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MJ Lenderman Picks His Favorite Live Albums (After Putting Out A Great Live LP)

MJ Lenderman
Charlie Boss

It was exactly how I expected to find MJ Lenderman: Smiling backstage in a rock club with a beer in his hand. The lanky 24-year-old North Carolina native, whose lovably scruffy hangout album insta-classic Boat Songs was my favorite record of last year, was in Dublin earlier this month with the band Wednesday, for whom he moonlights as the guitar player. Later that night he was set to do double duty as Wednesday’s opener with a patchwork version of his backing group The Wind, effectively making his European debut as a solo act. And he was feeling jubilant.

“I wish the other guys were here,” he said with a goofy grin over Zoom, “but we’ll be back.”

When he hasn’t been on the road this year with Wednesday — who might have very well put out my favorite record of this year — Lenderman has been busy playing his own shows with The Wind. Their highest profile gig was this summer at the Pitchfork Music Festival, which was followed later that night with a more exclusive concert at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall. That show and another engagement at The Lodge Room in L.A. form the basis of a new live album out today, And The Wind (Live And Loose!), that functions as an ideal primer for Lenderman’s small but exceptional body of work.

While the bulk of Live And Loose! is made up of the slacked-up and witty country-rock tunes from Boat Songs, the most revelatory performances are of material that pre-date his indie fame, particularly the numbers from 2021’s Ghost Of Your Guitar Solo. Lenderman recorded that album by himself, and the songs are skeletal and rendered in bottom-of-the-barrel fidelity. On Live And Loose!, great tunes like “Catholic Priest” and “Someone Get The Grill Out Of The Rain” are transformed with extra layers of instrumental muscle, with Lenderman’s Crazy Horse-like band fleshing out their bones with sympathetic washes of lap steel and chunky guitars. Taken in tandem with the murderer’s row of stunners from Boat Songs — plus the fantastic recent single “Rudolph” — the revamped Guitar Solo tracks make Live And Loose! feel like something more important than a mere tour souvenir. It just might be Lenderman’s best effort yet, and the definitive document of this rising star’s 1.0 era.

After chatting about Live And Loose! a bit — as well as his next in-the-works album, which he says is only one song away from being finished — I asked Lenderman to count down his five favorite live albums. Which he did happily, though we ended up talking about more than five.

What makes a good live album?

I think it’s energy. A lot of energy goes into it. When I mean “energy,” I’m talking about, “Was the audience having fun? Was the band getting along?” Stuff like that. Because some of my favorite live albums are not necessarily played the best. The band’s not playing their instruments the best, or it’s not in tune. So I think it’s a lot of, “Does it sound fun? Do you wish you were there?” That kind of thing.

I noticed on your record that there’s barely any crowd noise. On some live records, there’s a lot of audience participation going on. Was that a conscious choice?

No. I think that was a combination of Alex Farrar doing a good job mixing, and maybe a considerate audience who doesn’t talk through the set. But I promise they applauded after the songs. [Laughs.] We only ended up taking two songs from Chicago at Lincoln Hall, because there was a guy standing right next to the only room mic and he was screaming along the entire show. And that room also was particularly dead. It sounded kind of like a studio. So The Lodge Room in L.A. ended up being better because there was some natural reverb in the room, and it sounded nice.

I think I need to hear the “screaming guy” version of this album.

He’s saying wrong lyrics and stuff. It’s funny.

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there is a Phil Collins’ live DVD from 1997 that’s also called Live and Loose.

Oh, shit.

So this was not a deliberate homage to Phil?

This is the first I’m hearing about it. Hope the label doesn’t get in trouble.

OK, let’s talk about the records you picked. All great choices.

Drive-By Truckers, Alabama Ass Whuppin’

They were the first band that came to mind. They’re my favorite live band I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen them more than any other band, probably. That one is really cool because it’s just a four-piece, and that’s a version of the band that I’ll never be able to see. They’re playing songs only from the first two records and the Jim Carroll cover, and there’s a couple songs that didn’t even show up on other records. But, yeah, it’s super punk. It’s the punkest I’ve ever heard the Truckers. Just super straight-forward, two guitars and bass and drums. They’re talking about not being in tune. And you can hear that the room they’re in doesn’t seem very big at all. And you hear the bartender calling for last call. At the end of the record, somebody is trying to kick everybody out of the bar. They were really roughing it at that time, I think.

The thing about Alabama Ass Wuppin’ is that I feel like those are the best versions of those songs. And in a way I feel the same way about your live album. A lot of the songs are transformed.

It’s been funny to listen back to the live album. While we were mixing it and choosing the right takes, I was learning a lot about what my bandmates were doing, and it helped me. We sound a lot better now after going through those takes and me being like, “Oh, I didn’t know you were doing this, don’t do that.” [Laughs.] But I’m glad we have the recording of it, even the stuff that I don’t love. That includes myself, too. But I think the album versions are maybe the best.

The Band, Rock Of Ages

This one I picked because it’s the live album that I’ve listened to the most. My dad got a new car four or five years ago, right when I moved. And I got his minivan, and that album was already in the CD player in the car. It was what first got me into The Band, and it stayed in the CD player for probably two years straight. I’ve heard that one so many times. And it’s got the brass section on it.

I also wanted to bring up The Band’s Woodstock performance. I discovered that a couple of years ago, and that one’s way rawer. It’s one of the few live versions I’ve found of “Tears Of Rage,” which is one of my favorite songs.

I love that album. It’s on the box set for The Band’s self-titled LP.

I think they didn’t release it because they left Robbie’s mic on, and he’s singing on it, and it doesn’t sound good. [Laughs.]. But I love how that one sounds super raw, and knowing where their heads were at with that whole festival in general, and not wanting to be filmed. I’m really thankful that they released the recordings. “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” that track kills me.

I love the version of “We Can Talk About It Now.”

Yeah! There’s a huge flub in that song between the first chorus and the second verse. They flip the beat on accident and start singing the verse in the wrong place, but then they catch it really quickly.

How do you feel about The Last Waltz?

I like the movie. Seeing them play is awesome, and seeing them play with Neil and all their guests is awesome. But it’s not really one that I like to put on that much. It’s too long and there’s too many blues jams, and I’m not as into that side of things. But I love hearing “Acadian Driftwood” live. There’s certain pockets of songs that I like from there. I should just go through and make a playlist of the good songs on there.

Neil Young, Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live

For some reason that tour is the only tour where they didn’t record every single show. Or maybe they lost the tapes or something. Also I know that that era, although it was full of grief for friends who had died, it was the first time in a few years post-Time Fades Away where it sounded like he was actually having fun making music, and the people around him were having fun being around him. That whole era sounds just generally way more positive than what was before.

What’s striking to me about that era is that it’s known for being sloppy and drunken. But that live album is totally on point. There’s a method to the madness.

Down to his outfit. It was all part of it, even the drunkenness. So you want to wear sunglasses inside? And grow a shitty beard? I guess that’s part of it. It was a little bit dark. But it just sounds way more enjoyable than Time Fades Away or anything after that.

I was going to say Massey Hall as well, the solo one. That was one of the first ones I heard. But I also love Year Of The Horse and Way Down In The Rust Bucket.

I’ve been on a Year Of The Horse kick. I love that late ’90s era of Crazy Horse. They were jamming so much.

Yeah! Fucking Brad Cook showed me the song “Scattered” on there.

Amazing performance.

It’s so good. I love that one. I always soundcheck with it.

Pharoah Sanders, Live In Paris (1975)

When it came out in 2020, that was peak Covid time. I just found it one day and put it on, and I listened to it probably every day for three months straight. I would just throw on some headphones and paint with that on. It’s really a positive force of an album. Just the song titles: “Love Is Here,” “Love Is Everywhere,” all that stuff. It made me feel good listening to it. It gets kind of far out and free jazzy, but it’s also really grounded, with just really pretty songs.

You stretch out a fair amount on your live album. Is that something you would like to do more?

I like the idea of it. Hopefully someday we can be good about doing that, not having to talk about it too much and just fucking jam, as funny as that sounds. We were listening to a lot of Grateful Dead on that tour. John, my guitar player, is a huge Deadhead, and I guess he would go on the archives, figure out what day it was, and then pick a Dead show from that day in an earlier year. So I guess jamming was on the mind. We were listening to other jazz stuff in the car. I thought having that kind of stuff on in the van would somehow make the band better. But the jam between “Rudolph” and “Toon Town” that ended up on the record has actually been something that we’ve been molding since then, and it’s turned into its own song now. It’s definitely the most improv we have in the set, but it has developed its own form and barriers.

Townes Van Zandt, Live At The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas

That was my introduction to Townes, and it’s been a huge influence on the way I play the guitar. He outlines melodies and the bass at the same time and kind of mimics the vocal melodies, and I’ve picked that up and tried to do that. It just seems like it’s from another world.

I’m always blown away by how few people seem to be in the room as he’s playing these amazing songs. It’s like, “Here’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’!” and there’s crickets.

And they all probably know him and just don’t give a fuck.

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