By David Menconi
Raleigh News & Observer
28 March 2004
Copyright (c) 2004 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.
Bob Dylan’s new “Live 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall” might look like just another compact disc. But it’s actually a dinosaur on the verge of extinction: the last of the great live albums.
That’s not to say the live album is dying. Between Internet file-sharing and Pearl Jam and other bands selling CDs of every show they play, more recorded live music is in circulation than ever before.
What’s gone for good are the iconic, career-defining live albums that thrived in the 1970s. The Who’s “Live at Leeds,” Cheap Trick’s “At Budokan” and “Frampton Comes Alive” were signposts of an era and all its gatefold-packaged, drum-solo glory. There is no modern-day equivalent.
“There were a lot of acts that broke through with live albums in the ’70s,” says Jim Henke, chief curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “[Peter] Frampton, [Bob] Seger, Humble Pie, the Allman Brothers, Cheap Trick. You’d have a history of touring to build up a fan base, then put out a live album. All those fans went and got it, and you were selling platinum. The two-record live album became almost standard. Everybody had to do one. It was like a rite of passage, a defining moment in a band’s career.”
Dylan is one of the few acts that rates more than one definitive, historically important live album. “Concert at Philharmonic” was recorded on Halloween night, 1964, capturing one of the last moments when he was still the darling of the 1950s folk revival. Soon after, Dylan’s move away from folk and into electric rock ‘n’ roll would get him branded a “Judas.”
But “Concert at Philharmonic” depicts an affable night, with a four-song cameo by Joan Baez and an unusual amount of banter between Dylan and the audience. Even though it’s only now seeing an official release, collectors have treasured bootleg recordings of this show for years. One of them is Jacob Larson, a University of Michigan graduate student. Larson already had the “Philharmonic” bootleg, but pre-ordered a copy of the CD because he wanted the better-sounding remastered version.
Larson is an avid live-music collector who owns about 2,500 concert CDs of acts from Dylan to Phish. He recently started a Yahoo online group called Vinelist to help other collectors trade live recordings, and to build his own collection.
“It’s not a superior feeling, exactly,” Larson says. “But I do feel like I know more about music than people who aren’t into live recordings.”
Some people have no reason to care about live recordings. Hip-hop and videogenic teen pop dominate the mainstream now, and when these acts tour, the show is as much about spectacle as music. That leaves no room for the improvisation needed to make a compelling live album.
Larson bought live Metallica for his wife, but “she never listens to them because they just duplicate the studio sound. She’s also really into rap, and there’s no point to live rap, I don’t believe. She wanted to see Eminem, so we went — and he sang over his own pre-recorded vocals.”
At the other extreme are the jam bands Larson collects. They have flooded the market by recording and releasing virtually every show they play. Partly, that’s a defensive move. A band like Phish is so widely bootlegged that live recordings of every show are going to circulate whether the band likes it or not.
“You can get a pretty respectable digital recorder that’s the size of a cigarette pack,” says Dennis McNally, spokesman for the Grateful Dead. “So every show is taped no matter what a band thinks — unless you want to strip-search the audience. If you want any show badly enough, you can find it. The only reason to buy an ‘official’ live album is the improved sound quality, not because you just have to have that fragment of your favorite band’s life. You can get that for free on the Internet in 20 minutes, tops.”
Actually, the Grateful Dead had a lot to do with the death-by-drowning of the live album. The Dead was one of the first bands to record all of its performances, and it has tapes of about half the 2,500 concerts it played in its 30-year run. So while Jerry Garcia’s 1995 death ended the Dead’s studio career, there has been a steady flow of archival live releases. Volume 31 of the “Dick’s Picks” series, drawn from 1974 concerts in Philadelphia and Jersey City, just came out, and there’s no end in sight.
The Dead was also the first band to allow audiences to record its concerts, with “taping tickets” to segregate tapers behind the soundboard. That created a grassroots culture of live bootlegs, which transposed to the jam bands that inherited the Dead’s aesthetic.
“A lot of bands cater to the fact that they’re taped every time and change up their shows a lot,” says Tony Stephens, a computer drafter at N.C. State University who collects live jam-band recordings. “Every show is unique, and they try not to repeat anything, whereas someone like Britney Spears does pretty much the same show every night. So a lot of the fun of collecting is to see which shows took a risk, and which ones paid off. You might not get a perfect, choreographed Janet Jackson-type show every time. But there’s something to be said for having something unique and fun.”
Musical turning points
Two other music milestones came along in the early 1980s that contributed to the live album’s eventual demise. One was the introduction of the compact disc in 1982, which led to the eventual death of vinyl — a medium that offered the perfect size and heft for live albums.
With their gatefold packaging and copious photographs, the old 12-inch live albums felt like souvenir scrapbooks or high school yearbooks. The charm just doesn’t translate as well to the smaller CD format. Even padded with eight bonus tracks, the 2001 CD reissue of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “One More From the Road” feels somehow diminished from the original 1976 double-album.
The other major contributor was MTV, which debuted in 1981 and dramatically sped up pop music’s half-life. Acts exploded overnight and sold more records faster than ever before. The tradeoff was that they didn’t last as long, and didn’t work as live-performance acts. As the 1980s wore into the ’90s, few acts besides the jam bands lasted longer than a few years. Live albums became afterthoughts, and they mattered less.
“When the Dead made ‘Europe ’72,’ they’d been together seven years,” McNally says. “Bands staying together and on the road that long just doesn’t happen anymore. You have to be together awhile before you can make a great live album, and also have to know how to play. You don’t have to be a great player to make a studio album. If you’ve got good ideas, you can ‘fix it in the mix,’ as the saying goes — and get a good album you can’t replicate live. Then you lip-sync your way through a video, and the record company is happy.”
New album options
Yet even if the live album’s mystique is gone, live recordings aren’t going away. The latest wrinkle is the authorized live album you can buy at the show. Last year, Clear Channel Entertainment introduced its “Instant Live” program and did a test run with the Allman Brothers’ Aug. 10 concert at Raleigh’s Alltel Pavilion at Walnut Creek. It was a success, with 800 three-disc sets sold to a crowd of about 6,200.
Clear Channel will extend the program this year, although it might be a few years before it’s standard at every show. There are still lots of thorny details to work out on how to split the pie between artists, venues, promoters and record labels.
The Allman Brothers record for Sanctuary Records Group, which had to grant permission for the band to do “Instant Live.” With some reluctance, Sanctuary president/CEO Tom Lipsky agreed. But he came away impressed enough that Sanctuary is gearing up to put out more live music in more formats than ever before.
“This is still in the early days of experimenting,” Lipsky says. “We’re still figuring out how and what to record, and how to present it. Is the best way to press up a CD at the gig, or take orders and deliver it later? Or digital distribution 24 hours later? A week later? A month later? Fans of some groups might prefer to download something right away, while others aren’t as time-sensitive. And others might want a physical CD they can hold in their hand that night. It’s all on a case-by-case basis.”
That’s quite a change from the old days, when Little Feat rolled out “Waiting for Columbus” and fans lined up to buy the souvenir of when the circus came to town.
But the live album has gone the way of every other cultural artifact, rendered less special by its ubiquity. Almost every notable film ever made is available on DVD, most of television’s history is in reruns on cable, and every Phish show is online within hours of the final note onstage.
“It’s a completely different day,” Lipsky says. “You can’t dispute records like ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ or Cheap Trick’s ‘At Budokan.’ They are what they are, special landmarks from another time. Now, there’s such an availability of live music — label releases, artist releases, official, unofficial, digital, DVD.
“I wouldn’t say the market is diluted, but it is diversified. Back in the day, there was just the one piece and that was it.”
Bob Dylan’s new CD captured a concert that marked one of the last moments of his reign as the darling of the 1950s folk revolt.; James Brown’s ‘Live at the Apollo’ documents the singer and his Famous Flames at the early peak of their powers.