Live music is the best. I say it all the time. I even put a chapter on the topic in my book. Few things in this world light me up like a live concert.
One of my favorite things in music is getting a good look at the stage just before the band comes out. The instruments are in their stands, waiting to be placed in the musician’s capable hands. The stage is lit just well enough for us to see what’s up there without the blinding glow of the house lights, filling the air with anticipation. The PA speakers are playing music that usually has little to nothing to do with the band in question, which I’ve always thought was pretty cool. Showtime is close at hand.
And then, the lights go out. The crowd erupts in cheers, as we know our band is about to hit the stage. We see the glow of a couple of flashlights, which are being used to guide the band to the stage. We can just make out musician’s silhouettes as they take their respective positions. BAM! The spotlights come on, and the band takes off. No nets. No second takes. We are LIVE!
That will never get old.
For fans, every gig is special. Each show has value. These shows are special for the band, as well. Every musician lives for that magical moment when everything falls into place, the band is locked in to one another, and the music is cooking. This doesn’t happen every night, even if most of the audience can’t tell the difference. Musicians have little trouble recalling their favorite dates on a particular tour. “Oh, you should’ve been there that night,” they say with wide grins. “We were smokin’ on that gig! Everything fell into place. Everybody hit the perfect notes. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to do that again.” Not that such trepidation stops them from trying.
Most live shows must live on in the band and audience’s memories. Those beautiful notes have left the venue and made their way out into the either, never to be heard again. But every now and again that musical magic is captured, and the gig in question is deemed suitable for use as a live album. Fans have the chance to take that magic home and relive it whenever they see fit.
I have more than a few live albums in my collection. Most of them are really good, and truly capture the sound of the performance. A few of them fall a little flat when the band leaves a bit of that magic in the studio, and can’t quite bring it to the stage. Even among my favorite live records, some of them stand out more than others. Which got me wondering: what are my all-time favorite live albums? Off the top of my head, I came up with 20 or so. I decided to narrow it down to 10.
To qualify, the gig in question had to be released on LP or CD. If there was video as well, that was an added bonus. Thus, many of my positively amazing concert videos did not qualify. Maybe I’ll do a list of those some other time. And as I say all the time, my list consists of my FAVORITE releases. To call them “The Best” is far too subjective, particularly considering how often the list fluctuates. That being said, I would say my Top 5 is pretty well set it stone.
And so without further adieu, here are my favorite live albums, Rock Division. I’ll do jazz some other time.
10 — Rush, Rush in Rio. By the time Rush hit the road in Support of Vapor Trails in 2002, I had pretty much moved on to other things, musically. I loved the band, and had already seen them in concert three times. But I had checked out a decade or so before with no regrets. I’m not sure what possessed me to pick up this DVD set when I saw it in my favorite record store. I don’t even recall looking at the setlist. It just seemed like a good time to reacquaint myself with the band. It was a great call!
This show made me a born-again Rush fanatic. Geddy, Alex, and Neil were positively on fire! The fact that they opened the show with “Tom Sawyer,” arguably their biggest hit, pretty much set the tone for the rest of the gig. The funny thing is, the band had NO idea how popular they were in South America! I can only imagine the joy of walking out onto a stage located inside a soccer stadium, filled to the brim with Rush fans who know every word and every note of your catalog! By the time they launched into “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” toward the end of the nearly three-hour show, I knew I wanted to hear every note Rush played for the remainder of their career. And I have done just that. While I admittedly saw the video from this tour first, I went right out and bought the CD set as well. Therefore, this counts.
9 — Aimee Mann, Live at St. Ann Warehouse. Aimee Mann is one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters. Her brand of “intelli-pop,” as I like to call it, should be flooding the radio airwaves. Needless to say, it isn’t. Mann is way too smart for commercial radio. She drew me in with a 2000 album called Bachelor No. 2, which remains one of the finest records I’ve ever heard. When she toured behind it, I was there. Not long after, she released an album called Lost in Space, which was every bit as good. And lucky for us, she recorded a couple of shows at the St. Ann Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. The audience was just the right size, plenty hip, and Mann and her band fed off their energy. She was even chatty with the audience, which wasn’t always the case. I’m sure the cameras helped. No matter: this was one helluva show.
8 — The Police, Certifiable. I’ve become a little cynical about reunion tours. They never quite seem to capture the magic of the legendary band on stage before us after who-knows how many years apart. I think we tended to hear bands like Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Genesis more with our hearts than we did with our ears. There are exceptions, of course. A huge exception to this rule was The Police, who went back on the road after a nearly 25-year hiatus. Not only could they still capture the original magic (rarely playing their songs an octave lower like so many others), they actually seemed to get better! The classic songs were slightly re-arranged, and Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland were airtight, as though they had never stopped playing together. It was absolutely incredible. I passed on the chance to see these guys when they came to my town (it would’ve been a $400 investment when all was said and done), and it is the one concert I truly regret missing. Instead, I settled for the set they recorded in Buenos Aires (again with South America), where they once again tore the roof off the place.
7 — Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense. Widely hailed as one of the finest concert films ever, Jonathan Demme captured the legendary art rock band at the peak of its collective prowess. But I actually heard the LP before I ever saw the movie, and Talking Heads had its hooks in me without my ever needing to lay eyes on them. Having already knocked the proverbial ball out of the park with Remain in Light, the band followed up with Speaking in Tongues, which only cemented them as one of the biggest bands in the world. David Byrne and company then went about putting together a stage show worthy of such a remarkable album, which built slowly from sparse solo arrangement (“Psycho Killer”) to full-on ensemble, gaining intensity with every song played. The original album barely did the show justice, featuring only nine songs. Luckily, the CD re-issue was able to capture most of the show’s true magic.
6 — King Crimson, On Broadway. The “Double Trio” version of King Crimson was the first I ever saw live, so this album holds great sentimental value in my heart. I got to see this band perform from a mere 15 feet away at an outdoor venue, and I was in paradise. This band could also make a mighty racket, which I think was only truly appreciated after it imploded just three years after coming together. The set I saw lasted only an hour, as that was all the time the opening act was allotted. This release — originally part of Crimson’s Bootleg series — gives us the full performance, and the band is in fine form. Touring behind their latest release Thrak, Crimson took on and captured material from the 80’s and a couple from the 70’s as well. This band was a well-oiled machine.
5 — Frank Zappa, Roxy and Elsewhere. As I have documented elsewhere on this page, Frank Zappa’s Roxy-era band was my absolute favorite of all his bands. Every band Frank had could play like nobody’s business, but these guys … whew! These guys were something else! Not only could this band handle incredibly complex music, but they were actually playing it faster by the end of their run. Their residency at the Roxy Theater in Hollywood became the stuff of legend. This album was the first release to come from that stint. Slowly but surely, it has all been released, culminating with the 7-CD box set, The Roxy Performances. What a treat it is to hear a band and its composer so beautifully in sync. If you want to delve even deeper, hunt down You Can’t Do That On Stage Any More, Volume 2: The Helsinki Concert. Same band, later on down the road, just as devastating.
4 — Steven Wilson, Home Invasion. Another show that holds sentimental value, as I made my way to Chicago to catch this show not three months after it was recorded in London for this release. Scary as it sounds, this already tight band sounded about a twist-and-a-half tighter by the time they got to me! But that doesn’t take anything away from this performance, which was nothing short of remarkable. Wilson hires top-flight musicians, and then expects and demands their very best. And he gets it! Long-time fans wringing their hands over Wilson’s somewhat pop-driven To The Bone album (the primary source for this tour) got more than enough prog-rock bang fort their buck. They also got a master class in Music Appreciation, regardless of genre.
3 — David Bowie, A Reality Tour. If you know me, then you are aware of my avid disdain for “big rooms,” where concerts are concerned. But I cannot lie: I would have been honored to be among the throng in Dublin, Ireland lucky enough to catch this 2003 set behind Bowie’s Reality album. This was the perfect band playing the perfect set, beautifully balancing the old and the new, and allowing Bowie to do what he did best, be cool and flat-out sing. Be sure to enjoy bassist/vocalist Gail-Ann Dorsey as she absolutely nails Freddie Mercury’s part in “Under Pressure.” It is one of about a thousand highlights in this performance, which seemed short even at just under three hours. This was Bowie’s last full-on tour. He went out with a massive bang.
2 — Supertramp, Paris. I’m reasonably sure this was the first live album I ever bought, back in 1981. Supertramp had just taken over the world with Breakfast in America, their biggest selling album. They were still firing on all cylinders when they stepped on stage for a residency in France. Even at the tenderer age of 13, I knew I was hearing something special. I was a also getting a true taste of progressive rock, even if I didn’t truly know it at the time. “Fool’s Overture” remains among my favorite 11 minutes in music. Another band caught at the peak of its musical ability. We were a very lucky audience, indeed.
1 — Genesis, Seconds Out. Not long after buying Paris, I found a copy of Seconds Out in the dollar bin of my favorite record store. It was three years old, and a bit scratchy, which is probably how I got it for only a buck or two. But I played the living daylights out of it. Even after I replaced my first LP copy with a second, cleaner LP (to say nothing of two or three CD editions), I can still tell you where all the scratches and pops were on my first copy. It actually took me quite awhile to stop hearing them! But all those scratches did nothing to deter me from my enthusiasm behind this LP, recorded over a 1977 residency in Paris (with a couple of tracks from their ’76 tour — where this video comes from — also included). I had come to Genesis by way of Abacab in 1981. I had expected Seconds Out to sound something like that album. Boy, was I blissfully off the mark! I got to learn about the prog side of Genesis, which I ultimately came to prefer. Side Three consists of one song, “Supper’s Ready,” which to this day remains my single favorite moment in progressive rock, all 24 minutes of it. It was a long time before I could get through the end of that song without wiping tears from my eyes. I’ve introduced this album to more than a few members of the generation behind me. Some get it, some don’t. But none of them ever doubt my enthusiasm for this album, which will be with me until my dying day.
And there you have it. More than a couple of you are champing at the bit to tell me which albums I missed. Well, I’ll step out of the way and let you have at it. Just know that I stand by my list, particularly my top choice, no matter what. Enjoy!
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I think you’re spot on with Seconds Out. Supper’s Ready is better than the studio version, in my opinion.
I would like to add 4 to your list…
Camel – A Live Record – Great double live album by an under appreciated (IMHO) band.
Little Feat – Waiting for Columbus
Genesis – Live – At their peak with Peter Gabriel
The Allman Brothers – Live at Filmore East
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I’m not usually a fan of live albums but that’s a fantastic selection there.
I’d add: But Wait … There’s More by Brand X; Live in Dublin by Leonard Cohen; Finale by Pentangle; and Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind by King Crimson.
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Your list is very good. Seconds Out changed my life when I heard it. The sound was amazing and the cover was so cool! An incredible live album is Absent Lovers by King Crimson. Captures the Belew, Fripp, Levin, and Bruford lineup taking no prisoners.
Thanks for your work. I really enjoy it.
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Ooh! Absent Lovers is GREAT. Now you’ve got me rethinking my Crimson choice!