Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Year in Music: Best Live Albums

On some live albums, you can obviously tell some studio tinkering was involved after the fact. Then there are others where the raw energy of the concert performance shines through and hasn’t been polished to perfection. Such is the case with my picks for the best of 2015.

1. Neil Finn + Paul Kelly, “Goin' Your Way” (Omnivore) - In 2013, two of Australian alt-rock and pop music's most revered singer/songwriters from the past 30 years toured their native land together. Recorded on the jaunt's final stop at the Sydney Opera House, “Goin’ Your Way” - originally released last year Down Under - is an exceptional double set featuring 29 live tracks from their respective bands (Crowded House, Split Enz, The Messengers) and solo careers. The sound, mixed by Bob Clearmountain, is astounding. Both artists trade verses and harmonize on each other's songs with ease. It was also a true family affair, with Kelly's nephew Dan on guitar and Finn's son Elroy on drums and guitar. Kelly and Finn surprise with a lovely joint Buddy Holly cover ("Words of Love") and a hushed acoustic take on the standard "Moon River." Also impressive is a revamped arrangement of “Won't Give In,” originally from The Finn Brothers' second album “Everyone is Here.” Most of Neil Finn's best known tracks are represented, including “Four Seasons in One Day,” “Into Temptation,” “Better Be Home Soon,” “Don't Dream It's Over,” “Fall at Your Feet,” “Private Universe,” “One Step Ahead” and “Message to My Girl.” Kelly weighs in with “Dumb Things,” “How to Make Gravy,” “Before Too Long,” “To Her Door," “Leaps and Bounds” and others. A must buy for fans of either artist.

2. World Party, “Live at the Belly Up” (Belly Up Live) – The past few years have been a blessing for longtime World Party enthusiasts in North America, with Karl Wallinger suddenly touring the region with more frequency and sounding just as great as his late 1980s and early ‘90s alt-rock radio heyday. This fine hour-long set was recorded June 29, 2014 at the venerable tavern in Solana Beach, Calif. (just outside San Diego). Backed by veteran guitarist John Turnbull – whose credits include Nick Lowe, Ian Dury, Bob Geldof - and fiddler David Duffy, the Brit’s tasteful arrangements and sublime harmonies shine brightest on “Put The Message in The Box,” “Is It Like Today?,” the countryish “Sweet Soul Dream,” an epic “Ship Of Fools,” “Thank You World” and feisty “Way Down Now.” Available in the U.S. as a download via 

3. Hunter Hayes, “The 21 Project” (Atlantic) – Technically more like a hybrid EP, this 7-track collection is presented in live, acoustic and studio versions over three discs. Recorded during the enthusiastic country singer/guitarist’s opening stint on the Lady Antebellum tour this past summer, you can almost visualize Hayes grinning ear to ear while singing (believe me, he usually was: I caught the Irvine, Calif. stop on that tour). The band utilizes mandolin, bouzouki, mandola, Rhodes, B-3 organ (with several played by Hayes himself). All the new tracks are winners, especially infectious top 30 country hit “21,” the earnest “Young and in Love” and “Where it All Begins” (a duet with Lady Antebellum on the studio disc). 

4. Rick Springfield, “Stripped Down” (Loud & Proud/RED) – Inside the liner notes to “Stripped Down,” there’s a telling quote from the Aussie pop/rock superstar that says, “I’ve always written autobiographically. There’s an arc of my life with all the songs in it. People often ask me if I’m sick of playing [the hits], and I’m not, because they’re my life.” The 14-track CD (part of a set that also includes a slightly reworked order on DVD) recalls the old MTV Unplugged and VH1 Storytellers shows of the 1990s, where performers would open up about the songs’ origins in a stripped down format (hence the title). Springfield plays acoustic and electric guitars here and uses the Band in a Box app to help augment the sound to fine effect. He provides various life anecdotes with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Some listeners might be surprised hear about such early blues and power pop influences as Fleetwood Mac, Muddy Waters and Badfinger (whose “Oh Well,” “Rollin’ & Tumblin’”, “Baby Blue” are performed), while hits like “Human Touch,” “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” “Love Somebody,” “Affair of the Heart” and of course, “Jessie’s Girl” are done with the usual spirit. 

5. Sammy Hagar & The Circle, “Live: At Your Service” (Mailboat) – Talk about bringing the rock. Hagar has put out numerous concert albums over the years, but “At Your Service” ranks among the strongest. Some of that has to do with Jason Bonham laying down the foundation. It was recorded in 2014 while on tour in Atlantic City. Along with longtime guitarist Vic Johnson and bassist/former Van Halen bandmate Michael Anthony, Hagar and company barrel through powerful VH tracks (“Poundcake,” “When It’s Love,” “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Finish What Ya Started,” “Right Now”), solo faves (“I Can’t Drive 55,” “There’s Only One Way to Rock,” “Little White Lie,” “Heavy Metal”) and some choice Led Zeppelin covers originally done by Bonham’s father John (“Whole Lotta Love,” “When the Levee Breaks,” “Rock and Roll”).    

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