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The Best Live Album Ever?

Live albums have always been a staple of the rock and roll industry and have produced some it’s most worthy AND cringe-inducing moments. Whether to fulfill a recording contract without going back into the studio, squeeze a few more dollars out of rabid fans who will buy anything, or make a true artistic statement, the live album is here to stay.


Most live albums follow a pretty simple formula. Capture a “Greatest Hits” style performance, throw in a few rarities or weird cover versions to make it interesting, wind the songs up with some extended solos or introductions, place in some semi-witty stage banter, crank up the crowd noise at just the right moments and boom! – you’ve got yourself a live album!


Not that there is anything wrong with that formula – there have been some truly great live albums over the years using exactly that.  But what is actually the greatest live album of all time? In my opinion, it’s one that doesn’t follow that formula at all.


But first, a quick personal story. On August 27, 1977, I had the pleasure of seeing one of my favorite musicians, Jackson Browne, at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD. It was a fantastic show – Jackson in great form with the best touring band of the late 70s doing a well thought-out mix of crowd favorites, album cuts and a few new numbers including a song near the end of the show dedicated to the crew who sets up and tears down the equipment. Jackson said it was the first time he had ever played it in public – and it totally brought the house down, especially when he asked all of us to “Stay – just a little bit longer.”


It was almost a perfect evening, the only distraction being an over-zealous fan sitting right behind me who didn’t understand that concerts are planned events and that all of her screaming would not get Jackson to change the setlist. Nevertheless, I endured the entire show with her yelling “Road And The Sky” in my ear the whole time – hoping that JB would play that classic from the Late For The Sky album. He didn’t.


Fast forward a few months to December 6, 1977. The new Jackson Browne album comes out and I skip class to rush to the record store in order to be the first person to hear it. With eager anticipation I place it on the turntable and immediately notice that it is a live album. The first thing I hear? That woman who was sitting behind me screaming “Road And The Sky!!”


The album in this story is “Running On Empty” – in my opinion the greatest live album ever made. It is the rare live album that is both a concept album and one made up of songs never before heard on any previous Jackson Browne records.


The concept? Record an album about what it is like to be on the road in a rock and roll band – the good, bad and ugly. Record the songs not just from the stage but from hotel rooms, backstage rehearsal areas and even as on the song “Nothing But Time” – on a Silver Eagle Tour bus as the band travels from Maine to New Jersey.


The songs here really do tell the story – the thrills and spills of growing up as a touring musician (Running On Empty), sad tales of a minor league musician going through the motions (The Road), the woes of a truck driver (Shaky Town)  – even a hilarious story of a roadie pleasing himself in his hotel room because the drummer stole the girl he had his eye on (Rosie).


Simply put, there has never been another live album like it. Since all of the songs are new to the album (and everyone of them is a winner!), there aren’t any twenty minute bloated drum solos or sped up versions of songs you are already sick of. The recording quality is excellent, the band top-notch, and the concept wholly original, Running On Empty is a live album which stands above all others and sounds even better today than it did upon its release over thirty years ago.


So there you have it. My vote for the best live album ever? Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty. Yours?