Live performance is arguably the essence of rock & roll. So why is it that so many live albums sound so lifeless? Perhaps live albums have become unwitting reminders of how silly rock can be, forever preserving all the you-had-to-be-there moments for those who weren’t, freezing in time the extended version of the “hit,” the drum solos, the off-key audience-participation segments and the endless variations on “How ya doin,’ Poughkeepsie?”
Virtually all these sins and more can be found on the best-selling granddaddy of the live-album era, Peter Frampton’s 1975 double-dip Frampton Comes Alive! That record established a former British teen idol and journeyman guitarist with Humble Pie and Frampton’s Camel as a mainstream golden boy — briefly — and ushered in several years’ worth of gatefoldsleeved knockoffs.
A sequel was probably inevitable, although Frampton certainly held out longer that most of his peers. Frampton Comes Alive II is remarkably faithful to formula of the 20-year-old original. Once again, Frampton embroiders turgid stomps (“Day in the Sun”) and gooey ballads (“Most of All”) with his serviceably fluid guitar playing. By the time Frampton starts huffing and puffing into his talk box for “Can’t Take That Away,” it’s like Spinal Tap never happened.
A couple of years before Frampton started making his millions, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen and Walter Becker quit the road. While their 1993-94 reunion tour was well received, Alive in America is a pristine-sounding and pointless document of it. The immaculate versions of 10 Dan gems from the ’70s — plus a forgettable ringer from Becker’s recent solo album — do little to expand the listener’s understanding of the band’s subversive pop and jazz influences. If anything, the Steely Dan auteurs defer too much to their hired guns, who weigh down the bilious lyrics and snappy tunes with noodling fusionstyle vamps and — yikes! — a drum solo.
Bonnie Raitt’s marvelous vocal command is the glue that holds together the sprawling Road Tested. Culled from a recent tour, the double-disc set traces Raitt’s 20-year climb from coffeehouse-blues folkie to amphitheater headliner. She salvages an unlikely cover of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” with her sly, sexy drawl. And her careful phrasing continues to draw fresh inspiration from John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” a longtime concert staple.
But the set shortchanges Raitt by pairing her with too many celebrity walk-ons. Although the inclusion of R&B veterans Ruth Brown and Charles Brown is a nice gesture, the presence of Bryan Adams should give any Raitt fan the arena-rock shakes. A more intimate approach to programming this material might have disappointed the paying customers, but it would have presented Raitt in a more flattering light on the home stereo. Like too many live sets, Road Tested was probably a blast to witness from the 15th row, but it doesn’t quite hold up when you’re sprawled on the living-room couch.