Throwback Thursday: Soul Music Historian Peter Guralnick's Top 7 Moments Of Live Soul
Peter Guralnick is one of the foremost living historians of the American cultural phenomenon we call Soul Music. His resumé is far too long to list here but for a quick primer, you can begin with two of his best-known books Sweet Soul Music and the Sam Cooke bio Dream Boogie. Okayplayer is extremely proud to present his hand-curated playlist of Top 7 moments in live soul as this week’s Throwback Thursday, accompanied by Guralnick’s extensive liner notes and firsthand reminiscences on these essential bits of soul archaeology, from Gene Chandler to James Brown. Read on, and click through all 7 to feel a flash of the spirit that not even the best studio can bring out of these performers; some the greatest talents of the last century.
There’s nothing like live music.
I don’t know what it is. Many record producers and engineers see it as an illusion – it looks better than it sounds – but for me it’s the essence of all music. From the first time I saw Lightnin’ Hopkins when I was sixteen years old to catching James Brown and Solomon Burke in person (not to mention Howlin’ Wolf and Jerry Lee Lewis) when I wasn’t much older, I’ve never found anything to match it. With the soul and gospel shows it’s more of the incantatory nature of the experience – I don’t know of anything that can equal the wildness and out-of-control control of a groove that draws you in even as it keeps you at a tantalizing remove. Often the live versions of familiar songs are slower, more drawn-out, they deepen the emotional resonance of lyrics you thought you knew by heart – but not always. It’s the unexpectedness, the spontaneity of the moment that makes it different (same as jazz), whatever expression that hypnotic moment may take.
So little of this music has been recorded the way it actually sounds – in the clubs, on-stage, with an audience that is as much a part of the experience as the performer him or herself. Here are just a few, a very few, live recordings that suggest some of that untrammeled freedom. In answer to the Desert Island Disc question (what’s the one record you would take with you to that mythical desert island, assuming all obstacles of technology could be overcome and records still existed?), I’ve always said that I would gladly give away all my records, CDs, recorded music, just to see Howlin’ Wolf shatter reality one more time.
He was one of so many who was never recorded properly in his own milieu. In fact, apart from B.B. King Live at the Regal, I can’t think of any of the great blues singers who were recorded live in a manner that reflected the unparalleled range of moods and emotions that you could take from their in-person performance – unless you count the history-before-it-happened Alan Lomax Library of Congress recordings of Muddy Waters and Son House. Or the Harry Oster field recordings collected in the electrifying Country Negro Jam Sessions on Arhoolie, featuring the fiddle-guitar duo of Butch Cage and Willie Thomas. From my perspective – and I know this is heresy – I would argue that neither Aretha nor Otis Redding nor Al Green, say, was ever adequately captured in the full flowering of an unvarnished live performance.
But then personal preference is always a matter of personal taste. So without begging the question, and without seeking in any way to invite invidious comparison, here is a select selection of live soul(ful) performances, with directions toward a few more. But, seriously, don’t stay home pondering my list or anyone else’s – or even dwelling on memories. Go out and hear some live music – right now!