Making the Connection 

Singer-songwriters release fine live LPs

Singer-songwriters release fine live LPs

Concert recordings have nearly gone the way of the eight-track tape and the 20-minute guitar jam. Once a staple of popular music, the form was its peak when rock music was a relatively underground phenomenon. Twenty-five years ago, fans sought out live albums because good rock shows were still an uncommon experience. Cities weren’t saturated with live-music venues, and big concert tours weren’t a weekly occurrence.

Since pop music has fully entered the cultural mainstream, live performances now cram the airwaves: Turn on the television, and a cable channel will likely be airing a taped concert. Long-form videos, meanwhile, have taken the place of the live album. But a musical underground of sorts still exists today in the form of independent record labels, and it makes sense, somehow, that worthwhile live albums would find an outlet here.

Each in their own way, John Prine and Ani DiFranco rank as heroes of the indie-label movement. Prine started Oh Boy Records after he grew fed up with the youth- and trend-oriented marketing focus of major record companies. DiFranco took Prine’s vision a step further: She created Righteous Babe Records while still unknown and unrecorded.

At this point, both Prine and DiFranco are selling albums in the hundreds of thousands, an unheard of figure for indie artists. But Prine and DiFranco have yet another point of comparison—they’ve both released solid, engaging live collections this year.

There’s a reason why both albums will prove successful when most live recordings in the ’90s haven’t. Prine and DiFranco aren’t overexposed media figures, for one thing. Their fans haven’t become burned out by endless video and radio airplay, so hearing these artists sing familiar songs in a live context still has some value. More than that, though, is the connection both singers maintain with their audiences: They’re both intimate, idiosyncratic stylists who lack artifice, and part of their charm comes from how they put their material across in a live setting.

As John Prine Live on Tour and DiFranco’s Living in Clip make clear, both singers speak to their audiences during concerts as if they’re talking in a living room to friends. There are no arena-rock clichés, no lengthy instrumental solos or jam sessions, no endless shouts of “Are you having a good time?” For the most part, this is music as naked personality.

More than most performers, Prine has developed a stage persona that lends an extra dimension to his music. He’s a masterful storyteller who talks to his fans with a slow, offhand ease. And as Prine fans know, his gentle whimsy is even more delightful live than on record; in front of an audience, his scruffy, sweet personality informs both the clever wit and the observant sensitivity of his lyrics.

For example, Prine prefaces one song by explaining how a friend told him that 18 years in the life of Jesus Christ are unaccounted for. “You mean nobody knew where he was?” Prine recalls asking his friend, who replied emphatically, “Nobody.” This piece of information stuck in his mind, the singer explains. “One of the most influential and controversial figures in the history of mankind, and nobody knows where he was for 18 years. I snuck away on a fishing trip once with this waitress for a couple of days, and by the time we got back to Nashville, everybody knew where we were.”

The album also displays how Prine, ever unconventional, has transformed from a folksinger into a rocker at a time when most veteran performers are discovering the joys of acoustic settings. Live on Tour captures the singer with a full-fledged electric band, the first time Prine has taken such a large, loud ensemble on the road with him. (The album’s selections are taken from a March 30, 1996, show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and from a show at a venue in Chicago, thereby tying together the singer-songwriter’s Great Lakes birthplace with the Tennessee city he’s called home for more than a decade.)

Live on Tour concentrates on songs from the two most commercially successful albums of Prine’s career, 1991’s The Missing Years and 1995’s Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings. For this reason, Live on Tour is a perfect companion to 1988’s John Prine Live, which showcases live renditions of many of Prine’s classic ’70s hits, including “Sam Stone,” “Paradise,” “Fish & Whistle,” and “Hello in There.”

As the songs on Live on Tour suggest, Prine’s newer work finds him formulating sharp observations about modern media culture (“Picture Show,” “Quit Hollerin’ at Me”), as well as ambitious, loosely constructed narratives that use absurd, socially charged imagery (“Lake Marie,” “Daddy’s Little Pumpkin”). Besides the above songs, all from Prine’s ’90s albums, the singer offers a few welcome surprises, including a beautifully tender “I Got Gold” and memorable takes of “Unwed Fathers,” The Late John Garfield Blues,” and “Storm Windows,” all of which represent Prine at his most serious and most insightful. He also features a hilarious, previously unrecorded song called “Space Monkey,” about a primate who returns to the Soviet Union after being lost in space for nearly four decades, and he ends the album with three new studio songs, including a cover of Tim Carroll’s “If I Could, Then I Would.”

DiFranco is also a storyteller, although her tales, like her songs, come out in an extemporaneous rush of energy. When introducing “Adam and Eve” on Living in Clip, she tells a San Francisco crowd how the song fits into the same “tortured, melodramatic, kind of self-absorbed vein” as most of her material from the mid-’90s. She explains how, when her 1996 album Dilate was released, some fans “got all in a twitch” because she was writing about love rather than about politics. “ ‘Are you just going to sell out?’ ” she asks, imitating a fan. “ ‘Is this a conscious move away from overtly political songwriting?’ And I’m like, ‘No, man, it’s just I got kind of distracted.’ ” She then lets out a long, wicked laugh that reveals the devilish playfulness that lies behind her intense, gut-wrenching tunes.

Unlike the laid-back Prine, DiFranco infuses her acoustic music with intensity and emotional openness. Her songs are about pushing limits, tweaking boundaries, and wringing as much passion as possible out of what’s going on in her life or her mind. It’s this high-wire act of baring her soul, of exposing her angriest assessments and her most vulnerable thoughts, that has drawn her such a devoted following.

For the most part, DiFranco’s heightened sense of drama and her confrontational, in-your-face style come across more forcefully and more humanely on Living in Clip. Clocking in at nearly two hours, the two-CD collection supports DiFranco’s claim that her songs truly spring to life in front of an audience. That performer-to-fan interplay comes across with vibrant directness, as does the energy that DiFranco generates by sharing her fears and her fury with such unmitigated frankness.

Indeed, DiFranco’s shows are all about her and the audience. She occasionally grows overly theatrical, and she sometimes seems to enjoy her wordy, profane self-dramatizations more for their shock effect than for their personal revelation. But the album succeeds at conveying what’s most vital about DiFranco’s work: her ability to unite a crowd by connecting with people’s desire simply to be themselves. DiFranco exposes everything painful and impure about herself, then celebrates her willingness to accept those aspects of her personality. By standing up for herself, she encourages others to do so.

As with Prine, DiFranco’s music is about individuality and personality; it represents one person’s distinct vision of the world around her. It’s rare for a performer to bring himself or herself to light so vividly, but this is precisely what makes Prine’s and DiFranco’s live recordings so vibrant. While live albums usually display their creators’ weaknesses, Live on Tour and Living in Clip expose their creators’ strengths.

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