Living Live

The live album seems antiquated these days. Back in the 70s, artists like Kiss, Cheap Trick and Peter Frampton found their greatest success with live albums, enjoying multi-platinum sales and even spinning off radio hits.

There’s several things that constitute a great live album: setlist, sound quality, on-stage banter, crowd reaction, and a palpable sense of time and place.

The best live albums comprise most or all of these, and transport you directly to the front of the crowd by the opening few moments. They give you a real sense of being there.  They’re moments in time, frozen for ever, enjoyed by a lucky few live but appreciated by millions ever after. When they work best, they make you desperately wish you could time travel and relive every moment.

Granted, many of these albums are NOT completely live.  (Kiss and Frampton being two very good examples) There was a lot of “studio sweetening” that went on to make the performances listenable.  But we are not going to bicker about that here. 

Here are some of the best:


-Kiss: Alive! (1975)

Recorded mostly in Detroit, this double-disc set solidified Kiss’s reputation as one of rock’s most exciting live acts. The rocking “Strutter” and the party anthem “Rock and Roll All Nite” highlight a fever-pitch ambiance that prevails throughout. Not surprisingly, attendance at Kiss shows soared in the weeks immediately following the album’s release. 


-Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive (1976)

Quite possibly the most well known live album of all time. Frampton practically invented the term “Arena Rock” when the album came out, perhaps the best reviewed release of his entire career. Anchored by the hit “Show Me The Way,” when it was first released it became the biggest-selling live album of all time


-Rolling Stones: Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out (1969)

Small wonder that when the Stones assembled their Hot Rocks collection in 1971, they spurned the studio recording of “Midnight Rambler” in favor of the more exciting version on this live effort. Released in the midst of a spectacular run that included Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Sticky Fingers, Ya Ya’s captured the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band when they really might have been.


-The Who: Live at Leeds (1970)

How do you follow up a meticulously crafted masterpiece like Tommy? If you’re the Who, you crank the amps to 11 and bash out a live set that forgoes finesse in favor of full-throttle rock. The original material smokes, but as showcased on their scorching version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” the original Who could be a fantastic cover band as well.


-The Band – The Last Waltz (1978)

 This is one of those albums that has achieved legendary cult status of mythic proportions. Most of the acclaim given this concert recording comes courtesy of the film for which it is the soundtrack. As directed by Martin Scorsese, it is still considered one of the greatest concert films of all time. And while some may claim that it’s better to watch the film than listen to the soundtrack, it’s still a pretty amazing example of the band’s honest live chemistry


-The Beatles: At the Hollywood Bowl (1977)

 Culled from the 1964 and 65 Hollywood Bowl performances, this live set (which wasn’t released until 1977) captured the Fab Four at the height of Beatlemania. With 17,000 screaming fans approximating the roar of a tornado, the Beatles cut through the noise and delivered scorching, amped-up versions of their early radio-pop gems.


-Led Zeppelin: How the West Was Won (2003)

Recorded from two shows staged in California in the summer of 1972, this triple-album set captured Led Zeppelin at the height of its powers. An epic version of “Dazed and Confused” and a 23-minute covers medley (bracketed by “Whole Lotta Love”) showcase the group’s improvisational skills. The band’s chemistry was never more in evidence


-Allman Brothers: At Fillmore East (1971)

 Blues, rock, and jazz were never fused more effectively than on this two-album set. Breaking out their best improvisational skills, guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts weave and spark like never before or after. Small wonder that Southern rock exploded in the aftermath of this seminal recording


-Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison (1968)

 Due to the British rock invasion, Johnny Cash’s career had been in the doldrums for years before he released the country milestone in 1968. Backed by a sensational touring band that included Carl Perkins, Cash rips his way through such fitting songs as “25 Minutes to Go,” “I Got Stripes,” and “Busted.” Flanked by 2000 riveted inmates, Cash established an empathy between performer and audience that’s never been matched


-Cheap Trick: At Budokan (1978)

 Japanese schoolgirls screamed their hearts out the whole time during this breakthrough album by America’s most under-appreciated power pop band. Guitarist, Rick Nielson provides the fuel for charismatic frontman Robin Zander’s unbelievable vocals. Here lie the definitive versions of “Surrender” and “I Want You to Want Me,” alongside an kicking version of “Ain’t That a Shame.


Thoughts?  Have any favorites?  


11 responses

  1. Greg Williams

    I agree with your list. Just wanted to add Wings’ “Live over America” recorded in 1975. Paul and the Band rock.

    April 15, 2011 at 7:57 pm

  2. Shawn Ryan

    Well, I wouldn’t put Frampton Comes Alive up there. I HATED that album.

    Actually, Kiss Alive wasn’t mostly recorded in Detroit because it wasn’t actually a live album at all (that’s why they’re shown in a studio on the cover). They TRIED to make one, recorded shows and everything, but the band sucked so bad when it came to actual playing, they junked everything but Peter Criss’ drums and recorded it all in the studio. They came clean about the farce on a VH1 “Classic Album” episode a few years ago.

    Live and Dangerous by Thin Lizzy was almost the same way. Not that Thin Lizzy sucked live, but the band was anal about how they sounded, so they pretty much went in and tweaked everything on it.

    My choices:

    Made in Japan by Deep Purple. Maybe the best live hard rock album ever.

    Uriah Heep Live.

    On Your Feet or On Your Knees by Blue Oyster Cult. First and best live album by a band that’s put out, oh, about a gajillion live albums.

    How the West Was Won by Led Zeppelin. They finally put out a very good live album after the horror that was “Song Remains the Same.”

    Strangers in the Night by UFO. Personally, I still like their studio albums better but, as a live album, this is excellent.

    Just Like a Vacation by Blue Rodeo. Nice blend of the lovely melodies and mushroom-enhanced jams.

    Yessongs by Yes.

    One Fair Summer Evening by Nanci Griffith. Just her voice, her guitar and a guy on electric piano. Spare and beautiful.

    I’m sure I’ll think of more.

    April 15, 2011 at 8:00 pm

  3. Matthew McClain

    I, being of a slightly younger generation, have not had the first-hand experience of many of these shows/albums. I do, however, have a great appreciation for good live music. I have given this topic much thought today and my personal favorite would have to be Fleetwood Mac – The Dance.
    The Dance by Fleetwood Mac was released in 1997, and became the 5th best-selling live album of all time in the United States. The concert was recorded for Fleetwood Mac’s MTV The Dance special at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California on May 23, 1997, and features the University of Southern California Marching Band who perform on the tracks “Tusk” (having played on the original studio recording) and “Don’t Stop”.

    April 15, 2011 at 8:38 pm

  4. Shawn Ryan

    I like parts of the Allmans at Fillmore East but — warning, blasphemy ahead – some of it sounds like self-indulgent noodling, drug-fueled meandering and long minutes of aimless guitar tuning. (Then again, that’s true for some of Made in Japan, which I love, so there you go.)

    Not a big fan of the whole album, but the version of “Sweet Jane” on Lou Reed’s “Rock’n’Roll Animal” is a drop-dead classic with the twin guitars of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner point-counterpointing in the intro.

    Fleetwood Mac Live – but mostly for Lindsay Buckingham’s ripsnorting solo on “So Afraid.”

    No Sleep til Hammersmith by Motorhead. Melts the filling in your teeth.

    If You Want Blood You Got it by AC/DC

    Songs in the Attic by Billy Joel. Not your standard live album, but live versions of great tracks from Joel’s first, lesser-known albums.

    Irish Tour ’74 by Rory Gallagher.

    Blow Your Face Out by J. Geils Band. Full-bore, pedal-to-the-metal ferocious R&B.

    Queen was one of the best bands I’ve ever seen live (and I saw them on every American tour), but their live albums don’t quite cut it. You miss half the thrill if you can’t SEE Freddie Mercury.

    April 15, 2011 at 8:41 pm

  5. Jamey McMahon

    The most obvious omission so far – Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus. Just a great all time classic.

    And Band of Gypsys – if for no other reason than Machine Gun.

    I’ve always like Dire Straits – Alchemy. And Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Live at Montreux. And Gov’t Mule’s Live at Roseland Ballroom.

    Ain’t nothing like a great live album.

    April 15, 2011 at 8:57 pm

  6. On “At Budokan” Cheap Trick’s finest moment for me is “Need Your Love.”

    Didn’t consider How the West Was Won my Zep. I’d forgotten about its release. Their “Song Remains the Same” live album came to mind, but it isn’t perfection. Great one though and worth mentioning.

    Someone else mentioned “All the World’s a Stage” by Rush. It is one of my favorites, even though sonically its not quite up there with some of the others.

    Another great one, although short, is AC/DC “If You Want Blood, You Got It.” They captured Bon Scott during their best years on that one.

    All time fave is still Kiss Alive.

    April 15, 2011 at 9:13 pm

  7. A much overlooked gem that’s no longer even available is The Doors “Alive She Cried”. Their soundcheck version of Gloria totally kicked…and is a rarity because Morrison rarely showed up for soundchecks. It also holds the definitive version of “Moonlight Drive/Horse Latitudes” in my opinion.

    Yessongs is great, Aerosmith’s “Double Live Bootleg” and anything by the Grateful Dead except “Dylan And The Dead”, which is atrocious.

    April 15, 2011 at 9:32 pm

  8. Have to totally disagree with one thing mentioned here. No disrespect intended but, Kiss didn’t “suck so bad at actually playing,” at all. Go check their MidNight Special performances on Youtube. They sounded exactly like “Alive” on that performance, and there was no “studio tweaking” done for that. Same time period as well. Maybe they didn’t have it all perfect for the release of their live album, but make no mistake, Kiss’ members could all play.

    April 15, 2011 at 9:38 pm

  9. Shawn Ryan

    On Kiss Alive, I was just going by what Eddie Kramer, who produced the record, said on the VH1 special. He played some of the raw tape from the shows they recorded for the Alive album and believe me, it was atrocious. If Gene Simmons hit one clean bass note on it, I didn’t hear it. Their vocals also were wretchedly off-key. I saw Kiss on the Alive tour and frankly, they were blown offstage by the opening acts, Styx (on the Equinox tour) and Leslie West.

    April 15, 2011 at 9:57 pm

  10. Mark Lanter

    I would add Humble Pie Live at the Filmore…(Frampton still in the band) one of the best “riff/blues rock albums ever….how about Frank Zappa’s “Roxy and Elsewhere”-an all-star cast including George Duke and Chester Thompson…astonishing!!…a few years later ” Live in New York” showcased a very young and chops loaded Terry Bozzio…excellent album….”Between Nothingness and Eternity” 1973 Mahavishnu Orchestra” right before the the original groups demise showcases the exploits of electric Fusion at its best…I’d add “Live at the Plugged Nickle”, Miles Davis w the 1963-68 quintet…unrecognizable performances of standards and “Kind Of Blue” cuts…they couldn’t do the music they were recording at that time because fans couldn’t quite cope yet with their new conceptual approach, so they did the old set…inverted, and real fast! Weather Report’s 8:30 is at the top (with Live at Leeds)…Jaco Pastorious at his peak and that group’s pinnacle as well…renditions of the old and new catalogue including a blistering “Teen Town” and a swinging version of “Birdland”, better than the original studio cut…ok, one more for me ” Heavy Metal Bebop” by the Brecker Bros…late 70s wrap up of fusion…totally out of control Terry Bozzio at his best!!!

    April 15, 2011 at 11:42 pm

  11. Tres


    Just about any Grateful Dead (esp. Live, Europe ’72, and Without a Net).

    Judas Priest – Unleashed in the East

    Blue Oyster Cult – Some Enchanted Evening

    Zappa – Live in New York

    Pink Floyd – Live at Pompeii (I don’t know if I have ever seen the soundtrack to the movie, although I am sure there is one).

    Monterey Pop Festival

    June 1, 2011 at 8:42 pm

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