Live and Well

Think the live album is a dying art, falling victim to rabid bootleg trading through the Internet and Pearl Jam's 50,000 "official" bootleg releases a few years ago? Then you could probably use a reconfirmation, and luckily, five live albums released in the past month get the concept right. Consider these good reasons to skip the show and stay home with a stereo instead.

Wilco, Kicking Television (Nonesuch)

This has probably happened to you: After buying the latest album from one of your favorites, a band so interwoven with your life that your memory of their earlier glory is muddled with nostalgia, you just don't get it. There's a song or two you like, but you can't reconcile the rest of the new stuff to your memory of that band, so you panic. But for some reason, you hold onto hope and see their tour for the new album. The band opens with a couple of new songs. Some phrase turns like a gear, some rhythm snaps into place in your mind and--holy crap--it finally makes sense. For me, A Ghost is Born was one of those albums, and its subsequent tour is documented in the band's first official live release, which is assembled from a four-night Chicago homestand and reaffirms their greatness.

Even though only frontman Jeff Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt remain from the original lineup, Wilco is still pulling off nostalgia-worthy moments, from the interplay of chiming guitar and piano on "Company in My Back" and "Muzzle of Bees" to the rousing stomps through old songs, particularly when everyone, unprompted, shouts "I still love rock and roll" during "Misunderstood." Road-sharpened and augmented by virtuoso guitarist Nels Cline, the band deconstructs its catalog with precision. There are moments when panic swirls up again, like when the band pounds out the final "NOTHING!" of "Misunderstood" over and over--crass showboating that adds nothing but time to the song. And sometimes Cline's noise guitar sounds ostentatious or needlessly chaotic, especially on the previously quiet and dreamy "Via Chicago." But these are tiny complaints about an otherwise successful rebirth, and since they have no immediate tour plans, any hard-core fan that hasn't recently seen Wilco needs a copy. --Jesse Hughey

Green Day, Bullet in a Bible (Reprise)

In case Billie Joe Armstrong hasn't made his latest target audience clear enough by declaring he's "not part of a redneck agenda," now you can hear him shout,"I want you to sing so loud that every fucking redneck in America hears it tonight!" during a live performance of "American Idiot" on Bullet in a Bible. And, oh, those fans heed his call, their shouts annoyingly bleeding into the mix even during the middle of the songs (in case you weren't sure that bajillions of teenagers loved the snot out of 'em). Though this is Green Day's first live album in their 16-year career, it's not exactly retrospective stuff, dedicating more than half its runtime to songs from American Idiot and sticking to the biggest singles for the rest of the set list. At least fans can't complain that their favorite radio hit is missing--"Brain Stew" has never sounded this angry and dirty, and even "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" gets a boost when Armstrong punks up the sappy song's tempo. The overemphasis on Idiot and the well-miked crowd take a few points off the total score, but Green Day fans are getting a helluva bang from the band's live album debut and, thanks to this collection's big, whoppin' DVD, would be American idiots to pass this one up. --Sam Machkovech

Bright Eyes, Motion Sickness (Team Love)

It's always hard to guess just what form Bright Eyes will take from tour to tour. Will it be young Conor by himself, diligently playing the part of the next Dylan? Or perhaps Oberst the Magnificent leading a drunken orchestra of 20 people he's borrowed from other bands? This disc finds the band falling somewhere between the two extremes, with equal parts acoustic balladry and drunken barroom noise-country (and, thankfully, none of that beeps-and-bloops Faint business). Drawing six cuts from January's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and supplementing them with older cuts, B-sides and covers, the disc is a decent representation of the live Bright Eyes experience but far from a perfect one. "Make War" and "Road to Joy" prove that Oberst and co. can still come unhinged, and the fact that they don't do so more often is somewhat of a disappointment, while "Landlocked Blues" and "We Are Nowhere and It's Now" have trouble soaring without the Wide Awake harmonies of Emmylou Harris. The covers of Elliott Smith and Feist come off flat as well, with the latter's "Mushaboom" suffering from a messy arrangement that buries the original's hummable guitar hook. The fact that one can nitpick about so much says a lot, though; it's hard to live up to expectations when you're as good as Conor Oberst. --Noah W. Bailey

Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Summer in the Southeast (Sea Note)

What's with all of indie rock's best softies having their balls drop simultaneously? In the past year, Jason Molina has abandoned his gorgeous, meandering Songs:Ohia moniker in exchange for the Neil Young-loving Magnolia Electric Co., and Sam Beam, though still pretty quiet in Iron & Wine, turned the dial up considerably on his 2005 EPs. The same can't exactly be said for Bonnie "Prince" Billy, whose older material plugged in on more than a few occasions, but songwriter Will Oldham's general affinity for softer, wandering acoustics is blown to bits on Summer In The Southeast, a rough-and-tumbling document of his 2004 tour. Every song here is meaner, darker and more alive than on record--the album starts with three normally quiet songs that are newly given amplified teeth, and I See A Darkness's "Madeleine Mary" closes the show by descending from purgatory to hell with thundering guitars and sweaty backing vocals. Oldham's voice breaks and belts like he's been set on fire, and this, along with his band's increased intensity, will surely turn off purists, but so what? Summer succeeds because it's so hugely different than BPB's albums, and because of its adventurous approach, it's the closest thing indie rock may ever get to At Budokan. --S.M.

Townes Van Zandt, Live at Union Chapel, London, England (Tomato)

Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas is Van Zandt's definitive statement, recorded in 1973 at the height of his powers--solo and acoustic, his songs stripped to the bone. Recorded more than 20 years after that classic live set, Live at Union Chapel features an older, wiser Townes--torn all to hell by two decades of drinking and depression, his voice and guitar playing a step behind his former self but his songs no worse for the wear. The Texas folk legend would be dead in less than three years, but on this night in 1994, he was in fine spirits (and probably downing some), playing one of England's most respectable venues for an audience of more than a thousand people. While the track selection repeats some 10 songs from Live at the Old Quarter, it's hard to complain when they're as stunning as "Two Girls" or "Pancho & Lefty." Underrated late period compositions like "The Catfish Song" and "Blaze's Blues" round out the set, the latter introduced with a hilarious tale recalling the tragic death of Austin singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, who left Townes a guitar in hock but kept the pawn ticket in the pocket of the suit he was buried in. Stories such as these make Townes' live albums essential; his songs may be sadder than sad, but the guy that sang them was pretty damn funny, too. --N.W.B.

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