by Jeff Fiedler
Welcome to the Club, Ian Hunter (1980, Chrysalis)
You never hear any tracks from this album on classic-rock radio, but this is as good as a rock-and-roll live album as you’ll find from the early ‘80s. This double-disc package showcases the ever-charismatic Hunter and his excellent backing outfit (which includes former Spiders from Mars member Mick Ronson) blasting through a raucous set comprised of both Hunter solo classics (“Once Bitten Twice Shy,” “Cleveland Rocks”) and Mott the Hoople hits (“All the Young Dudes,” “All the Way from Memphis”). The fourth side mostly consists of a few new studio recordings, all of them great and the best of which is the fun, danceable rock of the fiery clash of “We Gotta Get out of Here,” performed as a duet with former Meat Loaf cohort Ellen Foley, who memorably steals the show with her verbal combat with Hunter during the song’s closing minute. It’s an amazing single, and one that really should have given Hunter the Top 40 hit that always eluded him as a solo artist.
Greatest Stories Live, Harry Chapin (1976, Elektra)
It’s a testament to how effective a live album this is that I actually enjoy this record, because I’ve never really been a Harry Chapin fan. (There are certain songs of his I moderately enjoy, namely “WOLD” and “Sunday Morning Sunshine,” but I struggle to get through most of his studio albums and, for the life of me, I have never been able to warm up to “Cat’s in the Cradle” for some reason.) What makes this record so superior to the studio records is that Chapin, at his pure essence, is really a storyteller, and here in a live setting, he’s actually free to fully be himself, and throughout the course of this double-disc, he engages the audience repeatedly to charming effect. The stage banter alone is worth the price of admission. (Chapin’s reaction to the opening bars of “Dreams Go By” is side-splittingly hilarious - I don't want to spoil it; you'll have to listen to it for yourself - as is his story behind the song “30,000 Pounds of Bananas,” a song which easily works better on this disc than it did on Verities and Balderdash.) The performances are great, too, though, he and his band carrying themselves with a spirit that’s not quite as obvious on the studio records. This album sold in big numbers at the time, but you never hear radio play anything from this double-disc set these days, which is unfortunate, since it’s highly likely to make you appreciate Chapin considerably more than you’re likely to from simply listening to his studio work. Chapin was truly an artist who came to life on the stage in ways he never could on disc.
Stage, David Bowie (1978, RCA)
As legendary though he is, it’s funny how rarely you ever hear anyone talk about Bowie’s live albums. Mind you, he never made a live disc that was truly iconic or caught the ears of the public or radio programmers in a big way, but they’re intriguing listens, none more so than Stage. Part of this is due to the sheer daring of the song selection: Bowie was coming off of one of his least commercial periods at the time and he boldly incorporates some tracks you would never imagine him performing in concert, such as the instrumentals from the second side of Low. The other part of why Stage works so well is the strength of the arrangements. He and his band sound great, and some of the songs actually manage to best their studio versions, namely the underrated single “TVC 15,” which is played much faster here than it was on Station to Station but sounds much more vibrant and lively. If they had only made the original studio recording as fast and as commercial, the single would almost certainly have performed a lot better.
Alive, Kenny Loggins (1980, Columbia)
One of the most nicely-packaged live albums of the ‘80s, this double-disc set sports two really fabulous photos of Loggins in action on its front and back covers, respectively. That would mean little if the music inside weren’t equally good, but it’s quite pleasant to hear Loggins outside of a heavily-produced studio setting, and it gives a lot of these songs the air and the vibrancy they didn’t quite have in their original studio incarnations, “Junkanoo Holiday” being a perfect example. Even “Celebrate Me Home” sounds more powerful here than it does in its original version, a mainstay of holiday-season radio, and “I’m Alright” benefits from the loose atmosphere of the stage as well. The real reason to own this disc, though, is the album’s third side, where his band takes an extended break and Loggins sits down for a more intimate, acoustic set, highlighted by absolutely goosebump-inducing renditions of Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me” and the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere.” Loggins never covered the latter song on a studio album (this remains the only disc of his where you can find the song), but his bare-bones rendition of it is legitimately every bit as pretty as the Beatles’ version and is one of Loggins’ finest moments on record.
Look to the Rainbow, Al Jarreau (1977, Warner Bros.)
Jarreau’s released many live albums over the years, but this remains the best in the bunch. He’d only made two studio albums prior to this disc, which might seem a little early to be releasing a live album, but just one listen to this album will convince you it was a good marketing move. There’s an element of electricity that was always bubbling just under the surface on his studio records but truly manifests itself here, and Jarreau has never sounded more charming, either. The live version of “We Got By” accomplishes the unthinkable and bests its studio predecessor, while Jarreau fools around with some new material to great results, the finest of which is a show-stopping vocal rendition of the jazz classic “Take Five.”