Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends…
The second (and final) part of Vinyl Connection’s pick of 1971 live albums, counting up to #1!
5 TRAFFIC—WELCOME TO THE CANTEEN
In terms of personnel, this is an ‘in between’ Traffic album. In fact it isn’t even credited to the band. In-again out-again Dave Mason was invited back for this contract completing effort, which does mean that two of his songs add to the variety on the LP. Although the playing is just fine, the recording (especially the vocals) is not of highest quality. Having said that, the two long work-outs, “Dear Mr Fantasy” and the Spencer Davis hit “Gimme Some Lovin’” are great, as is the weird and wonderful “40,000 Headmen”. Essential for fans of Traffic and Steve Winwood fans but probably a curiosity for others.
4 GEORGE HARRISON & FRIENDS — CONCERT FOR BANGLADESH
In 1974, just three years after Bangladesh came into being as an independent nation, the small but populous country was hit by a major famine. While the new government admitted to 27,000 deaths, unofficial estimates put the total at 1.5 million. Causes were complicated but several factors stood out. Firstly, the war with Pakistan that ended in 1971. When army forces left, they dismantled or destroyed much infrastructure; the fledgling nation had few systems and an impoverished economy. Secondly, once the world knew about the human tragedy, not everyone behaved with compassion. The mighty USA used the promise of 2.2 million tons of food aid to bully Bangladesh into stopping its export of jute to Cuba, with whom America was still in dispute. Eventually the tiny nation caved, but for many displaced citizens, it was too late. A third factor was corruption at every level of a system still in its infancy.
All that was still to come when, in 1971, George Harrison’s friend Ravi Shankar acquainted the ex-Beatle with the suffering that followed the armed conflict. George made some calls, made a plan, and organised two concerts at Madison Square Garden, New York, in early August. The story of the concert and the interminable wrangling of the record companies make fascinating (if depressing) reading, but the concerts happened, were recorded, and eventually released as a triple LP boxed set on the 20th of December after Harrison complained about Capitol’s recalcitrance (ie: greed) on the Dick Cavett show.
This rambling, scattergun recording has grown on me over the years. George was in fine form, riding high after the mighty (and mightily deserved) success of All Things Must Pass. Ringo joined him on stage, the first live Beatle pairing since they withdrew from touring in 1966. Bob Dylan played mind games until the last minute, but ultimately strolled on stage to do his bit with true legend intensity—his first US live appearance in five years. Billy Preston, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Klaus Voorman, Badfinger, and of course Ravi Shankar’s opening set… it was an exciting event and although it took several decades to get some decent sound, nothing can diminish the atmosphere of the concert or undercut George’s impassioned performance. Live recordings should be warts and all, whether it’s Ringo stumbling over the lyrics of “It don’t come easy” or some very dodgy mixes (hello Leon!); it’s all about the event, the record, the history. I love the early moment where Ravi and his ensemble are tuning up. The audience have been exhorted by both George and Shankar to be on their best behaviour; after the Indian instruments are tuned, the crowd applauds. Ravi, polite and smiling faintly, observes, “Thank you. If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will enjoy the playing more”.
The musicians—big and small—waived all fees and income for the project and a sizeable cheque was eventually conveyed to UNICEF. It was the first large scale example of rock activism.
3 EMERSON LAKE AND PALMER — PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION
It may monster Mussorgsky, but EL&P’s live recording of their attack upon Pictures At An Exhibition is a prog rock tour de force. Keith Emerson was a man with a mission: he knew the source material and had a clear vision of what he wanted to do with it. Greg Lake’s voice was never better in concert and Carl Palmer laid down a powerhouse foundation. The film was, as I recall, the first rock concert movie I’d ever seen and (with the possible exception of Palmer’s interminable drum solo) I loved it. So did many others; the LP was (briefly) Top 10 in the UK and Top 20 in Australia.
2 CURTIS MAYFIELD — CURTIS LIVE!
Can a concert be both laid back and intense? Because that is exactly what Curtis Mayfield delivers on this 2LP set recorded at The Bottom Line in New York, January 1971. The soul legend is in great form, hitting the high notes like a bell and emoting without ever seeming to raise a sweat. It’s mesmerising listening to a singer at the height of his powers, and with the vocals mixed way forward it is riveting—across fifty years, and a thousand imitators. Hearing Mayfield deliver his own take on “People Get Ready”, the modern gospel classic he wrote, is almost enough to turn the head of a resolute unbeliever. Yes, there is a lot of spirituality here, but there is also plenty of grooving funk and a righteous fistful of civil rights overtones. It is, simply put, a terrific live album.
1 ALLMAN BROTHERS — AT FILLMORE EAST
This live recording of The Allman Brothers Band at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East in New York has become something of an iconic recording, both for the band and for ‘In Concert’ albums generally. The original two record set involved some sneaky post-production by Tom Dowd, who trimmed some performances and merged material from different concerts to create 76 minutes of live excitement. The playing is great, with brothers Duane and Greg both shining. In particular, the almost telepathic connection between the musicians makes even the longest tracks—and two of them clock in at around 20 minutes—flow and dance through different shades and moods. Recognition from fans was swift as the album became the Allman’s first ‘hit’, while the music’s longevity is demonstrated by its 2004 selection for preservation by the Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” recording.
Of course, you can never have too much of a good thing. So no surprises that an expanded version appeared in 1992, adding an hour of extra music, including the epic “Mountain Jam”, half an hour of exploration and jamming based around Donovan’s totally zen, man, “There is a Mountain” from 1967. I believe there is even a six CD set of the entire set of concerts for those for whom too much is never enough. But re-issues aside, either the original or the 1992 expanded version a wonderful examples of just how marvellous The Allman Brothers Band could be in concert and indeed, how excellent live rock albums can be.