In what feels like a fitting post to follow my take on Springsteen’s The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts, I’ve been thinking about live albums of late.
A friend and I have been debating their merits – his ‘no-thanks’ take on them driven by the fact that ‘you don’t get the same vibe as actually being there.’
I can understand that. But – is that really their purpose? I’ve got a lot of time for live albums – there are a lot of artists that really deliver the goods in concert more than others and more than they do in concert. They’ll throw their all into a show and there are plenty of live albums out there where that’s evident as well as the fact that a song performed live is often a different beast to that which graced a studio album. Not only that but there are many bands out there that I’ll never get a chance to see or shows I could never have been at.
Here I can quickly point to two staples of this blog – Springsteen and Pearl Jam, both of whom are renowned for their live shows with both (Springsteen only more recently) performing a different set list every night. Foo Fighters, by contrast, played an identical set (including the rehearsed ‘banter’) night after night.
Whereas once upon a time the live album was once a staple, if contractually obligatory, of many a rock band’s discography we now find ourselves in an era of Nuggs (or whatever service they chose to use) means that almost every show from a tour and many archival individual shows are available to fill up our iPods. Does the traditional live album, then, still have value?
I reckon there’s still a place for it. At least there is within my shelves – digital and physical. While it’s great to have a document of a specific concert – especially if you were there, say – it’s also great to have a live collection from a band at the peak of their power without, say, the mistake they made in the pre-chorus of a song that forced them to restart or a location-specific anecdote, as well as the mastering (not remixing, mind – I’m looking at you Van Halen) that an official release can give. Without having to pay a fortune for a pint of piss-poor beer, swim to the toilet or wonder if you need to duck out during the encore to get the last tube.
With all this preamble in mind I thought I’d take a butchers at some of those live albums that I would say are definitely worth giving a listen to, old and new.
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: Live 1975-85
Keeping it Boss for another moment… Bruce’s first official live album was a suitably hefty 5LP / 3 CD / 3 Cassette beast that covered Springsteen and the E Street Band’s journey from theatres to stadiums across 40 songs. Springsteen had developed a reputation as a live performer and this set delivers upon that and then some – it’s a great listen even close to forty years on, even hearing his earnest story-telling ahead of ‘The River’ as he works to instil a sense of intimacy to the stadium-sized crowd still works and while he could easily have created another similarly-sized instalment to cover the decades since I don’t think (save a few obvious titles) you could want anything more than what’s here. It remains an unimpeachably great snapshot of Bruce and the E Street Band’s powerful peak and sounds as vital now as it did then.
Nirvana – Live at Reading
Nirvana’s second visit to the Reading festival was the stuff of legend even aside from the actual show itself. This was 1992, mind, when the Kurt ‘n’ Courtney show was dominating press coverage – there were rumours that the band wouldn’t show. That the band were on the verge of breaking up, that Kurt’s heroin addiction was so bad he was close to death (both rumours sadly not that far from true)…
Playing to this, Kurt took to the stage in a wheelchair. Wheeled on and wearing a hospital gown and wig, sang a few lines of ‘The Rose’ and collapsed before getting to his feet and the band delivered one of their most intense and powerful sets to date. Yes, there’s no way to capture being at that show – I hold that for every dozen or so people I’ve met that claimed they were there only two are probably telling the truth – but, fuck me, this is one hell of an amazing live album. The band seem to be giving it everything as a middle finger to the rumours and the setlist is everything you’d want, covering nearly all of Nevermind, plenty from Bleach and a few new songs that would later grace In Utero and is the superior live Nirvana document to From The Muddy Banks of Wiskah.
Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
This one’s got to be a given, right? Johnny Cash’s first live album, a career reviving release that starts with the now famous ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’ and finds the then relatively-clean Cash singing songs like ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ‘Cocaine Blues’ and ’25 Minutes to Go’ to an audience of convicts in a prison canteen that Cash would later describe as “the most enthusiastic audience I ever played” – lapping up every line like ‘I can’t forgot the day I shot that bad bitch down’ like it was written for them. While At San Quentin recorded the following year would have ‘Boy Named Sue,’ this album combines Cash’s strongest points – grit, balladry, the spiritual and humour – into one setlist that while tailor-made for his audience and became the stuff of legend.
Mogwai – Special Moves
As a live band, Mogwai are one of the loudest out there. While they shy away from being branded as post-rock, their predominantly instrumental music takes its cues from a myriad of influences including bands like Loop, My Bloody Valentine and Slint – intricate pieces that build up layers and parts and not play with the quiet-loud-quiet- FUCKING INSANELY LOUD dynamic but own it. I’ve just finished Stuart Braithwaite’s fantastic memoir ‘Spaceships Over Glasgow’ which revealed – amongst other things – the level of nervousness with which he’d play gigs, hoping that the bands head-nodded signals would work when it comes to bringing in the different parts of each song, finding a sound-guy that could sufficiently mix them at the level of noise desired and joy they take in a set when it all clicks.
The New York shows captured on Special Moves – in terms of both setlist and the power of the performance – are as ideal an introduction to and one-hit slab of Mogwai you could ask for. It’s perfectly mixed – balancing all the elements of their music with a smattering of crowd noise to let you know they’re there and capturing the extremes of their sound (the pin-drop silence to absolute wall of sound in Mogwai Fear Satan, for example) perfectly.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Weld
Speaking of wall-of-sound…. Neil Young has got quite a few live albums out there – while Time Fades Away and Rust Never Sleeps were made up of entirely new songs and Live Rust felt like a bit of a cash-grab, Weld is the real deal for me and the more I explore Mr Young’s back catalogue the more I enjoy it. A live document of Young and Crazy Horse’s tour to promote Ragged Glory (my current favourite of Neil’s albums), it’s a ridiculously heavy document of the Horse in full gallop and blasting through some of Ragged Glory‘s highlights like ‘Fuckin’ Up’ and ‘Love To Burn’ along with storming takes on ‘Cinnamon Girl’, ‘Powderfinger’, the then-recent ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ and a blazing cover of Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.
Gary Clark Jr – Live
This is one of those examples where someone comes across so much better live than on record – to my ears at least and this is my blog, after all. I’d seen the praise heaped upon this enough to be curious and since picking it up it’s been a regular spinner. Having been compared to the mightiest of guitar slingers like Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary Clark Jr has both that glorious blues tone and dexterity to make his performances addictive listening while also flowing in a touch of soul and hip hop. On record the combo doesn’t really come across so well with his playing taking a back seat too often to slick production. There’s none of that on 2014’s Live – a mix of originals and covers shed of gimmickry and just highlighting how great and in-focus performance he – and his band – can deliver.
My Morning Jacket – Okonokos
The band captured following the peak of the mighty Z album deliver a brilliant set to a crowd at The Fillmore in San Francisco. While the recent compilation Live Vol. 1 adds newer songs to the mix and further cements how great a live draw the band are, Okonokos captures the band in all their intense power, it’s heavy on Z material with eight of its ten songs gracing the set and showcases the band’s musicianship and a rare ability to both jam out and deliver tight, focused performances.
Jeff Buckley – Live at Sin-é (Legacy Edition)
Jeff Buckley left us with just the one studio album before he took his fateful swim in 1997. His first release for Colombia, though, wasn’t Grace but the Live at Sin-é EP. The EP was just a four-song set was released to draw attention to the power of Buckley’s voice. The full set, released ten years later, instead gave us a captivating and wonderfully intimate (you can even hear the odd clink of coffee cups) performance of some twenty plus songs interspersed with monologues and jokes – we get works in progress of songs like ‘Grace’, ‘Last Goodbye’ and ‘Mojo Pin’ along with covers of Led Zeppelin, Dylan, Nina Simone, Van Morrison and, of course, his take on ‘Hallelujah’ all armed with just his voice and a guitar. For a small coffee house show, Buckley commits fully and for all the myth and mystery that’s build up over the years since his passing, it’s a beautiful document of pure talent and the enjoyment of music.
Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series Vol.4: Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert
First – it wasn’t captured at The Royal Albert Hall, it was Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. It was mislabelled in the bootlegs that so pervaded before its official release. in 1998. It was so extensively bootlegged because it was both a brilliant show and, secondly, the “Judas!” concert.
All these years later it’s hard to conceive of the upset Dylan’s ‘going electric’ caused his folky faithful. Through his 1965-66 tour Dylan would perform a show of two halves: the first alone and the second with his backing band The Hawks for an electric set. Both the heckle and Dylan’s brilliant response – “I don’t believe you…. you’re a liar” – along with Dylan’s instruction to the band to “play fucking loud!” into ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ are captured here along with a fantastic performance of fifteen brilliant Dylan songs that are all worth the price of admission alone and captured with brilliant sound quality.
If you don’t trust my opinion on this, take it from Jimmy Page too – he found the bootleg to be the ultimate album and would buy a whenever he found one.
Some honourable mentions and few additional thoughts in place of a tenth for the list…. I’ve only recently begun listening to the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East but it’s a mighty fine thing…. The Clash’s Live at Shea Stadium is a great listen too but a little stiff in parts, capturing them opening for The Who – who’s Live AT Leeds is pretty decent too though I’m not that big a Who fan. Dire Straits deserved better representation than the too-short Alchemy and too-sterile On The Night while one of the best bands I’ve seen live, Pearl Jam have yet to drop a live album that really captures how arse quaking they can be live though Live On Two Legs tries and the same could be said for Pink Floyd – Pulse is another case of too much gloss and The Delicate Sound of Thunder features both an excess of gloss and an excess of songs from A Momentary Lapse of Reason.