The Best Live Albums: From Axl to Zeppelin.

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Nov. 16 2011 6:59 AM

The Best Live Albums

From Axl to Zeppelin.

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Whatever happened to the live album? You couldn't be a rock star, back in the day, without releasing a live album—a double live album, actually. If memory serves, the Grateful Dead was a true pioneer here, with the two-LP Live/Dead in 1969. Then, among others, came the Doors' Absolutely Live and the Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East. As the decade stretched on, they were everywhere—Seger's ‘Live’ Bullet, Kiss’ Alive!, On Your Feet or on Your Knees (that was the hilarious Blue Öyster Cult), Lynyrd Skynyrd's One More From the Road, Ted Nugent's Double Live Gonzo!, Genesis' Seconds Out …. During the same period, some bands saw the double and raised them a disc, among them Yes (Yessongs); the Dead (Europe '72); and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (the exhausting—and exhaustingly titled—Welcome Back, My Friends to the Show That Never Ends—Ladies and Gentlemen Emerson, Lake & Palmer). And leave it to Chicago to offer fans something that no one had asked for: At Carnegie Hall, a four-record live set.

And of course, along the way, in the early days of 1976, Peter Frampton, a British journeyman guitarist who'd spent the early part of the decade gamely entertaining the rock lumpenproletariat in flyover territory, released Frampton Comes Alive!, which unaccountably became a sensation and one of the largest-selling albums of all time.

The live sets validated the artists' personae: They made regular albums, sure, but when the studio time was done they got on the bus to hit the road and bring the music to the people! Blue-collar rockers worked it on out in the hinterlands, shakin' the souls of the kids in Cleveland, Kansas City, and Topeka. The greater rock royalty appeared, magisterially, in world cultural capitals like San Francisco, London, or Tokyo. But all got down with the real folks, numbing them into submission with earsplitting intros, endless guitar and drum solos, an onstage expletive or two to stick it to the man, and all the hits.

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Labels loved live albums because they cost little to produce; they liked double albums even more. (With only marginal additional packaging costs they could double the list price.) Bands liked live albums because it was an easy way to eat up 10 or 15 of the tracks they owed the label. (They were workin' for that man, remember.)

Now, the Allmans aside, in many cases, the albums sucked. The sound was flatulent, the performances were off. Sometimes—a lot of the time, actually—instrumentation was patently overdubbed. On Cheap Trick's At Budokan—a relatively restrained single-disc affair—the keening crowd noise wasn't just obviously faked; it was mixed in loud enough to render small animals, and probably some teenage boys, sterile.

But the better ones were awesome, offering confirmation of what you knew you were missing ('Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out'), or just a visceral attack (the Who's Live at Leeds), spacious sound (Lou Reed's out-where-the-trains-don't-run Take No Prisoners), or ineffable intimacy (Joni Mitchell's Miles of Aisles). Suburban kids who otherwise would never have been exposed to such stuff could study James Brown on Live at the Apollo, from way back in 1963. Dylan and the Band roared through Before the Flood with Biblical fury. As time went on, recording techniques improved and the sound became pristine (Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense).

If you're a certain age, some of the onstage patter stays with you to this day: "You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now, do ya?" "This is a story about a Welsh witch!" "You know, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint A Starry Night again, man!' "

And if you're of that certain age, you remember some of the peculiarities. A side of the album dedicated just to one song—or even more than one side (ELP and "Tarkus," the Allmans and "Mountain Jam" on the live-studio mélange Eat a Peach). The albums might be named after a city or country or the hep venue of the day (Japan, New York, the Fillmores [East and West], or, yes, Budokan). They had the big hits on the last side. They made careers (‘Live’ Bullet, Frampton Comes Alive!). They gave sudden hard-rock cred to artists you might not have expected it of (Lou Reed's Rock n Roll Animal, U2's Under a Blood Red Sky).

So what happened? For one thing, the albums became a symbol of rock excess. Surprisingly, this really didn't transpire during the first punk onslaught; Talking Heads and even the Ramones released two-record live sets. But something in our perceptions of the album seems to have changed in the 1980s; as the postpunk generation grew up with a (depending on your point of view) more cynical or realistic view of the world, all that jazz about the authenticity of "the road" seemed tired. The critic Ira Robbins, founder of Trouser Press, posits that it might have been "a reduction in the hoary sensibility of a rock concert being more 'valued' or 'valid' than a recording and therefore uniquely worth hearing and owning." In any case, at a certain point that trip was over; there's no Pavement or Sonic Youth live album, nothing from R.E.M. during its height, no Pixies. (No Radiohead either.) Madonna didn't release a live album until five or six years ago. (Robbins notes that jam bands are a major exception.) MTV's Unplugged series revivified the genre, after a fashion, in the 1990s, but then went the way of the dodo.

We have to assume the market rejected the live album as well; the labels, lord knows, would still have had bands cranking out live sets if they made money. Another factor: the rise of the boutique live DVD, in which an antiseptic, camera-friendly "show" is set up to film. I hate these; the insular feel is the antithesis of a real concert. (It's why I've never warmed to Stop Making Sense, the bee's knees to some folks.) And today, with live video of bands available everywhere, live audio seems beside the point.

Consider the following list, then, as a paean to a simpler time, when rockers rocked and live albums had gatefolds, as God intended. Here are a few of my favorite live tracks, heavy on stuff from the live album's 1970s heyday. Feel free to nominate yours in the comments section, and denigrate my choices as well.

N.B.: There are a few albums, like the Woodstock soundtracks, The Last Waltz, and The Concert for Bangladesh, in which virtually every song is a definitive live performance by the various assembled acts; I've left those off the list on the grounds of general superiority, and advise that if you're interested in the genre they are each worth hearing in full. Also, with a few exceptions, I've limited the list to canonical live releases—i.e., those released during the act's artistic or commercial peak, and not a late-era or posthumous release, or an archival recording of something that should have been released in the canonical period. The exceptions are duly noted.

"Jersey Girl," Bruce Springsteen, Live/1975-'85. This heartwarming Tom Waits cover (hear the hometown crowd swell with pride when Jersey is mentioned) was a highlight of Springsteen's outlandishly outsized five-LP live set, released at the giddy height of post-Born in the USA Brucemania. The release gave him the dubious distinction of having upped the previous pop record-holder for excess, Chicago's At Carnegie Hall, by a full 25 percent. That said, and leaving aside the inclusion of too many songs from BITUSA, it's a hard-to-dislike album, with parts of it in the realm of the celebrated '70s-era bootlegs we all obsessed about. Also: "Thunder Road," "Because the Night."*

"Caravan," Van Morrison, It's Too Late to Stop Now. A Celtic dream of a live album, one of the forgotten glories of 1970s rock. Morrison's band, dubbed the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, is lighter than air; the instrumental playing on this track, which starts plain and stripped down, grows sinuously. It is at once delicate and hardy and loose and precise. The dynamics and fillips here twist and turn like prisms of sound, deceptively casual, until you notice how intricately the instruments—horns, strings, the piano—follow and extend one another’s lines. Let its dreaminess overtake you and the effects can be intense. By the time you get to the end of this nearly 10-minute-long live track, and Morrison gives his cool intros of each player, you feel like you know them. Also: "Gloria," "These Dreams of You," and "Cyprus Avenue."

"Fried Eggs"/"Hello in There," Bette Midler, Live at Last. This strange concoction provides a much more authentic encapsulation of Midler's unclassifiable shtick in the 1970s than does the unfulfilling Divine Madness from a few years later. From the raunchy Sophie Tucker jokes to the extravagant medleys to the casual pop-song excavation, this is a double live set that takes a long time to sink in. Its prettiest song is the John Prine cover "Hello in There," animated by an off-kilter monologue known as "Fried Eggs."

"Born To Be Wild," Blue Öyster Cult, On Your Feet or on Your Knees. Included just for the introduction, featuring a keening recitation of the venerable ’70s hard-rock set's title. Also: "Maserati GT."

"No Woman, No Cry," Bob Marley & the Wailers, Live! The spaciousness of the arrangement underscores the heart-melting magnanimousness of the song. Marley's enunciation of "in the gov-ern-ment-a yard in Trenchtown" is a work of art in itself. Also: "Trenchtown Rock," "I Shot the Sheriff," "Lively Up Yourself," etc., etc.

"You Know Who I Am," Leonard Cohen, Live Songs. This gentle, haunting track is from Cohen's only canonical live album, a difficult collection that for some reason ignores most of his best-known songs. ("Difficult" is a nice way of saying it mostly sucks.) Instead you get an interminable monologue cum sing-along, "Please Don't Pass Me By." Cohen revitalized his career in the 1980s with I’m Your Man and The Future, and accompanied them with some dark and uncompromising live performances. They were later assembled for the 1994 album, Cohen Live, which has respectable versions of "Hallelujah, "Sisters of Mercy," and the like.

"Make It With You," Aretha Franklin, Live at Fillmore West. A beautiful version of the Bread hit. Lots of other similarly ornate covers here, of artists like the Beatles, Stephen Stills, and Simon and Garfunkel. Also: "Respect."

"All the Young Dudes," David Bowie, David Live. This double set, which came out right after Diamond Dogs and just before Young Americans, has for some reason never been beloved. I admire it for its recorded clarity, oddball arrangements, blaring horns, and Bowie's committed delivery, though of course the audio accompaniment to the searing Ziggy Stardust film is a classic in itself, and Stage, from 1978, isn't bad either. This is the height of Bowie's Thin White Duke phase, and the archness here is indigestible; his fervor is at times Jaggeresque, at others lugubrious. But he dominates the proceedings totally; reclaims "Dudes" here from Mott the Hoople, to whom he gave it originally; delivers frenzied versions of "Changes," "Rebel Rebel," etc., etc.

"Presence of the Lord," Eric Clapton, Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert; "Sunshine of Your Love," Cream, Live Cream Volume II. Clapton chronicled his career with live albums more assiduously than even the Rolling Stones; by, say, 1975, fans had discs of him playing live with the Yardbirds (one); Cream (three); and Delaney & Bonnie and Derek & the Dominoes (one each)—and two more as a solo artist besides! Most of the canonical or close to canonical ones aren't much to listen to; his later Unplugged is arguably the worst live album of all time; and with the passage of time we care less than we ever did about white guys workin' it on out to the blues. All that said, Clapton's "Presence of the Lord" remains majestic. He sounds haggard singing it on the Derek live album, but here at the Rainbow concert, with Steve Winwood on hand to wail the vocal track, it's moving to listen to.

"Sweet Child o' Mine," Guns N' Roses Live Era '87­–'93. Axl Rose is a buffoon, of course, but on a good night he was a persuasive frontman of an undeniably powerful live operation. What the band did to the Cult as an opening act just before the release of Appetite for Destruction was almost cruel; later tours, which saw the band concussively laying waste to sheds across the midsection of the country, were complete pandemonium. This album wasn't released until long after we stopped thinking about GnR, but it's a classic twofer; this undeniable performance of the band's best song remains a testament to their onstage ferocity. (I didn't say the set as a whole wasn't overbearing, too long, flatulent, and overwrought, please note.)

"Lake Marie," John Prine, Live on Tour. Prine's an inconsistent goofball. This live album is overproduced, and a lot of his best songs aren't on it. But this long track nicely showcases his taste for the absurd and the gruesome, alternating by turns, and the overproduction kinda makes it all funnier. Note redundant album title. Also: "Picture Show."

"San Quentin," Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash at San Quentin. This was a huge album in the 1960s and a souvenir from a simpler time. Cash sings the title song twice, and covers John Sebastian and Bob Dylan. If you don't have the original LP sequence burned into your memory, you can enjoy a recent reissue that has just about the complete concert, along with all the stage announcements.

"The Circle Game," Joni Mitchell, Miles of Aisles. Probably the best live album title ever, and transfixing from start to finish. I'm too young to have seen Mitchell at her height; it must have been amazing to have witnessed her create this sort of mood live. I don't need to hear her little story about Starry Night ever again, it's true, but if you don't sing along to the chorus to "The Circle Game" you're got a heart of stone. Also: "Real Good for Free" and, I'm not afraid to admit it, "Both Sides Now."

"Misfits," the Kinks, One for the Road. The Kinks were overly cartoony at this disproportionately arena-sized point in their career, but just a few years later they were back playing in small halls. I recently saw Ray Davies in front of maybe 500 people; on the same night, a few miles away, Paul McCartney played in front of more than 50,000. The moral: Rock 'n' roll is a cruel mistress, which is kind of what "Misfits," in the end, is about. Also: "Stop Your Sobbing," "Lola."

"My Generation," The Who, Live at Leeds. This album is an excellent accounting of the sort of unholy pounding certain British outfits (see also Zeppelin comma Led) were giving audiences at the time. It gets extra points for being released at the band's height. This endless track, which starts out with "My Generation" and then snaps into bits of Tommy and slices of what may or may not be other actual songs, is a deeply pleasurable listening experience, particularly driving at very high speeds. There's something austere and remote here that you have to buy into, though, in contrast to goofier lengthy exercises like "Magic Bus"; by which I mean it's entirely possible that, as some of the band's performances in things like the Isle of Wight movie suggest, its live shows, whatever the nattering about the wholesale instrument destruction at the end, were in fact somewhat tedious. The album's been re-released numerous times, with later ones including a full performance of Tommy as well.

"Muzzle of Bees," Wilco, Kicking Television: Live in Chicago. Wilco's pristinely recorded set, full of intimate, unsettling songs, is one of the better live albums released in the last 10 years. "Muzzle of Bees," a powerful exercise in dynamics, ends with a sharp guitar solo. Also: "Misunderstood" and lots of others.

"Over the Hills and Far Away," Led Zeppelin, How the West Was Won. To answer the implicit question in the album's title: It wasn't pretty. This account of the band's pulverizing shows on a 1972 tour is unfairly overlooked, coming out, as it did, eight or 10 years ago, when no one really cared. Why the band at its height chose to release the listenable but inferior The Song Remains the Same is a mystery; that album, from the 1973 tour, finds the band much less light on its feet. But if a great live album is one that convinces you that this band, that night, was the best rock 'n' roll band in the world, How the West Was Won is definitive. Jimmy Page, music's best guitarist and second-best producer, plays articulately and laceratingly throughout. Also: "Stairway to Heaven," "Dazed and Confused," etc., etc.

"Willin'," Little Feat, Waiting for Columbus. These guys were once critical favorites; their legacy is not strong, however, and Lowell George is forgotten. This twofer, celebrated at the time, doesn’t do much for me and won't for you today, but you remember "Willin'," don't you? (The one about Tucson and Tucumcari, Tehachapi and Tonopah.) The live version has a pretty piano break and George's shoutout to Bill Payne, who played it, memorably. Also: not much.

"Walk on the Wild Side," Lou Reed, Take No Prisoners. This jaw-dropping track, one of about four bravura performances on the greatest and weirdest (and most appositely titled) live album ever made, is an impeccably recorded and transparently revelatory picture of a very angry artist at the height of his powers. Here and on those other central tracks, Reed digresses three, four, five minutes at a time, riffing on critics, fans, clubs, his life, and everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Diana Ross. You wouldn't want to sit next to this guy at a dinner party, but he and his band deliver onstage. This track (which comprises, you will recall, a series of unsparing portraits of Warhol factory detritus and unaccountably became a pop radio hit) finds a by-turns affable and waspish Reed telling the story of how he came to write the song, and then annotating virtually every line of it with memories of the characters as he sings. "Little Joe—Little Joe was an idiot! I don't know if any of you know that. … He had an IQ of 12! … He could barely tie his shoelaces." (This was, incidentally, Reed's third solo live album of the decade, and there were two [posthumous] Velvets live outings as well.) Also: "Satellite of Love," "Coney Island Baby," "Street Hassle," more.

"Ice Cream Man," Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, Modern Lovers 'Live.' If you let it catch you off guard, and then slowly give it your attention, this utterly unironic paean to the title character—instrumentalized with care and humor, sung with a deep equanimity, and delivered with a bravura finale—can become an unexpectedly thrilling rock listening experience.

"In Your Eyes," Peter Gabriel, Secret World. Gabriel's earlier Plays Live is an underappreciated gem by a guy so weird he refused to give his solo albums names; the sequel is a little too full of itself, a little too electronic, a little too safe. But its closing song envisions and then achieves everything it means to; it's a panemotional, pancultural, panmusical odyssey featuring wave after wave of ever-heightened musicality, humanity, emotion, glee, and finally catharsis, turning a lowercase love song into a capital-L universalist Lovechant—still able to raise the hair on your arms if you let its emotions in.

"I Think It's Going To Rain Today," Randy Newman, Live. An utterly morose set of bleak sarcasm and genuine misery. Newman finds this all somewhat enlivening, but you wouldn’t know it from the straight delivery. "Human kindness is overflowing," he sings, doubtfully. "I think it's going to rain today."

"Buttholeville," Drive-by Truckers, Alabama Ass Whuppin'. I like this spot-on-titled record because half the songs begin with the same low minor chord, a stand-in for the moral muck so many of the songs are thematically set in. Call it "Buttholeville"—these guys do. Also: "Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)," and (Jim Carroll's) "People Who Died."

"The Range War," Todd Rundgren, Back to the Bars. This trifle from Rundgren's second album, probably the best track on an intensely recorded but aesthetically haphazard Rundgren twofer, is an irresistible singalong that revivified a forgotten original.

"The Way Young Lovers Do," Jeff Buckley, Live at Sin-é. You have to be in the mood for Buckley, of course, which is to say you have to be in the mood for a nut strumming a solo electric guitar and ululating for minutes at a time, until you finally notice that he's actually singing a Bob Dylan song, or a Led Zeppelin (!) song, or, as here, a Van Morrison song. The riveting original four-track Sin-é EP can now be found as just part of a larger set in several permutations, which gives you (a lot) more of the same, which you might, or might not, be in the mood for.

"Lost Someone," James Brown, Live at the Apollo. A minor song with a three-note cadence turned into a hilariously extended centerpiece of Brown's classic set. Brown's delivery of the title phrase, at about the five-minute mark, is a show stopper. Great sound, and the crowd noise, while mixed too high, sounds genuine.

"Tonight's the Night," Neil Young, Live Rust. Young's first live album, not counting CSNY's 4 Way Street was Time Fades Away. It was an unusual thing—a live album of all new material. (Jackson Browne's Running on Empty assemblage does something similar.) It's novel but lacks the punch of what live albums are for, which is to let us hear material we know transformed. This thundering set, on which he managed both to take enormous care with the sound and yet still come off rough and "authentic," on the heels of Rust Never Sleeps, cemented his reputation as the hardiest and most uncompromising of the '60s holdovers. Also: "Powderfinger," "Like a Hurricane," "Cortez the Killer," etc., etc.

"Blackbird," Paul McCartney & Wings, Wings Over America. A three-record set from a similarly oversized tour, one of the biggest of the decade. (There's a film of it, too, called Rockshow.) McCartney's next tour, 15 years later, made a big deal of his playing Beatles songs, but he does at least a half-dozen on this one, including a three-song acoustic set that includes "I've Just Seen a Face," "Blackbird," and "Yesterday." I like the wistful "Blackbird" the best. Also: "Maybe I'm Amazed," of course.

"Shelter From the Storm," Bob Dylan, Hard Rain. Lots of weirdness here, on an appropriately rain-drenched, uneven set. (A full accounting of the Rolling Thunder tour wouldn’t come until a double CD was released in 2002.) But this stately, parading chant is hard to forget. Dylan sometimes adheres to a structural rigidity live; here, he insists that the band bookend each verse with a long instrumental passage marked with a sproingy guitar. The effect just makes each successive verse even more mesmerizing. And his vocals—from "Hunted like a crocodile/ Ravaged in the corn" or "I bargained for salvation/ And they gave me a lethal dose"—is one of his best, which is of course saying something. A few years later he turned the song into a dreary reggae, on Budokan. Sigh. Also: "Idiot Wind."

Correction, Nov. 16, 2011: This article originally stated that the song “Trapped” appeared on the album. That track was actually released on the We Are the World album. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of NPR and Salon. Read him at hitsville.net and follow him on Twitter @hitsville.

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