There are only a couple of live albums that, in full, I would put in that special pantheon of Music That Has Truly Affected Me. One is by Van Morrison, one of the most legendary singer-songwriters of all time. The other is by a one-hit-wonder ska-punk band.
Let’s start with that second one. I happened upon Our Live Album Is Better than Your Live Album by Reel Big Fish when I was in middle school, an age at which it seems any boy who discovers ska music will inexplicably fall in love with it. Unless you also had a ska phase, though, you’ve probably only encountered Reel Big Fish if you’ve seen the movie “BASEketball” or have heard the Michigan pep band play “Sell Out” (the group’s only charting single, released in 1997).
I don’t necessarily recommend that you go listen to all two hours of Our Live Album … right now, but I will say that I played the crap out of that CD set. I’ll still go back to it nowadays every once in a while when I’m feeling nostalgic. It’s filled with juvenile, annoying jokes, but there’s still some fun to be had, with ’80s songs like “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Take on Me” covered and the genre experimentations that accompany that 10-minute version of “S.R.”
The banter and the playfulness of the album helped me feel like I was building a relationship with the band as I was listening. Live albums, when they’re not just greatest hits collections with cheering placed in between the tracks or cashgrabs from bands who don’t really have much to offer in concert, can make you feel like you’re experiencing an artist for real. Even if I never actually saw Reel Big Fish in person, I kind of felt like I had met them and gotten to know them, just from how accessible, inviting and well-put-together its live record was.
But what about Van? I’ll never feel like I can truly know Van Morrison. His music is amazing because it always sounds like he’s on a higher spiritual plane than all of us. It’s Too Late to Stop Now, a live record released in 1974, still stands up today as one of the most beautiful, fun and astounding albums ever recorded. Anyone who has listened to masterpieces like Astral Weeks or Moondance and loved them as much as I have needs to check this record out.
It’s Too Late to Stop Now is Van Morrison at his jazzy, hyped-up, transcendent best. He has more light-up-the-room energy than he does on Astral Weeks (though slightly less mysticism), and he’s more fascinating, confident and riskier than he is on Moondance. From the opening jauntiness of the Bobby Bland cover “There Ain’t Nothin’ You Can Do” to the saxophone that blows like a foghorn on “Into the Mystic,” through the other soul covers, Them songs and Celtic ecstasies, Van dominates your consciousness and fills your heart.
If this sounds like hyperbole, listen to the album’s closer, “Cyprus Avenue.” The very-pretty-but-not-overpowered centerpiece of Astral Weeks is turned here into a true roller coaster of a song if there ever was one. Everything is familiar and chilled out in the beginning, but gradually the incline starts to get steeper. The drumbeat, like your heart, starts to pound a little harder, and you get that twinge of discomfort as Van slows it down as much as he can, and you’re just anticipating exactly what’s to come. Finally, when you can’t take it anymore, when you’re at the peak, Van unexpectedly screams “IT’S TOO LATE TO STOP NOW!” and all of a sudden you’re rushing downhill as the horns in the song’s climax whip through your hair and you can’t seem to close your mouth or comprehend what exactly is happening and before you can form a coherent thought again it’s all over and, stunned, you get off the ride and start thinking about getting back in line/cuing up the record again to attempt to recapture that experience.
Listen to the live version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita” from The E Street Band’s Live 1975–85 record and you’ll feel that same kind of energy. “Rosalita” in the studio is a classic, but the band tops it whenever it plays the track in concert. There’s an even tougher snarl in Bruce’s voice, and the E Street Band as a whole — freed from the confines of the studio — has an even more palpable, irreplicable chemistry. But the clincher is when Bruce introduces his saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, who passed away in 2011. “AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST,” Bruce yells at the crowd, “DO I HAVE TO SAY HIS NAME? (No!) DO I HAVE TO SPEAK HIS NAME? (No!) DO I HAVE TO SAY HIS NAME? (No!) IN THIS CORNER, KING OF THE WORLD, MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE, WEIGHING IN AT TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTY POUNDS … THE BIG MAN! CLARENCE CLEMONS!” In that moment, moreso than on any of his wonderful studio solos, Clemons feels absolutely immortal to me.
These moments can be produced in a recording studio under the right circumstances, but a crowd just makes everything more powerful. There have been multitudes of legendary concerts: Dylan’s infamous electric tour in ’66, Nirvana on “MTV Unplugged,” Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne Tour when they’d close by playing “Niggas in Paris” nine times in a row. But there’s a disconnect between many firsthand accounts of these shows and the footage that remains. I read them and then listen to the concert itself and I always get the feeling that I’m not quite getting something. The Beatles at Shea Stadium, I’m sure, was an amazing, formative experience for all the kids who were lucky enough to see it, but the videos that remain simply sound like Beatles classics played with ugly sound quality. I mean, it’s still great because The Beatles are legendary have tremendous charisma and the crowd is astoundingly large, but it’s much cooler as a historical document than as something I would actually listen to regularly and enjoy.
It’s Too Late to Stop Now and the few albums it can be compared to are unlike anything else because it takes the greatness that I expect from someone like Van Morrison and puts it in front of a crowd, without any decline in the “wow” factor. Studio albums certainly have a better hit-to-miss ratio, and that’s where most songs are best heard, but the mind-blowing quality of some live albums that not only proves that transcendent musical works of art can be replicated in a place where plenty of people can share it in, but also records that experience for the enjoyment of posterity, makes them essential, unrivaled achievements.