The English guitarist Robert Fripp, founder of the rock band King Crimson, once told me that an album is like a love letter, while a live concert is like a hot date. That might explain my longtime ambivalence about live albums. Who wants a love letter about someone else’s hot date? There have been instances where concerts I’ve attended, and enjoyed, were subsequently released as live albums, but let’s face it – most of us were not in Budokan when Cheap Trick recorded there, and very few people paid good money to see Peter Frampton play live before the release of Peter Frampton Comes Alive.
Many live albums suffer from thin sound, and performances that just remind you why you liked the original studio version. But the real issue is that whatever energy was elevating the room that night is practically impossible to capture on tape. In that same conversation, Fripp said that sometimes he’d come off the stage after an amazing concert, check the tapes later on and find that it sounded lukewarm; but on a night where he felt the band had played well enough but the concert never really caught fire, he might find himself with a tape crackling with musical energy.
Some of my favorite artists have released live albums – some, like the Rolling Stones (Got Live If You Want It, and Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out) and David Bowie, have released several – but they have never seemed essential to me. On the other hand, there are some live records that bring something genuinely different to the music.
One of these is Lou Reed’s Rock & Roll Animal, recorded in 1974. The opening intro is an extended guitar duo (Steve Hunter, Dick Wagner) that is not a jam-band freakout but a carefully constructed set of themes and chord changes that leads finally to a rockin’ version of “Sweet Jane.” Not as good as the original, but different enough to be worth listening to. “Heroin,” on the other hand, is as desolate and chilling a performance as you will ever hear on a live album.
More recently, I was impressed with Wilco’s Kicking Television, Live In Chicago. I was really curious to see how they would re-create the song “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” with its highly-produced, oddly-textured instrumentation. They went for a completely different set of sounds, but just as odd and just as engaging as the studio version.
Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert from the early 70s was also a game changer. Jarrett takes himself and his audience (and by extension, through the album, us) on a journey – one man, one piano, no apparent fixed destination, but a rippling, questioning, almost mystical improvisation that takes you along for the ride.
I would also make room on the shelf for live albums that capture a career that was otherwise cut far too short. In this category I’d put bandleader Art Blakey’s seminal A Night At Birdland, Vol. 1, because it is a chance to hear the great trumpeter Clifford Brown playing live in a classic band at a top jazz spot. He’d be dead two years later, at the age of 25. Also, singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley’s Live at Sin-E, recorded here in NY and offering a chance to hear that singular voice in action before his own death at 30. And the Bill Evans Trio, with the late Paul Motian on drums and Scott LaFaro on bass, recorded Sunday At The Village Vanguard just 10 days before LaFaro’s death, also at 25.
And of course, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, for being both a different experience of the band and a document of another musician who died too soon.
Is there a live album that is essential listening for you? Leave a comment.