Friday, April 20, 2012

Random List: 15 More Great Live Albums

I had so much fun writing about some of my favorite live albums the other week that I thought I might share some of my other musical favorites. And since I had so many live albums on the brain and received a number of suggestions for other albums to try, I thought I'd post a few more of my live favorites, as well as some of the new discs I've been trying lately. As with the last post, any recommendations of yours are more than welcome.

Honorable Mention: Deep Purple: Made in Japan

Deep Purple doesn't float my boat the way it used to, but damned if I can't still return to Made in Japan time and again for a rush. It shows off the band's classic lineup (singer Ian Gillan, guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, keyboardist John Lord, bassist Roger Glover, and drummer Ian Paice) at their peak, with Gillan's multi-octave range as thrilling as Blackmore's classical-tinged rock guitar. The two even have a form of duet with an extended "Strange Kind of Woman," with Gillan matching the highest notes Blackmore peels off his fretboard. "Highway Star" and "Lazy" get propulsive renditions, while "Child in Time" has never sounded better, with Blackmore's furious soloing and Gillan's impassioned screams even stronger than on the In Rock version. Yes, you have to suffer through that staple of the bloated '70s live album, the drum solo, but by the time the band reaches its 20-minute freakout take on "Space Truckin', that minor hiccup is more than forgiven. Deep Purple's studio albums got more and more overripe as time went on, but this alternately stretched-but-taut live show hasn't lost an ounce of its raw power.

15. Jeff Buckley, Live at Sin-é

Ed Howard of Only the Cinema mentioned Tim Buckley's live material in the comments for my first post, and that reminded me of his son's pre-Grace recording at a small club in New York. Originally a four-track EP, Live at Sin-é was later expanded into a 2-CD extravaganza that showed off Buckley's astonishing range and vocal power. Though he wasn't as out-there as his dad, Jeff could still draw from a surprising number of influences, and his unbacked, reverb-soaked sets feature covers of artists from Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf to Qawwali icon Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. And the most predictable inspirations, such as Dylan and Van Morrison, are the ones who get the most radical reworking. "The Way That Young Lovers Do," the up-tempo odd-man-out of Astral Weeks, becomes a urgent, scatted, lustful workout that actually makes it sound more like the other songs on Van Morrison's masterpiece than the original version. Likewise, he stretches out Dylan's gorgeous "If You See Her, Say Hello," into a definitive rendition, inserting gulfs of space to better capture the sense of missed chances and wistful regret. The double-CD also offers a glimpse into Buckley pulling his own material together, offering songs like "Grace" and "Mojo Pin" in raw, direct forms that make the beautiful versions eventually released on Buckley's studio album seem overproduced. Every scrap of Buckley's brief career should be treasured, and this hefty set may be the most precious object to come out since his early death.

14. David Bowie, Stage

A toss-up between this and the magnificent concert at the Nassau Coliseum attached to the reissue of his masterpiece, Station to Station. I went with this because of the sheer ballsiness of the track sequencing on the 2005 reissue. Rehabilitated with the reputation fo Low and "Heroes," Stage shows off Bowie's egotistical effrontery, ironically, by highlighting a certain humility in the artist. The first disc faithfully recreates the more Krautrock-ish cuts from Bowie's Berlin albums, which favor the whole band over just Bowie even as they show off his solipsistic turn to pre-New Romantic deadpan pop. And the sequencing of show-stoppers "Warzawa" and "Heroes" as the first two numbers borders on the perverse. Many of these songs privilege the band as much as Bowie himself, though their appearance in a huge rock show at all is an act of hubris. Station to Station marked Bowie's true emergence, finding an emotional immediacy his awkward stabs at R&B utterly lacked, and there's a backwards sort of belated comfort and relaxed tone in Bowie's newfound remove. Stage illustrates this paradox, deliberately alienating the audience with its set order yet bursting with more energy than even the hardest material Bowie made with Mick Ronson.

13. Masada, Live in Sevilla 2000

John Zorn's avant jazz quartet dedicated to creating a new Jewish songbook sports a number of fantastic live albums, but Live in Sevilla strikes the best balance out of all of them. It has the respectful, delicate beauty of the band's 1994 show in Jerusalem, as well as the pummeling, thrashing brute force of the 1999 album cut at Middleheim in Belgium. Joey Baron proves for the umpteenth time that he belongs in the upper echelon of contemporary drummers, while Dave Douglas' trumpet is so dynamic and fluid that it's easy to miss the edge in his playing. Best of all is Zorn, who doesn't seem to play that much anymore (at least on studio compositions). His saxophone playing here shows off the full extent of his playing talent, featuring his wailing squawks in all their screeching hellfire but also the gorgeous quality of his more conventional runs. The two aspects of his sax playing bleed into each other, giving his straight-forward passages grit and his freakouts an appealing sound they do not commonly have. One of the better starting points to get an idea of what the prolific, multifaceted Zorn's all about.

12. Daft Punk, Alive 2007

Sometimes I forget that this is a live album, because it always strikes me more as the ultimate mixtape. Crafted as one giant medley, Alive 2007 flows in and out of the French duo's greatest hits, occasionally colliding tunes so that the looped chorus of "Around the World" barges in on "Television Rules the Nation." Beats transition so fluidly it can be hard to recognize what particular song you are in at any moment. The intricate production quality of the group's studio efforts, and the nature of their music in general, didn't strike me as the sort of thing that would transition to a live setting, yet I've rarely heard an album so thrilling. One of my go-to pump-up discs.

11. J. Geils Band, Blow Your Face Out

I have the same disconnect listening to early J. Geils Band that I do listening to the Faces. I'm so used to American band's subsequent move to pop in the '80s (ditto Rod Stewart's transition to disco and beyond), that to think that both bands used to carry the flag for R&B/ rock revival on their respective sides of the pond. This double-LP should come as a shock to anyone who only knows the J. Geils Band by "Centerfold." The group runs through crunchy, groovy numbers with such tightness that they can effortlessly give the impression of reckless abandon. Powered as much by Magic Dick's harmonica as Peter Wolf's copious frontman talents, the R&B-soaked rock is as pure and exciting as a show gets. In the absence of a proper Faces live album, this is about as good as raunchy, old-school rock in the '70s gets.

10. Iced Earth, Alive in Athens

If I used the term "guilty pleasure," I'd have to employ it for Iced Earth, a band so over-the-top and self-important that they once recorded a 30-minute, multi-part metal recap of the Battle of Gettysburg (and it was AWESOME). Part of me wanted to select Iron Maiden's Live After Death for this list, as it shows off a metal band finding the exact right balance in every respect (cheesy but not too self-parodic, melodic but still hard-edged, composed without being wankish), but Alive in Athens captures that too-much-ness that makes metal so endearingly ridiculous. Recorded in the Florida band's home away from home, the three-CD album runs through the group's greatest hits, a catalog that touches on everything from lost friends to Egyptian mythology and the comic book Spawn. There's also a 16-and-a-half-minute journey through Dante's Inferno, and I am not even kidding. The band seems to just transpose old Steve Harris basslines to guitar, but the energy is non-stop and Matt Barlow's elastic devil-croon and shrieks remain underrated. It's big, goofy fun, and who's not down for that with a live album?

9. Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, In Concert in Paris

Jeff Buckley (and Peter Gabriel) introduced me to Nusrat, and I became hooked on his Devotional and Love Songs. I didn't realize, though, that the recordings on those albums were truncated, accessible versions of much longer spirituals. Enter In Concert in Paris, my first exposure to the full extent of Nusrat's power. Leading lengthy chants, Nusrat builds in intensity and passion, reaching for a spiritual plain with his voice that he surely attains. His exuberance is infectious, and anyone, regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof) can respond to his boundless energy.

8. Sam Cooke, Live at the Harlem Square Club
I'd been meaning to listen to this for forever, but when Ed mentioned it in his aforementioned comment, I finally got myself a copy, and I instantly fell in love. In the studio, Cooke's singing was ultra-smooth, but live he puts some grit into that gorgeous voice. Cooke's audience control is impeccable; he may not be as explosive as James Brown, but he achieves the same level of crowd ecstasy simply with some banter and his elegantly elongated notes. The backing band goes through the music at mid-tempo, keeping a steady rhythm that never flags but also leaves it to the audience to go crazy. And lose it they do; listen to Cooke's playful build-up of "It's All Right" into "Sentimental Reasons" to hear the shrieks of overload from the ladies in the audience. Interestingly, they don't seem to go wild all at once, instead sounding off in sequence, allowing the listener to aurally chart the way Cooke's effect rippled out, slowly germinating in the head instead of hitting all at once. It may be less outwardly powerful than Live at the Apollo, but in time I think I'll spin this as often as I do Brown's masterpiece.

7. Nirvana, Live at Reading

I'm saving Nirvana's Unplugged appearance for a future post about my favorite episodes/performances of that show, but not to be forgotten is their long-bootlegged appearance at the 1992 Reading Festival. It took a long time for me to give Nirvana a chance (judging from my belated enjoyment of Elvis and the Beatles, I just have a thing about initially avoiding sacred cows). But to hear the trio here is to get a sense of the band underneath the ceaseless hype and "voice of a generation" albatross. It's funny, because the gig itself highlights Nirvana's ascendancy; just listen to the massive crowd, who already knows Nevermind by heart, sing along to the instant hits and lose their mind even for the obscurities and covers. There's a perverse failure in this success, with Cobain's tortured punk ethos winning over so many he can no longer be an outsider. That might explain the sardonic energy to the performance, which thrashes harder than Bleach and takes special care to muck up "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which seems like a deliberate act of self-sabotage. But the gift (and, ultimately, the curse) of Cobain's anti-fame rhetoric and behavior was that it only made him more irresistible, and the self-destructive energy he brought to his music and life makes Live at Reading worthy of its legendary status.

6. Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison

The complete recordings of Cash's day at Folsom undo its mythos somewhat, revealing that the roar that greets Cash's laconic, self-deprecating introduction ("Hello, I'm Johnny Cash") was coached. But the music never fails to satisfy. The second Cash rolls into "Folsom Prison Blues," it's obvious he has his crowd hooked. Cash's outlaw image is somewhat overinflated, but to hear him here, no one could mistake the effortlessness with which he connects with these convicts. The songs range from the vicious (a rip-snorting version of "Cocaine Blues") to the mournful ("I'm Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail") to the mordantly funny ("25 Minutes to Go"), and the inmates' approval is shouted throughout. The original album still more than suffices — it quickly becomes evident why the second show unearthed by the complete box was left out; it's nearly the same setlist but lacks the energy and spontaneity of the first set). The Rolling Stones spent more than a decade trying to seem as hard as Cash casually does in an hour.

5. Led Zeppelin, How the West Was Won

I slipped out of my Led Zeppelin fandom for a few years, exhausted from overplay. But the same album that brought me back was the one that helped to push me away. With its frankly ridiculous jam lengths, How the West Was Won is as much belated but definitive proof of the service punk rock did us all by shoving this sort of thing out of fashion as it is a thunderous snapshot of the world's greatest band at its peak and a nostalgic reminder of some of the magic that was lost when they and their style became unfashionable. Recorded over two nights in California in 1972, How the West Was Won captures Zep at the pinnacle of their ability and energy. Plant hadn't yet ravaged his larynx, and the jams, though free of any grounding element, still have a curiosity to them that makes their meandering drifts more fascinating and suspenseful than tedious. Yeah, Bonham's drum solo is still a chore, but there's a kind of joy to be had even then in witnessing a band with such a hold on the world that they could do anything they wanted.

4. The Rolling Stones: Brussels Affair

I had no idea this had been officially released. It was going to be one of the top picks for a favorite bootlegs post I was mulling over. I'm overwhelmed with joy knowing that one of the best rock shows ever is now legitimately available. I love the Stones but always felt they tried a bit too hard to seem tough and casually cool, but this set brings down the house so effortlessly that suddenly I wonder if they weren't really badasses all along. The Stones are just on fire here, running through "Rip This Joint" at even faster speed than the belligerent studio version on Exile on Main St., while "Midnight Rambler" gets its requisite live workout. The real star here may be Mick Taylor, who would be gone from the band in a year's time over disputes and what seems like professional jealousy on Richards' part. That's only my conjecture, mind, and to listen to the pair of guitarists here, the only reasonable conclusion that can be reached is that if these two hated each other, at least they pushed each other to better and better playing out of spite. Their interplay on songs like "All Down the Line" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" are definitive versions. The Stones have been coasting for 30 years now, but to hear them here, at the height of their fame, you can still catch a band hungry to please a crowd.

3. Talking Heads: The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads

Capturing the band at two critical points, its 1977 New Wave ascendancy and its '80s Eno-fication, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads two halves sound like the work of two distinct groups even as they simply must have been recorded by the same group. The first disc shows off the early Heads at their jittery best, with David Byrne laconically introducing songs ("The name of this song is called 'New Feeling,' and that's what it's about") and leading the original quartet through knotty angular rhythms. The post-Remain in Light disc rolls out the expanded lineup, building on the band's original focus on complex, precise patterns with African polyrhythms inspired by Fela Kuti. But if the percussion got more complicated, it also got more groovy, giving a strangely inviting, exuberant taste to the esoterica of Byrne's lyrics and style. Faster and more rubbery than their studio counterparts, the renditions turn even the most mathematical tune into something danceable. The album's title reminds you not to preface the band's name with "The." The music within will make you care enough to follow the instruction.

2. Kraftwerk, Minimum-Maximum

Listening to Kraftwerk now is like watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. On the one hand, it's obviously dated, carving out a vision of the future that did not come to pass, but on the other it is still fresh and provoking in a way that marks it as eternally ahead-of-its-time. And with Minimum-Maximum, one can see that Kraftwerk, despite continuing to work with a classic electronic sound, does not merely replicate its old albums. If the band is all about a processed, perfect sound, they recognize that goal as one of constant evolution: check out the reworked and remixed songs here, most notably a shortened version of "Autobahn" that shows off the technical innovation of the number while twisting it more openly into pop than the side-length freeway soundtrack of the studio version. Kraftwerk, despite some equipment tweaks, might be using now-outdated technology, but the rest of the world finally caught up to their work, which sounds poppier in the context of a live performance than it does on their vacuum-sealed LPs. Before hearing this, my consideration of Kraftwerk only extended as far as respectful admiration for their deadpan machinations. Then I heard a band who, though slower and statelier, were no less exhilarating than Daft Punk.

1. The Stooges, Metallic K.O.

I have a fascination with performances that invite audience hostility, and no album outside of intentional travesty comedy LPs like Hot February Night and The Day the Laughter Died displays such raw, two-way contempt as Metallic K.O. It is the sound of a band and crowd locked into a hate-fuck that brings out the best/worst in both. The Stooges' studio albums sounded sloppy and abrasive, but nothing compares to these ramshackle performances captured in 1973 and the band's last gig in February 1974. Recorded by a fan and sent to James Williamson, even the sound of this glorified bootleg is disastrous, but that only adds to the effect. As the band lumbers through its inchoate, piercing howls of young angst and rage, the audience gently moves from indifference to open hatred, and Iggy eggs them on. Lester Bangs was right: after Iggy concludes the sneering "Cock in My Pocket" by roundly inviting the crowd to throw things and introducing the band members to a chorus of boos, you really can hear a beer bottle shatter near a mic and some equipment momentarily fry. The crap audio fidelity does the music justice, and if you ever want to hear the id of rock 'n' roll fully unleashed, look no further.

No comments:

Post a Comment