Live Albums: My Top Picks

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These are my favourite Live Albums, the ones that I listen to regularly, that I connect with. Certainly not a definitive collection of ‘Greatest Live Albums EVAH’. More a collection that brightens my day and hopefully contains one or two that are new to you, inspiring you to investigate ‘em further. Also, they’re not ranked, ‘cos I like ‘em all!

Pearl Jam – Live At Benaroya Hall (2004)

Ahhh, yeah…. full disclosure; I’ve been a mega fan of Pearl Jam ever since I first heard Ten in my teenage years. Their back catalogue overflows with live material, mainly because they decided to release every gig they play as an official bootleg. However, Live At Benaroya Hall was released by their record company as a full 2 CD release.

As it’s 2004 it doesn’t contain their latest material. But it does contain the classics, some rarities and some covers. All played pretty much acoustically. Beautifully recorded and rare for a live album – the audience actually adds to the ambience. But the greatest thing about it is it’s warts ’n all; the mistakes are left in and talked about, the in-between ramblings from Eddie, the interplay between band members.

If I feel like some Pearl Jam but can’t decided which album, this is a no-brainer for instant gratification. A corker. On headphones or a good hi-fi you feel like you are there.

Highlights for me are, erm, all of it! But especially “Man Of The Hour” written for Tim Burton’s Big Fish movie, the Ten epic “Black” and Victoria Williams cover and set staple “Crazy Mary”.

If you enjoy this but want the band fully electrified try the Live At The Gorge boxset (7 CD’s!). For more acoustic awesomeness look for their Unplugged session (it also came as a bonus DVD with the Ten Redux release).

Incubus – HQ Live (2012)

A really interesting concept they attempted here, but strangely it seemed to pass under the radar, almost completely. The LA 5-piece hired an art gallery, decorated it, set up their instruments in the middle and invited their fans to surround them while they rattled through their back catalogue, gave guitar & drum tuition to a lucky few, let the fans paint murals and generally have a great time. The results were recorded and filmed, with the deluxe release containing a DVD of the gig as well as the double album.

Having been recorded after their studio release of If Not Now, When It contains choice cuts from that album (sounding more dynamic than the studio album) and dipping into their extensive back catalogue. Highlights for me are “Nice To Know You” and “Megalomaniac”, but the jewel in the crown is “In The Company Of Wolves”. The album version lacks scale compared to this live version. I love the moment halfway through when the mood of the song changes completely, as it drops down from the hammond organ infused wanting of the first part, into the seething, brooding second half. Magic.

This album is a great place to start for those new to Incubus, but also a live treat for existing fans. Do yourself a favour and pick up the deluxe version with the DVD, its even better with pictures and sets the scene around the concept the band were going for.

Chris Cornell – Songbook (2011)

This isn’t just one of my favourite live albums, it’s one of my favourite albums of all time. Period. Or full-stop, as we like to say in the UK.

Chris is already regarded as having one of the greatest rock voices around. However, having been lucky enough to see him live several times; with a loud live band behind him – like in the Audiosoave years with ex-Rage Against The Machine personnel tearing it up – he could end up sounding like a bag of cats being strangled if he couldn’t hear his stage monitors. But, with his solo band, or accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, as here, it results in an absolute treat.

Just one man, one guitar. He covers Soundgarden and Audioslave classics, his own solo material and the odd unreleased gem. The guitar playing is understated and provides a simple framework for each song, but the true star is that voice. What a range, what a tone, whatta set of pipes! Goosebumps the first time you hear him let loose on opening track “As Hopes And Promise Fade”. There is not a weak cut on this album from start to finish. Having said that, from just before the halfway mark, starting with the beautiful “Thank You”, it steps up again. I think perhaps because it is fresh material paired with the equally wonderful “Cleaning My Gun”.

The record concludes with a first rate cover of Lennon’s “Imagine” and closed with my favourite track of all, the evocative “Keeper”. Conjuring up all sorts of imagery in your minds eye; “my boots don’t know this ground, but they know it’s real”, indeed Chris, indeed.

John Mayer – Where The Light Is (2008)

Mr Mayer can be a proper Marmite character. Sadly his profile in celeb mags, high profile girl friends and propensity for not self-editing before opening his mouth has overshadowed his music at times. Many may write him off as pandering to the gooey acoustic pop of his early albums.

But, starting with his live blues trio with Pino Palladino on bass and Steve Jordan on drums, followed by 2006’s Continuum, it marked a sea change in his approach. Gone were the days of the dreamy singer songwriter, he began expanding his range, culminating in this amazing live double album.

In recent years he has explored folk and country, but anyone wishing to discover John Mayer the musician, rather than John Mayer the personality, should start here. In fact, it might be all you need.

The concert is cleverly arranged over 2 discs so that he acts, in different guises, as his own support bands, while taking in each era of his career. Act one is him and his acoustic guitar. Opening with “Neon” from early album Room For Squares, it’s a more grown-up interpretation followed by the delicately played life-tale of “Stop This Train” from Continuum. The acoustic section concludes with a cracking cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’’, accompanied by Robbie McIntosh.

The second part is the blues trio. Joined by the aforementioned Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan – the cream of the session players – they kick things into high gear with blues standard “Everyday I Have The Blues”. It’s in this part of the set that you see Mayer’s often overlooked ability to wrestle amazing tones from his Fender Stratocaster with dexterity. They rattle through a flawless set until, my personal lowlight of the gig; in the middle of a great cover of Hendrix’s “Bold As Love” he descends into a terrible monologue about his life and Hollywood-Hot-Pink-LURVE… If the producers had edited this out then this album would be just about perfect.

Fortunately he quickly redeems himself when the final third act commences with his full live band. After “Waiting On The World To Change”, comes my highlight: “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room”. Culminating in a harmonised guitar solo with McIntosh, it is magnificent. “Gravity” is also a treat, but in reality the whole album from start to finish is filled with beautiful musicianship.

This album works because of it’s quality, it can be played as background music with friends or played loud in your favourite listening chair, with the lights dimmed and your favourite beverage in hand, as you pick out all the little embellishments. It is easy listening and intricate both at the same time.

Without ‘that monologue’, this is a masterpiece from Mr Mayer the musician. Forget everything you know about him from the tabloids, pick this up and let the music form your opinion. Also available on DVD/Blu-Ray with bonus tracks.

Led Zeppelin – Celebration Day (recorded 2007, released 2012)

I’m totally biased with this one as I was fortunate enough to get through the the raffle system to buy tickets to this historic occasion. It was a bizarre gig at the O2 in a way, as it was billed as a tribute to Ahmet Ertegun, who signed them to Atlantic Records. But all of the other acts; Bill Wyman and his Rhythm Kings, Paulo Nutini, Paul Rodgers and Foreigner were almost totally ignored, everyone was there to see one act. Zeppelin.

The expectation was immense, you could feel it crackle in the air. With Jason Bonham deputising for his departed father, the band delivered. You can hear on the CD that through the first few songs the band sound like they’re finding their feet a little. This was apparent in the arena too – I subsequently read that the on-stage monitors weren’t working for the opening numbers. By the time they hit “Trampled Underfoot” they were in full flow and blew the roof off. From then on it was golden all the way. I still feel immensely privileged to have been there, even though I was £125 lighter.

When it was announced the gig would finally be released on CD & Blu-Ray I was so pleased to have the opportunity to re-live it. The mix on the CD version sounds a little more analytical than in the venue, where I remember it being fat and powerful. But it’s still great to hear it again. If only Bob had agreed to a little tour or two, so that everyone else around the world could have seen them one last time…

Nirvana – From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah (1996)

Not a live gig, but more a compilation of choice live cuts from their performances spanning ’89 – ’94. Lying in a hospital bed recovering from having my appendix removed, listening to this album it inspired me to learn guitar and form a band. The buzzsaw tone of Kurt’s voice and guitar, dripping with emotion and power, it just resonated. Bereft of any studio production, this was Nirvana raw, as they should be, real and totally-in-your-face.

After the intro with Kurt wooo-woo-ing loud enough for the mic to overload, the dirty buzzing riff of “School” kicks off, followed by the rhythm section of Krist and Dave kicking in. From then on it grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go ‘til it signs off with ‘Blew’.

The obvious choice for a hit of live Nirvana would be Unplugged. That album wonderfully captured the fragile side of Kurt’s character completely. But this is how Nirvana ‘the band’ should be remembered, in my opinion. If you wanna start a Garage Band, this right here, this is your template. Play it as loud as your stereo goes. Then play it again even louder!

Jeff Buckley – Live A L’Olympia (2001)

Oh how I would have loved to have seen where Jeff Buckley’s muse would have taken him, if he’d not been lost in the Wolf River in Memphis that day in May ‘97. What a talent, what a voice, he burned bright and then was gone.

There are several live albums to choose from like Mystery White Boy and Live At Sin-e. But it is Live A L’Olympia that without fail makes me laugh out loud every time. The reason; listen to his ad-libbed version of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” halfway through, where he plays and sings it as though it’s a vinyl record playing back at too fast an RPM. Absolutely HILARIOUS!

The record is endearingly infused with interplay with the french crowd in their own language and ours, snippets of french songs, all demonstrating the talent, whit and fierce intelligence that allowed him to turn on a dime and follow his train of conscious thought, entertaining as he went.

All of his expected songs are here; “Grace”, “Dream Brother”, “Lilac Wine” and a cover of MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams”. All played how he wanted to play them, there and then, in that moment. But of course it is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that is the vocal centrepiece. Full of ad-libs, variations and acknowledgement of the crowd. Now a staple of ‘talent’ shows the world over, none will ever do it better than Jeff.

I love Live At Sin-e too, over 2 discs it fully allows you to understand Jeff, his humour, his music. But it is not an easy listen for the uninitiated, it’s a coffee house gig with lots of chat. For those new to Jeff, start with studio album Grace for the pure music, then Live A L’Olympia for the humanity.

Jimi Hendrix – Live At The Fillmore East (recorded Dec 31st ’69/Jan 1st ’70, released 1999)

Technically a Band Of Gypsys album, with the material taken from the same series of performances, but the track listing expanded and filling 2 discs. No longer with The Experience, now flanked by Buddy Miles on drums and Billy Cox on bass, both providing more of a groove. The album has a wonderfully warm tone and was mixed by longtime studio collaborator Eddie Kramer.

It’s not overflowing with Hendrix classics, kicking off with “Stone Free”, other than a great rendition of “Voodoo Child (slight return)”, those after the hits may be put off by reading the track listing. But persevere, because Jimi was on form these nights and the 2 discs are full of highlights.

An electric treatment – rather than the famous 12-string acoustic version – of “Hear My Train A Comin” grabs your attention. “Them Changes” on disc two is a big slice of fuzzy funkiness, but the centrepiece of both discs are two separate versions of anti-war song “Machine Gun”. Both topping over 11 minutes long, both worth strapping-in for. I still can’t decide which version is my favourite.

Some of the posthumous live Hendrix releases can be patchy in playing and quality, but this one is worth seeking out. 9 Months after this recording, Hendrix would be dead and the world robbed of probably the greatest natural guitar player of all time.

Nirvana may have inspired me to learn to play guitar, Hendrix was the reason I picked up a (Squier) Stratocaster to start.

Queens Of The Stone Age – Over The Years And Through The Woods (2005)

A live DVD/CD release recorded over two nights in London at two venues; Brixton Academy and KOKO.

Like Nirvana’s Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah, this is a stripped back raw recording of QOTSA in all their powerful glory. It begs to be cranked up and for you to head-bang your way around your living room, neighbours be damned!

The songs include material up to and including the Lullabies To Paralyse era, which came out the same year. “I Wanna Make It Wit Chu”, originally from Josh’s Desert Sessions project, but also found on Era Vulgaris, grooves its way in mid-set. But it’s the droning bass intro of the preceding “You Can’t Quit Me, Baby” that I enjoy, as the layers build and the song takes shape. The set signs off with another of my favourites “A Long Slow Goodbye”, one of those songs that just has a certain something I can’t quite put my finger on, but leaves me wanting more.

A powerful set then, the band sound cocksure, slutty, dangerous, authentic and gritty. Just how they should…

David Bowie – A Reality Tour (recorded 2003, released 2010)

How could I not include the sadly recently departed Mr Bowie on the list. Available as both a double CD and a DVD, A Reality Tour captures Bowie in a more modern setting. As such the treatment of the songs have been freshened up. Not to the extent that they’re something else, but enough to keep it interesting, a bit of a polish if you will.

The gig is crisply recorded and mixed, the touring band are well drilled and the man himself is in fine form vocally and chatting between songs. Across 35 tracks there are plenty of the hits and a sprinkling of tracks from Reality, the then newly released album. And, most interesting to me, some curiosities from his extensive catalogue.

A cheeky cover of the Pixies “Cactus” turns up early in the set and one of my favourite tracks “I’m Afraid Of Americans” gets an airing at the halfway mark. “All The Young Dudes”, “Changes”, “Heroes”, “Ziggy Stardust” and other crowd favourites all sound great, both band and audience having a fab time in the process.

This is not a definitive collection for those new to Bowie, but it is certainly worth seeking out for new and existing fans. It documents the performance of his classics in a modern setting, allowing a glimpse into how he had evolved these songs over time, while still sounding current and relevant. Go get it and crank it up!

NEW ENTRY: Ryan Adams – Live At Carnegie Hall (Deluxe) 2015

My brother kindly gave me this album as a Christmas present, what a top job he did. Tens Songs Live from Carnegie Hall is available on CD with, unsurprisingly, 10 songs picked from two performances over consecutive nights. But, if you pick up the deluxe version of the CD you get access to a digital download of both of the full length gigs, amounting to 42 tracks and 3hrs 36mins of run time!

And what a pair of gigs. Ryan is one of those guys who seems to be a conduit for music. It just pours out of him. I’m a big fan of his Ashes & Fire album and these performances are very similar in tone. Songs picked from across his career, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar or piano with the odd blast of harmonica. This is wonderful, delicate songwriting played with care and passion.

But what makes these recordings truly special are his interactions with the Carnegie Hall audience across both nights. I don’t wish to spoil the jokes and banter, but there are wonderful references to pop-culture (Star Wars Angry Birds, T800 Terminators), hilarious stories about teaching his friends kids to play punk rock to annoy their parents and poking fun at members of the audience and himself. Heartwarming, laugh-out-loud funny, beautifully written and played music – this ticks all the boxes for me. In fact I listened to nothing else for two weeks, it’s that good. Go get it!

 

Honourable Mentions:

  • Gary Clarke Jr Live (2014): The man with the dirty, dirty guitar tone. Being live it’s more freeform than Blak and Blu, with “Bright Lights” being a highlight – the boy sure can play!
  • Steven Wilson – Get All You Deserve (2012): I’ve gone into detail about the greatness of Mr Wilson elsewhere, this double album captures the inception of his solo work perfectly. Hopefully he’ll release a follow up to cover the Raven/Hand.Cannot.Erase. era too!
  • Nine Inch Nails – Tension (2013): Not a live album, but officially released on VEVO in the wake of the Hesitation Marks album – Tension is free full-length concert video. It highlights the incredible stage production of a modern NIN gig with a (slightly) mellower Trent, playing with the arrangements of some of his classics – there’s still some hard hitting industrial in there for the faithful. P.s. You may recognise a certain Mr Pino Palladino on bass – yes the very same man as in John Mayer’s Trio – quite a contrast! The ladies on backing vocals are more regularly seen with the Rolling Stones too.

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