You know, live albums can be hit or miss. You can go the Pink Floyd route, and make them almost indistinguishable from the studio recording with some crowd noise, or it can be like The Who’s Live at Leeds, where something was captured that never existed before or since. Whatever your musical tastes, we balance the idea that live recordings should sound like the songs we are familiar with, yet bring the excitement of a live show. For those that have followed my lists, you know they will probably be slanted towards old school fusion and prog (like this one), but hopefully there will be something here that sounds interesting enough to check out further. By the way, with all due respect to Ace, Peter, Paul, and Gene (and Daryl Hall), Kiss is not on my list.*
*There is a longstanding rumor that Kiss Alive was not live at all, but heavily overdubbed in the studio with the audience added later.
10. Mahavishnu Orchestra: Between Nothingness and Eternity
I could probably fill up this whole list with live John McLaughlin recordings, and none of them would be remotely the same. Johnny Mac’s double neck into a Marshall sounded as dangerous as Hendrix, but with a whole lot more notes. This album has 3 songs on it, but you won’t care. The interplay between guitar, violin, drums, and keys shredding at an unheard-of speed (in 1973!) unifies their formula of opening arpeggios, trading solos, unison themes and more solos. Have I mentioned the solos?
9. Jeff Beck: Live at Ronnie Scott’s
To my ears, Beck is at his best interpreting other’s material. Here, he transforms standards, Beatles’ tunes, and his back catalog into a master class in taste, tone, and leading a great band. When people state that tone is in the fingers, they are talking about this guy. I get the feeling he could take ‘Happy Birthday’ and make it into something I could listen to over and over. Go ahead, try to bend strings in tune with nothing but your floating whammy. Not so easy, is it?
8. King Crimson: B’Boom
There is no band that needs 2 guitarists, 2 drummers, and 2 bass players, but my guess is that it takes a band like King Crimson to make it work. Part composition, and plenty of improvisation, here we find no one in the band playing anything alike at any given time, yet it all meshes so perfectly. This is an album headphones are made for (so is the studio album THRAK, from which this tour was from). Guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew play angular, unpredictable lines while bassist Tony Levin and touch guitarist Trey Gunn prove that upright bass and Chapman Stick sounds awesome in a rock band. The video below is from a show on the same tour.
Yes, John McLaughlin makes another appearance, but this time on a Gibson acoustic modified with a scalloped neck and drone strings over the sound hole. This is true fusion music, melding American jazz improvisation with fast Indian rhythms. With a traditional Indian percussion instruments like the tabla, mridangam, and ghatam, McLaughlin proves he can hang with musical traditions outside of what was common in the guitar universe at the time. As always, there are lots of notes, but it is his phrasing and bending that is so refreshing.
6. Black Sabbath: Live Evil
I know, I know. It is cool to go all retro-like and go for the Ozzy-era Sabbath live albums (my favorite is Live at Last). But as a teenager, I was all about Rainbow and Dio. When I found out Ronnie James Dio was also in Black Sabbath, a dream came true. Live Evil is the first time I heard many of the older Sabbath tunes (blasphemy, right?), so Dio singing them was imprinted on me first. But it wasn’t just the voice. Tony Iommi’s mini humbucker-equipped, detuned Jay Dee guitars hit me hard. While Dio was a bit of a ham onstage, Iommi’s solo in Heaven and Hell is what did it for me. Never did power chords coming from a single guitar sound so huge.
As an honorable mention, Ozzy’s Speak of the Devil, released the same year, consisted of nothing but Sabbath songs with Brad Gillis on guitar. Brad sounded a little more modern, but no less massive. However, I question how much of Ozzy’s vocals are actually live.
5. Dixie Dregs: Night of the Living Dregs
Steve Morse is one determined guy. He is also precise. While this album contains a handful of studio tracks, it proves that he can assemble a band to play his complex compositions live. His Mahavishnu via Allman Brothers influence is on full display here and he does it all with a 4-pickup mongrel Tele with a Strat neck. These days he is no less thrilling with Deep Purple, but here he executes flawlessly-picked streams of 16th notes at breathtaking speeds.
4. Paco De Lucia, John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola: Friday Night in San Francisco
The guitar trio captured on what may be the highest selling acoustic album ever. There are so many notes flying around the speakers here that is difficult to keep track of them all. Paco plays a nylon string with his fingers, John plays a nylon string with a pick, and Al has the steel string with a pick. The real hero here for me is Al’s right hand. His rhythms are unmistakable, and while Paco and John have a rich history of ethnic music under their belts, there is something more clean and fierce behind Al’s playing. There isn’t great footage of this show online, so I picked a more recent video which showcases these titans’ individual talents.
3. Iron Maiden: Live After Death
Screeeeam for me, Long Beach! For any metal fan in the 80’s, listening to Maiden on this album was a rite of passage. It wasn’t just the epic music, but as a live album, it had the energy of actually being there when I was listening from my parent’s wool tartan couch. It wasn’t just the music, either. The packaging, with the electric blue and neon yellow colors, the equipment list, the hidden words in the artwork, and the fantastic live shots inside the multi-page booklet that only came from holding the LP while listening to the first screams of Aces High. While Maiden didn’t vary too much from the studio recordings, this album was essential listening for every heavy music fan more than 2 decades ago. While guitarist Dave Murray used humbuckers early on, these days, he has his own loaded custom pickguard available.
2. Yes: Yesshows
Released in 1980 when Yes had essentially split up, this live set was compiled from concerts in the later half of the 1970’s. Here, they are at their most adventurous, with a few songs easily over 25 minutes with a few shorter ones thrown in. Guitarist Steve Howe, known for using his Gibson ES-175, all but abandons it here. He uses a Strat on ‘Parallels’, a Tele with a Gibson PAF in the neck position on ‘The Gates of Delirium’ and a 50’s Les Paul Jr. through a fuzz into clean Fender amps for the 31 minute (!?!) ‘Ritual’. While other 70’s guitar heroes were mining the blues for their licks, Steve listened to Les Paul, Chet Atkins, and Tal Farlow. Even then, he doesn’t merely regurgitate stock licks: he turns them inside out while rewriting the role of a guitarist in a rock band. My kind of player.
1. Deep Purple: In Concert
Recorded for the BBC in 1970 and 1972, Deep Purple reminds me that rock bands didn’t always just execute their hits flawlessly in a live setting. They also don’t have to jam endlessly over 3 chords while everyone gets a solo. No, they were a different band. Not having enough songs at the 1970 concert to fill up their time, they improvised freely here. While the vocabulary wasn’t jazz, they certainly took the jazz spirit and made it much louder. New singer Ian Gillan is shrieking away, while Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord trade solos on guitar and organ respectively. Ritchie sounds to me like he is using his ES-335 on the earlier concert, and by 1972, he switched to his Strat. You can hear his warmer, woodier sound here, and to my ears, he hadn’t topped that tone since. This album was the reason I am in a band today, and the reason improvisation is an important part of my musical life.
Of course your list is going to be different than mine, and that’s the point. Hopefully something in here will be new to you, and all of it is worth investigating further.