A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 27, 2005
The robber barons of the music industry are weeping again. In 2005 album sales hit the skids, declining about 7 percent from the previous year.
As usual, bigwigs of the major record companies are blaming illegal downloading for many of the industry’s problems. (And, as usual, guys like me will blame bad radio, overpricing, extravagant pampering of a handful of pop “royalty,” and most of all, crappy music.)
Personally, I like to see the Music Industrial Complex squirm. What better way to shake it up than a way to download free music that’s not illegal — or even immoral?
Get yourself acquainted with the Live Music Archive, a Web site that states a goal “to preserve and archive as many live concerts as possible for current and future generations to enjoy.”
Nearly 30,000 free concerts are available for downloading from more than 1,700 “trade-friendly” artists — that is, musicians who allow the taping of their shows and the noncommercial distribution of those recordings. (So actually it’s the commercial bootleggers who are hurt by this more than the music industry.) The vast majority of musicians represented in the Live Music Archive are pretty obscure. But there are a surprising number of well-known artists, either big in indiedom or cast aside by big labels.
The concept of the trade-friendly musician was pioneered by the good old Grateful Dead. Thus it’s not surprising that the Dead is the biggest presence on the Live Music Archive, with more than 3,000 shows ready to download. (This isn’t including spawn of the Dead like Phil Lesh & Friends, Ratdog, New Riders of the Purple Sage, etc.)
I’m no audiophile, but in general the sound quality on these shows is inferior to regular commercial CDs. In fact, some are pretty bad. I recently downloaded the Oct. 12, 1989, Camper Van Beethoven show in St. Louis, which was recorded, broadcast over the radio a couple of months later, and captured on some boombox before it made it onto the Internet.
Luckily, much of the spirit of the show remains — including covers of the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia” and Jerry Garcia’s “Loser” — more than making up for some loss of sound fidelity. In fact my biggest complaint is that Camper didn’t perform “Jack Ruby” from their then-current album Key Lime Pie.
Truth is, ever since I got DSL for my home computer, I’ve been like a kid in the proverbial candy store. While checking the band roster a couple of minutes ago, I just noticed that the Drive By Truckers were on it. I downloaded and am enjoying a live May 2005 version of “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” as I write, and it’s rocking!
Here are some of my other discoveries on the Live Music Archive:
*Mekons Live at the Echo Lounge, March 16, 2004: They don’t have as many shows here as the Grateful Dead, but the Mekons indeed are trader-friendly. They have 28 shows listed, going all the way back to 1980. You can also find a bunch of shows by Mekons offshoot the Waco Brothers and “solo” outings by Mekons singer Jon Langford. (Here's the 1999 Pine Valley Cosmonauts star-studded Bob Wills tribute show at South by Southwest. If you listen closely you can hear me applauding from the audience.)
Much of the repertoire from this show is from the Mekons album Punk Rock, which consisted of remakes of some of their earliest songs. There’s also a righteous cover of Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and a high-charged version of “Millionaire,” one of my favorite Sally Timms tunes, which unlike the studio version has no synths. Unfortunately, Sally’s voice sometimes gets overwhelmed in this mix.
One of my favorite nonmusical parts of this show is when Sally wonders aloud why the overwhelming majority of the Mekons’ audience these days is male: “I want to know what happened to all the women who used to come to our shows.”
*Robyn Hitchcock Live at Maxwell’s, March 26, 2005: This is an acoustic solo show Hitchcock recorded at a Hoboken, N.J., nightclub last year. Starting out with Dylan’s “The Gates of Eden” (and later covering “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”), Hitchcock also plays a couple of Syd Barrett tunes (“Dominoes” and “It Is Obvious”). But it’s his own strange tunes, which meander between whimsical and mysterious, that are the main attractions here. Too bad he muffs the ending of “Madonna of the Wasps.”
*Butthole Surfers Live at Emo’s, July 20, 2002: Gibby Haynes and the boys are on their home turf here in this Austin, Texas, show. The song list features tunes spanning their long career, from the near-folk rock of “Dessert” to the crazy chaos of “Lady Sniff.” (For reasons not explained, there are two takes on this song, one right after the other.)
* Warren Zevon Live at Parker’s Casino, Feb. 11, 1992: The late Zevon delivers faithful versions of crowd-pleasing rockers such as “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” and “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” as well as killer takes on “Boom Boom Mancini” and “Detox Mansion.” But my favorite part of this Seattle show is after his synthy ballad “Searching for a Heart,” when he gets defensive about the song, which was included in the soundtrack of the forgotten ’90s film Grand Canyon.
“Is this the new, subdued, adult-contemporary kind of response I’m to expect from now on?” Zevon chided the crowd after the song. “Listen, you realize if this song was to actually be successful, it’ll, you know, enable me to be financially secure enough to actually go back and write those songs about sex, terrorism, and voodoo. ... Think of it as sort of like Dr. Hunter S. Thompson writing a few episodes of Knots Landing ...”
*Danny Barnes Live at the Tractor Tavern, Dec. 22, 2005: Here’s the most recent show I’ve come across, recorded right before Christmas. Barnes, former singer with the pioneering punk bluegrass outfit the Bad Livers, plays with a good, rocking band. It’s basically country rock, though he does a creditable take on the R&B classic “The Haunted House.” There’s some solo banjo here, as well as a medley from the Livers’ final album Blood & Mood — avant twang that Barnes describes as “music that killed my career.”
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