10 Essential Live Albums

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best live albums The Band

There’s something a bit strange about listening to a live album. On the one hand, if captured at the right moment for the right band, it can show just how remarkable a live presence an artist can be in their prime. On the other, it can show—sometimes all too painfully—just how quickly things can go south when you remove an artist from the comfort of a studio. Sometimes, it can just end up a bit of a mess, like The Rolling Stones’ Got Live If You Want It, or Dylan & The Dead, or, hilariously/absurdly, Having Fun With Elvis On Stage. There’s the fact that listening to a live album is never quite the same as actually seeing the band in person. Then again, sometimes you’re born too late, or on the wrong side of the world, and that lightning-in-a-bottle moment just isn’t something you can replicate. You sure can capture it on tape, however, and most of our favorite live recordings document bands both at their best and most innovative. If we really wanted to draw this out, we could have made this a top 20, 30, 40—who knows where it would stop. But we’re keeping it to a short list of live recordings that not only get the format right, but actually changed how we listen to live recordings. On with the show: Our 10 essential live albums. No “Freebird” requests, please.

Photo of The Band by David Gans, Creative Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0]

essential live albums Johnny CashJohnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
(1968; Columbia)

Johnny Cash performed at prisons before 1968, but it took him that long to suggest the brilliant idea of recording one of these shows. Whether one credits his need for commercial success after a few moribund years or the risk-taking of Columbia exec Bob Johnston (name-checked in the infamous “…you can’t say hell or shit or anything like that” bit), it worked. It reestablished his connection to the fundamental forces of darkness and love that powered his electrifying early Sun singles. Cash plays to the crowd with the violent songs (“Folsom Prison Blues,” the black-comic masterpiece “25 Minutes to Go”), but touches deeper, darker places with “Dark As a Dungeon,” “Long Black Veil” and especially “The Wall.” There’s also humor galore (which Cash always excelled at) in “Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart” and “Joe Bean.” Because At Folsom Prison covers so many facets of Cash’s catalog, it’s a reasonable greatest hits. But its finest moment is “Greystone Chapel,” a song written by convicted armed robber and Folsom inmate Glen Shirley. While it’s not necessarily cited among Cash’s greatest tunes, its performance here (with an assist by June Carter), is utterly transcendent—a gospel hymn of brutality and salvation and the ways they sometimes get mixed up together. – LG

essential live albums HendrixJimi HendrixBand of Gypsys
(1970; Capitol)

When Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys was released—the final record of his to be released during his lifetime—it was met with mixed reviews, which stem in part from the fact that he had spent the prior three years releasing some incredible recordings with The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Band of Gypsys, meanwhile, found him performing with a different rhythm section (the titular Band of Gypsys), this time employing bass player Billy Cox and drummer Buddy Miles. As such, the feel of it is different. It’s a much looser recording, which can partially be attributed to its live setting at New York’s Fillmore East. And part of it can be attributed to the fairly rushed nature of the material, which was put together fairly quickly after Capitol Records put pressure on Hendrix to deliver a record. Compared to Are You Experienced?, it’s not as tight or direct. Instead, it’s the most soulful and bluesy, featuring tracks such as the slow-grooving “Machine Gun” and the badass riff ride of “Message of Love.” Because it was billed as a “new” album at the time, all of its songs were previously unreleased, though Hendrix did play standards such as “Purple Haze” and “Hey Joe” during the Fillmore residency. Still, Band of Gypsys is remarkable in that it feels like a work in progress. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad album, or even one that’s less than great. It’s just a rare look at a group of musicians working out a groove in front of an audience. – JT

essential live albums Live EvilMiles DavisLive Evil
(1971; Columbia)

Live Evil is the name of at least three live albums by three different artists. One is by garage rock outfit Dead Moon. One is by heavy metal godfathers Black Sabbath. And one—arguably the most groundbreaking of the three—is by Miles Davis. Originally intended as a “spiritual successor” to his 1970 double album masterpiece Bitches Brew, Live Evil ultimately took on a life of its own, sprawling out onto four sides of complex, avant garde jazz funk with extensive and funky-as-hell live vamps interspersed with minimal pieces recorded in Columbia’s Studio B. In that sense, it’s not 100 percent live, but the studio recordings mostly serve as interludes between the groove-heavy live jams. “Little Church” is the meditative respite after the manic explorations of “Sivad.” “Nem Um Talvez” is the cosmic prayer that follows the sweaty funk of “What I Say.” Yet the most awe inspiring moment comes at the end, with “Inamorata and Narration,” which incorporates elements of In a Silent Way‘s “It’s About That Time,” Bitches Brew‘s “Sanctuary,” and a narration from Conrad Roberts. It’s the kind of thing that must have been utterly mind-blowing were you to witness it first hand, but even pressed to wax, it’s a revelation. – JT

essential live albums The BandThe BandThe Last Waltz
(1978; Warner Bros.)

It’s almost unfair to throw The Last Waltz in the same category as the other records on this list. For starters, the last record by Canadian-American rock’n’roll legends The Band is more than a simple live record. It’s more of a soundtrack to the band’s farewell live film, directed by none other than Martin fucking Scorsese. And, since it was the band’s big blow-out/retirement party, they pulled out all the stops, sharing the stage with Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan in addition to performing their own classic repertoire. Even separated from the visual experience, the 129-minute triple LP is an amazing record in its own right, bringing together generations of rock legends for one massive celebration. If the age of rock ‘n’ roll had to come to an end, it was going to go out in style, damn it. – ATB

essential live albums Cheap TrickCheap TrickAt Budokan
(Epic, 1979)

The origin of the backhanded phrase “big in Japan” may rest with the odd ascent of Cheap Trick. The Rockford, Illinois band had released three solid albums in the span of less than 17 months but still couldn’t get arrested in America. But in the Land of the Rising Sun they were huge, even called “The American Beatles” by someone who obviously wasn’t that familiar with The Beatles. Cheap Trick were similarly very much adored by Japanese fans who greeted them at the airport with typically fab shrieks. Their two 1978 shows at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan arena were recorded with the intent of being exclusively released to Japan, but stateside demand for the imports was so huge that Epic fast-tracked this album for the USA to beat the boots. Cheap Trick at Budokan turned their snappy studio tracks into muscular rockers, especially the previously bouncy “I Want You to Want Me” and “Come On, Come On,” which here turned into locomotive rockers. Even with the almost assuredly overdubbed screaming hysterics it’s easy to catch the redemptive thrust of “Big Eyes” and “Surrender” in full effect. And somehow, after three tries, Cheap Trick stumbled upon the formula for homeland success: The triple-platinum Budokan became of the ‘70s’ very few live albums, along with Frampton Comes Alive! and maybe KISS’s Alive!, that turned its subjects into American superstars. – PP

Neil Young Rust Never SleepsNeil YoungRust Never Sleeps
(1979; Reprise)

Rust Never Sleeps is a bit like Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, in that all of its songs were previously unreleased. As such it’s generally treated as one of Neil Young’s studio albums, even thought technically most of it was recorded during live performances at San Francisco’s Boarding House in 1978. (There are two exceptions: “Pocahontas” and “Sail Away.) Here’s where it gets interesting: Overdubs were later added in the studio, fleshing out what might have otherwise been grittier, rawer tracks, and in some cases the audience noise is even removed. Not all of it though—it’s hard to imagine hearing “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” or “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” without the buzz of the crowd, or the eruption when Young sings “Rock ‘n’ roll will never die.” It’s split into two distinct halves, with the first half comprising all acoustic songs, and the second half all electric, full-band arrangements, a bit like Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home in reverse. And it’s in the second half where the raw, live presence is at its strongest. Still, that it’s such an innovative take on the standard live album only reinforces the aphorism in the album’s title. – JT

essential live albums Talking HeadsTalking HeadsStop Making Sense
(1984/1999; Sire/Warner Bros.)

Soundtracks to concert films sometimes suffer when they’re divorced from the visuals: lack of context, loss of sensory power, what have you. The album from Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads concert movie has possibly suffered more than any other, yet somehow remains one of the greatest live sets committed to tape. Stop Making Sense was crazy meta, exploring growth (David Byrne’s wardrobe leading up to his “big suit”) inside of growth (the gradual in-concert assembly of the stage set) inside of growth (the music expanding from Byrne’s guitar-and-beatbox solo to a funked-up big-band finale). Even without seeing the performance-art-level stagecraft, and with Warner Bros. truncating the original soundtrack to just nine songs, the music featured revelatory arrangements and energy transcending post-punk, or any other genre, really—the quirky and spare “Psycho Killer,” for example, or the squirrelly take on “Life During Wartime” featuring guest keyboardist Bernie Worrell. Thankfully, the 1999 reissue restored just about everything, including older cuts like “Heaven” and a visit from Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth’s Tom Tom Club. – AB

Swans - Public Castration is a Good IdeaSwansPublic Castration is a Good Idea
(1986; Young God)

Anyone who’s been to a Swans show since the band’s resurrection in 2010 knows that the band’s live performances straddle the division between grueling and transcendent, intimate and colossal. As the band workshop their music—either to burn the imperfections out of new material or to warp old material beyond recognition—they also subject their audience to a punishing primality that’s perhaps epitomized by their earliest live album, 1986’s Public Castration Is a Good Idea. Every song here is a hellish reimagining of already hellish material: the vocals of “Coward” ground down to an industrial screech, “Money Is Flesh,” squeezed into sludge. It’s as striking a testament to the Swans live experience as you’re going to get—equal parts innovation and devastation. – SP

Underworld Everything Everything essential live albumsUnderworldEverything Everything
(2000; JBO)

The traditional knocks against electronic music played in a live setting include “it’s just a DJ or two standing there” and “it’s just repetitive beats and keyboards.” By virtue of breaking the mold of performance in the studio, British act Underworld got a leg up on bringing their intelligent techno to the stage. Recorded at venues across four continents, Everything Everything pumps up and extends the throb of some of their greatest hits, including the anthemic “Born Slippy .NUXX,” fan favorite medley “Rez/Cowgirl,” and the Moroderesque “King of Snake.” Broken up across an album, the tracklist isn’t quite as relentless as Underworld bootlegs from club and theater dates with 90 minutes’ worth of their songs stitched together. Nevertheless, this is a primer on their fantastic history as a trio, and as close as you might get to an act that actually deserves tens of thousands of beat-hungry tweakers pogoing to them. – AB

essential live albums RadioheadRadioheadI Might Be Wrong
(2001; Capitol)

The one-two punch of Kid A and Amnesiac saw Radiohead enter the new millennium on a creative high. Those records featured some of their most experimental and critically acclaimed material, but also some of their most insular. Tracks like “Everything in Its Right Place” and “Like Spinning Plates” featured an almost apocalyptic sense of claustrophobia and dread, which is what makes their appearances on I Might Be Wrong (along with several other cuts from those twin records, as well as sweet live-only track “True Love Waits”) so essential. The environment of the original tracks is airless—or at least arid—but the sound of crowds roaring along imbues them with a sense of space and community that the originals seemed, by their very nature, to avoid. – SP

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