Love You Live

For those who want to deep dive into an artist, in other words obtain every scrap of material that artist has released and them some, seeking out bootlegs, or more politely, gray area material, can get a little obsessive. If you’re one of those, then you may have noticed that the fight against these releases seems to be over. The RIAA, the record labels, BMI and ASCAP seem to have all decided that because there’s no real money left in CDs, this battle is no longer worth fighting. Which means that if you cruise or for example, searching for a favorite artist, all kinds of weird titles will pop up. Given the fact that Amazon was always very strict about not selling bootlegs or any other questionable titles by known artists, the change is doubly striking.

But like all things in life that seem to be too good to be true, this one also has a catch and not surprisingly, it has to do with sound. Much of what is suddenly flooding the market comes, purportedly, from FM radio broadcasts, mainly from the 1970s when that was a common, and to my mind, very cool thing. I heard several Springsteen FM broadcasts from just after Darkness on The Edge of Town was released—literally days after The Boss had settled the long-running lawsuit with Mike Appel—that will always hold a cherished, white hot place in my memory. But after buying a few of these latest live CDs containing newly released "broadcasts," from Emmylou Harris, Steely Dan, Little Feat, John Prine and others, it seems that what most really are is another repackaging job of severely compromised audience tapes, either of the concert itself or the radio broadcast.

I once had a friend who lived to sneak a cassette recorder with metal tape, and later a DAT recorder, into shows to make the bootlegs he was convinced were gonna make him rich. He's now a corporate attorney in Boston. If you're enough of a fanatic to deal with the sound issues then maybe it's worth it. But much as I love Prine, especially when he tours with a band which is rare treat, I could not get by the sonic issues on the CD pictured above, John Prine, Bottom Line, 1978 New York Broadcast on the All Access label.

Search for All Access online and they don't exist. Throughout this performance that stretches across two discs, his voice is blurred and muted. The cymbals and harmonica are about the only aspects of the recording that is clear. And the whole thing runs just a tick slow giving it just a sour tinge. While there are still moments—"Sam Stone," like many Prine tunes, will always be one of folk music's eternal monuments—this one wasn’t worth the 20 bucks. During a solo performance of "Illegal Smile," Prine makes a reference to people on the radio thinking the band has died, so this seems to have been a broadcast that was then recorded, badly, at home.

Also touted as having improved sound, a CD, Jo Jo Gunne Live 1971 & 1973 containing a pair of show by Jay Ferguson’s post-Spirit band, Jo Jo Gunne, one from Ultrasonic Studios, is even worse. Damned near unlistenable in fact. While, I have an uncommonly high tolerance for bootleg sound if I love the artist, and I’m also sure that there are exceptions that have decent sound, it’s clear to me now that the reason why no one is fighting this sudden onslaught of CD bootlegs sold through legitimate channels is that they’re an old story. One that in large part still sounds as bad, digital miracles notwithstanding, as it did during its first hearing.

Again, this is an old tale to those who love artists and know the bootleg game, but be warned that if sound issues matter, the current gusher of titles is not quite the bonanza it seems to be. Have an exception to this rule that you love and that sounds good? Please let me know.

crenca's picture

Is there such a thing? What do folks here recommend as his best sounding recording(s)?