IT'S DECEMBER AGAIN, "give-the-gift-of-music" time. Which means it's time for the annual end-of-the-year Invasion of the Live Albums:
BILLY JOEL -- "KOHUEPT (Live in Leningrad)" (Columbia C2X 40996). Apparently seized by the spirit of glasnost, all-American Billy Joel arranged to perform in Leningrad. But this double-record document, handsomely dressed in a glossy red gatefold sleeve, is saturated with the spirit of quick cash-in capitalism. Maybe you had to be there, but on vinyl, this doesn't sound like a particularly inspired or even spirited performance.
Joel makes little effort to connect with his audience, and his attempts at political bridgemaking are gauche: "I have a feeling that what's going on in your land is very much like the '60s. This song has been going round and round in my head," he says, introducing "The Times They Are A Changing," a Dylan imitation that will turn your ears red in embarassment. Elsewhere, he imitates Ray Charles on "Baby Grand," and turns in an unnecessary 13-minute version of "Big Man On Mulberry Street," which is otherwise a nice tune. The record misses Phil Ramone's usual rich production -- it has a thin, rather tinny sound. Don't trade your bluejeans for "KOHUEPT" -- this one's for completists only.
UB40 -- "UB40 CCCP -- Live in Moscow" (A&M SP 5168). 'Tis the season for recording in Russia: Brit band UB40 jumped on the Iron Curtain culture bandwagon and brought its pop-ified brand of reggae to the Reds. Knowing where it was recorded is a superficial novelty -- except for the occasional muttered translation to the audience, this set could have been recorded anywhere. But it's a decent live collection; reggae arguably works best as live music and UB40's relaxed grooves on "Cherry Oh Baby" and "Rat In Mi Kitchen" translate well wherever -- knowledge of English is not necessary when you wanna dance.
NEIL DIAMOND -- "Hot August Night II" (Columbia C2X 40990). Say it ain't so: Not content with endlessly recycling movie ideas, the entertainment industry is now making sequels to hit albums, too. Here's a double-disc dose of Neil Diamond performing at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, presented as a "Son of" to his 1972 "Hot August Night."
The new set includes many of the same songs from the original, but they're "new and improved" -- which means Diamond has discovered the synthesizer. The concert begins with the portentous "Song of the Whales (Fanfare)," which would be more appropriate to the next "Star Trek" flick, then segues into the upbeat "Headed for the Future." But then Diamond dives directly into the past, which does contain most of his more palatable stuff, though basic pop-rock stuff like "Cherry, Cherry" and "Sweet Caroline" sound sort of silly with these baroque arrangements. If you must, however, owning this record does have a few benefits: It's poshly produced like a studio LP by Val Garay, who adds lots of studio sweetening and echoes Diamond's voice heavily for that simulated live effect. And you don't have to camp out overnight for tickets.
MICHAEL HEDGES -- "Live on the Double Planet" (Windham Hill WH-1066). Windham Hill stalwart Hedges makes a mighty big sound for a lone little guy with a guitar. Hedges recreates house-sound instrumentals like "Breakfast in the Field," but with more muscularity and pleasingly rough edges than the untouched-by-human hands sterility of his studio tracks. Hedges tries out some novel cover versions, including a take on "All Along The Watchtower," which may not make you forget Jimi Hendrix, but has a dark power of its own. He also ferrets out an actual song from within the endless synthesized riffing of Sheila E's "A Love Bizarre," and single-handedly creates the brooding textures of the Beatles' "Come Together." Washington's Michael Manring adds sinuous fretless bass to the instrumental "Rikki's Shuffle."
THE WOODENTOPS -- "Hypnobeat Live" (Upside 60012). The energetic young English band was caught on tape at L.A.'s Palace Theater, and what they lose in studio polish they more than make up for in speed and urgency. The group's chugging guitar-based sound is accented by xylophone and novel percussion, and the 10-song set includes spirited versions of most of the best stuff from their fine debut LP "Giant," including "Love Train" and "Good Thing," both of which define lead singer/songwriter Rolo's cheerily positive outlook.
NEVILLE BROTHERS -- "Live at Tipitina's, Volume II" (Spindletop SPT115). Aaron, Art, Ivan, Charles and Cyril Neville get together at New Orleans' Tipitina's to cook up another batch of their unequaled electrified gumbo. On this set, recorded in 1982, the Cajun menu includes a rousing rock and roll medley and takes on standards like "Little Liza Jane" and "My Girl." Hot and spicy; should liven up a party.
FRANK YANKOVIC -- "Live in Nashville" (Smash 422-832 854). The news magazines have been trying without success to make the essentially nerdy polka seem trendy. This record alone could do the trick. Yankovic, dubbed "America's Polka King" for his undimmed exuberance after 50 years of oom-pah-pah-ing, rocks Nashville with really rollicking favorites like "We Left Our Wives At Home," Johnny Mercer's "The Strip Polka," and of course "Who Stole the Keeshka" and "In Heaven There Is No Beer." Yankovic gets an accordion assist from virtuoso Joey Miskulin, and there's about 20 people singing lustily away on background vocals, giving the session a beer hall boisterousness. This unabashedly corny stuff makes for a terrific live record, so corny it's hip.
SAVAGE REPUBLIC -- "Live Trek 1985-1986" (Nate Starkman & Son We Buy 2). The glossy graphics on this double-LP place Savage Republic spiritually closer to Banana Republic, but the surface sheen is undermined by the lousy recording. The seven-man L.A. band comes up with some good titles: "Ivory Coast," "Last Grave at Dimbeza" and "Attempted Coup: Madagascar." But their loose, atmospheric polyrhythmic rave-ups are done in by a terribly trebly mix -- this record sounds like it was recorded on a smuggled microcassette recorder.