Let me tell you something. When it comes to music, there are few things greater than live performances. As a musician, I lived for those moments when we hit the stage, whether in an R&B group, jazz band or concert orchestra. Something about doing it correctly, live, with no do-overs… …dude. If ever there was an opportunity to separate yourself from those who relied on effects-generating equipment (autotunes, echoes, overdubs, etc.) this was it. And that energy you get back from the audience only serves to enhance the show.
That’s why I love when my favorite artists release concert CDs. Between the use of “real” instruments/voices (unlike the Milli Vanillis of the world), grooving sound of a tight rhythm section grounded by a fabulous percussionist and the beautiful voices of the lead and background singers & harmony, there is no greater testimony for excellence.
That being said, here are my 10 favorite concerts, put on wax! Well, “polycarbonate plastic substrate” because many of you came up in the CD era. To save space, this already being a lengthy post, I made a collage of the albums at the bottom instead of displaying them individually.
Here they are:
- Stevie Wonder “Natural Wonder” (1995)
When I walked into the music store and stumbled upon this new CD behind the letter “W” divider placard in the R&B section, I grabbed it and rushed straight to the counter. Then I ran off to the parking lot, then home, forsaking any other searches. I popped it in the stereo system and sat back for what proved to be one the greatest “non-visual” shows I’ve ever attended. Correction – THE greatest. Having deliberately ignored the songlist before inserting the disc, I closed my eyes and immersed myself right there with the audience. With each unexpected track, all I could do was scream with the crowd upon recognizing the tune, especially during the second half. Between the horn section with that stand-out lead trumpet and that phenomenal orchestra, OMG. It’s Stevie at his best whether he’s spouting those indelible words and phrases or he’s entertaining us with an impromptu “call and answer” between the alto sax and his harmonica, then he and the audience. And don’t get me started on how he rocked that clavinet! The entire show was one accomplishment short of perfect and that’s only because he didn’t secure the group For Real to duplicate their performance on “Tomorrow Robins Will Sing”. Yet and still, from the moment the violins hypnotize you in the 7-minute show opener “Dancing To The Rhythm” (and they got deliciously violent during their solo) until the grand finale (which will remain a secret), Stevie slices through each song with expert precision, leaving behind a collection of pieces you will never want to eat individually. You’ll always listen to this CD all at once, devouring the whole pie. This is easily my favorite of all my “live in concert” albums/CDs.
- Earth, Wind & Fire “Greatest Hits Live” (1996)
I’ve seen Earth, Wind & Fire (my all-time favorite group, for the 2 or 3 of you that don’t know by now) in concert five times and believe you-me, it never, ever, EH-vuh gets old. This particular concert has the song line-up very similar to the tour I saw in College Park, Maryland in 1994. The defining moment being the three-song medley of nothing but the guitars, as the players sat on stools center stage to accompany the singers. For Philip Bailey to be 45 at the time, you definitely couldn’t tell, as his vocals have all but waned. His glass-breaking high notes will make your dogs jump up and bark, “Dayum, Philip” before sitting down and singing next to you. Although band creator Maurice White’s participation is diminished and mildly subdued by his health condition, his presence is still strongly felt throughout the flow and electricity of his awesome creation. It’s a bit saddening to see them without their famous Phenix (spelling is correct) Horns, but hey, these new boys have a precision all their own and they don’t disappoint. Add in the ageless strength of bass player Verdine White (Maurice’s brother), Maurice-like vocals of guitarist co-lead singer Sheldon Reynolds and driving influence of percussionist Sonny Emory and it’s evident that the elements have not skipped a beat. The Earth is still grounded, the Wind undulates smoothly and the Fire burns, hot as hell.
- Luther Vandross “Live At Radio Music Hall” (2003)
Luther, Luther, Luther. I saw him during his final concert tour before he suffered from his major stroke, so this CD has sentimental value to me. If you’ve ever seen him live, you know there is a distinct difference between what he lays down in a studio session and his creativity as he engages the audience. If you never got to see and hear him “mmmmmmmMM-YEAH-MMmmm” as he walks by the microphone, you’ll never truly know how he made men and women scream and fall out like Michael Jackson fans. Minus the visuals, this CD is a perfect example of his power over the musical mind. His interaction with his backup singers and the audience is Classic Luther and you can actually “see” his charm when you listen. Top it off with the skills of Arturo Tappin and Mr. Nat Adderly, Jr. and you got a ballroom miracle.
- Patti Labelle “Live!” (1992)
Everybody has that one aunt that will hug everybody at the family reunion as if they were her own children, whether or not she knows them. This is Patti Labelle, every time she hits the stage. Her sound is flawless and her love is eternal. Every track in this performance is an audial embrace that either makes you dance with delight or sway with empathic tears (as you listen to her tribute to her late sister Jackie). Closing it all out with a studio-recorded ballad as the CDs epilogue, tied directly to the theme of the concert’s climax, you’re powerless to do anything but sit back and ponder what the hell just snatched your soul from its foundation. Speaking of “what the hell”, WTH were those two fans thinking when she asked for two audience members who could rap to come up on stage? They were supposed to do Big Daddy Kane’s interlude rap on “Feels Like Another One” and did everything BUT that. Shame on you two. Shame on BOTH of you. Anyway, kudos to Patti for knowing when to take the mic back.
- Modern Jazz Quartet “The Last Concert” (1976)
I found this album at the city library when I was a kid and literally ran 5 blocks straight home, eager to hear what (at the time) was considered to be their last performance. When it comes to traditional jazz, the basic package of Piano (John Lewis), Vibraphone (Milt Jackson), Double Bass (Percy Heath) and Drums (Connie Kay) are far from simplistic in their sound. This unchanging ensemble of jazz gurus has mastered their instruments, along with the craft, so well that during the show you actually believe you’re in the settings of their titles. Songs like “Skating In Central Park” were you can literally see someone on the ice, skating in a Figure 8 by sunset snowfall, or “Trav’lin'” whose changes in tempo and style transfer you from one mode of travel to the next. And though thankfully, it wasn’t their “last concert”, it will always be my favorite of their performances and one of my most cherished double CDs. I just wish I knew what was happening to make the audience laugh so hard during Heath’s bass solo in the second disc.
- Style Council “Live! The Style Council – Home And Abroad”
I first discovered the stylings of English band The Style Council back in 1984 with the radio release and MTV video “My Ever Changing Moods”. Been a die-hard fan ever since. Paul Weller’s strong cotton-throated vocals and the use of the Hammond organ made that song a staple in my high school years. Their concert album preserves that song’s feel along with their other recognizable hits as the band navigates its way through their pop/soul labrynth as if they were born and raised in it as siblings. I still have the cassette and I’m sure you can imagine my surprise to see that it is now a collector’s item, selling for $494. I ain’t sellin’ it though.
- P Funk All-Stars “Live” (1981) – This concert performance is sloppy genius! With a strange musical method of each section dragging the other along, it deceives you into thinking that synchronicity is a foreign concept to them. You’d swear someone put music to the “Drunken Monkey” martial art fighting style. But the effect is an illusion as the funk is just as on “the One” as James Brown’s group used to do it. And rightfully so, since the Parliament-Funkadelic funk bunch once included former James Brown musicians such as Bootsy Collins, Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker. The songs include a lot of yelling, reminding me of MC Hammer’s hype man, Too Big MC and the vocals are often imbalanced as the lead sounds as if the singer’s lips are pressed against the mic intentionally. Some hits seem too short, while others are quite the inverse. But you know what? In the end, everything is just right. That’s what makes my funk the P-Funk, cause I wants my funk uncut.
- The Winans “Live At Carnegie Hall” (1988)
This gospel concert CD takes their already classic classics and opens the church doors for the listener to experience a musical worship service that leaves you wanting to testify. Lead singer Marvin’s power in his vocals comes down with the strike on an anvil, smoothed over in a way that only his brother Carvin can calm it. Between the two, it’s like lightning and rolling thunder. During my first listen, I became easily frustrated when Marvin’s unexpected oral interludes allowed for him to preach to the audience, but the more I listened, the more I see that each message was strategically and expertly positioned. This is noticeable particularly in their hit, “Ain’t No Need To Worry”, sans the silky sound of Anita Baker. Fortunately, it’s covered sufficiently as Carvin glides back and forth between pronounced falsetto and a commanding upper register in his natural voice. This concert is ageless and if I dare say, needed now, more than ever.
- Bette Midler “Divine Madness” (1980)
Watching this concert on HBO came on the heels of seeing the movie “The Rose” the prior year. Her taste in music, her smile, her energy – it all carried over to her concert album when it was finally released, allowing me to revisit her performance as I listened, EVERY time I listened. Add to that her swinging background singers with that Radio Days harmony and screaming horns. Yes. With her lullabye-ish tenderness and her hard rock bellowing, you know the Divine Madness of this dynamic and diverse diva will delight you as you dine and digest her for days and days.
- Grover Washington Jr. “Live At The Bijou” (1977)
I honestly do not believe I could have completed the transition from the underground sound of Traditional jazz to the cautiously-balanced product that is Contemporary jazz, if not for Grover Washington, Jr. Grover’s group has a sound with a tasty consistency in flavor no matter the album. Even if he wasn’t playing, you still knew it was his crew. Add his subtle, fluttery approach to their often tropical sound and you get relaxation in rhythm like no other. This album is a wonderful reminder of that, recorded at the Bijou Cafe in Philadelphia, PA. There is no restriction to their performance in length or creativity, which is easily heard in their solos. It’s incredibly evident that within their expertise lies joy and love for what they do. This is the only album that has “mysteriously” disappeared from my collection (and I will eventually replace it), but the tunes are still sharp in my mind. Well, because it’s what Grover does. He imprints his groove on your soul. Rest In Smooth, my friend. Rest In Smooth…
I hope you enjoyed my selections and, if you haven’t heard them, are encouraged to take a listen via music stream or order them altogether. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t include some honorable mentions, without description. These are concert performance tracks inserted into studio-produced albums that I absolutely love…
Live Versions Of Songs On Non-Concert CDs
- Minnie Riperton (Petals: The Minnie Riperton Collection) – “Lovin’ You” Live Reprise ft. George Benson
- Jonathan Butler (Jonathan Butler) – “Reunion”
- The Time (Ice Cream Castles) – “The Bird”
- Stevie Wonder (Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants) – “Seed’s A Star / Tree Medley”
- Prince (Sign Of The Times) – “Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”
- Peabo Bryson (Stand For Love) – “Peabo’s Classics Medley Live From Los Angeles 208” ft. Chante’ Moore [surprised the hell out of me]
…that’s all for now. Let me know what you think in the Comments section below. Do you have any concert albums you love that I should consider? Maybe you have some I never heard of and need to check out. And don’t forget to sign up for email notifications of future posts at the bottom.
I leave you with one more treat for those of you that made it to the bottom. Love you!
Until next time. Thanks for reading.