[17 December 2009]
There truly is nothing like witnessing music performed live on stage. However, as life catches up to you, the moments you get to actually see your favorite acts do their thing at your local concert venue become fewer and farther between. Lucky for those of us who these days prefer rocking out from the comfort of our living room armchairs, 2009 has been a year teeming with one of the most robust outputs of live recordings in recent memory. With so many outstanding officially released albums, radio broadcasts, and ROIO bootlegs swirling around both the Internet and your local mom and pop record shop, it was a truly difficult task to pare this list down to a solid 10. So, not to outdo Spinal Tap, I took it upon myself to crank this list up to 11 and then added one more to make it an even dozen. Believe me, I could have gone with a solid 25 with all of the great live material that has been made available online this year, but I digressed for the sake of space and sanity.
Nevertheless, we present to you the Top 12 live albums that were released in 2009, a list that spans across 40 years of concert material from a diverse array of living legends, fallen icons, and modern day heroes in a wide range of fidelity, from professionally engineered board mixes to shady Web rips to tapings that sound as though they were recorded on an iPhone. But in spite of the quality or bitrate, each of these recordings offers captivating performances that need to be heard.
The Doors’ 1970 final stand in New York City before frontman Jim Morrison’s untimely death a year-and-a-half later in July of 1971has always stood as the richest testament to the LA quartet’s powerhouse persona as a live band. The shows were recorded, but the material was divided up for release on three separate posthumous albums: 1970’s Absolutely Live (which the concerts were initially taped for), 1978’s An American Prayer, and 1983’s Alive, She Cried, never fully painting the entire picture of these legendary concerts as they were meant to be heard. And now that the group’s entire four-show residency at the old Felt Forum (now known as the WaMu Theater), warts and all, has been made available in the form of this beautifully simplistic six-disc box set, we are privy to every bluesy, drunken performance of “Roadhouse Blues” and “Peace Frog” that went down on that cold weekend in late January, each one more incendiary than the last.
The Doors played loose, loud, and in love with the intimacy of the New York crowd, who ate up every track off the band’s soon-to-be-released Morrison Hotel album as voraciously as they did the old favorites. And to truly experience to soul of Jim Morrison is to hear him taking the piss out of his whole “Lizard King” persona by being the down-to-earth jokester he was behind the scenes, cracking wise about a pin-sized “jazz cigarette” thrown at him onstage (“You can pick your teeth with a New York joint,” he smirked) and telling old dirty jokes between songs, like the one about the blind man who walked past the fish market. And once you get to that final show at the Felt Forum, where the band brings out the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian (who played harmonica on the album version of “Roadhouse Blues”) and legendary West Coast session drummer Dallas Taylor for scorching renditions of “Going to N.Y. Blues” and “Maggie M’Gill”, you are guaranteed to reassess your appreciation for the Doors, regardless of how long it’s been since they were in heavy rotation on your stereo last.
Another unlikely reunion caught on digital tape in 2009 was the surprise reconvention of Bay Area funk metal giants Faith No More, who headlined this year’s Download Festival held at Donnington Park in Leicestershire, England, amidst an undercard of just about every band for which FNM want absolutely no responsibility of bringing into this world, including Korn, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, Staind, and Papa Roach. This low quality but high intensity rip of a webcast of the quintet’s performance finds frontman Mike Patton seeming to have more fun onstage than he’s had with any of the umpteen bands he formed in the last ten years. Original guitarist Jim Martin still couldn’t get that sour grapes taste out of his mouth for his old mates to rejoin them for this reunion tour (which only covered parts of Europe and South America, with no word on whether they will hit the States at press time), but Patton managed to take an offhanded shot at him during the set. However, Jon Hudson, who joined FNM for the band’s underappreciated 1997 swan song Album of the Year, heeded the calling and ripped through such classics as “The Real Thing”, “Caffeine”, “Introduce Yourself”, and “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies” with a ferocity that should quiet even the most skeptical Martin purist. And, not to be outdone with their always-inventive choices for cover material, the band chose to open up this explosive gig with what else but Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited”. And it truly does feel so good to hear Patton, Hudson, bassist Billy Gould, keyboardist Roddy Bottum, and drummer Mike “Puffy” Bordin back at it again.
In a year teeming with reunions, the news of Blur’s original lineup patching things up and doing the UK festival circuit was perhaps the biggest surprise of the year, because it had been so vehemently denied quite vocally in the press by frontman Damon Albarn in the months leading up to the confirmation. And while it seems like the rekindling has ended before it began, as Albarn has since moved on in light of the recent news of a new Gorillaz album, a forthcoming project with Watchmen author Alan Moore, and the forming of a new band with Flea and former Fela Kuti drummer and The Good, the Bad and the Queen bandmate Tony Allen, this live album of Blur’s July 3 show at London’s Hyde Park serves as a worthy sonic snapshot. Original guitarist Graham Coxon, playing with the group for the first time in a decade, is a marvel, rushing new life back into such hits as “Boys & Girls”, “Beetlebum”, “She’s So High”, and “Coffee & TV” as if they were being played out for the first time again, while Albarn relishes in the moment he nearly helped derail like a forbidden love.
Costello’s recent performance backed by the Roots on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is an ironclad reminder that, in spite of his recent forays into classical, New Orleans jazz, soft rock schmaltz, and bluegrass, the man born Declan MacManus is still very much a punk at heart. Originally released as a Canadian promotional copy for radio, this dodgy FM broadcast capture from a March 6, 1978 gig at Toronto’s notorious El Mocambo nightclub is the Attractions at their most savage, ripping through material from Costello’s first two albums—My Aim Is True and the then-soon-to-be-released This Year’s Model—with a rage that defies Elvis’s nerdy demeanor. Anyone looking for the ultimate example of Costello in his “Angry Young Man” period should look no further than this first installment of Hip-O Records’ promising Costello Show live series.
The bard of gruff’s first live album since 1988’s Big Time chronicles his surprise 2008 tour of Europe and the Southeastern United States with a two-disc set. Disc One features 75 minutes worth of music cherry-picked from various stops on the tour, highlighted by the calculated creak of Tom’s stellar backing band as they run through a smattering of fan favorites like Rain Dogs’ “Singapore” and the Mule Variations anthem “Get Behind the Mule”, as well as deep album cuts like Bone Machine’s “Way Out West” and a gorgeous reading of “I’ll Shoot the Moon” from The Black Rider. Meanwhile, the second disc, entitled “Tom Tales”, offers 36 minutes of between-song banter that is just as essential to the Tom Waits live experience as the songs themselves, finding Waits waxing philosophic about such leftfield factoids as what the moon smells like (fireworks, apparently) and how many insects cover one square mile of the Earth (according to Tom, more than the number of people who actually inhabit the planet). To hear a full set list from the Glitter and Doom Tour, check out NPR’s All Songs Considered, who recorded Waits’s July 29, 2008, stop at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, which can be accessed at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92916923.
Any arguments over whether or not Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers belong at the top of the rock ‘n’ roll food chain have been rendered moot upon the release of this nice-priced, four-disc, cigar box-designed set chronicling 30-some-odd years of Petty and his longtime band tearing up stages from coast to coast. Loaded with killer renditions of hits that date back as far as 1978 coupled with heaping spoonfuls of inventive covers of everything from the Dead to Booker T. and the MGs to Van Morrison to early Fleetwood Mac, this is the live album this most perennially underrated band deserves to have out there.
Long available on the black market and universally hailed as their most quintessential live set outside of MTV Unplugged, Nirvana’s fiery performance at the 1992 Reading Festival in England is a rare bright light in the otherwise dark tunnel of the Seattle trio’s terse, troubled tenure in the early ‘90s. Kurt Cobain, reeling in the glow of the birth of his daughter Frances Bean less than two weeks prior to this performance, absolutely shines across this stellar, electrifying set that features ripping renditions of songs from Bleach and Nevermind, not to mention some early tastes of In Utero and a few choice covers to boot. Not even a year and a half later, Cobain would be found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head, casting a pitch-black shadow across one of the most promising acts of the last 20 years. And that is exactly why this vibrant slice of Nirvana at the peak of their powers as a cohesive, unstoppable, united force is indeed a true rock ‘n’ roll treasure.
Recorded over the course of a five-night residency at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, as a working rehearsal in preparation for the recording of the group’s 2008 comeback classic Accelerate, this 39-track tour de force more than makes up for the 2007 dud that was R.E.M.’s first official live album. In addition to early versions of songs that would later appear on Accelerate, the band also digs seriously deep into their expansive back catalog with a heavy emphasis on their IRS years, namely the entirety of their 1980 Chronic Town EP and a generous helping of choice cuts from such college classics as Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, and Life’s Rich Pageant, performing it all with a fire we have not seen in the band since Green. For all the longtime fans who had to suffer through the snooze of the last ten years of post-Bill Berry R.E.M., Live at the Olympia is the payoff we’ve been waiting for.
The sound quality is spotty at best, and chances of actually obtaining an audio download are slim to none with the Internet Karma Police shutting down any Blogger post brave enough to post a RapidShare link to the show at every turn. But those lucky enough to have grabbed this ROIO of the debut of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s still-unnamed new band—featuring the likes of longtime producer Nigel Godrich, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, session drummer extraordinaire Joey Waronker, and Forro in the Dark percussionist Mauro Refosco—at the intimate Los Angeles nightclub Echoplex before a celebrity-riddled audience have a serious, serious gem on their hands. Performing a 90-minute set highlighted by the entire length of Yorke’s solo album, The Eraser, a few newly penned compositions performed solo by Thom, and a wild version of the Radiohead b-side “Paperbag Writer”, this elusive boot offers a tasty glimpse into the promise of this exciting new group. And while an actual downloadable file might be hard to find, there are YouTube videos of a good majority of the show out there that you should really seek out. Now if they only can come up with a snappy name for this thing…
The long-awaited release of the first volume of Neil Young’s much-rumored Archives series turned out to be a real dud, with only a little more than half of the massively expensive box set being actual unreleased material. It’s unclear whether or not Young’s decision to hyperspace to Vol. 12 of the Neil Young Archive Performance Series with Dreamin’ Man, a phenomenal live recreation of his 1992 album Harvest Moon culled from a variety of solo acoustic gigs from that year, is a caveat of sorts for gypping his fans with that bogus box. But hearing his country masterstroke stripped down to the bare essence is certainly a most dignified way of saying, “I’m sorry.”
At 75 and coming off his first World Tour in over 15 years, it is doubtful the folk bard of Canada will embark on another exhausting jaunt across this land in his old age. But if Cohen’s 2008/2009 world tour marks his final bow, he certainly did so with the utmost grace and elegance, to which the stunning Live in London 2-CD/DVD collection so righteously testifies. A two-hour-plus concert captured at the O2 Arena on July 17, 2008, that covers the length of his entire 40-odd-year career as a singer, this is undoubtedly the finest document of Cohen’s live performance to date; second only to Columbia-Legacy’s recent CD/DVD chronicle of the folk great’s early morning set at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, caught on film by Academy Award-winning documentary director Murray Lerner and set to tape by Columbia A&R legend Teo Macero. Awakened from a nap to go onstage, his haunting performance lulled a crowd of 600,000 set off into a frothing frenzy following Jimi Hendrix’s nuclear meltdown of a performance. And sure enough, Live in London proves his undeniable voice still harbors the same healing power in the twilight of his life.
The Stones’ Fall 1969 tour of the United States is largely considered to be one of the most legendary concert treks in all of rock history, compounded by the tragedy at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival that closed out the tour, and the release of Get Yer Ya-Yas Out in 1970, an LP-length compilation of audio footage from the tour’s two-night stand at Madison Square Garden (along with material from a stop in Baltimore), is still considered to this day as the single greatest official live document of the Rolling Stones onstage. In celebration of the 40th anniversary of the ’69 tour, ABKCO delivers one of the most outstanding reissue projects dedicated to the Stones thus far with this Ya-Yas box set. Say what you will about the shortness of both the bonus disc featuring the remainder of the set list not featured on the original release and the accompanying DVD taster containing some performance and concert footage captured by the legendary Maysles Brothers. The third CD of this collection, encapsulating the equally spirited sets of tour openers B.B. King and Ike and Tina Turner more than makes up for any deficit in superfluous Stones stuff the greedy fanboys are crying about. The fact of the matter is that one of the best live albums ever released is “LIVE-r” than it’s been in four decades.