Perhaps the next best thing to actually being at a concert is hearing it on vinyl or seeing it on film. Fortunately, several of our picks below made it into both mediums. But even if only the recorded version exists, these eight albums stand as some of the most dynamic representations of their creators’ live performances.
1) Zappa in New York, Frank Zappa (1978)
Picked by: David
Perhaps Frank Zappa’s definitive album and also his most accessible — concepts that seem like they should be mutually exclusive, but here we are. Featuring members of the Saturday Night Live house band and the legendary Don Pardo, and recorded at the Palladium, Zappa In New York is one of the tightest, most complex live albums I’ve ever heard. Besides Zappa’s famed weirdness and transgressive humor, the album is choked to the brim with complex musical arrangement that showcased the deep talent he surrounded himself with. Drummer Terry Bozzio is one of the true stars of the album, at times taking on the role of the literal devil, and other times taking on an exaggerated version of himself. The prime example of the latter is “Punky’s Whips,” a song with a Pardo introduction about Bozzio’s obsession with a promotional photo of Punky Meadows. An excellent album with a little bit of everything. Not for the easily offended, though.
2) David Live, David Bowie (1974)
Picked by: Rick
My gut feeling was to go with this one, but to be sure I listened to Frampton Comes Alive! and Deep Purple: Made in Japan again — but this was the right choice. As great as those two are, this is a masterpiece. Recorded live at the Tower in Philadelphia in 1974, this double album showcases Bowie’s biggest hits up to that point, including “Rebel, Rebel,” “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” “The Jean Genie,” and others. He also does “All the Young Dudes,” a song he wrote for Mott the Hoople (and who of course had a hit with it), and album cuts such as “Diamond Dogs,” “1984,” “Suffragette City,” and others. Despite the fact that reviews were mixed and that there is a tremendous back story to the album replete with all the drama you often find connected to the music industry, the album sold quite well: it went to #2 in the UK and #8 in the US. Somewhere along the line I lost my much-loved vinyl copy, but even now have it on a CD and on my iPod. It’s a great album.
3) Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, Sam Cooke (1985)
Picked by: Allison
Released over 20 years after it was recorded, Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is a study in frenetic, blazing energy from start to finish, as evidenced in Mr. Soul’s ability to turn even lovely ballads like “Nothing Can Change This Love” and “It’s All Right” into raucous barnstormers. (Not to mention insert quips like, “I ain’t got leukemia.”) Running under 40 minutes, Cooke demonstrates how to get on the stage, do your job (and do it well), and get off leaving the audience wanting more. The climax of the album is unequivocally “Bring It On Home to Me” with a build-up that holds the tension until Cooke and the band explode into the song. Like much of what Cooke left behind, this performance is indicative of his professionalism, potential, and innate talent and sense. Infectious doesn’t even come close to describing what makes LATHSC63 so great.
4) Concert for George, Various Artists (2003)
Picked by: Emma
Live albums aren’t always my cup of tea, but one can’t help but fall in love with this star-studded homage to the life and music of George Harrison. Featuring many of his closest musical friends (and family), the fare goes from Indian classical music, to the roots of rock, to his personal musical work and the comedy troupe Monty Python. It also answers the age-old question, “What happens when you create a wall of drummers behind six to eight guitarists?” Oddly, the answer is, “Some pretty cool music.”
5) Wings Over America, Paul McCartney and Wings (1976)
Picked by: Erika
In just four years, Wings went from a ragtag group who busked at university campuses to a rock powerhouse embarking on what may have been the most extensive world tour for any band to date. That tour ROCKED, and so does the three-disc Wings Over America album. McCartney is at the absolute height of his vocal prowess, and the band’s super-high energy makes nearly every track superior to its original recording. Though the album draws heavily from the 1972 to 1976 Wings catalog, there are a number of Beatles songs sprinkled throughout — especially notable since this was the first time Macca was willing to perform Beatle music live since the breakup. If the audio recording just isn’t enough, a film version, aptly titled Rock Show, captures the full experience of this remarkable tour.
6) Live! At the Desert Inn, Bobby Darin (1986)
Picked by: Pam
Considering that I was only a year old when Bobby Darin passed away, I never stood much of a chance at seeing him in concert, so any of his live recordings including those from his short-lived television variety show are precious to me. Darin had tremendous chutzpah and a stage presence so magnetic that Sammy Davis Jr. — Mister Showbiz himself — once said that Darin was the only act he would never want to follow on stage. In 1960, Darin recorded his first live album, Darin at the Copa, which gives a pretty terrific idea of what it was like to attend one of his shows, but there are a few reasons why I believe Live! At the Desert Inn — recorded in 1971 and released in 1986 — trumps the Copa LP. For starters, it came shortly after a time in Darin’s career when he had ditched the standards that made him famous for his own social/political hippie rock compositions and traded in his tux for denim. Darin fully embraced modern music (he was a huge fan of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles), but his audiences didn’t react well to the new self-proclaimed “Bob” Darin, so he met them in the middle by giving them a mix of his older hits with covers of contemporary songs.
Live! At the Desert Inn delivers just that; with a funky band and backup singers, Darin navigates his way through the 5th Dimension’s “Save The Country,” James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” and Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love) Keeps Lifting Me Higher,” among others. He also includes a Beatles medley (referring to them as “the four wizards of Liverpool”) along with a cover of “Chain of Fools” and “Respect.” Not to mention you get Darin’s chart-toppers including “Mack the Knife,” “Splish Splash,” “If I Were a Carpenter,” “Simple Song of Freedom,” and “Beyond the Sea.” At the time of this concert, his heart ailment was getting worse, the result of his childhood rheumatic fever, but you’d never guess from this recording that he had anything more than a paper cut standing in his way.
7) 11-17-70, Elton John (1971)
Picked by: George
On November 17, 1970, WABC radio in New York broadcasted a live Elton John show from A&R Studios. Part of the show was John performing solo, the rest with bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson. The show was heavily bootlegged, which supposedly caused John’s record label to release an official album. Given the succinct title 11-17-70 (17-11-70 for the UK release), the album contained only a few parts of the show, but it’s a great document of the performance. John only had a couple of albums out at that time, so he dug deep into what material he had along with a couple of good covers. 11-17-70 shows him before all the glam and bells and whistles that came along with future tours. The band is tight, the songs are terrific, and to me, it’s one of the best and most underrated live albums ever. Hopefully the entire show will be officially released one day. Until then, 11-17-70, while a flawed representation of the show, is a great listen.
8) Live at Leeds, The Who (1970)
Picked by: Sarah
I must confess to being one of those people who doesn’t often listen to live albums. When it comes to live stuff, I prefer the whole experience of actually being able to watch as well as listen. But being such a big Who fan, Live at Leeds stands out for me. Listening to it, it’s easy to understand why they had a reputation as one of the best live bands in the world. As well as performing Tommy in full, other highlights include covers of “Shakin’ All Over,” “Summertime Blues,” and “Fortune Teller,” a great version of “Tattoo” from their album The Who Sell Out, and one of my personal favorites, opener “Heaven and Hell.” Interestingly, Pete Townshend preferred the band’s performance in Hull, which was recorded the night after the Leeds gig, but technical problems meant it couldn’t be released.