The Next Best Thing to Being There
Four New Live Albums For Under the Tree

There will be no column next week.

I have to go back east for a funeral – my best friend Mike’s father, Albert Ferrier, died this week after a long illness. I’ve known Mr. Ferrier since I was a kid, and a kinder, gentler, more supportive man you’re not likely to meet. His loss leaves a hole in the world. I still don’t quite know what to say yet, but I’m sure I’ll have more when I get back.

Rest in peace, Mr. Ferrier.

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It’s snowing as I write this, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Last year was something of a renaissance year for holiday music, I thought. I bought three Christmas records last year, which is kind of an all-time high, and I ended up really enjoying two of them – Aimee Mann’s One More Drifter in the Snow, and Sufjan Stevens’ massive, amazing Songs for Christmas. I usually find myself grumbling about the cash-grab nature of Christmas records (Barenaked Ladies, anyone?), but these were wonderful works of art.

This year, not so much. I know everyone’s loving the Josh Groban holiday collection, but not me. As it turns out, I’m only buying one Christmas record this year, and it’s by the Lost Dogs. They’ve called it We Like to Have Christmas, and it’s apparently inspired by those trashy two-dollar X-Mas collections you find in bargain bins and in Hallmark stores all across the country. It includes Lost Dogs-y versions of some of Terry Taylor’s original Christmas tunes, including “Fruitcake from Hell,” and it kicks off with “The Chipmunk Song,” which I simply must hear.

You can get We Like to Have Christmas, along with a new live EP by the extraordinary 77s, here.

You can tell it’s Christmas because there’s no new music on the shelves. ‘Tis the season for reissues, repackagings, and most of all, live sets – CDs that require little money to put together, but yield high returns for the record labels. Now, me, I love live music, so I can’t complain about the abundance of it at the end of the year. I have four new records on tap this week that demonstrate three different kinds of year-end live sets – new ones, old ones, and classic ones.

First up is Genesis, a band many people can’t believe I like. I’m forever making the distinction between the Phil Collins pop crap of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and the classic progressive rock the band turned out in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. That’s the stuff I like. So when I heard Genesis was reuniting its “classic” lineup for a world tour this year, I foolishly imagined they might ring up Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett and really make a show of it.

Alas, by “classic,” the band clearly meant “most popular” – it’s the billion-selling trio version of the band that went out on the road this year, including Collins on the mic, Tony Banks on keyboards and Mike Rutherford on guitar. They tapped their longtime touring rhythm section of bassist Daryl Stuermer and drummer Chester Thompson to head out with them – basically, another version of their 1991 and 1992 live band.

True to form, Live Over Europe 2007 is a two-CD document of the show, mixing older and newer material and giving equally good reasons to love and hate this band. Collins’ voice is the same as it ever was, and if it gave you hives before, you won’t hear anything different here. And Tony Banks is still a brilliant keyboardist, the spine of this band, which is why it’s difficult to listen to him slog through sappy, simple crap like “Tonight Tonight Tonight.”

Genesis jumps from prog to pop from song to song here so completely that you’ll be amazed that it’s the same group of musicians all the way through. The concert starts with “Duke’s Intro,” a compilation of themes from the sterling Duke album, then slams into “Turn It On Again,” one of the best of the latter-day tunes. But from there you get “No Son of Mine,” a minimal snooze-fest from their last album with Collins. The band does a fantastic medley of old tunes, including “In the Cage” and “The Cinema Show,” and two songs later they’re playing “Hold On My Heart.”

It’s like that all the way through. Highlights include “Ripples,” “I Know What I Like” and the great “Los Endos.” But you also get “Invisible Touch,” “Throwing It All Away” and the absolute nadir of Collins-era Genesis “I Can’t Dance.” The album actually concludes with the head-scratching duo of “I Can’t Dance” and the great “Carpet Crawlers,” from the band’s 1974 masterpiece The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It’s an odd choice to put the good material in such sharp relief by featuring it with the worst of the worst, but there you have it.

I have no idea if Genesis has really reunited, or if this was a one-time, money-minded tour. Either way, Live Over Europe 2007 shows the many personalities of the band, and highlights just how low their quality control had fallen by the end of the Collins years. But it also shows just how good a drummer Phil Collins is, in a duel with Chester Thompson called “Conversation with Two Stools.” Amidst all the cheesy pop the man and the band have foisted on us through the years, it’s easy to forget that Collins and his Genesis mates are actually very good musicians. The best parts of this album are a fine reminder of that.

But Genesis was never about the live show. Phish, on the other hand, was one of the best live bands on the planet while they were touring, and while they haven’t played together for years now, live Phish albums are always welcome additions to my collection. We have two of them this time, one of them just a run-of-the-mill superb Phish show, the other a treasure trove of legendary recordings from the band’s early days.

We’ll start with that one, called Colorado ’88. The Vermont quartet had been around for a couple of years at the time of these shows, their first forays away from the east coast, but these three discs still catch them forming their sound and their stage presence. And man, they’re amazing. Far from the lazy jams built around lazier songs that the band tossed off in its waning years, Colorado ’88 is full of progressive rock suites and Zappa-esque humor, and is a dazzling display of musicianship.

These sets were recorded by a fan off the soundboard, onto old cassette tapes, and given that, the sound quality is surprisingly high. Trey Anastasio banters with the audience more on these three discs than I think I’ve ever heard him do, and the overall intimate, friendly atmosphere is just wonderful. The set contains many of the songs from The Man Who Stepped into Yesterday, Anastasio’s senior thesis project while at Goddard College, and you can practically figure out the complex story of Colonel Forbin and King Wilson in the land of Gamehenge just from these recordings. (There’s an early version of “Wilson” here, and it’s odd to hear it without the audience screaming back the title – they just didn’t know what to do yet.)

But more than just the song selection is the incredible sense of energy and fun throughout this collection. Here’s Phish in their early days, playing the best music they possibly can with everything they can muster, and having a hell of a time doing it. They slip in my favorite section from “The Divided Sky” twice, once in the middle of a jokey number called “No Dogs Allowed,” and they cover “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley” and “Light Up or Leave Me Alone.” Best of all, there’s interplay, not just soloing – few of the extended sections here could rightly be called jams.

Eight years later, Phish played the show captured on Vegas ’96, and the difference is remarkable. The band is still tons of fun, and the show is fantastic, but they’ve really streamlined the sound in the intervening years. Billy Breathes had come out only a couple of months before, and that was the album on which Phish committed to smaller, simpler songs. They hadn’t hit their lazy funk period yet, though, and this set catches them at just the right time in their evolution.

Vegas ’96 kicks off with “Wilson,” but by now, the audience knows their part – “Ba dum, ba dum! Wiiiilsooon!” They hit high gear pretty quickly, with a cover of Zappa’s “Peaches en Regalia” and a slam through “Poor Heart,” but the highlight of the first set is a 25-minute “You Enjoy Myself,” capped off with the traditional a cappella section. The songs from Hoist are excellent live, especially “Down With Disease” and the great “Julius.” And “Mike’s Song” appears fully formed, especially revelatory after the sketchy version on Colorado ’88.

Still, there’s no reason to get this over any other Phish live record, until you get to the third disc. It contains the encore, a 37-minute take on “Harpua” intermingled with some surprising covers, and featuring some special guests – Les Claypool and Larry LaLonde of Primus, John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, some yodelers and four Elvis impersonators. I’m telling you, this disc is worth the price of admission.

Phish would quickly take a turn for the worse shortly after this show, and would never really regain their footing. The live material from the last five or six years of the band’s existence is still good, but not nearly to this level, and the studio material became flat and boring. But with these two releases, you get to hear the band in their exciting early days, and in their live prime, and they’re both thrilling.

The idea of pushing the boundaries on stage and sending your songs into new dimensions is not a new one, of course. And that leads us to the final of our live albums, a classic show repackaged and re-released for a new audience – Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same.

For my money, while you get a good sense of Led Zep from their studio albums, the live show really defined them. I’d only heard The Song Remains the Same, recorded in 1973 but not released until 1976, on cassette before picking up this beautifully packaged new release, and the difference is, as you might imagine, pretty significant. But the power and brilliance of the performance, that remains the same, and I’d put this up there with the best live albums ever released.

You all know what’s here – one of the finest four-piece rock bands of all time slamming through songs you know by heart. There are six more tunes from the show included here, previously unreleased, so now we get a complete Zeppelin concert on two CDs. It launches with “Rock and Roll,” the simplest statement of purpose the band could have written, but before long the quartet is bluesing it up with “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” creeping it out with “No Quarter,” and heading into blissful territory with “The Rain Song.”

The second disc contains the most stretched-out numbers, with the legendary 29-minute take on “Dazed and Confused,” complete with Jimmy Page’s violin bow solo, followed in short order by John Bonham’s 11-minute drum showpiece “Moby Dick.” But it’s the great “Whole Lotta Love” that ends the show, here in a 13-minute incarnation that includes blues licks from a dozen other tunes. And it’s this song that defines Led Zep for me – one simple riff, built on and exploded by four terrific musicians.

With the complete remastering of Led Zeppelin’s catalog and the awesome three-disc live document How the West was Won coming out over the past few years, The Song Remains the Same was the one last missing piece of the puzzle. You don’t need me to recommend this album – either you have it, or you need it. ‘Nuff said.

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The Phillip Hinchcliffe-Robert Holmes run of Doctor Who came to an end on April 2, 1977, the final day of the program’s 14th season.

It’s no secret that many fans consider the 12th through 14th seasons the best era of the show’s 26-year original run. The 14th season, especially, is held in very high regard among Who fandom, and it’s pretty easy to see why. I mentioned last time this era’s triple threat – Hinchcliffe, the producer with the darkest and most adult-oriented sensibility in the show’s history; Holmes, perhaps the best and most imaginative writer Who ever had; and Tom Baker, the most popular Doctor of them all.

But that wasn’t all. Everything just seemed to come together in the 14th season. The stories were sharp, the budget was reasonably high, the actors all gave fine performances, and the vision of the show thoroughly coalesced. Nowhere is that more notable than in the final two stories of the Hichcliffe-Holmes era, The Robots of Death and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. (Yes, they’re silly, pulpy names. You should be used to that by now.)

The Robots of Death is a sci-fi mystery movie. The Doctor and his new companion, Leela, find themselves in a mining trawler scouring the surface of an unnamed planet. The ship is crewed mostly by robots, each given identical, dispassionate faces and numbers instead of names. Just as the Doctor and Leela arrive, human crew members start dying, and our heroes become the prime suspects. But over the four episodes, they sniff out the real culprit, and find that the robot crew is not nearly as harmless as they thought. (Didn’t they read the story title? They’re the robots of death! Geez!)

Everything works in this one. It’s a tight little locked-room mystery with some memorable performances from a larger-than-normal guest cast, each with a motive and opportunity. It’s like Agatha Christie in space, with a little action-adventure thrown in – just a superbly plotted tale. And the dialogue by writer Chris Boucher is pretty great, too.

This is the second story to star Louise Jameson as Leela, a savage warrior from a primitive planet, and Hinchcliffe and Holmes did well by taking her out of her element completely for her first few trips off of her home world. Leela is almost the perfect stereotypical companion, and Jameson’s casting was definitely something for the dads in the audience – she’s hot, she wears a skimpy leather leotard, and she asks a lot of questions, enabling the Doctor to answer them and let the viewers know what’s going on.

But Jameson brings a lot to the role, more than was probably written for her. She plays Leela as charming and straightforward, always willing to jump in and defend the Doctor – violently, if necessary. And she’s an action hero in a way that no companion before her was, brandishing weapons and sometimes actually killing people. We never really get to know her, and she only stays for nine stories, but so far, I like her.

The Robots of Death is, for all its captivating qualities, just a little story, though. For one of the biggest and best epics Doctor Who ever produced, you need to see the finale of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era, The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

I vividly remember this story from my youth, but I’m not sure I understood what I was watching, and I’m sure I didn’t get what the producers were doing with it. This is Robert Holmes’ masterpiece, an insanely good story that plays with the ever-malleable format of Doctor Who at every turn. At 142 minutes, it remains very tightly plotted, and yet feels like it has room to breathe – we get to know all of these characters, and get to experience some of the best acting performances in the show’s history.

It’s also a bugfuck insane tale. You don’t really find out what’s going on until the end, and it turns out (SPOILER) to be the story of a 51st century tyrant who flung himself back in time to Victorian London, lost his time machine, and posed as an ancient Chinese god to entice a famous stage magician and a walking ventriloquist dummy with the brain of a pig to find his device and retrieve it. Meanwhile, this tyrant’s body is collapsing due to the vagaries of time travel, and his minions are stealing girls from the streets of London so he can eat them. Oh, and the sewers are full of giant rats.

See? It’s nuts. But it’s brilliantly paced and plotted, and you don’t even realize what a crazy story you’re watching until you think about it later.

The central character of The Talons of Weng-Chiang is magician Li H’sen Chang, and I found myself having a very complex reaction to him. On the one hand, he’s a terrific character, complicated and conflicted, and in the end, he finds loss and redemption. He has a great little arc. But on the other, the producers made the decision to cast white British actor John Bennett to play Chang, and made him up to look Asian. Bennett is very good as Chang, but I find myself feeling queasy at the racial undertones.

I know what they were going for – Chang looks just like Christopher Lee in the Fu Manchu movies, and Bennett adopts the accent as well. It’s an homage to a more politically incorrect era in movie history, and as such, it fits right in with what Holmes and director David Maloney are doing with this story. But it still leaves me with an uneasy feeling.

Li H’sen Chang isn’t the only homage – in fact, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is basically Quentin Tarantino’s Doctor Who, 15 years before Reservoir Dogs. There’s a hundred things all wrapped up in this tale, from The Phantom of the Opera to Jack the Ripper to Sherlock Holmes to schlocky horror flicks to every kung fu movie ever made. It’s all set on puree, and all carried off perfectly, with only the giant rat proving to be a disappointment.

Amongst all that, Holmes also gives us one of the funniest and most memorable pairs of secondary characters in the program’s history with Professor Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago. Played with bluster and wit by Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin, respectively, Litefoot and Jago steal almost every scene they’re in. (There’s a particularly funny one with a dumb waiter in episode six.)

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is so good that even at six episodes, it never drags. And even when you’re in the lair of the melodramatic, bellowing bad guy in the final episode, there’s still enough to keep you watching, such as that walking ventriloquist’s dummy shooting laser beams at our heroes through the eyes of a giant golden dragon statue. The story is absolutely insane, in the best possible way, and if you can get past the Fu Manchu makeup and the cuddly rat creature, it’s one of the high points of the series. No other television show could have produced it, and no other team could have pulled it off this well.

Next, I will probably skip ahead to season 16, and The Key to Time.

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Again, no column next week. Be here in two weeks for the start of my year-end stuff, leading into the top 10 list and the third installment of Fifty Second Week.

See you in line Tuesday morning.