live albums Toronto

The top 10 live albums recorded in Toronto

The top live albums recorded in Toronto trace a century of music history from jazz to '60s rock to punk. As far as catching live music in Toronto goes today, it's almost tempting stay at home, get to bed early, and comb the web for choice cuts the next morning from the comfort of your breakfast nook, hoping someone, somewhere was laying down the entertainment for later enjoyment. Music fans of even the fairly recent past enjoyed no such luxuries - though they did sometimes get lucky thanks to the art of the live LP.

Though I'm sure nostalgia plays a good role in appreciating these performances after the fact, I've compiled a list of live albums recorded in Toronto that are notable for more than the fact that they took place on home turf. As the city shows no sign of slowing down in making music history - see Massey Hall's new Live at Massey Hall film series, let's look back on the best live albums recorded in Toronto (so far).

Elvis Costello - Live At The El Mocambo
Passing through on his 1978 My Aim Is True tour, Costello and the Attractions dial up the energy, releasing sweat that is probably still soaked into the walls at the palm-treed Spadina venue (which also saw Keith Richards' arrest on drug charges a year prior). Declaring he'll retake Canada for the Crown, Elvis and band rip through their set, knocking out songs much faster than their studio versions. Here he's all swagger and spittle, leaving the Sun to title their review "Prince Charmless Fashions an Event."

The Quintet (Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach) - Jazz At Massey Hall
Though this Massey show would be the only time this baffling lineup would play together (and the last recorded collab of Gillespie and Parker), the crowd was quite small: the performance unfortunately coincided with a boxing match between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott. Reportedly only Parker (billed as Charlie Chan due to contractual dispute) was able to cash his NSF cheque afterwards. Hailed by some as "the greatest jazz concert ever," the band work through standards with finesse and ease, building the lucky few present (and future) to a state of euphoria.

The Plastic Ono Band - Live Peace In Toronto 1969
Despite having only a day's notice, John, Yoko and band knock their set out of the Varsity Stadium during the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival Festival. The first live album by any Beatles member, Lennon reportedly agreed on the condition he could try out his new band, including Eric Clapton (George Harrison turned it down). Barely-rehearsed, the band grooves heavy over new originals (most notably, the first performance of "Cold Turkey") and the odd Beatles tune for good measure. This album does have an unfortunate side note: Lennon later revealed this performance gave him the confidence to quit the Beatles.

Ween - Live In Toronto Canada
Ween have always been manic and unpredictable, but I'm not sure what could be more delightfully surprising than a set full country-styled songs (from 12 Golden Country Greats) and fan favourites by the eclectic duo. Dropping in at the Phoenix on October 23, 1996 during their tour with Bobby Ogdin and the Shit Creek Boys, Ween's set is depraved and often drunk, slurring through an 11-minute version of "Buenos Tardy Amigos." Other choice cuts include "The HIV Song" and "Waving My Dick In The Wind."

Psychic TV - Live In Toronto
Though the post-Throbbing Gristle project of Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson were at times more palatable than their earlier, horrifying incarnation, Psychic TV still have the power to batter their way through classics like "L.A. Angel (For Jim Morrison)" and "D-Pravity." It's hard to make out in the decidedly 80's quality of their video recordings, but you can just barely recognize the late Diamond Club through the mist. Limited to an edition of 5000, the liner notes proudly proclaim "recorded on a Sony Walkman."

Thin Lizzy - Live and Dangerous
"Is there anyone here who has a little Irish in them?" Phil Lynott muses from the stage during their 1977 performance at Seneca College Field House in Don Mills. "Are there any girls who'd like a little more Irish in them?" OK, so the LP was only partially recorded in Toronto (other recordings take place in London and Philadelphia), and many tracks, including producer Tony Visconti, hint at considerable studio overdubs. That being said, when the Liz' rips seamlessly between "Cowboy Song" and "The Boys Are Back In Town," the crowd's screams seem not the least bit staged.

The Tragically Hip - That Night In Toronto
It seems remiss to not include Ontario's unfashionable favourites of Cana-Dad rock in this list. That Night In Toronto was released in 2005 as a film directed by the brothers Pierre and Francois Lamoureux. Despite being a visual testament to The Hip, you can't really ask for a higher order of a rock and roll concert, as the dense and delighted crowd makes even the Air Canada Centre seem homey. The true test of its quality, however, came when I bought this DVD for my uncle's Christmas present when I was 15. He seemed stoked.

Lenny Breau - Live at Bourbon St.
Lenny Breau was a fascinating figure of Canadian music, playing an entrancing fusion of flamenco, gypsy and jazz on 7-string guitar (though his death is perhaps more notorious). On June 14, 1983, Breau was joined by bassist Dave Young at Bourbon Street Bar for an intimate set of originals and standards, with Breau's unique solo styling echoing among the clinking glasses and hushed crowd. Released posthumously and produced by longtime friend Randy Bachmann, it's our good fortune the master tape was by happenstance recorded and eventually brought to light.

Various - And Now Live From Toronto...The Last Pogo
Although proven wrong each week at venues such as Soybomb, Sneaky Dee's and the Bovine, this legendary show at the Horseshoe Tavern (also "Legendary") was billed as Toronto's "the last punk show." Descending like tattered and pierced vultures, the audience was treated to violent performances by The Viletones, Teenage Head, The Cardboard Brains and others. Captured on film by Colin Brunton for his 1978 film of the same name, the violence continued later when a riot developed among the exuberant fans.

Neil Young - Live At Massey Hall
Finally, (no surprise here), Neil Young's homecoming performance following the Journey Through The Past tour takes the cake for legendary Toronto live albums. Alone, Young basks in the celebration of his career, switching from guitar and harmonica to piano while repeatedly pontificating on the purchase of his ranch. It's arresting to listen to Young introduce the yet-unreleased suite of "Man Needs A Maid" and "Heart Of Gold" as "a song about a... about, uh... a Broadway musical." Classics like "Cowgirl In The Sand" and "Tell Me Why" are as beautiful as solo pieces as they are bridging between the albums Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and After The Goldrush, respectively. An integral piece of of Toronto's live performance history, luckily laid to tape for those who missed out.

Writing by Colin Gillespie

Last Pogo photo: Edie Steiner

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