*Disclaimer: I, nor the contributors, nor TPL, own the rights to any music featured in this article*
Spending the last few years becoming an avid collector of vinyl, I’ve often had to explain to people the difference and the pleasure I find in listening to music on my record player rather than streaming it via Bluetooth. For me, it’s a combination of things: the warmth and difference in tone that you can only get via a record, the aesthetic of sliding out the record, placing it down, and perfectly placing the needle at the starting point, and how it basically forces me to listen to the album all the way through.
That got me to thinking about how a decent chunk of the records in my collection are live albums or have bonus live tracks, often another nice perk of purchasing the record. The question then came to me:
What songs are actually better when played live rather than the studio recordings?
There is an art to how perfect a studio recording can be: the perfect blend of the levels, the extreme low and high end able to come through as much as the mids, and every note and rhythm being exactly in sync. Engineers these days have to be immensely knowledgeable and talented in their own right to take a band from sounding like they recorded live in a garage to the meticulously polished product we love listening to every day.
For what it’s worth, I’ve seen my share of bands and artists who unfortunately just don’t really have the ability to perform their songs to the same level that they can achieve in the studio. We live in a time where the technology and tricks available in studios anymore can often mask flaws and make what may be only average singers and musicians seem like the best of the bunch.
However, there are those bands and artists that clearly take their live performances seriously, if not to an even greater level than their recordings, ensuring that even as we (I) age, we are still willing to pay the cost of admission, have some slight ringing in our ears, and sometimes even maybe catch a wild fist or a body on top of us (maybe that’s just me?).
I asked some of the other TPL contributors to share with me some of the songs they love the live versions of and to share what the reason behind that is. I hope you enjoy, and feel free to reach out to us @cultureTPL and let us know some of the songs you prefer the live versions of!
Blink 182 – The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show:
I can’t in good faith limit this to a single song. When I mentioned wanting to write this article to several of my friends, this album was brought up in almost every instance. This is the epitome of many things: the energy and fun that should come with a live album, a collection of many of Blink’s greatest songs from their early catalog, and plenty of banter and nuances that are not found when listening to the original versions of the songs to make it a unique experience. Blink is a perfect example of why people find live versions of songs so enjoyable. Often when singing many of these songs with my friends, the little one liners from the live album are now staples, even when listening to the originals.
For example: At the end of “Aliens Exist,” Tom sings, “I’m not like you guys. Twelve majestic lies.” To which Mark echoes with “Tom has sex with guys.” These little one offs and all of the back and forth between Tom and Mark during the entire album bring the entire aesthetic of Blink full circle on this album.
In a more musical sense, the clear strength of Blink musically has always been Travis Barker on the drums, and playing these songs live not only allows Blink to up the tempo to a much more exciting and frantic pace, but lets Travis really let loose and spice things up a bit. Blink never tried to deceive anyone that their songs were written at a high degree of difficulty, but drummers will tell you trying to play at the speed of Travis, with the precision he has, likely has been the reason many modern drummers have the chops that they do. This album brings back so many fond memories for me; even purchasing it is a cherished memory. I snagged this album when I was in 7th grade on vacation in Disney for Thanksgiving. I bought it in Downtown Disney at the Tower Records. How’s that for vintage?
Thrice – Deadbolt
Thrice is my favorite band of all time, and “Deadbolt” was the first song that made me fall in love with them. When they play it live, they do an extended ending with such power and emotion, revisiting the lyrics from the final bridge again: “What have I done? Is it it too late to save me from this place? From the depths of the grave? We all are those, who thought we were brave. What have I done?” Revisiting the culmination of the song one more time, with more of a driving feel behind it this time, just provides a powerful raw emotional rush, whereas on the original, the song just kind of abruptly stops and proceeds into the next track.
Every Time I Die – Floater
Every Time I Die has been one my favorite live acts since discovering them in the early 2000’s, and Floater has been a staple of their set for basically my entire fandom of them. The ending breakdown slowed to an absolutely brutal tempo not only inspires the hardest of headbanging, but is often a final chance for the pit to unleash hell upon each other. Not for the faint of heart.
Macklemore w/ Offset – Willy Wonka
I saw the Macklemore and Ke$ha show at Camden last summer, and this song surprised me. I thought the song was fine on the album, but to me this wasn’t a repeatable track. However, a crowd elevates this song to a must hear. I found the main differences were the build up and the spectacle – which isn’t something Gemini pushed out. The energy at BB&T Pavillion was next level, but hearing “Flava got Flava” followed by a slowed down “Bi***, I’m Willy Wonka” really expresses why a live version of a song can be better than the original track.
Social Distortion – Story of My Life
Counterpoint: A few friends and I saw Social Distortion within the last few years. The video I posted is the closest to what I remember. The vocals from Mike Ness were completely muted, which made the show very forgettable. “Story of My Life” was such a great 90’s anthem, but this live performance made me question it all, and not in a good way…
Lady Gaga – “Hair” & “Edge of Glory”
I love when Lady Gaga performs with just herself and her piano. She is one of the most gifted vocalists alive today. However, her talent is often overshadowed by her larger than life personality, dance songs, or publicity stunts (think “meat dress”). However, on the Howard Stern Show, her abilities and passion merge into a performance that gives me goosebumps. I’m still holding out hope that eventually she will make an album that is just her and her piano.
Foo Fighters – Monkey Wrench
I’ve seen the Foo Fighters live a bunch of times, and this is my favorite. The bridge and build up of this song while they’re jamming out will forever give me chills.
O.A.R. – Hey Girl
I’ve got a weird connection with O.A.R. as a band. I’ve seen them a couple of times live, and they always bring it. I’m not the biggest fan of their more recent material, but they’re always a great time. Truly a great example of a band where their live material is vastly different than (and superior to) the studio.
Barns Courtney – Fire
I saw Barns Courtney open up for The Kooks in Baltimore, and he blew my mind. Similar to O.A.R., Barns is highly recommended live as the studio versions of his songs do not do him justice. He’s got legit stage presence, and his influences, from Johnny Cash to Freddie Mercury, are very obvious.
Metallica – Creeping Death
I have seen Metallica twice; once at Lincoln Financial Field and once at Wells Fargo Center. This song was the highlight of both shows. Watching over 20,000 people in unison chanting and putting their fists in the air is incredible. It reminds me of just how powerful music can be. At one of the shows, there was someone as young as 5 and someone as old as 85. Music can connect people from all walks of life, and this version proves that for me.
Green Day – Are We The Waiting/St. Jimmy
Green Day was my first concert back in 2013 during my junior year in high school. For those who haven’t seen them, I can not recommend them enough. Those two shows are still the best I’ve seen out of over 50 bands. This video is not from a show I saw, but this song epitomizes the energy of their live show. With “Are We The Waiting,” Billie Joe Armstrong leads a chorus of thousands like a maestro leads an orchestra.
Then, on a drop of a dime, they switch into the more fast based “St. Jimmy,” and the crowd goes wild. You see Armstrong’s face switch to the expression of a mad-man. He then sprints around the stage, hitting cymbals with the microphone. The way these different parts of the song blend seamlessly is a testament to Armstrong being one of the best front men of his generation. You just don’t get this same feeling from a studio version.
Dave Matthews Band – All Along The Watchtower
I love almost anything live by DMB, but their rendition of “All Along The Watchtower” is truly epic. It’s 10 minutes of pure bliss. From Boyd Tinsley on the violin to Dave’s unmistakable vocals, I get chills every time I hear it.