In the 1970s golden era of live albums, they had a pretty big impact on bands’ careers. After toiling in relative obscurity for their first three albums, the careers of both KISS (Alive!, 1975) and Cheap Trick (At Budokan, 1979) exploded into massive mainstream popularity with their hit live albums. One of the reasons was that both bands had trouble translating the volume and excitement of their sound to their studio albums. Other bands were arguably more successful at getting a good studio sound (AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, UFO, Scorpions, Judas Priest), but also all had popular live albums that sold well and served as sort of greatest hits at the time. While not nearly as popular, Hawkwind’s definitive album was the double live Space Ritual (1973). Perhaps inspired by the early success of Deep Purple’s Made In Japan (1972), nearly every rock band with a half decent stage show (other standouts include Humble Pie, Ted Nugent, Allman Brothers, Neil Young), did a live album, and some that didn’t. The Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead (1969) was so successful that the band’s following recorded every concert they ever played and had an entire subculture economy based on trading bootlegs.
The allure of live albums seemed to dwindle in following decades, but interestingly many of my favorite bands have put out live albums this year. Perhaps it’s because with fewer people buying albums, performing live is more important than ever for bands to earn a living or at least promote their music to expanding audiences. While there is nothing stopping anyone from listening to lossless digital albums or records on decent soundsystems, many people restrict themselves to listening to earbuds and computer speakers and only hear a band properly live. It seems the live music industry has been growing, especially when you look at the large festivals, that almost without fail get larger every year and more plentiful. This weekend I’ve been going to Riot Fest, one of the last large three day festivals of the year in the U.S. I can verify first-hand that audiences for live music continues to grow, and the festivals are more packed than ever.
Possibly the best of this year’s live albums is Swedish stoner fuzz rockers Truckfighters’ Live In London. When many European bands almost never tour North America due to ridiculous U.S. immigration bureaucracy and fees, and the expense of covering such a large geographic area, Truckfighters are true road warriors who have toured here many times in the past six years, and also performed at Psycho Las Vegas. Reputation of their explosive, exuberant live show has spread, and their live album is a nice introduction to the experience, and probably a good way to build further anticipation for their fifth studio album, V, out September 30.
In contrast, Germany’s Colour Haze has never toured the states. They were originally scheduled to play Psycho Las Vegas last month, but did not make it, so unless American fans can afford a trip to Europe, the only way they can experience their live sound is on YouTube videos or their new Live Vol. 1: Europa Tournee. While a similar selection can be found on the two disc Burg Herzberg Festival (2009), it was not an official release. Their first official live album is over 2:11 long and includes tracks from more recent albums, She Said (2009) and To The Highest Gods We Know (2014) as well as a sampling from throughout their career. For fans who have not had the opportunity to see them live, an essential document.
Iceland’s Dead Skeletons hasn’t had a full-length album since Dead Magick (2011), and their long-awaited follow-up won’t be out until next year. Aside from three tantalizing EPs, Live In Berlin is the best current account of the band available. It’s not the greatest recording ever, as some of the more subtle sonic details of their work is lost, but the mantric grooves are irresistable and make me crave more from this band more than ever.
Since 2012, Nashville desert psych blues rockers All Them Witches have been building an reputation as an excellent live band, who can stretch out into improvisation and jams when the mood strikes them. And like one of the original jam bands the Grateful Dead, they have been amassing a lot of live recordings. They digitally released 18 live performances from 2014 alone. Just out on Friday is Live In Brussels, recorded back in March. It seems to be more of an official release, featured on their Bandcamp page, and generously offered at Name Your Price. It’s a great recording of the band at the peak of their powers (so far), and well worth whatever price you choose to pay. They’ve got it all, songwriting chops, musicianship, original sound and textures. Don’t sleep on this one.
Italy’s Big Mountain County is a unique case where they just released their debut album, the noirish garage psych Breaking Sound last year. So why a live album so soon? Perhaps like KISS and Cheap Trick, they were not satisfied that the studio album captured the ferocity of their live shows. And listening to Anachronicle, they were right. This has much of the swaggering menace that made The Birthday Party, The Scientists and The Gun Club sound so dangerous 35 years ago. There’s a lot of highlights, but for example, compare the difference between the two versions of “About A Clown” on the two albums. One, it’s a decently lurching country goth tune, but live it really grows some fangs, with a bit of flying spit on top of it. No, not pretty, but riveting. I look forward to hearing more from this band.
Similarly, another band that released a live album right after it’s debut was promising Italian psych prog The Winstons, just three months after. From the audience sounds in Live In Rome it seems like they’re playing to about ten people, but that doesn’t hurt the band’s performance. They sound utterly confident, as if they were playing to a stadium full of screaming fans. I just belatedly reviewed their studio album, one of my favorite late discoveries this fall. They combine influences from 70’s Italian and Canterbury prog, along with Procol Harum and Motorpsycho.
Swedish psych prog band Agusa are on a roll with two gorgeous studio albums of early 70s influenced psychedelic prog, along with a touch of folk and German kosmische like Amon Düül II on Högtid (2014) and Två (2015). On Katarsis they revisit two tunes from their debut and stretch them out from three minutes long to 14, and 11 to nearly 18. At just 31:54, it still leaves one wanting more, and with hope their live set will grow along with their stature.
Radio Moscow – Live! In California (Alive Naturalsound)
Øresund Space Collective – Live In Karlsruhe 2016 (Øresund Space Collective)
Thee Oh Sees – Live In San Francisco (Castle Face)
Blues Pills – Blues Pills Live (Nuclear Blast, 2015)
This last batch is slightly less essential unless you’re a fan. There’s no real dip in quality with these bands, it’s just that I don’t feel that Radio Moscow’s live document is better than their very good studio albums, or quite measure up to their energetic live shows. Denmark’s Øresund Space Collective has put out a lot of live documents of their distinct psychedelic space rock, but they will have an official live release out later this year. Thee Oh Sees are known for a scorching live show, but their garage psych is so noisy and sloppy live that the live album gives you a feeling that you’d have to be there to appreciate it more. But I believe once you’ve witnessed them live, the album would make a great souvenir. Blues Pills released their album last year, but they also had put out a live EP previous to that, and seemed to be a precursor to the amazing onslaught of live albums in 2016. My opinion about their importance goes up and down, but I do enjoy my playlist made entirely up of live albums now and then. If bands of this quality want to keep putting more out, I say the more the merrier.
Saint Vitus – Live Vol. 2 (Season Of Mist, Sep 30, 2016)
Glitter Wizard – Hollow Earth Tour (Heavy Psych Sound, Oct 21, 2016)
Sergeant Thunderhoof – Live On Earth (Nov 24, 2016)
So how was Riot Fest? As I hinted at, more crowded than I’d have liked. It was awesome to get to see The Specials and Misfits. Sleater-Kinney are great as usual, and they had a really psychedelic wall backdrop, and Deftones are solid, though I don’t remember any of their songs. But best in fest? Tucked away on a smaller stage with a tiny audience who all knew it was worth missing part of S-K’s and Misfits’ sets for, was the Canterbury psych prog of Syd Arthur. They’re not as heavy as most bands that I prefer live, but they were just magical. All 40 of us just let the scintillating musicianship and sparkling songs wash over ourselves for the short 30 minute set. The Riot Fest audience and the poorly placed timeslot is not a good indication that Chicago could certainly support another proper psych fest. Yeah, I know there’s a couple small Chicago Psych Fest events at the Hideout in January and August, and the two day Levitation in March, but how about a proper outdoor summer fest?
In the meantime, look forward to Syd Arthur’s third album, Apricity, out Oct. 21.