Fifteen of the best live albums you need to hear

live concert audience

Which record first comes to mind when you think of great live albums? There’s the Stones’ “Ya-Ya’s,” and who can forget George Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh” (marking its 40th anniversary in 2011). But we have pointed out the brilliance of both many times before. So, here  are some of the other obvious (and a few not-so-obvious) picks, courtesy of Goldmine’s writers.

 

James BrownJames Brown Live At The Apollo
“Live At The Apollo”
1963 (Polydor Records)

Live albums were a rarity in 1962. Record companies considered them pointless; why would record buyers want the same songs they already have just because they’re recorded in concert instead of a studio? James Brown believed the public would want this record so much that he paid for the recording himself and pressured his label, King Records, into putting it out. A risky move, but he was right. “Live at the Apollo” was a best-seller, spending 66 weeks on the Billboard charts and peaking at No. 2. Today, the LP stands as an invaluable time capsule capturing a young, vital James Brown early in his career — but ready to tear it up! Backed by his vocal trio, The Famous Flames, and armed with a whip-tight band that hit every stop, start and break with precision and swing, Brown tore through a set of his early hits with the passion and energy that earned him the title “The Godfather of Soul.” Although he hadn’t come out with classics such as “I Feel Good” or “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” yet, Brown already had plenty of fine material in his arsenal by this point: the bouncy, playful “Think”; the yearning “Please Please Please” (which kicks off an impressive eight-song medley); and “Night Train”, which brought the album to a furious finish. Along the way, there’s also the torchy, 10-minute-plus “Lost Someone” in which James worked the crowd like a master preacher. Unavailable on CD until 1990 due to lost (and thankfully recovered) master tapes, the version to get is the 2004 deluxe edition, which adds 10 minutes to the original 31-minute runtime, thanks to the inclusion of alternate versions and bonus songs.

— Howard Whitman

 

The Beatles
“The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl”

The Beatles At The Hollywood BowlMy esteemed Goldmine colleague Dave Thompson asserts that “The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl” ranks as one of the worst live albums ever. As much as I respect Dave’s opinion on most things musical, I beg — no, plead — to differ. Although the 13-track LP — never officially released on CD — is definitely a “warts and all” effort with no overdubs, it also features an electrifyingly raw sound (akin to an ace garage band with great harmonies and killer tunes), energy to spare and more than a few truly inspired performances, culled from Hollywood Bowl gigs in both 1964 and 1965.

John Lennon’s droll stage patter is almost worth the price of admission on its own, as he addresses the shrieking crowd (“Thank you very much … uh … people …”), but let’s not discount his primo, throat-shredding lead vocals on “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and an abbreviated version of “Twist and Shout.” Meanwhile, Paul McCartney shines on a near-frenzied “She’s a Woman” and the disc-closing “Long Tall Sally,” while George Harrison’s lead guitar and vocals are the co-stars on a powerful take of “Roll Over Beethoven” that blows away the studio version.

But the secret weapon of the proceedings is Ringo Starr, who not only provides a pounding backbeat throughout, but also belts out “Boys” in a perfectly throaty scream while drumming like a madman (Those fills! That bass drum line!). While there certainly are a few less-than-stellar moments on “The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl,” it’s still The Beatles at their rock-and-roll, Beatlemania-era best — and since The Beatles were one of the few top-tier pop-rock acts of the 1960s without a live album released during their lifetime, this is an important aural document and one that Beatle fans the world over wish would finally make it to CD.

— John M. Borack

 •••••

 Jerry Lee LewisJerry Lee Lewis Live At The Star Club Hamburg
“Live at the Star-Club Hamburg”

You’re putting together a time capsule. Those opening it 100 years from now need to know exactly what the term rock ’n’ roll meant. Look no further than this CD, a simply “killer” performance by the one, the only … Jerry Lee Lewis.

Recorded April 5, 1964, in Germany’s famous Star Club, famous because groups such as The Beatles and The Searchers honed their skills there, Lewis, backed admirably by The Nashville Teens of “Tobacco Road” fame, rips through a scathing set, destroying not only his own material, but that of Elvis, Ray Charles, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Barrett Strong and Little Richard, slowing down only once for a classic reading of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

By the time he finishes, it’s a wonder the place is still standing.

Called by Record Collector “the wildest rock ’n’ roll album of all time,” by Rolling Stone as “a crime scene. Jerry Lee Lewis destroys his rivals,” by Q as perhaps “the most exciting performance ever recorded,” and the Allmusic Guide, which says, “It is no stretch to call this the greatest live album ever, nor is it a stretch to call it the greatest rock & roll album ever recorded. Even so, words can’t describe the music here — it truly has to be heard to be believed.”

From the opening notes of “Mean Woman Blues” to the finish of “Down The Line” Lewis has this packed house shouting, sounding as if the patrons were sitting atop his piano, which some may have been. The sound is amazingly pristine. One can almost feel Lewis’ foot coming through the speakers as he pounds away on his own hits, “High School Confidential,” “Great Balls Of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” as well as other early Rock classics, 14 in all. He leaves out “Breathless,” but that’s just what you’ll be by the time this disc concludes.

Think you’ve heard “Money,” “What’d I Say” or “Long Tall Sally”? Think again. By the end of the second cut, Lewis has the crowd chanting “Jerry, Jerry.” At a time his career was at its lowest ebb, Lewis gives an inspired performance, proving, beyond doubt, he was still “The Killer.”

— Phill Marder

 

Cheap Trick At BudokanCheap Trick
“At Budokan”
The quintessential live power pop record also managed to be a damned fine live hard rock record at the same time. Cheap Trick deftly straddled both sides of the fence – and cemented their place in rock and roll history – with 1979’s groundbreaking “At Budokan.”

Recorded on two nights at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan (the same arena where The Beatles made their Japanese live debut) before rabid, appreciative crowds in April 1978, the LP was both a critical and commercial success, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard album charts, selling three million-plus copies and garnering rave reviews for its winning combination of vocal and instrumental power and (mostly) compact, hook-filled tunes.

“At Budokan” was one of the first high-profile showcases for all the ingredients that make Cheap Trick such a special band: Robin Zander’s alternately soaring and snarling lead vocals, Rick Nielsen’s goofy guitar showmanship and stellar songs, Tom Petersson’s booming bass runs and the great Bun E. Carlos’ fantastic percussive exploits (listen to him drive home the cover of “Ain’t That a Shame” with some Keith Moon-inspired fills).

The live version of “I Want You to Want Me” included here became one of Cheap Trick’s signature songs (alongside the splendid “Surrender,” which is also here), and reached No. 7 on Billboard when released as the album’s first single. It’s a damn sight better than the somewhat sissified studio version found on “In Color,”  while that album’s “Come On, Come On” also benefits from some added instrumental “oomph” in a live setting. Two new tunes also made their first appearances on “At Budokan:” the slashing pop-rocker “Lookout,” which was highlighted by some exquisite drumming from Carlos and the nine-minute-plus epic “Need Your Love,” which was co-written by Nielsen and Petersson and features perhaps the most flagrant “borrowing” ever of a T. Rex guitar riff.

The storming “Hello There” and “Goodnight” bookend the record, with the amazingly kinetic “Clock Strikes Ten” drawing things to a close as the encore. By the time Carlos finishes things up with the big stadium rock ending, it’s clear that this is a record — and a band — for the ages.

— John M. Borack

 

Johnny CashJohnny Cash At Folsom Prison
“At Folsom Prison”

When family-friendly recording artist Common was recently welcomed at The White House, the Fox News team conjured a controversy with much coverage, claiming that this rapper was pro-cop-killing, based on its interpretation of some of his song lyrics. “The Daily Show”’s Jon Stewart responded with a passage from a much darker song: “Early one mornin’ while makin’ the rounds, I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down.” The musical miscreant responsible for those lyrics had been to the White House plenty of times, visiting both Democratic and Republican presidents. Johnny Cash was always left and right, heaven and hell, good guy and bad guy, and equally comfortable with presidents and prisoners.

Cash’s whole career was filled with a message of love and redemption. But redemption requires delivery from evil, so there were plenty of songs with a body count—including “Cocaine Blues,” from the “Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison” album. Johnny had wanted to make a live record in a prison since he was recording for Sun Records in the mid-’50s with Sam Phillips, who advised him strongly against it. But a decade later, producer Bob Johnston thought it was a great idea, so Johnny got his wish. The banter between tracks on the historic album that resulted reveals a confident Cash, performing for the most appreciative audience of his life. He had no problem speaking warmly and singing darkly, with prison songs in a prison: “25 Minutes to Go” (waiting for a hanging), “I Got Stripes,” “The Wall,” and, of course, “Folsom Prison Blues.”

June Carter was along, too, as she always was for Johnny Cash performances, singing “Jackson” with her husband with love. Half the show was backed by the rocking Tennessee Three; half was just a man and his guitar and a sterile dining hall filled with convicts. Nobody else would — or could — perform for them, and this guy did it without judgment or superiority. Cash always identified with the underdog, and this crowd fit that bill better than any. He surprised one inmate in attendance, Glen Sherley, with a heartfelt performance of his own song, “Greystone Chapel,” the best Johnny Cash song that Johnny never wrote, about finding freedom for one’s soul from inside Folsom’s walls.
An expanded version of the album includes an in-depth video documentary about the whole event, including coverage of the tragic and engrossing story of Glen Sherley after that fateful day when the Man in Black changed his life.

The Folsom Prison album was a gift to the prisoners of Folsom and an unprecedented musical statement from the ultimate bad boy of American music.

— Rush Evans

 

The Ramones It's AliveRamones
“It’s Alive”

Here’s the math: Storming, hyper-speed live versions of 28 Ramones tunes from the band’s first three albums spread over two LPs (all in under 54 minutes) equals an amazing punk-rock document. Released in the U.K. in 1979 (it didn’t see release in the U.S. until 1995) and peaking in the charts at No. 27, “It’s Alive” remains the definitive live punk album, thanks in large part to the inclusion of some of The Ramones’ best and best-known tunes (“Teenage Lobotomy,” “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Rockaway Beach,” for starters).

Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone blast their way through the amazing set — recorded on New Year’s Eve 1977 in London — with an almost religious fervor, as if they’re trying to convert the masses to their frantically melodic brand of punk. There is very little in the way of stage patter (unless you count Dee Dee’s “1-2-3-4” count offs), and it’s clear that the British audience is eating it up. Everything is played about 1.5 times quicker than the studio versions, and unlike many of the band’s later period shows, lead vocalist Joey Ramone had not yet begun his annoying habit of spitting out/growling the lyrics; here, he sounds fully committed and leads the band through a feel-good, slam-bang joyride (even when he’s singing about Nazis, cretins and pinheads).

In addition to The Ramones classics mentioned above, oldies such as the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” “Do You Wanna Dance,” “California Sun” and “Let’s Dance” all get the buzzsaw guitar treatment and slot in perfectly next to cuts such as “Oh Oh I Love Her So,” which sounds as if it could have been a long lost Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon track. Even though the Ramones would go on to release other live albums throughout the course of their career, “It’s Alive” stands head and shoulders above the rest.

—John M. Borack

 

NirvanaNirvana MTV Unplugged in New York
“MTV Unplugged In New York
While “Nevermind” remains Nirvana’s most popular album, “Unplugged” is cited by a surprisingly high number of people as their favorite Nirvana record. Surprising, because “Unplugged” is acoustically driven — far removed from the louder, more aggressive music on the band’s other albums. Though that is also a key reason many have found the album so appealing.

DGC, the band’s label, was anxious to not exploit the death of Nirvana’s frontman, Kurt Cobain, in 1994, by flooding the market with a surfeit of product. Initially, it was announced that a commemorative two-record set, “Verse Chorus Verse” would be released in fall 1994, one record having Nirvana’s recent appearance on MTV’s “Unplugged” (taped November 18, 1993), the other drawn from the band’s live shows over the years. But Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl found it too emotionally difficult to compile the live record at the time, so the set was slimmed down to “Unplugged” alone (the live compilation, “From The Muddy Banks of The Wishkah,” would later be released in 1996).

When it was first announced that Nirvana would appear on “Unplugged,” it seemed improbable that the music of this noisy group would be at all compatible with the format. Perhaps sensing this, the band eased the audience into the idea, opening their set with the Beatlesque “About A Girl,” from Nirvana’s first album, “Bleach.” “Polly” and “Something In The Way” (both from “Nevermind”) were also largely acoustic on record, and thus fit in well. And stripped of their volume, the songs became even more poignant: “On A Plain,” fairly upbeat on “Nevermind,” is imbued with sadness; “All Apologies” (from “In Utero”) drips with resignation.

Most striking are the covers — six out of the set’s 14 songs. Cobain’s cracked voice makes The Meat Puppets covers (“Plateau,” “Oh Me,” “Lake Of Fire”) sound especially disturbing. His stunning version of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” brought the show to a viscerally exciting close. After Cobain’s death by suicide, it was pointed out that a number of songs in the setlist referenced death. Certainly, in the wake of a suicide, it’s tempting to look for clues that foreshadowed the event. But it was nonetheless eerie to hear Nirvana’s version of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World,” which had Cobain mournfully singing “I must have died alone, a long, long time ago.”

“Unplugged” not only documented a classic Nirvana live performance. It also helped broaden the band’s audience, revealing the compelling melodies that lay at the root of Nirvana’s best work.

— Gillian G. Gaar

 

Jackson Browne Running On EmptyJackson Browne
“Running on Empty”

It isn’t really a live album in the usual sense, and yet it’s a more authentic and honest live experience than any other live recording out there. It opens with 30 seconds of anxious crowd noise, as fans in Columbia, Md., 1977, await the arrival of the introspective songwriter they’d come to see. And then Jackson Browne and band rocked their world with the powerful title track.

“Running On Empty” is all about the life of musicians on the road, so it had to be recorded that way, not just in Columbia, Maryland, but the next town, and the next. “The Road,” Danny O’Keefe’s somber take on the impossible way of life that Robbie Robertson talked about in “The Last Waltz,” was recorded later the same night, but this time in the lonesome hotel room at the Cross Keys Inn. Halfway through the song, the ambience changes, the echo increases, and the story is picked up on stage a month later in Holmdale, N.J. Every song thereafter documents the road warrior experience, including topics not usually covered in popular music, like the endless boredom that comes with living in a bus in “Nothing but Time” (recorded, appropriately enough, on the bus) and the necessity of the less-than-glamorous sexual, let’s say, hobby in “Rosie” that road life demands (you figure it out: “Rosie, you’re all right, you wear my ring / When you hold me tight, Rosie, that’s my thing / When you turn out the light, I got to hand it to me / Looks like it’s me and you again tonight, Rosie”).

Jackson Browne became a real rock star with this innovative album, but he proved himself an authentic folk artist with his own take on the traditional blues of “Cocaine,” with updated lyrics to suit ’70s rock-star life, this time at a Holiday Inn in Edwardsville, Ill. In tow were fellow road-weary travelers, The Eagles’ Glenn Frey and Browne sidekick David Lindley on fiddle, whose lap steel shines on the rest of the album. And unlike the dozens of versions of “Cocaine” that preceded it, this one has the very real and ominous sounds of substances passing from table top to rock star nasal cavity in that hotel room. I told you this album was authentic.

The climactic piece is “The Load-Out,” a sweeping love/hate description on the whole experience of putting together and taking down a traveling rock ‘n’ roll show, which segues perfectly into a remake of The Zodiacs’ “Stay,” in which a grateful musician thanks his audience directly for making the circle complete. And that’s what makes “Running On Empty” the quintessential live album of the rock and roll era.

— Rush Evans

 

 

Various artistsConcerts For The People Of Kampuchea
“Concerts for the People of Kampuchea”

Concerts for Kampuchea were a series of benefit concerts held at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in December 1979 to raise money for UNICEF’s initiative for the children of Cambodia. Those readers who were viewers of MTV in its very early days will likely remember the three video clips from the concerts that were shown in heavy rotation: The Who’s “Sister Disco,” Paul McCartney’s Rockestra covering Little Richard’s “Lucille,” and the cover of Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister” by Rockpile with Robert Plant.

The double album featuring performances from the concert, which was titled “Concerts for the People of Kampuchea,” was produced by Chris Thomas and released in March 1981. The album features both old-guard artists, like those mentioned above, and New Wave-punk acts, such as The Clash, The Pretenders, The Specials and Elvis Costello and The Attractions.

Side One opens with four songs culled from what was a spectacular performance by The Who. Performing at the Kampuchea shows only weeks after the devastating concert tragedy at Cincinnati, The Who was touring with its then-new drummer Kenney Jones, keyboardist Rabbit Bundrick, and a three-piece horn section. These additions pumped up The Who’s live sound, as the band was still trying to find balance following the death the previous year of original drummer Keith Moon. The highlight of The Who’s tracks on the “Kampuchea” album was the rip-roaring version of “See Me, Feel Me.” The cheering crowd can be heard loud and clear on the track.

Side Two begins with three tracks from The Pretenders, who were then creating a lot of buzz in the U.K. and on the verge of releasing their debut album. Their live takes on “Precious” and “Tattooed Love Boys” just sizzle with energy. Also featured on Side Two were Elvis Costello’s “The Imposter” and the previously mentioned Rockpile.

Queen’s rocking “Now I’m Here” opens Side Three. It’s the only Queen track on the album, which is a bit surprising, as Queen had the entire first night of the Kampuchea concerts to itself. This was followed by The Clash’s cover of Willie Williams’ “Armagideon Time.” The Clash had released its landmark “London Calling” album only two weeks before the Kampuchea performance. It’s a shame that a more energetic track by The Clash from that album wasn’t featured on the “Kampuchea” recording. The terrific “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” by Ian Dury and the Blockheads and the buoyant “Monkey Man” by The Specials rounded out the Side Three tracks.

Paul McCartney, who was instrumental in organizing the concerts, was featured on the album’s Side Four. The side opens with three tracks by Paul McCartney and Wings, an excellent take on The Beatles’ “Got To Get You Into My Life” as well as McCartney’s solo tracks “Every Night” and a disco-sounding “Coming Up.” The all-star Rockestra, led by McCartney, closed out the album with the cover of Little Richard’s “Lucille” mentioned above, a quite rocking take on The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” and the “Rockestra Theme.”

Neither the album nor the film of the Kampuchea shows is currently available for purchase (though the album can likely be found at used record shops). If the rights can be secured, a deluxe CD-DVD release of the Kampuchea concerts would surely be welcomed by fans of music of the late ’70s/early ’80s era.

— John Curley

 

Wings Over AmericaWings
“Wings Over America”

Ten years after The Beatles played their last concert in America in 1966, Paul McCartney returned to the U.S. in triumph with his new band, Wings. The group was riding high at the time; its previous three albums had all reached No. 1 in the US, as had the latest, “Wings At The Speed Of Sound” (which included the hit singles “Silly Love Songs,” another No. 1, and “Let ‘Em In,” which reached No. 3). Now Wings had a 31-date sold out tour awaiting.

Every date on the tour was recorded, and songs from nine different shows made the final cut. The album also included the entire show, resulting in a massive three-album set (which also reached No. 1). The record is a fascinating document of a time when McCartney was striving to establish a musical identity apart from The Beatles, to be judged on his own merits. It’s quite a different approach today; 2009’s “Good Evening New York City,” features 20 Beatles songs out of a 33-song set. “Wings Over America” features five Beatles songs out of a 29-song set.

The other major difference is that McCartney now tours with what’s essentially a backing band. Wings was — and sounds like — a fully integrated group. Paul “Wix” Wickens might artfully recreate horns and orchestras at McCartney’s shows today, but they just don’t sound the same as the four horn players on the “Wings Over America” tour. McCartney’s band (wife Linda on keyboards, Denny Laine and Jimmy McCulloch on guitars and Joe English on drums) has the kind of full-on rock ‘n’ roll sound that comes from a group that’s worked on new songs together, not one that’s simply performing someone else’s back catalogue. McCartney himself is in fine form: fresh, hitting those high notes with ease, eager to prove himself to audiences all over again. And those trademark Wings harmonies, where Linda’s voice was especially integral, help further flesh out the sound.

It’s been said this album went through a lot of overdubbing before release, but the authors of the solo Beatles guide “Eight Arms To Hold You,” dispute this, saying there’s little appreciable difference between the official album and the unreleased shows of the tour that have surfaced. McCartney has released a number of live albums since, but none of them has the excitement of this record. “Wings Over America” captures a band at the top of its form.

— Gillian G. Gaar

 

The WhoThe Who Live At Leeds
“Live at Leeds”
Released in the U.S. on May 16, 1970, Live at Leeds captured the Who at full throttle. Recorded a scant three months prior to release, it wasn’t considered the band’s best performance during that particular tour; that designation was reserved for the Hull show the following night. However, with those tapes deemed technically inferior, the Leeds show remained the Who’s iconic live showcase, as verified by a plaque that now graces the Leeds University campus. Still, there’s no reason to quibble; Universal’s recently expanded re-release includes not only the entire Leeds show (which, like the previous CD reissue, offers the band’s complete performance of Tommy), but the Hull concert as well.

The original artwork was striking in itself; packaged in a brown, bootleg-like cover, it contained a grab bag of paraphernalia. Nevertheless, it’s the songs themselves that best reference the band in live mode as the ‘60s melded into the ’70s. Cover tunes dominated the original set, with “Fortune Teller,” Young Man Blues” and “Shakin’ All Over” given the high amplitude readings that inevitably meshed them into the Who’s signature sound. The band’s own standards – “My Generation” and “Magic Bus” in particular – are given indulgent readings that stretch them out well beyond their original studio settings. “My Generation” provides a convenient medley to compensate for the original LP’s abbreviated editing, what with snippets of various Tommy themes drawn into the mix. On the other hand, a compact take on “Substitute” provides an essential additive for the purists.

An essential document not only for the Who faithful, Live at Leeds ought to be deemed required listening for anyone who cherishes the joy and tenacity of rock ‘n’ roll in all its primal glory.

— Lee Zimmerman

 

Old & In The WayOld & In The Way
“Old & In The Way”
Old & In The Way played only 27 shows during its nine-month blaze of homespun glory in 1973. Basically, Jerry Garcia took time off from Grateful Dead, returned to his banjo and (with golden tenor Peter Rowan and mandolinist David Grisman) assembled a hot team of pickers (mostly hippies) to unite rock and serious bluegrass. Rowan and zephyr-like fiddler Vassar Clement had played with bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe. After leaving Monroe, young guitarist Rowan had gone rock in Sea Train and (with Grisman) in Earth Opera. Rowan, Grisman and bassist John Kahn were also in short-lived bluegrass/rock Muleskinner. Grisman would later create his bluegrass/jazz fusion “Dawg music.”

“Old & In The Way” was long said to be bluegrass’s top-selling album. Lengthy tracks allowed ample instrumental solos. On a cover of The Stanley Brothers’ mournful “White Dove,” Garcia’s quiet delivery is quite unlike the intensity aging Ralph Stanley now gives the song. The quintet’s powerful singer was sensitive-toned Rowan, a Boston boy who came to describe himself as a Pentecostal Buddhist. Here he introduced some of his finest writing ever: “Land Of The Navajo,” “Midnight Moonlight” and cannabis anthem “Panama Red” (which, no surprise, became a New Riders Of The Purple Sage concert fave).

With pristine sound compliments of engineers Owsley Stanley and Vickie Babcock, this wildfire 10-song disc first appeared on Round, The Dead’s imprint, and has been reissued on several labels. It’s presently out of print. Acoustic Disc, which Grisman founded, eventually put out two other Old & In The Way concert albums – “That High Lonesome Sound” (with totally different songs) and “Breakdown” – as well as informal Garcia/Grisman sessions done in the latter’s home. But the legendary quintet’s finest disc remains this first one.
Rowan and Grisman are now the sole survivors.

— Bruce Sylvester

 

 

KissKIss Alive
“Alive!”/”Alive II”

As a 9-year-old boy, all I wanted for Christmas 1977 were copies of “Alive!” and “Alive II” — albums that, for some reason, my parents would not buy. But both arrived in the mail one winter day as the best gift ever from a long-distance family friend. My mom snapped up the full-color booklet from “Alive II” that included a shot of Gene Simmons drooling blood and then conveniently misplaced it.

Kiss Alive IIToday, 1975’s “Alive!” is widely considered one of rock’s most essential live albums, despite debate over how much of the double LP was cobbled together using studio overdubs. Recorded in Detroit; Cleveland; Wildwood, N.J.; and Davenport, Iowa, “Alive!” features songs from the first three overlooked KISS albums performed with youthful enthusiasm and passion. The record catapulted KISS to superstar status and became Casablanca Records’ first Top Ten album.

I still prefer 1977’s “Alive II,” which charted even higher than its predecessor and culled songs from the band’s three post-”Alive!” studio albums. Recorded mostly during a three-night stand at the Los Angeles Forum, “Alive II” also came with rub-on tattoos and was the first live album I owned that contained an entire side of new studio material (including an unlikely cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Any Way You Want It”). The 1997 reissue of “Alive II” confirmed years of rumors that the only studio track to feature guitarist Ace Frehley was “Rocket Ride” — the best song of the batch, not coincidentally.

Many cuts from “Alive!” and “Alive II” are still on KISS set lists in 2011.

— Michael Popke

Frampton Comes AlivePeter Frampton
Frampton Comes Alive!

British rocker Peter Frampton was an old seasoned pro of 25 when he took the stage at San Francisco’s Winterland in June of 1975. He had made a mark at just 18 when he formed Humble Pie with former Small Faces lead singer, Steve Marriott. But like other British guitar innovators, it only made sense that he should make his own musical statement in a solo career. And despite his guitar wizardry and powerfully effective voice, his four solo albums in the mid-’70s made little commercial noise.

Neither Humble Pie nor Frampton solo had produced a hit in those seven years of music, so it would seem that a double live album was an unlikely choice for his next release. But A&M Records knew the secret that was spreading on the rock and roll road: Peter Frampton was an amazing live performer, with a canon of songs that lent themselves perfectly to the joyous and vibrant atmosphere of a ‘70s rock concert.
It was an audacious title, “Frampton Comes Alive” with an exclamation point, as if to say, hey, you already know his first name (though most didn’t) and this is what you all have been waiting for (which they hadn’t). The rocker’s face that filled the front cover looked like it must belong to the world’s biggest rock star, and soon he would be. “Frampton Comes Alive’s” cover was a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the record dropped in January of ’76, it barely made a sound. By April, it was on every teenager’s turntable in the country.

“Show Me the Way” rocked with an infectious hook, amazing guitar work, and a sense of urgency. “Jumping Jack Flash” opened up and rocked at twice the length of the Stones’ original version. “Baby, I Love Your Way” helped to create the monster ballad in a love song that wasn’t hokey and that rock aficionados could share with their girlfriends.

And then there was “Do You Feel Like We Do,” that built to a blistering climax over 14 minutes of glorious rock music that could never have meant, felt, or sounded the same without a Winterland full of air-guitar playing hippies. “Frampton Comes Alive!” changed the landscape of rock and roll, and time has been kind to it. And that old seasoned pro is still a relatively young man of 61, on the road as we speak, celebrating 35 years of coming alive.

— Rush Evans

 

20 thoughts on “Fifteen of the best live albums you need to hear

  1. wait … what about MC5? Otis live at the Whisky? Dylan’s “Judas” concert? Because I mean, Jackson Browne? C’mon…

  2. I would go with “Woodstock”,or one of the stars from that weekend, Alvin Lee and his “Ten Years After Recorded Live”

  3. “Get Yer Ya-Yas Out” by the Stones is a great live album. The guitar solos on “Sympathy For The Devil” are outstanding.

  4. Yes, the Allman Brothers at Fillmore East is great, and it is hard to find a bad live album from Jimi Hendrix. How about the triple live at Woodstock Album.

  5. I agree with the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore. For pure adrenalin and excitement, the J.Geils Band – Full House or James Brown at the Apollo rank up there with me.

  6. Agree with the MC5, Allmans and Feat. Three of my other favorites that aren’t part of the list are Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Rory Gallagher’s Irish Tour ’74 and Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous.

  7. Why have you only selected albums by white artists? Don’t James Brown at the Apollo and the Stax-Volt Review albums rank alongside the above for excitement? Didn’t Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, the Miracles, Otis Redding and Ray Charles make superb live albums? I really don’t understand the exclusion of at least some of these and would be interested to what your selection criteria were that caused them all to be left out.

  8. In Goldmine’s print magazine, we had included the “Best Live Album” review of James Brown’s “Live At The Apollo” as part of a feature article spread about Brown. On the Web site, that review was inadvertently posted separately from this collection. We’ve corrected that now.

    We agree that the artists you’ve listed — and numerous others who were not included in this particular live album list — have made strong live albums, and we don’t want this particular listing to take away from the strength of those works. But every list has to start somewhere, and we started with this group of choices. It not a negative reflection on any other artists’ work, it’s simply an acknowledgment of these records, and something we hope will encourage readers to step out of their comfort zones to listen to a different type of music that they might not otherwise. Keep in mind that we plan to highlight more great live albums in future editions, and I’m sure some of the artists you mentioned will ultimately be included in those listings.

    Please look at this list not for what is left out but for what is represented musically — Jackson Browne (Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter), James Brown (R&B/funk), The Beatles (British Invasion), The Who (Mod/psych rock), Johnny Cash (rockabilly/rebel country — performed before inmates at a prison, no less), Nirvana (grunge and an example of the unplugged acoustic movement), Kiss (glam rock), Peter Frampton (arena rock), Old and In The Way (bluegrass fusion), Wings (a post-Beatles outing of a pop-rock band caught at its peak), Cheap Trick (a rock and roll band that couldn’t catch a break in the states, but whose live album from its Japanese tour finally put the band and several of its songs on the map), People for Kampuchea (an early all-star live effort for charity), Ramones (punk) and Jerry Lee Lewis (scorching early rock ‘n’ roll).

  9. Van Morrison – It’s Too Late To Stop Now or A Night In San Francisco (both showing why Van Morrison in concert is a religious experience)/Roxy Music – Viva Roxy Music (should have been a double)/Steve Harley And Cockney Rebel – Face To Face (check out that opening)

  10. Definitely needed The Who ‘Live At Leeds’.. Seger ‘Live Bullet’, and Queen top my list … and anything Hendrix live is golden! Nice work on this.. gotta start revisiting some of these recordings again.

  11. True, the list can’t go on forever, but for me “Waiting for Columbus” and the just-released “Hendrix in the West” are worthy of inclusion. “Best-of” Lists by definition welcome opinions, and yours is an excellent start. And folks, remember the title starts with “15 of…” It ain’t all-inclusive. Kudos to Susan and all involved.

  12. “Love You Live,” by the Rolling Stones is killer, as well as “Live at the Filmore,” by Lucinda Williams and “All You Need is Live,” by Cowboy Mouth is high energy fun!

  13. It all gets a bit silly if you don’t have The Rolling Stones Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out on there which has now been surpassed by the archive release of the Brussels Affair. I could throw in Space Ritual by Hawkwind, Bursting Out by Jethro Tull, Uriah Heep Live’, Mott The Hoople Live (expanded edition) and Made In Japan by Deep Purple!

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