Here’s something that’s never made any sense to me. Live albums. I always feel like it would have been great to be there, but the recording only captures one dimension of the experience. And because all the rest of the experience is missing, the recording magnifies any weaknesses in the musical performance, which likely went unnoticed by the people who were actually there.
One of my first cassettes was Fleetwood Mac Live, a double album recorded around the Tusk era, when the band was absolutely huge. I received the tapes as a gift when I was probably eight or so, long before my first real live rock and roll experience. As I listened to it, I was completely enthralled, imagining myself packed into one of the venues where it was recorded with all the other fans, letting the smoke waft around my head, watching Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie slink around the stage and watching Lindsay Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood in awe. Completely self-indulgent tracks like Buckingham’s take on Peter Green’s “Oh Well” drew me in and captured my imagination. I couldn’t wait to experience the real thing.
I didn’t start going to rock shows of any kind until I was about sixteen. I’m pretty sure my first was Gene Loves Jezebel, New Order and Echo & the Bunnymen at Red Rocks. From that moment, I was hooked on the live music experience -- the smoke, the lights, the theatrics, the closeness of the crowd, the controlled and uncontrolled substances -- and I hadn’t even been exposed to the intoxicating squalor and grandeur of filthy clubs. Oh yeah, the music was also a pretty big draw.
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A good live music experience is what Wagner called the gesamptkunstwerk – a total work of art, engaging all of the senses and lifting us to new realms of consciousness. Deadheads totally get this, even if they get little else. So does anyone who digs festivals. And that’s why you just can’t capture it with even the crispest, cleanest recording. Even live videos fail to deliver the full-body orgasm that a good show rips out of you.
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I’ve been listening to a Front 242 live album today and actually laughing at it. It’s an excellent example of everything that’s wrong with live albums. Don’t get me wrong. I love 242 and have been listening to them since some time around that first Red Rocks show. Even when they’re silly and over-the-top, I let them get away with it.
I recently got my hands on this new album, spotted some familiar song titles on it and was excited, figuring it was a greatest hits or remix collection. Instead, it’s a live album, and one that does absolutely no justice to the band’s studio output. The performances lack dynamism, the sound is so-so and the songs sound nothing like the ones I’ve grown to know and love. Worst of all, on some of the heavily sample-based tracks, like the classic “Welcome to Paradise,” members of the group actually SING some of the samples of televangelists, instead of playing them on equipment that could do it much better. And I’m sure the show was amazing. If I’d been there, I might have thought that was a brave and interesting thing to try in a live setting. On record, however, it just sounds clumsy and amateurish.
On the other hand, one of my favorite recordings of all time is the double-CD version of Jeff Buckley’s Live at Sin-e. Stripped down to the basics of Buckley’s guitar and voice and recorded in a tiny space, that recording has an intimacy and immediacy that ALMOST makes you feel like you there. But really, it’s divine torture – the auditory equivalent of blue balls. Each time I listen to the record, I’m painfully reminded that I never saw Buckley live. I had the opportunity, but didn’t really appreciate him at the time. So each time I hear his stunningly faithful version of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai,” I’m filled with regret.
I don’t know about you, but I have no room in my life for any more of those regrets. That’s why I’m headed to a show right now. -- Eryc Eyl