Monday, July 29, 2013

Live Albums

Live albums have come a long way...from bass thumping, poor quality bootlegs, to smooth, acoustically perfect pieces of music mastery.  There are a few live albums in my catalog that truly stand out.  To me there is no point in trying to rank live albums or even to compare one to another--the  only way that could possibly be relevant would be if two bands played the exact same set live in the exact same arena within a relatively close time frame.  One could then say Band "X" had better acoustics, better sound, more lively audience, blah blah blah...but ultimately what would the point be?  The fact (subjective though it may be) is that some bands have put out incredible sounding live albums and some bands--even good bands-- have put out crap that makes your ears bleed.  I prefer to listen to and talk about live albums that not only were excellent in their own right, but also moved the bar for what should be expected from a live album.

 One such recording that is a must for live album and progressive music fans alike is "USA" by King Crimson, originally released in 1975.  King Crimson has released several other live albums; "Earthbound" from 1972 immediately comes to mind.  While that LP contains an amazing version of "21st Century Schizoid Man," the overall sound quality is not up to the level of  "USA."  King Crimson seems to set the bar for something every time they release an album.  Despite the fact that the line up has changed a few times over the years there has always been one constant--Robert Fripp.  Ever the perfectionist and always the innovator, Fripp has continually been light years ahead of most people on the planet when it comes to music.  He seems to be thinking six steps ahead of the crowd when he plays and when he writes.  The line-up on "USA" includes John Wetton, Eddie Jobson, David Cross, and Bill me one of their strongest pre-1981...a remastered version of "USA" includes Fractured and Starless...which are well worth the wait.

Jumping ahead just a few years to 1982, and another live album that raised the bar for amazing sound quality and mix is "The Name of This Band is Talking Heads."  A two album compilation, this recording completely blew me away when I first played it--and I remember buying it the first day it was on sale.  I could not wait to startle my neighbors with a sound so new and incredible even they would be impressed; but alas, I was alone in my contentment.  No worries though, and I still enjoy breaking out the vinyl for this listen.  The recording was split along calendar and line-up lines; sides one and two on the first album are from live sets recorded in Maynard MA, in 1977, and Passaic,  NJ in 1979.  The line-up for these shows was the original quartet of David Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Franz, and Jerry Harrison.  Sides three and four on the second album are from shows recorded in  NYC, NJ, and Tokyo between 1980 and 1981.  The line-up for these shows was quite expanded and included Adrian Belew, Bernie Worrell, Busta Jones,  Steve Scales, Nona Hendryx, and Dollette MacDonald.  The cover of "Take Me To The River" alone is worth the purchase price--and then some.

Going back in time again, Traffic released a fantastic live album in 1971 titled, "Welcome to the Canteen."  Every time I play this album I have to remind myself it was recorded in 1971 when I was but an impressionable youth.  The sound quality and mixing are extremely high quality.  Recorded in London, the line-up included "Reebop" Kwaku Bah on congas, timbales, and bongos.  A great live version of "Dear Mr. Fantasy" as well as a nine minute cover of Winwood's "Gimme Some Lovin'" from his old Spencer Davis days...which even in 1971 seemed like a lifetime ago...

Another live gem that was released in 1971 was George Harrison's "The Concert for Bangladesh." Amazing not only for the artists who were there and the incredible performances, but also the fact that it came together so quickly and all the money raised actually went to the cause.  Harrison pulled off then what could never happen today--all those egos in one place and not one of them focused on "me, me, me."  The line-up included Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Leon Russell, Klaus Voormann, Jessie Ed Davis, Badfinger, Billy Preston, Ringo, Jim Keltner, Ravi Shankar, and of course George Harrison.  The concert was put together to bring awareness to the extreme poverty and famine that was ravaging Bangladesh at the time.  Ravi Shankar and George Harrison put together an incredible line-up to raise money for the UNICEF efforts to help those in the region.  Fortunately for those not able to see the show at MSG that August night in 1971, the show was released on vinyl...and later on CD and DVD.  Well worth the investment...

Staying in the 1970's, there is one live album that seems to land on everyone's "Five Must-Have Albums If Stranded on a Desert Island" list.  This two-piece set of vinyl mastery is (of course) The Allman Brothers "Live at the Fillmore East," released in 1971.  From the opening "Statesboro Blues" on side one to the entire side four version of "Whipping Post,"  Live at the Fillmore has been called everything from mundane and aimless to the finest live rock 'n' roll recording ever put on vinyl.  Needless to say, I usually don't give much weight to critics... but the ears don't lie.  This is a two album set very much worth  owning--the CD just does not do it justice--the sound is too sterile.  Duane Allman was truly a master and the band was never as good without him as they were with him.

One more live album, and for me this one sets the standard; I actually have it on vinyl, CD and DVD.  I am referring to "The Last Waltz," the farewell concert by The Band.  Recorded Thanksgiving night 1976 at the Winterland in San Francisco, this was a show that left you wanting more yet appreciating what you were just served.  It wasn't just a concert; it was too intimate for that.  Yet it was also more than just a gathering of friends and artists.  When you watch the film you can feel the mood, smell the sweat, and all you want to do is hold up a lighter and sway back and forth with the crowd.  The opening song, "Don't Do It," is actually the final song The Band played after five hours of food, music, and festivities; you can tell they were emotionally spent but didn't want the night to end any more than the audience did.  I remember taking a date to the movie when it first came out.  I won't say she wasn't into it, but I will say it was our last date...hey, the heart wants what it wants right now--but music is forever.

So there you have it, a quick review of six live albums.  There have been countless others put out for someone's listening pleasure, and if you include bootlegs the number would probably rival the national debt.  While I may not have come close to looking at them all or diving too deep into the ones I did look at, you can get a perspective of what these albums are about and hopefully your appetite is whet enough to make you go out and get your own copy.  I always recommend vinyl if you can find it, especially for the older albums.  CD sound quality may be "cleaner," but I prefer the realistic sounds that only be found with a stylus.  The major downside is the inability to sit back and enjoy 1-2 hours worth of live music without having to turn the record over...but that counts as exercise, right?

The live clip below is from King Crimson's "USA."  This was actually a tough decision for me as I really like everything I listed here.  However, I don't think this album ever got the credit it deserved so I thought I would showcase some of it here for those "less informed" fans...and when the song is over don't forget to listen to the cassette real loud in your car waiting for the parking lot to empty out...

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