High on Live
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When I got the idea to write about live albums I thought it would be a simple thing to do. Explain the difference between live and studio recordings, rattle off the titles of some of my favorites and done. How wrong I was. Every time I thought I had a concise
argument I would discover many tangents and have to rethink my position. Alas, in the interest of time (and space) I will be as brief as I can be.
What is a live album? Some would say it is an interpretation of a band's material played live before an audience without studio trickery. That is one of the definitions of a live album. Sometimes a group will play their parts simultaneously in the studio and get the music recorded all at once, like Oingo Boingo’s Boingo Alive. Sometimes a band will take recorded music and add a track of audience noise to make it appear live, like with Type O Negative’s Origin Of The Feces, and the most common way to record a live album is to play the material before an audience and then enhance the results later in the studio. Sometimes it is exactly as it was performed. There are as many definitions of what a live album is but there are very few opinions of live albums. Do you like live albums? Do you hate them? In my experience people tend to fall into those two camps. It could be that people who like to see live music like live albums and people who don’t go to concerts, don’t.
Like everything else in music the relevance of the live album is in flux. Have you heard of any current live albums lately? Cage The Elephant just released a live album called Unpeeled but live albums are not nearly as ubiquitous as they were in their heyday during the 70’s and 80’s.
A brief, shorthand history lesson is in order. There has been recorded music since Thomas Edison invented the wax cylinder in 1888. The performance had to be live, all the performers had to be playing at once. Later the wax cylinders were replaced by a disc (think of the Soggy Bottom Boys in Oh Brother Where Art Thou).
It wasn’t until after World War II that recording to tape was commonplace. That allowed artists to record different parts at different times as well as doing parts over again if not satisfied with them. The studio record was born. Now there have always been purists who have felt that the use of the studio rendered the material sterile and soul, not as it was originally intended. A lot of jazz fans fall into this category. Most music fans like the version of songs that were recorded as the artist wanted it to be.
I like live albums (if done well). A good live album can transport you to the show. One of the things I liked about live albums was that they had songs from more than one album on them. If I had just gotten into a band and didn't know their back catalogue getting the live album would expose me to their previous work. That’s all moot now with instant streaming, but in the 70’s you had to buy the album to hear what was on it. Another thing I like about live albums, and others hate, is that the artist could reimagine the song in a different way. Extending the jams, adding verses that didn’t fit on the album cut, doing cover versions of the works of others, guest artists, there are many ways that artists alter songs on live albums to make them fresh.
I don’t want to make it sound like the live album is better than the studio recording. Sometimes it adds another color to the artist’s palette. But sometimes a live album is horrible. Oftentimes when an artist is changing record labels and is obligated to deliver one last album they do a perfunctory live album or even worse, release a random live show they happen to have recorded which is oddly sterile and soulless. Sometimes the label exploits a successful album release by following it up with live material that was never intended for release (the same could happen if there is a tragic event).
But where have all the great live albums gone? In today’s musical landscape there aren’t as many acts that lend themselves to live albums. Sure, Pearl Jam, Phish and Dead & Company (to name a few) produce live versions of each of their shows, and ‘rock’ and ‘country’ artists still occasionally put out a live album but what of the Hip Hop and Pop artists? Live just doesn’t seem to work as well in those genres. Would anybody clamor for a Katy Perry live album like they did for Cheap Trick At Budokan? Would it be any different than the studio release? It would seem like a case could be made for hip hop artists to make improvisational changes to the lyrics or beats, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. A lot of the music that is currently popular is so technologically constructed that it just wouldn’t translate to a live album very well. Compound that with the inevitable video release and the need for a live album diminishes, video of almost any act’s current tour is available on YouTube the day after the show.
As you can see, I just barely scratched the surface on the topic of live albums. Please weigh in on this topic. We would like to hear what you think of live albums and if you have some favorites (or know of some bad ones) send a list. We will publish the results at a future date.