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Is the Live Album Dead?


By Andrew Dansby, Houston Chonicle

“Kicking Television” — the title of a live album by the band Wilco — doesn’t have the pop cultural resonance of, say, “At Budokan” or “Frampton Comes Alive.” But by any contemporary measure, it’s a success. Creatively, it’s a vibrant recording that touches on different eras in a notable band’s career. Commercially, it sold 135,000 copies, a strong number these days. And a pricey vinyl version released recently was snapped up by fans.

But compare that to the gold standard by Peter Frampton, who brings his live show to the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach on Tuesday, opening for Yes. “Frampton Comes Alive” has sold more than 6 million copies since 1976; Cheap Trick’s “At Budokan” has sold more than 3 million since in 1978.

The live album, once an obligatory component of a band’s discography and in some cases, a defining work, doesn’t seem as culturally prevalent as it did 35 years ago.

Those who follow pop and rock music ( jazz, classical and Broadway musicians continue to record live) with fervor still value live albums, which offer a different listening experience than their studio counterparts. Live albums are often built more on bombast than on nuance. They need to be familiar but only to an extent: To simply replicate pre-existing music with audience noise interspersed between songs nullifies their impact.

It’s not that concert recordings have disappeared. A live Grateful Dead set from 1989 recently debuted in the Top 50, and the Zac Brown Band‘s new live CD/DVD made a strong showing last month. But the Dead has dozens of live titles in its catalog, and Brown’s album seems designed to bridge the gap between his 2009 hit debut and what comes next.

But live albums that sell millions of copies are likely extinct. The same could be said for most albums, but the live album was on the wane even before the bottom dropped out of the music recording business during the past decade.

Warren Haynes, whose Gov’t Mule has released several live recordings, says “a lot of the more popular music being made these days doesn’t really merit a live version. The concert doesn’t offer anything emotionally different or superior to the studio versions.”

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