Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Greatest Live Rock Albums of All Time, Part II

Due to the unprecedented and over overwhelming response to the first installment of this series The Greatest Live Rock Albums of All Time, Part I, I now offer you Part II. I wish to thank all three of you for your enthusiasm.

As with the previous slice of musical subjectivity, I offer up a few caveats and exclusions to narrow the focus of this list (or else I'll be cutting and pasting damn album covers from here to eternity):

1) These live albums are strictly from the rock genre and not a general overview of live recordings, which would include selections from blues, soul, jazz and other categories. Perhaps I'll add a more expansive list somewhere down the road.

2) I omitted live retrospectives such as Bruce Springsteen's Live/1975-85, concentrating instead on an artist's single performance, or at least performances within the same tour.

3) I didn't choose any recordings from this century, as I like to see how well music wears over time.

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.

Rock Spectacle - Barenaked Ladies
I've seen BNL live several times in Detroit, as the Toronto-based band made the Motor City a home away from home for many years. If you've missed seeing them in concert, let me tell you, you missed a real treat -- Barenaked Ladies put on some of the most fun and enjoyable shows ever. Unfortunately, lead singer and composer Steven Page left the band in 2009 for a solo career, and I just can't bring myself around to listening to them without his distinctive voice and the rambling, comedic repartee he had with cofounder Ed Robertson. Rock Spectacle is an excellent approximation of their concerts and the sound is dynamic.

Worth the price of admission: Great renditions of "Brian Wilson", "Jane", "Hello City" and "The Old Apartment".

Rock of Ages - The Band
Yes, yes, yes -- I know many critics laud the elaborate Martin Scorsese-directed juggernaut The Last Waltz as a fine example of The Band's live performance, while others swear by Before the Flood; the fundamental problem I have with both is that Bob Dylan appears on them. Don't get me wrong, I love Bob Dylan, but I could live without ever hearing his voice on anything live past 1970. Although it would be hilarious to record Stevie Nicks and Bob Dylan singing a duet of "Bah-bah Black Sheep". In any case, Rock of Ages is nothing but unadulterated Band music with sterling accompaniment by an Alan Toussaint-arranged five-man horn section. The results are fantastic.

Worth the price of admission: "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)", "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", "The Weight", "Rag Mama Rag", "Chest Fever", et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum.

Live - Robin Trower
The most laughable aspect of the critical panning of Robin Trower is the enduring claim that he is a "Hendrix Wannabe". If that is the case, the same can be said for Stevie Ray Vaughan, merely proving that most critics have their heads up their asses (which explains their inability to discern good from bad music). Live by Robin Trower (1976) clearly exhibits the sustain and distortion mastery of Trower, erstwhile lead guitarist of Procol Harum (and the way he jams, one can easily understand why he left the keyboard-based Harum). The trio of performers -- Trower on guitar, James Dewar on bass and vocals, and Bill Lordan on drums -- are unbelievably tight, and James Dewar's deep baritone voice is singular in the rock idiom, at times growling and feverish, at others subdued and introspective. The recording simply rocks.

Worth the price of admission: A strong version of B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby", "Too Rolling Stoned" is a seven-minute blues landslide, "Daydream" is a 'headphones only' treat, and "A Little Bit of Sympathy" is a heart stopping show-closer.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture Soundtrack - David Bowie
Let's get the bad aspect of this release out of the way first: The movie itself is horribly clumsy. Imagine, if you will, a concert filmed as if it were emulating The Blair Witch Project. The cameras bounce about and are unfocused half the time. Simply dreadful -- almost unwatchable. Now, just listen to the music: it is ferocious and explosive, propelled by the savage strumming of Mick Ronson (who Bowie should have handcuffed himself to and never let go -- I am sure Iman would've gotten used to him eventually). This is the final show Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders ever did, and presents Bowie at his loudest, his most outrageous and his best. My suggestion: find the CD, forget the DVD.

Worth the price of admission: The 15 minute rock extravaganza "Width of a Circle", the show-ending "Rock and Roll Suicide", a rollicking and frenetic version of the Stone's "Let's Spend the Night Together", and Bowie's searing rendition of "White Light/White Heat", which makes the original by The Velvet Underground sound like the Bay City Rollers (or the Jonas Brothers).

Live in Concert With Edmonton Symphony Orchestra - Procol Harum
This is Procol Harum presented in the perfect context for their musical aims and objectives. Prog-rock, symphonic rock -- name the band's milieu, and it is here, with a symphony orchestra, that the band's musical roots are highlighted in all its classical glory. There have been many abortive attempts at fusing rock and classical music in a live venue, but most have failed (think Deep Purple and Metallica), yet here Procol Harum succeeds brilliantly, as their music was already scored for an orchestra. Procol Harum's studio recordings are hit-and-miss affairs, sometimes achieving near-greatness (A Salty Dog and Shine on Brightly) and at others floundering (Broken Barricades and Exotic Birds and Fruit), but Live in Concert With Edmonton Symphony Orchestra hits on all cylinders.

Worth the price of admission: The fantastic versions of "A Salty Dog", "Whaling Stories" and "'Twas Teatime at the Circus", and the sublime "Conquistador", complete with Spanish horns and fiery guitar work, that is far better than the original version on Procol Harum's first album, even without Robin Trower on guitar.

Live - Foghat
No pretensions. No putting on airs. No bombastic laser-light extravaganzas. This is a workingman's band for Bud-swilling, football-watching, head-bobbing, barroom-brawling rock fans. There will neither be a doctoral thesis regarding the musical profundities of Foghat Live, nor any critical acclaim from the music establishment for this band. All I can say is, I saw Foghat live in 1976 in a mega-concert that also featured Ted Nugent, the Outlaws, and Aerosmith as the headliner, and Foghat simply blew the other bands away with their intensity and the fun they had just jamming. Sometimes profundity merely bollixes up a good time. Unfortunately for Foghat, by purchasing their fiery live album you render the rest of their record catalog unnecessary.

Worth the price of admission: Exceptional versions of "Honey Hush" and "I Just Want to Make Love to You", and the quintessential barn-burning eight-minute version of "Slow Ride."

Under a Blood Red Sky - U2
This is a case where a live album helped propel a rising band to the upper strata of superstardom. It is also on Under a Blood Red Sky where the actual sound of U2 was showcased in a better context than in the studio, particularly the Edge's distinctively chiming guitar work, which seemed more muted in the band's earlier releases. Here as well do we hear Bono's ability to whip a crowd into an adoring frenzy and, like at LiveAid, through sheer force of will turn a U2 concert into an unforgettable event. U2 is one of those rare bands where their live performances nearly always outstrip their studio recordings.

Worth the price of admission: The landmark performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" (who the hell even remembers the original studio version?), a rousing "Gloria", and the explosive "40".

It's Too Late to Stop Now - Van Morrison
I know it is incredibly pretentious to say, but you either get Van Morrison, or you don't. I suppose it is equally correct to add you either like Van or you don't, but I suppose that goes for every performer; yet, it seems feelings are more heightened for the leprechaun-sized Irish crooner and his scatting vocal interpretations. Also, one runs the risk of missing the point during the hot-and-cold cycles of Morrison's long performing career (where at times he was so drunk that he fell off the stage). But if I were to suggest a good primer for getting to the crux of Van Morrison's mystical journey through Celtic music and the blues, it would be It's Too Late to Stop Now, a truly remarkable album that captures Van the Man at his vocal best.

Worth the price of admission: Revelatory versions of "Listen to the Lion", "Caravan", "Into the Mystic" and "St. Dominic's Preview", and an exceptional cover of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me" (the 2008 CD reissue also includes a fun rendition of "Brown Eyed Girl").

Live in Detroit - The Doors
Recorded at Cobo Hall in Detroit on May 8, 1970, this is perhaps the most complete, if not the longest, Doors concert ever recorded. The encore alone was an hour long, ignoring a union curfew and city ordinances, but then the Doors never really followed rules, laws or conventions of any sort (which makes them all the more loveable, in a psychedelic, rebellious, rock-and-roll manner). Forget the bland release Absolutely Live, which merely offers a cut-and-paste pastiche of a Door's concert -- a hobbled rendering cobbled together by nearsighted record label marketing types -- Live in Detroit offers the Lizard King in fine form, with his rambling Baudelairian poetry kept to a minimum and his unforgettable growl and saturnine aura front and center. And the sound quality is phenomenal, given the constraints of recording equipment of the era.

Worth the price of admission: The apocalyptic "When the Music's Over", "Roadhouse Blues" (and the accompanying "Roadhouse Vamp" which segues into "Break On Through"), "You Make Me Real", the biting blues of "Been Down So Long", and perhaps the best version of "Light My Fire" anywhere.

The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966 - Bob Dylan
In retrospect, it seems utterly ridiculous that a crowd should howl with derision and shout "Judas!" and "Traitor!" simply because a performer strapped on an electric guitar. But in 1966, fans at the Royal Albert Hall in Manchester, England (and elsewhere during the same period at the Newport Folk Festival) were hopping mad that Bob Dylan -- the patron saint, messiah and critical darling of the acoustic folk movement -- should dare to play electric rock music. Obviously, Dylan's intent was to drag these musical zealots, kicking and screaming if necessary, into a radical new direction. He does so quite matter-of-factly, telling his band The Hawks (which would later be called The Band) in an audible aside, "Play fucking loud!" In these more enlightened days, when no one seems to give a damn about anything (and particularly not musical integrity), it is much ado about nothing. But in between the booing and catcalls is some of the greatest work Dylan has ever done.

Worth the price of admission: The entire acoustic half of the concert is noteworthy (how he could remember all those lyrical passages from his labyrinthine compositions is remarkable in itself), and "I Don't Believe You", "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" and a towering "Like a Rolling Stone" from the electric set.


Road Rage - Great Big Sea
Who knew a mix of Newfoundland folk songs, sea chanteys and pop-rock ballads could be such fun? My favorite Newfies, Great Big Sea, are one of Canada's best-kept secrets. Or maybe Americans are just too slow on the uptake to catch a really good band with some fine compositional skills. Hell, my ten year-old daughter sings along with their songs. Notable tunes from Road Rage are "When I'm Up", "Consequence Free", "Boston and St. John's", "Mari-Mac" and "Donkey Riding" (no, I'm serious, donkey riding).

Recorded Live (1973) - Ten Years After
Alvin Lee has always been underappreciated -- a second-tier British rock deity. But if you like rock-and-blues, this is one great album, and I think better than their Live at the Fillmore album (and far less expensive). Simply awesome versions of "Help Me", "I Can't Keep From Crying", "Choo Choo Mama", and the best version ever of "I'm Goin' Home" (certainly better than the sloppy Woodstock take).

Alive, Alive'o - The Young Dubliners
Perhaps one of the best examples of the melding of Irish traditional and hard rock music, The Young Dubs give a powerful performance on Alive, Alive'o (not to be confused with an album of the same name by the Irish folk band The Dubliners, to whom the Young Dubliners give a reverential nod). Some exceptional songs by the band include "One and Only", "Rising/Change The World" and Blink", along with the traditional "Follow Me Up to Carlow" and the Waterboy's "Fisherman's Blues".

Irish Tour - Rory Gallagher
Ah, what could have been with Rory Gallagher! He died way too early and never got his due in America as a great guitarist. Nevertheless, Gallagher's Gaelic blues was never so well represented as on his Irish Tour compilation. This blistering set of blues includes "Walk on Hot Coals", "A Million Miles Away" and "As the Crow Flies".

Captured Alive! - Johnny Winter
First of all, Winter's live version of "Highway 61" makes Dylan's original version sound anemic and in need of an ER transfusion. If you crave heavy-duty slide guitar, look no further than this heroin-shootin', tattoo-scrawled, Texas albino blues master. In addition to the monumental "Highway 61", there are frenetic versions of "Bonie Maronie" and "It's All Over Now". Not for the faint of heart or those seeking a pleasant vocal performance.

Miles of Aisles - Joni Mitchell
This is an exceptional compilation of Joni Mitchell songs and she is in fine voice; unfortunately, Tom Scott and the LA Express sound like they are primed to give Muzak a run for its money in the elevator music trade. But Joni's acoustics are grand and songs like "Blue", "Big Yellow Taxi", "The Last Time I Saw Richard", "Circle Game" and "Both Sides Now" prove she is one of the most important composers of her generation.

Time Fades Away - Neil Young
The CD Neil Young will supposedly never release. Available only on LP and out of print for years, Young claims he didn't like the recording because of money hassles, a poor mix, he was at odds with his band, or some combination of the three. I have the record, and I think it is very good, particularly since it covers many songs that are not available on other Neil Young live albums like "Yonder Comes the Sinner", "Don't Be Denied" and "Journey Through the Past". I don't get it, Neil, can you explain it to me again?

1 comment:

Dave Whitaker said...

This page and 36 other sources have been aggregated into a Top 50 Live Albums of All Time list by Here's the results: