09 April 2010

Best of 2009: Live Album (Take Two!)

When I turned to do the research on this category, I was surprised to discover relatively few live albums released this year -- after eliminating the shit bands and the ones completely outside the purview of this blog, I was left with only eight nine possible nominations. So rather than focus on just the winner, I thought I’d at least mention a little something about all eight nine, with more focus on the top four five.

#9 is Stevie Nicks – The Soundstage Sessions. Now, some readers of this blog are wondering why I didn’t toss her in the “shit” pile -- I’m not a fans of hers, after all. But let’s face it, her songs play some role in the soundtrack to everyone who lived through the 70s, and what’s more, her contribution wasn’t the worst thing we heard from that era by a long shot. She’s 61 years old now (this will be a recurring theme in the live album category!) and while her voice has lost some of its high range, she still manages to bring feeling to her songs and recaptures some of that Fleetwood Mac-gic, thanks in part to a very retro-sounding backing band. The album is carefully recorded in a manner to minimize the crowd (a trend I generally approve of) and overdubs were used to give it a more “studio” feel (a trend I don’t approve of). If you’ve ever enjoyed her songs, this is the best live record you’re going to get of her solo.

Next up is another ungodly-old rocker, Gary Brooker and what he calls “Procol Harum” these days. The live album is Procol Harum in Concert with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and Choir, and its an excellent example of another recent trend for older rockers, using an orchestra to beef up the sound. What can I say, its a trick that works, especially with a choir as well. Brooker’s voice is quickly turning into Kenny Rogers, but while more restrained than it was 42 years ago (!), it still does a decent enough job and the recording (which was actually made in 2006) shows off a orchestral/rock hybrid concert to good effect. Particularly good is the version of “Conquistador” which catapulted the band back into the limelight in 1972, and the other tracks from the album Grand Hotel, which was written with orchestral arrangements in mind.

Our generation’s Billy Joel, the folkie-poppy Rufus Wainwright gets the #7 ranking for his very well-recorded Milwaukee at Last!!!, yes with three exclamation points. Again, I’m not a big fan, but Wainwright is inoffensively pleasant and I would probably enjoy a concert of his, particularly if it was half as clear as this record. Again, the crowd have been low-mic’d so the instruments and voice are what shine through, and if we’re appreciating the live experience in this category this record gives you that in spades. I also appreciated his cover of Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All.”

Just missing the cut -- and believe me it was close! -- by virtue of not having been recorded this year (not even this century!) is the absolutely remarkable clear-as-a-bell remastering of Ella Fitzgerald’s 12 Nights in Hollywood, recorded in 1961 and 62. Ella released a live record from these gigs at the time, but this is additional material not heard on the old live recording. Jazz is not a genre I’m an expert in, but I appreciate good jazz, and you will never get any better female be-bopping than you get right here, folks. This 2CD set is absolutely amazing sonically, and for some reason casual listeners often forget how remarkably high and clear Ella’s voice was. It’s stunning even by modern standards and her takes on many songs now regarded as standards still keeps pace with the best vocalists today.

So now we start with the top four five. Winning Miss Congeniality this time is a guy who will never win that award any other way, Mr. Gargles-With-Gravel himself, Tom Waits and the double-CD version of Glitter and Doom Live. Waits is an acquired taste, perhaps, but his material is quite consistent, but what got this live record more than the usual amount of notice was the way it recreated the sound of being there. In an unusual move, the songs themselves were put on CD1 and the incredible stories Waits often tells between songs -- sometimes going on for as long as 20 minutes -- were put on CD2. This might prove frustrating to people who were actually at those shows (though they can re-join story and song together on the computer and burn themselves a new disk if they want), but its actually quite ingenious, leaving the musical meat separate from the oratorical two veg. Waits of course has always set himself up for vocal expectations that can never be disappointed as he ages, so his even deeper growls and gutteral noises are more beloved than ever -- a neat trick he apparently stole from Van Morrison (more about him later). I think that, like with Nick Cave, hearing an audience roar its approval of this unusual style of music and performing is essential to capturing the spirit of what it is Waits really does, and Glitter & Doom does that effortlessly. This might be the record to play for someone who’s open-minded enough to listen beyond the rasp and spittle and willing to take in the whole world Tom Waits creates.

Next up is a record I’m embarrassed to admit I overlooked in the original version of this article, thus necessitating this restacking (and a hat-tip to JD for alerting me of this most grievious omission!). For some reason I had it in my head that it came out in 2010, but not so: the prolific John Foxx indeed got his live record, In The Glow, out in 2009, joining four other albums of material released that year (!!). He should get an award for that alone (and probably will by the time I’m done!). In The Glow is actually not a “new” release, both being a couple of concerts recorded in 1983 at the height of his popularity and some of the material having appeared on limited-edition releases before -- and that’s what is keeping it out of the top three. Nevertheless this is a snapshot of a golden time for Foxx and having an “official bootleg” like this gives us a window into a period where Cold Wave of the sort Foxx helped invent was riding high.

The recording itself lacks the lush studio sound Foxx was favouring in those days, adding dollops of psychedelia to his evolving synth mastery to find an incredibly catchy balance that resulted in his two most popular albums, The Golden Section and In Mysterious Ways. It is from the former that a lot of the material on In The Glow comes from of course, though he dips into his back catalog all the way to his time leading Ultravox.

The arrangements are generally very different to the album versions and for this reason alone this 2CD set is a must-have, though the band sometimes sounds quite thin and some of the synth sounds haven’t aged well. Foxx himself seems to have some trouble with his voice in places, but overall the you’re getting two big buckets of synthpop goodness from the master himself, a time capsule of cool from 1983 just before it all went pear-shaped. If you’re into the Foxx vibe already, this is more of what you need. If you’re new to old-school synthpop or your 80s was full of the mainstream stuff and you’re ready for something that is safely of that era but different to what you heard on the radio, this is a fine starting point for your John Foxx collection (and you will want one by the time you get through this). I was only able to listen to 30-second samples per song (from iTunes UK) and that was enough to make me eager to buy, despite already owning an extensive collection of the man’s output. This is a document of a electro-craftsman and genuine artist, one of the leaders of the retro-futurist movement and by gum a great album to dance to as well. You can find it via Edsel Records (not Foxx’s usual Metamatic label).

Third place, I’m sorry second runner-up I’m giving to Chapel Hill NC’s own Squirrel Nut Zippers, who’ve re-emerged onto the scene with this live release called Lost At Sea (recorded in Brooklyn in 2008 but released last October). This live album is more than just a document of the SNZ sound in performance, its a trip back in time to the 1920s and 30s from whence “hot jazz” originated and accurately recreates the hothouse bravura of a sizzling house band raising the roof and making the smokehouse rumble. The audience are totally into it as only hard-working lower-class boozehounds can be, and the band feeds off that energy splendidly. This is the sound of working up a sweat and having a whale of a time in the process:

“If It’s Good Enough for Grandad” by Squirrel Nut Zippers

First runner-up goes to the album I would have thought to have been a shoo-in for live record of the year until I really dug into the research. Van Morrison is a man of unexpected moves and this was a big one -- a concert band assembled to tour big venues and perform the whole of his seminal hit album (although it’s really only one of his masterpieces) Astral Weeks, 40 years after it was recorded. The resulting record is called Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl, taken from the first two nights of the “tour,” and finds Morrison breaking his own rules -- performing from a preconceived set list, doing the songs more or less the same way each night. Much has been written about how Morrison’s voice has changed over the years, getting deeper and more powerful (but also softer on diction), the inevitable casualty of age and drink and smoke and weight. In some ways it’s quite brave to be doing this at all, inviting comparisons with your own younger self, but Morrison doesn’t seem to fear it, and the new versions are almost wholly new works bearing only the dressing gown of the original song. You can hear it, for example in the comparison to one of his singles from the 1968 Astral Weeks, a song most music fans can play back in their heads, now sung by an older and wiser head:

““The Way Young Lovers Do” by Van Morrison

“The Way Young Lovers Do” by Van Morrison

It’s like Morrison dares you to wish it was like it was 40 years ago, like time had stood still or he had contorted himself back into his old skin. He’s covering himself, you might say, and not like a tribute band but like a colleague who has lived more fully. The agony and the ecstasy critics and fans found in the original songs are still there, amplified by life experience and greater joys and disappointments. The backing band are superb and without the visual images of Van directing them as he plays (evident on the DVD), you just marvel at the perfect hybrid of structured arrangments that can, at any moment, break off into improvised solos at the spontaneous discretion of the singer. They know Morrison and keep up with him and his whims as only seasoned professionals could. This live album isn’t so much a comparison piece to the 60s as it is a celebration of survival, growth and a thriving against all music-industry odds. If you’re looking for a live version of Astral Weeks, this isn’t it; but if you want a victory of art with Astral Weeks as its backdrop, a defiant document of where he is now, this is a Morrison record to add to your collection

So the winner in this category, at long last, came from a most unexpected place -- my own young adulthood. Long story short, I was bored in a suburb of Atlanta in 1980-81 and for solace from my own life I would often drive the two hours north to Athens where the older, cooler college kids let me hang out, stay up late, drink beer and listen to bands on the weekends. It was the right place at the right time and all the great local acts of the time burned themselves into my brain, playing in people’s living rooms or the parking lot of a local store or even the dingy and disgusting-by-daylight 40 Watt Club. It was the college-kid experience I longed for and you couldn’t have asked for better. Among the bands I loved there was one called R.E.M. that mostly worked out of their battered old house and the Globe bar. There shows were a display of nerdy nervousness, college kids trying to fuse the late-60s sound of Byrds-like rock with the angular arty-ness of their contemporaries. They were too green to really pull it off, but they had something and everyone there knew it. The prevailing memory I had was how they would get more intense as the nervousness wore off and the alcohol kicked in as the night went on, resulting in hot steamy sweaty rock-and-roll and mumbled lyrics that approached a religious experience.

Thirty years later, I had sort of lost touch with R.E.M. I still kept an eye on their career, but I stopped caring so much. Didn’t buy the deluxe editions of the albums. Despaired of ever hearing the dozens of unrecorded (except for bootlegs) early compositions I knew from Athens. Still loved their first decade’s work, but the vibe had weakened as fame and time worked on them.

Then came R.E.M. Live at the Olympia in Dublin, a two-CD package of rehearsal tapes (with an enthusiastic Irish audience) that brought them back to where they had been in Athens, and me right along with ’em. While their increased skills made Stipe’s vocals and the band’s playing more confident, apart from that it was suddenly a hot, sweaty night at the 40 Watt in Athens in 1981 and everyone was working as hard as the band. It’s so good to know that time has not dulled those senses or their abilities to do it still, both with recent songs from Accelerate (the album they were rehearsing) and material reaching back to their first EP (and damn wonderful versions too I might add).

Unlike any of the live records I’ve mentioned other than Ella’s, this one appears unaffected by the passage of (in their case) three decades, wealth and fame; throughout the sets, the members of R.E.M. seem as hungry to please the crowd at the Olympia as they were to please their Athens schoolmates all that long time ago. Their first live album of some years back was an exercise in playing it safe, but this one has songs in half-completed form, daring arrangements on occasion and mostly just the grit and determination of every rock band that ever wanted more than anything to win over the house that evening.

What you end up with is a full circle of R.E.M.’s career, with the corporate fat squeezed out and just the muscle of the early days and selected helpings of the steps along the way to what eventually became Accelerate. Everyone is playing their hearts out and you can hear it. This may well be one of the best live rock concerts to be captured on disc since the 1970s when it comes to bottling the excitement and emotion of a live performance by a truly kick-ass rock band. If they had called it a day after this came out, they’d have exited the limelight soaked in glory; instead, according to Peter Buck, the shows captured here reinvigorated the band and convinced them they still had something left to prove.

It sure sounds like it.

“Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” by R.E.M.


Anonymous said...

Stevie Nicks has always been a no-go. I am gobsmacked that you would listen to this!!! Remember last year on Ron's blog when I was speaking favorably about another wretched 70s act I always hated, Steve Miller? I finally came to my senses and started ripping him up as I had always done? DON''T give in to the idea of cutting old hatreds slack now in your dotage because "it's all music, maaan." Sure it's tempting to respect people like Nicks because she's still around and the old grudges just might not seem like a valid use of your dissipating late-40s energy... Wise up, gullible fools!!!! In such hippie-soft sentiments lie the seeds of rot and decay!

Speaking of rot and decay, you can throw Rufus Wainwright in a hole with Stevie Nicks and give me the shovel! I first encountered the repulsive Wainwright (poor Loudon - he deserved better) opening for Roxy Music on their 2001 tour. After the horror of his singing, we made damned sure to arrive late enough to miss him at the next date on our Roxy Music mini-tour! I consider him the worst male vocalist active today, except for the inescapably Antony, who's hands-down the worst male singer I've ever heard. That he shows up on every third album I buy today is immense cause for my displeasure. It's a pain in the ass programming out tracks when you play a CD, but in his case, it's worth it!

The only albums you write of here I would deign to listen to are Waits, Fitzgerald and maybe Morrison, if I were in the mood. Indeed, I deeply regret not seeing Waits when he was in town in 2007 but I really couldn't afford the $50 ticket then, damnit!!!

The only live album I bought this year was by John Foxx. Need I say more?

chas_m said...

Can't believe I left out "In the Glow" -- somehow I overlooked it being released in 2009. May have to edit this piece accordingly once I get a chance to listen to it.

As for your first paragraph, I consider myself duly chastised. Thanks for the reminder! :)

Ron Kane said...

"you can throw Rufus Wainwright in a hole with Stevie Nicks and give me the shovel!" - I second that emotion! - RK