AND NOW, the last roundup of the season: Concert albums -- mostly "Best Of's," brought to life before enthusiastic fans.
Things start off with a hometown favorite, Emmylou Harris (also responsible for one of the Christmas perennials, the bluegrass flavored "Light of the Stable"). "Last Date" (Warner Bros. 237401) is her first live effort, featuring mostly new songs. The uptempo cuts have a little more bite than similar studio efforts, but it's on the ballads that Harris shines, particularly Don Everly's mournful "So Sad (To Watch Love Go Bad"). Most interesting are her languid treatments of Neil Young's "Long May You Run" and Bruce Springsteen's "Racing in the Streets," both done country-rock style. As always, the singing is superb, though Harris seems to be reaching for some of the high notes.
Rod Stewart, "Absolutely Live" (Warner Bros. 237431G). This slightly more-than-the-price-of-one-record collection is one of the few single-artist double albums, live or studio, to come out in the last year. Then again, Stewart's riding the crest of six straight platinum releases and all the songs are taken from his gargantuan 1982 World Tour, one of the few sellouts not built on saying goodbye a la Who and Stones. Old gravel-throat reached deep into his songbag, as far back as 1967 for "Rock My Plimsoul" from the Jeff Beck era, "Stay With Me" (originally done with the Faces and aided here by Kim Carnes and Tina Turner) and the still-classic "Maggie May." And just to show he's sexy and smart, the genial rabble-rouser mixes his ballads ("Tonight's the Night" and "You're In My Heart") and broadsides ("Young Turks" and "Hot Legs") with two new songs, including as cover of the Platters' "Great Pretender." The rabble sing along on almost every song, the largest unpaid chorus since "Peter Frampton Comes Alive."
J. Geils, "Showtime" (EMI America SO17087). Like Stewart, the high-powered Geils outfit has always been known as a hot party band, but they've tended to be a little harder and a lot cruder. This live effort, their second, proves why they were able to build a humongous following even when their studio albums weren't selling. And though they could have made it easier by including a batch of older hits, J. Geils gives value by concentrating on material recorded since leaving Atlantic for EMI (though they could have dropped a little of Peter Wolf's manic rapping). This one, produced by Bethesda-born keyboard sensation Seth Justman, demands maximum volume.
Ozzy Osbourne, "Speak of the Devil" (Jet ZX 2 38350). Osbourne is not everyone's cup of tea, but he has accomplished a little bit of one-upmanship on his old bandmates, Black Sabbath, by revamping that seminal heavy-metal outfit's repertoire and restoring the bite that's been missing since his departure. Since Ozzy's solo records go platinum and the Sabbath albums struggle for gold, it's obvious that most fans think he's still the man. Despite his shredded wits, Osbourne shows keen commercial acumen by wedding classic '70s thunderrock ("Faeries Wear Boots," the sinister "Iron Man/Children of the Grave," the antimilitarist "War Pigs" and the absolutely paranoid "Paranoid") to an '80s sensibility (most evident in guitarist Brad Gillis' coursing asides). As for the screeching voice of doom and gloom, well . . . it adds an extra dementia. This is a great album for clearing the room.
To settle the room, or to settle oneself, you could hardly do better than the latest set of Keith Jarrett solo piano improvisations, "Concerts" (ECM 3-1227). Despite an ego that must have encouraged the enclosed booklet that explicates Jarrett's methodolgy ("radical meta-eclecticism") and suggests how best to enjoy his offerings, the music is simply gorgeous, romantic and frantic in the same long breath, exquisite melody lines giving way to playful rhythms, the brilliant fire of spontaneous invention burning bright. One hears echoes of the past and suggestions of the future of piano in Jarrett's work: It is cerebral, celestial and surprising. Available as a three-record set or as a single volume of extracts.
The John Renbourn Group, "Live in America" (Flying Fish/Fine Catch FC27103) is a bit of a Pentangle reunion, with the dulcet-voiced Jacqui McShee returning and joining Tony Roberts on flutes and pipes, John Molineux on dulcimer, mandolin and fiddle, while table player Keshav Sathe brings an authentic Indian percussive edge to what is essentially progressive chamber-folk music. Like Pentangle, the Renbourn Group is very pastoral, blending folk, light jazz and classical elements into a unique soft-focused sound. Renbourn's glassine guitar is still dominant, and the group flies from sprightly dance tunes to medieval a cappella choruses to the improv-heavy "Sidi Brahim." Some of the vocal mixes are a bit off, but the quiet grace is very much in evidence.
Oddly, the most impressive live album of the season was recorded more than a dozen years ago by a musician who died in 1970 of a drug overdose. Jimi Hendrix, of course, is the greatest electric guitarist in rock's brief history, so his best work warrants continued attention. Unfortunately, more Hendrix records came out after his death than before, too many of them of inferior quality and/or compelling interest. However, "The Jimi Hendrix Concerts" (Reprise 1-22306) is the best posthumous package yet put together by producer Alan Douglas from the 1,000 hours of Hendrix tapes found after the guitarist's death.
Taken from concerts in San Francisco, London, New York, San Diego and Berkeley between 1968 and 1970, the 11 selections validate Hendrix's reputation as the first (and still most provocative) master of rock guitar. Practically everything that has followed has been a variation on themes he developed in the late '60s. Hendrix, the original extra-terrestrial, took his instrument into uncharted territories -- expounding on the possibilities of ultrafeedback and distortion, extending the limitations of fuzz boxes and wah-wah pedals, and so on. He blasted off from the solid ground of cosmic blues (listen to "Red House" and "Bleeding Heart"), free-form jamming ("Stone Free") and protometal mania ("Wild Thing"). Even today, everything sounds vital and alive, from the compelling vocals to the bent strings alive with passion and genius.