I love live music. As much as I respect the work musicians do in the recording studio, there’s something about having that music played in front of me — with no second takes or safety nets — that gives me a special thrill. One of the biggest rushes in the world for me is seeing a band’s instruments set up on stage shortly before the musicians come out to play them. It’s a special feeling, knowing that something big is about to happen.
On my recent drive to Nashville, I played almost exclusively live albums on my iPod to keep me company(*). As I drove, I started thinking about all the live records I’ve heard over the years, and got to wondering which were my favorites. Needless to say, some albums stick out more than others, and each for its own reasons. Some are well played, some feature amazing audiences, some have intense sentimental value. Whatever the reason, these records stand out.
I thought it might be fun to rank 10 of my all-time favorite live albums. Even as I type these words, I know for every record I name, I left one out, or I’ve just forgotten about it. Well, that’s just the way it goes. And please note I said these are my FAVORITE live albums, which should not be confused with BEST live albums. The latter is not something I’m qualified to judge, because I haven’t heard every live album. I’m sure plenty of people have their own lists they’d like to share. Please feel free to do so.
But for now, here’s my Top Ten:
10. Led Zeppelin, How the West Was Won (recorded 1972, released 2003): The roar of the crowd, a brief onstage drone, and BAM!!! Led Zeppelin has you by the throat, and they have no intention of letting go for the the next two-plus hours. Plant, Page, Jones, and Bonham are in their absolute prime, and assault your senses in the best possible way. As much as I disdain big rooms, I think I would have enjoyed making this gig.
9. Sting, Bring on the Night (1985): The Police were gone, and Sting was going solo. That was scary enough. Now we come to find that not only is Sting releasing a solo record called The Dream of the Blue Turtles, but he has hired a bunch of jazz musicians to perform with him live. Jazz? Really? Many fans freaked, but I wasn’t one of them. My dad had gotten me into jazz a few years before, so I actually recognized the musicians performing with Sting. Branford Marsalis (sax), Kenny Kirkland (keys), Daryl Jones (bass), and Omar Hakim (drums) were all top-flight musicians, able to handle anything placed before them. They took Sting’s new music and re-arranged Police songs to a different level. A double album from this tour was released, along with a documentary. Watching this band come together and hearing the resulting music was nothing short of incredible!
8. Supertramp, Paris (1980): I’m pretty sure this was my first live album, which was recorded in Supertramp’s prime as part of the Breakfast in America tour. The audience was engaged from Note One, which always makes a gig fun, particularly for the musicians. The band definitely rose to the occasion, putting forth fantastic renditions of songs from the four previous albums. The audience nearly exploded after the band’s rendition of “Fool’s Overture,” and deservedly so. It remains one of my favorite moments in live music.
7. David Bowie, A Reality Tour (2003): This was just a FANTASTIC gig. David Bowie assembled a band of top-tier musicians, and they ran through 40 years worth of music in just under three hours. I wasn’t even there, and I was exhausted by the end of this gig! I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to be in the audience, who were whipped into a frenzy early, and never came down. This is another big room gig I would have enjoyed being a part of.
6. Rush, Rush in RIO (2003): I was a Rush fan for quite some time in the ’80s. But by the early ’90s, I had moved on to other things. I don’t know what possessed me to buy this DVD. Maybe I was feeling sentimental. I still remember plugging the disc into my player and lying down on the couch. Three hours later, I was sitting bolt-upright, and I was a born-again Rush fan! Apparently, Geddy, Neil, and Alex were completely unaware of their popularity in South America at the time, so it was a pleasant surprise for them to play before packed soccer stadiums to an audience who sang every song along with the band, including the instrumentals! It didn’t take long to remember why I loved Rush so much in the first place, and I never let them go again.
5. Steven Wilson, Get All That You Deserve (2012): I was deeply enamored with Porcupine Tree, so I regarded Steven Wilson’s solo projects as an opportunity to purge himself before he returned to his “proper” band. This gig (which was part of the Grace for Drowning tour) showed me just how off the mark I was! The band and show are AMAZING! By the time it was over, I had all but forgotten about Porcupine Tree, and I was dying to hear where Wilson was headed next. This band was more like an extension of Porcupine Tree, with an instrumental setup that allowed Wilson to expand on his musical thought processes, to the benefit of all. As it turns out, Wilson’s best solo work was yet to come. The band played one track from the forthcoming The Raven That Refused to Sing (and Other Stories), which may be the best record I’ve heard in the last decade. Needless to say, I’ve never questioned Steven Wilson’s motives since.
4. The Police, Certifiable (2008): As a rule, I’m leery of reunion tours. All too often, a long broken-up band sounds like they should have stayed that way. The vocals aren’t quite right, the band’s chops aren’t up to snuff, or they appear more caught up in trying to recapture nostalgia than actually putting on a good show. Needless to say, The Police did NOT have any of these problems. Yeah, they lowered the vocal range an octave on a couple of songs, but their playing was absolutely out of this world! In fact, I think Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland actually got BETTER with age. This show came to St. Louis, but I didn’t have the $270 for a ticket. Maybe I should’ve gotten a loan.
3. King Crimson, Absent Lovers (recorded 1984, released 1998): Few bands matter to me more than the 1980’s King Crimson. They quite literally changed my life. I learned about the band during the summer of 1985. What I didn’t know is they had broken up the year before! Which meant I would never be able to see this groundbreaking band live. Lucky for me, the music gods took pity on me, and rewarded me for my loyalty. It turns out the band recorded the final show from their 1984 tour. Fourteen years after the fact, I got to hear Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Tony Levin, and Bill Bruford blow the minds of their Montreal audience over two sets. As good as the band was in the studio, they were ten times better on stage.
2. Frank Zappa, You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Volume 2: The Helsinki Concert (recorded 1974, released 1988): Of all Frank Zappa music, I love the work he did with the “Roxy” era band the most. Each Zappa band had serious musicians in it, but this group seemed to have the most serious of the lot. They took on incredibly complicated material and made it look relatively easy. I was going back and forth between this album and Roxy & Elsewhere, but I chose Helsinki because the band was more familiar with the material, and were actually playing it better than they were on Roxy. That seems hard to believe, until you listen to the gig.
- Genesis, Seconds Out (1977): If I’ve played this album once, I’ve played it 2,500 times. This is probably the second live album I owned, and no doubt the most important. I bought my first copy out of the bargain bin at Vintage Vinyl for a buck. The LPs were in bad shape, full of pops and scratches. But the music was AMAZING! I was in love from the opening notes of “Squonk.” I played that record so often, the scratches became part of my mental soundtrack. Even after getting the album on CD, I could still hear where every pop and skip was “supposed” to be. My love for this album knows no bounds. Supertramp may have opened the doorway to progressive rock, but Genesis kicked it off the hinges! Without this album, I may not have been able to hear King Crimson when I was introduced to them. Seconds Out is worth the price of admission for “Supper’s Ready” (which is Side Three) alone! It’s one of my all-time favorite moments in music. I don’t know how many copies of this album I’ve owned, but it’s more than a couple. Hell, there are two copies of this CD on my shelf right now! And I won’t be giving them up any time soon.
And there you have it. My list no doubt neglects an album or two I forgot about, but these are the records that stick out most. And there’s no jazz on this list. But that’s an entirely different story.