Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Resurgence of the Live Album, and Why Your Band Should Have One

You and your band have spent the last few years playing gigs, cutting your chops and writing songs. You've played small clubs, maybe even a local theater or festival.  You've built a following; your shows are packed everywhere you go, and your fans are devoted.  On stage you're locked in: Rhythms tight, riffs rockin', solos focused and fluid.  You're ready to go into the studio to record an album. But studio time isn't cheap, and money's tight.  And you need some merchandise to sell at your gigs.  What about a live album?  Didn't think about that, did you?

The last few years have seen what I would consider the revival of the live album. A who's who of blues and rock heavy hitters have rolled out an avalanche of live music: Blues master Joe Bonamassa has recorded three since 2009, at Royal Albert Hall and the Beacon Theater, with a third just released in April 2013 recorded at the Vienna Opera House. Gun's 'n Roses legend Slash recorded one of his own with Myles Kennedy of Alterbridge in 2011, Made in Stoke. Veterans of the live album Derek Trucks/Tedeschi Trucks Band and Gov't Mule have each dropped two since 2010.  Warren Haynes went one further and released one with this solo group, the Warren Haynes Band, recorded at the Moody Theater. Rock and roll royals The Rolling Stones unlocked their vaults in 2011, so far releasing five pristine, internet-only live sets from 1973 to 2005. Even Led Zeppelin, the ultimate guardians of their live performance legacy have gotten in on the action, finally releasing a CD/DVD set of their 2007 reunion concert at the O2.

Two of the greatest and most critically acclaimed albums in the history of rock were live albums: The Allman Brothers' Live at the Filmore East and Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive. These were recorded during a time when technology wasn't nearly as advanced, and the ability to properly record a band in a live environment was nowhere near as easy. Margin for error was much higher, making capturing a quality recording of a band significantly more difficult, often requiring recording a band over several nights, increasing costs.  By contrast, in today's era of hard drives and digital recording, it's easier, more reliable and more cost effective than ever.  It's so easy in fact, that many bands, including Phish, Gov't Mule, WidespreadPanic, String Cheese Incident and other big guns of the jam band circuit now record their shows every night, and sell digital downloads through their websites, providing fans the opportunity to relive their favorite shows for a few extra bucks, usually within a couple days after the concert took place.

So, why hasn't your band taken the time to record themselves live if the 'pros' are doing it with such regularity? 

Since the outset of Bootleggers Beware in 2010, I've spoken regularly to bands who want to send me their new single or album.  There's a special feeling that comes from it - being able to say 'We just recorded our first album'. The glamour is and always has been in being in the studio.  But unless you're Jimmy Page, who had absolute control over everything Led Zeppelin did in the studio (which he got in part because Zeppelin was so great on stage), someone is probably calling some of, if not all the shots by the time you get there.  Especially for a band who's new to the studio, there's pressure you won't find on stage, because you're paying for the time, and trying to make everything perfect.

There's a lot of value in bands recording themselves live.  But in my opinion, they are hidden behind the blinding light and draw of the studio. A live album is either an afterthought or a complete non-thought. More times than not, I hear 'We're going to record something at our next show' - most of those bands I never hear from again.

I believe the allure of the studio, and the 'coolness' of having a studio album causes most bands to not consider the merits of recording themselves live.  Any band can sound good in the hands of a good producer in the studio with the benefit of Pro Tools, second takes and numerous other safety nets.  The legendary bands who have recorded live albums, like the Allman Brothers or Led Zeppelin, honed their sound in rehearsals and in the studio, but it was on stage where they truly shined.  The bottom line is, as a band, your real value is what you can do on stage, in the moment, when there's no safety net. 

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with blues legend Johnny Winter and his current bandmate and manager, Paul Nelson, and we briefly discussed live recordings:.  Winter echoed the above thoughts, saying that live performances and live recordings give the listener the opportunity to 'Really see what the bands can do." 

Winter explained his process for the creation of an 'official' live album as somewhat selective, "We just decide it's time for a live record" and "Just play," choosing the best of the best to be included on the album. But Winter and his crew have also put a unique spin on the live album concept, in establishing the immensely popular Bootleg Series. Using sometimes less polished, unofficial live recordings, they release some of the higher quality unofficial live recordings in their archives as live discs.  The Bootleg Series has reached an impressive nine volumes, with Volume 9 having been released in May 2013, further demonstrating the value in tapping into the value of developing a habit of recording live.

Even if you're not immediately planning to release a live album, consider this: Every night may not spawn the next Frampton Comes Alive or Live at the Filmore East, but recording your live performances is anything but wasted time. There's always value in listening to what you did the night before.  You may pick up new ideas, licks, riffs of improvisations that could be the nucleus of new songs, that you may not remember without keeping it on file. 

And who knows, maybe one night y catch lightning in a bottle, capture THE perfect show and it BECOMES your Filmore East.

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