I’m ambivalent about live albums. On the one hand, it’s nice to hear familiar tunes sung differently, especially by bands long gone or (in Bob Dylan‘s case, for instance) a singular performance that can never be repeated. There are times I like the “live” version better than the album one. They naturally have more energy; they can be looser and can be played better simply because the artist has sung them more often. A concert album can have a better track listing than any one album by a band because the band knows nobody wants to hear those album filler songs. Live albums can make a better all-the-way-through listen.
There are, however, very few live albums I listen to frequently (say, more than two or three times). Most keep way too much of the audience noise. Applause is awesome if you’re up on stage, but it is annoying to hear on headphones. If the album says “live” on the cover, we all know there was an audience. Keep it to a minimum.
The individual songs, however good they may sound, are impossible to put on a mix. Audience cheering is so annoying when it’s cut off abruptly. For a while I had a program that let me fade out the cheering. And really, how many times do you want to take those extra steps for a mix? Is the girl worth it?
I’ve been listening to Neil Young’s Live at Massey Hall. Recorded in 1971, right before he released a little album called Harvest, Massey Hall includes many of the as-yet-unreleased Harvest songs. In all, I like Massey Hall. Neil puts on a solo show, switching between guitar and piano. The in-progress nature of much of his material lets us peek into his process as songwriter. This is partly a way for me to geek out about music.
But how many times will I want to listen to Neil tell people not to take pictures of him while he’s performing? Or to tell the same story about ‘Old Man’? Or, most egregiously, how many times will I be able to take the nearly 5 minutes of applause before ol’ Neil comes out for an encore?
Some of the same problems plague John Fogerty’s live album, Premonition. John reveals himself as a goofball who mostly talks about his guitar and amp between songs. He has something to say about almost every song, and it usually includes jokes that are corny the first time and downright aggravating every time afterward.
The saddest part is, these are probably the best version of his Creedence Clearwater Revival songs you’ll ever hear. His band is actually competent this time, and he really tears into his older material.
Dan Bern put out a live album that stands up to repeated listens. Live in Los Angeles includes previously released songs as well as stuff he’s never put on any album. When I saw him (live, for real) in Portland, he said what I’d been thinking of live albums all along:
“When I hear live albums, I think, They sound like they’re having a good time. I’m not having a good time listening to this, but it sounds like it would have been fun to actually be there.”
He obviously kept this in mind when putting together his collection. There is very little between-song chatter, minimal cheering, and no 10-minute guitar jams.
It is possible to make a superlative live album. (Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison, and Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club are also good examples.) But beware! when you purchase a live album or record one. It is a journey filled with peril and a path littered with failures.