The Best Live Albums (Part 3)

A few months back, when it became clear that the pandemic lock-down was sticking around and all the shows I had planned for the summer were being "postponed," I posted some of my favorite live albums as a (weak) substitute for concerts -- see #1-5 and 6-10.

Figured I'd add a few more faves to the list (to take my mind off the fact that last week I was supposed to be in Tahoe for a couple nights of Phish shows, and no, not bitter much...).

The Velvet Underground: The Complete Matrix Tapes
The Velvet Underground's legendary two-night run at San Francisco's Matrix, from November 1969, has been documented a few times, on the mixed-quality, hissy 70s release 1969: The Velvet Underground Live (which added a few songs from other venues), and later on The Quine Tapes, an officially-released audience bootleg (taped by fan Robert Quine, who'd later become a legendary guitarist in his own right, performing with Lou Reed among others) which made up in you-are-there excitement what it lacked in sonic fidelity.

Finally, in 2015, they reissued the shows with stunning sound quality, and they're fantastic. The recording captures all facets of the band, from stirring, quiet versions of tunes like "Sweet Jane" and "Pale Blue Eyes" to the languid grooves of "I'm Waiting For The Man" and "Some Kinda Love" to blistering takes on "Heroin" and "White Light/White Heat" (not to mention a savage 36-minute "Sister Ray"). As the band played 4 sets over 2 nights, there is a fair amount of song duplication, but it's still worth sitting through the whole damn thing. (A condensed version can also be found on the deluxe edition of the self-titled third album.)
The Doors: Live in New York
I have mixed feelings about the Doors; they have some truly compelling songs, but also a good amount of music that ranges from vapid to pretentious. In the case of both Morrison's vocals and Manzarek's keyboards, a little bit can go a long way. But they were also an occasionally stunning live band, Krieger proving himself a surprisingly adept lead guitarist, and even Morrison's poetic excesses somehow captivating when backed by a tremendously tight live band. Moreover, despite their age, the various previously-bootlegged shows officially released in recent years sound just fantastic. This pair of shows, compiled in a 2009 box set, make a pretty strong case for a re-appraisal of the divisive band.
R.E.M.: Live in Toronto 1983
As noted previously, there are a number of great bootlegs documenting R.E.M.'s early days, when they were still a raw, young band who could perform their groundbreaking early songs with the energy of an amped-up garage band. Their small club show at Larry's Hideaway in July 1983, captured on an early boot and later officially released with impeccable sound as part of the Murmur reissue, sees them working through a high-energy set comprised primarily of songs from the recently-released Murmur as well as at-the-time unreleased tunes that would appear on the following year's Reckoning. (The Reckoning reissue would similarly append an excellent 1984 concert, in which the band sounds a bit more polished but no less enthusiastic and compelling.)

King Crimson: Absent Lovers (Live in Montreal 1984)
King Crimson's live history is well-documented, both officially and unofficially. And while I spend most of my time listening to recordings from the band's initial 1969-1974 run, the 1980s version of the band, with Adrian Belew at the mic and on guitar alongside Robert Fripp, was simply a monster on stage. Yeah, they were still a prog band, showing off their intimidating musical dexterity (the Levin/Bruford rhythm section quite simply insane), Belew's time playing with Bowie and Talking Heads brought a post-punk, new wave-tinged sound to the band, keeping the music vibrant and invigorating and less likely to veer off into jazzy excursions than prior Crimsons. While there are a couple tunes from the old days, most of this is drawn from the three Belew albums, with notable songs like "Elephant Talk" and "Thela Hun Gingeet" infused with a frenetic energy and playfulness only hinted at in the studio versions.
David Bowie: Live in Santa Monica '72
Bowie's various musical explorations and phases over the years are well-documented by an assortment of live recordings, with some tremendous performances right on up into the 2000s; I'm probably partial to Stage, capturing him at the height of his late 70s Berlin period. Still, the semi-legit Santa Monica recording can't be beat for primal Bowie, as he was just kicking off his Ziggy Stardust persona. The later part of the tour can be heard on the slicker, more polished soundtrack to Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, but I prefer this one, which is rougher and more intimate. Lots of cuts from the Ziggy album released earlier that year, but also a number of fascinating performances of earlier tunes, with quiet, ingratiating takes on "Changes" and "Life on Mars" as well as some rousing glam and proto-punk numbers like "Queen Bitch," the Velvets' "Waiting for the Man," and the sprawling "Width of a Circle."


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