Classic rock live albums are a strange dichotomy of musical brilliance and disappointing efforts. Some suffer from poor sound, while others display bands on less-than-stellar nights. It is a tribute to a band’s greatness if they can reproduce their recorded sound in a live setting and sometimes improve upon it. Here is our top 10 list of live efforts – some obvious, some not.
1 – “Made in Japan” (Deep Purple) – This remastered double CD set captures the Mark II version of Deep Purple at its artistic zenith. The expert musicianship of Ian Gillan (vocals), Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards), Ian Paice (drums) and Roger Glover (bass) is second to no classic-rock band on these tracks, recorded in Tokyo and Osaka in August of 1972. The “Highway Star,” “Lazy” and “Strange Kind of Woman” versions on this album do justice to the original versions and then some. A 19-minute “Space Truckin’” is an intergalactic, out-of-body listening experience. The encores of “Black Night,” “Speed King” and Little Richard’s “Lucille” are fine additions to the original release. The interplay between Blackmore’s Stratocaster magic and Lord’s neoclassical keyboard work is a musician’s dream. Ian Paice is tireless drum machine and Glover’s steady bass playing is a bedrock foundation that keeps this rock ‘n’ roll band “cooking.” If that is not enough, Gillan, the original voice of Jesus on the 1970 album “Jesus Christ Superstar,” is in top vocal form (check out “Child in Time”). “Made in Japan” is a live tour-de-force that should be placed in a classic rock time capsule.
2- “Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!” (The Rolling Stones) – This 1970 release of 1969 shows in Baltimore and New York’s Madison Square Garden set the standard for live album releases. New guitarist Mick Taylor was on his first Rolling Stones tour, having joined the band before Brian Jones’ tragic drowning death (which is being investigated to this day) in July of that year. This masterpiece has Mick Jagger at his devilish best, bedazzling the crowd with blues-soaked, carnal vocals, his rock ‘n’ roll brother Keith Richard’s Chuck Berry-influenced guitar riffs, Taylor’s full-bodied guitar tone and Bill Wyman (bass) and Charlie Watts’(drums) professional and no-nonsense rhythm section keeping it all together. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Stray Cat Blues, “Midnight Rambler” and “Live with Me” are Jagger/Richards standouts, while Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” and Berry’s “Carol” and “Little Queenie” are live tributes to the original versions that rock to new heights. A 40th anniversary deluxe boxed set is being released in November, which will contain unreleased Stones songs from the concerts, tracks from opening acts B.B. King and Ike and Tina Turner, a 56-page booklet and a DVD. After listening to “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” you will know why the Stones are billed as the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.
3- “Frampton Comes Alive!” (Peter Frampton) – This 1976 release put guitarist Peter Frampton on the map despite the fact that he was a music veteran at this point, having been a member of “Humble Pie” with the late, great Steve Marriot and a solo performer. This set, released as a double LP at the time, was the top-selling live album until unseated by Garth Brooks’ “Double Live.” The musical brilliance on this landmark recording was taken from 1975 shows at the “Winterland” in San Francisco, the “Commack Arena” in Long Island, New York and the “Marin County Civic Center” and Plattsburg, New York. “Show Me the Way,” Do You Feel Like We Do” and “Baby I Love Your Way” are FM-radio staples to this day, but this set contains underrated gems like the rock ballad “Lines on My Face,” “It’s a Plain Shame” and Humble Pie’s “Shine On.” Frampton, sporting a black Les Paul Custom on the cover, has never been better. His guitar solos are melodic, tasteful and memorable, and his use of the “talk box” on the previously mentioned “Do You Feel Like We Do” is a constant feature in his stage show up to today. Along with the late Bob Mayo (keyboards), Stanley Sheldon (bass), the late Alan Spenner (bass on two tracks) and John Siomos (drums), this guitar great shines and has the audience in the palm of his hands with rock anthems and tender ballads.
4- “The Fillmore Concerts”- (The Allman Brothers band) With a cover shot taken outside the legendary Fillmore East venue, this extended version of “Live at The Fillmore East” finds this legendary Southern band at their live performing peak. Recorded live at the Fillmore East, New York in March and June of 1971, this Southern-fried, blues-based extravaganza features the late Duane Allman in at the “top of his game,” riffing and playing slide guitar like no one else. He is complemented perfectly by Dickey Betts on second lead guitar, Berry Oakley (who died in a motorcycle accident in almost the same spot Duane Allman did about a year later in 1972 ) on bass, the double-drum attack of Butch Trucks and Jaimoe and his brother Greg Allman’s weathered and soulful vocals, along with expert organ and piano work. From the opening Strains of “Statesboro Blues” to a 23-minute “Whipping Post,” this release does not let up. “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is one of the greatest instrumental pieces in classic-rock history, while T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday” is given new life. “One Way Out,” recorded on June 27, 1971, is part of the last show at the fabled rock “Mecca.” Another interesting fact about the recording is that it features guest appearances by guitarists Elvin Bishop and Steve Miller (“Drunken Hearted Boy”) on guitar and piano, respectively. Listen to this classic and you might feel like you are back at the ultimate showplace for classic rock.
5- “How the West Was Won” (Led Zeppelin) – This triple-CD release came on the heels of Led Zeppelin’s double DVD set that gave diehards a look at rare, unreleased concert footage. These June 1972 performances from the Long Beach Arena and the Los Angeles Forum capture the mighty “Led Zep” at their peak. Jimmy Page’s guitar work is bombastic, rocking and improvisational, and Robert Plant’s vocals are powerful, vibrant and wailing. John Henry Bonham’s Thor-like drums are exhilarating, and John Paul Jones’ yeoman-bass accompaniment along with keyboard (“Stairway to Heaven”) and mandolin work is first rate. There are also killer versions of “Heartbreaker,” “Rock and Roll,” The Ocean” and a brilliant rendition of “Going to California.” These were the days of extended live tracks so “Whole Lotta Love” (23:08), “Moby Dick” (19:20) and “Dazed and Confused” (25:25) are long, but ultimately more rewarding. “The Song Remains the Same” (1973 tour) is another fantastic aural document of this iconic band, but it does not measure up to these CDs, which demonstrate how Led Zeppelin “won the west” in 1972.
6- “Live at Leeds” (The Who) – Recorded at the University of Leeds after “The Who” had been on an extended “Tommy” tour, it has been universally hailed as a brilliant live documentation of why “The Who” was one of the best live bands ever. The packaging tried to capture the appearance of a bootleg album (this was an era filled with them), with plain brown cardboard and “The Who Live at Leeds” printed plainly on it. This did not stop it from gaining legendary status, as the venue at which it was recorded at the University has been designated a national landmark in Great Britain. Pete Townsend’s dynamic rhythm-guitar work and piecing leads are out front on songs like “Young Man Blues” and “Shakin’ All Over,” two “Who” cover songs. Roger Daltrey’s dominant vocals have never been better, and John Entwistle’s one-of-a-kind bass work, complemented by the wild but effective Keith Moon on drums, keeps it all together. A 1995 reissue added rarely heard Who tracks like “Tattoo” and “Fortune Teller,” plus “ A Quick One While He’s Away” and “Happy Jack” from the band’s extensive catalogue. A deluxe addition, which features the band playing their rock opera “Tommy” in its entirety, is a must buy. In short, this is the Who at their best
7- “Cheap Trick at Budokan (“Cheap Trick”) – This spirited, rocking live album was recorded in Japan in 1978 and released in the U.S. the following year. Though the band had a couple of quality albums, “Cheap Trick” and “In Color” under their collective belts, this live effort established them as a force in the classic-rock world. Robin Zander’s vocals on big hits like “Surrender and “I Want You to Want Me” are melodic and powerful, and Rick Nielsen’s unique guitar work stands out. Drummer Bun E. Carlos pounds his drum skins as if it is his last gig ever. “Budokan II,” an expanded version, features underrated rock classics “Southern Girls” and “California Man.” A recent 30th anniversary edition includes video of the Budokan shows from the original Japanese television broadcast on April 28, 1978.
8- “Wings Over America” (“Wings”) – Released on December 10, 1976, this triple album showcases Sir Paul McCartney and his best post-Beatle band, covering “Wings” classics like “Rock Show,” “Let Me Roll It” “Hi Hi Hi,” an unreleased nugget called “Soily” and Beatle standards. The late Jimmy McCulloch demonstrates why he was one of the most in-demand guitarists in the business, and McCartney’s vocals on both ballads (“Yesterday”) and rockers (“Beware My Love”) show why he is rock ‘n’ roll royalty. This classic, which was culled from shows across the country, enjoyed the number-one spot on the Billboard charts in 1977. It is not the Beatles, but a close second.
9- “Live at the Fillmore East” (Ten Years After) – This double CD was recorded at the legendary rock shrine in February 1970. The band, which features guitar “speed demon” Alvin Lee, shows why it brought down the house at Woodstock with “I’m Goin’ Home,” which is featured in this set. The CDs include blues covers – “Good Morning Little School Girl” (Sonny Boy Williamson) and “Spoonful” (Willie Dixon) – and Chuck Berry classics “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Roll Over Beethoven.” The aforementioned are covered in Lee and the boys’ inimitable style. What really makes this worth listening to is “Ten Years After,” undiscovered classics like “50,000 Miles Beneath My Brain,” “The Hobbit” and a 19-minute medley that doesn’t let up, featuring “Skoobley-Oobley-Doobob,” “I Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes” and “Extension on One Chord.” Along with Chick Churchill (organ), Leo Lyons (bass) and Ric Lee (drums), Lee helps show why “Ten Years After” is one of classic rock’s undiscovered treasures.
10- “Queen Live Killers” (Queen) – What else needs to be said? This classic features the rock-standard bearers at their creative- and live-performance zenith. This pre-synthesizer version of Queen rocks like no band on the planet with “Tie Your Mother Down,” “Brighton Rock” and “Now I’m Here.” The softer side of the group has Freddie Mercury, along with Brian May’s tasteful guitar work, giving a listener chills with “Love of My Life.” Mercury’s opera-like vocals are breathtaking, and his piano artistry is out front on “Killer Queen” and “We Are the Champions.” May’s intricate solos, Roger Taylor’s inspired drumming and Mercury’s virtuosic vocal pomp-rock pageantry will never be equaled.
Honorable Mentions: “Live at Carnegie Hall” (Chicago); “Santana – Live at the Fillmore ‘68”; “Rockin’ the Fillmore” (Humble Pie); “Hell Freezes Over” (The Eagles) and “Live in Japan” (George Harrison featuring Eric Clapton)