Spotlighting The Live Session Provider
I only own two live LPs on vinyl. Nirvana's MTV Unplugged In New York and Miles Davis' Live-Evil. Until recent years, live music (unless at a gig) had never really interested me, and being the audiophile I am, I always preferred studio recordings. There was something about the notion of the live session that never quite felt right, and I had a tendency to view certain songs as inferior attempts to eclipse their in-studio counterparts. Looking back, that was incredibly naive of me, and recently my eyes (and ears) have been opened to the possibilities of live sessions - their intimacy, emotion, and authenticity. I've been steadily reaping their rewards, and wanted to highlight a few companies/projects doing them full justice - routinely distracting myself in the process as I rediscovered old favourites.
Audiotree Live - "We grow music"
I'm a big advocate of all things Audiotree. Founded in 2011, the Chicago-based project has risen from humble roots to become one of the most authentic providers of web-based premium live content. Listening to any one of their sessions, it should be immediately apparent as to why Audiotree is as revered as it currently is. These are live sessions as polished and genuine as they come, immaculately recorded with a set-up that guarantees an unequaled live, listening experience. The camerawork places you right in amongst the action as a viewer, while the mastering ensures high-quality audio. Exploring the wealth of available Audiotree sessions is a pleasure, and each offers something different. With a tight schedule and a willingness to host bands from a plethora of genres, there's a great deal of variety to Audiotree's work, with the project open to recording both small and large artists.
Sitting pretty with almost two-hundred and fifty thousand subscribers and eighty-four million views (as of May 2017) on YouTube, the company has recently begun to branch out from their initial small-studio sessions to take in live shows at iconic Chicago venues such as Lincoln Hall and Schubas Tavern. The more recent 'Far-Out' series leaves the studio entirely and takes artists to unusual places for a performance - pretty cool if you want to watch Elvis Depressedly play in a laundromat, or Basement rock out in an Illinois automobile services. On their official site, you can also find interviews, green room sessions and promotional spots, with many live sessions pausing for a brief break between songs for a single question to be posed to the artist playing.
The whole set-up is smooth and seamless, each individual session streamed live on both the Audiotree website and on YouTube, with select songs later uploaded to the platform while simultaneously distributed as full releases on Bandcamp. Here, profits are split fifty-fifty between band and company. I've purchased plenty of these sessions myself, and for plenty of good reasons. When I delve into Audiotree's back catalog, I expect to find quality, and I often find it in abundance. For the self-confessed audiophile, nobody does it better.
Little Elephant Live - "From our living room to yours."
For those who prefer a more basement-show kind of vibe to their live sessions, Little Elephant is a master of the small-room setting, recording high-quality sessions in a living room environment. Based in Toledo, Ohio, the company carefully curates the artists they feature, recording sessions free of charge after considering artist submissions. With a tendency to lean towards more alternative artists, the project has become a hotspot for up-and-comers since its inception - making it a great place to find the next big name in indie/rock or emo; the living room has shared occupancy with the likes of Foxing, You Blew It! and Modern Baseball, with artists such as Sorority Noise returning on multiple occasions. Due to the claustrophobic nature of the recording studio, sessions from artists such as Jeff Rosenstock deliver high intensity, throwing a viewer into the mix. Witnessing bands like Old Gray tear themselves apart emotionally from up close is incredibly striking, and the quality of the sessions is captured perfectly by a team of experts who know exactly what a viewer wants to see and hear.
In recent months, Little Elephant has expanded their goals and begun to press sessions onto lathe-cut records, offering a physical way to own the live experience without losing any of the audio quality. For a vinyl junkie like myself, it's an intriguing venture, adopted as a financially viable alternative to sponsorships in an attempt to maintain a truly DIY ethos. This added dimension helps set the project apart from their live session contemporaries and, similar to the Audiotree mentality, the profits from these records are split fifty-fifty with the recording artist. With the vinyl pressing proving to be a success, the future is bright for Little Elephant. Half a decade of work is certainly paying off.
Stripped back and intimate, NPR's 'tiny desk concerts' (note the use of 'concerts' instead of 'sessions') offer an alternate take on your favorite songs. A small branch of a far bigger organization, these live recordings are subtly warm, held behind a single desk in the offices of National Public Radio. As such, they feel like coffee shop gigs played for a small audience, and there's something pleasantly novel about the set-up. Carefully considered mic placements in the small area make for excellent feedback and, listening, it's easy to feel as if you're in downtown D.C taking it all in yourself as part of that tiny 'tiny desk' audience. The opportunity to listen to the likes of Death Cab For Cutie and The 1975 in such an environment is a highly rewarding one, and there are very few get-ups that allow for a similar sort of resonance when listening. It's a front row seat at your own show, played as if for you alone, and the results are often enthralling (I refer you to a recent Alt-J concert as a spellbinding example).
Alt-J, incidentally, is one of the only bands to return for a second 'tiny desk' session. NPR's popularity and pull allow them to put up a wide range of successful artists for your listening pleasure, and because of the confined space sessions are normally far more reserved than live studio recordings, with compromises made in terms of sonic scope. Often consisting of three or four songs the 'concerts' make for perfect lunch break listening, easy to digest and enjoy. Granted, there is plenty more to explore elsewhere on the site, courtesy of NPR, but these sessions are a must - all are archived online. Settle down and soak it all in - there's nine years worth of content to dive into.
Jam In The Van - "We are heady."
Sometimes setting adds a lot to a session. What better setting than in the back of a van? Musicians spend plenty of time in tour buses, but with 'Jam In The Van' they're not sleeping or waiting to get to a venue - they're already in the venue. The venue, in this case, is a solar-powered van, rolling across America in search of the next feature. It's a cool concept perfectly executed, showcasing a variety of genres from jazz to rock n' roll. Kitted out with a bright, interesting interior and awesome acoustics, the van is a great spot for a gig, playing host to the likes of Portugal The Man and Eagles Of Death Metal since its first outing in 2011.
With over two-hundred and fifty sessions per year, Jam In The Van delivers plenty of content from artists both big and small, squeezing them into the rear and letting them play. With these sessions free to stream and free to download on signing up to the site, there's no shortage of content, with an extensive list plentiful enough to exhaust even the most dedicated of listeners. Get on board; take a ride.