The rock & roll live album has rarely functioned as more than an obligation, an adjunct to a recording contract. The best of these preserved performances, though, capture the spirit of the music in all its sometimes sloppy, improvisational glory. They also served, in the days before stage technology, as ways for artists to rethink their older material, cover other people’s songs, or simply loosen up. That’s changing. Now that the antiseptic feel of a recording studio can be captured onstage with the flick of several switches, it’s getting hard to tell the difference between live and cooked. For proof, consider this fall’s big-league concert album — Paul McCartney’s Tripping the Live Fantastic. Immaculately recorded and performed, chock-full of hits, and demonstrates that the pop live album is, in some ways, obsolete.
McCartney’s Tripping the Live Fantastic, a chronicle of the most nostalgia-minded of this year’s superstar tours, is more ambitious, and also more problematic. Recorded at various sites around the world, the double album aims to simulate an entire concert, from soundchecks through 37 songs, including backstage banter. The much-touted element of McCartney’s tour, though, was his inclusion of assorted Lennon/McCartney standards, some performed for the first time by any Beatle onstage. That’s where the album trips up. In a packed arena, the sight and sound of McCartney and his five-piece band re-creating the closing medley of Abbey Road note for note must have been moving. On record, it’s merely one step above Beatlemania.
So it goes with letter-perfect facsimiles of ”Get Back” and ”Yesterday,” not to mention solo hits from ”Maybe I’m Amazed” to last year’s ”This One.” Toss in McCartney’s occasionally hoarse vocals and the incessant references to his ’60s heyday (McCartney dedicates ”The Fool on the Hill” to ”my three mates,” for instance), and Tripping becomes a vaguely creepy document of one man’s mid-life crisis, occurring right before your very ears.
In addition to being the equivalent of souvenir tour programs, Atlantic hopes you’ll buy Tripping, which is little more than an advertisement for his forthcoming tour film, Get Back. With the records reduced to nothing more than part of a marketing strategy, the music is lost in the shuffle — the ultimate insult for the once-proud rock live album. C