A couple days ago, the morning radio people were dismissing live albums, for the most part, out of hand. I can understand this attitude, since I have been known to do the very same thing as part of a clever little bit where I pretend to be every live album recorded in the 1970's. I begin by making a low, rumbling noise like surf crashing on the shore, then a few lobbed whistles from the back, and a "whoo" here and there. It's funnier in person, trust me.
Here's the deal though: Live albums are not intended to be any sort of groundbreaking artistic endeavor, they're merely historical artifacts. Listening to any of the the three CDs of Bruce Springsteen's "Live 1975-1985" will not help you understand the Boss any better as a songwriter, nor will it properly convey his charisma as a performer. What it will do is give you a good set of Cliff''s Notes to the performances as recorded. After years of resistance, Bruce put this collection out at the end of his watershed "Born in the USA" tour, to capitalize on the rabid enthusiasm he had generated after a decade on the road. Since then, he has released a number of different live recordings, and a goodly number of DVDs - all documenting Springsteen "Live".
Contrastingly, the Grateful Dead were the band that existed primarily as a source for endless hours of live bootleg recordings. Sure, there are a great many bootleg recordings of all your favorite artists (including Mister Springsteen), but the Dead encouraged the practice. It could be argued that their studio work was secondary to their work on stage. Go ahead. Argue. I never really cared for them myself, though I admire their songwriting (isn't that ironic?).
The final category of live album would be the "contractual obligation recording." Throughout history, when acts have run short of material and are finishing up a contract with a label, the "deluxe double live album" appears. This allows the band to play a flurry of shows, then toss the tapes at their label on the way out the door, waving their wads of hundred dollar bills. The most egregious example of this in my mind would be "Boingo Alive." Even I, a rabid Oingo Boingo fan, cringed at the notion of this farewell to MCA. This was a "greatest hits" re-recorded "live" in a studio, then unleashed on the buying public. It's like a tree falling in a forest - if a band makes a live album without an audience, does anybody want to hear it?
I have some favorite moments, like the Kinks' "One For The Road" when Ray Davies starts to noodle around the opening of "Lola", then tells the crowd, "We're not gonna play that one tonight," before acquiescing, "All right, but only if you all sing along." Or maybe when David Byrne strolls out to the middle of an empty stage with a boombox and tells us, "I have a tape I want to play for you," before slamming into an unplugged version of "Psycho Killer". Still, I confess my favorite "live" moment would have to be from the show I saw at Red Rocks. I had no way of knowing that they were taping the show, but you can hear me calling out over the crowd. It wasn't Dave Matthews, or U2, or even The Moody Blues - I was there to hear Steve Martin. You can hear me on track nine of "Wild and Crazy Guy". I'm the one shouting "whoooooo!"