Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Albums that let these ears see; Chp. 6

The Live Album, a look at the two that set the stage

Hampton Comes Alive - Phish

In all accurate measures, my first truly experienced live album is Hot August Night by none other than Neil Diamond, and there are countless others that I have heard bits and pieces from over the years and I owned and listened to many great ones all the same. There are two that changed the way that I listened to live albums however.

One comes from the legendary jam band with a penchant for breathtaking live shows that infused the jazz improve and funky rhythms that allows every rendition to vary as well as allows the listener to never grow tired during the set for the anticipation of what may unfold. This comes by way of Hampton Comes Alive, Phish. I’d say roughly 80% of the Phish I have listened to has come via live recordings and there as endless collections of bootlegs as well as official releases, but this was a packaged Live recording and marketed as such. It’s difficult to define the ‘best’ when it comes to live music as everyone has a different opinion and often a connection to a certain show or period of a band. This marks the band at my personal favorite.

I almost wrote that I have “moved on from Phish,” but that would negate my entire reason for entry in this study. It’s true that I indulged in a strong study of this band in college. I was intrigued by their endless energy, the ceaseless renditions of their standards, the rarities, the classic moments captured deep within a jam that only those willing to give themselves would ever discover. I become more a fan of the way this band forced me to listen to their music than I ever did a fan of the actual band.

That says a lot. To spend so much devoted energy with a band with the sole purpose of seeing just how intricately involved I could become now shows me that they are among the strongest of influences in my musical world, and I really don’t think they are all that great.

But what does stand out to me was that I could listen to a bootleg from some show in New Hampshire in ’89 and catch a early version of a song played mostly on piano, that would sound robust and guitar driven on ’93 recordings and then would receive the full brass support on the ’95 tour and then be stripped down to a crisp, tight cut by ’97.

I respect the shit out of this band and I thank them for being so overtly cliché amongst the college crowd as it forced me to tune my ears to something unexpected. Oddly enough, had it not been for Phish I likely would have never liked The Velvet underground, Bowie, MMJ, Spoon etc. the way I do now. It’s a gateway drug.


Stop Making Sense - Talking Heads

To be as steeped in the essential post-punk new wave of my generation as I was it never truly hit me just how much of a fan of Talking Heads I was until I heard this album.

I grew up on the sounds of post punk and pop radio and I never really knew that what I loved about them was contained in one band. I have always loved the talking Heads songs that play on the radio; they are irresistible, as far I as I am concerned the Heads are in the league of Elvis and Bob Marley, everyone knows it and everyone agrees that it just sounds good. But a chance encounter with the album Stop Making Sense my senior year of HS and then a reaffirmation my sophomore year of college set Talking Heads atop my list of bands I want to see live (luckily I would have the good fortune of catching David Byrne at the Georgia Theatre before graduating, it remains a highlight of my Athens nights and one of the finest lives shows I have ever been a part of).

SMS is almost too good of an album. It was recorded as part of Director Jonathan Hemme’s film on the band over a three night stand on the Speaking in Tongues tour of ’83. What unfolds is well documented and has been viewed multiple times by any serious music fan as well as numerous fans of having a good time, dancing and great tunes.

It’s the evolution of the show/album that allows it to stand apart from all other live albums. Bare and essential from the opening with only Byrne, acoustic guitar and a backing beat track the show and the sounds grows until they are bulging at the seams by the time the curtain drops.

The entire Heads back soon takes the stage and is joined piece by piece by female backing vocals, more percussion and Bernie Worrell on keys. It’s an unreal stage performance by all involved. The way in which the show develops and grows serves as a metaphor not only for the evolution of the band but for performing arts as a whole as well as modern culture and expression…this is Byrne we are dealing with so the metaphors are always heavy.

I have no idea how many times I have heard the Heads standards, nor can I count the number of spins this album has taken for me (I’ve owned three DVD’s, purchased the album twice and currently have one burnt copy in my house and one in my car, so yeah I am obsessed). I don’t listen to it like I once did, that happens with everything, but when I do myself that favor every now and then I am always reminded of what the perfect live album is and how most every other live album cowers in its presence, save maybe Kicking Television.

The perfect collection of songs, the performance of a lifetime and the encapsulating aura of one of rock-pop music’s most acclaimed and important artists; it doesn’t get much better than that.

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