By this time of the year in 2019, even with a slow start, I’d seen ten gigs and attended Steve Hackett’s The Edge of Light playback, hosted by the man himself. So far this year I’ve been to two and there’s little hope of adding many more to the tally until the autumn unless travel restrictions from and to the UK are lifted within the next couple of weeks: the Porto Antico Prog Fest is due to take place on July 11th.
It’s good to see Covid-19 lockdown restriction eased where the infection and death rates have dropped to low double figures or lower, provided there are sustainable test, track and trace schemes in place, but the UK isn’t one of them. The economy is being put before lives and it appears to be the same economic model that we were running before the pandemic, based on consumer spending rather than taking the opportunity to green our services and industries. For an all too brief period almost everyone could benefit from improved air quality but rather than applying anti-pollution conditions on loans to industries to tide them over until the crisis had passed, we’ve just returned to business as usual. If someone was candid enough to admit the true reason why opening up car showrooms was one of the first restrictions to be lifted I’d admire them for their honesty but point out that giant factory car parks filled with new petrol- and diesel-engine vehicles is an indication of a huge crisis in the automotive industry, not least because the manufacturers have made more cars than they can shift, and that there is a tangible nervousness in the UK’s £75bn car loan market, where 6.5m vehicles have been financed through leasing deals with monthly payments that are already proving unaffordable for individuals laid-off as a result of the coronavirus situation leaving Britain’s car market resting on billions of pounds of consumer debt.
Physical distancing to reduce the spread of infection has always seemed like a good idea (unless you’re on the right of the Conservative party) but one of the obvious downsides is that keeping a band, the road crew and the entire audience 2m apart is incompatible with a sustainable live music industry. The inaugural Music By Numbers report, an economic study by UK Music and its members published in November 2019, revealed that the live music sector made a contribution of £1.1bn to the UK economy in 2018, up 10% from £991m in 2017, and the overall employment in the music industry was at an all-time high of 190,935, so it’s clear that live music, as part of the entertainment and hospitality sector and the last piece of the economy to open, is missed by more people than just me.
In the absence of live events, there are always live recordings to listen to. I’ve used live albums as an introduction to a number of bands: Barclay James Harvest Live (1974); Genesis Live (1973); Gentle Giant Playing the Fool – the Official Live (1977); Be Bop Deluxe Live! in the Air Age (1977), allowing me to become better acquainted with an artist’s back catalogue. In a similar manner to my preference for buying a group’s albums in their home city, I make an effort to buy concert performances of gigs I’ve attended, should they become available, because it feels as though I’ve got a stronger bond to the music. So as a lockdown exercise, notwithstanding my presence or absence at a particular concert slated for subsequent release, I thought that I’d examine what makes a great live album, illustrated by a list of my top 10. Factors like recording quality, essential for conveying the musical content; the material present on the release, providing an accurate representation of the band up to the time of the performance; and the relationship between the performers and the audience.
Yes - Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015)
I’ve always loved Yessongs (1973) but I’ve never been truly happy with the sound quality. It has so much going for it – the triple gatefold with a series of some of the best Roger Dean illustrations for the band, explaining the narrative begun on Fragile (1971); it captures Yes at their creative peak, despite falling between two classic line-ups, covering all the essential songs that were instrumental in getting them to that point; and the musicians have clearly gelled for the performances, interacting well and playing brilliantly. So when the tapes that made up the source material for Yessongs were discovered and cleaned up for the fourteen discs that make up Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015) I was blown away. The format of using the exact same set list over the seven pairs of discs may be even more strict than the content of some of the King Crimson box sets but it allows you to trace the sonic evolution of the nine tracks featured from each date; the between-song introductions, the recovery of Anderson’s voice following a bout of influenza, the subtle variations in each piece. All this is possible because of the incredible undertaking by Syd Schwarz, Brian Kehew and a team of engineers to rebalance instruments and voices that were lost in an arena mix. Though the content of Progeny is more limited than Yessongs, Progeny has become my favourite live album because without overdubs, it represents that moment in time when Yes were way ahead of the curve, all presented in a sonically accurate manner.
King Crimson – USA (1975)
Robert Fripp was able to beat the bootleggers, maintain an income stream and remain relevant in a cutthroat industry by releasing archive live material through official DGM channels and also, for material of less good audio quality, through the King Crimson Collectors’ Club. Fripp and David Singleton even applied a form of bootleg amnesty to fill gaps where their tapes were lacking. As impressed as I am with the Great Deceiver (1992), The Road to Red (2013) and Starless (2014) box sets, plus the other DGM releases from the different eras of King Crimson, my favourite Crimson live album is USA (1975). I bought this as a student in 1979 – a cut-out from my local store Elpees in Bexley, and it became something of a treasured possession even after I bought the more complete 30th Anniversary Edition (2004) on CD, and subsequently invested in the 40th Anniversary expanded edition on vinyl. I used to blast USA out of my room at university, posing at the window with my bass; it shows how powerful Crimson were as a live act and the track Asbury Park remains a high water mark in terms of improvisation although the full-length version wasn’t available until 2005 as a download from DGM – I now have the entire piece on the 40th anniversary vinyl edition.
Mahavishnu Orchestra - Between Nothingness and Eternity (1973)
Between Nothingness and Eternity represents the first incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at its most muscular and telepathic best and when I bought it in 1975 I had no idea that the tracks were from a shelved studio album. The quality of the recording, from the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park, New York on August 18th 1973 is exceptionally good and the material, eventually given a studio release as part of The Lost Trident Sessions (1999), saw the band tilting towards the rock spectrum from their jazz-rock axis, a progressive rock direction. There’s a qualitative difference between Inner Mounting Flame (1971) and Birds of Fire (1972) but the intensity was upped even further on Between Nothingness and Eternity. The CD liner notes from The Lost Trident Sessions suggest that tensions were running high between band members, compounded by constant touring, but the decision to release a live album rather than the slated third studio album, taken because there was no consensus over whether the studio recordings were complete or required overdubs, meant that Between Nothingness and Eternity captured the band, in the words of Jan Hammer, as ‘working on all 12 cylinders.’
The Official Live Gentle Giant – Playing the Fool (1977)
Playing the Fool is a kind of ‘best of Gentle Giant’ that I first owned on pre-recorded cassette, my first Gentle Giant album. I’d heard In a Glass House (1973) not long after its release when my brother borrowed it from a friend, and was totally impressed by the title track from Free Hand (1975) when that was played on the radio by Alan Freeman – and frequently gawped at the cover of Playing the Fool when browsing in record stores, so I’m unsure why I never bought one of their albums, unless it was (for a prog band) the brevity of the individual songs, until I saw the Playing the Fool cassette at a price I couldn’t resist. I’m also not sure why I bought it on tape, a medium I’ve never particularly favoured, when I’d previously been entranced by what appeared to me as an intricate, complex constellation, the band’s tour route, on the inside of the gatefold LP sleeve. When I eventually took the plunge, Gentle Giant albums were an uncommon sight in shops, apart from Giant Steps – The First Five Years (1975), a 2LP compilation of the Vertigo produced records which came close to what I was after – but obviously didn’t have the Chrysalis-issued Free Hand. The arrangements on Playing the Fool are exquisite and the band were at their creative peak, gaining widespread appreciation in the US and mainland Europe but barely registering attention in their native UK. This is only album I’ve ever owned on cassette, CD and vinyl.
Van der Graaf Generator – Real Time (2007)
Real Time by the reformed Van der Graaf Generator, recorded at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th May 2005 and released in 2007, is documentary evidence of that auspicious occasion. In the sleeve notes Hammill reflects on pondering how it was going to pan out... and I can tell him because I was there: it was incredible. The band were on top form and the choice of material that made up the set was just right, the audience, gathered together from all over the world, were warm and responsive, and the sound was clean and forceful. It was a great gig and is a great live recording of the gig. Van der Graaf’s Vital (1978) is wild and raw, capturing the group in flux between the departures of Hugh Banton and David Jackson and splitting up; the post-Jackson VdGG gigs from this millennium have also been a band that seems to be teetering on the edge of chaos but somehow, the Festival Hall performance in May 2005 contained and channelled a sonic energy that felt like it was pinning me to my seat. The recently released 3LP set Live at Rockpalast (2020), recorded at the end of the 2005 tour from the Leverkusen jazz festival is another impressive album, but with a truncated set compared to Real Time, I think it lacks the emotional clout of the inaugural performance of the reformed band.