Originally pioneered with jazz, live records found a niche in the Fifties and Sixties with landmark albums such as John Coltrane's 1961 Live at the Village Vanguard and Dizzy Gillespie's 1957 classic At Newport. But the first live record to garner mainstream attention was James Brown's 1963 Live at the Apollo. Fueled by the frenzy of screams and cries from the audience as the Hardest Working Man in Showbiz ripped through hit after hit ("Try Me," "Think," "Night Train"), Live at the Apollo threw down the gauntlet for every live album that followed. Of course the results weren't always pretty, including such pixie discs as 1964's Beach Boys Concert and two smarmy entries from the Supremes -- 1966's Supremes A-Go-Go and 1965's At the Copa. (The latter features Miss Ross and her posse doing "Queen of the House," a Vegas-ized cop of Roger Miller's "King of the Road" -- so bad it can't even be camouflaged by calling it camp.)
Luckily the Seventies changed the face of the live album, and the concept found its alchemic groove with a series of groundbreaking albums that propelled the form to icon status: the Allman Brothers' 1971 At Fillmore East, Jackson Browne's 1977 Running on Empty, and Peter Frampton's 1976 Frampton Comes Alive!, which remains the biggest-selling live album ever.
Unfortunately, these days, thanks to the success of MTV's Unplugged (and by the way, when exactly was Tony Bennett ever plugged?), the live album has gone from creating a unique atmosphere of intimacy between artist and fan to simply tweaking the cash cow in front of a studio audience. All you need is a good engineer and a few tour dates to crank out the recording equivalent of a handjob. And with live releases from the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, and the Pretenders due within a month, there appears to be no relief in sight. Here's a smattering of live and barely alive recent releases:
The BoDeans. Joe Dirt Car (Slash/Reprise): The gritty Wisconsin bar band cranks out favorites such as "Fadeaway" and "Closer to Free," but this overzealous double disc could have easily been squeezed on to one.
Rickie Lee Jones. Naked Songs (Reprise): Chuck E.'s in "Live," as the Seventies beatnik chanteuse runs through an acoustic set that includes "It Must Be Love" and "Coolsville," the latter neatly summing up this album.
Pink Floyd. Pulse (Columbia): A competent two-CD collection for die-hards, but with the second disc featuring a live version of Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety, it should have come with a snooze bar to go with that annoying red light that blinks on its casing.
Heart. The Road Home (Capitol): Okay, so take it.
Dwight Yoakam. Dwight Live (Reprise): Country rocker Yoakam serves up seventeen tracks on contractual Hamburger Helper.
Shawn Colvin. Live '88 (Plump Records): The famed live tape, sold at Colvin's gigs earlier in her career, goes legit on CD.
Alan Parsons Project. The Very Best Live (RCA): Empty Boast would have been a better title, as this outfit owes its polish to studio wizardry.
Phish. A Live One (Elektra): Wrap this one in newspaper.
Police. Live! (A&M): This sturdy double album manages to overcome its blatant merchandising strategy of offering up new Police material some ten years after the band's demise. Features concert recordings from a 1979 Boston show and a stop in Atlanta on 1983's Synchronicity tour. Heaven knows Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers could use the residuals.
Nick Lowe and the Impossible Birds. Live! On the Battlefield (Upstart): This five-song EP should have come free in a box of cereal.
Indigo Girls. 1200 Curfews (Columbia): Few artists benefit from a live setting as much as Emily Saliers and Amy Ray. With a set of solid hits ("Joking," "Closer to Fine") and inspired covers ("Midnight Train to Georgia," "Tangled Up in Blue"), this should elevate them to the heights of Indigo Women.
Cowboy Junkies. 200 More Miles (RCA): The C-SPAN of college radio. And with her numb delivery, lead singer Margo Timmins should have an EKG attached to her stage monitor.
Peter Frampton. Frampton Comes Alive II (El Dorado/I.R.S.): Will lightning strike twice? -- thundering no. The only thing worse than putting out an unnecessary live album is putting out a sequel to one.
Grateful Dead. Hundred Year Hall (Arista): Two words: drum solo.