I love live albums. There’s something about hearing the roar of the crowd from the speakers, an the artist reacting to it. A good live album is a good indicator of an artist. They either push themselves to the limit, or fall or their feet. The best live albums not only capture the energy of magic of the live experience, but can also change your perception of artist.
Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club shows Cooke racing through classics such as “Twisting the Night Away” and “Chain Gang” with an energy and reckless abandon that is not apparent on his studio work. The Who’s Live at Leeds is a tour e force of hard rock. Jimi Hendrix’ Band of Gypseys finds Hendrix exploring jazz elements, and perhaps the finest performance of an electric guitar with “Machine Gun”. Peter Frampton has spent his entire career trying to live up to the success of the massive Frampton Comes Alive! Nirvana’s Unplugged showed that the band that changed the world with their punk anthems could turn it down and still retain their power.
These are albums that add to the story of legends.
Unfortunately, most of the live albums that have had any impact were released years ago. Live albums are no considered to be part of an artist catalog, but rather an asterisk. They still exist but they are almost always tacked onto another set, whether its the infamous Live DVD or a re-issue of an older album. Seldom do you see a newer band release a single live album as its own entity. And those artist that release live albums exclusively – like Pearl Jam and Dave Matthew Band – seemingly release every single show they’ve ever recorded.
U2 – a band who I love – is one of the worst offenders in this area. The band remains one of the best live acts around, but they haven’t released a “proper” live album since 1983 instead opting for a live video for every single tour. And the “live bonus CD” while nice, too often seems like an afterthought and a cash-grab for re-issues. Thankfully, Elvis Costello reversed this trend by releasing proper Live Albums of live tracks he had been sticking on re-issues for years.
Itunes also shares some of the blame for the decline of the live album as well. If you ever log onto iTunes the front page is loaded with artists who record exclusive “Live EPs” for the digital store. While I can appreciate it as a fan of live music, I also can’t help the feeling that these bands are contractually obligated with iTunes to play these shows and then have them released.
The good news for fans is that more live music is probably being released than ever before. But if artists see their live show as their bread and butter as albums sales decline, perhaps they should give its release the same reverence.