Let me start by saying that I’m not generally a great fan of live albums. All too often they come across as little more than a cynical cash-in, in which all the best bits are spoilt by bad production, audience hysteria or (in the case of the traditional live rock album) 10 minute unaccompanied solos by the drummer, the bass-player, and even sometimes (heaven help us!) the singer.
Of course there are a few miraculous standout live sets. Some artistes were made for live music; a theatre audience draws out of them some deep primal magic that the studio cannot capture. Most of the jazz greats were like this: John Coltrane, Miles Davies and so on. Elvis had it; so did Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen. Their best live albums made your heart ache that you weren’t there yourself, even as you were uplifted by the feeling that in a strange sense you were there yourself.
Now we have AKUS Live. And while the great FM-listening masses may not put them in the same class as the King or the Boss, this latest album has some of that same rare charisma. It’s very reasonably priced; the sound is outstanding; the performances are dazzling, and the audience presence is just enough to communicate a sense of excitement without swamping anything. Above all, you get about 100 minutes of Alison and the extended Soggy Bottom family at their incisive best.
They know how to play a song live, these guys - enough like the studio performance that you don’t ever get the urge to go, “Hey! That’s not right” (a common enough fault with live work, you don’t need me to tell you), yet with enough elbow-room for that extra free spark of creative genius to shine out. This is rivetting, gorgeous, exciting live artistry that makes you want to be there.
The song selection could hardly be bettered. Inevitably you’ll wish something had been left out for your special favorite. Mine is ‘Daylight’, and many people would have gone for ‘Momma Cried’. But hey, this is incredibly generous and virtually everything you really need is here (including Ron Block’s awesome solo hit, ‘Faraway Land’, and of course the obligatory ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’).
My final comment is this: You need have no fear that by buying ‘Live’ you are simply duplicating songs you already have. In fact, after just a few spins, these performances have become the reference versions in my mind, and the original studio cuts now sound relative tame and muted in comparison. To so redefine a set of songs, that the concert version becomes the standard by which the original studio recording is judged, is a rare achievement. Joni and Bruce did it repeatedly, and so did Neil Young. I think AKUS can hold their heads up in that company.