Live Albums: A Love Letter to Music in its Purest Form

Marc HenshallUncategorized29 Comments

As live music slowly starts to return (depending on where you live), Vinyl Pursuit co-founder Tammy Brown proclaims her love for live albums and why now is the time to turn up the volume on your favorite concerts from rock history.

Words by Tammy Brown of Vinyl Pursuit


Back in the day, it was easy to dismiss live albums as filler releases pushed by record companies to shift a few more units between albums. 

Aside from this, some music fans were understandably apprehensive about live albums. This could be for a host of different reasons: Perhaps the songs just don’t sound like the studio version, or maybe the lyrics are sometimes different or even improvised? Or, there’s an unexpected guitar solo that throws you off?

And in all fairness, it’s got to be pretty tough to record a live performance. The band is, after all, live — jumping around on stage, and interacting with the crowd. 

Plus, there’s the environmental acoustics or lack thereof. Cavernous arenas or stadiums are not known for their ambient acoustics. The crowd is another factor. Too much crowd and you can’t hear the music, too little crowd, and it fails to capture the energy and atmosphere. Capturing a live recording is certainly a far cry from the controlled sanctum of the studio. 

However you feel about live albums, we’ve all missed live music during the last two years. There was a time, many moons ago, when going to a concert was routine. Tickets were affordable and the whole affair was uncomplicated and straightforward. Go back far enough, and even the security was much more relaxed (if there was any security at all).

If the events of the last few years and the phenomenon of escalating ticket prices has taught me anything, it’s that perhaps we’ve taken live music for granted.

When you’re there in the moment, nothing beats live music—arguably, music in its purest form. For one second, let’s step back in time and remember what we’ve been missing:

You might just recall… the crowd is amped! The lights come down… There’s a moment of anticipation and then… ZAM!! Pyrotechnics, the band struts out on stage, the first few notes ascend… And in that moment, members of the crowd throw knowing looks at it each other and for a couple of hours, you are completely immersed in the pageant that is the Rock Concert. Where the spectacle in the seats can easily equal what’s happening on stage. 

As the show unfolds, the band will invariably save the best for last when the band brings down the house by playing their biggest hits and leaving the crowd wanting more. Encore!! 

We’ve all experienced that afterglow as we exit the venue after a truly great (often life-affirming) performance. As we walk away, often in our newly purchased band swag, there’s a sense we now share a forever bond unlike anything else. The spectacle is complete as they head home or out into the night for further hi-jinks.

So no matter what the status of live events in your country or region, I say it’s high time we celebrate live music, starting with your favorite live albums. 

At this moment in history, a loud and imperfect live album might be exactly what the doctor ordered. But what makes a great live album?

Is it the energy of a performance? The musicianship on display? Or perhaps the chemistry between each performer and the audience?

When considering which albums make the cut, there are several albums that come up time and time again as some of the most popular live albums ever released. 

Here’s a list of live albums regularly touted as some of the best:

  • The Who – Live at Leeds
  • The Rolling Stones – ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!
  • Kiss – ‘Alive! …
  • Deep Purple – ‘Made In Japan’…
  • Allman Brothers – At Fillmore East
  • Little Feat – ‘Waiting for Columbus’…
  • Nirvana – ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’…
  • The Band – ‘The Last Waltz’…
  • Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band – ‘Live Bullet’…
  • Stop Making Sense
  • Johnny Cash – ‘At Folsom Prison’
  • Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive
  • Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Live 1975–85

Do you agree? Whatever your taste in music or opinion of each band, each of these albums represents a ‘snapshot’ of the band and the relationship with their fans at the time. 

Particularly for those who were at the event, or fans wanting a taste of what it might’ve been like to attend the show, live albums are essential. 

For record companies, though, live releases are often considered risky business for all but the biggest bands. They’re not expected to perform as well commercially, and they aren’t cheap to produce. After all, live releases are typically double album products, packaged in expensive gatefold covers, often with inserts or booklets.

Despite all these hurdles, fans have always demanded live albums, and so record companies respond with releases that attempt to capture the glory of a live concert as closely as possible.

And thank goodness they did. In the absence of live music over the past two years, and with the continued uncertainty that engulfs the world, I’ve reached for my live albums on multiple occasions for salvation. 

Turn up the volume on a live album next time you’re spinning records; in these strange times, you’ll be glad you did. 

What are your favorite live albums? Let us know in the comments below.

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Allan

It’s interesting to see the varied tastes and opinions regarding live albums that this question has prompted. Thanks for getting us all pondering and participating!

Deese Knutz

Black artists made live albums, too. I see NONE mentioned here. I cite Gratitude by Earth Wind and Fire, Live at the Apollo by James Brown, Band of Gypsies by Jimi Hendrix, Live: P Funk Earth Tour by Parliament. Live! by Bob Marley and the Wailers

Mario

Dear Deese, various writers voted Band of Gypsies yet (me also, among them!, along with a B.B. King record). Fortunately, the list of good live albums, both black and white, is large.

Tom V.

“Grand Funk Live”, Toto has several excellent live albums, Cream at Royal Albert Hall, Wings Live Over America, The Who Live at Leeds (version with Tommy), any of the Bad Company (Paul Rodgers) live albums, Neil Young Live Rust, The Bee Gees One Night Only, Dire Straits “Alchemy”, The Eagles “Hell Freezes Over”, Fleetwood Mac “The Dance”, Jimi Hendrix “Band of Gypsys, Led Zeppelin “The Song Remains The Same”, Pink Floyd “Pulse”, Queen “Live At Wembley”, Bruce Springsteen “In Concert Unplugged”, just to name a few.

Tom V.

Forgot “Skull and Roses” by the Grateful Dead

Tom V.

And Emerson, Lake, & Palmer’s classic live album “Welcome Back My Friends……….”. I attended their July 1974 concert at Rich Stadium in Buffalo, NY. This tour featured a quad sound system, which in a large venue such as a stadium, and given their music, was incredible! Around and around the sound went. The end of Karn Evil Nine 3, listen to it!

Sean

James Brown’s live albums at the Apollo were all great, as well as his shows from Paris, Augusta and Dallas.

Mario

Really, live albums are delightfull. They represent, indeed, the real way the music should be recorded: no everdubs, as in the far past or in the way that great jazz albums were recorded (Rudy Van Gelder. Do you mean something to you?).
My favourite live album, by both musical consistence and sound quality, is Procol Harum with the Edmonton Symph Orchestra. Not far of this, also B.B. King Live at Cook County Jail, Uriah Heep Live, and (both by its sound and gloom) Band of Gypsies…

David Adamson

There are very few live albums that I like as a rule the sound is flat, the exceptions are The Last Waltz, (largely because I’m a huge fan of The Band, however Caravan and the Weight on this album are excellent. The J-Geils band they are amazing live, The Grateful Dead, George Thorogood Live in Boston (same comment as J-Geils) and last but not least ELP C’Est La Vie live at the Big O in Montreal and only because I was there.

Anders N

Live Rust- Neil young & Crazy Horse. It´s a very good live album

Allan

That’s a great one!

Tom V.

As is “Live Rust”

Chris Pantoja

I’m not really a fan of live albums. The only live album I love is “Plugged” by Starflyer 59

https://www.discogs.com/release/10382411-Starflyer-59-Plugged

Kevin

1 vote for Thin Lizzy’s “Live and Dangerous,” please. Since I’m from Chicago, I’ll be voting more than once…?

Tony, Stuart

Lou Reed – Rock and Roll Animal……amazing live album…..changed my musical tastes overnight….

David A Smith

A very perceptive question, as always, and, as is usual with human endeavour,
both great and lame exist when it comes to live pop music recordings, some of which I have made myself. Whether official live albums, bootlegs (Bedspring Symphony, which blows Ya-Yas away,
but was released on the Goat’s Head Soup box) or
something similar like Dylan/The Band at “Royal Albert Hall in 1966 (actually in Manchester
Union Hall) turned official Dylan live release, live
albums have varied wildly.

My vinyl of Dylan/The Band “Before The Flood” is sitting six feet in front of me. Best versions of Band songs ever, if only for Garth Hudson’s haunting keyboards. Best Rolling Stone version I have ever heard.

Yet Dylan wasted Mick Taylor on the horrible Real Live album.

Then, one take I have is regarding two particular bands I love and own almost all their records: The Band and The Dead. Most of their studio albums are too polite or even sterile.

But listen to CD re-releases (I have all the original releases on mint vinyl) of Dead and Band 50th Anniversary recordings and they have tear-your-head-off live discs included.

So, there ya go.

Fucking human race leads to fucking great and fucking lousy live albums.

Thanks.

Vinowino

I have been buying LP’s since 1964. I have a lot. A lot of Live albums too.
The best is “Five Live Yardbirds” 1964. The first live I bought.
This is full on live music, at the Marquee Club. Eric’s younger days.
None of all this “now you sing” rubbish, no 5 minute tune-ups between each song, no “do you feel alright”, no “clap your hands” garbage. Full on R&B.
I have whittled my copies down to a 1980 re-issue on Oxford label which sounds great and my original Columbia green label mono which is my go to play. Would not sell for anything.

Jordan

A couple of live albums that have not been mentioned…
Derek & The Dominos Live At The Fillmore East – some of Clapton’s best work. Some songs stand out – the solos (multiple) in “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad” are incredible – but, in general, to me, this is Clapton at the height of his powers with a fantastic rhythm section.

Another great one is Supertramp Paris. Recorded using their own mobile 16- (32?)-track studio, the sound is great and the tracklist is awesome.

Then there’s Zappa. Like the Dead many of his albums were recorded live but were not considered live albums because of overdubs, etc. However, and album like Zappa in New York (recently released as a 40th anniversary edition) is just brilliant. Peak Zappa with one of his best lineups.

Lastly, someone mentioned the Dead. At this point, a huge portion of their live shows are available in soundboard quality. From their original catalog the “Skull & Roses” and Europe ’72 stand out for their track list and sound quality. From the newer releases you can’t go wrong with any show from the Spring ’77. Everyone knows about the 5/8/77 Cornell show, but there are others that may be even better. Check out the two box sets from May ’77 and you won’t be disappointed.

Tom V.

A second for Skull & Roses, but the 1977 set at Barton Hall (Cornell U.) is also a favorite of mine, try it

Allan

I love live albums. The artists don’t stick to the original studio recording therefore the music has a uniqueness about it. I listen to how different the songs are from the studio recordings warts and all! I have several of the albums indicated above but would like to add Pink Floyd Pulse and Led Zeppelin Celebration Day. Let’s throw some ZZ Top Live From Texas in there too. There are so many good ones. Live albums are great! Gotta turn em up though!!

Bunky

I’m about 2/3 of the way through cleaning my record collection and these are the live albums I have done so far and played:
– J. Geils – Showtime!
– Jimi Hendrix – Freedom – Atlanta Pop Festival
– (Janis) Joplin in Concert
– Neil Diamond – Hot August Night (one of my favorites)
– Aerosmith Live – Bootleg
– Animals – Greatest Hits Live!
– Cheap Trick – At Budakan
– Dave Mason – Certified Live
– Edgar Winter’s White Trash – Roadwork
I don’t know if this counts, but the Woodstock 3 LP set was certainly live – I was there! I also have an unopened Bruce Springsteen – Live / 1975 – 1985 which is a 5 LP set but since I have not listened to it I can’t rate it.

Allan

Wow you were at Woodstock! I can’t even imagine how awesome that must have been. Good for you!

Samuel Kline

That is a very fine list of the greatest live albums.
I would like to offer two more. First is Eric Clapton Unplugged. It was a lot of fun to see Eric break out the acoustic and slow these songs down creating versions that rival his electric originals.

Second might be a bit obscure but I really enjoy The Scorpions
World Wide Live.
I saw The Scorpions in the late 80’s and have always held that concert as one of my favorites.
The World Wide Live album conjures up that same feeling when I spin it on the turntable.

I’m sure I can think of many more.

Danilo

Dream Theater’s Score, great production, bombastic sound, unrivaled musicianship, the 41 minute live version of Six Degrees of Turbulence is captivating and surreal.

James D. Huycke

Having been on the bus for more than 4 decades now, I feel compelled to comment about the Grateful Dead. Most of us agree that most, but not all, of their studio efforts were pretty flat and that most, but again not necessarily all, of their live recordings were pretty good. Interestingly, very early on they experimented with an overdubbing of live and studio work on Anthem of the Sun. I recommend headphones to most fully comprehend what they did there.

Back in the analog years, many of us preferred the tapes recorded by fans out in the audience (AUD) as opposed to those that were recorded off of the soundboard (SBD) because the former often fared better at capturing the “being there” experience. The band took this approach to heart with the acoustic performances on Reckoning/For the Faithful. The liner notes tell the tale of how this was done. If you want to experience a close approximation of live sound from the listener’s perspective on a recording, you’ve got to hear that on a good surround system, or at least a good head set.

And it is true that there is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert (now Dead & Co.), but be prepared for a wide variety of sonic quality at different shows or even at the same show–walk around the venue to experience just how radically different the sound can be over a relatively short distance. If you’re lucky you might end up at a show where delay towers are set up and they play with the spatial acoustics–only my experiences of Pink Floyd have rivaled that work.

But regardless of who is performing, go see live music. It is good for you!

gregory b chick

Turning point, the album by John Mayall is so good high end stereo shops used it to sell stereos! This album is acoustic folk jazz that has a rocking harmonica song on it that defines such.
John Mayall having been and still alive! an iconic man in music, I find it odd his album Turning point to be absent from the list.
Magic Bus is some hot live action, as is Ya-Ya’s out, but keep in mind, it was John Mayall that discovered the lead guitarist Mick Taylor before Mayall himself offered him to the Stones.
I challenge any musical person to hear “Turning point” album whether or not they like Acoustical music or not, to not be amazed by the Sax and musical effect projected in this Live album. It leans towards blues more than folk, and Jazz, but the music is almost timeless and beyond define except, top live performance.

Tosh

Love a live album I would rather buy a live album over a studio recording any day……also acoustic albums are ace……I have a few by oasis, stereophonics, embrace, Amy winehouse shed seven to name a few.