Live albums are hit-or-miss affairs. A great concert can make a lousy recording, or a band that performs well in the studio can come off flat onstage. Studio overdubs are a temptation that many bands find impossible to resist, calling into question the integrity of the “live” tag. Collectors’ Choice Music has decided to confront these dangers head-on with a series of live releases from classic artists—although “classic” remains a controversial term, and one fan’s must-have is another’s must-avoid. Collectors’ Choice seems to have taken this to heart, with an initial offering from four wildly disparate acts.
The Johnny Winter set, recorded at the Fillmore East in 1970 with sideman Rick Derringer, is a fiery blend of guitar-stomp blues and blues-rock originals. The sound quality is excellent overall, especially for trebleheads. Bass and percussion tones are a little thin, but the vocals and guitars ring through loud and clear. A bigger complaint is that there is only one slow-tempo blues number, the epic “It’s My Own Fault”. Then again, the jam is extended to 22 minutes, which equals four or five songs for most other bands. The rest of the setlist ranges from standards like “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” to the raucous Bob Dylan cover “Highway 61 Revisited”. It plays to Johnny’s strengths. That is, it’s loud, dextrous and fast.
Winter and Derringer’s back-and-forth guitar assault is worth the price all by itself, and, with a frenetic version of Winter’s “Mean Town Blues” checking in at 18 minutes, the set does not want for extended workouts. There is even an early, dangerous-sounding version of Derringer’s “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo”, with Winter’s gravel-on-glass vocals instead of Derringer’s own (which would grace the 1974 hit version) and a conspicuous absence of backing harmonies.
Hot Tuna, a side project for Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, sought to explore the acoustic side of the blues that Winter so frantically electrified. Their live set, recorded in Berkeley in 1969, is a more sedate affair than Winter’s, but Kaukonen’s nimble acoustic picking is no less fluid or expressive. The set is divided between blues tunes and old-timey music, but it is the former that are more effective.
“Death Don’t Have No Mercy” is extended into a long, mournful acoustic jam, while “Know You Rider,” familiar to Deadheads, wears its wistfulness lightly. Performing songs by Lightning Hopkins, Jelly Roll Morton, Reverend Gary Davis, and Blind Blake in addition to their own original compositions, Hot Tuna displays the way they sought to respect their influences while also building upon them. Worth special mention is Will Scarlette’s harmonica, which provides everything from choogling propulsion on some numbers to mournful punctuation on others. The sound is full and rich on this recording, with Casady’s bass a solid presence beneath Kaukonen’s transparent picking and strumming.
Which brings us to Poco. What can you say about Poco? Not much, except that this particular album doesn’t suck as much as you might expect, coming from a band named Poco. The group has always existed as a third-rate Flying Burrito Brothers, but this performance, recorded in Hollywood in 1971, reveals them as occupying the folkie-country-boogie middle ground demarcated by Gram Parsons, CSNY, Little Feat and the Band. They were, of course, not nearly as good as any of these, but this recording shows them perhaps at their best, as a lively crew of guys who could tear it up on “I Guess You Made It” and “Hurry Up,” yet still slow down to render such acoustic songs as “Bad Weather” and the dreadful “Ol’ Forgiver.” Richie Furay was the heart and soul of the band, its songwriter, main singer and rhythm guitarist. He’s no Neil Young or Lowell George, but his multifaceted range does come across. He’s sincere when he wants to be, aw-shucks country at times, and elsewhere screeching a call to the party-like-there’s-no-tomorrow lifestyle. “C’Mon” is actually a pretty good song. Don’t laugh.
Speaking of laughing… the fourth live album released by Collectors’ Choice is from John Denver, and it is the oddity of the set: the only double album, the only act that could not be even remotely described as rock and roll, and the only performance from the Reagan era. Recorded in Cedar Rapids in 1987, this show sees Denver performing a mostly-solo acoustic set that lasts nearly two hours, with a few songs accompanied by string quartet. Fans of the warbler’s yodel will be overjoyed, even though the voice sounds strained at first.
Non-fans might learn a thing or two as well. The set opens well, with the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son” making an early appearance alongside such undeniable crowd-pleasers as “Take Me Home Country Road”. Nuggets such as “Blow Up Your TV”, with its skipping lilt, keep the set humming along. Denver also takes time to address the audience, gently joshing and bantering, something none of the other performers bothers to do. His intro to “Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For)”, with its plea for demilitarization and world peace, recorded three years before the Berlin Wall came down, is powerfully resonant even now.
The second disc of this two-disc set opens with a few songs accompanied by a string quartet, which manages to be about as innocuous as strings can be on a Denver song. In any case, it’s better than layers of synthesizer cheese. It’s all grandma-friendly, but even so, there are worthwhile surprises to be found (“Annie’s Song” in Russian, anyone?). This performance came just a couple years after his testimony in front of Tipper Gore’s 1985 Senate hearings on pop-music censorship (alongside Frank Zappa and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider), and that’s almost enough to let you forgive “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”. But even if you can’t, relax; that song isn’t included on the record.
Live at the Fillmore East 10/3/70
Live at New Orleans House Berkeley, CA 09/69
Live at Columbia Studios, Hollywood 9/30/71
Live at Cedar Rapids 12/10/87