Okay, the 1970s was my favorite decade for music, I have written about it many times. The live album is a phenomenon of the decade, it was expected of artists, technology and recording techniques were improving, and they began to sell extremely well. Live albums caught singers and bands in their element and in the 1970s, bands were expected to stretch their songs, solos expanded and the drummer even did a five minute performance. Concerts became experiences of light, fog machines and intense sound. No wonder record buyers snapped up copies so they would re-experience the event in their homes.
A lot of live albums were nothing special, suffering from poor sound, uninspired playing and music that didn’t live up to the original studio versions. Musicians were hard-pressed to recreate their studio sounds and thus began the practice of “sweetening” their performances with overdubs and replacing out of tune vocals and instruments. Sometimes a great live album changed the career trajectories for musicians. See Peter Frampton, The Blues Brothers, Deep Purple, Joe Cocker and Cheap Trick for more detail.
Live albums also served to capture magic in a bottle as some bands stopped touring or broke up, leaving the live performance as their legacy. Woodstock and the Concert for Bangladesh were those once in a lifetime events and preserved for posterity as live recordings. For others, the live album was the vehicle for showcasing what the band was best at: live performance. YES, ELP and The Tubes produced very good, and in some cases classic studio albums, but their true magic happened on stage.
Here are 20 of my favorite or critically acclaimed live albums. Many more albums could have joined this list as influential albums or are noteworthy for showcasing their artists in a concert setting. Let me tell you why each made my list.
What Do You Want From Live? The Tubes, 1978 – The Tubes are an acquired taste; originally what you might call a punk band, they matured into an effective rock band that had a brief window of commercial success in the early 1980s. There concert experience was a mixture of theater and underground experimentation, owing somewhat to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention of a decade earlier. A few years later, The Tubes would be pictured on their most commercial album wearing business suits, in stark contrast to their more frayed and tattered 1970s persona. This album takes more than one listen to appreciate.
Waiting for Columbus, Little Feat, 1978 – My first exposure to Little Feat, and certainly not my last. Little Feat’s music is very different to categorize. Any label fails to do it justice. Like the Grateful Dead, Little Feat is a concert band; you have to enjoy them live to appreciate their blend of musical styles and their strengths. This live album raised their visibility and expanded their fan base.
Cheap Trick at Budokan, Cheap Trick, 1978 – Cheap Trick had been around since the early 1970s and had moments of moderate success but like Peter Frampton a few years earlier this album was the perfect showcase for their songs in front of an audience that pushed the performance into overdrive. Cheap Trick, unlike Frampton, would have continued chart success with new albums. The band, still featuring three of four original members, still tours with a few of the songs from this album and continues to pack the energy and musicianship of their breakout year of 1978.
Briefcase Full of Blues, Blues Brothers, 1978 – Remember the Blues Brothers, that fine group of musicians fronted by John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd? This album was an unexpected smash as it introduced many fans to R&B and soul, disguised as a live rock album. Surprisingly effective, the Blues Brothers would produce a follow up album and star in popular film before the death of John Belushi. Recorded live, this album, which featured such great musicians as Paul Schaffer, Tom Scott, Steve Cropper and Donald Dunn, produced several popular singles.
Frampton Comes Alive, Peter Frampton, 1976 – A magical period of time for Peter Frampton, it was the largest selling live album and one of the largest selling albums of all time. Tweaking some of his album tracks, this concert showcased not only some fine musicianship but songs that needed to breathe through live performance. The result catapulted Frampton to the front of the line and unfortunately set the bar so high that he would never come close to topping this album. Thankfully, he has been touring on this album in recent years, playing the entire concert as it happened, and giving old fans and new a chance to capture some of that old magic again.
Wings Over America, Wings, 1976 – Paul McCartney did not tour much during the 1970s, at least not in America. This tour was an event because Americans had not seen Paul since the Beatles last toured the State a decade earlier. Paul new band, Wings, was in great form and he had several very recently successful albums to tour behind. I waited overnight at the venue to purchase tickets to see this concert. The album still holds up, has recently been remastered and the companion concert film capture the magic of this tour. An entire segment of the concert was devoted to acoustic instruments, still a tricky thing to accomplish during the 1970s, but the sound is perfectly engineered and wonderfully reproduced.
Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends, ELP, 1974 – A progressive power-trio, Emerson, Lake & Palmer was one of the most successful and commercial bands of the 1970s. Fueled by Keith Emerson’s in-your-face style of organ and synthesizer playing, Greg Lake’s smooth vocals and Carl Palmers bombastic percussion, this huge album somehow was able to recreate live, reasonable versions of finely crafted studio creations. How three musicians can produce so much sound is beyond me. If progressive music is to your liking, this is required tasting.
Before the Flood, Dylan and the Band, 1974 – Bob Dylan and the Band have a long history as the Band served as Dylan’s backup band a decade earlier. By 1974, Dylan’s popularity had ebbed and flowed, his new music was not as successful, and his last tour was eight years previous. The Band’s popularity had peaked and the tour was a chance for both parties to re-engage their audience and most some money. The top price of concert tickets was a lofty $9.50, a sizable amount in those days, and introduce the mail order ticket sales concept. The resulting album showcased many familiar songs with new and different arrangements, something Dylan would continue to do throughout his career. Dylan would release several more live albums during the decade and introduce Christianity into his songwriting, while the Band would stage a farewell tour in 1976 and largely disappear as a musical entity.
In Concert: Derek and the Dominoes, 1973 – Eric Clapton’s best work in the 1970s was with this short-lived band. They produced one studio album and this classic live album. This album sizzles with long-form versions of many of the studio tracks. Unfortunately, Duane Allman was not featured on the live album but the foursome of Clapton, Radle, Whitlock and Gordon were up to the task. Out-of-print for many years, the album was re-released on CD but inexplicably, the soaring version of “Why Does Love Have to Be So Sad?” was replaced by a different version. Huge error, in my opinion. If you can find the original on vinyl or CD, grab it. In the 1970s, Clapton never sounds better on stage.
Yessongs, Yes, 1973 – A classic and still one of my favorites. This tour was so successful and legendary that recently, seven concerts from this tour were packaged together and released. Seven concerts, you heard me right. Yessongs was a collection of songs from that tour, not from the same concert, and it captured both the grandeur of the songs with incredible musicianship of the band. Yes was at the pinnacle of their popularity, although they would again achieve massive popularity in the 1980s with a slightly different band lineup. Yes, like ELP, was one of the more successful bands to incorporate elements of classical, jazz and folk into their rock song style.
Made in Japan, Deep Purple, 1972 – I’m not a huge Deep Purple fan but this album was a high water mark for the classic lineup and maybe the best heavy metal live album of the decade. Who can forget such live classics as “Smoke on the Water” or “Highway Star?” These songs were made to be played live and these versions were even better than the original studio tracks. Deep Purple would soldier on for a few more records before Ritchie Blackmore left. This album was played at more high school parties than probably any other.
Hot August Night, Neil Diamond, 1972 – I am not a huge Neil Diamond fan but you have to respect his concert presence. His shows were legendary and full of glitz. While some performers struggled to reproduce their studio sound, Neil Diamond spared no expense to provide the musicianship and vocal support to give fans what they craved. Some of his 1970s albums featured some daring symphonic and lyrical creations, counter to his AM radio-friendly tunes that were all over the Billboard charts. This album captured the concert success quite effectively as the rock version of Tom Jones.
4 Way Street, CSNY, 1971 – This tour by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was a powder keg waiting to explode. Their mixture of personalities was highly combustible but their ability to complement one another musically happened better in concert than on vinyl. This album was a mixture of individual and group performances, acoustic and electric, solo and group material. The acoustic performances are the best as you can fully appreciate the harmonies and the emotion in the vocals. The duo of Crosby & Nash really shine in the songs they perform together and previews the success they would have together later in the decade.
At Fillmore East, Allman Brothers Band, 1971 – If you enjoyed the Allman Brothers Band on record, they were always better in concert. This album was their coming out party and showed for all to see and hear that the Allman Brothers had arrived. This was their third album and the recording took place over several nights of performances at the Fillmore East. This album was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Recording Registry and by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the 500 best albums of all time. The ABB would release numerous live albums over the next forty years but this would be held up as their very best.
The Concert for Bangladesh, George Harrison, 1971 – The benefit concert that really started it all. You should read the story behind the staging of this concert because it is an incredible story. The album itself is a mixture of performances ranging from okay to spectacular. George Harrison did not perform live, his most recent experience was as part of the Delaney & Bonnie road show, and so his performance was not as polished as it could have been but no one complained. Bob Dylan hadn’t appeared live in several years due to a motorcycle accident. Billy Preston’s performance is incredible, he’s version of “That’s How God Planned it” rocks the house.
Get Your Ya Ya’s Out, The Rolling Stones, 1970 – A very traditional live album focused on their classics, powered by the blues. Early in Mick Taylor’s tenure as lead guitarist, this album served to close the door on the 1970s and would usher in a hugely successful new decade as rock royalty’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band. Finely crafted tunes, yes, but I find it a rather boring album. Too serious and too tied to their blues roots for me.
Live at Leeds, The Who, 1970 – Perhaps my favorite live album (okay maybe one of my top favorites) and capturing the Who at the top of their game. Ragged and smoking, this album finds the Who powering through some of their classics and few cover versions. Guitar, bass, drums and vocals, stripped down and raw, these four guys provide a sonic delight as you can fully appreciate what each of these guys delivers. Your CD player may not survive the intensity of Pete Townshend’s guitar but give it a try.
Mad Dogs & Englishmen, Joe Cocker, 1970 – Remember seeing Joe Cocker’s exaggerated performances in the Woodstock movie? The man really got into his songs. This album shifted into a higher gear as Joe Cocker established his reputation for soulful and powerful renditions of his and other people’s songs. Included on this album was “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”, “The Letter” and “Feelin’ Alright.” Joe Cocker could stylize and interpret music better than any other singer of his generation. You felt every note he sang, Joe Cocker was a true original.
On Tour with Eric Clapton, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, 1970 – Honestly, who remembers Delaney & Bonnie? Not too many people but in the early 1970s they were a huge musical act. Eric Clapton, fresh from his Blind Faith days, and before Derek & the Dominoes, was talked into touring with D&B, along with George Harrison, Leon Russell, Dave Mason and a few others. The resulting tour was captured on vinyl and became a popular album, but more importantly it served to help point musicians like Clapton, Harrison and Mason in new and successful directions. This tour was truly a Rock and Roll Circus.
Woodstock: The Movie, 1970 – What can I say about Woodstock that would be relevant? Not much. This is the soundtrack to the movie. Appearing at Woodstock made a lot of careers. Some of the performances are a big ragged but it captures a huge moment in time. It was the first time Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ever played together live.