Friday, August 20, 2004

Friday Top 5: Thunder Road

Earlier this month, Boz Scaggs released a new live best-of collection on CD and DVD. Live albums are product more often than they're great art. Most of the time, they're a perfunctory reworking of familiar material, designed to fulfill a contract but rarely fulfilling otherwise. They're aimed primarily at rabid fans, and we know who we are: people who want everything we can lay our hands on. There's nothing wrong with that in a free-will universe. It isn't like anybody was forced at gunpoint to lay out $14.98 for Eagles Live in 1981, even if it did turn out to be as utterly pointless as any record made since Edison invented the phonograph.

Sometimes, however, live albums work out OK. Forthwith, in no particular order, are five live recordings that are neither perfunctory nor pointless.

Live 1975-1985 by Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. On rare occasions, live albums can serve as valuable documents of an established artist's career. This sprawling album (five vinyl discs, originally) captures the true flavor of Springsteen's legendary live shows. Essential track: "Thunder Road."

Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Joe Cocker. Here's a rare example of a group fulfilling a deal and producing great music while doing it. Cocker was obligated to go on tour, so with the help of Leon Russell, he threw together a band. Dave Marsh calls this the only big-band rock album that works. Essential track: "Cry Me a River."

At Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band. Everyone who's ever gone to a concert and sneaked a look at their wristwatch as a song stretched into a second quarter-hour might not be surprised that the Allmans stretch "Whipping Post" to 22 minutes and "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" to 13. What will surprise you is that despite their length, these cuts represent anything but wretched excess. Like jazz players who are really locked in, the band takes as long as they need to, but no longer. Essential tracks: both of the above.

Running on Empty by Jackson Browne. Recorded on stage, backstage, in hotel rooms, and on the bus, this record documents what it's really like on the road. It's boredom and loneliness a lot more often than it's groupies and partying until dawn. Essential track: "You Love the Thunder."

"I Saw Her Standing There" by Elton John and John Lennon. Not an album, just a happy incident where tapes were rolling at a fortunate moment. The story goes that Elton bet Lennon that "Whatever Gets You Through the Night" would make it to Number One in the States. On November 28, 1974, with the song at the top of the chart, Lennon paid up, joining Elton on stage in New York, to rip through, among others, "I Saw Her Standing There," which quite nearly stomps the original. Elton never rocked harder. After that night, Lennon never appeared on stage again.

So how's the new Boz? Members of Boz's mailing list had the chance to hear full length versions of "Lowdown," "Breakdown Dead Ahead," "Jojo" and "Lido Shuffle" online, and I was well-satisfied by all four tracks. Overall, the track selection is impressive, with hits you'd expect and album tracks you wouldn't, like "It All Went Down the Drain," "Runnin' Blue," and "Loan Me a Dime." In the end, though, you gotta remember that I'm a fan. You'll have to decide about Greatest Hits Live for yourself. You can hear samples of "Lowdown," "Breakdown Dead Ahead," and "Slow Dancer" by clicking the link above.


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