The meaning of live

Posted: Thursday, November 25, 2010

The live album - it's no new phenomenon. The first musicians to make recordings did so in a live setting, and they probably never imagined the possibility of the multitrack technology that has now become the norm in the industry. But there's something about capturing the many elements of an unperfected stage performance that keeps the live albums coming.

Bluegrass/country sensations The Avett Brothers like live albums so much that they've put out three, the most recent of which was released last month. After a month of studying "Live Volume 3" in addition to years of listening to their previous releases, I have lots of thoughts.

This is a band whose music takes me to both high and low places, whose songs make me cry one minute and laugh the next. Their ballads are sung with words that reach deep inside me and conjure emotions I didn't even know I was capable of feeling. What's more, their hoedowns are fun-filled and cause every muscle in my body to involuntarily dance along. The Brothers do it all, and they make me want to do it, too.

Having spent so much time with these boys singing their songs in my ears, I have fashioned in my mind how I imagine them to be as people. I've gathered from their soulful, loving lyrics that they must be the most passionate partners a girl could ever want - lovers who say the right things, who sing lyrics that rival those of any love song ever written. Then again, there's always the possibility that they're just faking it all for ratings. If so, they've got a really good gimmick going, and have caused lots of fans to genuinely fall in love with them in the process.

So, after more than a dozen releases, including two other live albums, why release a third? The songs have been heard before, and in their original recordings they can be enjoyed sans screaming audience. Shrieking fans bother me enough at shows, so why would I invite them into my living room?

Charlotte, North Carolina's enthusiasm elevates as the album rolls along. Luckily, they don't sing along with all the words in every song, just the lines that are easy to remember. They offer tumultuous support when an unfixable fib is made in one of the first songs in the show. Their rapturous cheering also buys them a three-song encore. Though less fanatical, the band appears to have just as much fun as the crowd, voicing their appreciation for their fans multiple times throughout the set.

"It's real difficult to sound sincere on a microphone, but we love you all, too, in a very big way," Seth Avett says in response to thunderous applause after the live rendition of one of my favorite tunes of theirs, "When I Drink."

The production quality is a bit higher in this album than in the first two live recordings. Each musician is clearly heard and balanced well with the other stage elements. The clinking of bar glasses that can be heard in "Live Volume 2" don't appear in this latest release, nor does the occasional out-of-tune note with which their first live title is littered.

If it is personality that a listener is seeking in their musicians, they'll find much more of it in a live recording than in a product that has been perfected - and possibly dehumanized - in the studio. "Live Volume 3" contains minimal music recesses between tracks, but each tidbit of banter reveals another side of the music and the songwriters behind it.

The live aspect of each song, sung a bit differently than we're used to hearing it, gives a fresh perspective on tunes that have been spun the same exact way hundreds of times. Here and there, a vocalist will take a liberty, embellish a line, revise a lyric or simply change the emphasis of a certain phrase to breathe new possibilities into interpretation. Songs that have provoked so much thought and emotion in the studio recordings are now taking a second shot at the hearts of their listeners, and their shot is right on target.

I'd still rather see them live with my own eyeballs, but if a live disc is the closest I'm going to get, I'll take it.

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