Double live albums are dodgy enterprises any way you cut it. While they can sometimes be interesting for the diehard fan of an artist, for the most part, they often boil down to two hours worth of music that can be had in better form elsewhere. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but they come few and far between. In fact, the only guy I can think of off the top of my head whose career had been virtually defined by a double live album is Peter Frampton . . . enough said.
So, if they’re basically pointless exercises in self-indulgence, why do otherwise self-respecting musicians keep putting them out year after year? Unless it’s in a vain attempt to finally replicate the success of Frampton Comes Alive!, I have no fucking clue. However, for reasons unbeknownst to me, people still seem to think it’s a good idea to occasionally release these behemoths.
Canadian singer/songwriter Hayden Desser is the latest artist to descend this slippery slope, and while it’s quite a pleasant affair, I don’t think too many people are going to go on the record calling it “essential”. Hayden seems a particularly odd choice for a double-live album, considering that he’s only got three proper full lengths (and one EP) under his belt. Then again, Frampton only had four LPs to his credit before Comes Alive! stormed the charts, so maybe Hayden isn’t really that far off the mark. Also, considering the fact that Hayden plays most of his shows solo, what we have here basically amounts to an hour and a half of a singer/songwriter accompanied by nothing but an acoustic guitar and/or piano. Unplugged, if you will. Not exactly the most exciting prospect, and perhaps a recipe for boredom in the hands of a less capable performer, but it’s to Hayden’s credit that he actually manages to make the entire hour-and-a-half an interesting, worthwhile experience.
When I saw Hayden play live in Seattle earlier this year, I was struck by two things: first, the sheer number of people who turned out to see who I viewed as a rather obscure Canadian singer-songwriter, and second, the sheer enthusiasm that said people exhibited for Hayden’s music. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like the guy a lot, but the quantity of jock-ish looking guys that I saw drunkenly singing along to Hayden’s sensitive ballads truly astounded me. I guess the man’s music connects in ways that I didn’t anticipate.
Having experienced Hayden’s live show first hand, I can say that one of the more entertaining things about his performance has to be his affable stage persona — cracking jokes, telling witty anecdotes about his cat, giving off the overall impression of a bashful kid with a gleam in his eye. A good amount of this charm actually gets transferred to disc, which contributes immensely to the appeal of Live at Convocation Hall. Considering that Hayden’s albums are fairly sparse affairs (especially his last one, Skyscraper National Park, from which many of the songs here are culled), you don’t really get the added bonus of hearing his songs in “a different form” that you might otherwise with a different performer whose studio albums are more produced affairs. However, it’s undeniable that an extra measure of intimacy and immediacy is gained from hearing nothing but Hayden’s soft, vulnerable voice accompanied by quiet guitar strumming or delicate piano chords.
Hayden has always been a master of turning a few sketchy details into a moving story. He’s also practically unrivaled at delivering a killer line as payoff for a song-long buildup. Whether its “I can’t wait til you come home/And your skin will replace the phone”, from “Middle of July”, or the entirety of “I Should Have Been Watching You”, where he carefully details a beautiful sunset scene, before delivering the payoff: “this is the last day I get to spend with you/And now it’s dark and it’s through/I should have been watching you”, Hayden never fails to astound with his lyrical incisiveness. While it always seems to be the simplest lines that cut the deepest, to dismiss Hayden’s songs as simple would be missing the point entirely, because they are so subtly nuanced and multifaceted as to completely belie their outward structural simplicity. Although they may be comprised only of a few simple chords and a melody, the precision with which he wields his lyrics often has the effect, at song’s end, of looking at a completed jigsaw puzzle.
Live at Convocation Hall also presents a fairly comprehensive career survey of Hayden’s work. From early gems like “Bad As They Seem”, “Stem” and “We Don’t Mind”, to highlights of Skyscraper National Park, and everything in between, the song selection can hardly be argued with. The inclusion of several newer, as-yet-unreleased songs such as “Holster” (a beautifully executed tale of jealousy) and “Woody” (a lighthearted ditty about his cat) can only make the collection more appealing for Hayden’s fans.
So, then, Live at Convocation Hall, is, in all respects, a very atypical double live album. Completely devoid of instrumental flash, it is an album that succeeds on several levels. It provides a pretty darn good entry point to Hayden’s body of work for the novice, and it affords fans who may not have been fortunate enough to see him play live (or fans who simply wish to relive the experience over and over) an even closer look at the inner workings of his songs. Laid bare of any studio embellishments, they shine brightly as miniature jewels, ripe for the discovery.