Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Live Albums / Tim Buckley – Dream Letter

Live albums are seldom a good idea really. At best they can be a poorer quality version of the recorded version. The songs are often only as good as the bits the band were able to reproduce live. If it’s a document for those who attended the gig well that’s one thing, but often all the so-called energy of the original performance is lost without the missing senses of sight, touch, smell etc.

Even worse, it’s common for bands to re-record some of the instruments, especially the vocals, with the result being a sterile, anodyne ‘live’ album. Then there is the decision of some bands not to include the entire gig, in which case they invariably leave out the track you really enjoyed, or the really interesting one with the bum notes or other mistakes. Worse still, the bands often cheat by recording over a series of nights and releasing the best versions of each song.

At worst they can be a showcase for self-indulgence. There is nothing more boring than extended drum/guitar/bass solos, which if they were that good would have been on the original version in the first place. And often these live albums are dragged out to the even more bloated double live albums, which represented the worst excesses of the 1970s and inadvertently led to punk!

There is a notable exception to this rule: a concert where a singer plays with a band in a unique musical setting which is not captured elsewhere. Two great examples of this:

Tim Buckley – Dream Letter. This concert was recorded in 1968, in London. Buckley had released 2 fairly straightforward folk-rock albums, but much of the material played here was unreleased. Listening to the album, it sounds wonderful. The guitars (played by Buckley and Lee Underwood) sound clear as a bell, and Buckley is really finding his voice here. The performances are atmospheric, yet ballsy, and are often stretched out to great effect (contradicting the earlier part of this article!). Most of his Happy Sad album is debuted here, and often sounds superior to the recorded versions released later.

Some of the tracks from his Goodbye and Hello album are resurrected here, and without some of the cringeworthy studio techniques of the era the songs are given more room to breathe and sound all the better for it. The whole album creates a smoky, late evening atmosphere.

Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York. Much has been written about this 1993 gig by better writers than me. Suffice to say that it’s special, but also sad as it stands both as a posthumous document and also what would have been a signpost for a future that was sadly thrown away.