I have always had a certain affinity for live performances. Whether committed to vinyl, cassette, VHS, DVD, CD, or whatever format, I have never been able to get enough of them. The power, the rawness, the pure musical nirvana that watching or listening to a great live performance provides is the closest thing to heaven I have yet to experience.
The coalescing of multiple minds and bodies to create one amazingly beautiful, singular musical thought stirs my imagination, evoking all kinds of possibilities for the future of mankind. The combining of perfect harmony, superhuman-like muscle memory, and virtuoso improvisation to create something beautiful and complex is so spectacular I’m often left without the proper words to describe it.
The act of watching a great live music performance can be conflicting yet affirming. It can make me feel darker than the deepest hole while shining such a bright light over me that I can barely see, which is why I felt it necessary to share with you my Top 5 Live Performance Recordings.
#5 Björk – Live at Royal Opera House
Live At Royal Opera House was originally released as a DVD in 2002 via One Little Indian and marks the first performance by a contemporary pop artist in the Royal Opera House. While all of the music on this list has earned a special place in my heart, this performance above all is the one I’m connected to most personally.
I first heard this album in college during a major changing point in my life. I had just broken up with the love of my life, and sorrow rained down on me every day like a hot Florida summer storm. I was in a very dark place both musically and spiritually, and then by chance I stumbled upon Live At Royal Opera House. At the time, the music couldn’t have been further out of my wheelhouse, but something about the unrefined passion in Björk’s vocals connected with me on such a deep level that I was immediately drawn in hook, line, and sinker.
This live performance is responsible for carrying me out of my own personal hell, delivering me to a world of brand-new musical possibilities, and it is my wish to spread the love.
#4 Radiohead – (In Rainbows) From The Basement
Radiohead’s (In Rainbows) From The Basement first aired in May 2008, but it wasn’t officially released until June 2008 to coincide with the band’s series of outdoor concerts in the UK.
Never has a concept been so simple yet so exquisitely executed. Vaguely reminiscent of the Rolling Stones’ film Sympathy for the Devil, this live performance immediately caught my attention. With no attempt made to hide the production equipment — various pieces of sup rad equipment are strewn about the live room — (In Rainbows) Live From The Basement is to this day one of the most intimate video performances I have ever seen.
(In Rainbows) From The Basement marked the first time I had ever gotten to see one of my favorite bands in a rehearsal space setting. No bright lights, no exotic locations, no stage, and no crowd noise (usually one of the best parts of a live recording), and yet somehow I was still completely enthralled in every moment. It just goes to show that there is no exact formula for a great performance, and artists don’t need a huge budget to have a lasting impact on viewers.
#3 Pink Floyd – Live at Pompeii
Yep, this release is exactly as monumental as you would expect. One of the greatest psychedelic rock bands of all time plays one of the most famous amphitheaters of all time — a match made in heaven!
The Pompeii footage was originally shot over four days in October of 1971. The band insisted on using their touring equipment as well as recording all the songs live using high-quality reel-to-reel 24-track recorders. The rest of the footage comprising the 1972 release was recorded in a Paris television studio in December of ’71.
By today’s standards, a feat such as this would be easily achievable if you had the cash for a flight and owned a Mac (and, of course, had all that lovely retro gear), but back in 1971, this was not as simple as getting a copy of Pro Tools and signing in to Orbitz. The sheer amount of work it took to pull something like this off is impressive, not to mention the fact that the music is some of the best of Pink Floyd’s career.
Live at Pompeii is the result of Pink Floyd’s uncontrollable urge to experiment with not only their music, but the environments in which they made and recorded the music as well, making it a shoo-in for this list of great live music performance recordings.
#2 Sam Cooke – Live at the Harlem Square Club
One of the first soul records I ever listened to was Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club. As a young child when my parents left the house, I would turn on my father’s forbidden Hi-Fi system and spread my parents’ albums out on the floor, perusing various genres and artists, but for some reason or another (probably the bright colors), I specifically remember this album catching my eye.
The first time I put it on and heard the crowd cheering, I felt a strange and wonderful sensation that I had never felt before. It was the first time I had heard a live recording and the first time I had taken myself out of my home and imagined myself being at the performance. Before the first four measures of “Feel It” were over, my living room became a dance floor, and I had fallen in love with the album.
It wasn’t until I got a bit older that I realized just how special the vocal performance given by Sam was on this album. If you can still say after listening to it that you have heard someone sing with more passion than Sam does on this record, then I would have to call you a liar until proven otherwise. Not to mention that the album contains one the greatest splits of all time with “Medley: It’s All Right/For Sentimental Reasons.” The way Cooke blends these two classic songs together results in one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.
Live at the Harlem Square Club was initially recorded in 1963 to be released as One Night Stand the same year, but the recording was locked away and wasn’t officially released to the public until 1985. It has since been remixed and remastered twice (2000 The Man Who Invented Soul version and then again in 2005), but if you ask me, there is no beating the original.
#1 Jimi Hendrix – Band of Gypsys
Released in 1970 and recorded at the Fillmore East over a two-night span, this record has influenced me more than any other piece of music I can possibly think of, live or in-studio. It was 100 percent self-produced by Hendrix, and it was the last record to be authorized by Hendrix, released just six months before his tragic death.
It’s not that Band Of Gypsys was extremely different in nature from the sonic styling of The Experience, but the direction of the lyrical and musical concepts were unique. For the first time, Hendrix was speaking out against violence and up for civil rights issues, and with the added vocal presence of Buddy Miles, Hendrix’s music began to reach new levels.
The album from top to bottom was exactly what Hendrix wanted it to be: a punch in the mouth to mainstream America and a counter-culturalist’s musical promise land.
Sadly not every notable effort can make a Top 5 list, but that doesn’t mean that the honorable mentions are not as good as the albums I included. Tough decisions had to be made, and I am sure if I made this list ten times, it would be different each time.
- Woodstock: Music From The Original Soundtrack And More
- The Beatles – Rooftop Concert
- Bob Marley & the Wailers – Live
- Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
- Peter Frampton – Frampton Comes Alive!
- The Velvet Underground – Live At Max’s Kansas City
- James Brown – Live at the Apollo
- Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison
- Little Feat – Waiting for Columbus
- MC5 – Kick Out The Jams
- Bill Withers – Live At Carnegie Hall
- Led Zeppelin – The Song Remains The Same
- Aretha Franklin – Live At Fillmore West
- The Mars Volta – Scabdates
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – Live at Slane Castle
- Gorillaz – Demon Days: Live at the Manchester Opera House
- The Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense
Just to name a few.