by Jeff Fiedler
Live albums are a tricky thing; either they’re a blatant stopgap project or an insightful and well-sequenced glimpse into what an artist is capable of outside the studio. Acts like Cheap Trick, Kiss, and Peter Frampton all struggled for years in the studio before finally reaching the mainstream with iconic live discs such as At Budokan, Alive! and Frampton Comes Alive, respectively. But you’ve no doubt read no shortage of raves over the years about iconic live albums like those three or such other live classics as James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged, Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, The Who’s Live at Leeds, or the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East – all phenomenal discs, but all ones that have received no shortage of acclaim or attention. So what are some of the great live albums out there that you absolutely never see pop up on music critics’ greatest-live-albums-of-all-time lists? We’ve taken the opportunity to round up fifteen well-crafted live albums – from both critics’ darlings and artists who never did command much praise or attention from the music press – that have largely gone overlooked and we thought were worth recommending. They’re listed in no particular order. Some may be up your alley, and others may not, but these all stood out to us for taking some really interesting chances, be it in the song selection (most of these albums, in fact, include songs you can’t find elsewhere) or the presentation, and none of these can really be categorized as your standard, generic, stopgap live disc. If you give one of these a shot and like it as much as we do, let us know! We’d love to hear from you!
It Is Time for Peter Allen, Peter Allen (1977, A&M)
Allen is admittedly an acquired taste – his brand of pop leans more towards easy-listening (and, at times, even pure cabaret; there’s even a cover here of “As Time Goes By”) than it does rock – but there’s no denying the man’s songwriting credentials: he’s co-written such hits as Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You” (which Allen performs his own version of here), Christopher Cross’ “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do),” Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” and even Coldplay’s “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall.” The best way to listen to Allen is to bypass his studio albums entirely and get one of his live records, especially this double-disc set on A&M from 1977. The songs come across a lot more high-energy and full of personality (especially on "I Go to Rio") than they do in the studio, and Allen’s onstage banter between songs is hilarious. Peter Allen loved his audience, and his audience loved him. (Just listen to how enthusiastic they get on the back half of "Quiet Please, There's a Lady on Stage.") The audience applause on this album, recorded at L.A.’s The Roxy and New York’s The Bottom Line, is absolutely deafening. The incessant crowd roar and clapping and table pounding on album-opener “Love Crazy” causes Allen to comically quip at song’s end, “Who’s on?” In the album’s funniest moment, the audience suddenly decides to join in singing towards the end of “Everything Old Is New Again,” causing Allen to stop the song entirely (“That was my fault. I didn’t give you a very good lead-in …”) and changing the rest of the song into a call-and-response singalong. The audience members sound like they’re absolutely having the time of their lives, and you can’t help but wish you were there taking part in all the fun. If there was ever a concert captured on vinyl that I wish I could have been there for, this is it. It’s like having an audio document of an unforgettable private party with a very famous songwriter providing the music.
Big World, Joe Jackson (1986, A&M)
It doesn’t get nearly as much attention as any of his proper studio records, but Big World may actually be the most creative album Jackson ever made from a conceptual standpoint. First of all, the packaging is extremely creative: the original vinyl release was a three-sided live album pressed on two discs with the fourth side simply containing a blank groove. (The three-sided disc had been tried at least once before – Johnny Winter did it in the late ‘60s on his album Second Winter – but it was a very rare practice.) Secondly, it’s a live album consisting entirely of completely new material that was well-rehearsed and engineered in the weeks leading up to the show in order to avoid putting the audience through too many takes due to flubbed parts or technical foul-ups. Lastly, the audience was asked to hold their applause until tape stopped rolling for each song, so no crowd hollering or clapping gets in the way of the songs, so the disc winds up being Joe Jackson at his most intimate-sounding, up close, crystal clear, with just the right amount of vulnerability. (This is truly one amazingly well-engineered album, too, particularly when you consider the epic nature of what they were trying to pull off in creating a real-deal live album that had the same warmth as a live-in-the-studio album like 1984’s Body and Soul.) The set of songs is first-rate, too, highlighted by great cuts like “Right and Wrong,” “Soul Kiss,” “Wild West,” “Tonight and Forever,” and the exceptionally moving nostalgia of “Home Town.”
Certified Live, Dave Mason (1976, Columbia)
In spite of having one heck of a rock’n’roll resume – he was one of the original members of Traffic; he wrote “Feelin’ Alright,” which became one of Joe Cocker’s trademark songs, as well as the frequently-covered “Only You Know and I Know,” a Top Twenty hit for Delaney and Bonnie; he scored several Top 40 hits as a solo artist in the ‘70s (“We Just Disagree,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”); he did a stint in Fleetwood Mac in the ‘90s – Mason isn’t terribly well-known today among younger music listeners, and his music only rarely gets played on classic-rock radio. Still, his brand of ‘70s pop perfected on solo albums like Alone Together, Let It Flow, It’s Like You Never Left, and Mariposa del Oro is quite good and deserves more exposure than it gets. This double-live set is a great introduction to Mason’s talents, since it captures exceptionally passionate renditions of all his biggest hits up to that point. (Unfortunately, he had yet at this point to record “We Just Disagree,” so that song doesn’t appear here, but “Feelin’ Alright” does, as does “Only You Know and I Know.”) He and his band sound really tight throughout, but what truly makes this an essential purchase for Mason fans is the not-available-elsewhere cover version of the then-brand-new Eagles single “Take It to the Limit,” which Mason and his band strip back to just acoustic guitars and harmony vocals. It’s simply jaw-dropping, and it’s arguably much more powerful and interesting than the much-more-famous original version.
The Road Home, Heart (1995, Capitol)
This is easily the most underrated “unplugged”-style live album I’ve ever heard and an album guaranteed to kick your respect for Heart up more than a few notches. Heart cut some great, great singles in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but they were always either overproduced (“These Dreams”) or just way too bombastic (“Alone,” “Barracuda,” “Crazy on You”). Heart could never seem to “lay back” any. Then comes The Road Home, an entirely acoustic affair cut in a small Seattle nightclub. “These Dreams” and “Alone” are stripped down to just acoustic guitars, light percussion, and a small orchestra – you haven’t heard “These Dreams” until you’ve heard it played acoustic; Nancy Wilson sings with so much conviction and emotion here, you can feel the lyrics just oozing out of her soul – and “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You” is stripped down to just Ann Wilson’s passionate vocal and a piano. This is really, really passionate musicianship, folks. Throw in a re-working of “Straight On” that’s substantially more soulful than the original, a radical re-working of “Crazy on You” that bounces back and forth between being mellow and raucous, Nancy Wilson riffing away on an acoustic to “Barracuda,” and some incredibly passionate cover versions of Nazareth’s “Love Hurts,” Elton John’s obscure gem “Seasons,” and Joni Mitchell’s Christmas number “River,” and you’ve got yourself one heck of a live album.
Live! In the Air Age, Be-Bop Deluxe (1977, Harvest/EMI)
This excellent British art-rock band, led by Bill Nelson, made some waves in the U.K. in the late ‘70s but failed to build anything more than a cult following in America, never landing a hit single on this side of the Atlantic. Their studio albums are all good listens, but the most fun way of listening to the band is arguably via this live album, which, in its original American release, was released as a two-disc package containing a live full-length pressed on white vinyl and a live three-song EP – a very cool packaging touch! The performances are pretty electrifying: the band turns in tight and muscular versions of its British hits “Ships in the Night” and “Maid in Heaven” and new cuts like the great "Mill Street Junction" and stretches out to great effect on the extended jam “Shine” and the mellow "Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape." Best of all, though, is “Sister Seagull,” in which Nelson coaxes effects out of his guitar that must be heard to be believed; he truly puts himself in the running on this cut as one of the most creative under-heralded guitarists of the ‘70s.