At the moment, crowds are not especially good news
Be they a worrying source of a second wave of infection, a response to some jaw dropping injustices in the US or simply people aimlessly preventing you from getting your weekly shop done in a timely fashion, solitary living is very much the order of the day.
For me, this has had one unusual effect on my listening habits. I am not by preference someone who seeks out live recordings. I don’t mind going to live performances but the recording of the event afterwards has always been secondary to the studio album. Since I’ve been confined to the house with two cats and a six year old for company, live music has been something I’ve been listening to rather more. It allows you to vicariously experience a mass of people and importantly, a mass of people having a really good time. From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump to compiling a list of them.
Now, just like the previous list, this is not authoritative. It makes no attempt to rank the albums and presents them chronologically. It is also - and I really cannot stress this enough - not a representation of the greatest live acts. Many bands were absolutely barnstorming live (Exhibit A - The Beatles) but no truly great commercially available live recording of them strutting their stuff exists (and some acts make this list only because they were so good live, even a slightly second rate live album passes muster). It also doesn’t include The Who’s Live at Leeds which is a masterpiece but the faulty cable audible somewhere in the rig makes my teeth itch to this day, so it’s not here.
This is also an audio list rather than a DVD/Blu-ray/UHD Blu-ray one. Some of these albums have an accompanying video, most do not. The nature of a live gig is that video changes the dynamic - it’s necessarily more intrusive than tapping the feed from the desk. Your mileage, naturally, may vary. One final rider before we get going; not all these recordings are on streaming services. Most (46 I think) are but a few are not. I feel they’re good enough to be included anyway.
Muddy Waters Live at Newport 1960. Put simply, Muddy Waters turned up a jazz festival and delivered something that emphatically wasn’t jazz. Instead, it’s a tight, perfectly executed 30 minutes of Chicago Blues that doesn’t have a duff note on it.
James Brown Live at the Apollo 1962. Brown’s label was sufficiently unconvinced by the idea of a live album that he had to fund its production himself. It’s as well as he did because it’s one of the very greatest live albums of all time.
Nina Simone At the Village Gate 1962. Simone didn’t really turn in a duff live performance in her entire career but this one is sheer perfection from start to finish aided by it being an outstanding recording too.
BB King Live at the Regal 1965. The live musician’s live album (apparently Eric Clapton used to listen to it before going to on stage to get himself tee’d up). This is another display of a great musician making use of a backing band of barely less talent to produce a simply perfect set.
Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison 1968. The birth of ‘The Man in Black’, and the point where Cash transcended a genre to become something more. Was the outlaw stance contrived? Probably, but he did it sufficiently well that it doesn’t matter.
Aretha Franklin Live at Filmore West 1971. Another performer who very rarely gave anything other than her all in a live gig, this still stands out as a truly special effort. What makes it particularly effective is the combination of hits and less played content into a single blinding set.
The Allman Brothers Band At Filmore East 1971. One of the all time great live albums because it captures a feeling of the night itself - a collection of great musicians enjoying the moment. As a combination of musicianship, material and recording, it has rarely been equalled.
Neil Diamond Hot August Night 1972. Neil Diamond is not cool. I’m not even sure that he’s post ironic. All I ask with this one is you give it a shot. Just sit down, give it a reasonable amount of volume and let it happen to you. You might be surprised at the effect.
Elvis Presley Aloha from Hawaii 1973. Behind the clichés (the clothes! The hair! The hundred thousand calorie sandwiches!), when all is said and done, Elvis was an incredible live act. You don’t pack ‘em in night after night if you aren’t. This probably isn’t his finest effort but it’s a wonderful set and it has the fundamental tightness that live albums need. Plus it sounds like he’s enjoying himself.
Neil Young Time Fades Away 1973. By contrast, Neil Young isn’t having a good time on Time Fades Away - it’s not entirely certain anyone is. This is an outlier on the list. It isn’t a joyous romp, it’s angrier, more personal and more painful. It is still an absolutely stupendous piece of live performance art though and monumentally good.
Kiss Alive! 1975. Another one where it is necessary to separate art from the artist(s). Are Kiss objectively good? No, not really. Are they brilliant live? Oh my, yes. This is an absolutely barnstorming live album because all the basic ingredients are applied in the right amounts. It rocks.
Bob Marley and Wailers Live 1975. In some ways, it might be best to think of Bob Marley and a Wailers as a great live act that was occasionally cajoled into a studio to record albums. This album is so synonymous with their ‘house sound’ that it eclipses many of their studio works. Includes the definitive version of No Woman, No Cry as if to emphasise the point.
Peter Frampton Frampton Comes Alive! 1976. Another artist arguably happier on stage than in the studio, this album sold by the truckload (it’s one of the rare examples of a record you can still find for a pittance in a charity shop that is actually good). To listen to it on a decent system is to get very close to time travel.
Lynyrd Skynyd One More From the Road 1976. There isn’t a single radical thing about Skynrd’s most famous live album and, really that doesn’t matter. It’s an effective set that covers off the basics from the first three albums bar possibly I Need You and has a version of Free Bird that goes on for about a week which is all you can ask for really.
Led Zeppelin The Song Remains the Same 1976 (recorded earlier). Led Zeppelin ranks as one of the best live acts there has ever been. Unfortunately, nothing ever committed to recording quite encapsulates the quality of their performance. This is still a mighty album though and one that really benefits from sitting down and listening to all the way through.
Jackson Browne Running on Empty 1977. An oddity on the list because it’s both an original material release and a live album (…mostly). This is arguably the least creative album Browne ever recorded but it is seriously and compellingly wonderful to listen to for all that.
Little Feat Waiting for Columbus 1978. Sadly Little Feat waited until the point where the band’s trajectory was on the slide and Lowell George weighed more than I do to cut a live album. Despite this, it’s still a magnificent set. This is more than a ‘blast through the hits’ effort, with all the tracks being significantly embellished for it, making it a much more distinctive listening experience.
David Bowie Stage 1978. Another magnificent live act who had some issues capturing the magic on a live album. Bowie’s live material is either bedevilled by complexity (Glass Spider, I’m looking at you) or being sufficiently late in his career that some of the fire had gone. It’s fair to say that Stage is the ‘best we have of Bowie live’ rather than ‘the best of live Bowie.’ Even so, it’s a great set delivered with panache and musicianship, with enough variation from the studio material to be interesting.
Cheap Trick Live at Budokan 1979. I don’t really get terribly excited by studio Cheap Trick albums. I can admire the craft and they wrote some great songs but ‘the fizz’ (© James May) isn’t there. This set has more fizz than an Alka-Seltzer suppository. It is an absolute belter from start to finish.
ZZ Top Live in Germany 1980. Fragments of truly great live ZZ Top exist; the first side of Fandango!, the unearthed tracks on the remasters etc, but this is the best of the dedicated live efforts. It’s Championship rather than Premier League but that still makes for a great live album that gets all the ‘pre Eliminator’ goodness down in a single set.
Pink Floyd Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live 80-81 (released 2000). There are a few Floyd live albums to choose from but this one strikes the best balance between theatre and musicality before the theatre overwhelmed the music. Fundamentally, it’s a ‘clean run’ through The Wall (which, free from the constraints of fitting to 2 LPs is longer) and forms the basis of the Waters show that exists to this day. It’s better than the Waters show though because much as they really didn’t like each other by this point, Waters and Gilmour together are better than them working apart.
U2 Under a Blood Red Sky 1983. For the avoidance of all doubt, Bono is not someone I wish to be stuck in a lift with. I have no difficulty reconciling that with the statement that this is one of the very finest front man performances ever captured on a recording. U2 became one of the biggest bands in the world on the strength of this performance alone.
Talking Heads Stop Making Sense 1984. Perfection. That is all. If there was one concert on this list I could point my DeLorean at to attend, it would be this one.
Queen Live at Wembley 1986. Yes, Queen is a marmite band but they were untouchable live. What (I think) made them as good as they were (aside from the fact there are entire orchestras with less stage presence than Freddie Mercury) is that this set goes everywhere, from the monster hits to little gems from the early albums. Adding a certain poignancy is the knowledge that 1986 was ‘it’ and Queen would not perform in this manner again.
Talk Talk London 1986 (1986). There are a few problems with this one, I freely admit. It’s not on streaming services and a CD (a CD!) of it will cost you £40 used. There are other ways of getting a taste though and what this album does is special. It captures a band at a moment of metamorphosis, taking their earlier work and viewing it through this new prism. It’s magical.
Peter Gabriel Live in Athens 1987. I’m aware that there are a few live Gabriel albums on the streaming services and this isn’t one of them. I’m afraid that I don’t care. Gabriel is an incredible performer and this is the best of the best of the best. Hunt it out.
Depeche Mode 101 1989. The path of some lads from Essex become stadium filling leviathans is an unlikely one but listen to this and it makes more sense. An absolutely sensational set delivered with enough of the venue in it to be an experience.
Nirvana MTV Unplugged in New York 1994. Not a lot needs to be said about this one. Would it be as big a deal if Kurt Cobain hadn’t been dead 120 days later? Maybe not. Judged on its own merits though this is a great live album because it allows for the examination of the band’s repertoire in a completely different setting.
Sun Electric 30.7.94 1994. Our first truly electronic entry. A beautiful, shimmering, hour long soundscape that unfolds gently in front of the listener. Sounds absolutely of the moment despite being a quarter of a century old.
Dead Can Dance Toward the Within 1994. A transcendent live recording that I’ve used as a reference for many years. It also perfectly encapsulates the Dead Can Dance ethos. Intended to be the support tour for Into the Labyrinth, it opens with Rakim; a track not on that - or any other Dead Can Dance album and that the band wouldn’t mention or play again for two years. Classic.
Spiritualized Royal Albert Hall October 10th 1997 1997. Another live album that I would argue is superior to any of the studio work (and for the avoidance of doubt, I like their studio work very much). A giant, endlessly unfolding musical journey. One of the first recordings from the good old RAH that doesn’t sound like it was recorded in a toilet, which is a bonus.
Nils Lofgren Acoustic Live 1998. Yes, it’s an audiophile cliché. Yes, I’ve heard Keith Don’t Go more times than I care to think about. Despite all this, it remains a truly outstanding combination of performance and recording.
Fatboy Slim On the Floor at the Boutique 1998. Forgive me a moment of indulgence. This is the only album on the list that I was there for, fake ID in hand (not needed in the event), for the recording of. It’s as well it was released on CD because I don’t remember much. Everything that made Big Beat is here in this absolute riot of a set.
Underworld Everything Everything 2000. The challenge for electronic acts releasing live albums is that much of their impact is visual. This makes Underworld’s effort very special because it doesn’t suffer for a lack of visual accompaniment. It’s a masterpiece that also belongs in the ‘albums I am no longer allowed to drive to’ category.
Jay-Z Unplugged 2001. Judged objectively, this shouldn’t work. Due to the near transcendent talents of everyone involved, it just does. For me, this is the finest piece of work Jay-Z has ever created.
Radiohead I Might Be Wrong 2001. A moment of heresy; I ‘quite like’ Radiohead. I recognise their flair, inventiveness and fearlessness and OK Computer is an all-time great work but I’m not really a fan of the Kid A/Amnesiac phase. In some ways, this is like an ‘Oxford Notes’ for those albums. To hear these arrangements left me more sympathetic to them. It also demonstrates that they are seriously good live.
Kraftwerk Minimum Maximum 2003. Another electronic gig that manages to defy the loss of its magnificent visuals and deliver something that is immersive and compelling. On a system with a bit of heft, Radio Activity is a genuine goosebump moment.
Muse HAARP 2006. Another band that provokes strong responses from many people. All I would say is that if you’re going to perform in a stadium, you need a bit of bombast. Muse has that bombast in spades and also goes in for a set that has a bit more verve than the studio versions.
My Morning Jacket Okonokos 2006. My Morning Jacket’s studio albums are very good. Put on stage they’re truly great. What makes this a fairly special set is that you don’t need to have much (or indeed any) prior investment in the band to recognise a spark of greatness in it.
White Stripes Under the Great White Northern Lights 2007. If you want a live White Stripes album, this is your option. It’s not perfect but it’s boisterous, inventive and sufficiently different to the studio material to style it out.
Daft Punk Alive 2007. The second live Daft Punk album is a mix of the first three albums wound together in a truly inventive way. The crowd noise helps to make this one; listen out for the extended run in to Da Funk that has different parts of the crowd recognising what they’re listening to at different speeds.
David Gilmour Live in Gdansk 2008. Earlier, I said that Gilmour and Waters do their best work together, and they do but Gilmour on his own has his moments. This, of all the Gilmour live albums is the one that transcends his general desire to noodle away staring at a light fitting at the top of the stage. Helped by the presence of some mighty supporting musicians including Floyd bandmate Richard Wright, (who sadly died shortly after this was released) and a full orchestra give this a bit of heft. As you might imagine, the recording itself is audiophile pornography too.
Regina Spektor Live in London 2010. The one word summary for this is ‘joyous.’ Spektor is a magical live performer, the audience is having a riot and there is a lightness of touch that some artists never quite manage. It is hard not to end this album in a better mood than when you started it.
Fink Wheels Turn Beneath My Feet 2012. Another exercise in consummate musicianship. Fink manages to mix tracks from the (then) newly released Perfect Darkness with his back catalogue to the benefit of both. Not a barnburner but a reflective pleasure.
John Grant John Grant and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra: Live in Concert 2014. Released as a supporting piece for the mighty Pale Green Ghosts, this is an extraordinary work that manages to bridge moments of speaker shredding fury with improbable delicacy.
Autechre Live in Krakow 2014. A rather different experience to anything else on the list. This is something to be listened to loud and in the dark.
LCD Soundsystem The Long Goodbye 2014. As it turns out, this wasn’t actually to be goodbye from LCD Soundsystem but, at the time, they believed it was and the palpable desire to ‘go out on a high’ pervades the whole recording. A truly great set, performed at 11/10 levels of commitment.
Gov’t Mule Dark Side of the Mule 2014 (recorded earlier). One of the reasons I had no trouble not picking Floyd’s Pulse for this list is because this exists. Containing big slugs of DSOTM and WYWH but unencumbered by the need to match everything to the second to keep the lasers looking pretty, this is better live take on those albums than any late Floyd effort.
Public Service Broadcasting Live at Brixton 2016. Even stripped of the supporting visuals (which I saw earlier on this tour and can confirm were spectacular), this is a truly invigorating experience that blasts through the catalogue with real verve. Go! has never sounded more euphoric than here.
Bloc Party Silent Alarm Live 2019. This one lives or dies on whether you like Silent Alarm. As I love it, this is a gift. A blast through a mighty album by a band having fun in front of an audience enjoying themselves even more.
So there you have it. As before, feel free to add your suggestions to the comments and I hope that there’s a few things on there that might be new to you.