Some musicians use live performances to demonstrate that they can deliver in concert what they do on disc. Others take an opposite approach, seeing their shows as an invitation to experiment and take their work in different directions from where it goes in the studio. The late, great Lou Reed was in that second group, and there’s good evidence of this on the 38-track The Live Archive, which collects three of his shows on as many CDs. Those concerts, each of which aired on radio when it took place, have all been available on disc for some time; but this new set—released by the same outfit that has recently repackaged vintage concerts by Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, and John Prine—gives you all three for less money than you might previously have paid for just one.
The first CD offers an 80-minute performance from the Orpheum Theatre in Boston in October 1976 that aired nationally after the release of Rock and Roll Heart, Reed’s seventh solo album. The second features a nearly hour-long show from the Roxy in West Hollywood in December of the same year that was broadcast locally. A third disc contains a locally aired 72-minute April 1989 concert from the Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City, California. That gig was from the tour that followed the release of New York, Reed’s most successful album in 15 years.
Aside from skimpy liner notes that don’t even list personnel and sometimes less-than-ideal sound quality, there’s little to criticize about these discs and a whole lot to like. For one thing, they hit many of the high points of Reed’s career up to the time of the last-featured show. From his Velvet Underground era come fired-up versions of his two best-known drug songs, “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” as well as the classic “Sweet Jane” and “Rock and Roll” from Loaded. From the solo years come such standouts as “Lisa Says” (which also appears on several Velvets reissues and live albums), “Coney Island Baby,” “I Love You Suzanne,” “Satellite of Love,” “Walk on the Wild Side” and, in the 1989 concert, 10 of the 14 songs from New York. (Also here, believe it or not, is a cover of Harold Arlan and Johnny Mercer’s “One for My Baby,” which Frank Sinatra popularized.)
Not only do many of these numbers depart wildly from studio versions by Reed and the Velvets; in the few cases where this box contains two recordings of the same song, those performances tend to differ dramatically from each other. Many of the tracks include compelling, extended vocal and instrumental improvisation (four numbers clock in at more than 10 minutes each); but the biggest difference between these versions and the studio ones is that the concert material does much more to illuminate Reed’s affinity for jazz, and particularly for saxophonists like Ornette Coleman; sax is all over these tracks, and it adds a lot to them. Reed fans—even those who own most of his many other available live recordings—will not be sorry they picked up this package.
Thomas Dolby, Hyperactive. There’s more to Thomas Dolby’s music than 1983’s “She Blinded Me with Science,” his sole American hit, might suggest. His synth-pop—which did put him on the charts nine times in the U.K.—is consistently catchy and adventurous and is often delivered with a sense of humor. David Bowie is his most obvious influence, but as this two-CD anthology makes clear, Dolby is impossible to pigeonhole. Check out, for example, his unlikely but wholly successful rendition of Dan Hicks’s “I Scare Myself,” which replaces Hicks’s strings with brass and does what all good covers should do: add something fresh to the original. Hyperactive includes no essays about Dolby’s career (which has also involved lots of production work, among other things), no info about the players, no details about the recording sessions. In fact, there are no liner notes at all, which is surprising and unfortunate in a career-spanning collection. But the music is well chosen and worth hearing.
Chicago Farmer, Quarter Past Tonight. You don’t hear many albums these days like this two-CD set, which hearkens back to a time when solo folk artists like Tom Paxton and Arlo Guthrie strode onstage offering nothing but their voices, guitars, harmonicas, visions, and wit. That’s what happens at concerts by Cody Diekhoff, who records under the name Chicago Farmer and who jokes near the beginning of the 2017 concert preserved here that his band was involved in an “incident” on the way to the gig so, “long story short, it’s just gonna be me again tonight.” Turns out that that’s enough, as Diekhoff delivers a well-sung collection of his best original songs about love, working-class woes, small-town life, and more, all interspersed with amusing between-song banter.
Raquel Bell, Swandala. Two thoughts entered my head while I listened to this collection of tightly constructed, boundary-hopping avant-garde music: first, much of this is great stuff; and second, lots of people might not agree. That’s not to say that Raquel Bell’s album isn’t accessible; on the contrary, its blend of electronically enhanced soundscapes and remarkable other-worldly vocals are to my ear easy to appreciate; the music—which employs instruments ranging from vibraphone and assorted percussion to strings and pedal steel—flows well and never strikes me as self-indulgent. But it’s also consistently challenging and several million miles from the mainstream. There are moments of beauty to be sure, but there are also sounds that suggest defiance and discord. Give Bell a shot; on tracks like the eight-minute “Wizard Liar,” she offers a sonic journey that had me hanging on every note.