In 2021, we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of that momentous year in music – 1971 – and ran an occasional series in which our writers, friends and associates shared their thoughts on some of their favourite albums from that year. This year, we’ve decided to focus on the great live albums that we’ve enjoyed over the years and, over the course of 2022, we’ll be taking a detailed look at some of the ones we like best. To get things rolling, a few of our regular writers, Mike Ainscoe, Dom Walsh, John Barlass, Howard King and Seuras Og have had a think, and each have offered a short summary of what they consider to be their five favourite LIVE albums of all time…
First, let’s consider… What makes a truly great LIVE album?
Well – to me, at least, it’s a recording that recreates, as closely as possible, the experience of actually being at the gig. It provides the tingling anticipation, you can sense the crowd around you, it includes enough stage banter and dialogue to convey the sense of occasion, it sends that shiver down your spine as the band launch into an old favourite, it gives the listener the chance to appreciate some less familiar material and, above all, it leaves you excited and craving for more.
A good live album contains a mix of the familiar and the new, but always with a twist. The delivery of the songs is more urgent, the solos are more dramatic and often rougher around the edges, the lyrics can be changed – sometimes to suit the location of the show – and the audience play their part audibly and effectively. We’ve all missed being able to attend live shows during the past two years of COVID constraints and, for many of us, settling down with the live album of our choice has been our next-best option.
At this point it’s worth mentioning the thoughts of Chairman Slash on the matter. In his autobiograhpy, he talks of the time when as a budding musician, in the Eighth Grade, he would go robbing cassettes. He always started his stealing with a band’s live album. “The only way to determine whether or not any band is worth your attention,” he says. He even mentions some albums in our lists. It was his, and quite often many fans, starting point. A sound philosophy…the live album, not the shoplifting…
So, without further ado, here’s a taste of the live albums that our writers recommend. As usual, each writers choices are in no particular order; we believe there’s something here for every taste and I’m sure that you’ll agree, there’s been some wonderful live recordings made over the years…
Johnny Cash At San Quentin
This was the first full-priced album that I ever bought with my own money, way back in 1969. Many commentators prefer Cash’s other “Prison” album, 1968’s At Folsom Prison, but the San Quentin album is the one that I always return to. The excitement is palpable, the audience is raucous, and it’s clear that Cash held the destiny of the prison in the palm of his hand for the duration of his show. There’s no doubt whatsoever that, if Cash had called on his audience of inmates to riot and bust out of the jail, they’d have done it, and the guards wouldn’t have been able to resist. There’s humour, some great songs and Cash’s dialogue with the audience is both sympathetic and incendiary. Favourite bits include Cash’s disdain for the TV crew that was filming the event for a television special, the leering and the wolf-whistles as Johnny’s wife, June Carter takes the stage and, best of all, the audience reaction to the line “San Quentin – I hate every inch of you” in the song that Cash composed specially for the show.
Free – Live
I’ve always liked Free. To me, they’re the epitome of the tight guitar/bass/drums/vocal blues-rock act that we all loved at the turn of the 1970s. Perhaps they weren’t as showy as Led Zeppelin, but each of the band’s members was a master of his craft, the Paul Rodgers/Andy Fraser writing team came up with loads of solid gold classics and, in Paul Rodgers, the band had the best British/white blues-rock-soul vocalist around at the time. I never managed to see them live, but their Live album, released in 1971, just as the band was starting to fracture, gives a real taste of what they were like. Recorded at Sunderland Locarno and at The Fairfield Halls, Croydon (the venue for several other notable Live albums, including offerings from Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, the Nice and Fairport Convention) the band are on top form and give classic performances of a string of their most popular numbers, including Fire And Water, Ride On Pony, The Hunter and, of course, All Right Now. And Andy Johns’ production captures a classic “live” sound – you really feel as though you’re there!
Mott The Hoople – Live (30th Anniversary Edition)
Mott the Hoople at Buxton Festival in July 1974 remains the most exciting live show I ever attended. In fact, it left such an impression that I was moved to wax at great length about the show in the pages of At The Barrier, back in January 2020. I was delighted, therefore, when CBS Records announced the release of a live Mott album in November of that same year. Sadly, the album was a disappointment; it took tracks from shows at the Uris Theatre on Broadway, Manhattan and from the band’s favourite “home” venue, Hammersmith Odeon, the production was muddy, the track selection was weird and the album failed spectacularly to capture the excitement of this most dramatic of live bands in full glorious flow. Thankfully, those deficiencies were corrected in 2004 when this 2CD set was issued, with a cleaned-up production and virtually the full sets from each of the original shows. It’s awesome; the inclusion of the majestic Marionette from the Broadway show is almost worth the price of the album on its own and, when the band burst into All The Young Dudes, the hairs on your neck go berserk!
The Rolling Stones – Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out
There have been numerous live Stones albums over the years, but, to me, and to many others, Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out is undisputedly their best. The album was recorded in Baltimore and New York City during the band’s 1969 US “comeback” tour, just a month before their notorious appearance at the Altamont Free Festival. It’s the first Stones album to fully feature new guitarist Mick Taylor (he’d guested on their most recent studio album, Let It Bleed), and they’re on blistering form throughout. The setlist majors on the Let It Bleed album and Mick T really cuts loose on tracks like Midnight Rambler and Live With Me. The version of Honky Tonk Women beats any other version that the Stones ever committed to tape and Mick’s stage announcements – “We don’t want me trahsers to fall dahn, now – do we?” and “Charlie’s good tonight, inee?” are priceless and timeless.
Warren Zevon – Stand in the Fire
If I was pushed to nominate my all-time favourite live album, my choice would be this one. Recorded in August 1980 at The Roxy, Hollywood and released in November of that year, Stand in the Fire is, truly, the live album that has everything. The band are, quite appropriately, on fire and Zevon is at his wild, demonic best. The songs come thick and fast, Jeannie Needs A Shooter, Excitable Boy, Mohammed’s Radio, Lawyers, Guns and Money, Werewolves of London (of course) and the rest. The vocal ad-libs are wonderful; I saw Jackson Browne walking slow down the avenue/You know his heart is perfect and He’ll rip your lungs out, Jim/And He’s looking for JAMES TAYLOR!!! are two examples from the mind-blowing performance of Werewolves and Warren is genuinely threatening as he stalks the stage, growling, uttering and screaming. Perhaps my favourite bit comes in Poor, Poor Pitiful Me, when Warren invites road-manager and aide-de-camp George Gruel onto the stage with the threat: “Where’s George Gruel, my road manager? My Best friend! C’mon out here George. Get up and dance, or I’ll kill ya! That goes for the rest of ya too!” Absolutely thrilling!!
Genesis – Seconds Out
No surprise there for anyone who knows me. The record that’s responsible for guiding so much of my musical life. My first encounter with the wonderful world of Genesis. Possibly seduced by the iconic Armando Gallo live shot on the cover, it represented the end of an era; a record that contains a clutch of Gabriel period classics and the best of their post-Gabriel two album output. Recorded in Paris in 1977 with The Cinema Show carried over from the 1976 tour, it captures the best of that ’76/’77 touring era. Of course it wasn’t the full show, in order (I’d get to collecting those later) but the contents saw me marvel at the sound of four musicians making the sort of noises that I’d not heard the likes of before. For definitive versions (IMHO) check out the second record with Supper’s Ready, The Cinema Show and the Dance On A Volcano/Los Endos sequence. Oh and how they would miss Steve Hackett’s contribution (he left during the mixing of the album) as the Genesis became three – his ghostly guitar sound on Carpet Crawl (and not the showcase solo on Firth Of Fifth) may be his personal highlight of the album.
David Bowie – Stage
A fuller version of a show from this tour was released as Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78) which has the whole gig in the correct running order. Yes, I have that too and it has Sound And Vision (possibly my fave Bowie track) but of the two, I’d bizarrely still go back to the Stage. The delight at the return of Ziggy, the stark white lights and the baggy pants might have all been part of the package, but this was Bowie at his grandest. Sean Mayes (who played piano on the tour) wrote a nice tour diary which is a handy view from the inner circle, probably typifying the excitement amongst the band (as well as the audience) when Bowie decided to resurrect a bunch of Ziggy songs for the show. That combination (and contrast) of the old and the newer music from the Berlin pair, Low and “Heroes”, (albeit not in the correct concert sequence which never bothered me) was the killer touch that had me wallowing in the live experience from what’s my personal favourite Bowie era. I’m on the lookout for a nice copy of the yellow vinyl version….
Motorhead – No Sleep ‘Til Hammersmith
I could have picked any of a number of live albums by Hard Rock/Metal bands, but from so many iconic releases from which to choose (Live & Dangerous, Made In Japan, Strangers In The Night – all albums that my colleagues on ATB have discussed), this has to be ‘the one’. Recently released in an expanded format with the associated recordings of full shows from Leeds Queens Hall (“I’ve never played a bus station before,” mutters Lemmy) and Newcastle City Hall, it puts flesh on the bones of what was a stonking single vinyl live record. Perhaps the thought of a double live from Motorhead was too much to bear. Lemmy, Fast’ Eddie Clarke and Phil Taylor live, as the Motorhead lineup that produced arguably their best work. We all know ‘the hits’, but the speed (the tempos…not the drug, although…) and aggression of the live versions combined with a stage show where the visuals were at their peak with the overhead bomber bearing down, the effect is explosive. Probably what music sounds like when it goes to eleven.
Blue Oyster Cult – Some Enchanted Evening
So, Thin Lizzy, just after the Live & Dangerous period was my first ever gig. Blue Oyster Cult circa Some Enchanted Evening was my second (with Magnum as support). Released as a single album (again! as opposed to the standard double live) it was my go-to BOC album. Of course, it contained ‘the hit’ and a definitive version of Astronomy as well as a couple of covers in the seven tracks, all defined by Donald Roeser’s pure guitar tone and the weirdness of the Sci-Fi direction of the lyrics. And the cover – hard not to judge the book by the cover – of the grim reaper on horseback crossing the scorched earth extraterrestrial plain. You can imagine my delight when I unearthed a rare (to me, at least) CD version of the 2007 reissue of the album whilst browsing in the narrowboat record store, moored on the canal in Cropredy during the festival weekend in 2018. This expanded version includes no less than seven extra tracks, PLUS a DVD of the band’s 1978 show in Largo, Maryland. All for £2 as the sleeve was a bit bashed. Bargain!
Peter Gabriel – Plays Live
Another live album that marked the end of an era. Those first four Gabriel albums IMHO, were never bettered. He may have gone global with So in the mid-Eighties, but from 77-83, he’d already shown his true colours as an inventive and boundary-pushing solo artist. Plays Live commits the best of the four solo albums in live versions – from the tribal Rhythm Of The Heat through to the stirring Biko and including the first release of I Go Swimming. His band of Levin, Rhodes, Marotta and Larry Fast were on it, as seen when the 1982 American our that spawned the album came to the UK and Europe in a visual extravaganza, Gabriel in full makeup, emerging onstage through the audience, bounding around the multiple levels and then heading back into the throng with a leap of faith. Again, IMHO, never bettered. The production adds a smooth finish to the excitement of the performances. I saw four shows on that tour, bizarrely named Playtime 1988, but we were used to that – that’s another story to explore in the coming months – which makes Plays Live a special souvenir of that time.
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Four Way Street
This album shows this supergroup unit supporting each other delivering classics from their the early CS and N albums and Neil Young’s solo albums. The massive egos within the band and the much-documented drug-related issues within the band had yet to erupt as this concert displayed their vulnerability and nervousness at this new stage in their career and their incredible power and musical prowess, particularly in their version of Southern Man. The sheer raw dynamics were mind-blowing on the first listen.
Genesis – Live: When Genesis was a proper prog band and not a pop group (sorry Mike – just saying!!) they issued this live album. It was my introduction to Genesis before I got to see them live on the Selling England By The Pound tour. From the first haunting notes of Watcher Of The Skies to the surreal tale of Return Of The Giant Hogweed the innovation and experimental ideas were thoroughly captivating and exciting.
The album completely established Musical Box as my favourite Genesis song. Although many were disappointed by the omission of Supper’s Ready there were more than adequate replacements in The Knife and Get ‘Em Out By Friday.
Van Morrison – It’s Too Late to Stop Now
Van Morrison at his mercurial best played this live concert with a string quartet. His vocal acrobatics, his subtle conducting of the band, and his improvisations may have been challenging for his supporting musicians but the sheer joy they all had comes through loud and clear as they had to juggle what they had rehearsed and the surprises he had in store for them. His stagecraft is a masterclass in musical entertainment. His versions of Cypress Avenue and Caravan are outstanding alongside his souped-up classics Here Comes The Night and Gloria. Listen to the radio today and you’d think he only wrote 3 songs, Brown Eyed Girl , Moondance and Bright Side of the Road. None are in this set!!! Funky, bluesy, jazzy and a touch of classical this is a band and their leader at the top of their game.
Roger Waters – Us And Them
With a hearty dip into Dark Side Of The Moon favourites plus plentiful visits to every album post-Syd and a smattering of Roger Waters’ solo material there is plenty here for Floyd fans of any longevity to rave and drool over (prizes for the first person to recognise the subtle reference there!) You have to give Roger Waters a huge slap on the back to summon up the stamina to put together his ensemble of musicians, create a magnificent presentation to supplement the music in his early seventies. This is the nearest those who have never seen the DSOTM lineup will get to the Floyd experience. Some might say you can’t go wrong playing tracks like Money, Sheep, and Shine On You Crazy Diamond but, if you’ve seen some of the tribute Floyd groups, yes you can! But our hero doesn’t put a foot wrong!
John Mayall – The Turning Point
This album, recorded live in the USA, was a brave attempt by British blues godfather Mayall to try something new in blues. Many who attended the British tour of this album expecting songs from Laurel Canyon or the Peter Green/Eric Clapton periods with the Bluesbreakers may have been staring open-mouthed by the acoustic guitarist Jon Marc, Johnny Almond on saxophone and bass player Steve Thompson (the only Bluesbreaker survivor). No electric lead, no drummer. But boy what a sound was created. The bass riffs prominent in California and sudden time changes are still pounding in my head, the heart-rending tribute to JB Lenoir still appealing on I’m Gonna Fight For You JB, the politically motivated The Laws Must Change still relevant. Add his romantic blues songs and innovative mouth percussion blending with the harmonica on Room To Move to make this a stirring memoir all stand firm as my go-to album when searching for a change.
Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen – We’ve Got a Live One Here
An odd choice for the album that leapt first out at me as this project was announced, but I was an odd boy, lonely during interminable school holidays, immersing myself fully in the inkies, devouring both Melody Maker and NME weekly, tastes precociously drawn to the arcane. Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers Favorites, the 2nd Commander Cody album, had smashed my burgeoning appreciation of country rock: the Byrds, the Burritos, into hyperspace. Their fusion of rockabilly, country ballads and western swing had me hooked, eventually transported to seventh heaven as they toured the UK in early 1976. Largely recorded at the fabled Hammersmith Odeon, possibly at the show I attended, this is one of the few times I have bought a live record as just that, a record of the performance I had witnessed. And, here, uniquely, was the sole wax representation of their expanded lineup, with harmonica maestro, Norton Buffalo. As he was an adept trombonist too, as was telecaster king, Bill Kirchen, this allowed the introduction of the Ozone Brass, the two of them and sax player, Andy Stein, embellishing some of the tracks in ways my ears then, and now, find unbelievable and astonishing.
The Flying Burrito Brothers – Last Of The Red Hot Burritos
Well, obviously, given the above. Sadly, I never saw them, this live celebration supposedly the end of the line. Gram had already left/been sacked, leaving Chris Hillman at the helm, abetted by Rick Roberts. Similarly, no Sneaky Pete on steel, but, dare I say, Al Perkins was technically a better player. This allowed Hillman, no mean picker himself, to up the bluegrass component, the band augmenting with much of Country Gazette, notably the stellar fiddle of Byron Berline. This comes together most effectively in the second half of the first side, with a momentous yee-ha triad of songs, notably the never better version of Orange Blossom Special. Elsewhere a mix of greatest “hits” and revised oldies drawn from both soul and country: cosmic American music, slot in for what must have been an epiphany. Hillman then moved on to become yet another second in running, to Stephen Stills, in Manassas, as the Burrito’s lurched ever on, revolving doors into a cycle of ever-diminishing returns.
The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East
Still the archetypal template of the blues, at least for me, and, so well put together and crafted, also one of the reasons I am not so keen on live records. Few bands are able to commit as much passion into a show that can then reproduce that same fervour away from the adrenalin of the moment. Most live albums, bar the crowd sounds, are without the merit of the studio originals. Not so the Brothers, their studio albums, at least hitherto, offering little enticement to listen. The pure joy of the songs here is a delight right from the start, the chugging rhythm of Statesboro’ Blues never failing to provide a broad grin, the plaintive shuffle through Stormy Monday as perfect an evocation of ennui as I can offer. That the band are so much on fire is remarkable, given their youth. For it, to all intents and purposes, to be Duane’s last shout makes it all the more poignant. They remained a great band after his demise but were no longer the greatest.
Steeleye Span – Live At Last
An anything but typical representation of the folk-rock institution, a contract filler if there ever were, the band actually after the verge of having broken up, with that awkward inconvenience of both a tour booked and a record due. Following their successful run of 1970s albums and the soul-selling chart success of All Around My Hat, they had lost both their guitarist and the integral fiddle of Peter Knight, leaving the core of then husband and wife, Maddy Pryor and Rick Kemp in a pickle, with only relatively new addition, drummer Nigel Pegrum, otherwise present. Earlier original member Martin Carthy stepped up to the breach, bringing in also John Kirkpatrick, the squeezebox virtuoso. This inspirational move gave a lift to some of the then flagging material, with impetus also to introduce newer and more diverse material. Sadly the band fell asunder at the end of the tour, but the record remains an enticing document of one of the lesser-known iterations of this b(r)and.
Graham Parker – Live Alone In America
Always a fan of opportunities to catch the repertoire of artists, nominally reliant on full bands, to showcase their material in a solo unplugged setting, this is one of the best examples and certainly my favourite. His crown having slipped, as punk sideswiped his pub rock audience away from him, and seemingly angrier young men, Elvis Costello being the obvious example, took the chance of a new wave revival away from him, he seems somehow down on his luck. With the Rumour now exactly that, he was down to solo acoustic gigging, perhaps enough to defeat less doughty figures. But he renders the option a triumph, the snarled songs a perfect transposition to his sparse and spare strummed guitar. You can’t keep a good man down and he seems here buoyant, as if losing the shackles of a five-piece band had given him wings. The versions of songs old and new are the ones to which I return, the earlier studio recordings having lost their shimmer by compare.
Jay Z – Unplugged
Jay-Z is one of the biggest celebrities on the face of Earth. His empire is massive and his profile is huge. In the late 90’s and early 00’s Jay-Z was hard to dislodge from the charts. This MTV Unplugged set from 2001 saw the rapper backed by the legendary, The Roots. Away from the bluster of slick beats and lush production, The Roots back Jay-Z in supremely funky fashion. Atop the band, Jay-Z delivers an imperious set of hits taken from his early career as well as plenty of cuts from his then recent album, The Blueprint. Guest slots from Mary J Blige and Pharrell Williams add to the album and show how genial Jay-Z is.
Iron Maiden – Rock In Rio
Iron Maiden have a discography of live records that could tower over many a bands regular output. Many people look to the legendary Live After Death set from 1985 that showcased the bands’ monumental World Slavery Tour. It is a fine set that shows Maiden at the peak of their powers in the mid 1980’s and is rightly lauded. However, any discerning Maiden fan that has been with them throughout their very long career will know that the band are arguably more popular now than ever. Rock In Rio was released in 2002 and documents Iron Maiden’s reunion with Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith to form the dynamic six piece that they are today. Rock In Rio is stunning in that it shows that the band can still deliver modern metal music to sit amongst their revered back catalogue. Definitive versions of The Clansman and Sign f The Cross are here as well as brilliant anthems like Blood Brothers and Fear Of The Dark. Smatter in huge cuts like The Trooper and Two Minutes To Midnight amongst newbies like The Wicker Man and you have a set full of old material, new material and lashings of energy. Essential.
Underworld – Everything, Everything
Everything, Everything is a collection of songs from the electronic outfit in support of their 1999 album, Beaucoup Fish. For anyone that has ever witnessed Underworld in the live arena will know that they are an intense proposition. Coming out of the 1990’s with a host of classic techno tracks and a blisteringly good record, Everything, Everything serves up everything that is great about Underworld. Pounding beats, dark and brooding electronic licks and Karl Hyde’s hypnotic murmurings. On this short set there are then newer cuts like Push Upstairs, Jumbo and King Of Snake; all of which went on to become staples of the bands live set. Alongside this there is the gargantuanly trippy Rez/Cowgirl (which was released as a single) and one of the biggest hits of 90’s in Born Slippy (Nuxx). The accompanying DVD helps relay the madness of an Underworld show, but this recorded set captures the band at one of their many peaks.
Green Day – Bullet In A Bible
Punk masters Green Day reached their peak with their two nights at Milton Keynes Bowl in June 2005. On the back of the hugely successful American Idiot, they stepped up from young punky upstarts to stadium conquering superstars. In Billie Joe Armstrong they have one of the most charismatic frontmen in rock and along with Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool they are irresistible live. Bullet In A Bible is the watermark for the band as far as live recordings go. It has everything. The crowd noise is loud on the mix which shows the electric atmosphere of those nights (yes, I was there). Crowd participation is sometimes goofy but it doesn’t matter when each and every person is in the palm of Billie Joe’s hand. To whip up the crowd there are songs from American Idiot (Holiday, St Jimmy, the title track and more), as well as classic like Basket Case, Minority, Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life), Hitchin’ A Ride, Longview and King For A Day (which is wondrously meshed with Shout!) Bullet In A Bible is a triumphant snapshot of a band riding the crest of a wild wave.
Ghost – Ceremony & Devotion
Ghost rose from the occult underground to become a huge arena bothering outfit over the course of ten years. Initially keeping their identities from the world, going by the moniker of Nameless Ghouls led by Papa Emeritus, the mystique around the band grew rapidly and so did the production and sound. After a legal wrangle, the identity of Ghost leader was revealed to be Tobias Forge. In 2017, the band released their sole live album; Ceremony & Devotion which was recorded in America on their Popestar tour. It features a mix of tracks from their back catalogue and it’s clear as the set unfolds how the band have changed. The hard Satanic occult rock of Opus Eponymous shifts with more pop sensibilities through Infestissumam and Meliora. Whilst their is an uncanny knack to write catchy hook laden tunes, there is still an evilly strong heavy metal element and theatre which makes Ghost such an amazing live band.
So – there we have it. At The Barrier’s 5 x 5 analysis of our favourite LIVE albums – Ever. Of course, it’s never easy to pick your favourites when the range of choice is so wide, and there are many brilliant live albums that we’d have loved to have included in our list – Bob Marley and the Wailers Live, for sure, Jethro Tull’s Live – Bursting Out, Viva Roxy Music perhaps – if only for the “Eskimos and Geordies” line in Do The Strand, Mothers – Fillmore East 1971, Steppenwolf Live, The Who Live at Leeds, Hawkwind’s Space Ritual, Iggy’s Raw Power, Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, Strangers in the Night (UFO), Nirvana Unplugged in New York and any number of Live offerings (not always available in the shops…) from the house of Springsteen are just a few examples of excellent Live albums that just failed to make our final cut. And I’m sure that each reader has his/her own selections that they believe to be worthy of inclusion (and – if you have – please don’t hang back! Let us know your own choices and why you love them so much!)
Watch the pages of At The Barrier during 2022, as we delve a little deeper into the magical world of the LIVE album and bring you some detailed reappraisals of our faves!
Get a feel for that LIVE music experience – watch the late, great Warren Zevon at his feral best, performing Werewolves Of London at the Capitol Theatre, New Jersey in 1982 Here: