The Top 25 Best Rock Live Albums
25) At The Fillmore East–The Allman Brothers Band: If you haven’t had your fill of “Whipping Post,” you didn’t grow up on FM Radio. Southern Rock never quite reached its potential–unless you consider Molly Hatchet transcendent–but its roots were sharp and shaggy. Had Duane Allman lived, would he have had the power to re-route its course? As the mystics say, who knows?
24) The Homecoming Concert–Tim Hardin: Hardin died soon after this concert. But before he went, he showed up in Eugene, Oregon at the Community Center for the Performing Arts, where between bingo games he performed the songs contained on this fine album. What is the sound of one man collapsing? Why, this very document.
23) Behind The Iron Curtain–Nico: Nico didn’t record much. This German chanteuse wasn’t the most prolific artist and she was labeled pretty much a cult artist, even though she predated the Goth movement by over a decade and should have been anointed its Queen. Since she had a limited repertoire, her albums tend to have the same songs on them. Deciding which versions you like best is half the fun and really confusing.
22) Stand In The Fire–Warren Zevon: In danger of being lumped in with every other sensitive singer-songwriter in L.A., Warren Zevon made sure the world knew his sensitivity was a little different than most by singing about disturbed individuals who may or may not have been him. And then he made the band play really loud so he’d have to scream his lyrics and sound like a deranged madman.
21) Live At The Harlem Square Club, 1963–Sam Cooke: This is one of those live albums that really shows a different side of the artist. Whereas Cooke’s commercial recordings were smooth, polite, radio-friendly pop songs, on stage his gospel roots took over and he sang and shredded like a man wired out of his mind. This is his aural equivalent of a five o’clock shadow.
20) At Folsom Prison–Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash is a legend. And it’s albums like this one that make for that legend. Playing in front of a truly captive audience–prisoners, my friend, hardened criminals like the kind you see on TV–Cash pounds out a set of tunes that went lightly on the ballads and stuck to the manly stuff. Listen closely and you can hear the hair on his back growing.
19) Take No Prisoners–Lou Reed: Before Last Comic Standing there weren’t many opportunities for young comedians to break into the biz. Lou Reed had some success as a songwriter and David Bowie thought enough of him to borrow a few ideas, but Reed hadn’t explored his comic side. So with this two-LP double album, Reed cued up a bunch of his more recognizable tunes, turned the backing band on, and started talking over these songs with lots of odd one-liners and insults that make you wonder if you’re listening to a rock ‘n’ roll band or participating in a celebrity roast.
18) Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75–Bruce Springsteen: Until the Springsteen camp issues something from the 1978 tour, this will have to stand as the one decent live representation of his early career. It’s looser than you’d expect and the songs are so complex that it’s no wonder that he started writing simpler, shorter songs. The DVD is particularly wild since the entire E Street Band look like pimps on the strip and not the well-adjusted music professionals they became. That’s what it’s like when you’re young. You have hair. You have to use it.
17) The Name Of This Band Is…–Talking Heads: Talking Heads will never be considered a ferocious live act. And for those of you who dislike bands with manners, I agree that you should throw this double-live album off the list and substitute in Motorhead’s No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith. But for those of you who take your art school education seriously and like the sound of a band evolving from a skeletal new wave band into a Deluxe-Expanded Edition, this is a good place to start.
16) Metallic K.O.–Iggy And The Stooges: How often do you hear bottles breaking on the stage? How many versions of “Louie Louie” does the world need? If Iggy Pop falls off a stage but nobody catches him, does that mean G.G. Allin died in vain? If you wanted more songs, you might want to substitute the Dead Boys’ Night Of The Living Dead Boys. Otherwise, this will fulfill your punk quotient.
15) Live At The Old Quarter–Townes Van Zandt: It was apparently very hot and humid in the club and the air conditioning was non-existent. It sounds hot. It sounds oppressive. Townes was never Mr. Energy to begin with. And once he established his core repertoire, he spent the rest of his career croaking it out along with lots of cover tunes. I still can’t figure out what he’s talking about half the time, but I know the stories don’t end well. That’s the thing about singing about losers: they always lose.
14) Live At Leeds–The Who: Before this album, the Who had never sounded like this. Not on record. It was like they had this whole other side to them that they were hiding from the world at large, but that their true fans always knew about. They were one of those bands who took advantage of the idea that they could buy bigger amps and therefore be louder than everyone else. And since their drummer was certifiably insane–and yet always right on time–they had an edge over everyone else.
13) 390 Degrees Of Simulated Stereo–Pere Ubu: In the studio these guys often seemed dazed by the technological options and the chance to think too much and in their original incarnation the longer they stayed together the weirder they got. Which was fine and dandy, except that while they were a very good art-rock band, they were also a very good live art-punk-band and somehow the extra hyphenated genre makes for happier living in general. Embrace them.
12) Running On Empty–Jackson Browne: Everyone was releasing double live albums in the 1970s to resell their back catalog. Jackson Browne decided to try something different. He took to the road and recorded new material written by himself, members of his backing band and a couple of covers at gigs, at soundcheck, in the back of the bus, in hotel rooms. And even the songs themselves concerned being on the road. Not exactly Kerouac here thumbing a ride, but on the road, nonetheless. And all on one record, not two. Economical like a hybrid, Browne has always been pro-environment.
11) BBC Sessions–Led Zeppelin: While Led Zeppelin did many things well and their career was one long quest for the next step in sound, they were arguably at their peak when they turned it up and went for broke. John Bonham often sounds as if his mission was to destroy his drum set. And Jimmy Page figured by turning his guitar up louder it only made Bonham play that much harder.
10) Kick Out the Jams–MC5: Nothing like a band who record their debut album live in front of a real audience. The record company probably liked the idea because they then didn’t have to worry about excessive, wasteful studio dates. And the band was happy because no producer came in to commercialize their sound. So instead you end up with a chaotic mess that’s all the better because it is a chaotic mess, which was the whole point to begin with.
9) The Bootleg Series, Volume 4: Bob Dylan, Live 1966 The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert–Bob Dylan: One of the most popular bootlegs of its time and a firm argument for why record artists and record labels can’t always be trusted to spot their own talent. It only took forever for this album to finally get released and by the time it was everyone who needed it already owned it at least once. Now they all own it twice.
8) Absolutely Live–The Doors: It would’ve been even better had the Doors issued something from their 1967-68 period and through their own website you can access lots of shows that they now deem releasable. But during their first go-round, it was this set of shows from 1970 that made the grade with professional recording equipment capturing Jimmy Morrison’s every burp and burst of improvisational poetry. Docked a point for letting Ray Manzarek near a microphone, but then given three extra points for adding “The Celebration Of The Lizard.” Lizards need celebrating.
7) Live At The Star Club, Hamburg–Jerry Lee Lewis: Jerry Lee’s career wasn’t exactly flying at the point when he recorded this album. He hadn’t yet made his re-emergence at a bona fide country artist, so he was hammering out the old time rock n’ roll and R&B of his youth. And doing it as if he was determined to break the piano in the process. Sure, Metallica are louder, but they got nothing on Jerry Lee when it comes to machismo, arrogance and pure feral attack. He was nicknamed “The Killer” for a reason.
6) It’s Alive–The Ramones: 1-2-3-4…and they’re off. You own the T-Shirt. Or least everywhere I go children of all ages from 6 to 60 are wearing it. Now it’s time to seek out this live album that peels off an insane barrage of tunes in the shortest amount of time possible without sounding like they want to get it over with, since this was recorded back when they were still within their first bunch of years together. That’s one of the problems with bands who put out live albums later in their career (Loco Live, anyone?). They start to sound impatient and mess with the songs just to keep them interesting to themselves. And they always sing them slightly worse.
5) Radio One–Jimi Hendrix Experience: Picking one Hendrix live album is like eating one Pringle. It doesn’t happen in real life. But this isn’t real life, this is List Of The Day and we’re subjected to the rules of the game, no matter how unfair. I chose this one because it has a better track selection than most and features stuff recorded at different times and the sound quality is better than most. I prefer Hendrix’s off nights because it’s more interesting to hear him struggle to keep his guitar in tune than it is to hear him simply blaze through his catalog like it was easy or something. Just as punk bands encourage amateurs to pick up a guitar because anyone could do as well, Hendrix makes you want to put down your guitar and give up because there’s no way to do what this maniac pulled off.
4) Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out–The Rolling Stones: They will probably never release a live album from their 1972 tour, so bootlegs will have to suffice and in pure RS terms, this isn’t them at the top of their game. But it’s as close as we’re likely to come in terms of official releases, unless you’re perverse and think Love You Live, Still Life, Flashpoint, No Security and whatever that last one was called better represent the Stones as a live act. At least Mick Taylor is on this record.
3) Live At The El Mocambo–Elvis Costello And The Attractions: The Attractions would be my pick for world’s best backing band, and at this point, with Costello writing the best material of his career and playing it as if someone had just run off with his girlfriend and stolen his mail, El Mocambo represents a snapshot in time worth preserving for eternity. Or at least until I’m dead.
2) Live Rust–Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Plenty of bootlegs challenge this official live album, but with the amazing catalog and the perfectly sloppy backing band, Neil Young was hitting one of his peaks that would take another decade for him to re-approach. Turn it up and it all sounds like one big blur.
1) Live At The Apollo–James Brown: The classic live album that shows why some music (certainly not all) should be recorded live in its intended habitat. Brown could work it out in the studio, but he fed off a live audience. He interacted and the band could stretch out and work the groove until they exhausted the crowd. Listening to this in a room on headphones is so fundamentally wrong that listeners should be forced to dance no matter how stupid they look doing so–and then forced to broadcast the results on the net. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.