Live albums and reissues give us a chance to take stock, be that in reevaluating something you once hated and/or missed — or, even more rewardingly, gaining fresh perspective on songs you thought you knew by heart.
2012 offered many such opportunities for thoughtful reflection, not to mention foot-stomping delight. The CD may be on the way out, but it’s going out with a box-set bang.
Memorably lavish reissues were devoted, for instance, to Paul Simon and Paul McCartney. Graceland, already celebrated, sounds even more impressive some 25 years later. Ram, meanwhile, is revealed as this underrated gem.
There were similar vistas to be climbed with Los Lobos’ Kiko and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions — the latter of which might just be the sleeper pick for best album during a period of stunningly sustained brilliance. A greatest hits compilation from Bayou State bluesman Tab Benoit also underscored his importance as a new voice in a sometimes backwards-walking, staid genre.
Meanwhile, we were blessed with new sounds from a pair of gone-too-soon musical favorites, as previously or rarely heard archival releases were uncovered from both former Beatles guitarist George Harrison and jazz pianist Bill Evans. And new live recordings from classic-rock stalwarts Peter Frampton and Steve Smith (who has now returned to his first love, jazz) threw their still-potent talents into high relief.
Together, they make up my Top 10 picks for live projects and reissues over the past year. Drill into the titles for additional thoughts …
STEVE SMITH AND VITAL INFORMATION – LIVE: ONE GREAT NIGHT (LIVE, JAZZ): Even while he was still a member of the platinum-era edition of Journey, Steve Smith began making his way back to jazz. Now, 30 years later, Smith’s celebrating that bold return to his childhood musical passion with the band Vital Information — releasing a trio of commemorative Vital Information recordings, beginning with Live! One Great Night. It’s an unreleased archival concert from five years ago featuring then-new guitarist Vinny Valentino, along with long-time members Tom Coster and Baron Browne performing tracks from the studio albums Come On In and Vitalization. “If you compare the performances on this release to the original recordings,” Smith told us, “you’ll hear significant musical growth – both individually and collectively.”
PETER FRAMPTON – FCA! 35 TOUR (LIVE, POP/ROCK): There have been, in the intervening years between Frampton Comes Alive! and this anniversary set, two other FCA!-related live albums from Peter Frampton. Each, really, only underscored the idea that if you were one of the 17 million who bought the 1976 release, then you had all the live Frampton you needed. Until now. Put aside 1995?s Frampton Comes Alive II, and the deluxe 25th anniversary set from 2001. Heck, FCA! 35 Tour: An Evening with Peter Frampton — issued on Tuesday via Eagle Rock Entertainment — might just replace the original. I know. Bob Mayo is spinning in his grave. But hear me out: Not only does this two-disc DVD set include a complete retelling of Frampton Comes Alive!, presented talkbox note for talkbox note, there is also a just-as-interesting career-retrospective collection on Disc 2 — providing keen new insights into Frampton’s underrated more recent releases like the Grammy-winning Fingerprints.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: By refusing to settle for easy genre work, Peter Frampton's first-ever instrumental release finally created some distance between the guitarist and a certain double live album.]
TAB BENOIT – LEGACY: BEST OF TAB BENOIT (REISSUE, BLUES): By the time this set rumbles through 14 tracks from 13 years of recording for Telarc Records, comparisons become almost impossible. Like the strange cultural mix of peoples and cultures in Louisiana, Benoit’s one of a kind. In the way that he plays, in the focus of his songs, in the way he mixes and matches textures and influences, he seems to be holding a mirror up to Louisiana’s difficulties with its own history, with its own dwindling resources, with its battles against the natural forces of water, of wind, of erosion. Yet, Benoit never gets bogged down, never lets himself become prisoner to empty slogans, or to the overworked blues cliche. And he never, ever lets it get him down.
STEVE WONDER – INNERVISIONS (REISSUE, R&B): This album arrived amidst an almost-unfathomable run of important recordings from Wonder, but it may well be his best — if only because it delves so deeply into the failure of the 1960s, even while constructing a path out of that crushing disappointment. That decade’s promise of peace, its promise of prosperity, its promise of racial justice must have seemed very far away to Wonder in 1973, yet he was steadfast in his faith, unwavering in his thrilling creative experimentation, and unflinching in his willingness to lay bear the challenges and remaining opportunities. Innervision didn’t just portray Wonder as visionary on its cover (in a striking painting by Efram Wolff), it proved that he, in fact, was — with all of the attendant sense of revelatory mystery that comes with that. All of it sounds brand new again, and the steadfast message still resonates.
GEORGE HARRISON – EARLY TAKES VOLUME 1 (REISSUE, POP/ROCK): You could argue that Phil Spector’s billowing vision of Orchestra As Rock Band saw its fullest flowering on George Harrison’s stunning 1970 debut All Things Must Pass. You could also argue that he almost ruined it with a wet-sock Wall of Sound that all but obscures some tracks. This new album of outtakes, a companion disc of 1970-era demos from Hip-O that pairs with the DVD release of Martin Scorcese’s recent Harrison biopic, looks to make the latter case. As Harrison’s begins his solo journey, you hear the joy, the reverence, and the newfound freedom in his voice. Free then of the entanglement of the Beatles, he’s now free of Spector’s gauzy bluster, too.
BILL EVANS – LIVE AT ART D’LUGOFF’S TOP OF THE GATE (LIVE, JAZZ): There aren’t enough originals from Evans, and bassist Eddie Gomez was a touch too active on this October night in 1968. But as our S. Victor Aaron so rightly pointed out in his review “1. It’s Bill Evans, dammit. 2. It’s previously unreleased, little heard Bill Evans.” That’s more than enough to make this an event for fans of Evans — heck, for fans of jazz. Top of the Gate, in fact, was previously heard by the public just once: when then-22 year old George Klabin played the tape on his radio show on the Columbia University radio station. Four decades later, the rest of us finally got to dive in.
LOS LOBOS – KIKO: 20TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION; KIKO LIVE (REISSUE, POP/ROCK): This is still, by any measure, their most unusual, yet satisfying album — that moment when the power and mystery of Los Lobos music found its fullest flowering in the off-the-wall pop atmospheres created by Mitchell Froom. They’d put out tougher records, records that connected more directly with their Mexican-American heritage, even albums like 1990′s The Neighborhood that similarly attempted to expand their musical palate, but they never put out an album that did a better job of weaving all of those impulses together into a crossover format.
PAUL AND LINDA McCARTNEY – RAM (REISSUE, POP/ROCK): This album was initially criticized for everything that makes it sound unexpectedly bold, fascinatingly unedited and utterly misjudged today. Skip to “The Back Seat of My Car,” its soaringly constructed, yet desperately sad closing track, and you’ll see why. Of course, like the rest of Ram, the song is a little unfocused — too overstuffed with ideas, too reliant on multi-tracked McCartneys, not as rustic as his solo debut and somehow tossed-off sounding anyway, simply too long — yet it remains a homespun, wildly inventive gem: Gutsy and unprecious at one point and then a testament to Paul’s enduring pop sensibilities at others. There is a sense of limitless possibility. Sure, Ram would have benefited from having someone else to bounce ideas off of, but its essential pop magnetism — its compulsively listenability — simply can’t be denied.
RETURN TO FOREVER – THE MOTHERSHIP RETURNS (LIVE, JAZZ): There was always more to Return to Forever than something so bulky and specific as “jazz rock,” from co-founding leader Chick Corea’s intelligent comingling of Latin and classical styles at the piano, to the fonky thump favored by bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White. That core group remains as effortlessly imaginative as ever, from the crystalline and then dancingly rhythmic performances by Corea, the thundering slap-bass showmanship of Clarke (in particular on the ageless “School Days”), and the soul-deep cool of White. Here, too, we have Frank Gambale, a veteran of bands led by Corea, Billy Cobham and Steve Smith, replacing longtime RTF member Al Di Meola. He adds splashes of color and intrigue throughout. But I kept coming back to fellow new member Jean-Luc Ponty, whose lithe violin contributions very nearly steal the show.
PAUL SIMON – GRACELAND (REISSUE, POP/ROCK): Even now, these are songs — to paraphrase Paul Simon from the Creole-stomping opening track on Graceland — of miracle and wonder. There’s still more here, in the listening, 25 years later — a sense of discovery writ large by a sprawling new 2012 four-disc anniversary box set from Legacy Recordings. Justly credited as a masterpiece in its time, Graceland has matured into one for the ages. The album’s most lasting contribution, and this box set’s raison d’être, is the common ground Simon found in the beats. Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, in the accompanying documentary, asserts that “almost all pop music in the world is African music,” and Graceland is the cultural moment in which that connection was definitively made. “The roots of rhythm,” Simon sings, and it’s so very true, “remain.”