BourbonAndVinyl Comes Alive: The Epic List Of Essential Live Albums

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You don’t see a lot of live albums any more. Back in the 70s and 80s, when dinosaurs with guitars roamed the Earth, spitting fire and lighting their guitars on fire and well, there was just a lot of fire, live albums could be a big deal. I say “could be” because often times “live in concert” records were just throwaways. Bands would put out a live album as a way to fulfill contract terms. If a band owed a record company four albums and they only had 1 more album due to fulfill the contract, they’d pump out often uninspired, rote, live album so they could sign with another record company and get a big signing-bonus check. Sure, there were more creative ways to get out of a record contract – The Stones famously submitted a single to their record company entitled, “Cocksucker Blues,” a slow, bluesy number about, well, a guy who…nevermind, you get the picture. The record company guys were so horrified by the Stones they released them from their contract for purely moral reasons. Ah, the 60s.

Because so many bands put out “contract fulfilling” live albums, the live album as an art form gets a bit maligned. Tom Petty used to call those live albums, “greatest hits played faster” albums. Not unfairly… However, in the hands of a committed artist, a live album can be something special. There are many cases of a live album being the key that actually broke an act nationally – Bob Seger, Peter Frampton, and Cheap Trick are all great examples of that. The live album choice was a way to capture those band’s on-stage magic, that up to that point they’d been unable to find in the studio. I’ve always felt to be a truly classic rock and roll artist, you’ve got to be able to bring it live. With that thought in mind, it’s no surprise, that many acts on this list would be on anybody’s “greatest of all time” lists. Great bands tend to do great live albums.

I’m not fond of just putting out lists of things. “It’s not really writing, it’s just typing” as Truman Capote once said. But every now and then I have to submit a summer listening list to the B&V faithful. I have arranged this list in alphabetic order. Some of these acts have more than one essential live album so I have tried to list only the pick of the litter. Although in some cases, I couldn’t make up my mind and just listed all of them. In many cases, it’s us in the audience and our wild cheering that can make the music that much more magical…and yes, I’ll be the first to admit, that many times, the band in question heavily overdubbed the vocals or the guitar parts…

  1. Aerosmith, Live Bootleg – Before they looked like the Real Gypsie Housewives of Rock N Roll, Aerosmith used to be menacing, gypsy drug addicts who could rock. This is a great document of that time.
  2. The Allman Brothers, Live At the Fillmore East – Blues with a jazz improvisational twist.
  3. Gregg Allman, The Gregg Allman Tour – Joined by Allman Bros Jaimoe (drums), and Chuck Leavell (piano), Gregg is more soulful/R&B-ish than with the main band. His backing band Cowboy even gets one side to show off their stuff.
  4. The Band, Rock of Ages or The Last Waltz – Either of these are great, I lean toward Waltz as it’s like a drunken wake for the 60s as the Band play with influences to contemporaries.
  5. The Beatles, Live At the Hollywood Bowl – The Beatles were such studio wizards, it’s nice to get a different view of the legends. This album puts a little meat on the bones of the myth. Live at the BBC iis also a great listen, just without an audience.
  6. David Bowie, Live in Santa Monica ’72 – Bowie and the Spiders from Mars… Mick Ronson almost outshines Bowie… almost.
  7. James Brown, Live At the Apollo – Soul Brother #1’s greatest album.
  8. Jackson Browne, Running On Empty – A concept album about the road, recorded on the road. His last classic record.
  9. Johnny Cash, Live at Folsom Prison – The man in black, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die…” A young inmate in the audience went on to some fame… his name was Merle Haggard.
  10. Cheap Trick, Live At Budokan – This takes me back to riding to high school in my buddy Brewster’s car, listening to this on 8-track.
  11. Eric Clapton, Just One Night – The definitive version of J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine.”
  12. Leonard Cohen, Live In London – About what other artist can you say: After years spent in a Buddhist monastery, he emerged to find out his manager had ripped him off. He had to tour to fund his legal fees. It was a treat to hear how warmly he’s greeted by his fans.
  13. Sam Cooke, One Night Stand: At the Harlem Square Club – Greatest. Singer. Ever.
  14. Chris Cornell, Songbook – Sentimental choice here… An acoustic run through solo, Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog and Audioslave tunes.
  15. CSNY, Four Way Street or 1974 – I probably lean toward 4-way, but 1974 is a 3-disc, superbly curated (by Graham Nash) look at the tumultuous ’74 tour.
  16. Dire Straits, Alchemy – The definitive version of “Sultans of Swing” and my buddy the accountant’s favorite live album.
  17. Bob Dylan, Bootleg Series Vol 4, Live 1966 – Mislabeled as being from The Royal Albert Hall. Dylan backed by the Band (sans Levon) before they were the Band. The most combative live album ever – his folk-y fans resented his electric turn.
  18. Bob Dylan and the Band, Before the Flood – During a career lull for both acts in 1974 Dylan and his erstwhile backing band reunited for Planet Waves and this incendiary live album.
  19. Peter Frampton, Comes Alive – After a series of great solo records, it took this monster to break Frampton to the world.
  20. Free, Live Free! – Perhaps their best album.
  21. Grateful Dead, Live/Dead – So many to choose from, ’72 is also great… but I love how muscular they sound here. Pigpen’s keyboards are epic. They were never this experimental/innovative again, in my humble opinion.
  22. George Harrison, Concert for Bangladesh – My buddy Ron was there and says it was as epic as it sounds.
  23. Jimi Hendrix, Band of Gypsies – So many choices… I went with this one because it was the only one released while he was alive. Winterland, the box set is also a must have for The Jimi Hendrix Experience at their peak.
  24. Humble Pie, Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore – Frampton’s last album with Humble Pie.
  25. J. Geils Band, Blow Your Face Out – Before the sleek, synth pop of “Freeze Frame” the J. Geils Band were a soul, blues extravaganza, documented here. They also have a single disc live album, Live, Full House that’s exceptional.
  26. Billy Joel, Songs From The Attic – After hitting it big, Joel turns back to his early material and rerecords it with his road band, bringing the sometimes lifeless studio renditions to life. A rare case of an artist reflecting on his past.
  27. Elton John, 11-17-70 – Buy this just for the essential version of “Bad Side of the Moon” but stay for the rest. No hits, just rock.
  28. Journey, Captured – Greg Rollie’s last album with Journey and the last thing they did before becoming corporate sell-outs.
  29. B.B. King, Live At the Regal – B.B. and his rapport with his audience makes this great performance even more special.
  30. The Kinks, One More From the Road – Great Kinks arena-rock.
  31. Kiss, Alive – Heavily overdubbed, yes. Excellent, yes. Alive II was also a fan fav.
  32. Led Zeppelin, BBC Sessions – Zeppelin never really recorded a great live concert album. I liked How The West Was Won, but BBC is really the pick of the litter. Don’t forget their reunion live LP, Celebration Day.
  33. Little Feat, Waiting For Columbus – Internal dissension was tearing them apart, but you couldn’t tell listening to this great live document.
  34. Bob Marley, Babylon By Bus – You could equally pick Live! or Live At the Roxy. Marley and the Wailers were money on live albums.
  35. Dave Matthews Band, Live At Red Rocks – The best of many choices. I like this one since it focuses on the early DMB albums.
  36. Paul McCartney, Wings Over America – Derided as a “tour souvenir” I still like this record. It’s the first one I can think of with an acoustic set in the middle.
  37. Van Morrison, It’s Too Late To Stop Now – The Caledonian Soul Orchestra!
  38. Nirvana, Unplugged In New York City – Stripped off all the strum and drang, Cobain’s beautiful songwriting and sense of melody pop out at you.
  39. Ozzy Osbourne & Randy Rhoads, Tribute – Ozzy’s fine tribute to Randy, RIP.
  40. Pearl Jam, Live In Seattle, November 6, 2000 – My favorite from their bootleg series. This is a powerhouse show in front of the hometown fans.
  41. Tom Petty, The Live Anthology – A box set that is the ultimate statement on Petty and the Heartbreakers live… RIP Tom.
  42. Otis Redding, Live At the Whiskey A Go Go – I like this one better than Live In Europe, it’s more raw and immediate to me.
  43. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Live In Hyde Park – Overlooked gem of a live LP… Frusciante and Flea are on fire.
  44. Lou Reed, Rock N Roll Animal – Ferocious live solo and Velvet Underground cuts.
  45. R.E.M., Live At the Olympia – I don’t know if Michael Stipe was ever this engaging on stage ever again.
  46. The Rolling Stones, Get Your Ya Ya’s Out – The Stones have started a wonderful live Vault Series, but this is still their quintessential live album.
  47. Rush, All The World’s A Stage – This one came early in their career and it’s a powerhouse… although they medley up on “Working Man,” which is too bad.
  48. Bob Seger, Live Bullet or Nine Tonight – I’d give the nod to Live Bullet here only because it’s the sound of a funky, rock and roll bar band, The Silver Bullet Band to be specific, conquering the world.
  49. Bruce Springsteen, Live 75 to 85 (Box Set) or 1978 Cleveland – The box set captures Springsteen at the peak of his popularity, but really anything recorded on the iconic ’78 tour from his bootleg series is worth the price. I also like Live At the Hammersmith Odeon from the Born To Run tour. You really can’t go wrong with live Springsteen.
  50. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense – Also get the DVD, visually entertaining too.
  51. Thin Lizzy, Live and Dangerous – True on both counts.
  52. U2, Under a Blood Red Sky – Before they were world spanning titans… they just simply rock Red Rocks outside of Denver.
  53. Stevie Ray Vaughn, Live at Carnegie Hall – SRV had to self finance this thing to get it recorded. Thank God he did.
  54. Velvet Underground, Live With Lou Reed, Vol 1 &2 – Rough sound quality but essential for any rock and roll fan.
  55. Muddy Waters, Live at Newport – Muddy launching the blues revival in America at the iconic Newport Festival.
  56. The Who, Live At Leeds – The power and the glory of “maximum R&B.” They’ve got a great BBC collection as well.
  57. Neil Young, Live Rust – On tour for one of his most popular albums, this live album is split between an acoustic and an electric performance. Neil has put out a number of excellent concert recordings in his vault series, from Massey Hall to Tonights The Night Live that are all worth checking out.
  58. Warren Zevon, Stand In The Fire – Sober but still unhinged. Zevon never gets his due…

There it is rock and roll fans. A nice list of live records to pour over during your summers by the pool… call it your summer homework assignment. If there’s something I left out, just post it in the comments. I’m always open to ideas! Hold those lighters in the air and celebrate the majesty of rock and roll played live!

 

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2 thoughts on “BourbonAndVinyl Comes Alive: The Epic List Of Essential Live Albums

  1. This is an impressive list. As I expected, there are several entries that I wouldn’t have had in my list – because we all have our individual tastes – but there are also quite a few that I would have included and figured you wouldn’t. I’m elated to see you acknowledge Free.

    Here’s my “what about…?” – REO Speedwagon’s “Live: You Get What You Play For.” I admit that I haven’t heard it in a very, very long time, but it’d be on my list regardless. There are possible options for Queen, too, although I’d prefer to cherry pick from their several live albums than choose one.

    Of them all, I think Frampton’s is the one that still really hits the mark consistently when I hear it.

    Thanks for this.

    Like

    1. BG, thank you for weighing in. REO’s ‘You Get What You Play For’ almost made the list. The version of “Like You Do” that opens that record is definitive. I just couldn’t get myself to type REO on the list… the latter half of their career and the decline warned me off. I also considered Queen, who I’ve been listening to a lot lately but felt it was too personal/idiosyncratic to me, that I dug it but never heard others talk about it, that I left it off. Both superb suggestions that I almost included… #kickingmyself

      Like

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