Monday, May 30, 2011

Double Live Gonzo

Often avoided by many in favor of studio releases - and rightfully so as so many reek of dashed-off contractual obligation - I'm a sucker for the live album. I've waded through plenty and, of course, appreciate all the established classics: Neil Young & Crazy Horse's Live Rust, The Who's Live at Leeds (now available in 307 different configurations), James Brown's Live at the Apollo, Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison and so on and so on. The last decade has seen the release of a number of big live sets worthy of addition to the revered canon - some old, some new. Four favorites I now deem essential to any collection:

Live in Munich 1977 - Rainbow - 2006
Live in MunichRainbow's classic Dio-era lineup had been underrepresented for years, first on the tepid On Stage (also from '77) and then only halfway on the career-capping leftovers collection, Finyl Vinyl. A complete concert from the Munich Olympiahalle from October 20th, 1977, Live in Munich rages with a fury and intensity only partially captured by the superb studio records and, as such, really stands as the essential document of Ronnie James Dio's tenure in Blackmore's band. "Sixteenth Century Greensleeves" is the highlight, encapsulating all that the band was capable of, while "Man on the Silver Mountain," "Still I'm Sad" and "Catch the Rainbow" are extended to jams measuring near twenty minutes or more each while still remaining absolutely compelling. Rainbow was a hard rock outfit to be reckoned with, a fact easily forgotten by their personnel and stylistic changes as their career wore on. Live in Munich 1977 burns brightly as a potent reminder.

Live from Radio City Music Hall - Heaven & Hell - 2007
Live From Radio City Music Hall (Ocrd)Thirty years on from Live in Munich 1977, we have Ronnie James Dio fronting another classic band, Black Sabbath a.k.a. Heaven & Hell. The Mob Rules lineup reunited for a great new studio album and a tour that had to be seen to be believed (and that, sadly, was Dio's last). "Heavy" is not strong enough a word for this early reunion document. Live from Radio City Music Hall is leaden yet perpetually in motion. The production is top notch, the band sound in the finest form imaginable and the entire set is classy (unlike the Ozzy-era's embarassing, expletive-laden, vocally-challenged Reunion from 1998). Dio, Iommi, Butler and Appice deliver thunderous renditions of all the best from Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules and Dehumanizer along with a couple new numbers. Sabbath by any other name is still Sabbath and, their legacy rightly elevated back to its prior glory, this was an exceptionally high note on which to end Mr. Dio's career (Neon Nights, another live record from the band from 2010 that incorporates some of the new tracks from The Devil You Know, ranks only slightly below Live from Radio City Music Hall and is also well worth a listen).

Wazoo - Frank Zappa - 2007
WazooWazoo captures Zappa's Grand Wazoo live in all its 20-piece glory. Recorded at the last of only eight concerts in Boston, Massachusetts on September 24, 1972, Wazoo features material not only from Frank's finest album, Grand Wazoo, but also from the superb Waka/Jawaka as well as a 32-minute "The Adventures of Greggery Peccary," that would eventually surface on Studio Tan. If you're even slightly interested in Zappa's long-form, largely instrumental, jazz-oriented excursions, Wazoo is pure heaven. Outside of the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa is probably responsible for more double-live albums than any other artist, many of them coming out posthumously on Vaulternative. Many are excellent but Wazoo is essential. Partner it with the equally important Imaginary Diseases from the "Petite Wazoo" version of the band (also circa '72) and a bottle of Glenmorangie 10 Year and you are set.

How the West Was Won - Led Zeppelin - 2003
How the West Was WonThe Song Remains the Same wasn't bad. But it wasn't great. How the West Was Won came out of nowhere, thanks to Jimmy Page, and goes triple live gonzo with three discs' worth of incredible live material from the 25th and 27th of June, 1972. Page mixes up the two shows into a monster dream concert, sequencing a punchy first disc sticking to numbers under ten minutes in length and including a neat acoustic set while discs two and three stretch out the jams with "Dazed and Confused" clocking in at over 25 minutes and "Whole Lotta Love" close behind at 23 minutes. Add to that a damn-near definitive 19-minute "Moby Dick" and a 9:30 "Bring it on Home" to close and you're blown away. This is a lean, vibrant and loose record of the world's greatest rock and roll band at the peak of their powers. At the time, this was rumored to be only the first in a series of archival Zeppelin releases. If any others ever appear and are anywhere close to How the West Was Won, this list could get a lot, lot longer.

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