Discussion: Favorite Live Songs

While there is something to be said for the perfection of an album cut, there is nothing quite like the raw emotional power of the live song: the catch in the artist’s voice, the audience singing along, and the energy of the night coalescing into a captivating record.

Artists take different approaches when recording live albums. Some of them are serious albums recorded on the road, memorializing a particular concert or tour. Others are a random collection of live songs from various venues; while some may just be an acoustic EP from a day in the studio.

Few live albums sell in the same range as an artist’s studio albums, but arguably they are a better measure of the artistic mettle of the singer/band, and when they work, they manage to capture special moments in time.

Some of the live albums I own are my favorites, even exceeding studio versions of the same thing.  However, I’m currently on the look-out for a live song that I do not own (and cannot find…read: help diehard fans!).  Recently, I have caught my local radio station playing a live concert version of Keith Urban’s “But For the Grace of God.” I’ve never been a huge Keith Urban fan, but this version of the song stops me every single time, and I want to listen to it over and over again. It perfectly captures the beauty and thrill of attending a concert with thousands of dedicated fans who know every single lyric; and for whom all of the lyrics mean something special.

What are your favorite live album cuts? Any can’t miss recommendations for the rest of us?


  1. I have to say that one of my favorite live cuts is Faith Hill’s “Stronger” from her recent Hits album. I’m such a huge fan of Faith’s and have always thought that this song (along with many others from her Cry album) deserved a second chance. When I saw her perform this song live on her Soul2Soul Tour with Tim I was blown away! Faith has one of the best voices out there and it’s a shame that she (along with many other female artists) isn’t played at country radio hardly EVER anymore.

  2. As I’ve said before, I like live performances by Little Big Town better than what is captured on record in the studio by them.

    I really love the live version of John Denver’s Grandma’s Featherbed” from his An Evening With John Denver album better than the studio version. And of course, I can’t imagine “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” recorded any other way than live. I don’t know why I had to mention two John Denver songs though.:)

    A live album that I really like is Tracy Lawrence’s live album from the mid-nineties.

    Finally, I love Nirvana’s and Alice In Chain’s Unplugged albums. There studio recordings are very good, but it’s those live albums that opened the door to me becoming fans of their music in the first place.

    Sorry for the very scattered comment.

  3. Not to harp on non country artists, but I also think Pearl Jam’s live albums are better than their regular studio recordings.

  4. For Garth, “Friends in Low Places” and “The Thunder Rolls” are always amazing.

    Kathy Mattea’s spin on “Come From the Heart” is different each time she tours, and it never sounds anything like the original version. It’s always much cooler.

    Of course, my most recent concert was Madonna two weekends ago, and for me she’s the gold standard of live performers. There’s always a fresh take on the old hits and I end up liking the cuts off the current album a lot more. She did an acoustic version of “You Must Love Me” this time with just guitar and fiddle which brought the house down.

  5. One of my favorite live cuts didn’t ever make it to an album (as far as I know). That track is Charlie Louvin and Roy Acuff live on the stage of the Opry singing “The Precious Jewel”. My copy is on a 45 on the Hal Kat label

    Buck Owens made some really great live albums as did Merle Haggard. On the other hand neither of Hank Junior’s live albums is especially good

  6. I’ve seen her do it several times in several settings, but nothing says powerhouse like Reba McEntire singing “Fancy”. The house comes down every single time.

  7. Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions is much better live. The live version shows off the huge band and the irrepressible joy and energy everyone had performing the songs (and Dublin’s enthusiasm for the music!) is palpable.

  8. Since we’re not just talking country here…
    Any of a number of songs by Sarah McLachlan.
    Before I was even a fan, I heard her sing “Sweet Surrender” at Lillith Fair and have been hooked ever since.

  9. Going more than thirty-five years for these:

    On Linda Ronstadt’s self-titled album of 1972, she did a number of songs live at the Troubadour in Los Angeles with a backing band that included Don Henley and Glenn Frey. Her version of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces” established her ability to put her own spin on an already-much-beloved country classic while adhering to the original’s spirit. And she also does a heartfelt version of Neil Young’s “Birds” that demonstrates her way with poignancy in a true country-rock ballad setting.

    Then, from his final #1 album ALOHA FROM HAWAII VIA SATELLITE, there is the one and only King, Elvis, giving everything he has (and then some) on Mickey Newbury’s “American Trilogy”, which is actually a conflation of “Dixie”, “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic”, and “All My Trials”–done in a way that only this one man could do it, and an example of true heartfelt American patriotism that trumps all the more recent examples from Music Row (IMHO).

  10. Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark, Joe Ely and John Hiatt haven’t released an album of their acoustic song swaps yet, but they’ve all got songs that blow my mind in a live setting. If you look, you can find bootlegs of some of their shows. Lovett on “Step Inside This House” and Hiatt on “Have a Little Faith In Me” are the pinnacles of my live experiences so far.

    As for songs that’ve been put to wax, or whatever CDs are made out of, Todd Snider’s “Waco Moon” and Guy Clark’s “Randall Knife” from A Tribute to Bill Joe Shaver have a certain leveling power.

    Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” from Live At The Old Quarter is another good one.

    If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of live acoustic material.

  11. The entire Darrell Scott “Live in NC” album is incredible, most notably “Memory Like Mine” kills me everytime.

    Also, Guy Clarks “Keepers” album knocks me out everytime, especially “She Aint Going Nowhere”

    To second Brody on Townes, “Mr. Mudd And Mr. Gold” off of the same album is killer as well.

  12. With all the talk about Kenny Chesney this week, why not say something positive. After buying his Live Those Songs CD, I heard his live version of “Anything But Mine” and instantly fell in love. The sentiment in that song, as well as the crowd participation made that song much better live than in studio.

  13. I like Kenny’s “Live Those Songs Again” live. I have no idea if there’s a studio version of it though. I don’t think so.

    I agree about Garth, especially “Friends In Low Places” from This Is Garth Brooks.

    I also really like Sarah MCGlachlan’s “Icecream” much better than the studio version.

    Oh yeah, the live Aerosmith’s “Dream On” is awesome.

  14. I own many a live album from non-country acts that I love (Dave Matthews Band, Coldplay, John Mayer, etc.). Regarding country artists these are the ones I can recall as loving:

    Reba McEntire – “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” (Not from her live album, but from her 1994 tour/Reba Live NBC Concert Special. This version puts a gorgeous instrumental break just after the “he grew cold like an old winter wind” line before going into the final verse. So hauntingly beautiful.)

  15. Lynn, there’s a live version of Keith singing that song on his “Livin Right Now” DVD that is so awesome. The audience participation on it is beautiful.

  16. “Live At Folsom Prison” (an obvious one) by J.R. Cash is a favorite. Dierks has great live stuff and Keith Urban and Brad Paisley are two artists with great live tracks.

    I like that Tracy Lawrence record.

    The Townes, Steve Earle, Guy Clark set “Together At The Bluebird Cafe” is a particularly stunning album. Brody, if you don’t have it, you should get it. It’s what introduced me to Townes. Also their stories on the CD are priceless.

  17. Dierks has a song on his live DVD called, “Where The Wind Don’t Blow”. I love that song and it hasn’t been on a cd yet, and I’ve heard that it may not be on his upcoming release. Also, on that same DVD, I like the bluegrass version of My Last Name.

  18. Underwood’s “I Know You Won’t” is the showstopper at every single concert and her Opry defining moment. Incredible vocals and genuine, heart-felt emotion.

  19. Sorry, Lynn, for not naming my favorite live songs here. I guess I just keep thinking in terms of albums. I really love Emmylou’s Live At The Ryman album. It’s what really got me to give her other music a real chance (besides Kevin’s enthusiasm, of course). I just love the rootsiness of it.

  20. I’ll second that thought about Emmylou’s live album – it’s fabulous. I had lost interest in her after the ROSES IN THE SNOW album until that one came out. It just shines on so many levels

  21. Gary Allan seems to do a lot of songs live, that he never records. And a couple of them are great and a real shame he wont seem to record them. See his cover of Todd Snider’s “Long Year”, “You Let Me Down” and “I’d Rather Be Lonely Without You”.

  22. I have many live favorites. Here are two…
    California Stars by Wilco. Live at Farm-aid
    Down in Flames – Stoney LaRue and The Arsenals, Live at Billy Bobs Texas. That whole album is great, and the band is smokin’. (in more ways than one!)

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