30 Great Americana
Live Music Albums
Records are ok, but you can’t beat the real thing. This musical take of an old joke has attained real meaning in recent years as musicians have been forced to more live performing as digital streaming has reduced their income from recordings. And record companies too have been forced to dip into the vaults of live recordings to compile more content to try and get their artists a greater share of digital hits.
No worries if that provides listeners with greater access to some of the best gigs ever recorded.
Performances like keyboard legend Garth Hudson pounding out a majestic jam for The Band on “The Genetic Method” at the New York Academy of Music in December 1971 or Little Feat greats Lowell George and Paul Barrere dueling guitars in a nine-minute rendition of the classic “Dixie Chicken” at the Rainbow Theatre, London, in August 1977. Not to mention some of the best drumming you might ever hear from Donald “The Clock” Lindley at a Lucinda Williams concert at Effenaar, Eindhoven, in May 1989.
All these acts are included in 30 Great Live Americana albums selected by Crossroads to highlight the depth of live recordings across the broad genre. The operative word for selection was Americana, so live classics like Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison (country) and Muddy Waters’ At Newport 1960 (blues) were not considered. Priority was given to those albums which had obvious live “feel,” both through musical improvisation and audience interaction.
Each artist was limited to one album, unless part of another combo.
Photo credit: Van Morrison performing in Newcastle, Northern Ireland on August 23, 2015. 23 August 2015. Photographer: ArtSiegel.
Live in Dublin
Bruce Springsteen with The Sessions Band
When it comes to naming the greatest live performers in popular music, the name Bruce Springsteen is always tip-of-tongue. And as the true quality of a live show has to be measured in both sound and vision, it helps that someone like Springsteen has countless DVD’s of live shows, mostly with his famous E-Street Band. But it is not hard to find a Springsteen sound & vision recording which fits the Americana genre. And there is a strong argument that Live in Dublin, performed with what became known as The Sessions Band, is as good any The Boss has ever recorded. The album consists of 23 songs from the three-night (November 17-19) finale to the band’s multi-leg 2006 tour. There are 17 musicians supporting Springsteen, including wife Patti Scialfa. And one can only marvel at the excellence of the musicianship – percussion, accordion, trumpet, sax, violin, steel guitar et al – as the band uniquely interprets traditional roots music, mixed with some Springsteen originals. It is impossible to single out any particular track. One moment he is pounding out – horns ‘n all - old-folk favourite “My Oklahoma Home,” the next he is adding passion and sincerity to his stunning ballad “Highway Patrolman.” No wonder, it prompted this from The Word (UK): “I have never, make that NEVER, seen a show better than the one mounted by Bruce Springsteen and his (Sessions) band.” And there were nine cameras to prove it.
Ramble At The Ryman
There are few artists who better personify Americana music than Levon Helm. And this concert, which kicked off the annual Americanafest in 2008, not only reinforces this but is forever etched on DVD. Producer Larry Campbell leads the 11-piece support band, which includes Levon’s daughter Amy on vocals and mandolin. There are cameos from such big names as Sheryl Crow, John Hiatt, Buddy Miller and Sam Bush, but the spotlight is never far from Helm - named by Rolling Stone in separate top 100 lists of greatest drummers and singers of all time. Ramble At The Ryman was generally regarded as a travelling version of Midnight Ramble, the annual show Helm performed at his home studio in Woodstock, N.Y. The 15-song setlist includes six songs by The Band, closing with “The Weight,” two from his 2007 release Dirt Farmer and a bunch of classic covers, including Miller and Bush nicely pairing on “Wide River to Cross.” Ramble at the Ryman won Helm his third Grammy as a solo artist in 2012, around two months before his death.
The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966
“The Royal Albert Hall” Concert
There is an argument that this album is one of the most significant in the history of modern music. It documents the period when Bob Dylan was switching his musical output from acoustic to electric. Each concert, circa 1965-66, would begin with just Dylan, his guitar and harmonica. Around half a dozen songs later he would bring on his first backing band The Hawkes (later to become The Band). The cheers would turn to jeers. And the rest, as they say, is history. There were many recordings of these concerts, which began in the U.S. in ’65 and ended in the U.K. the following year, via Australia and western Europe. As might be expected, many bootleg tapes surfaced over the years. It was not until 1998 that Dylan finally approved the release of one such concert – billed as Bob Dylan Live 1966, “The Royal Albert Hall” Concert. However, after years of speculation, Dylan discographers finally confirmed the tapes were not from the London concert but from Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966. For it was at that concert where a fan famously called out “Judas” to Dylan. He, more famously, responded with “I don’t believe you,” then, after a pause, added: “You’re a liar.” He then turned to The Hawkes and said “play it fuckin’ loud” as they hit the first notes to “Like A Rolling Stone,” which finishes the album. Sadly, this encounter, and most audience interaction, is omitted from the current streaming versions of the album. The Manchester concert was also filmed and the “Judas” scene appears at the end of Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home (there is a 4-minute segment on YouTube). Whatever version of this album is available, it still makes compelling listening, with “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues” the pick of the (electric) crop.
Rock of Ages
For all the hype about The Band’s most famous live performance The Last Waltz – whether it surrounds the actual Martin Scorsese film or the star-studded guests – it is not their best live album. This has to be Rock of Ages released in 1972 as a compilation from shows at the Academy of Music in New York through December 28-31 in 1971. This was five years before The Last Waltz. Robbie Robertson commissioned influential New Orleans songwriter Allen Toussaint to write special charts for a five-man horn section to augment the group in the New York concerts. All eleven songs Toussaint wrote for horn were included in the album - the first release containing 14 tracks. (Various re-mastered versions were re-issued over the years). It is nice to compare two classics, one with horn – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – to one without – “Stage Fright.” They illustrate the pure live majesty of this bunch of legends – Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Leven Helm. Speaking of legends, their old employer, Bob Dylan, turned up, unannounced, for the final concert on New Year’s Eve and joined them on four songs, including probably his most famous composition “Like A Rolling Stone.” None of the four were included in the original 1972 release. But Dylan does not steal the show. That was done by Hudson, who performs an eight-minute organ jam the like you have never heard on “The Genetic Method,” transitioning into “Chest Fever.”
At The Ryman
Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers
There are two significant factors at play with this album, another released as a CD/DVD.
The first is obviously the sheer purity of acoustic music which sees Harris go back to her Alt Country roots with a new lineup of acclaimed acoustic musicians. The second is the location. It marked the return of active music to the then rundown Ryman Auditorium, which was the original home of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. And the high profile given to this album is credited with the eventual restoration of the Ryman as a concert hall. The Nash Ramblers comprised Sam Bush (mandolin/fiddle/vocals), Jon Randall Stewart (guitar/mandolin/vocals), Al Perkins (banjo/guitar/Dobro/ vocals), Larry Atamanuik (drums) and Roy Husky Jr (double bass/vocals). The band had been with Harris for around 12 months when the Ryman concerts were played on April 30 and May 2, 1991. As is typical of Harris, the 16 songs reflect the broad spectrum she spans in roots music, with songs from greats of the past like Bill Monroe and Stephen Foster, through to the present - John Fogarty (“Lodi”) and Bruce Springsteen “(Mansion on the Hill”). In 2021, a rare recording of an earlier concert by the lineup (September 1990) was unearthed and released as Ramble in Music City: The Lost Concert (Live). This setlist contains material from when Harris was with her Hot Band and is completely different to that on At The Ryman, which would, in 1992, win Harris another of her 14 Grammy Awards.
Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels
In any list, this significant album best sits alongside anything by Emmylou Harris. For it provides an interesting contrast in the work Harris would produce as a successful artist in her own right to that of her early days as the principal backing singer to Gram Parsons. The album was recorded on March 13, 1973, at the Ultra Sonic Recording Studios in Hempstead, New York, and broadcast live on Radio WLIR-FM in Garden City, New York. Parsons was on tour with his band Fallen Angels to promote his first solo album GP. Most of the musicians who played on GP were members of TCB Band, the Elvis Presley group, including big-name lead guitarist James Burton. But most of these, including Burton, were committed to Elvis gigs and could not tour with Gram. So, he assembled an odd assortment of available artists to accompany him and Harris – Neil Flanz (pedal steel), N.D. Smart (drums), Kyle Tullis (electric bass) and Jock Bartley (guitar). But they work superbly together, though at times you can almost imagine they have all just piled off the tour bus, which, in fact, makes this live performance so appealing. Gram’s whacky between-song repartee also helps. Note how he introduces the band! The 12 tracks include five from GP, but the true significance of the line-up is that it includes the classic Harris/Parsons duet “Love Hurts” which was to be on his next album Grievous Angel, released posthumously the following year (Gram died six months after this recording). Live 1973 was not released until 1982.
Waiting for Columbus
Few live albums have been so successful - both in sales and adulation - than Waiting for Columbus, which was culled from four Little Feat concerts played in 1977 at the Rainbow Theatre in London on August 1-4 and three shows recorded a week later at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium in D.C. on August 8-10. The critics immediately raved upon its release in early 1978 and Rolling Stone would include in its 50 Greatest Live Albums. This is despite the fact, which the magazine rightfully acknowledges, that many of Lowell George’s lead vocals and some guitar solos were overdubbed. The original double album release had 17 tracks, including the Little Feat signature songs “Willin” and “Dixie Chicken.” And the clear stand-out is the extended treatment (around nine minutes) given to “Dixie Chicken,“ with a stunning piano solo from Bill Payne followed by a dual guitar jam between Lowell and Paul Barrere. All the concerts included a horn section - from the five-piece Tower of Power – and some tracks, like “Mercenary Territory” and “Rocket in My Pocket,” were accordingly reworked to accommodate the brass. In March 2022, Little Feat, and several guest stars, marked the 45th anniversary of the album with a two-night spectacular at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. By then, of course, George was long gone. He died in 1979, aged only 34.
Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band
One of the sad consequences of Jerry Garcia’s relatively early death is that he would have never had the opportunity to delve through the vast library of his live recordings, both with the Grateful Dead and, even more so, with his various other line-ups. Thankfully others have done so, and in the past twenty-or-so years there have been countless volumes of his live work released. Each album has something distinctive about his work which only serves to once again demonstrate just what a passionate and truly innovative musician he was. The one compilation which probably best illustrates this is Almost Acoustic with the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, released in in December 1988, when, of course, he was still alive. It was recorded a year earlier, from late November to early December, at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco and the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. Compared to some of his very-interpretative live material- like Garcia Live Volume 19: October 31st, 1992 Oakland Coliseum Arena - excavated in recent years, Almost Acoustic is somewhat homogenized. But this selection contains such wonderful folk favourites as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Deep Elem Blues” and the singalong “I’m Troubled.” Joining Garcia in this lineup are David Nelson (guitar/vocals), Sandy Rothman (mandolin/Dobro/vocals), John Kahn (acoustic bass), Kenny Kosek (fiddle) and David Kemper (snare drum). One can only marvel at the acoustic purity – both sound and musical treatment - of it all.
Together at the Bluebird Café
Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt & Guy Clark
If there was ever a contest to find the most popular trio in Americana music, it is odds-on that the winners would be the hard-livin’ Texans Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. And if ever there was an ultimate tribute to these great singer-songwriters (only Steve has survived) it is the album Together at the Bluebird Café. It was recorded during a fund-raising event at the iconic Nashville music venue, the Bluebird Café, on September 13 1995, but not released until nearly six years later. Each artist alternates solo and is each is completely stripped down - just them and their trusty guitars. It is old fashioned troubadour music at its pure best. Earle, in particular, seems to relish being without a backing band. His version of “Tom Ames’ Prayer” is probably the best recorded. The same could probably be said of Guy’s treatment of his classic “Dublin Blues”. Townes is at his bar-room best, interspersing his classics like “Tecumseh Valley” and “Pancho & Lefty” with his quirky stories of a mis-spent life. He was to die 15 months later. No other artists are listed in the liner notes, but Steve acknowledges guitarist Mark Stuart at the end of the magical “Copperhead Road”. And it is now accepted the female harmony vocals heard on Guy’s “Immigrant Eyes” and “Copperhead” are none other than Emmylou Harris.
Live at the Boarding House: The Complete Shows
Old And In The Way
On October 1 and 8, 1973, the bluegrass supergroup Old And In The Way - Jerry Garcia (banjo), Peter Rowan (guitar), David Grisman (mandolin), Vassar Clements (fiddle), John Kahn (bass) - performed at The Boarding House in San Francisco. The two concerts were recorded by eight microphones (four per channel) and mixed live onto a stereo Nagra tape recorder. The tapes ended up holding one of the most valuable recordings of bluegrass music. The self-titled first album of the October 8 concert was released two years later and was one of the biggest selling records in bluegrass history. Subsequently three more compilations were released, culminating in 2013 with Live at the Boarding House: The Complete Shows. It contains the full concerts from both dates, with 55 tracks, 14 previously unreleased. Relix’s Jesse Jarnow best summed up: “While it was Peter Rowan’s sweet silvery holler and the quintet’s close dynamics that sold the Stinson Beach supergroup to audiences, it was Jerry Garcia’s presence that sold the band’s live LP to hippies, and — in turn — linked banjos to beardos forevermore.” This wonderful collection of what would become regarded as progressive bluegrass has the full gambit of acoustic improvisation. There’s the original – Rowan’s “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy” & “Land of the Navajo.” There’s the oldies – “I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home” & “White Dove.” And even gospel – “Angel Band” & ”Drifting Too Far from the Shore.” Whatever the genre, it is all gold!
Lucinda Williams – 25th Anniversary Reissue
(Disc 2 - Live in Eindhoven)
Lucinda Williams has joined the growing list of artists now generating live albums – the latest, the 2022 release Texas Sunset, was recorded back in 1981! The most lauded is probably the 2005 release Live@TheFillmore. But the real gem came in 2014 with a 25th anniversary re-issue of her third studio album, the acclaimed Lucinda Williams. It included a bonus disc of 20 live tracks, 14 of them being recorded at a concert at Effenaar, Eindhoven, on May 19, 1989. The Netherlands concert, though somewhat under the radar, is superb! She covers all her standards of that era – “Change the Locks,” “Crescent City,” “Passionate Kisses” etc. But it is a cover that stands supreme because it illustrates the ability of an artist like Williams to transcend musical genres. “Wild and Blue” was a number one for country star John Anderson back in 1982. Over the years, it has had various incarnations from bluegrass to funky country. But in Eindhoven, Lucinda stumps them all with a full-throttle reverb country-rock rendition. To make it even better is some of the best percussion you are going to hear from Lucinda’s longtime drummer, Donald “The Clock” Lindley. He stamps his mark on every Eindhoven song and, indeed, this live recording serves as a wonderful tribute to Lindley, who died of lung cancer in 1999.
Live at Cibolo Creek Country Club
Ray Wylie Hubbard
It is sometimes hard to know exactly what fans enjoy most about a Ray Wylie Hubbard concert - his hilarious banter or his actual songs. The Texas showman is equally proficient at both, which is why this release, recorded at a semi-acoustic gig at a long-gone club in San Antonio, is just so appealing. The 10 self-composed tracks begin with probably his finest work, the intoxicating “Loco Gringo’s Lament” and end – as do most of his concerts – with the foot-stomping fan-favourite “Redneck Mother.” In between there are hilarious stories prefacing many of the songs. The wisest crack comes when he relates being asked to play a particular song at a wedding: “I said I don’t know if it would really be appropriate because the name of the song is Without Love. She said ‘we’ll give you a 100 dollars and feed ya.’ And I said yeah, it’ll probably work!” Many of the Hubbard concerts can be rowdy affairs. This is not, and that is why it seems to work so well. The sound is surprisingly good for such a venue, accentuating both his vocals and some superb guitar backing from old mates Lloyd Mains and Stephen Burton. Best track? A stunning rendition of “Last Train to Amsterdam.” And yes, it does follow a rambling yarn.
Live at Newport
The Joan Baez discography contains at least 15 live albums. They range from the big-selling Joan Baez in Concert, recorded in 1962, through to a CD/DVD 75th Birthday Celebration from an all-star show at the Beacon Theatre N.Y. in 2016. The most significant for historical purposes – both personal and social – has to be Live at Newport. It was released in 1996 from recordings made at the famous annual Newport Folk Festival on Rhode Island from 1963, 1964 and 1965. It was during this period that Baez and Bob Dylan were in a relationship, though Dylan biographers note he was juggling a number of women at the time. The biographers are also quick to point out that both Joan and Bob were using each other to further their careers – she introducing him to her already-established folk audience while benefiting from the amazing catalogue of songs he was quickly compiling. For by now Baez had long moved on from singing “Kumbaya” and five Dylan tracks were chosen for this compilation of 17 songs. It opens with the majestic “Farewell Angelina” – a song she released before Dylan – and ends with two duets with Dylan, “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “With God on Our Side.” The festival devotees seem more than pleased to hear them together. Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers, from Peter, Paul & Mary, also make appearances.
Doc Watson on Stage (featuring Merle Watson)
Doc Watson & Merle Watson
There was an era when a generation of folkies had a Doc Watson concert at the top of their bucket list. It helped if son Merle was on the bill. Father and son performed and recorded together for around 20 years before Merle’s tragic death in a farm accident in 1986. Doc’s extraordinary career spanned almost 70 years and his 50 odd-albums include an impressive collection of live material. Popular with critics was a 1970 concert by Doc and Merle in New York, Doc Watson on Stage, released as an LP the following year and re-released as a CD in 1990. Doc is at his impish best, improvising between songs, to not only provide good context to some of the classics, but also lauding son Merle’s superb flat--picking talents. (Merle was 22 at the time.) The word definitive is often over-used in praising Merle’s treatment of roots classics, but his treatment of the gospel standard “I Am a Pilgrim” in this concert certainly deserves to be defined as such, as do the rollicking “Roll on Buddy” and the old Delmore Brothers standard “Deep River Blues.” Doc swaps guitar for banjo when needed, while his harmonica is never far away. Sadly, this was a concert before the age of DVD. Listening to instrumental delights like “Windy and Warm,” and “Doc’s Guitar” would benefit so much from a camera close-up of some sensational finger-picking. But a good audio mix nicely accentuates the audience response.
Live Dinner Reunion
Robert Earl Keen
Robert Earl Keen’s reputation as a live performer is such that he made headlines in early 2022 when the man who wrote “The Road Goes On Forever” announced that his last concert would be the following September. And fittingly, he chose John T. Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Texas, for his final live appearances on September 4, 2022. It was at Floore’s, a popular restaurant and concert venue northwest of San Antonio, that in 1996 Keen recorded his acclaimed No. 2 Live Dinner album. It would become his biggest selling release. To mark the 20th anniversary, he returned there to record Live Dinner Reunion. Could it match the first? It is even better, helped by the guest appearance by fellow Lone Star State icons Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Bruce Robison, and Cory Morrow. Lyle joins him for “This Old Porch,” which they wrote together and would each record very distinctive versions. Robison shares “No Kinda Dancer,” while Morrow comes on board with the old Keen favourite “I’ll Go On Downtown.” The set fittingly ends with Ely and Keen doing a rousing rendition of “The Road Goes on Forever.” The 26 songs appear somewhat tighter than twenty years earlier. And the reunion sees Keen even more enthusiastic about his place on the Texas music scene - motivated somewhat by an adoring audience of 5000.
Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas
Townes Van Zandt
The story goes that fans would attend a Townes Van Zandt concert to see him fall off his stool, rather hear him perform some of the finest songs ever written. There are countless live Townes’ albums, the latest emerging more than 20 years after his death. But the one which best reflects his genius as a song-writing troubadour has to be his first - Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas. It was recorded on a portable four-track in July 1973 when he performed for six nights in a crowded stinking hot Houston bar. Townes, in fact, opens the show by apologizing for the air conditioning before launching into his most famous composition ”Pancho and Lefty.” And remember this was 1973, long before some of the biggest names in music would record the ballad. Most of his best work is indeed on the 27-track setlist, among them “If I needed You,” “Rex’s Blues,” “For the Sake of the Song” and “Tecumseh Valley.” But Townes - and just his guitar - mixes these with appealing covers of such big names as Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Chauffer’s Blues”) and Merle Travis (“Nine Pound Hammer”). And in between, there are glimpses of the Townes laconic humour! The album was not released until 1977 and prompted the LA Times to describe him “as a cross between Woody Guthrie and Leonard Cohen.”
Alison Krauss & Union Station
In 2001 Alison Krauss and her band Union Station – Dan Tyminski (guitar/mandolin/vocals), Jerry Douglas (dobro/vocals), Ron Block (guitar/banjo/vocals), Barry Bales (bass/vocals), Larry Atamanuik (drums) – were probably the hottest act in country, let alone bluegrass. Krauss, Tyminski and Douglas had dominant roles in the Grammy-winning soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Thou and they would later join the Down From the Mountain tour which promoted the soundtrack – one of the most popular of all-time. Also in 2001, Krauss and Union Station released their big-selling album, the Grammy-winning New Favourite, and would also do a series of sell-out concerts across America. For all the hype, Krauss and the band certainly delivered. Live, which would win two Grammys, was recorded over two performances at the Louisville Palace, Louisville, Kentucky, in April 2002. Only one of the 25 tracks was not from the Louisville concerts. “Down To The River To Pray,” Alison’s stunning a cappella, was from an appearance on Austin City Limits. This album is live acoustic musical perfection. From Alison’s at-times dreamy soprano vocals – not to mention her fiddle playing – through to Jerry’s intoxicating dobro riffs, so good they would go on to name a resonator guitar after him! Just listen to the Grammy-winning instrumental “Cluck Old Hen.”
Live at Benaroya Hall
with the Seattle Symphony
A rock-pop concert with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra reaches number five on the U.S. folk chart? True. It just goes to show that any album with such a mixed-up genre can classify as Americana music. The album was cut from two shows Brandi Carlile and her band, including brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth, performed at the Benaroya Hall in Seattle in November 2010, two years after she first performed there with the symphony. The critics made much of some of the technical issues in the recording, but for the most part the transition from her acoustic-based songs to orchestral arrangements, works exceedingly well. Carlile’s raw vocals compete with anything a full orchestral backing can throw at her. She is especially powerful on the title track of her 2007 release The Story, while the energetic “Dreams,” off her latest release at the time, Give Up the Ghost, proved a crowd favourite. There were a number of covers in the set-list and four – “Sixty Years On”/”The Sounds of Silence”/”Hallelujah”/”Forever Young” – made it to the album, though it is the Hanseroth twins who take the lead in a stunningly-sparse rendition of Paul Simon’s “Sounds of Silence.” Each play reveals a particular musical nuance, helped no doubt by the orchestral arrangements from the renown Paul Buckmaster.
Night’s Abandon (Live Chicago 1988)
Lyle Lovett once said: “Playing music – just getting to be onstage with talented musicians – is something that takes on a life of its own.” And it shows whenever he is performing live. Indeed, it is one of the great pleasures of music to watch him expertly direct and interface with all those sharing the stage. There are now at least five live albums in his catalogue. The first – Live in Texas – is probably the most popular. It was compiled from concerts in Austin and San Antonio, from July to September 1995, and sees Lyle in full swing with his (very) Large Band of 18 musicians, including star guest Rickie Lee Jones. But this release has been trumped by a concert, from a few years earlier, recently unearthed and released in 2021 as Night’s Abandon (Live Chicago 1988). He still has the Large Band. But there are only 10 musicians onstage here, though several were still around for the Texas gigs seven years later – among them, drummer Dan Tomlinson, cellist John Hagen, guitarist Ray Herndon and pianist Matt Rollings. The Chicago 21-track setlist is a little more expansive and again spans the full multi-genre Lyle Lovett. There’s the haunting “Closing Time,” the cheeky “If I had a Boat,” the country “Stand By Your Man,” the bluesy “Black And Blue” and, probably his best-ever, the black “L.A. County.” This is indeed a quintessential Lyle Live!
Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl
Sadly, Van Morrison’s rants during the global pandemic have somewhat stained his reputation as one of the most inventive cross-genre musicians of his generation. And it is on stage where he has always displayed an astonishing fusion with whatever backing combination he chooses to jam with. And jamming it usually is. None of his live albums illustrates this better than Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl. It was compiled from two concerts Van Morrison performed – along with a dozen backing musicians - at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on November 7 & 8 November 2008. And it took place 40 years after the release of Astral Weeks, his classic 1968 album which has since been re-released in an expanded/remastered version. This live recording, as might be expected, compares little to the original. Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl begins with a perfect overture - a stunning improvisation of “Astral Weeks / I Believe I’ve Transcended.” There is a wonderful nine-minute ramble of the memorable “Madam George” and somewhere in the middle is a simply astonishing rendition of “Cyprus Avenue / You Come Walking Down” which personifies the sheer interpretative quality of all songs. Morrison, as producer, insisted on no post-production engineering. “The Hollywood Bowl concerts gave me a welcome opportunity to perform these songs the way I originally intended them to be,” he said at the time of release. “There was no mixing, no tweaking, no post-production at all, and I like that raw and edgy sound in real time.” Raw and edgy says it all!
John Prine Live
If there is ever to be an affirmative from the passing of a music star, it is the sad fact that record companies are bound to unearth long-lost recordings. This relates especially to John Prine. Since his death in 2020, there have been three live albums released – Sweet Songs on Broken Radios (Live), Strolling Down The Highway (Live At My Father’s Place ’78) & On The Run (Live New York ’73). All wonderfully reflect his early days as a popular entertainer. But probably his best live album, John Prine Live (1988), is a compilation for his then-new independent label, Oh Boy Records, to “buy time” before Prine could get into the studio again. Most of the 19 songs were taken from three nights at The Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, California. The majority are just John and his trusty guitar - and delightful unadorned arrangements. However, four include backing artists and two are somewhat significant. The first sees Prine join Bonnie Raitt for a truly-memorable version of “Angel from Montgomery,” a song Bonnie was to make her own. It was recorded in January 1985 at a tribute concert to Steve Goodman who was one of Prine’s closest friends. Steve died of leukemia the previous year. The other gem is an actual duet Prine and Goodman did of Steve’s classic “Souvenirs” on an Austin City Limits show in the 1970’s. All Prine’s live recordings include his hallmark, comic banter – the same wit he injected into the songs themselves. And yes, it does include his “happy enchilada” gag!
Down from the Mountain:
Live Concert Performances by the Artists & Musicians of O Brother Where Art Thou
On May 24, 2000, there was a live performance at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville by the artists in the Grammy Winning soundtrack to the Joel and Ethan Coen blockbuster film O Brother Where Art Thou. It was produced by T Bone Bennett, the musical genius behind the original O Brother production. The concert was made into a documentary titled Down from the Mountain, complete with a 30-minute segment which showed the various artists in rehearsal. The Ryman event was the forerunner to a hugely successful nationwide tour by the artists which included some of the biggest names in traditional country. It was especially significant as it was the last recorded performance by the concert’s master of ceremonies, banjo-maestro John Hartford who died in June 2001, a month before this album was actually released. And there is something to behold for music purists. For the concert features Emmylou Harris – one of the purist sopranos in country music – actually singing the bass part on the a cappella “Don’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” she shares with notables Alison Krauss and Gillian Welsh. There is so much to enjoy from this concert album which proved to be a forerunner in defining the then newly-created Americana genre.
Live From Austin, TX
What is the definition of Tex-Mex music? Answer: The Texas Tornadoes. The Supergroup – perhaps one of the finest to bare that name – were formed in December 1989, less than a year before their appearance on Austin City Limits, from which this CD/DVD was compiled. Freddy Fender was a legend in his own-right when he joined up with the Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers from the Sir Douglas Quintet and accordion-master Flaco Jimenez. Their raucous, danceable border music would entertain fans for almost a decade before Sahm’s death in 1999. This album, released in 2005, was dedicated to Sahm, and includes such hits as “Mendocino” and “She’s About A Mover” from the Quintet days. But Fender, who died in 2006, takes centre stage with his crowd favourites, the bilingual “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” The 19-track release also includes covers of such classics as Butch Hancock’s “She Never Spoke Spanish to Me” and Jim Glaser’s “Who Were You Thinkin’ Of?” And don’t forget the Spanish? Jimenez simply nails “Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio” with his Conjunto accordion.
Live at the Austin Outhouse
Of all the Texas troubadours, Blaze Foley has to be the most infamous. Sadly because he died, too early at 39, in bizarre circumstances when shot after an argument with a close friend’s son. Several documentaries and a feature film have been made about him, prompting one writer to wisely note that more people have heard of Blaze Foley than have actually heard him. This may have something to do with the fact that much of his music had been lost as a result of events almost as weird as his death. But that is another story. What material that is available is truly treasured and the highlight has to be his final appearances, over two nights, at the iconic Austin Outhouse on December 27 & 28, 1988, just over a month before his death. Foley was recorded by his friend John Casner on a four-track cassette recorder. The cassette circulated for years before the original tape was digitally remastered. This version was released as a CD in 1999. It captures Blaze at his haunting best, helped by some of Austin’s big-name musicians including Sarah Elizabeth Campbell and Champ Hood. As might be expected, the chosen tracks include his three songs which became classics when covered by legends - John Prine (“Clay Pigeons”), Merle Haggard (“If I Could Only Fly”) and Lyle Lovett (“Election Day”). A bonus is the insight Blaze gives us into his derelict personality, with between-song patter ranging from being arrested by “Officer Norris” to his definition of medicinal purposes for ordering a brandy: “Watching whales die on CNN will give you medicinal purposes!” In keeping with music publishing trends, an extended album, titled The Complete Outhouse Sessions: Night Two (Live), was released in April 2023. It is twice the length of the original, but most of the longer version is more chatterbox than singing. “I should quit talking,” he says at one point. Then, quickly quips: “But Larry King talks!”
Live in Mendocino
Northern California folkie Kate Wolf is yet another artist whose talent was not truly appreciated until after her death. Kate was only 44 when she died of leukemia in 1986. She had recorded six albums including an impressive live release - Give Yourself To Love : Recorded Live In Concert Vols. 1 & 2 (1983). But fine covers of her work – from the likes of Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith –drew attention to Wolf’s impressive catalogue and soon led to the release of posthumous albums, retrieved from studio tapes and various concerts. The first live compilation was An Evening In Austin, released in 1989 from a performance on Austin City Limits in 1985, just a few months before her leukemia diagnoses. But what must be her best live work was released in 2018, some 32 years after her death. Live in Mendocino has 20 tracks chosen from 15 hours of tapes sound engineer Nick Wilson recorded directly from the soundboard at a series of concerts she performed in Mendocino County during the middle years of her career. All in all, Wilson digitized almost 200 songs before Nina Gerber, Kate’s long-time accompanist and musical arranger, made the final selection. This album is distinguished from the other two live releases by the inclusion of Wolf’s most beautiful composition “The Trumpet Vine”, off her 1977 release Lines on the Paper. The other standout song, “20/20 Vision (And Walking Around Blind),” nicely reflects her live audience interaction.
Live at the One Knite June 8th, 1972
Besides being three of the nicest Texans in the music business, The Flatlanders – Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock - have the distinction of being among the originators of the Americana genre. As an original group, The Flatlanders lasted the best part of a year – 1972-73 – before each artist would carve out successful solo singer-songwriting career. The trio reunited in the early 1990’s after Rounder Records released work - suitably titled More a Legend Than a Band - from a 1972 recording session. Since the reunion, Ely, Gilmore and Hancock have always found time to continue recording and touring together. And their 2021 release Treasure of Love was highly acclaimed. This rare live gem dates back to an appearance at Austin’s notorious dive bar, The One Knite, on June 8, 1972. No one knew of the tapes until early 2003 when the recordings, by the bar owner, were discovered by Austin producer Jim Yanaway. Released in June 2004, it is too early to include such individual classics as “Dallas” (Gilmour) and “She Never Spoke Spanish to Me” (Hancock), but it does contain a treasure-trove of standards which traverse the musical atlas. Although Ely would go on to have the highest profile as a soloist, it is Gilmour’s distinctive tremolo vocals which dominate this gig. He is simply subline on Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.” And, one for the purists, this album probably contains the first recorded covers of two Townes Van Zandt classics – “Tecumseh Valley” and “Waitin’ Around to Die.” Though the album titles only Ely, Gilmour and Hancock, they share the stage with three other Austin musicians, including renown musical-saw player Steve Wesson.
Music From The Revelator Collection (Live)
When you go to a concert by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings what you see is what you get: Two voices and two acoustic guitars– all in perfect harmony. They have long been one of the most enjoyable live acts in Americana music. Eight of the 12 songs in this live collection were recorded from two concerts in 2001 – the first at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina, on August 10, and the second the following night at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. They were among 11 tracks included in the 2002 DVD The Revelator Collection, filmed in black and white by Mark Seliger. It was released to promote Welch’s acclaimed 2001 album Time (The Revelator), though this CD did not emerge until 2006. As expected, several tracks from the original album are in this live collection, including “April The 14th Part 1,” “I Want to Sing that Rock and Roll,” “Red Clay Halo” and “Revelator” - all Welch/Rawlings compositions. As good as these originals are, they are somewhat overshadowed by two of the finest covers of classics by musical legends – Bob Dylan’s “Billy” and Bill Monroe’s “I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home.” You will not find these outstanding renditions anywhere else in the Welch and Rawlings collection, making this live collection a must have.
Live in Aught-Three
James McMurtry and The Heartless Bastards
When COVID all but closed down live events, James McMurtry was one performer who maintained a high profile by streaming live performances via various social media outlets. Given social distancing, this was all acoustic - just McMurtry and his trusty guitar coming to a screen near you! He is, however, best served with his trusty Austin backing band, The Heartless Bastards, with whom likes to inject real rock ‘n rhythm into his social-commentary song-sheet. And there is no better example than his live 2004 release Live in Aught-Three, which is compiled from several gigs across the south. All the popular favourites are here, from the politically-incorrect “Choctaw Bingo” to the insensitive “Red Dress.” And this is the first outing for the previously unreleased, classic-to-be “Lights of Cheyenne,” in which he delivers the heartfelt lyrics of a failing marriage - We go on good behavior/ When our youngest comes home – accompanied only by soothing guitars. There is more grunt in the closing track, a rip-roaring rendition of the Townes Van Zandt favourite “Rex’s Blues.” But the best of all comes in banter, not song, when McMurtry delivers the anthem of all live performers: “I used to think I was an artist … come to find out I’m a beer salesman!”
Live From Austin TX
When it comes to Texas-based singer-songwriters, Eliza Gilkyson often falls beneath the radar. But the daughter of a famous singer-songwriter, Terry Gilkyson, she just keeps on keeping on - personified by her stunning 2022 album Songs from the River Wind. As might be expected, there is a live album in her prolific output of 20-plus albums, going back 50 years. Live From Austin TX, released as a CD/DVD, is yet another performance from Austin City Limits, the longest-running music television series in America. The show was recorded in 2001 – six years before the album released – during her tour to promote the acclaimed Hard Times in Babylon. With the superb backing of top Austin musicians, including guitarists Mike Hardwick and Nina Gerber, Gilkyson delivers 11 expertly-crafted songs. All are her own her own compositions, except for the grand finale - a commanding cover of the Dylan classic “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” before which she quips: “Here’s a song getting me more airplay around the world.” But it is the songs from Hard Times in Babylon that get the live crowd on her side in Austin, including a haunting rendition of the title track and a heartfelt treatment of “Beauty Way,” the song she co-wrote about her famous dad.
Live at Last
Dry Branch Fire Squad
Dry Branch Fire Squad must be one of the most entertaining bands ever to have toured the American bluegrass circuit. Founded by multi-instrumentalist and comedian Ron Thomason in 1976, and named after the small Virginia town where he was born, the band’s live performances are famous for Thomason’s deadpan humour – at the expense of banjo players and the like. In no way, however, does this sometimes-protracted hilarity detract from the sophisticated bluegrass, and sometimes old-timey, music. “There’s a very fine line between playing old-timey music and not being able to play at all,” quips Thomason. Live at Last was recorded at the Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Massachusetts, in April 1995. Alongside Thomason, in this particular line-up, are Suzanne Thomas (vocals/banjo), Bill Evans (banjo), Mary Jo Leet (guitar/vocals) and husband Charlie Leet (bass). The vocal harmonies are superb, no better than on the beautifully-haunting Civil War lament “Someone Play Dixie For Me” and the Stephen Foster classic “Hard Times,” on which Thomas - best known with the Hotmud Family - stamps her mark with lead vocals. She is also stunning with the lead on the banjo-fueled “Red Rocking Chair.” You can surely catch Dry Branch Fire Squad each May at the annual Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival in Pennsylvania. They’ve been playing there for 40 years.
The dates accompanying each album refer to the year of release.
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