May 31, 2010
Live albums are often odd ducks. Even for bands who are known for being better in concert than in the studio, the magic doesn’t always translate. Now, this column is far from definitive, but here are a handful of live tracks worth hearing.
The Whites Stripes | “Jolene” from Under Great White Northern Lights
The new White Stripes tour documentary Under Great White Northern Lights is excellent and may stand up over the years as one of the all-time great rock movies. The accompanying soundtrack, compiled from different shows throughout the movie’s Canadian tour, is pretty good, though not as likely to be deemed a classic. The highpoint of the album, however, is the band’s utterly memorable cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which has an intensity and a sense of over-the-top melodrama that’s mesmerizing. White’s voice quavers as he picks arpeggios, singing from the point-of-view of a wronged woman pleading with a temptress who is out to take her man. Inevitably, the emotional dam breaks, and White lets his guitar squall and squeal while he lets out a few pained howls of “Jolene!” It’s far more theatrical than the studio version, and it’s dynamite stuff. Stream it here.
Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers | “Mystic Eyes” from The Live Anthology
The four-disc (or five-disc or seven-disc, depending on how “deluxe” your edition is) box set of live tracks by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that was released last year is not a for-completists-only collection. Anybody who likes their rock on the rootsy side will gobble up all the goodies that Petty has compiled from more than 25 years worth of shows. Also, each disc is so smoothly edited that it’s impossible to tell that almost none of the back-to-back tracks are from the same show – or even from the same decade. The whole collection has a smattering of cool covers, and the second disc is bookended by two of the best. It starts off with an awesome version of Bo Diddley’s ”Diddy Wah Diddy” and closes with a 9-minute version of “Mystic Eyes,” originally performed by Van Morrison’s ‘60s band Them. Though they’ve long had a rep as a tight and concise band, Petty’s Heartbreakers have gotten jammier as the years progress. This track is not at all indulgent though, as the band shifts flawlessly from simmer to boil and back again, without letting the tension subside. If you get bored or distracted at any point during this track, maybe you need to see a doctor about getting ADHD medication.
Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians | “Listening To The Higsons” from Gotta Let This Hen Out
The casually surreal Robyn Hitchcock recorded the live album Gotta Let This Hen Out in 1985, just after he formed his new band The Egyptians (which actually features quite a few players from his old band, The Soft Boys). The entire album captures an excellent single performance that shows the often psychedelic, often folky performer at his full-on rockingest. One highlight from the set is “Listening To The Higsons,” a bizarre song that gives the album its name, based on an incident where Hitchcock was listening to the UK band The Higsons’ song “Got To Let This Heat Out” on the radio and blatantly misheard the words as “Gotta let this hen out/ And give this hen some eyeballs.” The guitar and bass noise is sludgy, and Hitchcock’s vocals are utterly deadpan, delivering lyrics like, “The Higsons come from Norwich/ And they eat a lot of porridge.” It kind of has to be heard to be believed, so check it out.
Bill Withers | “Grandma’s Hands” from Live at Carnegie Hall
Soul superman Bill Withers’s live album is full of a half-dozen standout moments, including an opening version of “Use Me” that is so infectious that the crowd begs Withers to start it up again when the band stops. For me, I get chills from the live rendition of “Grandma’s Hands.” Withers opens with a long story about the lively church services he attended with his grandma when he was young. The studio version of the song has the clap-along, upbeat feeling of those services, but this live take is a little bit slower and more emotional. The lyrics can get somewhat obscured by the rhythm in the original version. In fact, the audience starts to clap along at the start, expecting that insistent rhythm. But their claps die gradually as they realize Withers is going for something a little different this time. By slowing the tempo, the lyrics gain new prominence over the rhythm, which gives Withers’s tribute to his grandma an added power. It’s tremendous.
by Justin Remer