Thursday, August 13, 2009

Live Ones

When I was in college I used to go to shows all the time. And notice the word “show,” not concert. I realize it’s only semantics, but there was something about the indie rock aesthetic of the 90s that made the word “concert” sound like an expensive, large venue, overblown, corporate run circus…which I guess it is…and what I usually went to was almost literally the opposite – a dank, dingy, no place to sit, you’re-lucky-if-one-of-the-toilets-works club/bar/dive to see a band that your parents definitely never heard of. Speaking of, when I would tell my parents I was going to a show, they would later ask me, “How was the movie?” So, there you have it…

Many of the shows I saw were at the same place, Lucy’s Record Shop down on Church Street. I’m not gonna tell the story of that amazing venue here (though you can read it here), but I seriously saw some of the greatest bands of the time for $5 a hit and was even permitted to take the same stage of some of those greats myself on more than several occasions. But I digress…

There’s something about a live setting that really makes an artist, well…come alive. That is if they’re worth their mettle, which frankly many of your bigger names out there aren’t. It’s more of a production and less of a performance. And though it can be interesting, even entertaining, I don’t really want to be distracted by a bunch of lasers and videos going off to the beat of the music. I’m paying my hard earned cash to see some folks plug in and get my rocks off. And it’s sad, ‘cos some artists who can create amazing studio album just don’t transfer well to the stage, where likewise many rougher edged bands lose all their sting and fury once they’re confined by studio walls. To me it’s the true and full act that can deliver a good wax set and a good live set as well. And what I find most enjoyable are those who don’t just get up there and give you the album per se, but rework their material so that the song you hear composed of 12 instruments on the album, translates into a similar yet unique form of itself from the stage. Often unrepeatable highs can be obtained at a truly magical live performance, and sometimes by bands you’ve never even heard of before -- they’ve just got that gift, that power, channeling the spirit like no other…and often as not, at least at many Lucy’s shows, for a room of less than 25 people.

So it goes.

And to capture a live performance on tape (or you know, whatever it is they’re using these days) is another difficult feat. And given enough time, just about every act on both sides of the corporate spectrum will put out at least an EP’s worth of live material. With the exception of jazz and like genres, a live release isn’t usually taken very seriously; it can be a stopgap between regular albums while the band takes a break, a posthumous cash in once they’ve called it quits, an obligation to the record label that the artist likely wasn’t even a part of or, and as it should be, a living document of the artist at a truly amazing time in their career. And while most live albums are competent and enjoyable, they’re hardly memorable and likely not the disc you’ll be reaching for whenever you’re in the mood for a little this or that. These albums are mainly for completists, for rabid fans, for those looking for alternate lyrics and licks and other subtle changes -- but rarely is the divine spark captured for all of time. Of course there are exceptions, some hailed by critics and fans alike as being timeless and just as necessary (and in some cases more so) than anything else in a band’s catalog. Examples would of course include Cheap Trick at Budokan, Kiss Alive II and Frampton Comes Alive. (I’m sorry, I hate this last album too, but your parents probably owned it…’cos they were high.) Some of my favorite artists have put out the obligatory live album and, as a completist for certain groups myself, I’ve picked up Depeche Mode 101, The Smiths Rank and The Go-Betweens That Striped Sunlight Sound…but again, while all of these albums are pleasant, none of them are essential or likely to be spinning my grooves in the near future.

A brief aside…for Bill’s sake I’m gonna go ahead and give a shout out and say that Dylan’s Bootleg Series of live releases is pretty much stellar, however, Dylan is a universe all his own and as I proved in my previous Dylan post, I’m less than qualified to talk about that.

Back to task (‘cos as Greg says, I write a lot)…there are three live albums that are close to my heart. More than endearing, though sometimes less than necessary, they have that special something that really any record needs in order to gain repeat play. And they are as follows…

U2: Live Under a Blood Red Sky – This is easily and hands down my all-time favorite live album. It’s also in my top 3 favorite U2 albums. I remember seeing the Red Rocks video for Sunday Bloody Sunday as a kid and being mesmerized. My friend Keith had this album on cassette and I borrowed it and played it so much that it broke. In 1983 U2 was the greatest band in the world, full of heart and bravado and passion, and to me this captures them at the height of their live powers, especially the kick out the jams rendition of early single 11 O’Clock Tick Tock (which you’ll know from an earlier post, contains my all time favorite guitar solo). The band was never again more engaging, immediate or vital -- even though they went on to sell a gazillion more records (with inferior music).

Roxy Music: Viva! – Around ten years ago I really got into Roxy Music and was picking up everything I could get my hands on. I got this one at Wal-Mart in Fayetteville, TN for $.50 US. Score and double score! This was one of the aforementioned stopgap albums while the band took a four year break and reworked their sound from the quirky art rock that made them infamous, to the slick adult contemporary that made them famous (er, something like that). This album, taken from three shows on three different tours in the mid 70s, grabs songs from most of their first five albums to date and really gives them a good working over. Where some of the studio work could sound a bit stiff, the live setting lets the boys truly flex their muscles, giving the songs a visceral energy that ranges from sensual to terrifying, especially on the sinister homage to domestic entrapment In Every Dream Home a Heartache.

The Cure – Entreat: The Cure has quite a few live albums, and to be honest my favorite is a bootleg from 1980. But let’s stick with official releases. And the funny thing about Entreat is that it was initially just a promo release in France only, but after it started getting bootlegged as well, a limited European release was made…which means that this bugger was/is still an import. Luckily I got my copy for $5 from Matt Sullivan back in college during his big CD purge. This entire album was recorded during one show at Wembley Arena on their Prayer Tour in 1989 and every song is from the Disintegration album. In many ways these songs sound very much like their studio counterparts, a little more airy, a few changed lyrics, this or that guitar part more pronounced, etc; but what makes it so appealing is that it showcases the Cure at the absolute peak of their powers, with their most solid line up, delivering a batch of songs they were as equally enthusiastic to play as the audience was to hear. It’s this awareness that makes the performance so unique, so set apart from the other shows I’ve heard from the same era. All the planets were aligned, all the stars in sync and Mad Bob was fully in love with his muse.

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