Friday, November 26, 2010

The Greatest Live Rock Albums of All Time, Part I

Live albums. Most are unnecessary. Most are not as good as the studio recordings from whence they were spawned. The vast majority feature tepid tracks and vapid vocals shrieking over the hiss of improper arena amplification. Here then are the select few I believe actually enhance or surpass their original rock album sires.

As with other such lists I have endeavored to formulate, these live albums are strictly from the rock genre and not a general overview of live recordings, which would undoubtedly include such standout albums as James Brown's Live at the Apollo, Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison or At San Quentin, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk's Miles and Monk at Newport, or Muddy Waters' Muddy 'Mississippi' Waters Live. I am not here to belabor the point, add erudition to music categories where I lack expertise, or merely act the sycophantic critic, regurgitating the general consensus and dismeboguing a veritable flood of albums that relatively few have heard (or care to listen to, for that matter).

As with previous descents into musical subjectivity, I have a few caveats for the selection process: 1) I omitted live retrospectives such as Bruce Springsteen's Live/1975-85, concentrating on an artist's single performance, or at least performances within the same tour; 2) I didn't choose any recordings from this century, as I like to see how well music wears over time; 3) I referred strictly to the live recordings and not any extra DVD/CD package extravangas, or concert movies, save for the music and not the videos found therein; and 4) I did not include staged events like the stellar Eric Clapton Unplugged or Elvis Presley's 1968 Comeback Special, as they present the artist in the best possible light and under controlled conditions. As Gollum would say, "I like my meat raw and wriggling."

So, without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my selections:

"Live" Full House-- J. Geils Band
Many folks prefer Geils' Blow Your Face Out live album; however, there was something primal brewing on those spring nights in 1972 at Detroit's Cinderella Ballroom, and it spilled out all over everyone's elephant bells. Peter Wolf is a jibbering, jabbering maniac, and the band, led by sterling performances from Magic Dick on the lickin' stick (that would be blues harp in Geils' jargon) and Seth Justman on keyboards, blew the roof off the Cinderella with their rock and soul revue. No seriously, I think the building caught fire and burned down. Or not. In any case, it's not there any more. "First I look at the Purse" and "Looking for a Love" are extraordinary.

Worth the price of admission: "Whammer Jammer" and "Hard Drivin' Man" (the best versions of these from any album).

Made In Japan -- Deep Purple
If ever a band's essence was encapsulated on a single album, that recording would certainly be Made in Japan by Deep Purple. Nearly every cut on this live album is better than the studio versions; in fact, the studio albums sound flat and muffled compared to this. Ritchie Blackmore is ferocious on lead guitar and Ian Gillan screams better than anyone this side of Ozzy Osbourne. Even the 190 minute long "Space Truckin" (I jest, it only seems 190 minutes long -- it's probably 75 minutes long, tops) is monstrously fun. "Strange Kind of Woman", "Sweet Child in Time" and the omnipresent, bludgeoning dinosaur "Smoke on the Water" are all standout tracks. Gillan sums up the performance when he asks a soundman, "Yes, can we have everything louder than everything else?"

Worth the price of admission: "Highway Star" (with its Hall of Fame lead) and "Lazy".

Concert for Bangladesh -- George Harrison & Friends
The first and perhaps greatest charity rock event up until LiveAid. The passion of George Harrison is evident throughout the concert and his performances -- with the timely aid of Ringo, Clapton, Dylan, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, and a stellar back-up band with the likes of Jesse Ed Davis, Don Preston, Klaus Voorman, and members of Badfinger -- are some of the best post-Beatle material of any of the Fab Four. Ravi Shankar's grand performance of "Bangla Dhun" and his quiet eloquence as he spoke of the sadness of his music in relation to the despair of Bangladesh put the whole event in context. While George Harrison's songs like "Something", "Here Comes the Sun", "Wah-Wah", "My Sweet Lord", "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and "Beware of Darkness" are spectacular attractions, Bob Dylan performs a mini-concert of his own, performing several of his tunes (with "It Takes a lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" being the best of the bunch).

Worth the price of admission: Leon Russell's version of "Jumping Jack Flash/Youngblood" (one of the greatest single concert performances of all time), and a slightly stoned Ringo Starr slurring over some lyrics on "It Don't Come Easy".

Live at Leeds -- The Who
The Who's 1970 album Live at Leeds, although it received near planetary praise when it was first released, always seemed ridiculously short to me. What, did a blotto Keith Moon run a tour bus through the hall halfway through the concert, causing preemption and near-fatal deaths? Well, the fortunate thing is that the 1995 reissue of the album on CD contains twice as much material, and a 2010 40th Anniversary Super-Deluxe Collector's Edition (how's that title for recording industry overkill?) has double the content of the 1995 reissue, adding, in addition to the Leeds' concerts, another full set from Hull (which, if it were released separately, might be titled Half at Hull). In any case, the whole damn thing is great, and captures the boisterous Who at their booming best. Like the famous black and white Who concert poster trumpets: Maximum R&B. Turn it up.

Worth the price of admission: John Entwhistle's ominous parental growl on "Summertime Blues", and great covers of "Young Man Blues" and "Shakin' All Over".

'Live' Bullet -- Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
To be honest, I have never really cared for Bob Seger's music (every time I hear "Like a Rock" or "Down on Main Street", I want to retch). Like Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp -- who were actually regional variants of Seger, and could be purchased in a set or separately -- I never got cozy with the down-home, populist, fumbling-in-the-backseat of a _ _ _ _ (pick any 1960s American car model, one of the three used it in a song). And yet, I have to admit that 'Live' Bullet is a truly great album (see, I can be objective!). As several critics have noted, there was a "desperation" about this performance, an all-or-nothing, winner-take-all, multi-hyphenated bit of hyperbolic gusto that lifted Seger from a local Detroit legend to national superstardom. One day he is playing the smallish Cobo Arena, and a few months later, he is playing sold-out shows on successive nights at the monstrous Silverdome. The music is infectious (but not requiring penicillin), and Seger's growl enhances Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits", and he gives the best performances of his life on his own compositions "Get Out of Denver", "Katmandu" and "Ramblin', Gamblin' Man".

Worth the price of admission: the medley "Traveling Man/Beautiful Loser" and the rock-and-road tune "Turn the Page".

Stop Making Sense -- Talking Heads
Alright, perhaps Jonathon Demme's superlative 1984 film of this concert has caused me to violate one of my caveats, but that was one fine concert to watch, and the Talking Heads, led by noted eccentric David Byrne, were on fire. From a personal standpoint, I really didn't like the Talking Heads until I saw the movie, but what I saw was revelatory. To my chagrin, when the soundtrack was released on vinyl (educational note for adolescents: prior to CDs and MP3s, they had what was called 'records', made of black vinyl or plastic) the idiotic editing of the album destroyed the song continuity of the film and chopped the songs up into indigestible bits, which basically pissed me off to no end. As a result, I cursed the recording industry (again) and lost track of Talking Heads. Lo and behold! Along came the 1999 CD reissue of Stop Making Sense, and me and the Talking Heads were like peas and carrots once again! Except for the Tom Tom Club crap, which I could live without hearing ever again.

Worth the price of admission: "Take Me to the River", "Once in a Lifetime", "Burning Down the House" and "Life During Wartime".

How the West was Won -- Led Zeppelin
I have very personal reasons for choosing this album. You see, I was going to see Led Zeppelin for the first time in the fall of 1980; unfortunately, John Bonham died about a month before Led Zep was scheduled to appear at the Pontiac Silverdome. I was robbed! Sadly, up until the release of "How the West Was Won", the only live material available for Zeppelin was the dreadful The Song Remains the Same from the film of the same name. I say "dreadful" and I mean it, as the film contains some of the most uninspired and sloppy rubbish the band has ever released. Therefore, it was with relief and renewed wonder that I heard How the West Was Won when it was released in 2003. My only question: what took you so damn long? Recorded at the L.A. Forum and Long Beach Arena in June of 1972, this is the definitive live album that Zeppelin fans have clamored for, and the tour to top all tours (an accompaniment to the release of Vol. IV, or ZoSo, if you prefer). Standout songs are numerous: "Heartbreaker", "Black Dog", "Dancing Days", "What Is and What Should Never Be" and "Bring It On Home".

Worth the price of admission: the acoustic set, which includes "Going to California", "That's the Way" and "Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp".

Kick Out the Jams -- MC5
"I want to hear some revolution out there motherfuckers!" Rob Tyner's introduction to civil disobedience, while not as literate as Henry David Thoreau's, charged the air and propelled the MC5 into the song "Rambling Rose" as the band leveled Detroit's Grande Ballroom, appropriately enough, on Devil's Night and Halloween of 1968. Who needs punk rock? The MC5 make The Ramones sound dainty. The MC5's musical incitement to violence simply cannot be played at low volumes -- it is loud even coming out of the little speaker on the back of your iPod. "Come Together", "Rocket Reducer No. 62" and "I Want You Right Now" are all great big dollops of distortion.

Worth the price of admission: The title song and the cover of John Lee Hooker's "Motor City is Burning" (very appropriate for Detroit in the aftermath of the 1968 riots).

Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out -- The Rolling Stones
Raunchy and wretched, the reprobate Stones invaded Madison Square Garden in late 1969, and with illicit licks and lascivious leers stole away New York's daughters (and sons) with their toxic boogie. It's almost a sin what Keith Richards does with that Telecaster. But the late 60s Stones are a sinful delight -- like chocolate or cheating -- and Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out presents the band at their peak, halfway between the releases Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. Like The Who's Live at Leeds, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out is a splendid album as it was first released, but far too short; however, the 2009 40th Anniversary Deluxe Box Set includes more material; unfortunately, it is also more than twice the price, and much of it is extraneous music performed by B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner (who were also on the bill). This would be great, if it were definitive songs from B.B. or Tina, but it aint. Ridiculous, I know. Doesn't Jagger and Richards have enough filthy lucre? Anyway, "Carol", "Stray Cat Blues", "Live With Me" and "Sympathy for the Devil" are all sublime from the original release.

Worth the price of admission: the definitive version of "Midnight Rambler" (original release) and great acoustic versions of "Prodigal Son" and "You Gotta Move" (from the deluxe reissue).

Nothing Is Easy: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 -- Jethro Tull
This is Jethro Tull captured brimming with the piss and vinegar of youth prior to their superstardom. The songs are often inspired and so drenched with adrenaline that any gaffes and sloppiness are drowned in the exuberance and explosive craziness of Ian Anderson and gang. This live album is a real hoot to listen to. Standout songs are "Nothing is Easy", "My Sunday Feeling", and a spastic medley of "We Used to Know"/"For a Thousand Mothers". Tull's appearance at Wight can be seen as a coming out party for a band on the cusp of international fame, and they certainly outperformed most of the other acts at the festival. Tull's 1978 Bursting Out live album is a worthy look at Tull at the height of their stardom, but it in no way matches the energy found on the Isle of Wight recording, which is an important document of rock history and a damn fun one.

Worth the price of admission: "My God", with Ian Anderson doing his best 'Mad Dog Fagin' and still tinkering with the lyrics prior to its inclusion on the album Aqualung, and a towering "To Cry You a Song".

Live Rust -- Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Live Rust presents Neil Young at his schizophrenic best: the dark side exploding in a distortion-drenched rage, and the other, lighter side musing in an idyllic acoustic reverie. Fresh from reinventing himself for the punk age with the sublime release Rust Never Sleeps, Young took his cronies from Crazy Horse out on the road, and this blistering yet beautiful live album is the result. Half of the album contains his acoustic standards, like "Sugar Mountain", "After the Goldrush", and "Needle and the Damage Done", while the rest is a mix of middle-of-the-road ballads ("When You Dance I Can Really Love", "The Loner", and "Lotta Love") and angry avalanches ("Sedan Delivery, "Cortez the Killer", "Tonight's the Night").

Worth the price of admission: a vicious version of "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)", and the epics "Cinammon Girl", "Powderfinger" and "Like a Hurricane".

At Fillmore East -- The Allman Brothers Band
The 2003 release of the Deluxe Edition of the Fillmore East Concerts finally puts the shows in the proper context and includes all the pertinent songs from the concerts (the missing songs were available elsewhere, on Eat a Peach, Duane Allman: An Anthology and the Dreams box-set). Forget about the Grateful Dead and their vaunted propensity for extended jamming, The Allman Brothers run circles around them (that, and Gregg Allman can actually sing, which is something no member of the Grateful Dead seemed able to accomplish in key). In any case, At Fillmore East is a remarkable recording, a big ol' heaping helping of Southern-fried blues. Duane Allman is great on slide-guitar, Dicky Betts does his best fleet-fingered accompaniment, and the addition of Thom Doucette on blues harp is an added bonus. There are so many important tunes here, I'd have to list them all to be fair.

Worth the price of admission: Okay, I'll list a few, "One Way Out", "Whipping Post", "Trouble No More", "Drunken Hearted Boy" and "Stormy Monday".

The Band of Gypsys -- Jimi Hendrix
This live album presents Jimi Hendrix at a departure point from his "Experience" days (he had disbanded his original group earlier that year, 1969). There is far more material available from the Fillmore East concerts, but because of legal issues, the Band of Gypsys only released new material (written by Hendrix or drummer Buddy Miles) for this record. That decision, perhaps, is just as well, as it gives glimmers of the musical direction in which Hendrix was heading. There is a jazz-inflected, heavy funk sound that permeates the album, and the band itself seems more attuned to one another; rather than the "Jimi Hendrix Experience" (Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding merely following Jimi's cues), this effort is more a shared venture, as "Band of Gypsys" implies. In addition to composing two of the numbers, Buddy Miles shares much of the vocals with Hendrix (and Miles has a much more powerful voice than Hendrix). "Machine Gun" is the most documented song on the album, but it certainly isn't the best. Listening to the album 40 years later, it is worth reiterating just how influential Band of Gypsys was to a legion of guitarists. As Band of Gypsys' bassist Billy Cox noted recently, "There's only two types of guitarists around today: there are those who admit being influenced by Jimi Hendrix, and those who try to pretend they aren't." All that being said, the best single live Hendrix track is the electrifying, 13 minute-long "Red House" from the legendary In The West album.

Worth the price of admission: "Message of Love", "Power of Soul" and Buddy Miles' "Them Changes".

Seconds Out -- Genesis
Perhaps it is blasphemous to say, but I consider Trick of the Tail, the first album Genesis released after Peter Gabriel left the group, as their best ever; however, I consider the material with Peter Gabriel far better overall than the output Genesis released afterwards. An incongruous proposition, you say? Not in the least, I reply. For at least two albums after Gabriel went solo (Trick of the Tail and Winds and Wuthering), Genesis maintained a semblance of one of the greatest progressive rock groups ever. Their demise as innovators and their descent into pop mediocrity was only markedly noticeable after guitarist Steve Hackett left the group (after Winds and Wuthering). And so, Genesis is captured on Seconds Out after the release of Trick of the Tail, without Peter Gabriel, but before Steve Hackett quit. Got it? Good. Phil Collins does a marvelous job covering Peter Gabriel's vocals from Genesis' earlier works (their voices are eerily alike at this point), and the addition of drummers Chester Thompson and Bill Bruford alternately sharing drumming chores with Collins is a revelation (the double drum sections of the release are astounding).

Worth the price of admission: "Firth of Forth", "The Musical Box", "Squonk", "Los Endos".

Mad Dogs & Englishmen -- Joe Cocker
Joe Cocker's travelling circus, otherwise known as "Mad Dogs & Englishmen", played the Fillmore East (which I guess is where one once went to assure a great live album) in March, 1972. The rambling, raucous revue included a choir, a few drummers, a horn section, Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge, Don Preston, Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, and a host of other rock luminaries and top-flight studio performers. Oh yes, and the gravel and grit, drunken wit Joe Cocker. Cocker has reinvented more songs to suit his distinctive style than Thomas Edison had patents, and no where is this more evident than on Mad Dogs & Englishmen. The list of rousing renditions is astounding: "Honky Tonk Woman", "Bird on the Wire", "Feelin' Alright", "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window", "Delta Lady", et cetera, ad infinitum. Leon Russell must be given his due as a great arranger for live performances.

Worth the price of admission: the sublime "Cry Me a River" and the definitive "The Letter".

Monday, November 22, 2010

Music Review: Peter Gabriel -- Melt (1980)

Full article first published as Music Review: Peter Gabriel – Melt (1980) on Blogcritics.

Here is a brief excerpt for your dining and dancing pleasure:
From a compositional standpoint, the idiosyncratic Gabriel hasn’t merely chosen the path less traveled, he’s clear-cut a gaping glade clean through the forest. Whether as the outrageously caparisoned frontman and storyteller of Genesis, or as a visionary solo artist delving into world music and visual media, Gabriel is not only singing from leftfield, he’s up in the nosebleed bleacher seats with the field barely visible below. And it is precisely because of the unconventional vocals, the quirky beats, the irregular time signatures, and the unorthodox subject matter of Peter Gabriel’s third solo release (popularly christened Melt) that makes it an essential listening experience.

You have to hand it to Gabriel. With the release of Melt in May of 1980, he came out with one of the best albums of 1980s only six months into the decade. It is certainly on par with other stellar releases from the period, such as U2’s Joshua Tree, Paul Simon’s Graceland, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, or Gabriel’s own So album from 1986. But whereas So was more commercially successful (with the MTV hits “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time”) and far more huggable for the masses (don’t we all get nostalgic when we hear “In Your Eyes”?), the thorny Melt pricks one’s sensibilities and is satisfying from a visceral standpoint, with a psychological depth and intensity to the storytelling few albums from the 80s could match.

Bon App├ętit!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Music Review: Fairport Convention -- Liege & Lief

Full article first published as Music Review: Fairport Convention – Liege & Lief on Blogcritics.

Hear ye, supt thou on this barest of bodkins. Or this briefest of excerpts. Whichever. Then pop over to and check out the full review:

Yet, it was not merely a tweaking of musical elements that gave the album its undeniable dark character. There is an unremitting melancholy that pervades the recording — the emotional aftermath of a still-too-recent tragedy, perhaps — and sad partings, death, murder, betrayal, and insanity are frequent themes therein; however, there is a mysticism and an ancient but ageless wonder that underlies the sadness – a timeless sound that transcends both traditional and new material to a point where it is difficult to ascertain which songs were first sang in the 16th century and which were composed in 1969. It was from this remarkable synthesis of disparate elements that the landmark Liege & Lief album was created.

That Liege & Lief was eventually haled as the quintessential British folk-rock album, and recognized twice, in 2002 and again in 2006, as the Most influential Folk Album of all time by BBC Radio 2, is understandable, given the almost netherworldly quality of the recording. But what rankles is just how woefully underrated a folk-rock band Fairport Convention is in general terms. For instance, you most likely will not be seeing Fairport on a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voting ballot anytime soon, which is not so much surprising as it is infuriating, given the well-noted nearsightedness and blatant biases of Hall of Fame electors.