Exploring the overlooked art of live albums

Although studio albums tend to be the most praised and consumed form of recorded music, live albums present their audiences with unique art that cannot be replicated through studio recording. Performances can have more nuance and be riskier in nature, subverting the control and sterility of the studio process. Whether experimenting with past songs, introducing new material for audiences or performing in a particularly impressive manner, live albums provide great ways to experience music. They are deserving of attention rather than being ignored by listeners who perceive them as lower-quality versions of pre-existing music. 

“98.12.28 Otokotachi no Wakare” is a highly acclaimed live album by Japanese band Fishmans, a group whose material has grown significantly more popular through the internet. The record clocks in at two hours and seven minutes, containing new versions of fan favorite songs like “Walking In The Rhythm” and “Long Season.” The band’s psychedelic music draws on unique influences like dub, reggae and dream pop in order to create ethereal, lush music that also places emphasis on atmospheric quality and the rhythm section. Throughout the album, the bass and drums provide steady grooves that ground songs while adding additional melodic flavor, employing reggae’s emphasis on bass and drum counterpoint. The blissful, androgynous vocals of frontman Shinji Sato carry the album’s dream-like quality, while further instrumentation is provided through keyboards, violin and a sampler, giving these tracks unique variety through unexpected sounds like that of an accordion. By blending these sonic elements, Fishmans creates a distinctly mellow, aquatic sound that soothes the listener. The reinterpretation of “Long Season” is one of my favorite songs ever, and I think that the echo and reverberation provided by the method of live recording helps to accentuate the music’s overall atmosphere, supported through a bass-heavy mix and denser instrumentation. This is the element of “liveness” which makes the album particularly appealing and especially suited for their psychedelic style. Utilizing the theme and variation form as well as repetition, the song spends 41 minutes consistently building and releasing, eventually ending in the same keyboard motif which is heard throughout large portions of its duration before being suddenly cut off. As a documentation of the band’s final concert before Sato’s tragic death, the album serves as a memory of the musician’s impactful legacy and uplifting music, tinging the album’s beauty with further emotion and melancholy. Fishmans is a distinctly unique band and “98.12.28 Otokotachi no Wakare” is the greatest showcase of their ability. The album serves as a collection of their best material, mediated through a unique manner of recording at a specific moment in time that develops its loveliness beyond any studio versions. 

Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps” occupies a unique position compared to standard live albums. The songs included on the track list are not found on Young’s other releases, instead serving as new material rather than live variations of previous recordings. Although the majority of songs were recorded live, the tracks “Pocahontas” and “Sail Away” were recorded in studio. Multiple other tracks were overdubbed and further edited in the studio to remove portions of audience noise. The first half of the album is an acoustic set played by Young, accompanied by a few backing musicians. He delivers beautifully intimate folk ballads with his signature voice and lyrical prowess. Playing both his guitar and harmonica, Young’s expressive songs discuss topics such as rock and roll stardom on “My My, Hey Hey, (Out of the Blue),” Native American genocide on “Pocahontas” and events told through stream of consciousness poetry on “Sedan Delivery.” Side two of the record features Young once more, this time with frequent collaborators and backing band Crazy Horse. This half of the album moves away from folk into hard rock songs influenced by then-contemporary punk movements, playing with a harsher, distorted rock sound. Songs like “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” are intensely powerful, often noted as sounding like the precursor to grunge music. By dividing the album up in half and formatting each side around cohesive sounds, “Rust Never Sleeps” is able to deliver both consistency and a diversity of sound, showcasing variously impressive performances from all involved. Young’s vocal strain and guitar soloing allow him to push his own comfortable limits in a manner that would be seen as uncouth within the studio. By splitting the album in half stylistically and using it as a means of releasing previously unheard material, Neil Young and Crazy Horse are able to employ the live album format as a way of delivering their music to listeners in a manner that is more engaging than a typical studio release. 

As eloquently put by Luke Buckman of Pitchfork (and in a similar vein with “98.12.28 Otokotachi no Wakare”), listeners can hear “The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording” as John Coltrane’s final documented breath, recorded just two months before his death to liver cancer. Accompanied by star musicians such as Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, this live recording is a vigorous, chaotic performance that substantially reinterprets two previous Coltrane standards, “Ogunde” and his rendition of “My Favorite Things.” Each of these tracks are notably lighter and more mellow in their studio forms as compared to their live versions. The audio quality is poor and degraded, often overdriving as Coltrane’s saxophone screams with full capacity. Difficulties in recording reflect the nature of attempting to capture the musical quality of “liveness,” or non-studio works. These recording issues form an imperfect mirror to the concert itself, delivering us with the nature of the musician’s prowess and concert intimacy while obscuring their overall clarity. Each song is only loosely structured around any discernible melody, rhythm or form, embarking on a particularly challenging free jazz journey. These qualities often feel harsh and uncompromising, yet substantial beauty lies beneath this noise. Coltrane in particular is heard wailing and screeching away on the saxophone, a demonstration of vitality that is particularly life-affirming when put in the context of Coltrane’s illness and death. He and Sanders seem to play as loud as they humanly can while bypassing standard guidelines for tonal quality or melodic playing in favor of pure, unbridled expression. These interpretations reflect Coltrane’s later explorations of spirituality and cosmic themes, put into a free jazz style that allows for all involved to release their collective energy through music’s cathartic power. The double bass of Jimmy Garrison provides us with an extended, somber introduction on “My Favorite Things” in order to contrast with the full band’s later explosion of sound. Alice Coltrane’s piano solo on “Ogunde” retains the frantic playing of the album without being excessively jarring, introducing unexpected differentiation. Rashied Ali’s drumming is especially unique, supporting soloists with skittering, metallic sounds that are unlike any other jazz drummer I’ve heard. Although thoroughly difficult and harsh on the ears, this album’s unrestricted force, pain and ecstasy combine to create a highly emotional and unique jazz experience which could not be replicated in the controlled, sanitized environment of the studio. 

The nuances of live albums and the processes that go into their creation deserved to be treated with artistic respect. Rather than being less polished or imperfect, the supposed “flaws” that accompany the playing live music give additional character and intrigue to performance itself. Artists are allowed greater freedom of expression and have the opportunity to realize their vision in a unique setting. Whether it is by creating new material for the concert stage or reinterpreting past masterpieces, live albums deserve attention from fans instead of being viewed as unnecessary material. 

One Comment

  1. Best live album ever, Rolling Stones, Get Your Ya Ya’s Out. More energy than a powerhouse.

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