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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Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP

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“Fourteen junkies, too weak to work…” – Neil Young, “Time Fades Away”

There are certain albums that for various reasons have taken on a certain “mystique” over the years. In most cases it’s albums that don’t get released. Prince had “The Black Album,” an album that was supposedly so perverse it couldn’t be released… we have to save the children from such sex talk in music (cue the PMRC). Years after the rumor of the album, Prince finally released it and it was, to be generous, meh. Ryan Adams’ record company rejected “Love Is Hell” because they thought it was a downer so he released “Rock N Roll” instead. The fact that his record company rejected “Love Is Hell” brought so much interest in this supposedly “dark” album, that the record company finally released it. It’s an ok Ryan Adams LP… I mean, dark is kind of his thing. You’ll never find Ryan Adams being played at a party here at the B&V house, that’s for sure. One could describe Ryan’s music as, “Music to Overdose to.”

Usually albums only carry this kind of heavy mystique if someone dies during or shortly after the albums release. “Blackstar” by David Bowie and “You Want It Darker” by Leonard Cohen will always carry a little more weight because they can be read as an artistic farewell to the world and to their fans. Jimi Hendrix’ last recordings are always heralded as people wonder, what might have been. People point to Stevie Ray Vaughn’s final song on his final album, “Riviera Paradise” as a signal that he was headed into an all new creative direction that would have changed music and guitar as we know it… had he not passed away in that tragic helicopter crash. It’s like a painter whose paintings become more valuable after they’ve died. I’m surprised more rock stars don’t fake their death more often but that makes me sound like an agent hustling for coins.

Of all the artists around, other than maybe Bob Dylan, Neil Young has more than his share of “mysterious,” unreleased albums. “Chrome Dreams” is an oft bootlegged, amazing record that Neil chose not to release in 1977. It would have been as big as “Harvest” in my opinion, which may be why Neil chose not to put it out. That “fame thing” never worked out too well for Neil. He said in the liner notes of “Decade” that “Harvest” found him in the middle of the road and very popular so he chose to steer into the ditch, “It was a rougher ride, but you meet more interesting people there” (I believe is the direct quote). He’s put out most of the songs on other albums, but taken as a whole “Chrome Dreams” would have stood with some of his best work.

Of all of Neil Young’s unreleased and released albums, the one that always had the most intrigue for me, for some reason, was “Time Fades Away.” Part of the problem was you simply couldn’t find the record. I could never get my hands on it. After the initial release, Neil refused to release it on vinyl or any other format so copies of the album were really hard to find. Neil basically disavowed the record. My college roommate Drew was the only guy I know who could have been capable of even finding a copy such were his “completist” tendencies, but I don’t think even he had a copy. It was like you had to “know a guy” to even hear the thing, which I never did.

The backstory alone is enough to draw a rock and roll obsessive like me in… Neil Young, fresh from his twin triumphs of “After the Gold Rush,” and the even bigger success of “Harvest” was set to go on tour. It’s hard to overstate how popular Neil Young became after “Harvest.” I heard a story once, that Dylan heard “Heart of Gold” on the radio and thought it was one of his songs. When he realized it was Neil Young, he felt ripped off and wrote “Forever Young” as some sort of angry, “you ripped me off, you dick” kind of a song. Who knows if that’s true. Anyway, Neil gathered members of his “Harvest” band, the Stray Gators, and invited Danny Whitten from one of his other backing bands, Crazy Horse to New York to rehearse. Unfortunately Danny Whitten, a very talented guitarist and songwriter in his own right, was addicted to heroin. He’d already been kicked out of Crazy Horse, who were working on their own without Neil, because of his drug addictions. Whitten just couldn’t “hack it” at the rehearsals. He was taking a lot of Valium to help him kick the heroin habit and it was just destroying his timing. Finally Neil had to tell Danny he was fired and gave him $50 and a plane ticket back to Los Angeles. That very night, the night Neil Young fired Danny Whitten, Danny was found dead from mixing alcohol and $50 worth of Valium. Enter…. guilt and despair.

So after releasing his biggest album, with thousands of adoring fans waiting to hear the soft rock troubadour of “Harvest” come out and sing “Heart of Gold,” Neil plugs in his electric guitar and attempted to conquer his demons. Oh, and he brought along the 8-track mobile recording machine to document the whole thing. At the time, one of his band members turned him onto tequila. Ah, tequila. As I used to say in my younger days, the authorities knew which drug to legalize. When I drink tequila, which I rarely do, if I drink too much of it, I’m either going to fight you or fuck you, and quite possibly, both at the same time. Add tequila to a depressed, fragile mental state like Neil Young was in and God knows what can happen. Apparently the fans were not impressed. Part of the problem with concert audiences is that it’s hard to play new, unheard music for a crowd. They want to hear the hits, songs they’re familiar with. This was especially true in 1973 when the crowds were not that sophisticated.

At long last, I discovered this “lost” live album on iTunes. I had always heard that the music on this album was all loud, screaming guitar. It was going to be all noise like “Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black).” That is not exactly the case. The band did not get along well and Neil’s vocals were so fried he brought in Crosby and Nash to help sing harmonies, although, this wasn’t an album big on harmony. I will say, this is a very, very good Neil Young album, although I prefer the even darker music found on “Tonight’s the Night.” One might see this as a companion piece to “Tonight’s the Night” and “On The Beach” which are some of Neil’s darker works.

The album starts off with the raucous title track, which is one of the best here but I’ve always liked my Neil Young a little ragged. “Yonder Stands the Sinner” is another ragged rocker that jumps out at me and it’s followed by the great song “L.A.” (“city in the smog…”). But interspersed with those rockers are a couple of delicate, beautiful piano ballads, “Journey Through The Past” and “Love In Mind.” I never expected this kind of balladry from a guy on tequila. The crowd claps politely at the end of “Love In Mind” but you kind of feel they’re not thrilled.

The centerpiece of the album for me, is the beginning of what would be side 2 for you vinyl enthusiasts, “Don’t Be Denied.” It’s a a better autobiography than Neil’s book “Shakey.”It’s a long, mid tempo song about Neil’s love of and dedication to music. It tells his life story from being a bullied kid at school, to forming a band. It’s one of his best songs and coincidentally was recently covered beautifully by Norah Jones. It’s really the only hopeful bit of light in an otherwise dark album.

After the ballad, “The Bridge,” another lovely piano and harmonica song, Neil and the band launch into the epic, eight-minute “Last Dance.” I really like the ragged guitar riff in this song. Although, it’s so bleak that it wouldn’t have been out of place on “Tonight’s the Night.” At the end of the song, Neil just howls, “no, no, no…” When Neil sings, “Wake up, it’s time to go to work,” it’s with an utter lack of enthusiasm.

“Time Fades Away” is a portrait of an artist who is really suffering. And by sharing that pain with us through his art, he let’s we who are also suffering know we are not alone. That’s the power of an album like this. And powerful is the word I would use to describe this record. For anybody out there who likes to explore the musical backwaters of an artist’s catalog, like I do, this is must have music. Although, I wouldn’t recommend putting this on at Christmas… not a lot of Yule time joy here….

It’s a dark ride, folks. Stick together and take care of each other. Cheers!