The Major and the Minor

A roundup of big-name recordings that live up (or down) to expectations.

These last two cuts are apt to become big hits: After all, stereotypes sell. But Enter the Dru is far more effective when its quartet of crooners is concentrating more on the crotch than on the heart.

Rush
Different Stages--Live
(Atlantic)
Black Sabbath
Reunion
(Epic)
Aerosmith
A Little South of Sanity
(Geffen)
Rolling Stones
No Security
(Virgin)

Not since the late Seventies, when in-concert recordings were as plentiful as tacky polyester fashions, has there been such an onslaught of big-name live sets as the one that struck during the final quarter of 1998. The explanation for this phenomenon has a lot to do with the changes that have taken place of late in the U.S. touring environment. Many new acts are struggling to convert their healthy CD sales into sold-out arenas, but the dinosaurs of rock continue to draw throngs eager to hear yet another rendition of the ditties they loved way back when. Moreover, these graying ticket-buyers have little interest in checking out new material by the icons of yore, because if they did and it sucked, the nostalgia balloon would be punctured. As a result, musicians are surrendering to this change-is-bad mentality in droves, knowing that by doing so, they'll get paid for playing the same old shit one more time.

This description implies that all live packages by veteran artists are essentially pointless, and for the most part, that's true. But some collections are less deserving of ridicule than others. Although Rush's Different Stages--Live is a fans-only affair, as are most albums in this format, at least it's a generous one: Two well-recorded discs captured between 1994 and 1997 are supplemented by a third CD from a 1978 date at London's Hammersmith Odeon that manages not to repeat any of the newer selections. Furthermore, Different Stages presents evidence that Rush has actually become a more listenable band over the years. The singing of today's Geddy Lee is infinitely more tolerable than the squealing, helium-esque vocals in which the bassist specialized two decades back--and thank goodness.

Black Sabbath's Reunion has a reason for being as well. The group technically existed well into the Nineties, but lead demonologist Ozzy Osbourne checked out in 1979, taking much of the act's personality with him. Since then, however, Ozzy, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward and Geezer Butler have been greeted with some serious (and appropriate) historical revisionism in the wake of the grunge movement, thereby transforming them from a critically reviled joke that only solvent huffers could love to an officially sanctioned influence. But despite the fact that Sabbath's 1997 performances demonstrated that the players haven't lost one ounce of their heaviness over the years, Reunion is still more of a souvenir than anything else. All the old faves are here--"War Pigs," "Black Sabbath," "Iron Man," "Paranoid"--and the musicians are in good spirit. Too bad Ozzy frequently sounds drunk (especially during the rambling monologue that precedes "Fairies Wear Boots") and the playing is more than a bit sloppy. Bottom line: The original versions of these songs are better. A lot better.

That's not always the case on Aerosmith's A Little South of Sanity. Considering the over-production that's marred the band's recent platters, it's nice to hear guilty pleasures such as "Falling in Love (Is Hard on the Knees)" sans the unnecessary studio sheen. But that's not enough to justify another you-were-there compilation from a combo that's already got three under its belt (1978's Live Bootleg, 1985's Classics Live! and 1987's Classics Live II, to be specific). The group is lively, sure, but the song choices are safer than sex with an inflatable doll. If there's anyone out there who really needs another copy of "Walk This Way," "Dream On" or "Sweet Emotion," either speak now or spend your money on something you don't already have.

Which brings us to the Rolling Stones, the kings of the live album. Probably even Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have forgotten by now how many of these babies they've manufactured, and in my estimation, anyone who has 1970's Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! really doesn't need another one. No Security is typical of the rest--adequately played, rough around the edges and filled with performances in which the musicians fail to top themselves. (The routine Xerox of "Gimme Shelter" is the primest of examples.) As for "Flip the Switch," "Saint of Me" and "Out of Control," a trio of newer compositions, they aren't bad, but neither are they benchmarks. Not that it'll bother Stones fanatics. They'll buy No Security out of habit, listen to it once and put it away forever, leaving them happy but a little poorer--and leaving the Stones with a few more gold coins in their vaults. Nice work if you can get it.

Garth Brooks
Double Live
(Capitol)
Pearl Jam
Live on Two Legs
(Epic)
Big Head Todd and the Monsters
Live Monsters
(Giant)
Portishead
PNYC: Roseland NYC Live
(Go Beat/London)

Live albums aren't only for the elderly: Younger artists are making plenty of them as well, albeit for different motives than the average old-timer. With Garth Brooks, numbers are the main rationale. He's absolutely obsessed with racking up more sales than any performer who's ever carried a tune, and of late, he's expended even more energy than usual in coming up with ways to push product. Brooks refused to allow the release of his CD Sevens until the new management at Capitol Records demonstrated its fealty to him, and he subsequently assembled a boxed set, The Limited Series, that was intended to entice buffs into purchasing catalogue albums they already had. But Double Live may be his cleverest marketing gambit to date. Each million copies of the package that are sold will include different CD booklets, with the first dedicated to a career overview, the second commemorating his 1997 concert in Central Park, and so on. (Six variations have been planned to date.) In its promotional material, Capitol publicists claim that Brooks is giving people extra choices, but he's also providing an incentive for completists to buy six copies of the same set, thereby assisting him mightily in his assault on music-business history. Alan Greenspan should be worried.

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