06 November 2009

Frank Sinatra, Ben Franklin, and the Rev. George Whitefield: LIVE (or not)!

Sinatra: New York, the five disc (4 cds + 1 dvd) set from Reprise Records of live performances from throughout the singer's career, was released this past Tuesday, and the inevitable, but nonetheless healthy, debate among Sinatra enthusiasts began in earnest on Wednesday. On the one hand, if Sinatra's not at his best, should such things be released, and, since we all know (they say) there are better things in the vaults, why release such substandard things at all? On the other, the argument goes, "Hey, the release of anything that hasn't been previously released is an undeniably good thing."

While I agree that real new releases (as opposed to repackaging) are a very good thing, I fall between the two camps...but mostly because I'm not a fan of the live album, in concept. My feeling is, unless the concert was some unbelievable (and, in some way, unexpected) triumph (i.e., Judy at Carnegie Hall, 1961), not a small part of the performance experience is simply lost on a recording. And if, as in some cases on Sinatra: New York, the performances are weak, the very weaknesses that for the most part go all but unacknowledged by a live audience will be magnified tenfold and become inescapable to the listener at home... To casual fans, Sinatra's Live at the Sands, The Main Event, and Sinatra in Paris, probably give all they'll ever need from a live career-spanning perspective, even if hardcore fans, like myself, will buy whatever unreleased material the Sinatra estate decides to release.

I can't but think of Benjamin Franklin's comments in his autobiography about the Reverend George Whitefield, the main force behind the mid-18th century religious revival known as the Great Awakening. Franklin admired the preacher and commented on his uncanny ability to move enormous crowds with his preaching. Whitefield's great mistake, according to Franklin, was the publication of those same sermons -- which gave the utterly captivated crowd a second chance to really examine what had happened, which almost always was not nearly as great or captivating or moving as it first appeared.

And so it is with so many live recordings (by Sinatra and others): yes, I would have LOVED to have been there, but my not being there makes listening to the performance far less compelling and makes my ears far less forgiving. Sinatra's presence could fill the largest of arenas, and an audience could feel that force palpably. Live recordings only rarely can capture his presence.

Some things, like the Reverend Whitefield's sermons and most live Sinatra shows, are perhaps best left to the incredible impact the performance has on one's memory.

Some things are best when ephemeral.

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