Friday, May 11, 2012

The Lure of Live Albums

I had a conversation a while back, almost a year ago, I guess, where I was discussing music with a friend. I said that I really loved live albums, and often prefer them to studio records. The response was interesting, that how she preferred studio recordings because they we exactly the way the artist wanted the songs to sound.

Which, I suppose, is true. However, my response to that is, basically, a live recording is how the songs really sound. In the best cases and examples, it's the band, as it exists on stage, playing full-out and without any chance to go back and fix anything. Even if there's a bunch of hired-hand backup musicians, it's still what the "band" can generate right in front of you. I find that vastly more enthralling.

Yeah, sometimes a "live" album is full of overdubs, re-recorded vocals, and other studio trickery. Kiss' Alive! and Alive! II being two rumored examples of "live" albums that took almost more studio work than the original studio albums. Ace Frehley all but admits this outright in his autobiography.

You can contrast that with Metallica's LIVE SHIT: Binge and Purge box set, which was actually 3 full shows, two on video, one on audio. I'm always impressed when on one of the video shows, Kirk Hammet's guitar solo goes pretty blatantly out of key. Impressed because they left it there, because that's how the show went down. It would've been so easy to fix it, especially at that moment, right after the Black Album release, when they were as popular as they would ever be. I admire that.

Even beyond the idea that a live version is the song in it's most natural form, I also find, more often than not, that live versions are far more energized and exciting. The Who, for example, I will take a live version of pretty much any song in their catalog over the studio version. Even something like "Squeeze Box," which sounds almost nothing like the studio version (no accordion on stage), but just screams with energy. I'll admit that part of the factor with The Who is that some of their studio stuff just sounds awful. My copy of Tommy (admittedly an older master) is embarrassing in how poor the sound quality is. I don't think anybody ever really captured the best of The Who, as musicians, in a studio.

Now, of course, it can backfire, too. I've commented before that Led Zeppelin, when they let their impromptu jams get out of control, could be stultifying. How the west Was Won is OK, but The Song Remains the Same is a nightmare. Neither of them even brushes at the greatness of the studio albums.

Now, in these last two cases, I'll admit, I never actually saw them live, but I'm talking about live albums and recordings. I'm sure, if I was in an arena with Led Zeppelin, I'd be much more open to the musical digressions. Alas, I never had that chance, and I do regret it. Same with The Who prior to Keith Moon's death.

Rush is a band I love, and, for such a detail-oriented, technical group,  it's kind of amazing how much more often I'll reach for one of their live albums (and there are several), rather than a studio disk. Now, here's a group where there is tons of on-stage augmentation, samples and other pre-recorded bits. Of course, they're all triggered by one of the three guys on stage. It's kind of amazing to watch Lee, Lifeson and Peart not only play their instruments with such technical perfection, but also trigger all this other stuff at the right moments. There's also a goofy sense of humor and playfulness that isn't always as readily apparent on their studio tracks.

On the flip side of the power trio coin is King's X, who really only have one "real" live album out, Live in London. Whereas Rush wields much technology to hit the nuances of their material, King's X is three guys, and...well, that's pretty much it. It's a master course in forming your sound around what you can do with what you have. Bassist Dug Pinnick often wields a 12-string bass, and his tone, in general, fill in a lot of sonic room. One of my absolute favorite live acts, and, when you see them, it's almost always up close and personal.

Of course, for me, Springsteen is the quintessential "you HAVE to see him live" artist. I, personally, have over forty-eight hours of Springsteen music on my Zune. Most of that is live recordings, and most of those are bootlegs. I'm happy to say I own recordings of every Springsteen concert I've seen.

Obsessive? Sure.

However, I can tell you that every, single show I've seen has unique moments. Unlike, say, Rush, where every show of a tour is, essentially, the same, The Boss' show are constantly in motion and evolving. The set lists, while adhering to a structure, are always changing. I don't know how many other acts I could see two nights in a row, and feel it's worth it. I tried two Rush shows 3 days apart, and I have to admit, I got a little bored the second night. I mean no disrespect to the boys in that, but to point out (and I'd bet they'd agree) they craft a great show that they can repeat for every audience. So, it's not "organic," but it is awesome.

There are relatively few Springsteen live albums, I can recommend  Live: '75-'85, Live in New York City, and Live in Dublin. For a neophyte, I'd recommend the New York City disk. It's from the E-Street Band reunion tour, and the show is on fire. The first is a box set, and is rather sprawling, and the Dublin show is from the Seeger Sessions Band era (which is AWESOME, but not "classic" Bruce).

Ultimately, I do love live albums. They may not be as "perfect" as the studio recordings, but I think they more than make up for it in energy and direct performance. There's something magical about a really good live album.

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