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Live and Kicking: Rediscovering The Live Album During Social Distancing

Michael Athey looks back at some classic live albums, hoping to scratch that gig-going itch

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Image Credit: DGC Records/ MTV

With social distancing likely to be a mainstay for the foreseeable future, our lifestyles are going to be vastly different and for music lovers everywhere, they’re sorely missing the presence of live music. Coronavirus has put a halt to smaller more intimate gigs as well as the bigger, iconic festivals such as Glastonbury. So, where does this leave music lovers who will be at a loss as to when and where they can next get their live music fix? After all, there is nothing quite like a live gig. Personally, I found myself scouring my family’s CD collection and Spotify for live albums in hope that they would offer some relief. Eventually I found three live albums that I adored and exemplify some of the key aspects that make live music such an enjoyable experience.

Quite often when you buy a ticket for a concert you aren’t just paying to listen to the artist’s music but also to witness the artist themselves. They are performers in all senses of the word, meaning they entertain not just through their music but also their stage presence and strong personalities. It is one aspect that makes live concerts so memorable, as we witness musicians come into their own on stage.

A live album that seizes the magic of the performer particularly well is Johnny Cash’s, At Folsom Prison. From the first opening remark of “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” till the very end of the forty-five-minute set, Cash’s indelible voice of Americana swagger is in fine form. It’s apparent from Cash’s countenance that he relished the irony of playing a gig to prisoners of what was one of his biggest hits at that point, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’.

It shouldn’t have by any means been an easy gig, Cash had to walk the line of being sympathetic but not to the extremity he is patronising to the Folsom crowd. Yet he truly finds this sweet spot and revels in it, cracking jokes and toying the audience. He is enthralling to say the least, and listening to his on stage antics and some of the lines in songs like ‘Cocaine Blues’ for example, you become convinced that Cash himself could be one of the ruffians that is locked up and through some bizarre turn of events has managed to force themselves upon the stage, which is perhaps why the crowd take to him so well.

Along with lines that reflect on the isolation of prison, which are perhaps comparable to our recent quarantine experience, delving into Folsom Prison with the introspection and charisma of Cash is perhaps more apt than ever.

Part of the appeal of live performances is that they offer the artist a different way of expressing themselves, as at a gig they quite often present a unique variation of their song which can be incredibly satisfying to hear. The live album captures this trend too and Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York is maybe the quintessential example of this. As
suggested by the name Unplugged, Nirvana distance themselves from the coarse grunge sound that defined their discography in favour of a more acoustic sound, however they’re still very much plugged into that raw emotional nature which is what really makes their work electric.

The setlist is a profound statement from the band, there is no ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ here, but it wouldn’t fit anyway. Instead there’s an emphasis on some of their lesser known tracks but also covers, including their rendition of David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ which is as iconic as it is moving hearing it from the clearly troubled Cobain. The performance has been mythologised due to Cobain sadly taking his own life only five months later and many interpreting this show as effectively a suicide note. Although this emotional poignancy is undeniable, it has also been immortalised because it is a fantastic live performance. Such is the reverence held for the show that Cobain’s guitar from this gig recently sold for a delusional six million dollars, ironic in itself as Cobain jokes before the final song he was offered to buy Lead Belly’s guitar for five hundred thousand.

For newcomers who might have been put off by their heavy aesthetic they might now click with the stripped back sound on offer here, and for fans of Nirvana already it is worth experiencing these tracks in their purest bare bones form. Either way, MTV Unplugged In New York stands out as a remarkable live album that demonstrates the format’s ability to allow artists to defy expectations.

What has always been the linchpin of live music for me is the collective shared euphoria of people indulging the music together. Maybe it is impossible to truly replicate this euphoria on an album, but with the noise of the crowd inescapable to listener and artist, the live album does do as good a job as any in the times of social distancing of scratching that particular itch.

LCD Soundsystem’s The Long Goodbye has been my scratcher of choice to fulfil the collective experience in a solitary setting. ‘Dance Yrself Clean’ is a great opener as it in many ways encapsulates my feelings for this album. The breakdown about a third of the way through the track has always elicited a reaction from me and with the entirety of the crowd screaming in anticipation for that exact moment too heightens it to a level that is hair raising. It is a statement that can be repeated multiple times throughout the album, not least due to the combination of the eager crowd and the welcome addition of the rest of Murphy’s band on backing vocals, which sound gospel like, and turn Madison Square Garden into a place of worship rather than a mere venue.

That sentence might seem hyperbolic but because this was meant to be the final show as a band (as The Long Goodbye suggests) there is a strong emotional core attached to the performance, so it rings true. Yes, LCD would go on to reform a few years later, but that doesn’t make it any less true for the people on stage and in the crowd, at that place, in that moment. We wouldn’t have Murphy’s beautiful roar of “this is your show” in ‘Dance Yrself Clean’; the percussion frenzy on ‘Get Innocuous!’ or the tear jerking ‘New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’ to the native New York crowd without the reality that this was meant to be their final swansong.

If in the times of social distancing “you miss the way the night comes, with friends who always make it feel good”, just like Murphy, then this album could not only soundtrack your isolated party but give you a taste of that collective euphoria.

Ultimately for me though, a taste is all that the live albums can bring. Despite the enjoyment they have given me from listening in recent times, they cannot exceed the experiences I have had at live shows. They just can’t replicate the exciting surprise of Angel Olsen playing ‘unfucktheworld’, a song that I originally thought I wouldn’t hear because she hadn’t played it yet all tour, or the hilarious moment when the man standing next to me spilled his entire pint over his wife as Foals took the roof off Alexandra Palace with ‘Inhaler’. Live music is all-encompassing and demands to be witnessed in person so it is no surprise live albums could never substitute it. But I never wanted them to. I am however grateful for the gratifying comfort they offer until live music returns in its full glory.

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