The problem with many officially released live rock albums is that they usually suck. Most bands are not particularly improvisational minded and their note for note recreation of album hits can be redundant. Listening at home they sound like strange off-centered simulations of the songs you enjoyed on their proper albums.
There’s also the often stupid and inane stage chatter which is annoying when you’re trying to listen at home (“Hello out there Houston!” “You guys are the best crowd we’ve ever played for!” “Seattle, are you ready to rock!?”)
Finally, there's usually something not translated from the live concert experience to record. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to a bootleg of a concert I’ve attended, a concert that left me spent and speechless, and was totally under whelmed with the recorded version. “This wasn’t the concert I was at,” I’ll tell myself. “No, this is wrong, I was crapping my pants right here, right here, during that guitar solo, I literally crapped my pants, but now…nothing. Not even a toot.”
Most bands release live albums either between studio recordings, to get a product in the stores for Christmas, or to fulfill contract obligations. They’re cheap and easy product to keep the fans happy and the band in the public consciousness.
This relegates most live albums to the “fans only” category.
But, occasionally a live album is released that somehow captures the energy and vitalness of a performance. Occasionally a live album transcends the realm of concert experience right into your headphones. It is rare for a band to catch lightning in a bottle like this, so when they do, they often have one of the best albums of their careers. Like I said, most officially released live albums are stinkers, but when they’re good—wooo boy. Look out.
A few notes before we get to the list:
--You will not find Frampton Comes Alive here. If you want to hear Frampton live listen to Humble Pie’s Rockin’ the Fillmore (which actually almost made it onto this list), and never talk to me about fucking Frampton Comes Alive again. Ever.
--You will not find Kiss' Alive! here. They were an influential band and all, but let’s not confuse influence with actual music.
--Do not get in a tizzy about the numerical listings (people always do—“hey asshole, the Stones should be number 1 man”). These are all great albums, and if I were to compile the same list next week the order would probably be somewhat different.
So here they are, 20 of the best live rock albums of all time:
20. The MC5s—Kick out the Jams (1970)
Let’s imagine a hypothetical person who had spent their life in isolation, totally ignorant of rock n roll. If this hypothetical Tarzan-like person were to ask me what rock music was, I’d probably play them MC5’s Kick out the Jams. The hypothetical person would probably either be horrified or enthralled. Either emotion would be fitting. Now, if they were both horrified and enthralled, then I’d know they really get it. We could then commence to kick out the jams. Motherfucker.
19. Cheap Trick—At Budokon (1978)
So Cheap Trick had to go to Japan to get famous. The performances on At Budokon are fun and energetic in a way I never got from their studio releases. The Trick’s brand of Beatlesque power-pop shines here on At Budokon. One of the most purely enjoyable pop albums of the 70s. Surrender...
18. The Rolling Stones—Get Yer Ya-Yas Out (1969)
The Rolling Stones invaded America in 1969, their first tour of the states in two years, and they conquered America like some pillaging Roman army. There are perhaps hundreds if not thousands of fatherless 40 year old adults running around with giant lips. Get Yer Ya Yas out features killer workouts of classic Beggar’s Banquet/Let it Bleed era tunes. Mick Taylor’s first tour with the band (best Stones era IMO). The highlight is a smoking version of "Midnight Rambler."
(Note: if you can name the song alluded to on the album cover you win a dinner..with me!)
17. Lou Reed—Rock n Roll Animal (1974)
Lou Reed glams up VU songs to glorious and powerful effect. Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter back Reed with virtuoso guitar performances (the intro to Sweet Jane is astounding).This is a sharp, spiky, and awesome rock album.
16. Phish—A Live One (1995)
It may not be popular to say aloud, but the truth is that Phish was the most important live rock band of the 90s, and that is perfectly captured on this two disc nugget from their mid 90s peak. In many ways their goofy and quirky virtuosity more accurately represented the decade more than any of the grim grunge bands. A Live One manages to capture the fun and virtuosity of one of the most accomplished and adventurous live acts in recent memory. Listening to this album will cause you to enjoy myself, yourself, and the world in general.
15. Bruce Springsteen and the E StreetBand — Live /1975-85 (1986)
The album does a great job aurally recreating a Springsteen show—you can almost feel and see the sweat. Live/1975-85 was the first Springsteen album I ever owned (age 12), and after hearing it I vowed to see this man in concert, because if it was better to see him live (that’s what people kept telling me), well, that was something I had to see.
I used to wonder what kind of magical power this man from New Jersey had. Listening to this album I imagine a rock n roll super hero, someone larger and grander than the rest of humanity. Someone who perhaps wears a cape. And yet this hero concerns himself with our petty problems and troubles! Okay, so Springsteen isn’t a hero, but this album is heroic.
14. Led Zeppelin—How the West was Won (2003/1972)
For a band who spent much of the 70s roaming and rocking the North American continent like a band of modern day Visigoths, it’s curious that Led Zeppelin, one of the greatest live acts ever, only released one disjointed live album (The Song Remains the Same—a soundtrack to an equally disjointed film). It’s not that SRTS isn’t good, it is, but it’s off somehow, not at all containing the visceral power of various bootlegs I’ve heard over the years. Finally in 2003 How the West Was Won was released. Taken from a 1972 concert, How the West Was Won finds Zeppelin claiming their rightful place as the lords of rock and of all creation. If SRTS didn’t exactly blow up my skirt, this release not only blew up my skirt, but tore off all my clothes, leaving me naked, scared, and thrilled--raising a devil horn salute to the sky in thanks.
13. Muddy Waters—At Newport 1960
The daddy of rock n roll backed by a rocking band, which included the great Otis Spann, lays down some deep blues in this essential live recording.
12. Jimi Hendrix—Band of Gypsys (1970)
Taken from a string of Fillmore shows, Band of Gypsys hints at the more soulful and funky direction Hendrix would have charted had he continued. The first time I heard this version of “Machine Gun” I fell on the floor. He hits and holds a note that contains the truth of the ages. Pure brilliance.
11. Nirvana—Unplugged (1994)
This album was ubiquitous in late '94 and much of '95. The pain is obvious here, but Cobain was delicate and beautiful in a way he had never allowed himself to be before. It was as though the gifted singer-songwriter were singing to us from beyond the grave. Haunted, painful, and real, the performances on Unplugged reveal just what was lost when Cobain took his life. His cover of Huddie Ledbetter’s “Where Did You Sleep Last night” is devastating.
10. Neil Young—Live Rust (1979)
(note: Rust Never Sleeps doesn’t quite count as a live album)—Neil Young sends off the 70s with some of the most potent hard rock ever performed. Rock n roll will never die.
9. Otis Redding—In Person at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go (1966)
Recorded a year before his breakout performance at the Monterrey Pop Festival Otis Redding’s In Person at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go is the definition of soul. This is beautiful and deep music. I actually get emotional listening to it; I want to sing, cry, dance, and hug people. It is that powerful. And that good. Testify Otis. Testify.
8. Talking Heads—The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1982)
You are wondering about Stop Making Sense. Yeah, that’s a good live album. Stick to the Demme film. For live Talking Heads The Name of this Band is Talking Heads is better. By a lot.
Taken from concerts in 1977, 78, 80, and 81 The Name of This Band is Talking Heads chronicles a band at their most innovative and powerful. The first disc reveals a lean and hungry Talking Heads brimming with passion and guts. But it’s the second disc that contains the stuff of legend. Here were find the Talking Heads with a smoking 10 piece band during their “Remain in the Light” tour, including guitar virtuoso Adrian Belew and P-Funk’s Bernie Worrell.
If you have a friend who isn't much of a Talking Heads fan, play him/her this album. If they still don't like the Talking Heads do yourself a favor and find a new friend.
7. Johnny Cash—At Folsom Prison (1968)
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” So, you may quibble that this isn’t technically a rock album. Well, it’s Cash man. I don’t care what he sang or the musical genre he presented it in, the man was rock n roll, and At Folsom Prison is a historic and seminal album. It also kicks major ass. Dare I say that this album influenced more rock bands than C/W artists? Yeah, I’ll say it.
6. Little Feat—Waiting for Columbus (1977)
If you only own one Little Feat album it should be this one. It crackles with energy and life. I dare you to put this album on and not feel better about the world. George Lowell leads this classic incarnation of Little Feat through funky, greasy Dixieland rock. Feats, don’t fail me now.
5. The Allman Brothers—Live at the Fillmore (1971)
There are moments on this seminal live album that give me goose bumps. Chief among them is Duane Allman’s searing Coltranesque solo on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” Egads. The first time I heard this version of Elizabeth Reed I almost passed out.
There is so much here—from the crazy interlocked drumming of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johnson to Greg Allman’s whiskey stained voice to Dicky Betts and Duane’s dueling virtuoso guitars. This is jazzy southern rock that sweats, moans, and soars. Outside of “Elizabeth Reed” the 22 minute “Whipping Post” contains some of the best improvisational playing I’ve ever heard. The passion and musicianship is beyond belief.
4. James Brown—Live at the Apollo (1962)
Not only is this one of the greatest live albums of all time, it’s one of the greatest albums of all time, period. I don’t have much more to say about this album except to add that if you don’t own this album, I feel sorry for you.
3. The Grateful Dead—Live/Dead (1969)
Live/Dead finds the Dead as a seven headed demonic beast playing rock music from the far side of Alpha Centauri. Compiled from a run of shows recorded in late Feb and early March 1969 at the Fillmore West, Live/Dead flows seamlessly from one intergalactic musical adventure to the next. From the modal technicolor inner-space of “Dark Star” through the psych-pop wonder-world of St. Steven, through the swinging The Eleven (yes the title refers to the meter—11 beats to the bar) the Dead finally land on some funky Venetian chicken shack where Mr. Blues, the late great Pigpen, turns on the lovelight in a devastating 15 minute funky, acid drenched, R&B workout. Turn on your lovelight, and leave it on!
I think Lenny Kaye said it best: “the music on Live/Dead touches on ground most other groups don’t even know exists.” Yup.
2. Bob Dylan and The Hawks—Live 1966: “The Royal Albert Hall” Concert (Bootleg Series Vol. 4)
In 1966 Bob Dylan and The Hawks (soon known as “The Band”) set off on a European tour that would become one of the most contentious and historically important tours in rock history. Audience members who were eager to hear the scruffy, folky “Times Are-a Changin’” troubadour were shocked at the jaded hipster they saw on stage. They were confused with the introspective psychedelic acoustic songs performed during the first set, and were downright outraged at the loud riotous rock n roll unleashed during the second set. Amid catcalls and boos, Dylan and The Hawks toured the continent unleashing raw and scathing music, forever changing what rock n roll could be and sound like.
Dylan was clearly making a statement with this tour, the stage set a year earlier when he shocked the folk world at Newport with an electric set performed with the Butterfield Blues Band (Pete Seeger reportedly stormed around looking for an axe to cut the electricity). The Hawks had not yet embraced the Americana roots they would when they became The Band, their style on this album closer to the crunching straight ahead rock they played with Ronnie Hawkins (Note: the Hawks were minus Levon Helm who was disgusted getting booed every night—Trini Lopez’s drummer Mickey Jones filled in).
The concert featured on this live release features some of the most fearsome music of the tour. (The site of the concert is actually the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Though Dylan did play the Royal Albert Hall on this tour, bootlegs of this concert were misnamed). Dylan does not sing here as much as he seethes and spits the lyrics in contempt to his hostile audience. The anger and emotion displayed by Dylan here is visceral and palpable, something the Sex Pistols could only approximate a decade later.
When an audience member shouts “Judas,” the line is drawn (side note: that’s kind of a fucked up thing to call a Jewish guy isn’t it?). Dylan spits back at the betrayed concert-goer, “I don’t believe you…you’re a liar!” and then, barely audible, he issues instructions to the Hawks, “play fucking loud!” Dylan and The Hawks launch into a blistering and venomous version of “Like a Rolling Stone.”
And they played it fucking loud.
1. The Who—Live at Leeds (1970)
This is it. This is raw, primal, bone shattering Rock n Roll. You listen to the sonic crunch of this album and you not only forgive Townsend for spending the better part of the last decade as a corporate shill, you apologize for even daring to think ill of the man. You will be awed before the sheer power and force The Who unleash on Live at Leeds. This is music that still has the power to piss off parents. Hell, play it loud and piss off the cranky old guy on the other end of town.
Keith Moon is a man possessed—you will not hear a more ferocious display on the drums. Daltrey sings as though he were the god of thunder and lightning. And Townsend and Entwistle musically tell every other rock band who ever lived to go fuck themselves. Their take on Mose Allison’s “Young Man’s Blues” almost made me go blind. Seriously. That’s how bad-ass this is—it was effecting my other senses.
Live at Leeds.
The greatest live rock album of all time.