Ain’t Nothing Like the Live Thing

I recently celebrated my 31st birthday and decided to spoil myself with the most expensive vinyl record purchase of my collection: the Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead album, mastered from the original master tapes and pressed on 180 grams high-definition vinyl. I had never really been a big Dead fan in my younger days. I now know I was nothing but a fool. This album turned out to be one of the finest live recordings I’ve ever bought and got me thinking about other great concert albums. So in honour of this wonderful live masterpiece, I present to you my pick of the Top 5 live albums of all time.

1. The Grateful Dead, Live/Dead.

If there was ever a band known for its live shows, it’s the Grateful Dead. Their gigs were so mythical that a community of fans (Deadheads) flocked from city to city to see as many shows possible. Recorded and released in 1969, Live/Dead is the band’s first official live album. The double LP kicks off with the 23-minute improvised gem Dark Star, taking up the entire first side. A great deal has been written about that song, but all I can say is it took me to the moon and back. I was musically transported into another realm… and no, there were no drugs involved! The psychedelic trip continues with a perfect rendition of St. Stephen and a hauntingly beautiful cover of Blind Gary Davis’ Death Don’t Have No Mercy.

2. James Brown, Live at the Apollo.

“I knew I wanted to do a live album so that people could at least hear what kind of show I had.”- James Brown

This is simply the best live R&B recording of all time. James Brown proves why he is appropriately named “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” The record is non-stop pure dynamite from the hyping introduction to the closing Night Train. You could practically feel the sweat dripping down Brown’s face and picture him spinning, dancing and falling to his knees. On this live recording Mr. Dynamite also proves he’s not only an extraordinary entertainer, but a masterful soul singer. One listen to the pleading 10-minute soul extravaganza Lost Someone and you’ll be instantly convinced.

3. Sam Cooke, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963.

If James Brown’s Live at the Apollo is the best live R&B record, this is a very close second. Live at the Harlem Square Club is Sam Cooke like we’ve never heard him before. That’s because this show was not intended for a white audience; it was a chitlin circuit gig.  We finally get a rare listen to what Sam Cooke is really capable of: raw and gritty soul… none of that sugar-coated sweet stuff (not than there’s anything wrong with that!). His backup band is absolutely solid too: King Curtis on saxophone, Albert “June” Gardner on drums and Cliff White on guitar. On the album’s Grammy-Winning liner notes, music writer extraordinaire Peter Guralnick wrote: “It’s rare that an album can cause us to radically reassess a major artist, particularly one who has been dead for 20 years. This is such an album.”

4. Led Zeppelin, How the West Was Won.

For anyone who has ever dreamed of attending a Led Zeppelin concert in the 1970s, your dreams have come true with this triple live album. The songs were recorded over two different nights in the summer of ’72 in  California.  The tracks were sequenced to replicate a Zeppelin concert from beginning to end. Jimmy Page reveals in the liner notes that he considers this period to have been the band’s artistic peak. Who are we to argue with him? It’s incredibly difficult not to be envious of anyone who attended these legendary shows. The 25-minute marathon Dazed & Confused or the 23-minute Whole Lotta Love  are simply mind-blowing! Sometimes I swear Jimmy Page is possessed; it is inhuman to play a guitar like that! The rest of the band (Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones) is just as masterful at their craft. 

5. Bruce Springsteen, Live 1975-85.

Springsteen is the only artist on this list I’ve seen live many, many times. He is one of those artists you must see in concert to fully appreciate and this recording is a perfect example of what he recreates on stage. The box set (5 LPs or 3 CDs) was The Boss’ first live album and replicates a typical show of his at the time (40-song setlist spanning over 3 hours and 20 minutes of excellent music and storytelling). The intro leading into The River, recounting his story about constant arguments with his dad and failing his army physical is simply magical.

Honourable mentions: 

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