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The live experience is hard to replicate. There’s a community and dynamism there that doesn’t always come across on a recording, rendering many examples for diehards only. That’s not always the case though. Every now and again – through sheer force or some kind of alchemy – the magic in the room carries across and survives in a form to be enjoyed over and over again. These are ten such examples.
The daddy of all live albums, Live & Dangerous has it all: cheesy-yet-kinda-cool stage banter, enormous riffs, some of the best rock tunes ever written and production that makes you feel like you’ve been duct taped to the speaker stack.
Springsteen has a plethora of live options to choose from, but they’re all eclipsed by this pulsating live show from 1975, recorded just as Bruce was coming into his own. A haunting Thunder Road kicks things off and, from that stirring opener onwards, the band play like they’ve a point to prove. Bruce would quickly evolve into the star and showman that we know and love, but it’s fascinating to hear him here, more enveloped by the band than leading from the front.
After deciding to retire from the touring life, The Band teamed up with Martin Scorsese to film their farewell show. It’s a star-studded affair, featuring everyone from Van Morrison to Joni Mitchell to the Staples Singers, the performances interspersed with rambling interviews between the bandmembers (or should that be Band members?) and Scorsese. In terms of concert films, this is the gold standard, especially when it gets to the room-shaking version of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.
There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when James Murphy drew a line under his revered electronica ensemble in 2011. The boundless party vibes of their “final” engagement contrast with the almost confessional interviews with a weary Murphy, clearly conflicted about his decision to call it a day. That the band only took a few years to reform lessens the emotional impact, but the elation from seeing LCD at the height of their powers remains intact.
David Byrne has always had a talent for the dramatic and the visceral, so there’s no other concert film quite like Stop Making Sense. It could be described as an eccentric art show masquerading as a live performance, were it not for the immediacy of the Heads’ countless hits and the fact that everyone on stage looks like they’re having an insane amount of fun. And then, of course, there’s that suit.
For their massive Maddison Square Garden show in 2004, the Beasties gave 50 camcorders to people in the audience with instructions to film the entire show from start to finish. Adam Yauch then spliced all the footage together into an incredibly unique visual masterpiece that captures the live experience like no other concert film. Its energy is contagious and compulsive, making it almost impossible to watch while sitting down.
Some of the best (and worst) MTV Unplugged shows feature bands whose oeuvre seems at odds with the acoustic setting. Nirvana wouldn’t be the oddest candidates, but they approached the concept with more creativity than most, choosing their set list wisely and using the opportunity to turn the spotlight on their heroes, from The Meat Puppets to Leadbelly. Only released after Kurt’s death, its surreal funereal air has only added to its mythology.
The Plimsouls were one of those bands that specialised in being in the right place at the wrong time. Their debut was crammed with more hooks than the walls of a primary school classroom, but it landed just as the world was getting over their brand of tuneful power pop. As good as they were on record, they lacked the ragged glory on show here. When the band push the speakers right to the edge on Now, How Long Does It Take and Million Miles Away, it becomes impossible to discern why they weren’t a much bigger deal.
The ‘Mats were notoriously unpredictable live, most shows descending into incoherent, drunken anarchy. The posthumously released Maxwells set is something of an outlier in that the band are playing competently and manage to finish most of the songs. They’re still as sloppy as a Bolognese sandwich, but it’s the best snapshot of a truly great band at their scruffy best.
There’s nothing on earth like that moment when the lights go down and everyone loses their collective minds. Under Great White Northern Lights captures it perfectly. The roar feels like it’s inside your heads, spreading out like foggy tentacles until it joins with a Scottish marching band, which is then drowned out by Jack White’s redlining guitar. It’s a record that highlights the band’s visceral onslaught in a way that even their best studio albums never quite did.
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