New concert interpretations opened windows into careers that have endured, while remastered and expanded original albums likewise offered an opportunity for careful reevaluation. In both cases, these 10 reissues and live sets provided us with important new perspectives.
There’s Toto, digging deep into their catalog to frame their biggest hits — and completing a larger, typically unseen portrait of their sweeping musical prowess. And the Who, returning to a lesser-known classic-era album with a renewed sense of focus and determination.
There’s artists as disperate as Yes’ Jon Anderson and blues-rock pioneer Paul Butterfield, who saw signature albums return sounding more present and visceral than ever. Butterfield’s long-time collaborator Mike Bloomfield was also the subject of a long-over due comprehensive anthology, lovingly overseen by Al Kooper.
Marillion returned to their most recent studio effort, adding a series of striking demos and concert interpretations. Meanwhile, Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs (billing themselves as the Dukes of September) locked arms for a surprisingly familial evening of huge hits and old favorites.
The Stick Men, led by King Crimson’s Tony Levin, released a smart, yet hard-charging live recording — their first. We also returned to Roy Orbison’s final, posthumous effort, and found something striking outside the circle of grief that originally surrounded it.
Then there’s Elton John, who offered an expanded look back at the slingshot album that sent him hurtling toward superstardom …
No. 10 — MIKE BLOOMFIELD – FROM HIS HEAD TO HIS HEART TO HIS HANDS (BLUES): For all of his brilliant experimentation, Bloomfield’s most revelatory moments here may well be the unfettered explorations through his roots. He was a musician who — as improbable as it may seem, considering he was the scion of a Jewish-American family that built a small fortune in the catering equipment business on Chicago’s North Side — was simply born to the blues. Bloomfield’s subsequent career mirrored his restless soul, so he was never confined to a single genre, no matter how resonant. But From His Head to His Heart to His Hands finds its fullest flowering, for me, when Bloomfield lets it all hang down, when its title is made real through the his hometown music’s baptismal powers. And this set is stuffed with moments like those.
No. 9 — JON ANDERSON – OLIAS OF SUNHILLOW (PROG): With its fantastical storylines (a flaxen hero, the promise of a better day, some seriously weird outer space stuff) and enveloping soundscapes, the former Yes frontman created a rich and rewarding world unto itself. And it’s never sounded better. Alas, with the on-set of the 1980s came a retrenchment back toward more compact pop songcraft — and Yes, by then augmented by Trevor Rabin, dove in head first. Anderson would occasionally be gifted an opportunity to construct the kind of dazzling long-form storylines heard here over the course of his remaining years with the group, but nothing to compare to this spellbinding journey. Then as now, Olias stands alone.
No. 8 — ELTON JOHN – GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD (POP/ROCK): It’s an album that plays with all of the disjointed profundity of a greatest hits project, all of the kitchen-sink self-indulgence of your typical 1970s-era double album, and all of the outsized personality we’ve come to expect from the former Reginald Kenneth Dwight. And yet Goodbye Yellow Brick Road works. Far more than the more personal, more direct and admittedly more cohesive statements that came before, it illustrates as well anything he ever did just why Elton John became Elton John — and how. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, we’re reminded, is as deliriously over-the-top as its singer himself.
No. 7 — PAUL BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND – EAST-WEST (BLUES): That arguably the first psychedelic might have come from a blues band was one thing. That arguably one of the most influential blues albums of all time might have come from a white guy, well, that was another. That both things were wrapped up inside the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s East-West, however, is undeniable. East-West — given a stunning remaster, courtesy of Audio Fidelity — opened doors not just for the blues, but all of rock. He stirred in raga and jazz, he led the others on searing flights of fancy, he played the harmonica with a fire and wit that drew favorable comparisons to Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter Jacobs.
No. 6 — STICK MEN – POWER PLAY (PROG): Stick Men’s first-ever concert album finds King Crimson bassist Tony Levin and Co. in their element. No matter the praise heaped upon their latest, and arguably best, studio effort, this is band (like Crimson) best heard live. There’s a sense of unbound freedom, of musical camaraderie, of brilliant timing and gutsy chance taking that can only be truly highlighted, and best enjoyed, when this talented trio begins deconstructing and then reconstructing their work before real people, in real time. What you find is a tougher band, with a grittier sound — playing music that is hard hitting but also perfectly calibrated.
No. 5 — ROY ORBISON – MYSTERY GIRL: 25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (POP/ROCK): One of the more improbable comebacks in rock history was about to reach its summit when Orbison suddenly died in December of 1988. All of a sudden, Mystery Girl became a celebration, a valedictory, a mash note and a desperately sad farewell — all in one. This timely reissue transforms it once more: back into a very, very good pop album from one of early rock’s most underrated figures, and in the midst of a pivotal time. Absent the immediacy of emotion surrounding his death, we hear Orbison transformed not by tragedy (as his earliest records were) but by the rapture of true love finally found.
No. 4 — THE WHO – QUADROPHENIA: LIVE IN LONDON (POP/ROCK): Surprisingly vital, this third-act live take on the Who’s second rock opera ends up smashing expectations like Townshend used to smash guitars. That is to say, completely. The addition of a few smart updates to their theme of youthful upheaval in 1960s London gives Live in London a swift kick in the pants. Meanwhile, the concert setting plays to this album’s innate strengths as a true song cycle, rather than a series of tunes. Even more so than the Who’s frankly overhyped Tommy, the dense and utterly interconnected Quadrophenia was meant to be digested in one sitting. Along the way, Live in London casts an engrossing spell, without any need to dash to the turn table for a quick flip of the vinyl.
No. 3 — THE DUKES OF SEPTEMBER – LIVE AT LINCOLN CENTER (POP/ROCK): Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs brought a tractor-trailer’s worth of hits — both as solo artists and with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, respectively — to this setlist. More important, however, was their simpatico sense of musical camaraderie. Whether it be Fagen tossing off a fizzy little piano flourish to “Miss Sun,” or Scaggs carefully working the secondary guitar riff for “Reelin’ in the Years,” they perform not as perfunctory sidemen but as fully engaged friends. Much of the rest of the concert is given over to covers of R&B classics, with Scaggs, Fagen and McDonald often taking a verse a piece. Even there, these three perform as if part of a brotherhood of music.
No. 2 — MARILLION – SOUNDS THAT CAN’T BE MADE: SPECIAL EDITION (PROG): This already superlative album is given new dimension. A second disc of demos and live takes finds Steve Hogarth discarding the keening Bono-esque attitude of some of his recent outings with Marillion, sounding instead like a more engaged Mark Hollis from late-period Talk Talk on an early version of “Lucky Man.” It’s as striking as it is involving. And Hogarth keeps exploring this new range throughout the bonus material. “Invisible Ink” (with its devastating cry of “it’s not a game”) is from a live date in Holland. Meanwhile, the original album’s “Power” and “Pour My Love” are included, along with 2008’s “Wrapped Up in Time,” from a perhaps even more powerful performance on French radio. We also get a searing March 2013 version on the title track, from a concert that has since been released in its entirety.
No. 1 — TOTO – 35TH ANNIVERSARY TOUR: LIVE IN POLAND (POP/ROCK): Toto’s impressive resiliency is underscored here not just in the way the band reanimates its most familiar tunes but also in the way they focus on lesser-known songs that complete a larger narrative. And it’s there, as Toto takes listeners off the beaten path of their discography that this concert film finds a larger resonance. They’re sharing new things about their music — and about themselves. It all adds up to something far more memorable that another concert retelling of the hits, huge though they may be. Live in Poland fills the blanks in between, giving new shading and depth to everything that came before. There may not be a better argument for reevaluation ever made when it comes to the oft-dismissed Toto.