Smatterings of applause, a few cheers, the odd shout of something indiscernible, a sudden swell of noise as the first notes of a song begin to play, and then the crowd roars; there is no mistaking the beginning of a live album. Even prior to the pandemic, the medium of recording a live performance provided artists with an avenue to demonstrate the length and breadth of their discography, while providing a level of character and energy that puts the dreaded compilation album to shame.
In some cases, whether necessitated by technical limitations or through a desire to experiment, the live album can also showcase a totally different arrangement for classic songs, such as on Radiohead’s I Might Be Wrong. In other cases, they can provide a way to capture a memorable or even momentous occasion in an artist’s career, such as Johnny Cash’s Live At Folsom Prison. As much as some people might not place much value in the live versions of their favourite songs, the live album has always held an important place in the macrocosm of the musical art form.
In these unprecedented times, however, there is an additional quality that few would have expected; they are currently the only means by which fans can experience the passion, chaos, and rawness of a truly great live performance. With large gatherings of any kind banned for the foreseeable future it is not hard to see why people are turning to these snapshots in time for their ‘fix’ of live music. The case in their favour is only furthered when the alternatives – online shows and limited crowd gigs – fail to recreate anything to the same standard.
Listening to music has always been an exercise in escapism and the best live albums can transport you to a place across the globe, and to a time that occurred decades ago. That person you hear screaming in excitement might well be 70-years-old now with grandkids and tinnitus, possibly unrelated to the speakers pumping out the music in question. Yet that excitement has forever been immortalised, and you too can feel that same excitement, while the shoving, shouting, sweating, and hearing damage is not included.
A crucial addition to the live album is the integration of video in the later half of the 20th century, which allowed for accompanying footage. The internet, however, has not only increased our access to countless recordings and footage of live performances, but has also enabled artists to further their own creativity. The release of Homecoming by Beyoncé, for example, coincided with the release of an award winning, feature length documentary that covers the events surrounding and including the performance. Importantly, this was directed by Beyoncé herself and made specially to be available on a specific streaming platform. When an artist can release both an award winning album and award winning feature film simultaneously for fans to appreciate at their own leisure, it becomes clear how extraordinary a medium live albums have become for both the artist and the listener.
As we come to terms with the long term damage this pandemic will have had on the arts, it is important to support artists who have been left in the lurch. In the process, why not take the opportunity to re-evaluate the live album? After all, where else can you witness the greatest artists of the last century recreating their own masterpieces live while you sit on the toilet?