Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Top Ten Live Rock Albums of All Time

I would like to retell the entire history of Rock Music. I was there for the entire thing. It’s embedded in my mind like a reflex action. Hit my head with a rubber mallet, and like a knee jerk, the music will appear. Starting in the 50’s when the 78 was replaced with the 45 and the long play 33 through today's streamed tunes, this is/was Rock and Roll. Back then studios were still primitive and the music matched that simple structure. Stereo was considered new fangled and 8-track tapes were still on the horizon.

As music progressed, new ideas and new sounds abound. Not just the musical influences from African-American genres such as blues, boogie woogie, jump blues, jazz, and gospel music, together with Western swing and country music, but many more influences were felt. Though elements of rock and roll can be heard in blues records from the 1920s and in country records of the 1930s, the genre did not acquire its name until the 1950s. Do Wop and harmonies were added to guitars and drums and the new sounds of the electric bass merged with keyboards of all types. Horns, flutes, and other instruments also stared in this new music. The beat was always the key and 4/4 time was king. (Can you name the Doors song that's 3/4?)

By the sixties such new influences as folk music, reggae, latin, and even symphonies were prevalent. Rock operas began to appear and concept albums were the thing. Concerts had always been part of the business. Make a record and then go out and promote it. Then something wonderful happened: the “Live Album.” Rock music always was (and always will be) a live music phenomenon. I don't care how big the woofer is in the trunk of your car, you gotta go to the show to be in the know. Studios are nice, but real rock has an audience, and they don't wear earphones. They came to hear them play. They were part of the play. Play on.

These days, live albums are often just a means to cash in one last time on a highly successful tour. Back in the Seventies, however, a live album was a great way to create a superstar. Acts as diverse as Cheap Trick, Kiss, and Peter Frampton were all stuck at one level in their career before a monster live album forever changed their lives. Sure, sometimes they were doctored a bit in the studio, but few people cared. Songs like "I Want You To Want Me" and "Show Me the Way" popped on a concert stage in a way they never could have in a sterile recording studio. This, then, is my list of the ten live albums that rocked Rock. Your mileage may vary.

Live Bullet

It took Bob Seger a really, really long time to find a wide national audience. Back in 1968 he scored a decent-sized hit with the garage rock classic "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," but after that his career took a nosedive. He toured at a relentless pace and released roughly an album a year, but nothing seemed to connect. In September of 1975 he taped a two-night stand at Detroit's Cobo Hall, releasing it as Live Bullet in stores the following April. The first time the wild energy of his stage show was captured on tape, the set included the haunting "Turn the Page." The album reached Number 34 on the Billboard chart, and when Seger released Night Moves later that year he found himself with a huge fan base.

The Last Waltz

Robbie Robertson was only 33 in the fall of 1976, but he'd been on the road since he was a teenager. He wanted off. The other guys in the Band didn't totally agree, but they did agree to participate in a grand farewell show at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day. Martin Scorsese (who worked on the Woodstock movie before he became famous) agreed to direct a documentary about the gig. The biggest names in rock were brought in to guest, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell. It's widely considered one of the greatest rock documentaries of all time.

MTV Unplugged in New York

The Unplugged concerts certainly brought a different view of many music acts. Everybody from Roxette to Duran Duran and Queensryche taped MTV Unplugged specials in the Nineties. Nobody talks about any of those. Even Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam's Unplugged specials have largely been forgotten. Eric Clapton caused a big stir with his, but when is the last time anybody really played that thing straight through? At the end of the day, the only Unplugged with any real legs is Nirvana's. Taped in November of 1993 — five months before Kurt Cobain killed himself — the concert is one of the band's crowning achievements. They skipped most of the obvious hits (including "Smells Like Teen Spirit") and focused on covers of songs by Lead Belly, David Bowie, and the Meat Puppets. They even invited the Meat Puppets onstage for a few songs, even though few MTV viewers had ever heard of the group. It's impossible to say how Nirvana would have evolved had Kurt lived, but Unplugged in New York is proof positive they had plenty more to say.

Waiting For Columbus

Little Feat is one of those bands that can't be fully appreciated until you see them live. It's no surprise that their 1978 live disc Waiting for Columbus is the most beloved album in their vast catalog. Taped on their 1977 world tour, the double LP features extended arrangements of "Dixie Chicken," "Tripe Face Boogie," and other Little Feat standards. The Tower of Power horn section was playing with the band at the time, and their presence greatly enhances the material. Little Feat never became true household names like many of their peers, but anyone who spends time with this album will be quickly converted. On Halloween of 2010, Phish played the album straight through in Atlantic City, and then the next year Little Feat themselves performed it.

Made in Japan

I’m a crazy fan of Deep Purple. As a guy who loves a Hammond and any other keyboards you happen to have, just give me Jon Lord, a wizard. Other members of the band came and went, but that Hammond sound. Lip smackin’ good.

The classic Ian Gillan-led lineup of Deep Purple (dubbed Deep Purple Mark II by the fans) had only been on the road for three years when they hit Japan in 1972. It was a very fruitful time for the band. They had three incredible albums under their belts (In Rock, Fireball and Machine Head), and their live show was absolutely stunning. They had no intention of making a live album, but they were talked into releasing material taped in Osaka and Tokyo for a Japanese-only live album. Their label loved it and released it worldwide. These are the definitive versions of "Highway Star," "Child in Time," and other Deep Purple classics. They've done countless shows since in countless permutations, but they've never sounded quite this perfect.


KISS was not an early favorite of mine. My cousin Chuck was a big fan, so I followed up on his recommendations. Over the years my opinion has shifted a bit. Still not a favorite band, but this is a favorite album.

I suppose to really understand the power of Kiss, you have to see them live. They built their reputation on the road, breathing fire, spitting blood, and hovering above the audience on wires. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. (Unless, that is, they'd seen Alice Cooper a few years earlier.) Their songs were also light years better onstage than on record, so they made the smart decision to tape a bunch of gigs in mid-1975. In typical Kiss fashion, they hedged their bets by doctoring the tapes in the studio afterwards. Today, nobody is quite sure what parts of Alive! were actually taped live. It hardly matters. The album was a monster success. It flew off the shelves and instantly made them one of the biggest bands in the world. Kiss gets a lot of crap these days as just too commercial — more businessmen than musicians. Much of it is deserved, but it's hard to deny that songs like "Cold Gin," “Deuce," and "Black Diamond" are classics. They've never sounded better than they did on Alive!

Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out!

The world’s greatest bar band has put out a lot of good albums and a lot of good shows. They’ve also had more comebacks than Richard Nixon. The Stones had been off the road for two long years before their 1969 American tour in support of Beggar's Banquet. During that time Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been arrested on trumped-up drug charges, Their Satanic Majesties Request had failed to deliver, Brian Jones had left the group (and later died), and Mick Taylor became their new guitarist. They also recorded some of the finest music of their long career.

The tour was a long time coming, and up until Altamont it had been a complete triumph. They packed large venues all across the country and in many ways laid the groundwork for all arena tours that followed. This was also the time when bootlegs started popping up in record stores, most notable Live'r Than You'll Ever Be, which was taken from a 1969 Stones show in Oakland. The obvious move was to release their own live album from the tour. Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! was taken from shows in Baltimore and New York, though some of the vocals were touched up later in the studio. The Stones have released many live albums since this one, but none have sounded quite as vital. That’s the point of a live album … vital!

Frampton Comes Alive!

Remember that line from Wayne's World 2? "Everybody has Frampton Comes Alive," Wayne said when going through some old vinyl. "If you lived in the suburbs, you were issued it. It came in the mail with free samples of Tide." In 1976 the live album — taped on Frampton's 1975 summer tour — spent 97 weeks on the Billboard charts, selling millions of copies.

The former Humble Pie frontman had some minor solo success before the release of the double live album, but nobody saw the explosion of Frampton Comes Alive! coming. Singles "Show Me the Way," "Baby, I Love Your Way,” and the 14-minute "Do You Feel Like We Do" went into super heavy rotation on radio. He was loved by teenage girls, and their older brothers. He owned the year 1976 like nobody else in rock, but by the time he dropped I'm In You the following year the madness had subsided. Ten years later he found himself playing guitar in David Bowie's backing band.

Live at the Fillmore East

Seven months before Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident, the Allman Brothers Band played a two-night stand at New York's Fillmore East. The resulting live album captured the original lineup of the band at their absolute peak. "Whipping Post" lasts 23 minutes, while "Mountain Jam" goes well past half an hour — but in both cases the energy never lets up for an instant. Producer Tom Dowd is responsible for the glorious sound and clean mix of the LP. It's impossible to even tell that some songs were shortened, and in some cases he even combined two takes of the same song into one. A while back the group (now down to just two original members) played the whole set at the Beacon Theater in honor of the LP's 40th anniversary.

Live at Leeds

You know that the Who’s greatest fan … that’s me, is going to pick their legendary live album. In late 1969, Pete Townshend made one of the dumbest decisions of his life. The Who had been contemplating a live album to chronicle their Tommy world tour. Thirty-eight shows were recorded in pristine sound quality, but Pete didn't feel like going through all of them to find the best one. Instead, he decided to tape two upcoming shows at Leeds and Hull in England. He ordered sound engineer Bob Pridden to burn all 38 shows from 1969. "It was a dumb decision commercially and historically," Townshend writes in his memoir, Who I Am. "Bob faithfully destroyed them in a bonfire in his garden."

Thankfully, the shows at Hull and Leeds were recorded and preserved. Entwistle's bass didn't get properly recorded at the beginning of the Hull show, so the Leeds show was released. At the time, the group felt that Tommy had overshadowed all their other work. Live at Leeds didn't have a single cut from the rock opera, even though they played the bulk of it at the show. Instead, it featured covers like Mose Allison's "Young Man Blues," Johnny Kidd's "Shakin' All Over,” and Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues." Side two began with a 14-minute "My Generation." This was the Who at their absolute peak as a live band.

And that’s it. My take on the ten greatest live albums of all time … MY TIME. And what are your picks?

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