The esteemed Danny R. Phillips recently wrote a guest column here at Vocals On Top about his six best live albums. Not that this is a competition but I didn’t agree with all of his choices. Everyone’s list is different and he definitely had some stellar albums on his list but I just had to make a similar list of my own.
Phillips mentioned that commonly people will say Kiss Alive or Frampton Comes Alive are the best and he disagreed. Phillips is dead on here; there are so many more great live albums than those selection that I would have to have an extensive list to get to them. Needless to say they didn’t make the cut for me either. So with all due respect to Mr. Phillips; here are the top six live albums of all-time:
Bob Dylan – Bootleg Series Volume 4: Live 1966
“Play Fucking Loud” you can hear Dylan tell his backing band, who would later become The Band, during this legendary show. This two disc set is divided into an acoustic set and an electric set showing the transition Dylan was going through at the time. The acoustic set has the beautiful gentle touch of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and the lengthy, wandering but never boring “Desolation Row” while the electric disc has the erie story of “Ballad of a Thin Man” and the thunderous roar of the greatest song of all time: “Like A Rolling Stone.” It is one of the most historic live recordings you will ever hear.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse- Live at Massey Hall
Phillips took Live Rust; I say Live at Massey Hall is the true gem in Neil Young’s live discography. Massey Hall finds Young still hungry for his audience and shockingly talkative. Young is still vulnerable and willing to expose himself to his home crowd. He talks of his ranch he just bought and of new songs like the legendary “Old Man.” One of the highlights of the acoustic show is hearing Young pick hard at his guitar on “Cowgirl In The Sand” and the requested “Down By The River.” The roar of the awestruck audience is piercing at times and you can feel the intimacy of the show. It is not only one of the best live albums of all time but possible one of the best albums of all time period.
Johnny Cash- From Folsom Prison
The only live album Phillips and I both have in our top 6. It is one of the most universally know live albums in history and rightfully so. The between-song prison announcements make the listener realize that setting of this great moment in music history after one great song after another distracts them from that fact. Cash’s baritone never sounded more honest than this recording. The dark telling of “Long Black Veil” haunts the recording while the playful lyrics of “Cocaine Blues” and “25 Minutes To Go” make the incarcerated audience erupt.
Nirvana- Unplugged In New York
Once again Phillips and I agree on the band but not the album. The guitar fuzz on Wishkah is irresistible but I still greatly prefer the stripped down gut wrenching Unplugged In New York by Nirvana. Cobain’s banter is as memorable as the songs here, from the opening of “This is off our first record, most people don’t own it.” on through the last song every note and syllable is perfectly in place. The strange choice of cover songs exposed new generations to amazing music by the likes of David Bowie and Leadbelly. The three Meat Puppets covers are strategically located and a brilliant addition. The closing cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” captures Cobain releasing his inner-demons in a way that may never be equaled on a recording ever again.
Todd Snider – The Storyteller
Todd Snider is one of the most entertaining solo live performers you will ever see. His chops as a comedian are almost as good as his musical skills. This album highlights some of his best live stories. Comedic timing is just as important as timing in music; lucky for Snider, he has them both. The songs aren’t bad either. “Stuck on a Corner” is a perfect sing-along and “The Ballad of The Kingsmen” is one of the most entertaining story-songs you will ever hear. The dialog on “Mushroom Story” and “Bill Elliott Story” are priceless and make The Storyteller worth listening to even if you hate the music.
Bob Dylan – Bootleg Series Volume 6: Live 1964
Two Bob Dylan live albums in my top 6 of all time? For anyone who knows me the surprise may actually be that there is only two. This volume of The Bootleg Series finds a very young Dylan spewing his protest songs still. The playfullness of “Who Killed Davey Moore?” and “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” make the album a fun listen while the sincere readings of “To Ramona” and “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” clearly steal the heart on this album. The false start on “I Don’t Believe You” where Dylan forgets the lyrics and asks the crowd if anyone knows them is a amazingly unique moment.
Honorable mentions: Neil Young – Live Rust, Drive-By Truckers – Alabama Ass-Whoopin’, AC/DC – If You Want Blood, Camper Van Beethoven – Discoteque CVB, David Bazan – Live at The Electric Factory, Toadies – Live From Paradise, Iron Maiden – Live After Death