The live album is one of the hardest pieces of material any
musical artist has to create. How does one turn a stage into a
replica of what they were able to do in a recording studio? How
does one re-capture the magic in a live performance? More often
than not, the efforts, while admirable, are seriously flawed.
Exhibit "A": Blues Traveler, and their first venture
into live territory (not including a limited-edition CD released
with some copies of their second album), Live From The Fall.
Make no mistake, John Popper and crew prove that they are
extremely talented musicians, and Popper still blows me away with
his harmonica work. (The first time I ever heard him play, I
couldn't believe anyone could have squeezed such music out of a
harmonica... nice to see someone has the courage to massacre the
instrument and create such a beautiful noise.) But the energy
they may have been able to show on tour is not captured well with
an audio-only attack - and this makes all the difference between
a typical live album and an extraordinary one.
Part of the problem is in the mix. Whoever is responsible for
burying Chan Kinchla's guitar work throughout most of the album
should be shot; Kinchla's guitar work is an integral part of the
Blues Traveler sound, and should be up front, where it belongs.
For that matter, the overall sound is muddier than the grounds of
Saugerties during Woodstock '94 - yecch.
Part of the problem is that Blues Traveler is really a one-vocalist band,
with no backup vocals. Because of this, we lose the harmony vocals on
"Run-Around" and "But Anyway," which had been layered
in the studio by Popper. I don't know if I can fault anyone in this case,
though the harmonies are sorely missed.
Maybe even part of the problem is the fact that Blues Traveler is still
very much a cult band, with only two or three songs well known among those
who know the band only from radio airplay. "But Anyway" and
"Run-Around" are here, though their studio versions blow these
renditions away easily.
Surprisingly, Blues Traveler is able to breathe some life into the
material culled from their third (and weakest) release, Save His
Soul. The extended jam on "Go Outside And Drive" is
incredible, though the cover of "Low Rider" in the middle leaves
much to be desired. (By the way, who is responsible for shortening the
names of many of the songs on the jacket and the tapes? I own everything
by the band, and even I don't know the full names of almost half the
songs! Nice way to alienate the new fans, gang!)
One high note comes during the encore, where Popper sings a touching
rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" - one of the best cover
versions of the song I've ever heard.
Live From The Fall does include some new material, but the sad
fact is these are all throwaways, and tend to distract from the power of
the established material. Unfortunately, this isn't what a live album
should do - it should enhance the originals with its own unique flavor -
So, cheer up, boys! Not everyone makes a great live album on their first
try - or their second, or third even. With Live From The Fall,
you're in good company. You tried hard, but the sad fact is this album is
for the die-hard fans only, and even they may be discouraged by it. See
you in the studios - where, by the way, the band presently is, working on
a release slated for this summer.