Slate‘s good music critic Bill Wyman has a piece on his favorite live albums. He says of the dying breed:
Now, the Allmans aside, in many cases, the albums sucked. The sound was flatulent, the performances were off. Sometimes—a lot of the time, actually—instrumentation was patently overdubbed. On Cheap Trick’s At Budokan—a relatively restrained single-disc affair—the keening crowd noise wasn’t just obviously faked; it was mixed in loud enough to render small animals, and probably some teenage boys, sterile.
But the better ones were awesome, offering confirmation of what you knew you were missing (‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out’), or just a visceral attack (the Who’s Live at Leeds), spacious sound (Lou Reed’s out-where-the-trains-don’t-run Take No Prisoners), or ineffable intimacy (Joni Mitchell’s Miles of Aisles). Suburban kids who otherwise would never have been exposed to such stuff could study James Brown on Live at the Apollo, from way back in 1963. Dylan and the Band roared through Before the Flood with Biblical fury.
His list is pretty good and corresponds to a number of Billy and Dad’s favorites. Here are a few gems off his list – with some accompanying videos and comments by Billy and Dad.
“Caravan,” Van Morrison, It’s Too Late to Stop Now. A Celtic dream of a live album, one of the forgotten glories of 1970s rock. Morrison’s band, dubbed the Caledonia Soul Orchestra, is lighter than air; the instrumental playing on this track, which starts plain and stripped down, grows sinuously. It is at once delicate and hardy and loose and precise. The dynamics and fillips here twist and turn like prisms of sound, deceptively casual, until you notice how intricately the instruments—horns, strings, the piano—follow and extend one another’s lines. Let its dreaminess overtake you and the effects can be intense. By the time you get to the end of this nearly 10-minute-long live track, and Morrison gives his cool intros of each player, you feel like you know them.
Billy: “I’ve always loved ‘Caravan’! It has a special flow to it.”
Dad: “Me, too! So you know it’s got soul! I have to say that nobody touches Van when he’s on.”
“All the Young Dudes,” David Bowie, David Live. This double set, which came out right after Diamond Dogs and just before Young Americans, has for some reason never been beloved. I admire it for its recorded clarity, oddball arrangements, blaring horns, and Bowie’s committed delivery, though of course the audio accompaniment to the searing Ziggy Stardust film is a classic in itself, and Stage, from 1978, isn’t bad either. This is the height of Bowie’s Thin White Duke phase, and the archness here is indigestible; his fervor is at times Jaggeresque, at others lugubrious. But he dominates the proceedings totally.
Billy: “This is one of my favorite David Bowie songs, too.”
“My Generation,” The Who, Live at Leeds. This album is an excellent accounting of the sort of unholy pounding certain British outfits (see also Zeppelin comma Led) were giving audiences at the time. It gets extra points for being released at the band’s height. This endless track, which starts out with “My Generation” and then snaps into bits of Tommy and slices of what may or may not be other actual songs, is a deeply pleasurable listening experience, particularly driving at very high speeds.
Billy: “I love this song. Keith Moon going crazy. Of course, Roger Daltry bringing out. Pete Townshend – always great. And, of course, John Entwhistle on that great bass solo.”
Dad: “Of course, the above video is not Live at Leeds, but it’s still pretty crazy.”
“Shelter From the Storm,” Bob Dylan, Hard Rain. Lots of weirdness here, on an appropriately rain-drenched, uneven set. (A full accounting of the Rolling Thunder tour wouldn’t come until a double CD was released in 2002.) But this stately, parading chant is hard to forget. Dylan sometimes adheres to a structural rigidity live; here, he insists that the band bookend each verse with a long instrumental passage marked with a sproingy guitar. The effect just makes each successive verse even more mesmerizing. And his vocals—from “Hunted like a crocodile/ Ravaged in the corn” or “I bargained for salvation/ And they gave me a lethal dose”—is one of his best, which is of course saying something.
Dad: “Agree completely with this choice. Dylan is one bizarre live performer: he’s really in his own world, but he demands attention.”
Billy: “Great song – duh.”