I used to go to a lot more concerts and shows than I do now, and when I did I discovered a lot of artists and bands who won me over with their live performances. In some cases their studio recordings didn’t live up to the concerts, or it took me seeing them live to appreciate songs I’d previously only heard as recordings. Of course there are a lot of bands that put on electrifying concerts that complement their excellent recordings, and some bands who are terrific in the studio but terrible performers, but for this post I’m going to focus on five bands and artists I find better on stage than recorded.
Indigo Girls – The Indigo Girls were huge among my friends in college and I didn’t get it until a couple of them dragged me to a concert. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have a humble yet inspiring presence and the concerts are all about creating a community. The album 1200 Curfews captures some of their best work in the live environment.
Bruce Hornsby – People probably remember Hornsby for “The Way It Is” and other hits, and some may remember him touring as a keyboardist with The Grateful Dead, or the many other artists he has written songs for, produced, and appeared as a collaborationist on their recordings. But Bruce Hornsby on record tells a very limited story. I lived in his hometown of Williamsburg, VA for several years which meant I often saw him about town, but I also was lucky enough to see him in concert on multiple occasions (including once accompanied by the Virginia Symphony). Hornsby shows were an exciting event featuring improvisation, rotating vocalists and instrumentalists, and even requests from the audience (and spectators could even request songs not by Hornsby and he and the band would confer for a moment and then play it!). Here Come the Noise Makers is a good introduction to the live experience.
Arlo Guthrie – Arlo’s has some good tunes on record, but going to a concert is a chance to hear him tell his long, folksy stories. The first time you hear an Arlo story, you laugh. The second time, you say to yourself “Wait, I’ve heard this exact same ‘off-the-cuff’ story told the exact same way before.” The third time (and beyond), you get excited to hear the story as if it was one of your favorite songs.
Black 47 – The very political Irish rock band from the Bronx seemed kind of bland when I first heard them, but then I saw them perform – of all the odd places – at Irish Night at Shea Stadium following a Mets game. I was won over by their raw energy and rapport with the audience, and saw them several more times. Black 47 disbanded in 2014 but you can still get a sense of their performance on the excellent Live in New York City album.
Dan Bern – Also known as Bernstein, the folk artist is kind of a Bob Dylan with the weirdness and crudeness cranked up to 11. His albums never impressed me much but I saw a performance at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA where he got off the stage, sat in the middle of the room and had all the audience circle around, and lead a sing-a-long without the need for amplification. It remains one of the most powerful concert performances I’ve ever experienced.
So who have you seen live that you would highly recommend?