What are the best live albums of all time?
Pick a genre or era in modern music and you’ll find a slew of artists who have been eager to commit to tape their best selves within the live context. It can serve as a marker in time, give new insights into well-loved songs or shine light on something about the artist that might get lost in the studio.
And sometimes they’re just a way to fulfil contractual obligations.
With the anniversary of Johnny Cash’s legendary At Folsom Prison looming – it was released in May 1968 – our own live music legend Henry Wagons pulled together an entire Tower of Song devoted to some of his favourite live albums from the last 50 years, with suggestions from Tower devotees.
The Band – The Last Waltz (1978)
The mythical farewell performance from The Band soundtracks the film of the same name and was recorded on American Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976.
Released in 1978, this pristine four hour document of a band playing at the height of their powers, burning out brightly rather than fading away, is the sprawling live album by which so many live albums will forever be compared.
The stars line up to contribute and celebrate – Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and more – but none outshine The Band themselves.
Jeff Buckley – Live at Sin-é (1993)
You have to wonder what the prodigiously talented Jeff Buckley thought of The Last Waltz version of this song.
The whole cast, including Bob Dylan (who wrote the song) feature on The Band’s version, in a rousing, semi-celebratory but world-weary slow jam to close the show that ends their career.
Buckley’s version is stripped back and soulful. And it also comes toward the end of the legacy edition of Live at Sin-é, the full collection of live recordings made over two afternoons in the famous New York coffee house in 1993.
Originally released as a four song EP, we hear Jeff at the start of his career singing other people’s songs, like ‘Strange Fruit’, ‘Just Like A Woman’, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’. Plus, there are songs destined for his debut album Grace.
But here, its just him and his guitar, someone behind the bar, and the world at his feet.
Emmylou Harris & The Hot Band – Live at the Amazing Grace Coffee House (1975)
From one coffee house to another.
It’s May 1975 and Emmylou Harris was peaking, big time. Her second album had just dropped and just a month before she hit the studio to record her third, she was on stage at The Amazing Grace Coffee House in Evanston, Illinois with a killer bunch of songs and, pardon the pun, a hot as hell band.
Recorded for FM broadcast and widely bootlegged, this live album brings together songs from those legendary 1975 albums Pieces of The Sky and the blockbuster Elite Hotel as well as country standards from the likes of Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams.
Hunt this down to hear the queen of country at a time when she was already too big for a coffee shop.
Etta James – Rocks The House (1964)
“Thank you very much, just make love. Come on, you can dance!”
You can’t ignore the invitation from Etta James, delivered at the start of her raunchy cover of the Willie Dixon classic.
It’s not the only moment when Rocks the House in alive with energy and rock’n’roll spirit. Her fifth release and first foray into live albums captures Etta James in those moments when her and her band were at their best, soaking up the energy and sweat from the crowd, on stage.
The Rolling Stones – Get Your Ya Yas Out (1970)
The first live album to reach number one on the UK charts and the first time we really get to hear why The Rolling Stones were building a reputation as the greatest rock band on the planet.
All the songs bar one come from one of three Madison Square Garden shows recorded in November 1969. A week later they would release Let It Bleed, their last album featuring Brian Jones (who had passed away in July ’69) and the first to feature blues wunderkind Mick Taylor who is in furious form on songs like ‘Street Fighting Man’.
Listen to what Taylor does in the second half of the solo on a blistering ‘Sympathy For the Devil’ (which starts with someone in the crowd saying “paint it black you devil”). Masterful.
The record was critically acclaimed and a mega-seller, but there is a shadow hanging over Get Your Ya Yas Out. This is the infamous Stones tour that ended with disaster that was Altamont.
Wilco – Kicking Television: Live In Chicago (2005)
Kicking Television is as much a document of a band in transition who want to make a statement about the creative purple patch Wilco found themselves in at this stage of their career.
Released in 2005, from home town concerts recorded earlier in the same year, Kicking Television: Live In Chicago is our first chance to hear new members Nels Cline and Pat Sansone and to experience a live set heavy on career defining songs from two of their most celebrated albums – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born.
Tweedy at his “egomaniacal best” as Henry puts in. In hindsight, it plays almost like a greatest hits collection, but with an electric intensity only able to be conveyed by a live recording.
After all, isn’t that we all want from all of our live albums?
Check out all of Henry’s picks in the Tower of Song Live Album Special here.