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If you’re missing live concerts, some live recordings might ease the sting

Billy Joel performs at Shea Stadium Wednesday, July 16, 2008  in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Billy Joel performs at Shea Stadium Wednesday, July 16, 2008 in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Credit: Frank Franklin II

Credit: Frank Franklin II

It was “I Saw Her Standing There” that broke me.

Not the Beatles seminal version – and certainly not the Tiffany remake from the ‘80s – but the live take that Billy Joel pulled out during his “Last Play at Shea” shows at New York’s Shea Stadium in 2008.

I was in the audience the night that Joel, playing the final concerts before Shea's demolition and the rise of the Mets' new home of Citi Field, introduced "Sir Paul McCartney" as the band kicked into the first notes of the song and a grinning McCartney strolled out and exchanged nods with Joel.

As we later learned via interviews with both artists, McCartney had literally arrived at the stadium minutes earlier with a police escort from JFK, where he had flown in from London in an attempt to make an appearance during Joel’s show (The Beatles performed the first concert at Shea Stadium, hence the full-circle connection).

Those types of concert moments are indescribable, even more than a decade later and from someone whose job it is to describe concert moments.

But when the song, from Joel’s “Live at Shea Stadium: The Concert” album, popped up on my MP3 player while taking a sanity walk on a nature trail, I stopped in my tracks.

In that moment, the beauty of the live music experience, the communal exchange of energy, the Omigodwhatishappening surprises, the reality of our aging music superstars – all of it walloped me with an aching pang. And yeah, I cried a little.

While I appreciate the ambition of some artists performing shows in parking lots and creating concert experiences for drive-in theaters, it’s not the same.

If you listen to any of the monster live albums of the ‘70s – Peter Frampton’s “Frampton Comes Alive,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “One More From the Road” (recorded at the Fox Theatre”), Kiss’ “Alive!” – or recall the momentousness of U2’s “Under a Blood Red Sky” and The Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” in the ‘80s, or even the more sedate environment of the MTV “Unplugged” series in the ‘90s, it’s the noise, the natural chaos and the crowd contributions (albeit likely sweetened in post-production) that give them life.

I miss the commotion that encompasses live events, and I know many of you do as well.

So until we can return to whatever normalcy will be in a venue, here are a few of my favorite live recordings that continue to give me solace.

Paul McCartney & Wings, "Maybe I'm Amazed" ("Wings Over America," 1976): No one needed convincing of McCartney's adoration of wife Linda, but the live version of this track from his 1970 self-titled solo album (the single release with Wings several years later) is McCartney unleashed, a man completely undone by his own devotion, all ragged vocals and from-the-gut thankfulness.

Bruce Springsteen, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" ("Live 1975-85," 1986): It's almost impossible to top "Born to Run" as a concert moment, because yeah, that trick of throwing the houselights up always adds a layer of joy when the crowd can see each others' faces. But "Tenth Avenue..." is such a fun bop, stacked with Clarence "The Big Man" Clemons' searing sax and Springsteen's reliable grit and sweat.

Celine Dion, "All By Myself" (YouTube): Check out the new David Foster documentary on Netflix to hear just how impossible he thought his own arrangement of the Eric Carmen song was to perform – and yet here is Dion, still slaying it as of last year's "Courage" tour (the recorded version is on 1996's "Falling Into You" album). Her Atlanta rendition was inarguably a tear-inducing moment, and you've got to love her facial expressions when she realizes she nailed it – yet again.

Beyonce, "Love on Top" (2011 MTV Video Music Awards/YouTube): Not only was Bey about to unveil a wallop of a pregnancy reveal with a mic drop at song's end, but she performed the buoyant valentine with unmitigated ecstasy and energy. Inspired by Etta James, the No. 1 R&B hit is a throwback to girl group sweetness with the perfect dash of Beyonce tang. And Lord, get out of the way when those key changes start to escalate.

Cheap Trick, "I Want You To Want Me" ("Cheap Trick at Budokan," 1979): The album version of this four-on-the-floor singalong arrived on 1977's "In Color" album, fizzled in the U.S., but hit No. 1 in Japan. Two years later, the Illinois power-pop band re-released the single from a couple of lively performances in Tokyo and it became the band's biggest-selling single (until "The Flame" in 1988), hitting No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100.

U2, "Where the Streets Have No Name" ("U2 Go Home: Live from Slane Castle, Ireland," 2003): So many visceral live U2 tracks to consider (the 12-minute version of "Bad" performed at Live Aid in 1985 is still considered a watershed moment for the band). But the rendition of "Streets" – a 1987 "Joshua Tree" rock hit – performed during U2's 2001 "Elevation" tour is sublime. The Edge's chiming guitar swells like a sun about to burst and when Larry Mullen Jr.'s bass drum thumps the song's heartbeat, you can visualize tens of thousands of bodies bouncing in unison and Bono lapping the heart-shaped stage. Those who witnessed the tour post-9/11 understand its unshakable soul-stirring effect.

Nirvana, "All Apologies" ("MTV Unplugged in New York," 1994): The final song on the band's final studio album (1993's "In Utero") automatically established it as a memorable coda. But the MTV "Unplugged" rendition, released on CD seven months after singer Kurt Cobain's suicide, not only sold more than 5 million copies, but remains a heart wrenching reminder of Cobain's pathos, which is distinguishable in every hush-to-roar lyric.

Elton John, "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" ("Here and There," 1976): Taken from a 1974 concert at New York's Madison Square Garden (the same show during which John Lennon appeared for a few songs), this version is but one of thousands of times John and his stellar band have captivated a crowd with the dramatic instrumental, powered by Davey Johnstone's guitar. And the marching segue that spirals into "Love Lies Bleeding" is always a dynamic concert moment.

Janelle Monae, "Make Me Feel" ("The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," 2018): Sultry and playful, this was one of those Monae performances laden with the spirit of Prince and James Brown that shows why Monae should be a megastar.

Bon Jovi with Jennifer Nettles, "Who Says You Can't Go Home" ("Have a Nice Day Special Edition," 2010): In 2005, Jon Bon Jovi exercised his business acumen and recruited Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles to duet on a version of this paean to the band's New Jersey roots. The combo version hit the Billboard Hot 100 AND crossed over to become a No. 1 country song as well. This live take from a Tampa show, featuring Jon's "little sister" as he introduces Nettles, showcases two pros sharing a heartfelt love of place.

Earth, Wind & Fire, "That's The Way of the World" ("Earth, Wind & Fire Live," 1996): While I'm usually partial to "I'll Write a Song for You," this rendition of "...World" from a concert in Tokyo highlights every nuance of greatness from this legendary outfit - the pristine harmonies, vocal scatting, deft guitar touch and a gripping percussive groove.

David Byrne, "Once in a Lifetime" (YouTube): Soon you'll be able to witness the simple originality that pervaded Byrne's 2018-19 tour, which played pre-pandemic Broadway (as well as the Fox Theatre and dozens of other venues nationwide) and will land on HBO later this year under the direction of Spike Lee. The Talking Heads legend is most appreciated in visual form of this riveting live show, but even just hearing his vocals on this 1980 classic will make you think, "same as it ever was." And that's a very good thing.

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