(Above: If you’ve been good, maybe Santa will bring the new R.E.M. album, “Live at the Olympia.”)
By Joel Francis
The holiday season is a notorious dumping ground for greatest hits, repackagings and other musical ephemera. Four established artists, however, transcend the fourth-quarter wasteland. New live albums by Paul McCartney, R.E.M., Tom Waits and Tom Petty are essential additions to any music fan’s library.
After dropping just one live album in the first half of his solo career, Paul McCartney opened the floodgates over the past two decades. Issuing six live albums since 1990, McCartney has faithfully documented nearly all of his tours and several special performances, but “Good Evening New York City” stands out. The two-CD, one-DVD set documents McCartney’s three-night inaugural performance at the Mets new home Citi Field last summer. Backed by his tight, longstanding quartet, Sir Paul unloads several surprises, like the forgotten “Mrs. Vandebilt,” a tribute to John Lennon with a medley of “A Day in the Life” and “Give Peace a Chance,” and the delightful segue way into Jimi Hendrix’ “Foxy Lady” at the end of “Let Me Roll It.”
Other delights are newer cuts “Only Mama Knows” and “See the Changes,” and the full-band arrangement of “Something” that echoes the performance at the Concert for George. Of course Beatle numbers are plentiful, but the obligatory “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be,” are countered with “Paperback Writer” and “Day Tripper.”
As with all McCartney live albums, the stage banter has been removed, giving the album a bit of a workman-like quality, as the band grinds through the songs with only brief pauses. This editing creates some curious results, such as Billy Joel’s unannounced duet on “I Saw Her Standing There,” or the accidentally buttressing of “Yesterday” and “Helter Skelter” (there was likely an encore break separating the two).
Although there are many places to hear Sir Paul shuffle through the world’s greatest jukebox, few are this energetic or diverse.
When R.E.M. released their last live album, “R.E.M. Live,” only two years ago the band seemed to be running on fumes. Following the disappointing “Beyond the Sun” album with a stop-gap, hits-in-concert set as generic as its title was a naked, holiday cash grab.
A lot has changed since then. Last year’s “Accelerate” brought the trio long-absent acclaim and reinvigorated both the band and its fans. Although “Live at the Olympia” was recorded only four months after “R.E.M. Live” the results couldn’t be more different. While “Live” hit all the obvious marks with little passion, “Olympia” digs deep into the catalog, offering early fan favorites “Driver 8” and obscurities like “Circus Envy.” “Olympia” boasts 17 more songs than “Live” and only two overlapping numbers, so both collections can coexist comfortably.
Fans excited by “Accelerate” will celebrate this 39-track collection. “Live at the Olympia” is the sound of a band being reborn.
Unlike McCartney and R.E.M., it has been nearly a generation since Tom Waits last issued a live album. “Glitter and Doom Live” does a good job spotlighting Waits’ sonic shifts over the last several years, leaning heavily on tracks from his decade on the Anti- label. Drawn from stops along his 2008 tour of the same name, “Glitter and Doom Live” is more a sampler than a complete performance.
Most of the stage banter has been excised, hilariously, to the second disc. “Tom’s Tales” is a 36-minute montage of Waits’ musings about vultures, jokes about Nazi pasta and adventures on eBay that could stand on its own as one of the year’s best comedy albums.
The songs that made the cut, though, are invigorating. “Orphans” cuts “Lucinda” and “Fanin Street” are more raw while “The Part You Throw Away” is delicate and tender. “Get Behind the Mule” sounds like a voodoo chant at a deep South juke joint, and early cuts like “Singapore” and “I’ll Shoot the Moon” are completely reworked. While hardcore fans may have been happier with a set that recreated Waits’ concert experience, few will be disappointed with the 16 songs delivered.
Tom Petty has issued more than a dozen albums during his hit-filled, three-decade career, but until now has only had one live album to his name. “Live Anthology” corrects that problem by offering 50 choice cuts spanning 30 years of gigs. The performances zig zag through the years, but the set flows, creating a dream concert spread across four discs (more if you buy the deluxe edition).
Although all the hits are here, the opening number, “Nightwatchman” shows how deep Petty is willing to delve. More than living up to its name, “Anthology” explores early performances of hits “Even the Losers” right up to full-band arrangements of “Square One” off Petty’s most recent solo album. A sing-along stroll through “A Thing About You” segues seamlessly into Bobby Womack’s soul ballad “I’m In Love.” Later, “Breakdown” slides into a few bars of “Hit the Road, Jack.”
There are no cuts from the Heartbreakers’ mid-‘80s stint as Bob Dylan’s backing band, but honestly, there are enough other incredible moments that they’re not missed. A sublime “Learning to Fly” with Stevie Nicks on backing vocals, an extended “Good to Be King” and unreleased originals like “Melinda” and “Driving Down to Georgia” and covers like “Good Good Loving” and “Goldfinger” (yes, that one) make the set an embarrassment of riches.
This collection not only cements the Heartbreakers’ legend as one of the tightest and most versatile bands of all time, but amplifies their love of rock and roll in all its forms. “Live Anthology” is both more consistent and comprehensive than Petty’s previous box set, the hits/album cuts/rarities collection “Playback.” It is the jewel of Petty’s catalog.