Sunday, July 6, 2014

Vintage concerts come alive in online archives


Somewhere in my house is a box that contains a pile of cassette tapes and a lot of good memories. The cassettes are recordings made at concerts I attended between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. The shows range from folk singers like Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs and Peter, Paul & Mary to rock bands like Fleetwood Mac, The Doobie Brothers and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
I don't listen to the tapes very often for one very good reason: they sound awful. I made the recordings from my seat in the audience using a cheap recorder and microphone and on many of the tapes, the crowd noise overwhelms the music. Invariably, there's some jerk seated a few feet away talking so loudly that he becomes the recording’s featured vocalist.
But thanks to the Internet, there are now many sources where I can listen to a vintage concert in a high-quality recording that can be downloaded or streamed. These are often recordings that were sanctioned by the artists and captured directly from the concert’s sound equipment or made for a radio broadcast. 

The best and largest collection is at the Concert Vaulta membership website that has an eclectic archive of thousands of live concert recordings. It was built around the master recordings collected by rock promoter Bill Graham who owned the Fillmore and Winterland ballrooms in the 1960s. It's the best place to find performances by rock legends like Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix. 

The Concert Vault may not have a recording of the same show that I attended, but I can usually find one made about the same time. For example, I saw The Who at the Kinetic Playground in Chicago in 1970. The Concert Vault has a 1970 performance by the band at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. I found a Fillmore East show by Janis Joplin from 1969, the year before I saw her perform in Boston shortly before her death.

While rock shows are the primary draw at the Concert Vault, the library also includes performances by jazz artists Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, country stars like Maybelle Carter and Merle Travis and blues legends B. B. King and Lightnin' Hopkins. 

Elsewhere on the web, Grateful Dead fans can binge on recordings of more than 9,000 Dead shows at the Internet Archive. The collection includes concerts recorded by fans, a practice  that the band allowed, and recordings made from the band's soundboard. Other artists with shows in the archive include Ryan Adams, John Mayer, Little Feat and Warren Zevon.

The National Jukebox at the Library of Congress website contains digital copies made from 78rpm records produced between 1901 and 1925. The collection includes early ragtime and songs by Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan.

A few of today's popular artists now sell high-quality recordings of their concerts directly from their websites. The website Live Bruce Springsteen posts recordings from his personal archives as well as recordings made from stops on his recent tours.

At Folk Alley, fans of folk and Bluegrass music can hear live recordings by Tony Rice, John Prine, Arlo Guthrie and Nickel Creek.

For fan recordings, the best source is Sugarmegs, where fans have done a much better job of it than me. The lineup there is a mixture of recent shows by artists such as Jeff Beck, James Taylor and The Rolling Stones along with vintage performances by Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd and even a couple of shows by the Beatles.


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