Listless live discs
One of rock’s more dubious bromides is that music is always better when it’s live. Proponents of this theory contend that a studio recording is merely a blueprint for the magic that happens on stage when an inspired band really starts cooking — what the Allman Brothers Band used to call ”hitting the note.” At a concert, the argument goes, listeners can viscerally experience the roar of the feedback (not to mention the smell of the crowd) and exult in the knowledge that they’re taking part in a real-time musical experience performed especially for them and a few hundred (or thousand) other like-minded souls.
Of course, attempting to capture the vibe of a live show by transferring it to the frozen permanence of a CD is, by definition, a flawed endeavor. Removed from its original context, the music must succeed on purely aural merits. That it all too often doesn’t is one reason many fans — and critics — tend to view concert discs with suspicion, if not outright disdain.
Still, the live album refuses to die — a fact attested to by a large new crop of the damn things. The most offensive of the batch is undoubtedly blink-182’s The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show (The Enema Strikes Back). It’s not that this wise-ass trio of lucky punks make terrible music — their crass, hyperkinetic tunes are just the thing for adolescents who find Green Day too intellectually challenging — but this collection is wholly unwarranted from a band whose breakthrough album is barely a year old. A sticker on the CD cover trumpets putative selling points, promising ”the new song ‘Man Overboard,”’ ”their biggest hits,” and ”those great blink-182 one-liners” (”I choose to blame my parents for giving me a small, bent wiener and an ugly face”). Still, the marketing strategy at work here is laughably obvious: to quickly flood the market with blink-182 product before their fans outgrow ’em.
At the other end of the spectrum is Road Rock, from Neil Young, Friends and Relatives (who include bass man extraordinaire Donald ”Duck” Dunn, as well as Young’s wife, Pegi, and sister Astrid on backing vocals). The musically peripatetic Young is arguably one of a handful of artists who should be awarded carte blanche to release live discs at will. This album’s slightly tamer than past efforts with Crazy Horse, his longstanding on-again, off-again backup group; it sounds more like a moderately deranged pony. But, with a roiling 18-minute version of ”Cowgirl in the Sand” and an intensely lyrical cover of Dylan’s ”All Along the Watchtower,” it should please his core constituency just fine. (And hardcore Neil-ophiles will no doubt get a kick out of the presence of such obscure ’70s chestnuts as ”Walk On” and ”Words.”)
Oasis borrow a page from Young’s book on Familiar to Millions, a two-disc set recorded at England’s Wembley Stadium last summer. Not only do these yobbos cover his ”Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” they seem to have harnessed a healthy dose of his go-for-broke spirit, running through their songbook — ”Wonderwall,” ”Live Forever,” ”Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” et al. — with an admirable fire and brio, amusingly offset by Noel Gallagher’s mush-mouthed, all-but-indecipherable cockney-accented stage banter. Certainly, the collection could have been trimmed down to a single disc (and they really should have omitted the lackluster cover of the Beatles’ ”Helter Skelter”), but Familiar has a roughshod, pub-rock charm that’s hard to resist.
Ex-Pink Floyd mastermind Roger Waters’ two-disc In the Flesh, recorded on a recent American tour, is a far easier offer to refuse. This mix of Floyd faves (”Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” ”Comfortably Numb”) and Waters’ overweening solo material (”Amused to Death”) is well-executed, impeccably performed — and, ultimately, stultifyingly boring. Why anyone would want to sit through this instead of just digging out Dark Side of the Moon — or picking up the Floyd’s own recently released double live CD of The Wall — is as much a mystery as why Waters refuses to rejoin his bandmates for a full-scale reunion. (Just think of all the ”Money” that would generate, Rog.)
A similar air of pointlessness hangs over Elton John’s One Night Only, a collection of hits as served up at an October 2000 Madison Square Garden show. These are songs almost everyone knows by heart — ”Rocket Man,” ”Bennie and the Jets,” ”Philadelphia Freedom” — done with a cheery faithfulness that begs the question: What’s wrong with the extant studio versions? John brings out some famous friends, sharing the mic with Bryan Adams on a drippy ”Sad Songs (Say So Much)” and with Mary J. Blige for an ostensibly soulful version of ”I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” that leeches the tune of all its original whimsy. If you have to add a little live Elton to your life, skip this and pick up 1971’s rollicking 11-17-70 (the CD of which includes a bonus cut, ”Amoreena,” one of his greatest shoulda-been hits).
Even more anomalous is the appearance of Alice in Chains’ Live, featuring vintage recordings from the Seattle gloomsters’ archives. The band, which has been on an extended hiatus for several years, recorded exactly one classic album — 1992’s morbidly powerful Dirt — before losing the thread, and it’s no surprise that the best songs here, such as the dirge-like ”Rooster,” hail from that disc. With the exception of the droll, dirty country novelty ”Queen of the Rodeo” (”So cowboy if you’re lookin’ for lovin’/I ain’t no queer, go f— a steer”), Live is a fairly turgid exercise that will appeal primarily to diehards. Hitting the note? Hitting the rote is more like it.
Mark, Tom, and Travis: D; Road Rock: B; Familiar to Millions: B; In the Flesh: C-; One Night Only: C-; Live: C-