We all know it: the successful live album is a thing of beauty—and very difficult to pull off. There are a multitude of issues to consider: performance quality, song selection and arrangement, inclusion of artist narration and interaction with the band and the audience, sound quality, and crowd noise—just to name a few. None of them is easily resolved. With Are You Ready for the Big Show?, country-rock performer Radney Foster tries his hand at the live album and meets with mixed results.
Back in the 1980s, Foster was half of Foster & Lloyd, two singer-songwriters whose first single, “Crazy over You”, debuted at #1, the first time ever for a country duo. While Foster & Lloyd were praised for their songwriting and blend of country and rock, they found themselves lost in a cloud of hairspray, perfume, and mother-daughter hysterics that was The Judds. In 1991, after a moderately successful career, the duo split amicably. Since then, Foster has been the more visible. He’s had hits with songs like “Just Call Me Lonesome” and “Nobody Wins”, but no major commercial success.
In fact, recent changes suggest that he’s left Nashville behind and is trying to target the alternative country audience. By creating the Purespunk indie label and a webzine of the same name, Foster signals a career change—but, of course, he’s always been “alternative”. Given that he’s has made much of his reputation as a songwriter and alt.country’s emphasis on the singer-songwriter tradition, this would appear to be a logical target audience. It’s worth noting, too, the high quality of alt.country singer-songwriters who come from Texas: Townes VanZandt, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, and Robert Earl Keen, to name a few. With Are You Ready?, Foster’s fourth solo album, he attempts to find a niche for himself there, by highlighting his talent as a live act—in fact, in 1999, he received the Dallas Morning News award for “Best Live Show”.
In the press release accompanying a review copy of the album, Foster outlines what he hopes to accomplish: “I didn’t want to do a standard live album where the artist gets up and rehashes his hits”. He continues, “Instead, I wanted to capture the grime on the bar floor, the shuffle of the dancers’ shoes, the beers knocked back at midnight—and the magic that floats through the air when a homeboy gets to play in front of a Texas crowd”. The disc was recorded over a two-night stand at Austin’s Continental Club, an alt.country hub.
“Some of these songs came from my country albums, others from the rock side”, Foster explains, “[s]o I knew I needed a special band to make them all fit together. With this in mind, he put together a first-class band for the show: Nickel Creek’s Wonder Boy mandolin player Chris Thile; stand-up bassist Byron House (Foster & Lloyd, Dolly Parton); slide guitar player Mike McAdam (Foster & Lloyd, Steve Earle, Jack Ingram); drummer Matt Thompson (according to the linernotes, playing “trashcans, beer signs, pieces of Weber grills, found objects and one drum”); keyboardist Jeff Armstrong; and vocalist Ashley Arrison. While they’re an outstanding band, unfortunately, they’re never introduced on the album, a regrettable oversight.
Using the language of the album’s title, Are You Ready? kicks off with an introduction by Charlie Miller, who shined shoes at the Continental until retiring a few years ago. “I asked him to introduce me, and as soon as I heard his spiel, I knew what I had to name the record”, Foster says. After the intro, the band launches into “Tonight”, the upbeat but familiar story of Linda. She’s been lonely for too long and vows that this night “won’t be the same old same old”. By the song’s end, she’s hooked up with the narrator, and things look promising.
Sonically, Are You Ready? negotiates the potential pitfalls of the live album well; Foster uses a soundboard mix with applause and an occasional song introduction added between tracks, thus creating a clear sound while reminding the listener that this is a live show. He’s also done a nice job of re-envisioning familiar material, like “Just Call Me Lonesome”, with McAdam throwing in some wicked slide guitar that alters the song’s mood, and “Nobody Wins”. Included, too, are five new songs, including “School of Hard Knocks”, “How You Play the Hand”, and “Leaning on What Love Can Do”. Unfortunately, Foster only uses material he’s written or co-written, creating an especially obvious gap given his solid cover of Merle Haggard’s “The Running Kind” on the Mama’s Hungry Eyes tribute album. That, combined with the rich Texas songwriting tradition Foster comes from, suggests missed opportunities.
Of particular note, indeed a highlight of the disc, is Foster’s reworking of “Folding Money”, now an almost seven-minute jam that absolutely moves, pushing all the musicians to their limit. The song is the narrator’s account of learning first from his grandfather and then from experience about the power of money. As Foster (assuming the role of the grandfather in instructing the audience) sings, “And let me tell you friend, I’m a lot more handsome with a C note in my pocket”. Ashley Arrison’s backing vocals are fantastic, giving Foster a run for his money, while the musicians step up to the mic. Initially, McAdams’ guitar and Thiles’ mandolin clash, and while the guitar’s got the volume, the mandolin persists; then Armstrong’s organ throws in its two-cents; and finally, the mandolin moves to the fore, more subtle than the others but no less insistent—all to a groove set by House and Thompson. And then the band, Foster, and Arrison come together to get the deal made. It’s a wonderful performance, the kind of thing that makes a live album.
But it sets a high bar that the rest of Are You Ready? can’t quite meet. Although the musicianship is first rate, not all the elements of a great live show are here—and much of that comes back to Radney Foster’s reputation as a storyteller-songwriter. For example, he introduces “School of Hard Knocks” with the fairly cliché “Any of ya’ll ever get drunk and do something stupid? That’s what this next song is about”. The longest and most compelling intro precedes “Went for a Ride”, the true story of a freed Tennessee slave turned buffalo soldier, rodeo star, and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show attraction, who is forced back to Nashville to work as an anonymous Pullman porter. While it’s an important story, the accompanying song doesn’t really tell it. After the first-person narrator (presumably white) says he rode with a man who was “black as the sky on a moonless night”, the story becomes subsumed by the narrator’s nostalgia for a West without barbed wire. Without Foster’s introduction, there’s no sense that the African-American character was any more than a riding companion of the narrator’s, and, ironically, the anonymous slave, neglected by history, remains unnamed here as well.
And when considering Are You Ready? as an alt.country live album, therein lies much of the problem: the songs. For all Foster’s claims to being a Nashville outsider, he writes the same first-person, relationship-based songs that dominate Hot Country—granted, they’re better than most ballads on country radio these days. “Leaning on What Love Can Do” is a nice number, for example, as is “God Knows When” with the wonderful lines “The Mississippi moves a whole lot sadder than you think / You cry tears in Memphis and they hit bottom south of New Orleans”. Although the music’s listenable enough, there’s just not enough substance to tunes like “I’m Used to It”, “School of Hard Knocks”, and “I’m In”. (That the live portion of Are You Ready? closes with “I’m In”, a recent hit for Nashville divas-in-training The Kinleys, does little to dispel this notion.)
Foster has also included two bonus tracks, studio numbers; presumably this is, at least in part, to appeal to radio where live singles seldom last long. The first is a remake of Foster & Lloyd’s “Texas in 1880” with Texan Pat Green sitting in for Bill Lloyd. Although Green’s vocal is fine, the production isn’t, violating the thematic principles of the song itself. The western is a notoriously male genre where women don’t fare well, and “Texas in 1880” appeals to that: this is the story of two rodeo cowboys nostalgic for a glorified historical past. The use of Ashley Arrison’s backing vocal, as well as the musical arrangement, violates the history of the genre and the rules of the song—due more to overproduction than postmodern commentary. The second number is a remix of the opening track, “Tonight”, which gives the album a sense of closure but also seems an odd ending to a live disc that is supposed to build up to a finale.
In the end, Are You Ready? is listenable, but the “grime on the dance floor” never quite emerges, in large part because Foster, try as he might, just can’t seem to put tidy Nashville behind him.