The live album is one of the trickiest pitches in all pop culture. Usually, they’re contractual obligations. FR this week highlight some personal favorites that transcend the norm.
Tyler: Rock Spectacle, Barenaked Ladies
Choice Track: “Brian Wilson”
Rock Spectacle is the first live album I discovered “on my own.” (Though I’d enjoyed my parents’ cassette copy of Jimmy Buffett’s Feeding Frenzy and their CD of The Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over in backseat, “This seems pleasant!” fashion.) The Barenaked Ladies were my life for a while; I saw them live maybe ten times, and cycled their studio albums for years. They were fun, they were heartfelt, and they never wanted the audience to have anything less than a good time. I did have two friends who were as into them as myself. Both were girls.
Nathan: Eagles Live, Eagles
Choice Track: “New Kid In Town”
The Eagles are the bastard son of everything that Gram Parsons ever did, and that’s not exactly a good thing. Parsons was warm and inviting while the Eagles always sounded too tight on their studio albums. Not the case with this recording, released in 1989, which captures good musicians enjoying themselves. The song structures don’t differ much at all from their studio counterparts, but there’s an ineffable quality that those other albums lack. And it includes one of my favorite songs of all time: “New Kid in Town.”
Travis: Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Live at Hollywood High
Choice Track: “Accidents Will Happen”
Oft bootlegged, this classic set from 1978 finally saw official release in 2010. Recorded as the band toured behind This Year’s Model, it shows EC at his brash young best, and his tight backing combo bringing energy to the Model material that was their recorded debut, as well as punching up the tunes from My Aim is True, which Costello had recorded with a different group of musicians who couldn’t quite live up. Songs from the next effort, the also excellent Armed Forces, made early appearances as well.
Tyler: 11-17-70, Elton John
Choice Track: “Bad Side Of The Moon”
Elton as you’ve never heard him. Hungry. Ben Folds Five twenty-five years before Ben Folds Five, and better. I like Ben Folds Five.
Nathan: Amateur Shortwave Radio, Over the Rhine
Choice Track: “My Love Is A Fever”
I don’t go to concerts often and Over the Rhine is the band that I’ve seen most (three whopping times). They are a pleasure to see live and this album, comprised of tracks from a number of different shows, gives a good impression of what it can be like to see them. It includes some great covers (“Ruby Tuesday” and an unrecognizable “Blackbird”) and searing versions of “Like a Radio” and “Moth.”
Travis: Radiohead, I Might be Wrong: Live Recordings
Choice Track: “Idioteque”
I Might be Wrong focuses on material from the difficult Kid A and Amnesiac, giving a visceral punch to songs that, in the studio versions, could come off as cold and clinical. “Idioteque,” complete with the crowd chanting along, is particularly revelatory.
Tyler: MTV Unplugged, Jay-Z with The Roots
Choice Track: “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”
The Roots are impeccable musicians. Turning it loose behind one of the best hip-hop artists in history (“GREATEST RAPPER ALIVE”), they produced their best work, and facilitated one of Jay-Z’s best, too. There is nothing to be had on this Unplugged but joy, as Jigga plays with the crowd, demands their participation, fucks up a cue or two, and has childlike fun pretending to be a rock star treading the floors of a very small club.
Nathan: Under a Blood Red Sky, U2
Choice Track: “The Electric Co.”
As with the Eagles, I’ve almost always found U2’s studio albums to be lacking. Even their best records (the first three) sound like they were recorded in a tin can. Under a Blood Red Sky rectifies that, giving us a band full of post-punk fury and righteous indignation. It’s obvious even from these eight tracks that Bono goes into some sort of other-worldly zone when he’s on stage in front of a wild crowd. If I’m ever in the mood for some U2, this is my go-to album.
Travis: Cheap Trick, Live at Budokan
Choice Track: “Surrender”
Sometimes, a live album full of hits is all you need by a particular artist. Though Cheap Trick have a number of solid albums, Budokan really has everything you’d want to hear, with the distorted crunch of the live setting besting the polished production of the studio efforts. Power-pop has rarely been this perfect.
Tyler: It’s Too Late To Stop Now, Van Morrison
Choice Track: “Cyprus Avenue”
Van Morrison is church for me. This is his finest sermon. Recorded with “the Caledonia Soul Orchestra,” which should sell you straightaway. Van dives into familiar territory and redrafts it from scratch, melding in a few vampy R&B covers, fronting what would absolutely be the best band with which he ever played. It’s Too Late To Stop Now is fucking sublime.
Nathan: The Tigers Have Spoken, Neko Case
Choice Track: “Favorite”
This recording, comprised of tracks played in Chicago and Toronto in 2004, seems like an album unto itself, existing on its own merits in Case’s body of work even though it includes a few songs that are represented elsewhere. Covers of Loretta Lynn’s “Rated X”, the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger”, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Soulful Shade of Blue”, and “The Train to Kansas City” are highlights of the album. I’ve never seen her in concert, but I’m about to next week; I’ll be listening to this album in the meantime.
Travis: Social Distortion, Live at the Roxy
Choice Track: “Stage Banter/Prison Bound/The Creeps”
“You wanna hear a happy song? Well, sorry, homey, we don’t do no happy songs.” Like Cheap Trick’s Budokan, this live set from the longtime heroes of Orange County punk rock honky-tonk is all the casual fan would ever need. All the band’s best songs are there, singer Mike Ness’ stage banter is so bad it’s good, and it sounds great.
Tyler: Live At Harlem Square Club 1963, Sam Cooke
Choice Track: “Bring It On Home To Me”
It sounds like it was recorded via tin can, string and reel-to-reel tape. It is not Sam Cooke the showman, it is Sam Cooke the bluesman, before a rabid crowd of his own in the heart of Harlem, tearing into songs he wanted to sing, not just, say, “Cupid.” There is no studio Cooke album, not an impeccable one, that captures his genius. Harlem Square Club is his lasting testimony. And it is far too short.
Nathan: Live Rust, Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Choice Track: “Powderfinger”
Before I even get to Live Rust, I’d like to tip my hat to two of Young’s “studio” albums that might as well be listed under the “live” heading. Time Fades Away (a seldom heard gem) and Tonight’s the Night represent Neil Young at his most vulnerable and perhaps best. They are not, however, fully representative of everything that Young can be, which is why…
…I typically list Live Rust among my top four or five albums of all time. All of Neil Young’s tenderness and fury are on display here – from “I Am a Child” to “Lotta Love” to “Cortez the Killer”. He’s even funny on the raucous “Sedan Delivery”. The highlight of the album for me, though, is a soaring 5:43 version of “Powderfinger”, a song that contains a guitar part that I would call transcendent.
Live Rust is all the evidence that I’ve ever needed to know that Neil Young is one of our best songwriters. It puts all of his studio efforts, some of them truly great albums, to horrible shame. I discovered the album and Neil Young through my Uncle Tim around my 9th grade year. It’s never left me since and I doubt it ever will.
Travis: The Who, Live at Leeds
Choice Track: “Heaven And Hell”
For fans of the Who at their loudest and most punishing, this is the essential document. Released in the wake of the success of Tommy, Leeds stripped away all of the orchestral, operatic flourishes to reveal a rock band at its most comfortable bashing instruments into submission, from Townshend’s windmilled block chords and Keith Moon’s octopus-armed drumming to Entwistle’s bass rumble, which held it all together. The original release was only six songs, including two covers, but the 2001 Deluxe Edition is what any true blue Who fan needs, encompassing the entire concert, including a blistering run-through of Tommy that knocks all the twee showtune shit into the dust.