There’s something special about live recordings.
Whether performed by a lone singer and their instrument of choice for accompaniment, or by a full band with additional instruments and singers, live recordings will certainly be different than what was done in the studio.
Artists performing live must pare down their arrangements to what they think is the core of the song. What they leave in, do without, or change, gives the listener a new insight into what the performer feels is important about the song.
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Beyond the music, the musicians’ chatter on a live recording speaks volumes about the artist. How a song is introduced, how the musician reacts to a mistake on stage and how they recover from it, and just getting an idea about their sense of humor, are things that make live records on vinyl valuable.
Essential Live Recordings On Vinyl
This list is in no particular order, in no way exhaustive, extremely subjective, bound to start conversations or arguments, but hopefully we be fun and illuminating to read. Many of these titles are hard to come by, but if you are willing to buy records online, all can be found.
Without further ado, let’s begin.
Newport 1958 – Columbia, 1958
Dave Brubeck-piano, Joe Morello-drums, Paul Desmond-alto sax, and Joe Benjamin-double bass.
Four top-flight jazz musicians at the top of their game taking on the work of the great Dizzy Gillespie at 1958 Newport Jazz Festival during a multi-artist tribute session to Gillespie’s work. And not only is Gillespie present, he’s performing!
Despite whatever pressure they feel, or perhaps because of it, the quartet put on a performance that demonstrates their mastery of the form.
What you hear, in stereo, is every note of each player, alternating between unison counterpoint, to “trading eights” in a show of individual virtuosity, with no note out of place.
Out of print in vinyl.
Live at the Regal – ABC Paramount, 1965
B.B. King knew how to whip up an audience! It’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better than he does on this recording, outside of an evangelist’s revival tent.
This album does not include King’s crossover hit, The Thrill is Gone, or the also well-known, Paying the Cost to Be the Boss, famously covered by Pat Benatar. It does encompass a no-holds-barred, uncompromising blues performance from his prime.
On How Blue Can You Get, he has the highly appreciative fans in the audience squarely in the palm of his hand as he carefully instructs them to concentrate on the words of the song, not the music. Then mid-song, the rhythm and tempo change for a call/response verse that rams home the depths of just how blue you can get. And the crowd goes wild!
Also MCA, 1980; Ace Records, 1995
At Folsom Prison – Columbia, 1968
Johnny Cash is well-known for the impact of his prison concerts, which included an early effort at San Quentin where a young inmate named Merle Haggard was in the audience, and would soon go on to his own successes in music largely because of that concert.
Cash returned to San Quentin in 1969 to record a live album there, but Folsom is the better, and better-known, album, for a variety of reasons.
It’s the first in the series of prison concert albums by Cash, and its song list is filled with titles, and lyrics, about doing wrong, being in prison, fixing to die, and just plain ’ole wishing you were someplace else, knowing you can’t be. And, you know, the title of the song.
4 Way Street – Atlantic, 1971
Recorded in a very intimate setting by today’s standards, this concert has a lot of things going on that make it almost a sacred relic from that era.
Hailed as the first supergroup, David Crosby from The Byrds, Stephen Stills from Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash from The Hollies, supposedly got the idea to join musically over dinner at the house Nash was sharing with his then-girlfriend, Joni Mitchell.
These 3 have put out several albums over the decades, some featuring all 3, some featuring various pairs. However, besides one studio album, “Déjà Vu,” this is the only significant recording with all three, plus Neil Young, who had played with Stills in Buffalo Springfield.
What you get is two LP’s worth of killer harmonies, fine musicianship (even with Nash’s flub on the piano intro to Chicago, and the most endearing false start to a song ever heard on Triad), and enough musical camaraderie to fill the venue.
The way the four musicians take turns introducing each other and their songs leaves you with the feeling that not only is there a mad respect going on between them, but they actually love each other, more than any other set of brothers or musicians could.
If the obvious personal and musical symbiosis weren’t enough, the album is neatly divided into the opening acoustic section with just the four players, which covers the first three sides, and an electric section on side 4.
The electric section concludes and Stills admonishes the crowd to quiet down again for the closing number, an acoustic guitar intro that gives way to one of the most beautiful, multi-part harmony, a cappella songs on a live album, Find the Cost of Freedom.
It all ends with an understated, almost whispered “Good night” from Stills.
Live At Leeds – Polydor, 1970
As intimate and friendly as “4 Way Street” is, The Who’s “Live at Leeds” is raucous and noisy as high-octane rock & roll should be, but equally filled with superb musicianship.
Pete Townshend, who made the term “power chord” well-known, is on record as saying that John Entwhistle’s bass was the true melodic driver of the band. Entwhistle has explained that in the studio, with Townsend playing multiple instruments, the bass didn’t have to play so many notes to fill out the sound.
Live, it was much different because there they really were only a 3-piece, with the phrenetic Keith Moon on drums, and lead singer Roger Daltrey. That’s when the bass had to produce lavish runs and riffs which aren’t on the studio recordings. In those days, even a band with as many hits under their belt as The Who didn’t bring along extra musicians and singers for a concert.
Nowhere is this aspect of playing live so noticeable, and rewarding, even though the LP includes only 6 tracks, 3 of which are covers of blues songs that the quartet managed to make their own, to the point of releasing one recorded here as a single. This band knew how to pull out all the stops to put on a really good show.
Also Geffen, 2010; Super Deluxe Edition with CDs.
MTV Unplugged in New York – Geffen, 2013
This performance was different from other concerts in the MTV series, and different from a typical Nirvana performance.
MTV had been trying for some time to get the band. Kurt Cobain resisted because he didn’t want to be what he felt was just another big band playing their big hits, on acoustic guitars instead of their regular instruments.
When he relented, the band showed up intent on playing lesser-known songs he felt would sound better “unplugged.” The irony is that he insisted on playing his acoustic through his electric guitar amplifier, which makes it almost indistinguishable at first listen. Although they rehearsed on set, they did not adhere to a setlist, evidenced by band members at times asking about which song they will be playing.
What comes through it all, though, is the melodies and the players’ musicianship. For Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam, bassist Krist Novoselic switches to accordion, handing the acoustic bass to Dave Grohl. Throughout, Grohl demonstrates great dynamics, switching from drumsticks to brushes, and to rods, a sort of hybrid.
The MTV Unplugged series was designed to provide the most intimate setting possible for performers and the audience, which it thoroughly succeeded in doing. This edition was one of its best.
The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl – Capitol, 1977
It’s only 13 short songs, but until the “Anthology” series in the 1990’s, this was the only official opportunity to hear a Beatles live performance that wasn’t part of a video. And those 90’s releases did not include all the songs here.
The energy is palpable from the outset as Bob Eubanks, then a young radio DJ who scored big by landing The Beatles in his first attempt at concert promoting, introduces the world’s biggest act.
The main feature of a Beatles concert was the constant screaming of their adoring fans, mostly teenage girls in America. That sound is evident here, and probably made editing the tapes easier because the volume level of white noise between songs in 1964 is similar in 1965.
The Beatles were masters of song choice and order on their albums, and this one is no exception. Side one ends with the rocking “Roll Over, Beethoven.” When you turn the record over, side two keeps the pace up with one of the most enthusiastic introductions on record: Paul McCartney for Ringo Starr singing Boys.
The convivial banter between Paul and John is also heard, but probably the most poignant words of the album are written by George Martin, in the liner notes. He tells his daughter, who is too young to understand, that The Beatles were “probably not” as good as her beloved Bay City Rollers. Less than a decade after The Beatles ended, he is confidant she will one day figure out the truth. Imagine if that conversation happened today.
The 2016 remastered and expanded album on Capital features techniques to augment clarity, but much of the appeal of this record is as a testament to the technological austerity of a Beatles show. Find the original release.
The Concert for Bangladesh – Apple Records 1971
First. Benefit. Concert. Ever.
It would not have happened without the pull of an ex-Beatle, seemingly one of the nicest, albeit direct, musicians in the world at the time. What he did was hear an off-handed remark by his friend and mentor, Ravi Shankar (Norah Jones’s dad, for those of you under a certain age), about the trouble in Bangladesh, get an idea for a way to help financially, book an arena, and round up some of the best talent in the world, all within a few short weeks.
With so little time to prepare for something no one had ever done before, and even though they were all familiar with each other’s material, the artists had to strip down the arrangements so they could serve as each other’s backing band. To compensate, they turned in some of the best performances imaginable.
Fresh off a decade or so taking a backseat to Lennon and McCartney, and the success of his expansive solo album, “All Things Must Pass,” the Quiet Beatle switches effortlessly from lead to supporting player amongst the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Billy Preston, the afore-mentioned Shankar, and Ringo Starr. He even brings out new material, the appropriately-titled “Bangladesh.”
Frampton Comes Alive! – A&M 1976
How does a relatively obscure recording artist become an international superstar on the strength of a live album? Answer: he records this one.
Frampton is given a healthy momentum by the live audiences that actually become part of the performance at every opportunity, clapping rhythmically, stamping, and adding enthusiastic whistles during the songs with the full band; sitting in rapt attention during solo acoustic selections.
A Grammy Award winner for best album and one of the best-selling live albums ever, it’s popularity was supported by 3 tracks which received, and still receive, substantial airplay: Show Me the Way; Baby, I Love Your Way; and Do You Feel Like We Do. The fact that the players were so good that, amazingly, only one vocal verse, one piano intro, and one rhythm electric guitar track were re-recorded later doesn’t hurt.
After 10 weeks at Number One, 97 weeks on the chart, no wonder it’s considered by many to be the finest live rock album of all time.
And to recap, here are the albums we discussed today:
- The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Newport 1958
- B.B. King – Live at the Regal
- Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
- Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young – 4 Way Street
- The Who – Live at Leeds
- Nirvana – MTV Unplugged In New York
- The Beatles – The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl
- George Harrison and others – The Concert for Bangladesh
- Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive!
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There’s something special about live recordings.