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Why you might find a live album more comforting than a live stream

I haven't been able to get into live streams. I get why musicians are doing it, and I support them, but they are missing a key piece of the live performance, which is the audience. I didn't really realize this until a couple things happened recently that put it into perspective for me.

The Sylvan Esso live album "With" came out. They took all their songs that they usually do as a pair and they deconstructed them. Then they reconstructed them with a full big live band. I usually don’t listen to live albums. I think a lot of people do this, and it’s true of me. As listeners we create boundaries. Weather we mean to or not. I don’t think we do it intentionally, but we create boundaries.  There are entire genres we write off. We like what we know and stick with that. We can’t listen to everything. So we pick and choose. Then we make up or we hear someone give an opinion that justifies that decision. I used to never listen to live recordings because, “It just doesn’t sound as good as an album.” Or “They have recorded the perfect take on the album, anything else is a watered down version of that.” So I didn’t listen to live recordings all that much. I had a few that I liked. Like Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club and LCD Soundsystem’s “The Long Goodbye.” But that was about it.

But I love Sylvan Esso. I know all the songs by heart. I have seen them live a bunch and they put on a great show. So I listened to the record. And I felt it. Amelia Meath has a special kind of energy on stage and it’s great to hear.

Then I watched this documentary on The Grateful Dead. It’s on Amazon and it’s very good if you’re trying to get into them, or just wanna know what everyone is talking about. That is a band that lives on live performances. And that’s exactly the point. Jerry Garcia said that he wanted to make something temperamental. The idea was that it was there when it was happening. You lived in that moment. And it was special because you were in that moment.

I also ordered a Nick Cave album from Rush Mor: “Your Funeral…My Trial.” When I went to go pick it up, Dan threw a bootleg copy of a concert that the Bad Seeds played in Germany in 1996.

And on Bandcamp day Kevin Morby released two jams from his upcoming “Oh Mon Dieu: Live in Paris” album that will be coming out soon.

I started to put together From the Music Desk, my weekly show that runs on Sunday night’s from 8-9 and I put together a couple of these live songs at the end. Then I was feeling the spirit and I made a playlist of my own. The playlist is all my favorite artists playing my favorite songs. Audience applause between each song, it’s like my own personal concert that is being played just for me.

And, honestly, I don’t even love concerts. I love them when they are good, but they are mostly bad, like any art form. And most of the time I am thinking about where I’m going to park or how much I should or should not drink, or the social dynamics of who I’m with and I hardly even get to think of the show. But in listening to these live recordings you can hear how important the audience is to a performance. So many quarantine live streams have felt hallow and empty because that invisible transfer of energy from the audience to the singer and from the musicians back to the audience is lost. 

The musical equation has two parts, the artist and the audience. Right now we are missing half of the equation, but the live album lets you hear that magical transaction and how it bends and curves. It’s captured that energy and it’s a great time to pop open the lid to that jar, and take back a bit of what we’ve lost.

I truly encourage you to make your own personal best-concert-of-all-time. It’s a worthwhile exercise.

Here are some of my favorites:

Sam Cooke – “Live at the Harlem Square Club”

I have played “Twisting the Night Away” from this album at some point during every DJ set I have ever done. And that’s because it plays so well. Sam Cooke is universally regarded. My mom and dad loved Sam Cooke. In the '60s he was a crossover act. He was a black artist that white people also loved. A lot of the performances are intended for a white audience. Live at the Harlem Square Club was not. Live. In Harlem. In 1963. You hear Sam Cooke with his hair down a bit. He doesn’t go wild or thrash or anything like that. He’s just loose. It’s a party.

Tiny Tim – “Live at Royal Albert Hall”

They released this one for Record Store Day last year. I gasped when I saw it on the list. Not because I knew that this was an excellent live performance, but just the fact that it exists. Tiny Tim was a novelty act in the '60s who eeked out a very thin career by pulling a ukulele out of a paper bag and singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” on the Johnny Carson show every now and again. In fact, he was such a late night favorite that he got married on live TV on "The Tonight Show." He basically swung from one novelty act vine to the next and I thought it would be just as much of a novelty to own a Tiny Tim Live album. But I made a mistake. I made a video saying how much I wanted it, and I think made a weird little market for the very few that got sent to Milwaukee stores, so every store in Milwaukee was fresh out on Record Store Day. Luckily a friend in NYC text me and asked if I copped cause he saw a copy in Brooklyn. I said I haven’t and he shipped it. Shout out Tim Sondermen. When I got it I put it on just to say that I’d spun it, but after giving it a round I was fully hooked. Tiny Tim is known for his falsetto, but in this recording you hear his speaking voice, which is an absolutely astounding baritone. He’s at Royal Albert Hall in 1963, which is the mecca for performance there. He has a full live orchestra. Not just the uke. They add grandeur to each song. And one thing, that you will never get on a studio recording. He sets up every song. Not unlike a radio DJ. Most of his songs are old vaudeville tracks so he will say something like, “1929, was the start of the depression. A little song came out of the radio. So many sang this on CBS.” Gives you the date, the singers, the radio station they sang it on. The liner notes. Live.

Fela Ransome-Kuti and the Africa ’70 with Ginger Baker – “Live!”

Afrobeat really is the way to understand live music. The genre itself is about getting into that groove. The other albums on this list are good live performances of songs, Afrobeat isn’t necessarily about laying out a song like that, it’s spends 15 minutes finding the beat. You’ve got to lost track of time and submit to the sound. Most of the Fela albums do a great job of catching the improvisations and free wheeling nature of the genre, but this is an especially fun one. It’s in 1970. A peak time for Fela. He’s kind of just started to figure out the genre and it’s fun to hear him play with it. And then it also features wild man Ginger Baker, who was the drummer for Cream, and was so obsessive about percussion that he moved to Africa to be even closer to the heart. This album is two masters discovering their powers.

LCD Soundsystem – “The Long Goodbye”

LCD Soundsystem said they were breaking up, so they booked one last show at Madison Square Garden. Or did they book Madison Square Garden and then say they were breaking up? Honestly, I don’t care, because they gave us this recording. It marked the end of an era. There was a dress code! Attendees had to wear either black, white, or black and white. It was special. And you feel it.  Every song is filled with a collective elation of the moment and tragedy that it’s passing. The band got back together and I’ve see them since, but there was a hot minute where me and my buddies almost packed up my moms Toyota Corolla and drove to NYC for this. But even though we didn’t we have this. It captured all the feelings of the moment.

Talking Heads – “Stop Making Sense”

This is the one you have to say. You just kind of can’t mention live albums without it. And for good reason. A live show involves good sequencing. Stop Making Sense has motion as a show. It starts bare bones and with every new song a new instrument is introduced. Like Afrobeat, which Byrne will recognize heavily as an influence, it takes the bassline and builds up until you are fully lost in the sauce.

Jonathan Richman – “Having a Party with Jonathan Richman”

Jonathan Richman went to the Bahamas in the '80s. He tells the story on one of these live albums. And before that he was playing very angular rock with The Modern Lovers, and while he was in Bermuda he saw some of the street performers singing and they were just loose. They didn’t care. They were free. So Jonathan Richman became free. He ditched The Modern Lovers and started a solo career. The career hasn’t gone very well. He’s sold a million more albums with The Modern Lovers, BUT, real ones know that his solo career was the right move. He stopped being so rigid and became happy. In these live recordings you hear the sound of joy. A man enjoying what he is doing. He’s loose. He’s cracking jokes. You hear the laughs. And everyone is happy.

Tom Waits – “Nighthawks at the Diner”

This isn't a live album; it's a studio album of new material with a live audience. Or a live album in a studio. Either way, it's something in between. "Nighthawks" is a performer understanding himself. Tom Waits is the guy in the corner of the bar playing a piano and cracking some jokes. So that’s what he did. Having a little live audience lets him tell some stories and crack some jokes and it let’s those land. It’s a performance and he gets that.

Sylvan Esso – “With”

Sylvan Esso is a duo. Amelia Meath on vocals and Nick Sanborn on knobs and twisters. For this album they pulled apart the songs, gave the bits to more traditional instruments and had them all play together. I like that this live recording lets in a lot of crowd noise. They aren’t playing in a small room and they let you know it. I read once, probably in a tweet, that Amelia has BDE. And if you seen them you know. She’s liquid on the stage. She feels on the energy. She drinks it up. Including so much of the crowd that is fueling her gives you an insight to that dynamic and let’s you feel it too.

Grateful Dead – “Europe 1972”

There is no air in this recording. No crowd noise or atmospherics. It's kind of a feat of fidelity in itself. It is recorded cleaner than most studio albums.

There is a kind of safety in throwing an album on and just letting it go. The Dead were a music festival before music festivals existed. Still when they play they play in gigantic blocks. Hours at a time. This used to sound like hell to me. But that’s because I was uptight about it. Now I just throw this one on and let it ride. Hours go by. Get in the zone.

Little Richard – “Live in France 1966”

I will cede this one to my favorite music writer Hanif Abdurraqib, who wrote a touching reflection of Little Richard on the day of his passing, ending with this quote, “This is a still shot from Richard's Paris 1966 concert. Please spend some time with it today if you can. It is one of the best live concerts of all time that can be accessed on the internet. He is covered in sweat, ascending past ecstasy and reaching some greater, holier plane.”