Once a sort of rock-and-roll rite of passage for bands hitting mid-career stride, the live album has in recent years lost much of its luster.
Gone are the days when acts like Peter Frampton, Cheap Trick, or KISS could push themselves over the top from small halls to stadiums on the strength of a recording from a hot show.
Music industry apathy, a relatively weak concert market, and the fact that fans can get pretty much anything they want musically by downloading it off the Internet have combined to render the live rock recording obsolete.
Until now. After several years of apathy toward live music, there's a veritable glut of discs on the market, and just as they did 25 years ago, these discs generally fall into one of three categories:
The Souvenir - These releases capture a band on its most recent tour and are the most common type. They give the group time off from the studio and provide fans something to remember from the show. The Rolling Stones seem to do one of these after every tour.
The Career Retrospective - These are cheap ways to do greatest hits packages, only with the songs recorded live. They usually include a few oddities - cover songs or unreleased studio cuts - to entice hard-core fans to buy music they already have in their collections.
The Cool Experiment - These were almost unheard of until MTV's Unplugged came along and every hard-rock band in the universe could prove their chops by playing acoustic versions of their songs. Probably the most famous example was Nirvana's “Unplugged in New York,” which proved the group could turn the volume down and still have a uniquely visceral impact that could be imitated, but not replicated.
With those benchmarks in mind, here's a brief rundown of six of the most recent live releases:
“IN THE FLESH,” Roger Waters (Sony).
Sample selections: “Mother,” “Money,” “Welcome to the Machine,” “Brain Damage,” “Comfortably Numb.”
Highlights: This sprawling two-disc, 24-song set from the former Pink Floyd leader covers 2 hours and 25 minutes and is impeccably produced. It features what Waters calls in the liner notes “my favorite songs, played alongside one another, on the basis of how well they sound together.” Everything is here for Floyd fans, reproduced faithfully by an exceptional backing band. This is a chance to hear old songs with new twists.
Lowlights: More than two hours of Waters' dour observations on the sorry state of humanity gets a tad old, and some of his solo material, especially on the second disc, bogs down.
Type: This is a souvenir from his 1999 In the Flesh tour, faithfully reproduced with the songs in pretty much the order they were performed.
“FAMILIAR TO MILLIONS,” Oasis (Epic).
Sample selections: “Supersonic,” “Wonderwall,” “Champagne Supernova,” “Helter Skelter.”
Highlights: Another double disc, this one captures what was arguably one of the best bands of the 1990s plowing through its catalog with all the frothy aggressiveness it can muster. Lead singer Liam Gallagher's distinctive bray is in fine form as he mutters obscenities between songs before the band launches into one guitar-heavy pop song after another, like a prize fighter trying desperately to land a knockout punch.
Lowlights: Too much crowd noise. All but one of the songs was recorded at Wembley Stadium, as would befit a band as British as Oasis, but the recording is almost too faithful, with a hissing wash of annoying cheering welling up after every tune.
Type: A career retrospective of sorts, given the shaky status of the band in light of the inability of Liam and his guitarist brother Noel to get along.
“ROAD ROCK VOLUME I FRIENDS AND RELATIVES,” Neil Young (Reprise).
Sample selections: “Walk On,” “Motorcycle Mama,” “Fool for Your Love.”
Highlights: The umpteenth live album from Young finds him proving once again that he can do whatever he wants. Who else would make the opening cut on a live disc an 18-minute song - “Cowgirl in the Sand” - that almost literally falls apart in mid-jam before the band patches it back together? It also includes a great version of “Tonight's the Night,” perfectly capturing the song's creepy junkie vibe.
Lowlights: Who needs an 18-minute version of “Cowgirl in the Sand” or an 11-minute rendition of “Words”? Young's perverse sense of art gets in his way here. And the take on “All Along the Watchtower” with Chrissie Hynde is disappointing; the arrangement seems rushed and never catches fire.
Type: A classic souvenir because that's about the only way this eight-song disc might make sense.
“LIVE,” Alice in Chains (Columbia).
Sample selections: “Rooster,” “Bleed the Freak,” “Dirt,” “Man in the Box.”
Highlights: Alice was the prototypical grunge band, right there with Soundgarden and Nirvana in their prime, and this 14-song set captures the group in all its dark, dirty glory. Lead singer Layne Staley could bellow over the loudest guitars and the band had a knack for playing tight, classic hard rock with a biting edge.
Lowlights: The fact that the songs were taken from performances in different locales over the years is disconcerting. The between-song patter has the band glad to be back home and on the next tune they're saying hi to Dallas.
Type: Definitely a retrospective.
“HERE COME THE NOISEMAKERS,” Bruce Hornsby (RCA).
Sample selections: “Sneaking up on Boo Radley,” “Jacob's Ladder,” “The Way it Is,” “Fortunate Son.”
Highlights: Hornsby brings an impressive amount of musical chops, a crack band of players, and a wildly diverse song selection to this two-disc set. As would be expected from a guy who did several touring stints with the Grateful Dead, long jams abound. The performance has a laid-back feel as the group takes its time on the melodies and lets one song bleed into another. Hornsby's rendition of Don Henley's “The End of the Innocence” is beautiful.
Lowlights: Robbed of the context provided by seeing the band actually perform, the jams at times seem pointless.
Type: A souvenir all the way.
“GREATEST HITS LIVE,” The Tubes (CMC International).
Sample selections: “She's a Beauty,” “Mondo Bondage,” “White Punks on Dope,” “Talk to Ya Later.”
Highlights: Like the band itself, this disc oozes good times. Recorded exceptionally well, it captures the San Francisco band's abundance of energy and intelligent pop hooks. All the classic Tubes cuts are there - “Wild Women of Wongo,” “TV is King,” etc. - and a couple of bonus studio tracks are thrown in for good measure. This is a must-buy for anyone interesting in exploring what The Tubes were all about.
Lowlights: Not many. It's quibbling, but the group is known for its wild stage antics and obviously those can't be captured on a CD.
Type: Obviously a retrospective.