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The Boston Phoenix Live Wires

Eleven reports from the concert front

By Matt Ashare

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  The end of the year has, at least since the advent of the CD (though I've still got my vinyl versions of the five-LP Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Live/1975-85 and four-LP The Rolling Stones Singles Collection: The London Years), traditionally been a big time for the release of big ol' box sets, like the new The Doors: Complete Studio Recordings (Elektra) and Yes I Can!: The Sammy Davis Jr. Story (Rhino). It makes sense: box sets are good gifts, and there are only 22 more shopping days till Christmas. More recently, though, late-October/November/early-December seems to have become a popular time for labels to flood the market with live CDs. Apparently, such recordings are also popular with gift givers, which also makes sense because, well, what could be easier than picking up a copy of the new Marilyn Manson or Natalie Merchant live CD for your pal/brother/sister/mom/dad/cousin/uncle/aunt who's a big Manson/Merchant fan and thus already has the latest Manson/Merchant studio album?

These days, there are basically two different kinds of live albums. The new releases by Manson, Merchant, Alanis Morissette, Blondie, Bauhaus, the Bevis Frond, Sunny Day Real Estate, and the Violent Femmes represent one variety -- we'll call it the "souvenir" and define it as a recording culled from one or more dates of an artist's most recent tour or some special event. Merchant's new Live in Concert: New York City June 13, 1999, for example, qualifies as both: it's the product of a year spent touring the States behind her latest CD and, more specifically, a memento from a special sold-out five-night stand on Broadway at NYC's Neil Simon Theater.

In contrast, the Clash's From Here to Eternity, Guns N' Roses' Live Era '87-'93, and Joy Division's Preston 28 February 1980 are all fine examples of the other variety -- archival discoveries, usually compiled from tapes that were gathering dust somewhere (under a bed, in a closet, or, most likely, in a label's tape vault) and released years after the actual performances. Archival releases tend to be the more substantive of the two, as more often than not they're tied to subjects who have stood some test of time. But some souvenirs have what it takes to transcend their humble mercenary origins and rise up to the level of classics like Kick Out the Jams and Kiss Alive II. With that in mind, here's a look at 11 of this season's new live contenders.

Bauhaus, Gotham (Metropolis). Style's always been more important than substance in the gothic world of Bauhaus, so for all their vampiric charisma and dawn-of-the-dead theatrics, they never generated much in the way of memorable tunes. There's the ghoulish classic "Bela Lugosi's Dead" and, well, that's pretty much it, unless you wanna count covers like their ridiculously spot-on take of "Ziggy Stardust" and a way-too-serious "Telegram Sam." Both turn up with "Bela" on disc two of this two-disc set, which was culled from the band's 1998 comeback/reunion tour. And that's at least one disc too many.

The Bevis Frond, Live at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco (Flydaddy). He's been playing since the late '60s, and he's put out well over a dozen Bevis Frond albums in the past decade, but this is Nick Saloman's first ever live disc, recorded during his first-ever US tour. It's a power-trio line-up, with two cats Nick's age holding down the rhythm section (ex-Hawkwind bassist Adrian Shaw and ex-Camel drummer Andy Ward), which leaves plenty of space for guitar heroics. But it's the masterful songcraft -- from the melodic jangle pop of "Lights Are Changing" (a Saloman tune Mary Lou Lord covered on her Sony debut) to the gritty acid blooze of "Well out of It" -- that makes you wish you were there.

Blondie, Blondie Live (Beyond). No, they sure don't look as cool as they did back when they broke out of CBGB punkland to become a new-wave sensation. But in what turned out to be the one of the most pleasantly successful Behind the Music-endorsed comebacks of '99, Blondie sure sound like their old cool selves, tearing into vintage punk-era gems like "X Offender" and "Rip Her to Shreds," doing the disco thang with "Heart of Glass," working the regatta de blanc of "The Tide Is High," and giving the people what we want in the form of a 5/17 ratio of just-fine new material to extra-fine old favorites like "Dreaming" and "Hanging on the Telephone."

The Clash, From Here to Eternity Live (Epic). The only band that mattered definitely mattered more live when Topper Headon was banging the drums instead of Terry Chimes. And the nine Topper tracks have that indefinable groove thang that Terry's eight somehow lack. Local folks will get a kick out of learning that seven of the tracks were cherry-picked from a 1982 gig at Boston's Orpheum Theatre, though that was when Chimes was back on board. But it's all good, and long overdue. And it's well worth wading through a sluggish yet solid "Career Opportunities" to get to the smoking, Topper-powered takes of "City of the Dead," "Armagideon Time," and "Capital Radio," which make the Clash sound like a much more competent live band than they probably ever were.

Guns N' Roses, Live Era '87-'93 (Geffen/Interscope). After a decade of Ministry metal, Manson mayhem, and Korn, Korn, Korn, the last of the great late-'80s transgressives sound, well, downright classic (as in Aerosmith, mainly) on this double-live retrospective. "Sweet Child o' Mine" is "Dream On" with a little funk in its finish, "Welcome to the Jungle" is "Sweet Emotion," "Mr. Brownstone" is "Back in the Saddle," "Used To Love Her" is the "Big Ten Inch" novelty, and Live Era '87-'93 is a warts-and-all Live Bootleg. Buckcherry may love the cocaine, but they don't have a guitarist like Slash. And, unfortunately, neither do Guns N' Roses anymore.

Joy Division, Preston 28 February 1980 (NMC). It was less than three months before Ian Curtis hanged himself, on what was probably a dreary British night in a dreary British town, and the PA was in such shoddy shape that there are long delays while the band deal with technical difficulties and Curtis quips, "I think everything is falling apart . . . we're playing everything through the bass amp." In other words, a perfect setting for Joy Division's particular brand of desperation-verging-on-despair. They sound punker than ever -- like the Jesus Lizard or something -- on "Wilderness" and "Transmission." And "She's Lost Control" is just plain chilling.

Marilyn Manson, The Last Tour on Earth (Nothing/Interscope). Manson's backing band have never really seemed like anything more than Jim Rose Circus Sideshow extras with musical props -- freak actors playing the role of musicians in a tragicomic reworking of That Thing You Do as a No Exit directed by David Cronenberg or something. And the Manson dope show has always struck me as enough of an audio-visual escapade that a live album is a lot less appealing than a video, even if Mechanical Animals is more of a band- and song-based album for Manson. So, as competently as the Manson family "play" this set, I still feel I'm missing the best part whenever the crowd roars. In other words, The Last Tour is fine, but the companion video God Is in the TV is finer still.

Natalie Merchant, Live in Concert New York City June 13, 1999 (Elektra). Cover tunes can say a lot about an artist, which is one of the cool things that can happen in a live setting. In Merchant's case, her choice of Bowie's "Space Oddity" and Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" -- signature tunes for both artists -- suggests that her eyes are bigger than her mouth and that she might want to do a little restaffing in the imagination department. At no point is she even remotely in danger of making either song her own. But it is nice to see someone who aims so low with her own songs at least reaching for the stars with her choice in other people's material.

Alanis Morissette, MTV Unplugged (Maverick). That first single, "You Oughta Know," accidentally positioned Alanis as the hard-rockin' alterna-chick she keeps trying to live up to when all she's really ever wanted to be is a neo-hippie singer-songstress with the balls to say blow job. I'm not trying to read minds, but damn if she doesn't sound 100 percent more comfortable fronting a more acoustic-oriented though far from unplugged outfit that leaves room for her to bring some welcome nuance into play with her voice. She still doesn't know what ironic means, but she pulls off a nice 'n' folky cover of Sting's "King of Pain" and kindly offers fans a couple of brand new tunes as part of the package.

Sunny Day Real Estate, Live (Sub Pop). Reunited after singer/guitarist/resident-eccentric-with-a-hard-to-pronounce-last-name Jeremy Enigk returned from some Christian-youth-group retreat and drummer William Goldsmith came back from his sojourn as a Foo Fighter, Sunny Day Real Estate nevertheless sound like a band whose moment has passed on this recording, which was made in May of this year. Enigk's high and mighty voice and his cryptic lyrics do still have the power to entrance and intrigue. Along with the often structurally complex yet rousing anthems, he brings to mind something along the lines of Jeff Buckley fronting the offspring of U2 and Fugazi, which was just the right medicine in the year or two after Kurt Cobain left us, and just a bit too humorless and strident for the end of the century.

Violent Femmes, Viva Wisconsin (Beyond). Gordon Gano (the short 'n' whiny guitarist) and Brian Ritchie (the tall 'n' goofy bass player) go back to their roots here, which means busking for change as a largely acoustic trio minus the busking part. It's a bit sad, in a way, because it represents two grown men finally accepting the idea that after 16 years they still haven't improved on the folk-punk-driven adolescent angst of their debut CD. But that's the truth, and they do sound great playing a set list that hasn't changed much since 1983, even if that does mean listening to a guy past 35 sing, "Come on dad/Gimme the car tonight."

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