February 27, 2008

Make You Sweat

Quite frankly, I have never had much of an appreciation for live albums, or at least not enough to feel compelled to include them in any best-of rock and pop lists. My lack of enthusiasm for this type of album stems from various considerations and prejudices: they inevitably seem more geared for die-hard fans; they appear more as filler or fan-appeasement material during extended album production hiatuses; generally they seem to lack elements of cohesion as they include songs from all parts of an artist’s career; they are so-well planned or controlled that they rarely capture anything unique or historical – different or stunning interpretations of well-known songs, an extremely memorable or moving performance with a distinct crowd feel or reaction, etc.; and they can easily fall into cliché tricks such as documenting the crowd sing the chorus parts in unison of well known songs, particularly at the end of a set.

Off the top of my head, I could probably only name a handful of performances that, in my mind, do break from the norm and would warrant special canonical status. Johnny Cash, The Allman Brothers, and Nirvana immediately pop into my head. Well, after recently listening to Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 for the first time, I would quickly and easily add Sam Cooke’s name to this narrow list.

The recording has a lot of elements working in its favor, many of which help the album transcend mere fantastic live album status and join the list of legendary rock n roll moments and all-time great albums. First, the album was released at a time when the album format was still in its early stages, or far from the album as art concept that was developed in an extremely creative manner towards the end of the decade. So, releasing a concert recording as an album often represented a more than adequate or even better substitute for the standard studio album, which was often filled with singles and cover filler, especially in the R&B world. Indeed, a concert album in the case of a great and often-touring soul singer probably represented more accurately the talents of the artist at hand. This is clearly the case with Sam Cooke.

Another impressive element of Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is how the venue and performance display a unique intimacy and energy, which lend itself to the extremely cohesive nature of the musical performance. Listen to how the Harlem Square Club bustles with audience movement and feedback, on the one hand, and how you can discern certain movements of Sam as he moves around stage, claps his hands, or speaks to the audience, on the other. You can almost feel the sweat dripping off of Sam as he cajoles the crowd into twisting or heeding his advice on love and forgiveness. Also, the recording gives a good sense of the proximity of the tightly playing band in relation to Sam. Much of this closeness is probably due to the effectiveness of the technical recording (placement of mics, sound quality, etc.), which captures so many sonic nuances of the performance. It’s hard not to feel like you have been transported to the venue and are standing just several feet from the stage.

With regards to audience participation, it’s interesting to note how they cheer and applaud, but never in a uniform and prolonged manner like many of us are accustomed to hearing at the end of a song in other standard concerts. Here, the enthusiasm of the crowd is measured more by the crackle of voices in response to Sam’s singing or talking – essentially, the “amens” of the choir or parishioners as they praise the words of Sam the preacher man – and the movement of bodies (probably in dance movement) around what I imagine to be club tables. These are different times with different reactions based on a different style of show, and the album so dutifully documents these moments and gestures.

The immediacy of the music is what gives the album its cohesive feel. Here you have Sam and his well rehearsed band moving from one song to another with extreme ease, with one song seemingly blending into another. Sam knows his audience, the type of venue, and, consequently, and the importance of keeping the rhythm going and the song introductions humorous, soulful, or enticingly passionate. Ultimately, the tightness of the music exudes an infectious quality, which has the listener quickly moving his/her body in unison with the beat and in response to the singing. When the album finally concludes, it feels like the ride has been too short.

In the end, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 represents not only a snapshot of an artist at his peak in terms of performance, but an important historical document that captures the feel of a unique style of concert in a period seemingly far away from today. While I have listened to only a handful of live albums in my lifetime, I nevertheless feel rather confident in speculating that few live albums can match the importance and feel encompassed in Sam Cooke’s terrific performance. Taking it one step further, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 is probably one of the most important R&B musical documents of both its era and of all time, which automatically gives the recording elite album status.


venerableseed said...

the whole time I was listening to Sam Cooke I got caught up in comparing it to James Brown at the Apollo and it just didn't stack up in my mind.

For some reason I also equated them in my mind with the civil rights pillars of the time. Cooke with Martin Luther King (Harlem Square was recorded in the South) and JB with Malcolm X (Live at the Apollo recorded in the North).

The whole thing about the album being released in 1985 actually screwed me up too.

But your essay put things more into perspective and made me compare it to Cashbox Magazine's year-end list for 1963 or to the Beatles albums of the same year. And then Sam Cooke at Harlem Square feels electric, unseemly sexual, and really exciting. It's a great album and I wish it could have been enjoyed in 1963.

Eurowags said...

I really haven't heard many live albums and that includes Live at the Apollo, so my review was made somewhat blindly. Still, the energy, the conciseness (other famous live albums can be rather long with extended jams and solos), the gritty soul, and the flow of the album instinctively tell me that this is a super special album.

I look forward to hearing the James Brown album, but suspect that I won't like it as much, mainly because I am not a big fan of his earlier stuff, except for tracks like "Night Train".

Another thing going for the album is that it shows another, perhaps more authentic side of Cooke, one different from his more pop radio-friendly singles. The music has a real edge, both in terms of rock/R&B groove and its undercurrent of strong sexuality. I also love his lead-in to songs, particularly when he talks about forgiving his woman by waking her up, "wiping all that sleep from her eyes", and telling her that "it's alright"!

venerableseed said...

trust me, you will love the JB at the Apollo album. It's just too good.

polchic said...

wags, you make some great points about the sonic nuances of the album. I'm wondering if I shouldn't give it another listen, this time on earphones so I can pay more attention to the sounds and atmosphere you describe.

Eurowags said...

Polchic, that's a good point. I guess I pretty much always listen to music now on headphones anymore. I heard Sam's album the other day while straightening up the house and it put me in a rather good mood.

It's funny how music can leave different impressions on us based on how and when we hear it.