Perhaps the only truly honest concert recordings are ‘bootlegs’: verbatim transcriptions of what happened on a particular night on a particular stage. Containing and disclosing all the fluctuations in energy, rambling introductions, musical missteps and extraneous noises just as they were, they truly tell it like it was. Not surprisingly, bootlegs tend to be the domain of the serious fan, being abhorred by record companies and shunned by artists for the loss of control and perhaps of profits. Aficionados are often drawn in by an insatiable appetite for MORE! of a beloved artist but for many it is, as Clinton Heylin observed, the “enduring appeal of hearing music that has been neither authorised nor sanitized by the artist”. A peek behind the mask, then.
This is not meant to imply that artists are deceptive. Many a live record will carry an observation about the sound or the gig. One favourite appears on the back of King Crimson’s ‘Earthbound’ where we are informed with disarming candour that one long piece was recorded ‘in the rain from the back of a Volkswagen truck’. You have been warned.
Another disclaimer appears on Peter Gabriel’s double album “Plays Live”. As an admirable example of transparency it is worth quoting in full.
“Although this recording was compiled from four concerts in the mid-west of the United States, some additional recording took place not a thousand miles away from the home of the artist. The generic term of this process is ‘cheating’. Care has been taken to keep the essence of the gigs intact, including ‘human imperfection.’”
Perhaps one reason why live albums are often misunderstood and under-appreciated is that they are so disparate in character. While there is often genuine demand from fans for a ‘live’ album, that is not the only motivator beyond separating fans from their pocket-money or filling a hole in the album release program.
For instance, there is the “record of a historical event” album, often with an accompanying film. Documents of festivals are a good example, as are valedictory concert recordings.
No-one would argue with the significance of Woodstock to rock music and indeed to popular culture; it required a three record set plus a double album second volume to encompass that heaving mass of bands and Bohemians. Yet the best evocation of this pivotal festival remains the enduringly charming film directed by Michael Wadleigh. The event was as important as the actual music, so the film, with its innovative split screen sections and vox pop interviews, adds much colour and texture to the records: the two become inseparable.
It is a similar story with the Ziggy Stardust film and album of David Bowie’s last concert as his first and most famous ‘alter ego’. It is the D A Pennebaker film one is likely to revisit to revel in the heady psycho-explosion of glam art-rock colliding full throttle with hit-parade pop. In fact the album of the soundtrack of the film was only released in 1983, ten years after the event. An afterthought indeed.
Another function of the Live Album is the record/souvenir of a tour. ‘Big’ bands often routinely release live albums of their tours in a bid to undermine bootleggers. Why buy a possibly shonky recording from a shady source when you can have the bright shiny (well-scrutinised) official version? Pink Floyd are repeat offenders here, though they are far from alone. Led Zeppelin are one of several bands that have made an art form of plundering their own archive for worthwhile concert tapes while Crowded House met the demand for more from dedicated fans by releasing a series of ‘Fan Club’ only live discs that captured complete gigs.
At their best, ‘in concert’ albums give us a chance to hear an artist strut their stuff on stage, breathing sweaty life into songs we may be very familiar with from the ‘studio’ albums but which are excitingly re-invigorated as the musicians interpret, modify, improvise, extemporise, deconstruct or otherwise creatively go twelve rounds with their works.
At the very least, the barbecue splutter of crowd noise and applause hides extraneous vinyl pops and crackles between the songs.
Tim Buckley ‘Dream Letter: Live in London 1968’ 
Here is a wonderful example of an ‘archive’ release that ticks all the boxes: terrific performance, historical weight, beautifully recorded. Only two albums into his kaleidoscopic career, Tim assembled a small group melding folk and jazz sensibilities and proceeded to mesmerize the audience – then and now. Danny Thompson’s bass is especially sympathetic. What I love here is Buckley’s honest delivery; intense but not intimidating, focussed musically and fey – but not unfriendly – when he speaks. And soaring, sighing, entreating… that voice. There is an absence of the vocal melodrama that sometimes gives Buckley’s live recordings an overwrought theatricality. This performance of “Morning Glory” here is my favourite version, eschewing hysteria in favour of wistful longing. Not a bad place to meet Tim Buckley: London ’68.
801 ‘Live’ 
Short lived and fascinating, 801 burned briefly but brightly in the (northern) summer of 1976 then disappeared. The band brought together Brian Eno, late of Roxy Music, pal Phil Manzanera, Roxy guitarissimo, Simon Phillips (whose diverse list of drum credits deserves a dedicated article), Francis Monkman (Curved Air), well-respected jobbing guitarist Lloyd Watson and bassist Bill MacCormick (Quiet Sun, Matching Mole). The recording was of their last concert and used the recent technical innovation of sending the instrument signals straight into the mixing desk (rather than mic-ing up the stage amps). Result? Possibly the best sounding ‘live’ album to date. Musically it is wonderfully varied, rocking with complex interplay and mischievous energy; their interpretation of The Beatles ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (here called TNK) is justly famous. But there is much more than creative covers here. Eno’s songs are delivered with power and punch, Manzanera’s guitar pieces are melodic and inviting while for fans of the often overlooked Quiet Sun album the inclusion of ‘Rongwrong’ is a delight. An album ultimately impossible to categorise – rock-fusion-progressive-alternative anyone? – it remains an enduring treasure.
Tangerine Dream ‘Poland’ 
Tangerine Dream’s magnum opus “Zeit” was one of the first Krautrock albums I got into: a dream-dipped exodus through an empty, haunted wasteland that manages to both exhaust and exhilarate. This live album was recorded twelve years later and shows that Edgar Froese and colleagues were by no means stuck in the introspective 70s. While there are plenty of live TD albums to choose from (7 official releases plus a clutch from their archive), there is an energy and momentum here that belies the extensive history of this seminal electronic band. Yes this concert does excite, albeit in an grooving automotive sort of way. The long tracks (only one side has more than a single title) build and develop with repetitive musical themes and insistent rhythms. The liner notes suggest the trio were rather worried about the impact of the sub-zero temperatures on instruments and musicians alike but they needn’t have worried. This concert generates its own heat.
Frank Zappa ‘Guitar’ 
Composer, band leader, producer, guitarist, Frank Zappa was no stranger to the concept of the “live album” having issued more than a dozen during his lifetime. What makes this particular release noteworthy (grimace) is that it showcases Frank’s considerable prowess on his instrument. The extracting and assembling of a panoply of solos culled from performances during the first half of the 80s proves that when you take away the dodgy lyrics and ‘jokes’, what remains is an inspiring guitarist capable of beauty, power and jaw-dropping versatility. Frank once told Guitar Player magazine “I don’t think that I have ever played a good solo of any description in the recording studio. I just don’t have the feeling for it.” This album certainly supports his claim and is one where the extra tracks on the CD recommend it as the preferred medium. Just the solos, Ma’am.
Sylvian | Fripp ‘Damage’ 
It dawned on David Sylvian (Japan) and Robert Fripp (King Crimson) that a creative partnership might be nice: 1993’s excellent “The First Day” was the fruit. Putting together a high-quality touring band, they went on the road and “Damage” tells the tale. As well as live treatments of a big chunk of the studio album, several songs from Sylvian’s “Gone To Earth” are included (Fripp collaborated on that under-rated 1986 album too). There is even a song from the (also under-rated) almost-Japan “Rain Tree Crow” (1991). Throughout, the musical energy ebbs and flows around Sylvian’s languid voice; guitar textures are woven by Fripp and Michael Brook, while the rhythm section of Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto are limber and powerful (Fripp would work with them extensively in the later KC ProjeKcts). Despite the aching melancholy that characterises much of Sylvian’s singing, this is not a grey album at all, more a day of many seasons.
Clinton Heylin “Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry”
[St. Martin’s Griffin, UK, 1996]
Barry Miles “Zappa: A Biography” [Grove Press, NY, 2004]
David Bowie “Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture” [RCA 1983]
“Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More” [Atlantic 1970]
Peter Gabriel “Plays Live” [Charisma 1983].