Arts & Life
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"Welcome back, my friends
to the show that never ends
We’re so glad you could attend
Come inside! Come inside!"
— Emerson, Lake & Palmer
Let us all raise a glass and a Bic lighter in a toast to the live album, a collection of songs recorded in front of — get this! — thousands of people packed like sardines into an arena or music hall, singing along to their favourite tunes at the top of their COVID-free lungs.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of Ritchie Valens in Concert at Pacoima Jr. High, widely considered to be the first live album ever unleashed on a record-buying public. The LP, crudely recorded on a hand-held unit during a 1958 performance in Hawaii, came out in 1960, a year after Valens, best known for hits La Bamba and Donna, died in the same plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and J.P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson.
Although not nearly as prevalent as they once were, when every Tom (Petty, Pack up the Plantation: Live), Dick (Dale, Live at Cero’s) and Harry (Styles, Live on Tour) released an album documenting one performance or another, live albums still have their place in the rock and roll canon.
In September, Canadian indie pop act Tegan and Sara issued Tonight In the Dark We’re Seeing Colors, recorded during their 2019 Hey I’m Just Like You tour. And on Oct. 2, Live Around the World, a highly anticipated concert recording by Queen + Adam Lambert, was released on vinyl, CD and Blu-ray. The double album boasts 20 tracks, the most recent of which were recorded in February, during a charity show at Sydney, Australia’s ANZ Stadium in support of that nation’s National Bushfire Relief Fund. (A separate live album titled Artists Unite for Fire Fight Australia is also available; that one showcases artists who appeared on the same bill, including Michael Bublé, 5 Seconds of Summer and Order of the British Empire member Olivia Newton-John.)
If you secure a copy of either Tegan and Sara’s or Queen + Adam Lambert’s new album, you may want to cherish it. Given the fact there are precisely zero major recording artists currently touring the globe, it will probably be a while before any new live albums — at least ones recorded after March 2020 — see the light of day, a sad state of affairs indeed, according to longtime radio personality and local rock’n’roll guru Howard Mandshein.
"When bands go into the studio to record, very often a producer will instruct them to play the songs the same way they would play them live, and there’s a very good reason for that," says Mandshein, reached at home over the phone. "There’s a certain energy you get playing in front of a packed house of people screaming their heads off, versus a couple of engineers on the other side of the glass."
Mandshein, whose dulcet tones can be heard weekdays 6-9 p.m. on 92.1 CITI-FM, doesn’t hesitate when asked if there are any live albums he goes back to, time and time again. Frampton Comes Alive!, a runaway bestseller in 1976, was a "game-changer," he says, given Peter Frampton wasn’t exactly a household name when the double album was released in January of that year. The former Humble Pie guitarist had released four solo LPs to that point, only one of which cracked the Top 40. Not only did Frampton Comes Alive! hit No. 1 on the Billboard album charts, remaining there for weeks on end, it spawned three hit singles, including the nearly 14-minute opus, Do You Feel Like We Do.
"Frampton Comes Alive! had a few things going for it. Peter had the good looks, of course, so his record company was pretty sure the girls were going to buy it," he says, adding the surprise sales of that record convinced industry bigwigs it was OK to put out live albums by lesser-known artists (see Cheap Trick at Budokan) without having to wait until they had a gold record or three under their belt. "And while his studio albums were good, the live versions of those same songs were simply out of the park. When you went record shopping on Saturday afternoon and heard ...Comes Alive! coming out of the speakers at every record store along Portage Avenue, it pretty much seduced you into buying it."
The Who’s Live at Leeds (1970), once rated the best live album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine readers’ poll, and the Allman Brothers’ At Filmore East (1971), the No. 2 pick on that same list, are a close second and third, he continues.
"On Leeds, somebody needed to put chains on every band member, especially (drummer) Keith Moon; they were truly on fire," Mandshein says. "As for the Allmans, one of my favourite things to do in the summer is drive to Winnipeg Beach, just me and my music, and that album is always a go-to. To have the fresh air coming through the window and a live concert blasting away on the stereo? To me that’s heaven, right there."
Mandshein laughingly agrees with a reporter’s assertion that despite its multi-platinum status, Eagles Live from 1980 could just be the worst live album ever recorded, owing to the fact almost every song on it is a near note-for-note copy of what appeared on the California group’s hugely successful studio recordings.
"The Eagles are perfectionists, God bless them for that. But on a live album, I want to hear some attitude, some grandeur. Give me a f---ing mistake every once in a while, will ya?" he shouts into the phone.
Ask 100 music nuts what their favourite live album is and you’re likely to get 100 different responses. For us, it’s a tie between Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense and Tom Waits’ Big Time. No, wait, what we meant to say was the Guess Who’s Running Back through Canada. Check that: Live Rust by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Oops, we forgot: Bruce Springsteen with the Sessions Band: Live in Dublin. On that note, we posed the same question to seven Free Press writers. Here’s what everybody had to say.
MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
If live albums are meant to capture a certain time and place, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York documents the denouement of not only a band and an entire music scene, but also of a tortured man. Famously playing on a stage decked out in stargazer lillies and black candles — you know, like a funeral — Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic delivered the raw, acoustic performance of a career. While the cover of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World is among the album’s most stunning, it’s the anguished, throat-shredding rendition of Lead Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night that makes this album a classic; that last ragged gasp of air Cobain takes so he can bring the song home will leave you haunted. He would die by suicide five months after it was recorded.
— Jen Zoratti
Under a Blood Red Sky (1983)
Rather than deliver a full front-to-back concert album, U2 culled stellar live versions of eight tracks from their first three studio albums (plus one B-side) for this concise, blistering collection. The performances here confirm the Irish quartet, driven by the Edge’s angular guitar lines and raised up by Bono’s energetic stage presence and impassioned vocals, were ready for the decades of arena and stadium tours to come.
— Ben Sigurdson
Homecoming: The Live Album
I can’t say I am a fan enough of Beyoncé to be considered a member of her Beyhive, however there was something undeniably amazing about her two headlining performances at Coachella in 2018, which were turned into both a documentary (2019’s Homecoming) and a live album (Homecoming: The Live Album). While Beyoncé, who was the first woman of colour to headline Coachella, is known for the artistry and intensity of her visual performance, the live album manages to capture much of that vibe within the audio alone — the passion, the power, the perfection. As the first interlude states, there’s just "so much damn swag," it spills out of your speakers.
— Erin Lebar
In 1976, I was 11 and already infatuated with music. I followed the AM radio charts and regularly played my parents’ slim collection of records, but I didn’t have any albums of my own until KISS’s Alive! double album arrived under the Christmas tree. I had heard the band’s records at school and everyone I knew was talking about them but KISS soon became an obsession. I spent hours listening to the music while flipping through the inner booklet or drawing the group’s logo all over my school binder. For me, the band’s otherworldly makeup, outlandish costumes and the primal, two- and three-chord stomp of songs such as Strutter, Black Diamond and Rock and Roll All Nite embodied all the magic and excess of rock ’n’ roll. My tastes have changed over the years, of course, and while I know that Alive! pales in comparison to Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out and countless other concert recordings, it remains my favourite live album (even if it’s been revealed that it wasn’t exactly a legitimately live recording).
— John Kendle
Set List (2003)
When Irish band the Frames opened for Calexico at the West End Cultural Centre in 2003, I’d only heard one of their albums, so most of the tracks on Set List were new to me — and therefore became definitive versions of the songs. What the Frames do best live — shift from fragile, acoustic folkiness to incendiary rock — is captured beautifully here (violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire is on fire), along with their trademark segues into covers (Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire). Full-throated singer (and Oscar-winning songwriter) Glen Hansard is in fine voice here, and so is the audience, which figures prominently on several tracks; the sound of thousands of people singing in unison is a guaranteed goosebump-raiser.
— Jill Wilson
The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966 (1998)
This two-disc album is part concert record, part historical document. It’s the night when a fan shouted "Judas!" at Bob Dylan. The famous moment took place on May 17, 1966, in Manchester, England, shortly after Dylan "went electric." He hired the Band to back him up, revolutionized rock music and divided his fans.
The first disc is a fantastic solo acoustic set of Dylan’s early classics. The second is Dylan and the Band with loud-and-proud guitars, drums, his harmonica and sneering vocals. The crowd wasn’t impressed.
They were wrong then and they’re wrong now. The highlight is the final two songs, Ballad of a Thin Man and Like a Rolling Stone, and the moment between that is the most famous heckle in rock history.
— Alan Small
At Folsom Prison (1968)
The cheering throngs are always an important element of the live album, for better and worse. But the crowd has special resonance in Johnny Cash’s 1968 album At Folsom Prison: they are all the more appreciative of Cash’s performance because they’re literally a captive audience, and this calibre of entertainment (despite the fact Cash’s career was on the wane at the time) didn’t happen often. The material is generally a good fit, including, obviously, Folsom Prison Blues and 25 Minutes to Go. But even his comic-fractious duet with wife June Carter, Jackson, has an edge like a shiv. Forsaking studio polish, Cash’s rough-and-ready bass-baritone loses nothing in a live setting, and indeed gained a quality of world-weary experience the audience understood too well.
— Randall King
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
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