Somewhere around 1990, when I was a teenager, I picked up a used copy of Bruce Springsteen’s classic five-LP set Live/1975-85. I knew the Born in the U.S.A. hits, and I was ready to take a deeper dive into the Boss’s oeuvre. I put on side one track one (“Thunder Road”), turned off the lights in my bedroom, and lay down with my head exactly between my two stereo speakers.
The album blew me away. It was engineered to create a seamless listening experience that would give you the sense of listening to uninterrupted sequences of live tracks from the E Street Band’s club years, then arena years, and ultimately stadiums. The liner notes were clear about the recordings having been lifted from a wide variety of different shows and venues, but the tracks were edited together so you could imagine you were hearing sequences of songs from single shows.
Now, on Springsteen’s website, fans can buy official recordings of any of dozens of complete live shows. No one show could ever be as perfect as the carefully curated experience you get on the live box set, but listening to a single show is certainly a more authentic way of experiencing a live performance. Do you care?
Throughout the history of live albums, they’ve presented a highly selective form of the truth. Before technology allowed artists like Springsteen to put a recording of virtually every show on sale, a live album typically had to represent an entire era of an artist’s sound. Ideally a live album would capture the excitement of a live show, but it also had to work as a recorded listening experience. That typically meant edits and overdubs…sometimes lots of them.
I had my ears opened in 1993, when the double-disc recording of Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration was released. I’d recorded the live broadcast, which meant I was well aware that elements like Dylan’s verse on the all-star “My Back Pages” jam had been overdubbed. I also remembered all the long intervals between songs, which magically disappeared on CD — and I remembered magical moments like Dylan’s “Song to Woody,” which didn’t make the album.
Some edits and overdubs go so far as to be semi-scandalous when revealed: according to drummer Peter Criss, his drum tracks are the only actual “live” elements to be heard on Kiss’s landmark 1975 album Alive! Half a million record buyers didn’t care, though. “Black Diamond” sounded great to them.
Although the history of the live album stretches back decades (James Brown’s 1963 Live at the Apollo is still often hailed as the greatest live album ever), the ’70s were the commercial heyday of the live album. As Greg Kot points out, in that era live albums served several functions. They were a relatively easy way for bands to churn out new product, they were a boon to audiences who wanted souvenirs of beloved shows, and they served as accessible introductions for newcomers (“greatest-hits collections with audience applause”).
Springsteen’s huge-selling set did all those things while also being a prestige project: the five albums showcased the growth and range of Springsteen as a singer-songwriter and the E Street Band as a live unit. In the ’90s, the MTV Unplugged era saw the live album as a venue for reinvention, with artists ranging from Eric Clapton to Lauryn Hill demonstrating that they didn’t need walls of amps to make an impact.
Live albums may or may not be dead (as Kot declared in 2013); the whole concept of an “album” means something very different in 2020 than it did in 1990. Regardless, like many music fans I cherish my favorite live albums: Tegan and Sara’s Get Along; Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense; Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live; MTV Unplugged by 10,000 Maniacs; Beyoncé’s Homecoming.
The latter comes with a stunning concert film that cuts quickly back and forth between the artist’s two nights headlining Coachella. Her band wore differently-colored outfits for the two nights, so cutting between them reveals just how precise their performance was. It’s an unapologetic reminder that greatness, as a live performer, doesn’t just happen: it takes practice, and practice makes perfect.
This weekend, The Current will present a two-day On-Air Fest, showcasing live recordings we’ve captured over years of the station’s history. While we’ve also shared a lot of live video (including just this past weekend, at Sounds Like Home IV), On-Air Fest will keep the focus on the audio. Just as I imagined I was listening to one uninterrupted, incredibly awesome Springsteen show, you can tune in and imagine you’re listening to two days of an epic music festival headlined by Adele, Bon Iver, Lizzo, the Avett Brothers, and Metric.
While the clips will be condensed for a seamless listening experience, you need not fear that you’re hearing overdub-laden studio trickery: these are recordings ranging from raucous Rock the Garden sets to heart-stopping First Avenue shows to intimate performances in The Current studio. Like the best live albums, it will celebrate the joy of live performance, a thrill we’ve been privileged to experience over and over again – and to share with many of you. Think of this weekend, like a great live album, as a souvenir of some unforgettable musical moments.
What are your favorite live albums? Let us know in the comments.