Benjamin Booker, ‘Live at Third Man Records’ – Album Review
Live albums are a lost art. Even in the glory days of the format, when 'Frampton Comes Alive!' and 'Kiss Alive!' were burning up the charts, artists routinely added overdubs to the final product -- and in the years since, the live record has become a contract-fulfiller and a stopgap for bands, many of whom never needed to release a concert recording in the first place (unnecessary, thy name is 'Train: Alive at Last').
These days, any dingus with a mobile device can record a show, and YouTube plays host to untold lifetimes of officially unreleased live performances (as well as tons of on-stage goofs). Plus, plenty of artists perform with tapes, vocal ghosting, and live pitch correction, so what's the point of bothering with a live album anymore? The idea has arguably never seemed less relevant.
Into this breach steps Benjamin Booker's 'Live at Third Man Records,' an off-the-cuff recording of Booker's Sept. 24, 2014 stop at the titular label and studio founded by Jack White. Third Man's warts-and-all aesthetic is a big part of White's cachet of cool, and if you're at all familiar with the label, you know what to expect here: tons of energy and a warm, ragged sound that feels great turned up loud.
But if you've listened to Booker's self-titled 2014 debut, you also know those are qualities that weren't exactly in short supply on the studio versions -- and 'Benjamin Booker' cuts make up the bulk of 'Live at Third Man Records,' with nine of this set's 10 songs drawn from the LP. These versions definitely sound live, but they don't exactly strip away the studio varnish of the 'Booker' versions, because there wasn't much in the first place.
Where 'Live at Third Man Records' truly has value, though, is as an audio snapshot of an artist in transit. "This record is the result of a year on the road. It’s the best nights of my life and nights I would give anything to take back. It’s sleeping in parking lots and sleeping with people for beds. It’s eating bad food with good folks. It’s makeups and breakups. It’s missing home and never wanting to go back," Booker explained when the album was announced. "We learned from each other. We grew tighter as a band. The songs changed, and on the night of Sept. 24 we stepped into that building in Nashville to capture that."
It's just that evolution you hear here -- the sound of a bandleader and performer who, while still demonstrably awkward when he isn't pummeling the audience with one of his songs, is confident enough to work the edges of his craft, moving in sync with the band through a roiling set that could only have come together after weeks on the road. They're still the same songs, but as Booker noted, they've changed, and as a result, 'Third Man' sounds not just live, but alive.
If there's a single frustration to be found here, it's that the album doesn't really give you an indication of where Booker might be headed next; the record's sole non-'Benjamin Booker' cut is a cover of Furry Lewis' 'Falling Down Blues,' and was part of his set throughout the tour. But that's serious nitpicking, and in a way, it also points to a big part of the LP's appeal -- what you hear here is a young songwriter still soaking in his first flush of success, and just starting to absorb the earliest waves of that feedback loop between an artist and his audience. Wherever he goes next is bound to surprise Booker, so it's only right that listening to 'Live at Third Man Records' leaves it a surprise for the listener, too.