Any music fan, casual or otherwise, likely has an opinion about live albums. Some people love them. (I'm looking at you, Phish fans.) Others aren't interested. But why are they so divisive? It depends on how you look at them.
On one hand, live albums are often maligned because of sound quality issues and an ineffable sense of anticlimax. The latter is especially true if an artist's studio work is permanently ingrained in your soul.
However, some people like the crackling energy of material recorded in concert. Maybe you've heard people talk about the acoustics in certain famous clubs and venues, such as San Francisco's Fillmore or Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside of Denver. If those walls could talk...
Then there's material available nowhere else except on live albums, such as special covers, medleys, extended jam-outs, orchestral accompaniment and one-off collaborations. The live-album debate will likely go on forever.
To add fuel to the fire, take a look at these four live albums from Vermont artists. Though they don't usually get the attention that studio albums do, these recordings are worth your time and consideration.
Jo Bled, Hearing Voices Circle
(Self-released, digital download)
Jo Bled is a moniker of JB Ledoux, one of Vermont's most emphatic champions of experimental music. The drummer plays in noise-jazz outfit Threes as well as the cheekily named improvisational group the le duo. (Get it? The "Ledoux"-o.) Wherever there's room to push the boundaries of time, rhythm and composition, you'll find Ledoux.
Jo Bled's three-track album Hearing Voices Circle was recorded in an art studio during a 2018 session of Community of Sound, an experimental music incubator located in Burlington's South End Arts District. Adam Ploof and Jay Blanchard add sonic manipulation to Ledoux's triad of rollicking, mostly percussive pieces.
We enter the first track, "leader of the axiom of axiom," as if we're catching it in the middle. The listener has no time to acclimate to the onslaught of boisterous, cymbal-happy clangs and bangs. Initially, it's like being tossed into a clothes dryer with an 18-piece drum kit — but only for a few moments. As the composition progresses, mounting tension and the use of negative space supersede chaos.
Swirling, metallic feedback swells on "hearing voices circle."
"Anhedonia's destructive forces" initially has a more palpable acid-jazz vibe, though that quickly dissolves in a maelstrom of bit-crushed noise and a vortex of hurriedly struck toms.
Ledoux never fails to challenge the status quo with his various projects. It's folks like him who keep Vermont weird.
Hearing Voices Circle is available at jobled.bandcamp.com.
Various Artists, Live at ArtsRiot
It's almost too perfect that ArtsRiot, one of the best places in Vermont to see up-and-coming bands and artists, would put out a record featuring select performances from its own stage. What's even more perfect is that the album, Live at ArtsRiot, was pressed just a few blocks away at the Burlington Record Plant. Local venue, artists and record factory — can you get any more Vermonty?
The LP features as eclectic a selection of sounds as you'd hear from ArtsRiot's stage in a given week: the mournful strains of alt-country singer-songwriter Lowell Thompson; the soulful blues of Dwight & Nicole; the precious indie folk of Henry Jamison and Ryan Miller; the ethereal pop of Burlington expats Alpenglow; and the grizzled, countrified rock of Waylon Speed — two members of which founded the Burlington Record Plant.
Jamison and Miller kick off the album with back-to-back tracks featuring the Vermont Symphony Orchestra's Jukebox Quartet. Exquisite string arrangements bolster Jamison's breakaway hit "The Jacket," as they do on Miller's rendition of his band Guster's forlorn tune "Farewell."
Rounding out side A, Dwight & Nicole are dazed and languorous on the slow-as-molasses "Wait," while Alpenglow sparkle under theremin-like synths.
Between Thompson and Waylon Speed, Side B offers a palpable roadhouse vibe. Thompson's two songs exhibit his go-to mix of rock oomph and country ease, while Waylon Speed mix metal riffs with gritty blues-rock stylings.
Seamless transitions make it seem as though these artists are swiftly taking and exiting the stage throughout one cohesive concert. Wouldn't it be funny and amazing (and super meta) if ArtsRiot decided to get all of the artists back together for one collective concert? Sure. But we're much more likely to see another Live at ArtsRiot record before that ever happens.
Live at ArtsRiot is available for purchase at ArtsRiot and various Burlington record stores.
Gypsy Reel, Live 2017
(Self-released, CD, digital download)
Gypsy Reel are one of the most prominent Celtic bands in the state. The world-class combo is known for frequent appearances at Burlington's Rí Rá Irish Pub, festivals near and far, and at Brandon Music, the Vermont record label/tea room/classical music hub where the band recorded Live 2017.
Equipped with fiddle, mandolin, tenor banjo, double bass and bodhrán, the quintet produces a rich sound steeped in old-world charm. The group's versatility shines on rhythmically complex traditional tunes such as "Rocky Road to Dublin" as much as on its rendition of renowned fiddler Liz Carroll's tearjerker "A Day and an Age."
Though mainly a collection of traditional (and trad-sounding) folk songs, jigs and reels, Gypsy Reel dabble in a bit of modern folk, too. The closing track is a cover of Byrds front person Roger McGuinn's "May the Road Rise to Meet You." Similarly, the band brings warmth and tenderness to English singer-songwriter Kate Rusby's ballad "The Lark."
Also of note is a take on Celtic rockers Skinny Lister's "Forty Pound Wedding." It's one of those jaunty tunes in which the verses rely on a lyrical formula that changes with each verse as the song's story unfolds.
Gypsy Reel are a perfect candidate for a live album. Their festive, earthy spirit and proclivity for narrative music seem best captured in the moment.
Live 2017 is available at CD Baby.
Bishop LaVey, Live March 30, 2018
(Self-released, digital download)
Bishop LaVey — real name Kane Sweeney — is a singer-songwriter and record producer based in Waterbury. He's the founder and mastermind behind burgeoning record label Woodsman Music Group and its accompanying Woodsman Music Studio, both based in his home. As of right now, the fledgling enterprise boasts just two releases: LaVey's latest single "Trouble for Nothing" and Montpelier old-time outfit the State Street Scallywags' debut self-titled EP.
Earlier this yea, LaVey recorded one of his sets at Bagitos Bagel and Burrito Café in Montpelier and released it as a live album, Live March 30, 2018. The no-frills collection of acoustic guitar and voice is about as raw as it gets — especially because of the artist's gravelly, Chad Kroeger-esque vocal quality.
The '90s are alive and well in LaVey's universe. Angsty and dramatic, the singer-songwriter comes from the post-grunge school of wailing and strumming. He'd do well on a bill stacked with artists such as Creed, Fuel and Nickelback.
LaVey seems stuck on a particular rhythmic pattern on the first few tracks. "Absolve Me," "Without Noise" and "No Reason" all sound like different shades of the same musical idea: two blunt chords on the beat followed by a rapid succession of syncopated chords. Many artists use this pattern in their songs — though it's probably better to split them up and pepper in some different concepts here and there.
Fortunately, LaVey eventually offers some variety. He takes listeners through searing ballads, downtrodden mid-tempo songs and peppy, punk-adjacent bangers.
Live March 30, 2018 is available at bishoplavey.bandcamp.com.