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It has served as a star-making vehicle for everyone from James Brown to Peter Frampton. It went through an unplugged phase that allowed listeners to glimpse their pop heroes in a more informal setting. It functioned as a souvenir for famous tours. It expediently finished off contracts with record labels.


Even now, in the era of instant YouTube videos and concert DVDs, the live album endures. The best of them serve not just the marketplace or artists’ most committed I’ll-buy-anything-they-put-out fan base, but pop history. The listener becomes a privileged voyeur, hearing (and, if there’s an accompanying DVD, seeing) key artists at a critical time in their careers. Such is the case with Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain - Live at Canterbury House 1968” (Reprise), the Clash’s “Live at Shea Stadium” (Sony/BMG), U2’s “Under a Blood Red Sky” (Island/Interscope), Mavis Staples’ “Live: Hope at the Hideout” (Anti) and Cheap Trick’s “Budokan!” (Epic Legacy).


Live recordings flourish in spite of technology

“Budokan” is a throwback to the 1970s golden age of the live album, an era when artists such as Frampton, Bob Seger, Kiss, Bob Marley, the Allman Brothers Band, AC/ DC, Earth Wind & Fire, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Lou Reed used live albums to showcase their best songs and break through to a bigger audience.


“Budokan” has been repackaged numerous times, now more lavishly than ever as a boxed set containing three CDs and a DVD documenting the Rockford, Ill., quartet’s career-changing 1978 performances at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo. The saturation treatment is largely worth it - capturing a hungry band with great songs in peak form. The band members were already stars in Japan but virtually unknown in their home country. “Budokan” changed that, with atomic versions of the best songs from their first three studio albums.


Initially, the band’s label had not intended to release the album in America, but the import began selling as adventurous FM rock-radio programmers played tracks from it, and it was finally released domestically in 1979. It yielded the group’s first top-10 hit, “I Want You To Want Me.” Comparing the live version of the track with its studio incarnation, from the 1977 “In Color” album, illustrates why. Rick Nielsen’s heavy guitar and Bun E. Carlos’ drums pound the song’s jaunty, vaudevillian exterior senseless, and Robin Zander’s pleading vocal doesn’t sound so lighthearted anymore. Curiosity seekers intrigued by the single found a band that laced pop melodies with darkly funny lyrics and dive-bomber guitars, epitomized by the irresistible “Surrender” and earth-shaking covers of the Move’s “California Man” and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame.”


Unlike many of the live albums from the era, “Budokan” was not heavily doctored in the studio afterward. Its modest intentions, right down to a $10,000 recording budget, ensured that it would preserve a moment in time, and what a moment it still is.


The same is true of Young’s “Sugar Mountain - Live,” among the singer-songwriter’s first solo performances soon after he departed the band Buffalo Springfield. Young took his new songs out for an acoustic test run at two underpublicized shows in November 1968 at a folk club in Ann Arbor, Mich.


Most of Young’s discursive stage patter isn’t worth hearing more than once. But the “raps” are conveniently spliced out from the songs to allow for quick editing. The performances are revelatory: stripped-down versions of his Buffalo Springfield masterpieces “Expecting To Fly” and “Mr. Soul” and soon-to-be landmarks “The Loner,” “The Old Laughing Lady” and the title song (which, remarkably, didn’t surface on an album for nearly a decade).


As a glimpse of Young’s art (and state of mind) at a pivotal moment in his development as an artist, “Sugar Mountain - Live” is invaluable.


In contrast, “At Shea Stadium” captures the Clash on the opposite end of its career. The band opened for the Who at a baseball stadium in 1982, its biggest gig. For most bands, that would represent a pinnacle achievement. But for members of the Clash, avatars of punk, it was a sign that they were about to become the bloated rock stars they once despised.


Indeed, the quartet plays with stolid competence, not the seething intensity of its best gigs. Joe Strummer alternately baits and jokes with the crowd (“We take 72,000 guinea pigs and put them in Shea Stadium”) as the quartet cycles through a hits-heavy set. Topper Headon was recently ousted from the band, so original Clash drummer Terry Chimes takes his place, and he doesn’t push the band nearly as hard as Headon once did.


Nor does the recording sound particularly “live.” My dim-sounding bootlegs of this performance are a good deal rawer, which suggests that some post-production surgery was performed to spiff up the official release.


Within a few months, singer-guitarist Mick Jones would leave the group, and the Clash would muddle through one more studio album before breaking up for good. It wasn’t a pretty ending, and “Shea Stadium” captures the moment when the descent began.


About the same time that Jones was exiting the Clash, U2 was busy conquering North America. When it was initially released as an eight-song EP, “Under a Blood Red Sky” was just a teaser between studio albums, but it had a major impact - capturing a great live band at a crucial time. The 1983 concert at the rain-soaked Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver showcased the band’s charisma and power, without some of the messianic excesses that would mar later arena shows. The reissue joins the original EP with its accompanying film, the better not only to see how badly Bono’s hairstyle has aged, but to observe a young band that still had something to prove.


Mavis Staples has nothing left to prove. She’s one of the great singers of the last half-century. Her 2007 studio album, “We’ll Never Turn Back,” updated her civil rights-era conviction. Then she hit the road with a terrific new band that brought a spooky gravity to her latest songs. That band is documented on “Hope at the Hideout,” and Staples rides the groove and improvises over it. When all the instruments drop out save for a trebly guitar, and the singer pours out “Waiting for My Child” like an unanswered prayer, involuntary shivers run along the listener’s spine.


Like all live albums, “Hope” is a snapshot of an artist at work.


And like the best live albums, it transcends its moment with a performance that demands to be heard again and again.


___


FOLSOM PRISON RECORDING A CASH STANDOUT


Johnny Cash had traveled a rough road through most of the ‘60s when he arrived at Folsom Prison on Jan. 13, 1968, to perform a concert for the inmates.


That day would change Cash’s life and jump-start his career. The prisoners welcomed them as one of their own. Cash recognized a lot of himself in them. He had become depressed and suicidal through drug use, and he knew a few things about being inside a jail cell.


In 1961, he spent four hours in jail for drunkenness, and again was briefly jailed in 1965 for trying to smuggle pills across the Mexican border to Texas. He was handcuffed by border police and the picture made the news around the world.


At Folsom, he realized a lifelong ambition to record a live album inside a prison.


He had been performing at prisons for more than a decade and felt a connection to the audiences unlike any other. “The first time I played a prison I said that this was the only place to record an album live because I’d never heard a reaction to the songs like the one that prisoners gave,” Cash once said. “They weren’t ashamed to show their appreciation.”


The feeling was mutual, and emotions ran high on that January day. Cash sang songs of prison and crime, loneliness and despair. But this was no pity party. It was an often bawdy, raucous occasion, cut with dark humor. If the songs hadn’t rung true, the audience would’ve let him know. But the response was exactly the opposite. The inmates sensed a kindred spirit, and they embraced him with applause that went well beyond polite acceptance. Cash was in total control, the stolid man in black who trucked no artifice. His crack band - including his longtime Tennessee Three, plus his old Memphis buddy Carl Perkins on guitar and his soon-to-be wife, June Carter, on backing vocals - were on their game.


“He embodied who he really was” that day, says his daughter, Rosanne Cash, on a DVD packaged with a boxed set commemorating the 40th anniversary of the concert, “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (Legacy Edition)” (Columbia/Legacy).


The original album went on to sell 6 million copies and re-established Cash not only as a major star, but as a voice of the common man - a stature he never lost.


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