage to the frenzied rendition of “Night Train” that closes the show, Brown and his backing band The Famous Flames are in control of the crowd, who shriek as loud as anyone watching The Beatles around the same time. Brown sounds like a preacher possessed here, his gospel-trained howls filled with sweat and lust that drives the audience wild. He’s already a consummate showman, drawing out his “Lost Someone” into nearly 11 minutes of teasing and wailing that borders on the perverse; this bluesy, lethargic number could beat out hardcore punk for sheer force and energy. When Brown runs through a list of cities in “Night Train,” he sounds as if he’s listing off conquered lands, with the unspoken assertion that the world is next. Listening to the Hardest Working Man in Show Business here, you almost want to go out and get a white flag.

3. Charles Mingus, Cornell 1964

Only recently unearthed, this impromptu concert at Cornell University showcases perhaps Mingus’ best line-up in a magnificent set. Rolling out with two solo showcases—one for pianist Jaki Byard and one for Mingus—the album then moves into knotty jams that pit saxophonist Clifford Jordan and multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy in disharmonious unity as Mingus and longtime drumming partner Dannie Richmond hold down the rhythm with a groove that belies the complexity of their playing. Highlights more or less consist of the entire show, be it the roaring version of “Fables of Faubus” (complete with wry musical quotations) to Mingus’ fond send-off for the soon-departing (and soon-departed, tragically) Dolphy. Bonus points for trumpeter Johnny Coles’ fresh tone, compared to his illness-affected playing heard on the various live releases of the subsequent European tour. This snapshot of a band firing on all cylinders is sadly poignant in retrospect, with Dolphy’s impending death and the deep psychological impact it would have on Mingus. The master jazz composer wouldn’t sound so on top of his game for nearly another decade after this. Then again, he’d hardly record at all in the coming decade.

2. The Who, Live at Leeds

Released as a response to the increasing theatricality of The Who’s songwriting, the back-to-basics Live at Leeds showcases The Who at its most primal. Opening with a thudding warm-up trill by John Entwistle, the band then launches into molten slabs of maximum R&B that doesn’t let up until a gloriously catastrophic run-through of “My Generation.” Remastered and released on a deluxe edition, the show now comes with the very Tommy material the original LP sought to counterbalance (I’m not knocking Tommy, by the way). However, the packagers wisely split off the Tommy material from the now-complete set of bruising hard rock that surrounds it, allowing for a full disc of uninterrupted sonic fury. The live Tommy is intense too, but hearing Townsend slash through power chords and Daltrey scream bloody murder as Entwistle elegantly holds down the bottom end while complimenting Moon’s mad percussion attacks is as good as rock gets….

1. Jerry Lee Lewis, Live at the Star Club, Hamburg

...Except for this. Perhaps the greatest rock ‘n’ roll album full-stop, Jerry Lee Lewis’ Live at the Star Club, Hamburg is perfect down to its choice of venue. In virtual exile back home over his notorious marriage to his cousin, Lewis heads to the club that helped mold The Beatles to remind a world threatening to move on from the old Sun Records stars that he was still the meanest rocker around. Damned if he doesn’t prove it too: bursting out of the gate with furious piano playing that never lets up and not so much singing as hollerin’ like a drunk hillbilly itching for a fight, Lewis threatens to outpace his backing band at every turn. In fact, he even harasses one of the Nashville Teens during “What’d I Say?” Careening through licks and beating the keys until they threaten to break, Lewis is a madman. It’s a borderline shambles of a performance, which makes the last-second mastery Lewis pulls out of the air to guide every song all the more thrilling. Highlights are impossible to choose: it's all one flowing, rambling document of the forgotten demanding to be remembered. After listening to this album, no one could ever forget.


  1. This is a fantastic list, Jake. I admit I haven't listened to most of these, but knowing the performers I'm sure they're brilliant.

    I don't know if you're a fan of Springsteen, but have you ever heard his "Hammersmith Odeon, London '75" album? I think it might be his greatest album full-stop, including all the best stuff from his first three records, but drawn out and played with such wild abandon that they feel like something totally new. ABout the only song I feel isn't as good as its studio version is Born to Run, which is exceedingly high-produced in the first place, but Thunder Road and Lost in the Flood and Kitty's Back are insanely epic, and then he goes into medleys of covers of other songs like Devil With a Blue Dress On and Good Golly Miss Molly and even throwing in a little piece of Moondance. Basically, it's amazing.

  2. Wow, nice list.

    For me, my picks would be David Bowie's Live at the Beeb & Stage, Jane's Addiction's self-titled debut album, and Led Zeppelin's How the West Was Won in terms of production and mixing.

  3. Stephen: I might do a favorite bootleg post in the future, and you can bet Springsteen'll be on it (hell, I could do a top 10 "Brucelegs" if I felt like it). I wish that Darkness' big reissue had gotten an official live release like Born to Run did. It's arguably the best rock tour of all time and you can just cherry pick legendary performances from it that NEED to get a proper release.

    Void: I go back and forth on HTWWW. I think I've slipped out of Zeppelin for a moment; I'll be back, but I think I overdosed on them and need a break. I admit that HTWWW is an an album I nearly included, but it's been a long time since I've listened and I was trying to get a bit of variety for my choices. Who knows, I might even do a "10 More Great Live Albums." I know I'd like to include that, some Pearl Jam and a blues and jazz set or two.

  4. Weird. I left a comment yesterday but it seems to have disappeared. Here it is.

    Great list. I've coincidentally been listening through all the Mingus on my iPod all morning while at work. Haven't gotten to the Cornell show yet but I remember that one being as mind-blowing as you describe it. I love Mingus at his most intense and rootsy; I've got Mingus at Antibes on now and it's a blast.

    Live at Leeds really is one the greatest, just a towering behemoth of an album. The live Tommy on the reissue is much better than the studio version, but as you say, the real draw is all that blistering jamming on the first disc.

    Love the Morrison and Brown albums too. I haven't heard that Redding set, but what's wrong with the actual Redding live albums? Whiskey-a-go-go and Live in Europe are both pretty compact, but they're amazing albums, especially the former. In a similar vein, I'd rank Sam Cooke's 1963 Harlem Square Club set among the greatest, it just has so much energy and joy. That's probably my favorite live soul.

    Some other favorites are Ground-Zero's Last Concert, Curtis Mayfield's Curtis/Live, Coil's live series, some of Dylan's Bootleg Series stuff, Haunted House's Up In Flames, Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison, and literally ANYTHING that Tim Buckley did live.

  5. Ed, sorry about your comment not showing up. My spam filter is randomly blocking totally fine comments lately. I need to check it more often to make sure nothing's been lost.

    Thanks so much for your comment. Re: Redding's proper albums, there is absolutely nothing wrong with them at all. I really went with the compiled disc in the box set because it felt more like the concert he might have given a few years down the road. I know that's cheating but Otis is so sadly limited in output that I relish even the illusion of a marathon of his work.

    And great suggestions, some of which 've heard (At Folsom Prison was in my first draft until I remembered Morrison) and some I've added to a to-listen list. That Sam Cooke album has been on my to-try list for forever. Thanks so much for reminding me to check it out.

  6. Thanks Jake. Sometimes Blogger just does weird things like that.

    From what I know of your taste I predict you'll love that Cooke album. Curtis too, for that matter.