The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame may not be at the level of inducting individual albums yet, but if it did, this list of live albums from the classic rock and soul period, along with a few honorable mentions, would surely be included.

Why a live album? It is true that nothing can replace the experience of actually being at a concert, but a live recording can be the next-best thing to being there. It preserves the memory of what happened when that music had been created. A quality live recording can be close enough—a reminder of the concert you had experienced, or, more likely as you explore the music of artists from decades past, a sample of music that you'd have never been able to hear in person, anyway. With a live album, the show never ends.

That represents the best-case scenario for live albums, and that is what inspired this list. The flip-side is that during the classic rock and soul period many acts released live albums—but shouldn't have done. That could be because the performances were substandard, or the production was deficient, or the act simply was not a strong live act. Furthermore, many acts released live albums simply to put product onto the marketplace, or as a placeholder release because the act was having difficulty creating new material; as critic Wayne King noted (about Yes), "almost no platinum-level group in the Seventies had anything new to offer after the release of their live albums," and in many cases it is hard to refute this assertion.

Apart from the need to make compiling this list easier by focusing on just one period, the classic rock and soul period set standards and definitions that influenced the modern period; that modern period had its beginnings in the late 1970s, exemplified by the punk-rock revolt, and developed through the 1980s. Furthermore, acts of the classic period tended to embrace the live album either for creative or commercial purposes. Finally, time and the ultimate cultural pervasiveness of the period's music have driven the music on these albums deep into our collective cultural consciousness.

Even though I've used the term "classic rock and soul period" to identify both a specific period of time (a subset of the entire Rock and Soul Era) and a general style of music, the albums on this list are not limited exclusively to rock and soul, although those two forms are the most-represented. I included a live album from another form if I felt that it had an influence on the more well-known forms of popular music, or if it had historical significance.

Indeed, historical significance is one of the criteria I used for this list, along with the quality and stature of the artist, the quality and effectiveness of the live recording itself, and the significance of the live recording with respect to the artist's overall body of work (in other words, a live album shrugged off as mere product won't be found here). General disclaimer: Ultimately, this list is subjective, reflecting both my biases and limitations, although I did try to be as open-minded as I could be.

That said, many will find notable omissions in this list, such as Frampton Comes Alive! or Kiss's Alive!, but I felt that there were better live albums than those. Beyond that we start to get into degrees of taste or distinction (AC/DC's If You Want Blood, You've Got It, Ted Nugent's Double Live Gonzo!, Lou Reed's Rock and Roll Animal) or simply start to round up the concert souvenirs (Blue Oyster Cult's Some Enchanted Evening, Jethro Tull's Bursting Out: Live, Yes's Yessongs). One notable band omission is Cream. For a band that made half its bones from its live prowess, which helped to provide the seedbed for 1970s hard rock and metal, Cream has its best live moments scattered across its catalogue and not in one location; the best bet is Live Cream, Volume 2, which would rank higher if a too-big chunk of it wasn't taken up by an interminable version of "Steppin' Out" on which even bassist Jack Bruce peters out halfway through.

But enough blather—let's get to the list, shall we? Or should I say lists, as I'll list my 12 honorable mentions, and then the 25 Hall of Fame-worthy gems. In reverse order, to build the suspense for the show that never ends.

The Deserving Dozen: 12 Honorable Mentions

Should any of the top 25 suddenly disappear from our consciousness (or shelves, hard drives, mobile devices, etc.), replacements can be had from these 12 worthy runners-up. General note: Many of these albums have been revamped, reconfigured, and reissued over the years, so in those cases I've noted only the original release year.

12. The Grateful Dead, Live Dead (original release: 1969)

Included primarily out of historical obligation—the Dead is the granddaddy of all jam bands, after all, and this set features early singer and sometime-keyboardist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan along with the band's mainstays, guitarists Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh. "St. Stephen," "Turn on Your Love Light," and especially "The Eleven" are terrific, but "Dark Star" is a big, boring black holeand I like long, spacey jams.

11. Various Artists, Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More (original release: 1970)

More historical obligation, although this sprawling soundtrack is emblematic of an effusive, distinctive era. Some of this hippie music sounds dated now—and nostalgia mongers Sha Na Na sounded dated the moment they hit the Woodstock stage—but a lot of it exudes energy, optimism, and attitude, including Santana's "Soul Sacrifice," Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher," and Jimi Hendrix's "The Star-Spangled Banner." Too bad Altamont happened a few months later—the bummer trip to the good vibes here.

10. The Yardbirds, Five Live Yardbirds (original release: 1964)

Sure, they're a little sloppy, but these spirited rave-ups are also infectious—and they are the foundation of hard rock and heavy metal. Five Live Yardbirds has been reissued umpteen times over the decades, often under a different title; be sure to get one with at least the ten original tracks, including the early touchstone "I'm a Man" and guitarist Eric Clapton's spotlight on "Smokestack Lightning." "Most blueswailing Yardbirds," indeed!

9. Cheap Trick, At Budokan (original release: 1979)

Proof that hard rock could be just plain goofy in the 1970s, although Rick Nielsen's blazing lead guitar is sublimely serious. They nod to their roots ("Ain't That a Shame") while "Big Eyes" remains an off-the-wall favorite, although "Surrender" is the quintessence of the rock and roll (in)sensibility—when this guy falls asleep, he awakes to find that his parents just got stoned and are making out to his Kiss records. That means we "won," right?

8. Warren Zevon, Stand in the Fire (original release: 1980)

The rowdiest of the California singer-songwriters sounds like a punk-rocker on this burning set, which improves upon the studio faves (especially "Werewolves of London" and "Lawyers, Guns and Money"), adds a pair of new ones with "The Sin" and the terrific title track, and updates Bo Diddley for post-punkers ("Bo Diddley"/"Bo Diddley's a Gunslinger"). From "Mohammed's Radio" to the sneering "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," not a dud in Warren Zevon's arsenal.

7. Lynyrd Skynyrd, One More from the Road (original release: 1976)

Let's face it: The Allman Brothers own the live Southern rock crown, but damned if this set doesn't offer one hell of a challenge. Thank whipsaw guitarist Steve Gaines for that—just check out "T for Texas" (which does sound a bit like the Allmans' "You Don't Love Me"), as well as a little throwaway called "Freebird." Meanwhile, "Workin' for MCA" and "The Needle and the Spoon" pound the boards mercilessly. Then the damned plane had to run out of gas?!?

6. The J. Geils Band, "Live" Full House (1972)

Just how underrated was the J. Geils Band? The Rodney Dangerfield of '70s blues-boogie bands—they just didn't get no respect. And if you only think of Geils as being a pop act ("Centerfold"), you need to hear these slamming soul ("First I Look at the Purse") and blues-rock ("Homework," the extended work-out on "Serves You Right to Suffer") gems—while with "Whammer Jammer" Magic Dick proves that he is simply a harmonica monster.

5. Jimi Hendrix/Otis Redding, Historic Performances Recorded at the Monterey International Pop Festival (1970)

The big drawback is that each legend here gets only one side of an LP, although Otis Redding's set was so short that these five tracks are all that he had time to perform; he was the last performer on Saturday night and was rushed for time. (Jimi Hendrix is limited to four songs, but his complete set has been release a couple of times subsequently.) The bigger drawback is that this has not been officially issued in digital form, which makes me cherish my LP copy. And I've got to give the nod to Otis here—backed by the impeccable Booker T. and the MGs, he is electrifying.

4. Neil Young, Live at Massey Hall 1971 (2007)

Neil's tendency to release consistently half-great albums extends to live ones, which doesn't mean that I'm willing to wait for an official digital release of Time Fades Away because my LP copy is getting long in the tooth. But the winsome and engaging Massey Hall, a Young solo acoustic set, is consistently brilliant from start to finish and features a raft of songs that had not yet been released ("Old Man," "The Needle and the Damage Done") and one, "Bad Fog of Loneliness," that had not appeared until now.

3. The Who, The Kids Are Alright (1979)

The documentary film stressed this beast of a band's auto-destruct tendencies over its more subtle strengths, but the music, taken from throughout the band's career, was a revelatory blast when it first appeared and remains so even in the age of reissue overkill, from the Smothers Brothers version of "My Generation" and the explosive "A Quick One While He's Away" done for the Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus to the Tommy medley done at Woodstock and the epochal "Won't Get Fooled Again" recorded expressly for this package.

2. Frank Zappa, You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore (1988–1992)

This six-volume, twelve-CD set may be Zappa's greatest achievement: twenty-plus years of live recordings comprising all never-before-released material, from the early Mothers to the "funky" mid-'70s band to his crack '80s touring outfits. If I have to choose only one volume, let it be Vol. 4, which has the best mix of the serious (avant-jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp's spotlight on "Let's Move to Cleveland"), the soulful (the doo-wop medley that closes the set), and the silly ("Smell My Beard"/"The Booger Man"). But, really, every volume has loads to recommend it.

King Crimson, USA (original release: 1975)

For this mid-1970s variant of Robert Fripp's long-running prog-rock act, it's tempting to list The Great Deceiver, the four-disc boxed set of live tracks that first appeared in 1992. But then I wouldn't have the bruising "Asbury Park," which may be the best example of this heavy metal band with the art-school education, while the two additional tracks on the reissue, "Fracture" and "Starless," help to define this pile-driving version of King Crimson.

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Last modified on Monday, 23 March 2015 17:54

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