Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

When you think about it, the idea of music and the artifact that contains the music as being more or less synonymous had a pretty brief run, but probably shaped music-- certainly American music-- as much as, if not more than, any other single idea. The notion that musical performances could be turned into commodities and sold by the thousands didn't take too long to catch hold, and if early sales of recorded music were originally intended to help drive gramophone sales, soon enough what we would consider today as the software became almost the entire point, even superseding performance. Wily furniture store proprietors became wily record producers, and label owners, and turned out the music that became the American Trinity. Along the way, they refined the art of hype and promotion, and turned music-- which had previously been a performance medium-- into a new kind of product.

I was thinking about this the other day as I tried to decide what I think about live albums. Are they necessary? Are there any good ones? What is the point-- beyond the commodification of a specific performance, and the opportunity to sell the consumer the same product more than once? Is there a legitimate artistic reason to release a live album?

I was thinking about this because the live version of "Shelter from the Storm" that appears on "Hard Rain" came up on shuffle as I was driving. There are, at this point, quite a few live Dylan sides, although at one time they were rare, and before that, nonexistent. As it happens, when it was released, I really hated "Hard Rain", but now I'd have to say that it is my first or second favorite live Dylan side. But is it necessary? What would be the qualities that would make a live album necessary?

This is less of a problem with rock'n'roll's siblings in the Trinity. Live blues sides make sense because the documentation of the interaction between artist and audience is worthwhile, and because that interaction often propels the artist into heightened expression. The best B.B. King sides are all live, for example. In jazz also the live setting can work to illuminate aspects of the music that might not otherwise be heard. I can't tell you how many live Monk sides I've got, but they are all like snowflakes, baby. Something like Duke Ellington's "Ellington At Newport 1956"-- particularly Paul Gonsalves' solo on "Diminuendo in Blue, and Crescendo in Blue" is all the evidence anyone should need that there is an artistic justification for live jazz albums. There are scores of jazz sides like this, but I am hard pressed to name a rock live album that isn't merely product. Are there any?

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