In the wake of Nirvana's breakthrough in 1991, countless bands that were consigned to the college-radio ghetto had a chance to hit the big time, and Live were in a unique position to catapult to the top of the heap. Unlike many of their post-grunge peers, the Pennsylvanian quartet weren't especially inspired by punk, grunge, or indie rock -- they drew their inspiration from the earnest, anthemic U2, tempering it somewhat with R.E.M.'s post-Document venture into big-time, socially conscious arena rock. That gave them a more mainstream sensibility than, say, Tad, Screaming Trees, or any of the heavy lumberjack lookalikes lumbering out of the Northwest, particularly since they were fronted by the wiry, attractive Ed Kowalczyk, whose sincerity -- in both his lyrics and performance -- helped make Live one of the biggest bands in the post-grunge America of the mid-'90s. That time in the spotlight was relatively brief. Their second album, 1994's Throwing Copper, climbed its way to number one on the back of the singles "Selling the Drama," "I Alone," and especially the ballad "Lightning Crashes," but they over-reached on its 1997 follow-up, Secret Samadhi, a heavy, heavy bid for hard rock and rock-crit credibility that debuted at number one but winnowed away a large portion of their audience. They bounced back briefly with 1999's The Distance to Here, but after the turn of the millennium, they, like many of their alt-rock brethren, had difficulty either appealing to their old audience or finding a new one, and their next two records -- 2001's V and 2003's Birds of Pray -- made little impact. A year after Birds of Pray, and just in time for the tenth anniversary of Throwing Copper, the compilation Awake: The Best of Live hit the stores. Since it runs a generous 19 tracks, it would seem like it chronicle the band's entire history quite well, but that's not quite the case. While it does capture the arc of their career, it does so by emphasizing their latter-day albums almost as much as the hit albums. That means there are a number of charting modern rock hits -- "White, Discussion," "Freaks," "Rattlesnake," "They Stood Up for Love," "Simple Creed" -- missing from the collection. Even if the biggest songs are indeed here -- "Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition)," the aforementioned triptych from Copper, "Lakini's Juice," "Turn My Head" -- those absent singles means that this album will feel incomplete to anybody who followed Live via either MTV or modern rock radio. That said, given the inconsistency of the band's post-Copper albums, this still remains the best way for casual fans to hear most of the best of Live, since it captures the best moments from Samadhi through Pray while presenting the biggest of their hits. It may not be perfect, but it will satisfy many listeners who want to revisit the heady days of post-grunge.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
feat: Shelby Lynne