Sharpie’s Favourite Live Albums of 2020

Idiot Prayer – Nick Cave Live at Alexandra Palace 2020

2020 was not a great year for live music thanks to Covid-19 BUT it was a great year for streamed live performances and, in the case of Nick Cave, a concert event filmed live in June 2020 at Alexandra Palace in London and streamed live to ticket holders prior to a worldwide cinema release. It was the apotheosis of the streamed concert a phenomenon which saw ‘real’ live-music-deprived concert geeks attending streamed gigs all over the world on their TVs. So thoroughly, and intimately, did Cave reinterpret his broad cannon, that this performance stands with the best live albums ever made and certainly my highlight of the year.

Live at Canterbury House 1967 – Joni Mitchell

Canterbury House was a vibrant community centre set in an old converted print shop in the university district of Ann Arbour Michigan. Its community centre, part coffee house part counselling centre, part performance space. In addition to hosting intimate alcohol free musical performances (for which it acoustics and state of the art sound system were perfect), it was also used for film nights, plays and church services.

With a capacity of only 200, and due to its ‘60’s community spirit, it was a special place for musicians seeking an intimate connection with their audience. It’s that spirit which pervades the music on this wonderful release of Joni Mitchell’s early career performance here on 27 October 1967.

Recorded prior to the release of Joni’s debut Song of the Seagull, the set list included a number of tracks from that album as well as early Mitchell penned songs which has already been hits for others and which would be subsequently released by her on later albums like ‘Both Sides Now’, ‘Urge for Going’ and Little Green’.

For fans of Joni Mitchell this is an indispensable glimpse of her early genius as she started her journey which would be era diving and create a body of work the equal of any other artist from that time.

Live Drugs – War on Drugs

I had the pleasure of seeing War On Drugs live at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre in 2018. So warn, entrancing and insistent was the enveloping sound of Grandulciel’s band that it rendered the band’s name oxymoronic. The music enveloped us all in its warm narcotic grip. This live album can’t quite match that intensity but delivers the band’s sound and greatest compositions so naturally that it allows their beauty to shimmer in a way the wonderful studio version never quite do.

Live at the Forum – The Teskey Brothers

When Josh Teskey, part way through this live album, breaks into a cover of Jealous Guy and admits it is influenced more by the Donny Hathaway live version than the Lennon original, we are reminded that Melbourne’s Teskey Brothers are the real deal. They have lived and inhabited the music that they have grown up with and loved and coupled it with their own distinct songwriting and brother Sam’s excellent guitar work to win fans around the world festival circuit. While that is in hiatus, we can comfort ourselves on this live album which is redolent of the great live discs of sound music, Otis Redding, Bill Withers and Hathaway, without ever feeling like a mere tribute.

The Complete Inconserated Live – The Replacements

Recorded in Milwaukee in 1989, following the release of Don’t Tell A Soul (the 2019 release of the original mix of which – as Dead Mans Bop – was the highlight of of last year’s re-release schedule). This 2020 live RSD release contains all 29 songs from that performance (a shortened version was included with the Dead Man’s Bop set). The Replacements were a famously unpredictable live proposition but both this set and the previous Replacements For Sale catch them at their incendiary best – constantly courting the shambolic edge of oblivion but never descending into the chasm – an ability which made them, on their best nights, amongst the set live acts around (and got them banned for life from NBC shortly prior to this performance). As a huge fan during the late ‘80’s, it was a dream to catch them live at the Roundhouse in London at the tail of their 2015 live run. It’s great to now have two live albums available in full to remember them by.

Galaxie 500 – Live at Barbue Copenhagen Dec 1st 1990

Another RSD live release by one of my favourite bands. Hard to get a hold of – and, like many RSD releases, overpriced – but worth it. Galaxie 500 at their short lived peak. First time available on vinyl.

Kiss My Blood – Iggy Pop Live at The Olympia Paris France 1991

An RSD 3LP set recorded as part of the Brick To Brick Tour. Contains all the tracks you know and love him for performed with just the right mix of professionalism and intensity. Comes with a limited edition numbered tour poster too.

Live at Goose Lake August 8th, 1970 – The Stooges

Everything you’ve heard. About this gig is true. Raw, shambolic, incendiary, punk which pushes it all the way to the edge – and over. The soundboard recording only enhances the legend.

The Allman Brothers – Live a Fillmore West 1-31-71

Allman Brothers. 1971. No need to say more.

Live at the Hollywood Palladium December 15, 1988 – Keith Richards and the X-pensive Winos

An old favourite I’ve owned for years on CD finally re-issued on vinyl. The definition of swagger.


Sharpie’s Favourite Albums of 2020

A personal selection by a music fan who has admittedly failed to listen to every album released in 2020 and has his own preferences and predilections

  1. Rough & Rowdy Ways – Bob Dylan

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Dylan dropped, without warning, just as COVID-19 was announcing its presence, his epic new single Murder Most Foul. The track, clocking in just shy of 17 minutes, picked the eyes out of institutions, politics and pop culture centreing on the assassination of JFK. It was a major artistic statement which Dylan had reportedly been working on for over a decade. If that was all he had done in 2020, it would have been sufficient to confirm his presence as a relevant and vital artist (if 2012’s Tempest had not made that clear enough). Dylan, however, followed it with I Contain Multitudes and then the album Rough & Rowdy Ways to seal the deal. R&RW was not merely an unexpectedly resurgent artistic statement but a reassertion of Dylan’s status as an artist still in touch with his muse and still relevant almost 60 years after he first burst from New York’s folk bars and coffee shops to become the defining voice of the ‘60’s. It was the standout album of 2020.

2. Song for Our Daughter – Laura Marling

I saw Laura Marling play live at the Sydney Opera House on 7 March 2020. Little would I know that it would be the second last show I would see in the next 9 months. The crowd present showed great appreciation for the strong new songs interspersed throughout the evening – some of them being played live for the first time. The album, when it arrived, did not disappoint. Perhaps Marling’s defining statement and certainly the equal of her impressive catalogue.

3. Letter to You – Bruce Springsteen

Not even the surprisingly strong, if overproduced, Western Stars (or its superior movie soundtrack recorded live in Springteen’s converted barn which now serves as his studio) prepared us for the Boss’ resurgence with Letter To You. Anchored by a selection of older songs, and billed as a letter of thanks to his fans, Letter To You contained echoes of his classic albums accompanied by the finely honed musicality of the E Street Band. Arguably his best since the under-rated Devils & Dust

4. The Prisoner – Phoebe Bridges

A fuller, more complete, artistic statement which built upon the promise of her debut.

5. Hey Clockface – Elvis Costello

A sprawling tour-de-force displaying the full range of Costello’s talents but (somehow) coalescing into a complete and congruous artistic statement.

6. Good Souls, Better Angels – Lucinda Williams

Ms Williams channels her righteous anger at external targets (principally Trump) rather than her usual introspection, and hits a bulls-eye perfectly suited to 2020.

7. Reunions – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Isbell continues to mine his talent for stories of peoples, places, struggles and redemption. The 400 Unit continues to back those songs with exceptional playing rivalled only by that of the Springsteen’s E-Street Band. If Dave Cobb’s too slick production (which appears designed to take Isbell to the next level) distracts from the honesty of Isbell’s songs, its a minor quibble and the songs, most notably ‘Only Children’ and ‘St Peter’s Autograph’, continue to shine through.

8. You Be the Lightning – Tracey McNeil & the Goodlife

2020 was supposed to be the year for Tracey who gave up her lease to hit the road in a van with her partner in life and music Dan Parsons to support the long awaited release of this album. The music lived up to its promise but the timing was crueller by COVID-19. It deserves wider recognition.

9. In and Out of the Light – The Apartments

Another fine addition to the all too infrequent – but uniformly excellent – catalogue of this fine band. Thoughtful, literate, chamber-pop doesn’t get better than this. Underpinned by Peter Milton Walsh’s sonorous languid vocals and superior songwriting ably supported by his fine band including Chris Abrahams’ (The Necks) elegant piano flourishes and Nick Allum’s haunting drums and percussion.

10. World on the Ground – Sarah Jarosz

Another fine country/Americana album from a hugely talented singer and songwriter. With the help of Jon Leventhal, Jarosz has taken a marked step forward with both songwriting and performance on this album.

The next 10…

11. Lightning Show Is Your Stuff – Grant Lee Phillips

12. Blue Hearts – Bob Mould

13. By The Fire – Thurston More

14. Taylor Swift – folklore

15. Walking Proof – Lilly Hiatt

16. A Hero’s Death – Fontaine’s DC

17. Old Flowers – Courtenay Marie Andrews

18. Hermitage – Ron Sexsmith

19. Summerlong – Rose City Band

20. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud