Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix 10 'Graphs On 10 Live Albums

By Matt Ashare

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  Every serious music fan has his or her favorite live album. Mine's Live Take No Prisoners, Lou Reed's valiant, amphetamine-crazed effort to establish himself as the Lenny Bruce of rock and roll in 1978. And there are a few classics -- Live at Leeds, The Last Waltz, Live Rust, maybe the Allman Brothers Band's At Fillmore East, if you're into that sort of thing. But it's a rare live album that actually defines a career. The explosive Kick Out the Jams is one of the few examples of a major band making their debut with a live album -- it's also the only MC5 disc that apparently captured what that short-lived proto-punk band were all about. And for a time in the mid '70s, the live album had a surprisingly big commercial role: Frampton Comes Alive, Kiss's Alive!, and Cheap Trick's Live at Budokan were all breakthrough albums for artists who had yet to establish a strong chart presence.

Other than that, the live album is generally just a way for an artist or band to say "thank you for your support" to fans while cutting into bootleggers' profits and putting a little extra cash in the bank by capitalizing on the success of a big tour. They're also a practical means of keeping new product on the market between studio albums -- and, as Aerosmith reminded us earlier this fall, a convenient way of fulfilling contractual obligations. Occasionally a live album will serve to document a unique event -- say, an MTV Unplugged session.

Even without MTV's help, the music industry has produced a bumper crop of live product to feed the racks in the final quarter of 1998. What follows is a 10-paragraph survey of 10 of the more interesting and/or significant new live albums: 14 full-length CDs that add up to 837 minutes of music (and banter), weigh a combined 2.25 pounds, and take up a mere four inches of space on my CD shelf.

Garth Brooks

When new Garth Brooks product enters the marketplace, it's more a media event than a simple album release. Double Live even came with a hour-long prime-time TV special on NBC hosted by the G-man himself. Of course, now that Garth Brooks Double Live has already aired, what we're left with is a double album of 25 tunes culled from 347 shows in 99 cities over the course of seven years. (In a vain effort to prolong the excitement of its release, however, the first six million copies of Double Live will feature six different CD booklets.) Double Live sets a new standard for deep, resonant, roaring crowd noise -- not since the rise of the Third Reich have mass displays of approval sounded quite so much like Godzilla taking a brisk stroll through Central Park. It also stands a good chance of unseating Frampton Comes Alive as the all-time best-selling live album. But Double Live does serve one useful purpose: the insular world of megahit Nashville works on the principle that a touring outfit is a touring outfit, a studio outfit is a studio outfit, and never the twain shall meet. So this is really the only official way to hear Brooks and the players he tours with doing their thing on CD, though their performances were "touched up" in the studio, where out-of-tune guitars were re-recorded and a choir was added to "We Shall Be Free."


The shelf life for teen sensations tends to be brutally short -- as an artist's audience skews younger, older fans move on until all you're left with is kids too young to shop for CDs. So the Brothers Hanson have been doing their best to capitalize on the success of "MMMBop" quickly: they rushed a Christmas disc to retailers this time last year and threw together a collection of "early" recordings to support their first tour last summer, and now we've got a live disc to deal with. The boys pad the set, which was recorded at Seattle's Key Arena last July (Albertane is the fictional locale referred to in the Hanson tune "Man from Milwaukee"), with a couple of vintage covers -- the feel-good anthem "Gimme Some Lovin' " and the capitalist classic "Money (That's What I Want)." And they offer up one new tune, "Ever Lonely," a minor-key rocker that brings to mind R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" played, well, faster by a bunch of kids. Fortunately, Live from Albertane is being accompanied by the video release, The Road to Albertane -- because it's a lot more fun to watch little Zach play the drums than it is to listen.

Robyn Hitchcock
(Warner Bros.)

As with Kiss, half the fun of a Robyn Hitchcock show is the between-song banter. Hitchcock never sounds quite as excited as Paul Stanley, and he tends to be a bit more, shall we say, philosophical. But his talking bits are every bit as crucial to the experience as Stanley's are. Kiss, however, have never highlighted Stanley's oratory skills to the degree that Hitchcock's stand out here on the soundtrack to a live-performance film Jonathan Demme shot two years ago at an abandoned building on 14th Street in NYC: each of his between-song spoken-word bits -- including his metaphysical musings on religion, molecular biology, and minotaurs -- is afforded its own track. The mostly acoustic song performances aren't bad either. With occasional help from violinist Deni Bonet and guitarist Tim Keegan, Hitchcock delivers good-natured renditions of some of his more recent quirky gems (tunes from 1996's Moss Elixir as well as the amusing K Records single "I Something You"), a few oldies ("The Yip! Song" and "I'm Only You"), and a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary." Kinda like Kiss Unplugged with completely different songs sung by a really tall British guy.

Wayne Kramer

Wayne Kramer knows a thing or two about live records. As one of MC5's two guitarists, he helped make live-album history 30 years ago on Kick Out the Jams. The raw power of MC5 never managed to come through in the studio, and though Kramer's had more luck in that regard on the three discs he recorded for Epitaph in the '90s, LLMF suggests that perhaps the studio will never really be able to accommodate the bristling sound of his guitar. He might have done well to jettison "Kick Out the Jams" from this set -- he recorded the definitive live version of that three decades ago. But if the Stones can keep releasing live versions of "Gimme Shelter," then we might as well cut Kramer some slack. Especially since his blistering power-trio renditions of recent tunes like the boogie-metal "Stranger in the House" and the Neil Youngish protest rocker "Something Broken in the Promised Land" are more-than-worthwhile improvements over the not unrocking studio versions. Kramer's politics (as reflected in the self-righteous "Promised Land") can come across as hopelessly dated (à la Patti Smith), but guitar-slinging sounds as vital today as it did in '68.

Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam have been trying their darnedest to make the equivalent of live albums in the studio ever since the reverb-drenched Ten (Epic) turned Eddie Vedder into the world's most reluctant rock star. And after four valiantly stripped-down attempts, this band are mighty used to working without layers of overdubs and digital editing. Pearl Jam are also a band in love with rock and roll's gritty past, and Live on Two Legs is about as close as you're going to come in the '90s to a '70s-style, warts-and-all live document à la Aerosmith's Live Bootleg. Recorded during the 1998 tour (as opposed to the band's troubled mid-'90s tours), the disc draws on all of the group's five studio albums, including a grand rendition of Ten's "Black." A good-natured Vedder introduces "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" by saying, "This song is called 'The Longest Title in the Pearl Jam Catalogue,' " and he finishes the tune by complimenting the crowd on their singing. He also pays homage to his spiritual godfather, Neil Young, Bono-style by ad-libbing lyrics to "Rocking in the Free World" during an extended version of "Daughter" that turns medleyish toward the end. And the disc closes with a rousing rendition of Young's "F*ckin' Up." Nothing you can't find on hundreds of bootlegs, but pretty much all you need from Pearl Jam live.


Although they've got only two albums under their belts -- and only one had been released when the show chronicled here was recorded -- Roseland NYC Live falls into that category of live albums justified by the simple fact that it documents a one-of-a-kind event. The disc is a recording of a concert in which Portishead, essentially a studio duo of singer Beth Gibbons and programmer Geoff Barrow, are joined not just by a touring band but by the sort of full orchestra that only Rod Stewart and Page/Plant can afford to take on the road. The orchestral embellishments are surprisingly subtle, or at least well woven in among the textures of Portishead's already cinematic soundscapes. Yet what's refreshing about the Roseland recordings (there are also two tracks here taken from regular, non-orchestra tour dates) is how raw and dynamic the band sound given their penchant for producing monochromatic mood music in the studio. Adrian Utley's noisy guitar slices a jagged edge into the sensual flow of "Cowboys," and Barrow's turntable scratching cuts much deeper into the calm of tunes like the ominous "Over" and the tragidelic "Mysterons" here than on the studio versions. Immediacy is a nice thing every once in a while.

Rolling Stones

Yes, Bridges to Babylon was the best Stones studio album in at least a decade, maybe even since Some Girls or, more reasonably, Tattoo You (though that's what we critics say every time Mick and Keith put a new one out there). And, yes, the tour was a pretty damn satisfying spectacle too. But, let's face it, three years from now you'll still be listening to Exile on Main Street while Bridges gathers dust on the shelf; and if you have a choice between No Security and Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, what are you gonna pick? Ya-Ya's, of course, even though No Security is a perfectly fine live album. "Gimme Shelter" comes across well, though any self-respecting Stones fan has at least one electrifying Mick Taylor-era bootleg version somewhere in his or her collection. A truly soulful performance of the oft-overlooked oldie "Memory Motel" may be the disc's one indispensable number, though I'm still confused about who's singing Keith's part (is that Dave Matthews doing a perfect Keith imitation or the real Keith?). I'm also still not sure what the disc's title is supposed to mean: I was at the Foxboro shows and there was plenty of security. And I think we're all well aware that, regardless of how many units this disc moves, financial security isn't something the Stones have had to worry about for some time.


What do you say about a new live album from Rush? It isn't just that Different Stages is a triple-CD set totaling well over three hours of recorded music (with remarkably little stage banter). And it isn't just that the band have seven prior live albums to their credit, three of them doubles. It's just that Rush's set list hasn't changed all that much in the past decade and a half, and Rush aren't the Stones. They're actually much better players in a technical sense than the Stones, which means one Alex Lifeson guitar solo on "Tom Sawyer" sounds pretty much the same as the next one, and Neil Peart never fumbles during the complex drum-fill segue between the 7/4 bridge and the 5/4 lead-in to the second 12/8 chorus. So Exit Stage Left's 1981 recording of "The Spirit of the Radio" ain't all that different from the one here. Which is not to imply that Different Stages doesn't have its moments -- some of which sound an awful lot like Shellac songs with less clamorous guitar. The best part is the third or "bonus" CD, a recording of a 1978 Rush concert in England that opens with a punkish rendition of "Bastille Day," if such a thing is possible.


For all the painstaking attention former Spaceman 3 spaceshot Jason Pierce is notorious for lavishing on the studio output of his band (laboring over frequency modulations until he achieves some sort of divine resonance that apparently only he and other higher beings can actually hear), Spiritualized are at least as good, if not better, on stage as on CD. Never a particularly lively or gregarious crew, the band more or less let the music -- dense, spiraling waves of avant-psychedelic noise guitars bolstered by an unwavering backbeat and saddled with just enough melody to keep you interested -- do the talking. And that's what they do here on the two-disc Royal Albert Hall, with one major difference from your typical Spiritualized show: on October 10, 1997, Pierce hired an orchestra and full gospel choir to help him achieve his sonic nirvana. In a sense, though it features tunes reaching back to Spaceman 3's Velvetsy "Walking with Jesus," this is the companion piece to Spiritualized's 1997 disc Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, which also employed orchestral embellishments, a choir, and Dr. John (who unfortunately couldn't make the Albert Hall gig). In another sense it's what the equally finicky Lou Reed might have done back in the '70s if he'd been less of a Rock and Roll Animal and more, well, spiritual.


The one thing bands like 311 (and Sugar Ray and Korn and Limp Bizkit and the rest of the metal-meets-hip-hop wigger posse) share with jam bands like Phish and moe. and the rest of that H.O.R.D.E. is their ability to Kick Ass live, even if it's very different kinds of asses that are getting kicked. But such things don't always translate well to a live disc, where the full sensory experience of bonding with your fellow fan while watching the jam transpire is as much a part of the event as hearing the tunes. With two vocalists -- one of whom doubles as a DJ -- and a muscular-as-hell rhythm section, 311 offer a convincing display of technique on Live. Yep, even without the magic of digital recording, these five Omaha-by-way-of-LA stoners can segue ably from turgid metal riffing to reggae breakdowns that are, unfortunately, just as turgid, with a little wicky-wicky turntable scratching thrown in for good measure. And though you can easily appreciate that somebody was getting his or her ass kicked when these tunes were recorded, the result doesn't kick enough ass on its own that I can honestly recommend it.

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