My top 10 live albums and a crowd sourced list of twitter recommendations.
Live albums – capturing magic that couldn’t be created in the studio? A way to relive the gig of a lifetime? Mere tour souvenirs? Cynical cashins? A time machine for a gig you could never have seen?
Most music fans will have at least one live album in their collection. But are they loved and played? I decided to delve into this less written about album form.
You might argue the heyday of the live album was the 70s, alongside the pinnacle of the album format itself. Some live albums were the most loved releases by certain artists (Bob Marley, Hawkwind) or even launched them – see Peter Frampton. By the 80s they were rapidly becoming a record label staple in the cycle of promoting an artist and became over produced and over dubbed. The best live albums are probably not the ones planned years in advance as part of the mega tour but ones quickly conceived, happening on a magic moment in time, sometimes serendipity, sometimes a quick reaction to knowing a rapid ascension is happening, or capturing something that will never be there again.
Whilst the number of new standalone live albums is probably declining, the market for archive boxsets remains strong and I continue to acquire many great live albums this way. When carefully selected, researched and mixed with care there are still some welcome live releases coming through (new Richard and Linda Thompson boxset being a good example). I think Dylan probably pushed this to the limit with his 36 CD 1966 recordings set or the 14 CD Rolling Thunder box. I couldn’t resist the gargantuan Pink Floyd early years box set though, it leads you through evolving live versions of early Floyd classics like Interstellar Overdrive and Careful with that axe, Eugene. These boxsets are really a new sub genre where you trace an artist’s development through many live recordings over time. (Your partner, if they don’t share this enthusiasm, may often cast disapproving eye as you unbox another package – do you really need all those versions of the same track??).
Some gigs are also just best left in your mind. Trying to relive through a live album just wouldn’t work. Happy Mondays at Glastonbury would be one good example – I remember loving it at the time and still have great, rather hazy memories and I know a live recording would probably pour some cold water on the vibes I can still recall from that night. In my memory the band clicked and Shaun was on top form!
I started to explore live albums in my teens – the one I remember getting into first was Plays Live by Peter Gabriel. At this point in my life I’d never been to a proper gig before but this album gave me a glimpse of the energy of live performance. A friend then also lent me The Who’s Live at Leeds and Jimi Hendrix Live at Winterland. Live at Leeds in particular just blew me away – the version of My generation seemed to go on forever and showed how a great track could be further ripped up and pushed even further.
I tried a bit of twitter crowd sourcing for this article and sought some nominations. For the purposes of this article I’ve stuck to officially released albums and not delved further into the murkier world of bootlegs. Perhaps a subject for another day..
So here is the list of albums nominated by twitter and then my top 10.
The Twitter list A to Z – with comments from the people who nominated – why that live album is special. Some great stuff here and a number of albums I listened to for the first time. Best of all has to be Pete Pephides’ recommendation – Misty in Roots’ Live at the Counter Eurovision . Also loved the Bill Wihers’ album.
Allman Brothers – Fillmore East
AMM – The Crypt 12 June 1968 – “Shocking and raw document of the foundations of audacious ‘anti-music’ noise improvisation”.
Aswad – Live and direct
Big Brother and the Holding Company – Live 1968
David Bowie – Santa Monica
James Brown – Love, Peace, Power
Johnny Cash – Live at Folsom Prison
Cowboy Junkies – Trinity revisited (nominated by Peter Pephides)
The Cramps – Smell of the female “Sleazy as hell.”
Deep Purple – Made in Japan
Dream Letter – Live in London 1968
Bob Dylan – Rolling Thunder Revue
Bob Dylan – The real Royal Albert Hall concert
The Fall – Totale’s turns ( nominated by Bob Stanley)
The Faces – Overture and beginners “Ragged and undisciplined and all over the place. That’s what they were like live.”
Aretha Franklin – Live at Fillmore West
Rory Gallagher – Irish Tour
Hawkwind – Space Ritual
Donny Hathaway – Live “Best audience participation ever” and “you really feel like your there with them”.
Iggy and the Stooges – Metallic KO
Humble Pie – Rockin the Fillmore
Etta James – Rocks this house
Jefferson Airplane- Bless its pointed little head
Jerry Lee Lewis – Live at the Hamburg Star Club
Magazine – Play
MC5 – Kick out the jams
Charlie Mingus – Town Hall concert
Misty in Roots – Live at the counter Eurovision (nominated by Peter Pephides)
Van Morrison – It’s too late to stop now
Pink Fairies – Finland freakout
Elvis Presley – Elvis on stage (nominated by Bob Stanley)
Lou Reed – take no prisoners “White hot perfection, flirting with collapse.”
Frank Sinatra – Santra at the sands (with Count Basie and orchestra)
Swans – Swans are dead
Talking Heads – The name of this band is “Starts wiry and uptight but gets funkier and funkier”
Thin Lizzy – Live and dangerous
Various – Glastobury Fayre
Various – Greasy truckers live at Dingwalls dance hall.
Walkabouts – To hell and back
The Who – Live at Leeds “The guitar sound is astonishing”
Wings – Wings over America
Bill Withers – Live at Carnegie Hall
Neil Young – Time Fades Away
Neil Young – Massey Hall
My top 10
1. Neil Young – Massey Hall
I deliberated about which Neil Young album to include, there are so many top drawer live albums in his catalogue and he just keeps adding more through his ever expanding archive series. I originally had the barnstorming 1991 live album Weld as my pick but this is run close by Live Rust. You also have the CSNY live album that was released a few years ago that captures them in their 1970s prime – harmonies and guitar interplay just sublime. However, I decided to go with Live at Massey Hall 1971 as my Neil pick and No1 in the list.
The album sounds perfect – Neil is clearing flying creatively at this point – on the back of After the goldrush, this gig was a showcase for many of songs just written for Harvest. His voice just hangs in the air and songs fall from his guitar and piano. Favourite has to be Cowgirl in the sand. He manages to sound urgent, laidback, fragile at different points.
2. Pink Floyd – Ummagumma (live half)
This 1969 live recording captures early Floyd at the peak of their post Syd evolution. The other disc of this double is filled with fairly variable individual studio experiments but the live disc is the Floyd I always come back to. It was an influence on Hawkind and you can hear the influence on the emerging Krautrcok bands of the early 70’s such as Amon Duul II. Later in the early 90s I remember reading an article where the KLF cited this disc as a major influence.
At the time, the Floyd were seeking to find a way past the legacy of Syd and wanted to record this live album (At Mothers in Birmingham and Manchester College of Commerce) as a way of saying goodbye to songs they had gigged the hell out of. What the Floyd never quite realised themselves (they would all be quite dismissive of this album) was the epic form of space rock they had evolved from the constant gigging in ’68 and ’69. By this time the b-side Careful with that Axe Eugune had evolved into frenzied axe shredding noise fest, along with quadraphonic screams. Astronomy Domine extends – swirling in out, Rick Wright’s keyboards hang in the air. At this point David Gilmour wasn’t a virtuoso and his compensation with noise and feedback, makes a great mix as his ethereal style starts to emerge. There are actually better recordings on the Early years boxset, but this was one that opened my ears and attuned me to the ur-spirit that is found in Krautrock and other late 60’s early 70’s forms of ur-rock, well documented by Julian Cope, from Japan to Denmark.
3. Bob Marley and the Wailers – Live!
I’m not the biggest Bob Marley head – I love lots of reggae and dub but I’m not greatest student of the genre. I just love the vibe and energy of this album – I want to be there! The crowd are in the mix – the reaction to each song is amazing and uncontrived. I don’t always want a live album to have a ‘sing-a-long’ feel but the crowd mix on this just works, particularly on No woman no cry. It is also just one of those albums that captures the artist and band at the right time, on the arc of a magical curve, that would soon disappear. The Wailers are just in that groove. I love Lively up yourself – just bounces the crowd along. I watched the BBC documentary When Bob Marley came to Britain the other day and this provides a great insight into how much Marley meant to the black community in Britain at that time. Fans poured into the Lyceum to see him for this gig, it was a belting hot night and the roof had to be opened up.
4. Otis Redding – Live in Europe
Working in a record shop widened my horizons – we all liked a wide range of stuff between us and it taught me to open my ears. I think I came across Otis Redding one day when I put a live Stax compilation on for a customer. I heard his version of Shake and it blew me away. The energy of that Stax tour of 67 was something else – they were the live performers of that year – not the more fabled bands of the summer of love. I then found this Otis live album from 1967. Of all the people who were taken too early in the 1960s and early 70s Otis was the saddest loss. The rhtythm, fast stomping horn driven soul and his rasping voice just bursts through, as he’s backed by Booker T and the MGs. His version of Day Tripper on this album is probably my favourite ever Beatles cover. He also slows it down masterfully with tracks like These arms of mine.
5. Fela Kuti and the Africa ’70, with Ginger Baker – Live!
I came across the album a few years back as I delved deeper into Fela Kuti’s catalogue. A key feature of Fela’s albums is Tony Allen’s unique drumming but with this album you get Ginger Baker as well! Ginger was more than up for the task and showed why he was one of the greatest drummers of all time in adapting and propelling this music in the same way that he did for Cream. He appears on two of the tracks. How to describe the sound of this album – it just sums up what is great about the live sound of Afrobeat. Wikipedia describes it as “a fusion of jazz, funk, Ghanian high life, psychedelic rock, West African chants and rhythms”. Just works as a genre for me – blending so much stuff I love – just listen to the groove!! It’s all there right from the get go with opening track Let’s start.
6. Spaceman 3 – Live in Europe 1989
I was lucky enough to see Spaceman 3 in 89 but they broke up and went their own ways shortly after that and I always regretted never seeing them again. Seem to recall Sonic Boom playing in a chair for the whole gig. Their feedback leaden, Velvets inspired, indie-blues was the point I headed deeper into noise, alongside groups like Loop.
Time then moved on and they fell away from what listened to for a long time. When I re-listened years later I realised how much the sound of this band meant and how this 1989 live album captured it, coming off the back of my favourite album, Playing with Fire. Though the sound isn’t perfect and you need to push the volume to really get the intensity, it is still a great live document of their 89 set. I never tire of the droning hymns on this album and the songs start slow, pound and build. The totemic highlight being Revolution – we used to dance..??? to this at indie clubs at the time, though not sure what this looked like. The Mudhoney version was also a floor filler.
All the Spaceman 3 back catalogue is recently available on Spotify, including this one.
7. Bowie – Glastonbury 2000
This is the first one on the list that means something because I was there – what a night. I was made up when this was released last year by the Bowie Estate. I’d wanted to see Bowie for years but something always got in the way and it was major moment to finally see him at Glasto in 2000.
From the opening track Wild is the Wind Bowie had us all in the palm of his hand and took us through the stuff everyone wanted hear e.g Changes, Ziggy etc and through other classics that blew me away like Station to Station. He was just on imperial form and I savoured every note.
Listening to the whole thing is pretty emotional. Re-listening to the gig takes me right back to that night and I love the bits I remember and the bits I didn’t. We didn’t realise at the time but the gig nearly didn’t happen because Bowie had had laryngitis. So glad he made it. I did also get to see him one last time when he stepped on stage to play Arnold Lane with David Gilmour in 2006.
I also highly recommend Caitlin Moran’s excellent essay in the boxset.
8. Portishead – Live NYC
This one may surprise a few people. At the time I wasn’t sure how well a live album would work with Portishead.
You can forget how innovative Dummy felt at the time, before it became a dinner party staple. Those cinematic and enigmatic vocals from Beth Gibbons, backed by samples of strings, beats and twanging film score guitar from Adrian Utley were a perfect combination. Geoff Barrow had produced and choreographed something special,
By the time of their eponymous second album the dinner party brigade lost interest (probably moving on to Air or Zero 7…) and Geoff Barrow had sought to challenge the band to make an album without samples. Beth’s songs on this second album were just as strong and touring this album in the US led to their concert with a full orchestra in NYC. Both albums get a new light shone on them with this backing and Utley’s guitar really shines forth. Standouts are Cowboys from the second album and Sour Times from Dummy.
9. Hawkwind Space Ritual
I took a while to get into Hawkwind, not sure why, but this was the album that did it for me. It also featured in many of the twitter nominations. This live album is probably the key work in their cannon. It was the culmination of a show that combined tracks from their first three albums, into a complete suite of hypnotic space rock, backed by visuals and lights from now acclaimed artist Barney Bubbles. With the added poetry and vocals of Robert Calvert. This is not toe-curling sci-fi as I had once feared, but pulsating, scary as shit sci-fi. No need for their one hit, Silver Machine here – Brainstorm and Sonic attack lead the way as standout tracks but this is really one you have to listen to end to end – just soak up and drift back to 1972 when it was recorded.
10. Love – The Forever changes concert
I just had to include this one – it isn’t classic era Love. But there isn’t an official live album from the mid to late sixties lineup of Love. Forever Changes is right up there in my all top 10 – a life changing record- the spiky, spooky lyrics in Arthur Lee’s soft and soulful voice, all backed by spanish influenced psych groove – acoustic rhythms and guitar solos interchanging perfectly. There is a live album where Shack backed Arthur at a gig in Liverpool in 1992, but the recording on this doesn’t quite click with me – I’d have loved to have been there, though.
In the early 2000s, freed from his spell in prison, reports surfaced that Arthur Lee would tour again and perform old Love classics. I was a little sceptical but then came news he was playing in Liverpool and just couldn’t resist. I knew it might end in disappointment and had seen comebacks fall flat from other legends, but I just had to see it.
That gig at the Lomax in 2002 was epic – Arthur’s voice was still there and with a stoked crowd roaring him on he just got better as the night went on. In 2003 he returned to Liverpool (and Glastonbury) where he performed Forever Changes with an Orchestra and again something magical just happened, often a few songs into the sets, sometimes around The Daily Planet. That tour was captured on this Live album and it captures enough to take me back to those gigs.