Inspiration & Obligation

The use of live albums as fulfillment of contractual obligations or as a means of cashing in at year's end is one of rock's hoariest cliches. Yet, as changeable as the music world seemed in 1998, the live album -- and in some cases the double live album -- remains an immutable fact of life, like those boneheads selling roses at concerts or drunks yelling "Free Bird!" at inappropriate times.

That doesn't mean the live albums released in recent months aren't any good. Some are, some aren't. Here's a quick look at several from each side of the equation.

One of the unsung godfathers of punk rock, former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, still knows how to kick out the jams. "LLMF" -- a title shortened from "Live Like a Motherfucker" to placate nervous chain stores -- is a muscular effort that careens from feral punk ("Bad Seed") and trenchant political commentary ("Count Time") to spoken-word pieces over free jazz ("So Long Hank," "Bomb Day in Paris") and a memoir of the MC5's chaotic concert in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention ("Down on the Ground"). Not everything here works -- Kramer possesses only marginal vocal talent, and "Something's Broken in the Promised Land" is a Z-grade attempt at Mellencamp-style populism. Still, when he fires up his guitar on the fierce "It's Never Enough" or his own version of "Kick Out the Jams," those shortcomings fade into the distance, and Kramer seizes his rightful place in rock & roll history.

Perhaps the best live album of the season is also the most unlooked-for. The Bristol, England, hi-tech duo Portishead is such a creature of the studio that a concert album would seem the ultimate exercise in chutzpah. After all, how much of their act is live and how much Memorex? As it turns out, Roseland NYC Live (Go Disc!/London) is a riveting album that adorns Geoff Barrow's deeply textured tapes and turntable work and Beth Gibbons' subzero vocal performances with an intriguing mix of guitars, horns and a large complement of strings. "Sour Times," the group's best-known track, never sounded so good. This is the year's one live album that'll make you wish you were there.

In terms of efficiency of effort, you have to hand it to the Rolling Stones. In recent years, the group has been able to turn virtually every project they've done into two albums -- one from the studio and one from the road. Although you can question the legitimacy of this -- certainly live albums such as Flashpoint and Stripped have not proved to be highlights of the Stones' enduring career -- you still have to hand it to them for crafting live albums that are interesting for reasons beyond being just another tour souvenir. No Security (Virgin) succeeds thanks to song selection, with the band pulling out chestnuts such as "Memory Motel," "Live with Me" and "Waiting on a Friend" and including guest performances by Dave Matthews, Joshua Redman and Taj Mahal, the last two recorded during their stop in St. Louis. On the downside, "Thief in the Night" is a particularly weak showcase for Richards, and there's a bit too much emphasis on recent, hollow-sounding rave-ups such as "You Got Me Rocking" and "Flip the Switch." But the inclusion the gospel-ish "Saint of Me" is welcome because it's one of their better new songs, and two of the Stones' grim anthems, "Sister Morphine" and "Gimme Shelter," retain much of their old menace.

If the Stones can be made to look shameless for cashing in, however, what does that make Garth Brooks? Since sales of his studio albums have plateaued, Brooks has used a series of stunts -- a "limited edition" hits album, a boxed set and, now, Double Live (Capitol), a concert package that comes in six (collect 'em all, folks!) different packages -- to help him reach his stated goal of becoming the bestselling artist of all time. You might expect the music to get lost amid all the hype, but, surprisingly, that's not the case. Double Live is chock-full of hits performed full-tilt, the only way Brooks knows how. A certain amount of postproduction tinkering keeps this from being a genuine representation of Brooks and band in concert, but it makes for a better album -- one that serves as an appropriate capper to Brooks' catalog, hype and all.

"We're making up for lost time here," Eddie Vedder says as he introduces a song on Pearl Jam's Live on Two Legs (Epic). No kidding, Ed. After all, despite selling millions of albums, the band has been out of the rock & roll limelight for the greater part of this decade, thanks to their no-videos policy and their tilting-at-windmills battle with Ticketmaster. The truth is, we'd scarcely have missed them if the Seattle band's intermittent live shows didn't prove what an explosive act they are. Live on Two Legs shakes the ceilings and rattles the walls with the full-on excitement of the Pearl Jam of old. Part of this is the material, as the band dips deep into its catalog for such gems as "Even Flow," "Corduroy," "Black" and the awkwardly titled "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town." There are plenty of recent offerings, too, such as "Given to Fly," "Untitled" and the frantic "Do the Evolution." The group also shows the influence gleaned from ageless wonder Neil Young, with whom they've recorded and toured -- at one point, Vedder drops a section of Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" into one of his own songs, and the group closes with Young's raucous "F*ckin' Up." On the album that they did together, Mirror Ball, there was a sense of the rock & roll true-believer torch being passed between them, and that has proved true. Long may they run.

Two bands that have been justifiably celebrated by a younger generation of metallists and hard-rockers are Black Sabbath and Rush. Sabbath's Reunion (Epic), featuring the original quartet, is a cause for celebration as the years melt away on earsplitting versions of "War Pigs," "Paranoid" and "Iron Man." Ozzy Osbourne's between-song non-sequiturs "We love you!" and "God bless you!" seem hilariously out of place yet completely sincere. Welcome back, lads. Rush's massive three-disc Different Stages: Live (Atlantic) contains performances from 1978, 1994 and 1997, and though overkill is typical of the trio from the Great White North, the set does offer crisp versions of such classics as "Tom Sawyer," "Closer to the Heart" and "The Trees."

And finally, on Live from the Middle East, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones turn in a sweaty ska-core set from their favorite hometown hangout. Too bad it's marred by vocalist Dicky Barrett's typically sore-throated barking. Will someone get this guy a cough drop

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