Generally, I am not a massive fan of them, but here are ten live albums that I think are worthy of comment.
Sam Cooke - Live at the Harlem Square Club
This album was a revelation to me. I knew and admired Sam Cooke; I knew his reputation as the singer that all the later classic soul singers looked up to (Otis, Aretha, Marvin Gaye and so on). But to be honest, I just didn't feel it - his recordings were too polished and cleaned up. They were a product of the late 50s, very early 60s; it was either the Chitlin Circuit or the Supper Clubs, and Cooke had a pretty enough voice (note his time with the gospel group The Soul Stirrers) to appeal to the latter. And then I heard this, and the scales fell off - here was Sam Cooke, the SOUL singer. Here, he is much closer to Otis than to Nat King Cole. This kind of revelation is one of the reasons that a live album can be an essential document.
Bill Withers - Live at Carnegie Hall
Live at Carnegie Hall was Bill Withers' third album. It might be unusual to move so quickly to a format that capitalises on previous work rather than to build up a greater body of studio work first, but for Bill Withers, it was the perfect presentation of what made him so awesome. There's no flash or show off about this; it's just a double album of great great songs with a groove so so deep - you can't help but want to tap your feet and clap along, Also, the introduction to Withers' classic 'Grandma's Hands' is worth the price of admission alone.
Jane Birkin - Arabesque
I haven't too much to say about this album. Jane Birkin decides to reconfigure a selection of her ex-husband's most famous songs - many of which he wrote for her - by having them arranged by Djamel Benyelles, an Algerian violinist. The new arrangements are beautiful and Birkin commits to them incredibly. It breathes new and exciting life into Gainsbourg's work - especially if, like me, the French is somewhat lost on you.
Keith Jarrett - The Köln Concert
The story behind this album is fairly legendary: Jarrett was in bad shape, tired, with his back in a brace. He arrived late and found that the piano he expected was not present. The piano that was present was in poor condition especially the higher and lower notes - forcing Jarrett to improvisation in the middle registers. He almost refused to play, but was convinced. The constraints were evidently inspiring as it is without doubt entrancing and dazzling in so so many ways. I'm not the only one to think so - it is the best selling piano recording of all time and Jarrett's most successful work.
Nina Simone - Emergency Ward
Nina Simone released so many live albums that the odds were pretty high that at least one of them would make this list. In addition, almost all of them bring something interesting to the table, Simone was such a powerful and idiosyncratic performer. I have chosen this album despite the fact that it contains only three songs and none of them are in themselves songs that Simone is known for. However, the whole album is a resonant prayer of protest. The first piece, the first of two George Harrison covers, 'My Sweet Lord' harnesses a full gospel choir and appears to be a faithful celebration of God. Until, that it is - about 13 minutes into the song - Simone turns the tables and breaks into the poem 'Today is a Killer' by David Nelson. At this point, Simone's desire to see God is less about fulfilment of faith and more demanding an explanation for His absence in the face of pain and injustice.
Johnny Cash - At San Quentin
Aside from having the coolest cover on this list, this album is surely a worthy contender for greatest live album ever (a claim I wouldn't make for all the entries here). This wasn't Cash's first prison album - he had performed at Folsom Prison the year before; and as amazing as that performance was, this one exceeded it on all levels. The energy, the passion, the hatred of the venue and the misery it represented, are viscerally present in both singer and audience. Cash is literally on fire. And it contains the debut performance of 'A Boy Named Sue'.
Coil - Live Three
Horror author Clive Barker said that Coil were the only band that whose records he had taken off because they had made his bowels churn. I am fairly certain that that was meant as a compliment. Coil do induce a sense of dis-ease like no other and the sets of live disks released in 2002-3 are testament to that. I was hard pressed to choose between Live Three and Live Four, and I'm still not sure I've made the right choice. All I can say is that this is the only album on this list that makes me simultaneously sad and relieved that I wasn't present.
U2 - Under a Blood Red Sky
This album is a real transition. It marks the moment that Bono and Co. realised their potential and that destiny was, at least temporarily, staring them dead in the eye. It sits between the post-punk wannabes and the stadium giants they were to become. While the first side is more fun, including a couple of B-sides, it is the second, which capitalises on their most recent hits 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' and 'New Years Day' that reveals the band stepping into Rock Godhood.
Bauhaus - Press the Eject and Give Me The Tape
I had to include this record since it largely changed my life. I will not go into the full story here (I have elsewhere) but my world was cracked wide open, most notably the John Cale cover (Rose Garden Funeral of Sores). The album as a whole is an excellent document of a band at the height of its powers. While it isn't quite broad enough to act as a greatest hits album (it precedes their 4th and 5th LPs), it does offer definitive and superior versions of songs found on earlier releases (the aforementioned, but also The Spy in the Cab, The Man with X-Ray Eyes, and, to be controversial, their classic 'Bela Lagosi's Dead).
Otis Redding - Live at Monterey
Breaking my rules a little here as this was never an album in its own right. As you can see from the album artwork above, it was released as a single split disk along with Jimi Hendrix's performance from Monterey. As an aside, that performance is also phenomenal. All the same, several live releases are devoted to Otis, and while they are invariably excellent - given the heavy ad libbing, his studio albums were sort of live anyway - they are pretty similar. Inevitable given the short time period they cover. However, I chose this one because it turned me on to Otis as a teenager who was mostly slipping into goth-dom (it made for some interesting mixtape interludes). If Redding had not died merely months later, it might have proven a pivotal recording for him - it ensured him a place in the rock'n'roll pantheon. Side note: Brian Jones was watching from the wings during the performance of The Stones' 'Satisfaction' with tears in his eyes.