Is there anybody alive out there?!

Beginning in the 2000’s the predominant music industry emphasis has evolved to touring – live shows – more so than to records. Yet counterintuitively (or, I don’t know, maybe it is intuitive), it’s become exceedingly rare to hear of a great live record. What’s the last notable live album you can think of? Yeah, me either.

Back in the day, as it is said, bands only hit your town once a year or more likely once in a blue moon. And more importantly, there was no YouTube to instantly pull up a seemingly endless repertoire of concert clips at a click. Live albums were where you got the sound and the sensation – your favorite band or artist (or perhaps one you wouldn’t have expected to shine in concert) as a living organism, out of the studio, rough, real…alive!

What a time to be alive

So, how about we relive the live by conducting a lively review of this now mostly bygone pillar of music history, the Live Record, with a So Much Great Music Top 10 list of The Greatest Live Albums of All Time. No waiting overnight in Ticketron lines, no day-after ringing ears, just fuel up your Bic lighters and let’s hit the show.

But first a little pre-gaming. As is always the case with our SMGM compilations (some past examples here, here, and here), in order to assemble a worthy list we’re going to need a few rules and some overarching guidelines. That is, you get the same band and corresponding songs on studio records, so what makes a great Live Album truly stand out?

  • Alright, first: a live album has an audience. Of course. But one of the keys to the dramatic experience of listening to a memorable live album is that the audience, as recorded, becomes part of the album. While you’re letting that thought sink in, I bet there’s already some classics springing to mind (to me, two stand alone in this regard, one recorded in the far west and one from the Far East…Any ideas? Stay tuned).
  • Along the same lines, an outstanding live recording must certainly include the incorporation of crowd noise, with the failure to do so being a quick disqualifier (sorry, Deadheads, the revered triple-album Europe ’72, a showcase for the mirthful improvisations of live performance dignitaries, The Grateful Dead, was subject to vast studio overdubs while whitewashing out all but the faintest hint of spectators). The presence of any overdubbing, it should be noted, is not itself an issue – a significant amount of live albums also saw work done in the studio before becoming the final versions we know – as long as its complementary to, not central, to the finished product.
  • Next, this may seem obvious, but the live album must be from, or mostly from, an actual concert – unlike, say, Live 1975-1985 from Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band or Tom Petty’s The Live Anthology, both indisputably incredible collections but surely something other than a captured moment in time. Which leads to a related note: when one digs into the real or figurative liner notes of some of the great live albums of history, a surprising number of them turn out to have been assembled from multiple shows in a city or even multiple cities in a run – to be clear, something with which I have no problem. Our live snapshots needn’t be literal start-to-finish singular shows as long as the material aggregated seems like it is. Comprised in days or weeks, in other words, not years or eras.
  • Let’s get these few things out of the way, too. No “Unplugged” records; Nirvana, the Eagles, and Eric Clapton (to name a few of note) made some essential ones. But seated/acoustic? That’s just a different category. Plug in or you’re counted out, got it? Also, though they encompass some of the most historic live events ever, we’re not including “conglomerate” concerts (think Woodstock, The Last Waltz or even The Concert for Bangladesh). Multiple stars must rate no stars for this list. And, obviously, real releases and no bootlegs (otherwise we could be here forever).
  • Oh, and God no Alive! by Kiss. All frowns for those face-painted clowns.
  • A key point: it isn’t mandatory, but to really stimulate that live event experience an actual MC introduction is a substantial boost.
  • And finally, and perhaps most intriguing to perceive, the songs on the greatest live albums of all time must take on a revised, even new, energy – catapulting them into…something else. Not simply in tempo or arrangement, but a recast spirit, a fresh vitality, whereby the live performance diverges from the established basis of songs we’ve already known, and is discrete, reborn, alive in a previously unknown form. Isn’t that the beauty of live music (even when captured on a record)?

We’ve got a live one here!

Alright, it’s time at last, let’s get into our Top 10 (plus another 15 or so – you knew I was never going to limit this to only 10) list: The Greatest Live Albums of All Time. Look alive.

25. It’s Alive (The Ramones) — Live show longevity is one thing, but here’s the other end of the spectrum: 28 songs in 53 minutes (broken up by little more than Dee Dee’s identically frantic count-offs to 4 before each number). Relentless.
24. Rock of Ages (The Band) — Recorded 4 years before The Last Waltz, it captures The Band at their fully-realized, roots-rock peak. Per Rolling Stone, “The Last Waltz tells you that The Band were great; Rock of Ages shows you.”
23. If You Want Blood You’ve Got It (AC/DC) — Their first live album, and only one with Bon Scott on vocals, was described once as “a blunt ten tracks, allowing nothing extraneous, that got straight to the point – that being raging AC/DC rock and roll.”
22. It’s Too Late To Stop Now (Van Morrison) — A high point for the often temperamental live performer, and featuring a robust 11-piece orchestra of horns and strings, it’s still Morrison’s fitful scat-like phrasing that, as only he could, demolishes all barriers between soul, blues, jazz and rock.
21. How The West Was Won (Led Zeppelin) — “It’s the magic point where it takes on a fifth element,” Jimmy Page said of these long-archived tapes from a ’72 tour. Whatever that means, it might well have taken place amid a 25-minute odyssey of ‘Dazed and Confused.’

Quick bathroom break (just imagine an indulgent 15-minute drum solo). Okay then, on with the show.

20. Full House (J. Geils Band) — Magic Dick is a bluesy harmonica locomotive on the show-stealing ‘Whammer Jammer.’
19. One For The Road (The Kinks) — Ever the antagonizer, Ray Davies follows a strummed tease of ‘Lola’ by telling the crowd “So, ah, we’re not gonna play that one tonight” (they played it, and eventually to a rapturous audience sing-along), but it’s brother Dave who commands the high-octane action welding a set list of early British Invasion to comeback-Kinks with his almighty guitar riffage.
18. Live at The Regal / Live at Cook County Jail (B.B. King) — Don’t make me choose between these two music milestones, please just don’t. The King of The Blues gets both.
17. Rock ‘N’ Roll Animal (Lou Reed) — The labyrynthine web of guitar passages that make up the intro to ‘Sweet Jane’ is just…chef’s kiss.
16. Aretha Live at The Fillmore West (Aretha Franklin) — The Queen of Soul delivers breathtaking, gospel-saturated takes on CSN, Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles, but still reaches an ecstatic crescendo on ‘Dr. Feelgood,’ which follows her introduction of “Does anybody feel like hearing the blues?” Much r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

Everybody still alive and well? We’ve listed some serious classics and haven’t even cracked the top 10. Onward we go.

15. 11-17-70 (Elton John) — Never intended as a release, the WABC radio broadcast of a stripped-down trio (Elton with bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson) playing for about 125 people on the titular date, became what John long-after referred to as his best live performance. Try to find a more affecting interpretation than the haunting ‘Sixty Years On.’
14. Live (Bob Marley & The Wailers) — Recorded over two impassioned nights in London’s Lyceum Theatre in July of 1975 with the help of the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, the languid pace, crisp production, and positive vibrations of ‘No Woman, No Cry’ has become an anthemic psalm.
13. Yessongs (Yes) — Bending our rules limits as it is compiled from distinct tours supporting two releases over 11 months. But cultivated excess was always the name of the game with these prog goliaths, and stretching 13 convoluted jams into a masterly triple album is the epic result.
12. Live at The Harlem Square (Sam Cooke) — No artist ever exhibited a more extreme duality, from elegant silky crooning in studio to uproarious soulful shouting on stage. RCA Records sat on this release for 20 years, fearing that its raw fervor might alienate Cooke’s established pop (read: white) audience.
11. Live Rust (Neil Young & Crazy Horse) — “Better to burn out than to fade away,” an uncoded message delivered in a withering sonic assault; shocking, even, to those brought up only on Harvest and After The Gold Rush Young.

The true Top 10 awaits. Keep hope alive. But before we continue, a quick sideshow. Here’s a 6-pack of picks that realistically can’t be considered among history’s greatest but are some of my personal bests (and in a just world maybe could be some of yours as well). Check out these live wires.

  • Live: In Heilbronn, Germany (The Bottle Rockets) — Hellfire heartland rock and roll, and a killer finale of ‘Cortez The Killer.’ Danke Schoen to the most underappreciated band of all time.
  • Bringing It Back Alive (The Outlaws) — The announcement of “Won’t you welcome the Florida guitar army, The Outlaws” is barely out when the furious triple lead guitar frenzy commences – unceasing, intricate, but always entirely melodic – for the next hour. All that’s left after that is a 21-minute ‘Green Grass and High Tides’ magnum opus.
  • Certified Live (Dave Mason) — A forgotten masterwork, and for my money a better take of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ than either Dylan or Hendrix (on whose version Mason played 12-string guitar).
  • Intensities In Ten Cities (Ted Nugent) — Not the music, but just for that title. Brilliant.
  • Live Alive (Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble) — A closing sermon over ‘Life Without You,’ and before it an onslaught of amazing guitar work by the greatest to have ever done it (that’s what I said, fight me).
  • Doublewide and Live (Southern Culture on The Skids) — Chapel Hill heroes in front of a home crowd playing psycho surf rock, smothered in reverb and possibly sausage gravy. Hot damn, that’s entertainment.
  • Gratitude (Earth, Wind & Fire) — The single greatest single-note crowd reaction occurs at the outset of ‘Devotion,’ which also features, near the end (at 4:16) , what may be the highest note ever sung, by the singular marvel Philip Bailey.

Back to the countdown. And, as long as everybody is still alive and kicking, we’re ready to reveal the back-half of the Top 10.

10. Live Bullet (Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band) — Still mostly just a regional act after 8 albums and nearly a decade on the road, the raw tenacity of Seger and his stalwart like-a-rock band captured in hometown Detroit’s Cobo Arena unleashed them to a national audience. “We were doing 250-300 shows a year before Live Bullet,” said Seger, “We just had that show down.” The record was released in April of ’76. Six months later came Night Moves, when all that workin’ and practicin’ finally paid off.
9. At Folsom Prison (Johnny Cash) — Hearing Johnny Cash sing the iconic line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” from ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ in front of an audience at Folsom Prison is just a little bit of perfection. The 1968 live recording came 13 years after the song’s original release; it was worth the wait.
8. Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out (Rolling Stones) — Legendary Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs wrote, “I have no doubt that it’s the best rock concert ever put on record.” Added Keith Richards, “It’s about as un-tampered with as possible.” All that, plus leaping Charlie Watts and a donkey on the cover.
7. Live at The Apollo (James Brown) — On the night of October 24, 1962 inside Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater, James Brown created some new history. His first-ever live record, recorded at Brown’s own expense, covers barely a half-hour, but includes the timeless pairing of a howling Hardest Working Man in Show Business and his squealing female fans.
6. One More From The Road (Lynyrd Skynyrd) — The definitive live version of ‘Freebird’ is obviously Smithsonian-worthy, but there’s absolutely no let-up anywhere else throughout this monster southern rock stampede from three steamy nights in Atlanta’s Fox Theatre. Ol’ Ronnie Van Zant asked the immortal question, “What song is it you want to hear?”

And now, we’re looking live at the final five.

So ladies and gentlemen, clap your hands and stomp your feet, here they are: The SMGM Greatest Live Albums of All Time.

5. Live at Leeds (The Who) — No rock opera was this one, just fearsome, anvil-heavy rock delivered on the only live album to contain The Who’s core four. Its brutal force and volcanic energy somehow stole ‘Summertime Blues,’ ‘Shakin’ All Over,’ and ‘Young Man Blues’ from their respective originators, and presaged the arrival the following year of Who’s Next, arena rock’s resounding archetype.
4. At Budokan (Cheap Trick) — It risks disrespect of an accomplished band to point out that this one presents the greatest disparity between an act’s career status with placement on our list. Nevertheless, as a totem of the live album genre its standing cannot be diminished. In late 1978 Cheap Trick had yet to attract a big U.S. audience, but had a huge following in Japan where their arrival was treated like Beatlemania. The subsequent manic participation of their screeching Japanese fans at times nearly drowned out the band, but gave hits like ‘Surrender,’ ‘I Want You to Want Me,’ and Fats Domino’s ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ pristine new life.
3. Waiting For Columbus (Little Feat) — There’s accapella ‘Join The Band,’ then D.C. radio personality Don Colwell proclaiming “Let’s hear it: F-E-A-T – please welcome Little Feat” which sets forth an edifice of entangled tunes unlike anything else that’s ever been constructed. Great as they were, nothing the Feat ever did in studio came close to the miraculous conglomeration of sounds recorded from parts of 7 shows across the first week of August, 1977: a swampy, funky, jamming, syncopated steamroller. Pick your highlights, there are nothing else, but perhaps start with the ‘Dixie Chicken’ > ‘Tripe Face Boogie’ combo. Indescribable.
2. Frampton Comes Alive (Peter Frampton) — “Woke up this morning with a wine glass in my hand.” Standing apart as the exemplar of a rock classic eternally enhanced in concert is ‘Do You Feel Like We Do.’ Musical wizardry, roller coaster rises and falls, and the audience at San Fran’s Winterland Ballroom is truly part of its wondrous execution. “Must have been a dream, I don’t believe where I’ve been / Come on, let’s do it again.” And again.
1. At Fillmore East (The Allman Brothers Band) — Where do you start with 76 minutes of pulsating bluesy/jazzy southern rockin’ euphoria? The last Allmans album created under the peerless stewardship of brother Duane, it was the artistic and commercial breakthrough for one of music history’s greatest bands. Recorded March 12-13, 1971 (the band was paid $1,250 per show), it has usurped landmark status from Bill Graham’s East Village NYC venue in which it took place. “It’s like one big long song, a giant medley,” said Gregg Allman of its unrivaled flow. So, where does one begin? How about with stage manager Michael Ahern’s simple introduction, “Okay, the Allman Brothers Band.” It’s been said that was the only low-key moment of the entire record.

Thank you. Thank you very much. Yes, thank you all for that lovely ovation. We really appreciate you coming out.

But, what’s a great concert without an encore. So we’ve got one more for you, and we’re going back to The Godfather of Soul. Thanks for coming, get home safe. Take it away, James.