What’s the Best Concert Album of All Time?
Each week in this column a musician points to the best or most influential concert attended as a spectator. But what was the best concert album ever released?
The unofficial crown may have rested for many years with the Last Waltz, The Band’s “farewell” concert on Thanksgiving 1976 at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. But there are other contenders, such as various versions of the Woodstock music festival in 1969, George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, the DVD box sets of 1985’s Live Aid concerts and the DVDs of the 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2009. And, undoubtedly, many readers of this column can suggest others that were personal favorites.
Those great releases, though, featured multiple groups or recording artists. The recent release of Van Morrison’s incredible new 3-CD/DVD box set, It’s Too late to Stop Now … Volumes II, III, IV & DVD, by Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings, got me wondering which live album by a single artist was the best ever released.
Listening to the new Van Morrison set, I am casting my vote for it as No. 1. The album, consisting of songs from four magical concerts May-July 1973 in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and London, spews energy and excitement. Spectacular cut follows spectacular cut, and it’s such a delight to finally hear some of Morrison’s terrific but less heralded songs live. Particular favorites are “Snow in San Anselmo,” “Hard Nose The Highway,” and “Purple Heather.” As always, Morrison’s powerful and transcendent vocals lead the way, and his 11-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra alternately rocks like a finely tuned locomotive and soothes with an assemblage of strings and horns. Driving rock, rhythm and blues, jazz, Celtic soul, classical, mystical madness — it’s all there, and it comes together in one beautiful, and sometimes beautifully messy, stew.
I wish this box set could have been heard by the late, legendary rock writer Lester Bangs, whose review of Van’s 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks, is considered a literary wonder. Astral Weeks filled the manically descriptive Bangs with eternal, ethereal bliss, and I think It’s Too Late to Stop Now…Volumes II, III, IV & DVD would have also sent him into orbit.
The box set is a followup to 1974’s It’s Too Late To Stop Now…, a two-LP release of live cuts from various venues during Morrison’s 1973 tour that some music fans have dubbed the best live album of all time. None of the tracks on the new box set are the same as those on the 2-LP release. Sony Legacy also just released a remastered version of the original two-LP set.
Of course, my anointing of It’s Too Late to Stop Now…Volumes II, III, IV & DVD as the greatest live album of all time is just one person’s opinion. So I asked two friends, Dan Anklin of Waltham, Massachusetts, and Chris Aug of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, for their opinions. Both are long-time music experts with extensive music libraries who have been frequent concertgoers for decades. I asked them to rank their Top 5 live albums of all time by a single group or artist.
So, the drum roll please, and now, Dan, take it from here.
Anklin’s No. 5 pick is Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus.
“The shows were recorded at the Rainbow Theatre in London and the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, DC,” Dan says. “They were two places where Little Feat were really popular, and the band just blew the places away. They had the Tower of Power horn section — the best in the business — and, in London, guest guitar player Mick Taylor. The guitar playing between Lowell George and Paul Barrere was unbelievable. The album has great songs like ‘Fat Man in the Bathtub,’ the best version ever of ‘Willin’, ‘Dixie Chicken,’ and ‘Tripe Face Boogie.’ For sure, this is the best party record.”
No. 4 on Anklin’s list is Humble Pie’s Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore. It was originally released as a two-LP set in 1971, and a four-CD box set of Complete Recordings was released in 2013.
“It is the best blues-rock boogie concert recorded at the famous Fillmore East,” Dan says. “The show has some great covers: ‘I Walk on Gilded Splinters’ and ‘Rollin’ Stone.’ The songs that get me going are ‘I Don’t Need No Doctor’ and ‘Stone Cold Fever.’ The guitar playing of Peter Frampton and Steve Marriott is mind-blowing. There are long boogie jams with Marriott’s voice shaking the Fillmore and Frampton’s guitar tearing it up.”
Live: Full House, released by the J. Geils Band in 1972, ranks No. 3.
“The LP just jumps off your turntable,” Dan says. “it’s an absolutely killer blues-rock concert with great blues covers and one original song, ‘Hard Drivin’ Man.’ It was my first J. Geils Band LP, and it’s still their best one. I can’t tell you how many times I have played this at a party and had the whole place rocking from songs like ‘Pack Fair and Square,’ ‘Homework,’ and “Whammer Jammer.” It don’t get any better than this. The show was at the Cinderella Ballroom in Detroit — the J. Geils Band’s second home.
Anklin marvels at No. 2 on his list: Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, which was released in August 1970, five months after the actual live shows at a historic New York venue. “How about Joe putting together a touring band in a couple of weeks to play the Fillmore East?” Dan asks. He then raves about the live performances of the band members: Leon Russell on piano; Chris Stainton on organ; Don Preston on guitar; Carl Radle on bass; Jim Gordon, Jim Keltner and Chuck Blackwell on drums; Jim Horn and Bobby Keys on saxophone; Jim Price on trumpet, and a plethora of background vocalists including Rita Coolidge, Donna Washburn, Claudia Lennear, and Denny Cordell. And, not to be outdone, Joe Cocker, powerfully projecting his gravelly voice ahead of the musicians’ furious pace.
The same venue is responsible for what Anklin calls the greatest live album: the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East. The album “is the best Allman Brothers show ever, and I have heard lots of them,” Dan says. “The energy level is off the hook. They played for at least four hours a night for two nights. The guitar playing between Duane (Allman) and Dickey (Betts) on ‘Whipping Post,’ which runs more than 23 minutes, is the best guitar playing ever.
“The rest of the band is on fire and playing out of their minds,” Anklin adds. “It was amazing two nights of music. The rest of the set list was unbelievable, too, with ‘Statesboro Blues,’ ‘Stormy Monday,’ and Hot ‘Lanta — to name a few. The Fillmore East brings out the best playing from many bands. I would have paid serious money to see these shows.”
Okay, now it’s Chris Aug’s turn to get in the batter’s box and blast his home runs. To get on his Top 5 Live Albums list, he says, an album had to “mean something to me personally” and affect him “in some way.”
No. 5 on his list is the Beach Boys’ 1973 album In Concert.
“I first bought this album in the mid-1970s,” Chris explains. “Like many other young teenagers at that time, I was getting into bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, while the Beach Boys seemed outdated and old. I don’t remember why I bought In Concert. Perhaps there was something about the album cover that made me think it was not going to be another typical Surfin’ Safari Beach Boys album. Immediately, upon playing it, I discovered this was no rehash but something new and intriguing. Album opener ‘Sail On Sailor’ immediately grabbed my attention, and I was hooked through the end.
“Listening to it now on CD,” Aug continues, “I have an even greater appreciation for this amazing album. Recorded during a period when Brian’s [Wilson’s] isolation from the band severely limited his output, there was tremendous pressure on remaining members to step up and take an even greater role as artistic contributors for songwriting and production. And did they ever. The early-’70s-era Beach Boys, who also released Holland, Sunflower, and Carl and the Passions, produced some incredible songs, including some that were beautifully captured on In Concert. It’s wonderful to hear Carl [Wilson], Dennis [Wilson], Al [Jardine], and Mike [Love] equally sharing the spotlight. In some ways, Carl’s voice and interpretation of Brian’s songs actually surpass the originals. There is melancholy, passion and purity in his voice that adds another layer of beauty to the songs. Brian recognized this very early on, choosing Carl to sing the lead on ‘God Only Knows,’ which is performed brilliantly on this album. They don’t turn away from the past on this record either, nicely covering songs from the early ’60s. Even Mike Love’s contributions feel sincere and not at all showy. It’s an all-around honest and heartfelt album, perfectly capturing a now classic era of this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band.”
Aug’s fourth-best live album is Roy Orbison’s Black & White Night.
“I first discovered this on DVD and later bought the CD, but I am not sure why,” Chris recalls. “I was never a huge fan of the ‘Big O,’ but I figured if he was cool enough to join the Traveling Wilburys with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Bob Dylan, I could at least check him out. Boy, was I ever glad I did! What pleasantly shocked me first and foremost was the audio quality of the recording. It is such a lush and full-sounding production, yet, at the same time, crisp and clean. And, oh yeah, check out who are some of his ‘friends’ on the album — Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Bonnie Raitt, k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello. And let’s not forget about the songs and Roy’s voice — an amazing, one-of-a-kind, trembling, vulnerable, and almost operatic voice that even in his later years somehow sounded just as good to me as when he was in his prime. The album contains classic songs from his catalog, and — fan or not — you’ll get pulled right in and find yourself singing right along with everyone else.”
No. 3 on Aug’s list is Live from Alabama by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit.
“A former singer, songwriter, and guitarist of the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell struck out on his own in 2007 and hasn’t looked back since,” Aug says. “I’ve watched as each album during his solo journey just got better and better. This live album was recorded in 2012 in his hometown during the middle of his rise to fame. He delivers heart-wrenching, bone-chilling, and goose-bump-inducing renditions of some of his DBT classics — ‘Outfit,’ ‘Decoration Day,’ ‘Danko/Manuel,’ and ‘Goddamn Lonely Love’ — and some solo songs and cover versions. ‘Alabama Pines’ is a great example of Isbell’s tremendous songwriting abilities, and Neil Young’s ‘Like A Hurricane’ is a tip of the hat to one of his influences. I am convinced that Jason Isbell will one day be revered among the all-time musical giants.”
The second-best live album, Chris says, is REO Speedwagon’s 1977 release Live: You Get What You Play For.
“This album captures this Midwest band at its barn-burning best — when the band still rocked out and hadn’t yet discovered rock ballads,” Aug says. “They still had guitarist Gary Richrath, who passed away last year, in the fold. It was before Kevin Cronin started dyeing his hair and wearing shiny suits. He and Richrath became the perfect rock-and-roll songwriting foils. Add the virtuosity of keyboard player Neal Doughty into the mix, and you had a rollicking, boogie-woogie rock and rolling party band. Almost every song on this double album is a gem, but highlights include ‘Ridin’ the Storm Out,’ ‘’57 Riverside Avenue,’ and ‘Golden Country.’ Only the Japanese CD version contains the full recording that was on the original vinyl.”
Aug’s favorite band is Canadian power trio Rush, so it may not be surprising that his choice of best live album is the band’s 1981 release Exit … Stage Left.
“It was actually difficult to choose this album over their first live record, All the World’s a Stage,” Chris says. “While All the World’s a Stage finds Rush right before they hit their commercial and perhaps artistic peak, Exit … Stage Left finds them riding the wave. Rush had finally hit the mainstream, but the strength of this album is in the songs and the recording. Rush was never afraid to play their new music at concerts, and this album highlights their late ’70s/early ’80s music. The highlight is ‘Xanadu’ — classic Rush all the way around. From the instrumental virtuosity and complexity of the music to the lyrics — a take on the classic Samuel Coleridge poem Kubla Khan — this song is everything great about Rush in one 12-minute song. The album also demonstrates the maturity of the band, and the newly-found ability of Alex (Lifeson), Geddy (Lee), and Neil (Peart) to capture their essence without artistic compromise in shorter more radio-friendly songs.”
When I mention to Aug that Rush might not fit in No Depression — “The Journal of Roots Music” — he quickly offers a replacement, Johnny Cash at San Quentin, and, unequivocally, says it, too, belongs in the top position.
“It’s nearly impossible to choose which of Cash’s two live prison recordings would be my favorite. Both San Quentin and At Folsom Prison are essential. Using my self-imposed criteria of albums with personal impact, though, I choose San Quentin. A two-CD, one DVD release of San Quentin is loaded with hits, including ‘Big River,’ ‘I Walk the Line,’ and ‘Ring of Fire,” and the Bob Dylan co-penned ‘Wanted Man.’ I thoroughly enjoy watching Johnny and his wife, June Carter, in action on the DVD, especially on their classic duo ‘Jackson.’ Johnny was so genuine in his interactions with the audience. The banter between songs is just as captivating as the music. You sense that he knows he’s no more of a man than anyone else in the room. This is evident during the performances of ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and ‘San Quentin,’ a prison song from a prisoner’s point of view. ‘San Quentin’ gets such a rousing ovation from the prisoners that they ask for him to perform it again. Of course, to the dismay of the warden and prison guards, the Man in Black obliges.”
So, now, dear readers, it’s your turn to sound off. What do you think was the best live album of all time?