Live albums function to document a special time and place — a concert that captures the essence of the performers and the electricity of the crowd. Usually they are released soon after the performance, as sort of souvenirs for those who attended or wish they had attended the show. In recent years, this has been taken this to the nth degree, from bands like Pearl Jam selling authorized bootlegs of every night of their tour to Barenaked Ladies selling discs of its night’s gig to attendees on the way to the parking lot.
These live discs come from an earlier time: the late ’60s and early ’70s. Buck Owens’ Live at the White House was recorded in 1968 and released with a dozen live tracks and one bonus studio recording (a studio version of “You Won’t Have Buck to Kick Around No More”) in 1972. The total length was just over 25 minutes long. This is short, but typical for a country record from the period. Donny Hathaway’s Live was also released in 1972. Its eight tracks take up more than 50 minutes, which is typical of rock (and soul) music of the period. However, in this day and age where more music for the dollar has become the norm, both men’s records have lengthy additions.
Owens’ disc includes an additional nine cuts taken from a special recording made in 1972 for the astronauts on Apollo 16 to hear while on their mission to the moon. The music has never been released before. Hathaway’s comes packaged with In Performance, a live disc from concerts held at different venues (The Troubadour, The Bitter End and Carnegie Hall) back between 1971-1973. This record has been issued posthumously after Hathaway’s death in 1979.
Both Owens and Hathaway are considered icons in their field. Owens is in the Country Music Hall of Fame and had 21 top hits on the country music charts. Everyone from Credence Clearwater Revival to Dwight Yoakam to ZZ Top to Brad Paisley has paid tribute to the man. When the Beatles were at the top of their popularity in 1965, the band recorded his “Act Naturally” as the flip side of “Yesterday” and had a huge hit with it.
Hathaway was well regard in his time and his legend continues to grow. Amy Winehouse name-checked him in her breakthrough song “Rehab” (“Mr. Hathaway”), and everyone from Jay-Z to Alicia Keys to Kanye West to Dr. Dre to Beyonce and Nas has either praised Hathaway’s talents or covered his material. Not bad for a man who was dead before several of these artists were born.
Owens’ Live at the White House is about what one would expect. He and his band do a smattering of their greatest hits from the time (“Together Again”, “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”, “Crying Time”) and covers of other country staples (“Truck Drivin’ Man”, “Streets of Laredo”). The between-song patter is lively, but limited. He is performing before the President (Lyndon Johnson) and is respectful about who and where he is playing. The bonus disc of material recorded for the astronauts is much looser, and the jokes more risqué (including one about a new plum-based drink for space travelers called “prune-tang”). He and his band are joined by the Bakersfield Brass who add a swinging touch to every song they play on. Owens also has a female vocalist (Susan Raye), who lightens up the boys’ club atmosphere of jokes about drinking and other manly activities.
The addition of this Apollo 16 material, which was actually played during the flight to and from the moon and was in the possession of astronaut Charlie Duke until recently, make the disc worth purchasing in itself. The Live from the White House concert serves as a reminder of an earlier time with jokes about young people and the hallowed halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and top notch playing by Owens and his long-time cohorts, the Buckaroos. This is the classic Bakersfield sound played before the President of the United States.
As for Hathaway, this is well-known material. The >Live album was hailed as a classic when first released and was hailed by contemporaries like Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack at the time for its mix of jazz rhythms and soulful vocals. There is something weirdly wonderful about being able to divide an audience up by gender for a call and response where the women sing “talking about the ghetto” in high-pitched voices while the men sing “the ghetto” in low-voiced accompaniment. His renditions of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and “Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” show how the man could turn any song into a soul number.
In Performance further reveals Hathaway’s expressive powers. On Amy Winehouse’s posthumous release Lioness: Hidden Treasures, she covers Leon Russell’s “Song for You” in the style Hathaway performs it here. Winehouse talks about Hathaway’s power after her recording ends (the producers left the comments on the CD). She said, “Donny Hathaway, he couldn’t contain himself, he had somethin’ in him, you know?” It’s the version of “Song for You” on this disc to which she refers. This and other deep tracks like “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” make the repackaging of Hathaway’s two live discs essential listening for those into contemporary soul music.