The last time I dealt with live albums was apparently in 2009, so I’d say an update was due.
As such, here are three good live albums, my favorites, for a number of different genres:
If you only want one: Live at the Regal – BB King. This well-known work showcases King’s excellent guitar skills, good crowd chatter, and lots of energy. Everything you want in a live album from one of the best guitarists ever.
Second opinion: At Newport 1960 – Muddy Waters. ‘Newport’ is probably Waters’ best recording, outside of an anthology. It has a mature sound – a trim 9-song set made some years after he’d first recorded these favorites.
A contrasting view: Irish Tour ’74 – Rory Gallagher. If you want something different, try Gallagher’s impressive blues-rock album. He was probably the only artist with enough cred to go to Northern Ireland to record this during the Troubles.
If you only want one: At Folsom Prison – Johnny Cash. Famous country singer plays for a pack of prisoners, who bring incredible energy to the whole proceeding. The expanded 19-track version is worth the extra three songs.
Second opinion: Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas – Townes Van Zandt. ‘Old Quarter’ captures the ‘solo performer in a country bar’ sound. Van Zandt was a consummate Country songwriter.
A contrasting view: Live – Allison Krauss and Union Station. For a more bluegrass-y country sound the sprawling 25-track, hour and forty-five minute album is an excellent choice. Krauss, as always, shines as both a fiddler and a top-notch vocalist.
If you only want one: There and Now: Live in Vancouver 1968 – Phil Ochs. It’s a rare album in which the spoken word sections are as good as the music, but Ochs pulls this off with his bemused and acerbic reflections on America at a crossroads. It feels increasingly prescient.
Second opinion: We Shall Overcome – The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert – Pete Seeger. To contrast, the optimism of Seeger’s Civil Rights-era concert turns Carnegie Hall into a singalong, which is incredibly infectious. Some filler of this two-disc work puts it just slightly behind Ochs in my estimations.
A contrasting view: Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 – Tim Buckley. The folk singer in a coffeehouse cliché is upended in this delightfully ethereal set. The often haunting lyrics are matched with atypical vocal and instrumental pairings.
Jazz: Swing – Bop
If you only want one: The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert – Benny Goodman. This landmark swing album was the first time jazz got its due as ‘important’ music – by making stuffy Carnegie Hall’s classical set want to dance. Tremendous energy makes it the top choice.
Second opinion: Ellington at Newport – Duke Ellington. Ellington’s career was practically over in 1957, but by pulling out all the stops he gets Newport to go wild. One of the tracks towards the end is actually called “Riot Prevention” – available only on the proper two-disc re-release (the original 5-track vinyl was actually a faked ‘live’ recording done in the studio which doesn’t capture the energy nearly as well).
A contrasting view: A Night at the Village Vanguard – Sonny Rollins. For the bop/hard bop fans, if swing isn’t your thing, try the ‘Saxophone Colossus’ at the peak of his powers. The original six-track album is tighter, but if you like what you hear try the full 18-song playlist.
If you only want one: The Koln Concert – Keith Jarrett. After years of jazz fusion Jarrett recorded an achingly gorgeous solo piano concert, all-improvised on the spot. One of the highlights of any sort of concert performance, in any genre.
Second opinion: Swiss Movement – Les McCann and Eddie Harris. A festival atmosphere prevails in this soul-jazz recording. Most notably, McCann and Harris hadn’t played together before this – but the lead single crossed-over to become a hit all the same.
A contrasting view: Sunday at the Village Vanguard – Bill Evans Trio. If you like quiet jazz where the sounds of the polite diners in the background stirring iced tea are as much a part of the performance as the musician’s instruments, this is the album for you. They even cover a Disney tune, “Alice in Wonderland”.
R&B and Soul
If you only want one: Live at the Apollo – James Brown. The best live album in any genre, in my humble opinion (and many other people’s). The energy is unparalleled, the showmanship is A+, and the crowd is the most frenzied.
Second opinion: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 – Sam Cooke. This is the album that made me rethink Otis Redding – because Cooke out-growls and out-pleads him. Gritty and hard-working, it does sort of up-end the ‘cool’ image of Cooke – but for the better.
A contrasting view: New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live! – James Booker. An unusual work (is it R&B? Jazz? Blues?), Booker is so sunshine-happy that it seeps deep into your bones. Nice if you like standards with lots of flourish and fun.
Rock: Jam Bands
If you only want one: At Fillmore East – The Allman Brothers Band. Duane Allman was a ridiculously talented guitarist, and Gregg a top-notch composer. Together, backed by their great band, they spin out Southern rock tracks into 25-minute masterpieces.
Second opinion: Live/Dead – Grateful Dead. Probably the most famous group representing the jam-band mentality, this first release benefits from being highlights culled from various sets, months apart. If you’d prefer an uninterrupted take of their groove, try ‘Europe ’72’.
A contrasting view: Band of Gypsys – Band of Gypsys. Recorded in the last days of 1969, and the first days of 1970, Jimi Hendrix split from the Experience and released six tracks lasting 45 minutes. It’s the last recording of his lifetime, and shows him at his most musically ambitious.
Rock: Non-Jam Bands
If you only want one: Stop Making Sense – Talking Heads. The proper, 16-song version of the concert is one massive crescendo – first with just Byrne on stage, and then he’s joined by one band member, then another. By the end there’s a crowd of musicians performing to a crowd of cheering fans.
Second opinion: MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana. On the other end of the spectrum, let’s take Nirvana’s grunge and strip it down to the basics, in an intimacy that allows listeners to see past the snarl. Did you know Kurt Cobain could sing (and not just scream)?
A contrasting view: The Concert for Bangladesh – George Harrison et al. The first charity concert, was, of course, created by Harrison, who got an all-star lineup to help raise funds, from Ravi Shankar to Bob Dylan, to Eric Clapton. A triple-album of great energy directed for a cause to help the then-(and now again) suffering country.