CD Review of Stand in the Fire by Warren Zevon

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Stand in the Fire
starstarstarstarno star Label: Asylum
Released: 1980
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Generally speaking, live albums fall somewhere just above greatest-hits compilations and covers projects on rock & roll's ladder of importance. They're good for running out a contract, or suckering people into an impulse buy during the holiday season, but otherwise, most of them have no reason to exist. Most acts don't have the gumption to provide an audience with live performances substantially different from their recorded versions; by and large, the rock audience has come to its concerts seeking faithful renditions of the songs they know by heart, and the result is a preponderance of live albums as deeply inessential as Train's Alive at Last.

Still, once in awhile, you get lucky. Stand in the Fire came out during a crucial period for Warren Zevon – he was out of rehab and needed a hit, and even if the sobriety didn't last and the album wasn't a commercial success (this reissue represents Fire's compact disc debut), it still represents a raw, thunderous example of live recording at its finest.

The original release was flawed on two counts – length and song selection – and though the reissue solves the former problem by tacking on four extra songs, it can't fix the album's generally staid setlist. You've got most of Zevon's usual suspects of the period here: “Excitable Boy,” “Werewolves of London,” “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” “I'll Sleep When I'm Dead,” et cetera. This really doesn't do much to detract from the listening experience, though; some listeners might pine for a more adventurous selection, but these are damn fine songs, and they're delivered with a lot more fire and grit than the original recordings.

Zevon starts off slow – the title track, the Springsteen co-write “Jeannie Needs a Shooter,” and “Excitable Boy” are all somewhat lukewarm – but by the fourth song, “Mohammed's Radio,” the band has started to loosen up, and by the time they rip into “Werewolves,” your fingers will be itching to crank the volume knob. Repeatedly. Zevon was a genuine rock & roll lunatic at the time, sort of like Hemingway with a piano and better lyrics, and Stand in the Fire does a better job of expressing this than anything else in his catalog. Choosing to close out the set with “Bo Diddley's a Gunslinger/Bo Diddley” is a bit of a letdown for someone with such a strong and varied songbook, but the reissue provides the aforementioned four-song encore, including a version of “Johnny Strikes Up the Band” that, even if it is hampered by synths, is miles better than the studio version.

By the time Zevon gets to “Frank and Jesse James” and “Hasten Down the Wind,” you can hear the exhaustion in his voice; his parting words to the crowd – “Keep on rockin', and take my love and vaya con Dios!” – is the utterly spent final request of a man who came to play and held nothing back. Yes, it's flawed – but Zevon was often most interesting because of his imperfections, and as a result, his album is a frequently exhilarating flip side to his second live release, 1993's more sedate Learning to Flinch. If you're a Zevon fan, you've probably already purchased the reissue (and likely also own a high-priced import), but if you've never ventured into his strange and wonderful world, it makes for a perfect introduction.

~Jeff Giles