In Defense of Not Wanting to Hear Your Band Perform a Favorite Album Live
When a band performs its best album at shows, over and over, it's like they're admitting that they'll never achieve that particular level of greatness again.
"Part of the pleasure of the 'album in its entirety' is that it is the live experience of a beloved sequence of music coming to life. When you listen to an album over and over, your brain begins to anticipate the next song. Or to put it in more scientific terms: 'When two melodies are frequently heard in the same order, as with consecutive movements of a symphony or tracks on a rock album, the beginning of the second melody is often anticipated vividly during the silence following the first. This reflexive, often irrepressible, retrieval of the second melody, or anticipatory imagery, reveals that music consists of cued associations, in this case between entire melodies.' So say Leaver et al. The classic album played live meets that anticipation of the next song. It's giving the audience what the brain wants. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a moral question."
-- "Ask the indie professor: Is performing the classic album live a good idea?", by Wendy Fonarow, The Guardian, 29 February 2012
Looking at the comments to the above-referenced article, it's clear that Fonarow took some heat that opinion. One of the main sticking points readers had was her assessment that the value of playing a record from front to back in a live setting is a "moral" question. One commenter almost instantly fired back, wondering if it truly was a moral question or if her take on the matter was little more than pretentious guff.
Fast-forward a couple years and Foo Fighters founder/Nirvana drummer/All-Around Arbiter of Modern Rock Dave Grohl turned a few heads earlier this month when he offered up his take on the whole "play a classic album live" trend. He was asked if the thought crossed his mind while considering the upcoming anniversary of Foo Fighters' first record. Speaking with David Renshaw, of NME, Grohl said, in part:
"Fuck, man! I don’t like it when a band’s tour is just to play one past record. I fucking hate that. I don't like it when bands do that. It’s presumptuous. It’s lazy... I don’t get why people do that." ("Dave Grohl criticises 'presumptious and lazy' bands who play old albums in full", 5 November 2014)
Who would have thought this method of performance would become as prominent in the concert industry as it has? Surely the minds behind the British festival All Tomorrow's Parties didn't have it in mind in 2005, when they launched their Don't Look Back Series with a Stooges reunion and effectively vaulted the practice of performing an album in its entirety into the mainstream. They just wanted to hear Fun House. Nobody said anything about Nine Days running through The Madding Crowd sometime in 2014.
Yet that's where we stand, one "Story of a Girl" at a time.
It's a tricky proposition in today's constantly changing music industry landscape: How can you entice people to come to your concerts? The artists' answer: Think back to the time when the art of The Album still mattered and play off its relevance to your own career. Maybe you never had the chance to play the sixth track off The Grand Illusion in front of an audience, and maybe there's that uber-fan in Des Moines who has been waiting 25 years to hear it played live in front of him. It makes sense. You have a reason to tour under the pretense of a (somewhat) guaranteed, built in audience every night. And that fan fulfills his lifelong dream of hearing Styx's "Man in the Wilderness" live and in color.
In a world where the last real way to make big money in the music business is to tour, there's an honest level of logic and maybe even a little bit of integrity attached to each of these propositions. If your purpose in life is to play music, then by all means, figure out a way to play music and make a living. That's only human.
But from a fan's perspective? Well ... come on, man.
OK. So, let me get this straight, Classic Album Apologists: You recorded an album that sold a lot of copies at one point in your life. Then you recorded another one and it didn't sell as many copies. Maybe your record label dropped you, so you decided to release another record independently or on a smaller label. You still have fans; there just aren't as many of them as there once was. You can still tour, but the rooms are smaller. You can still earn a living while having the privilege of checking off "musician" on occupational forms, but maybe it's a little harder to pay the bills and maybe that apartment in Brooklyn isn't so financially feasible anymore, so you move to a less-expensive city.
Now, ask yourself this: Do you really need to go out and play Full Collapse from front to back like Thursday did in 2010? Why not just get right back in the studio and start writing? Musicians make music, right? So, why not just get back to your job?
There's something about the entire practice of recycling old material in album format that feels inherently cheap. And as someone who has bought tickets for these kinds of tours in the past, I can full-heartedly testify that through the years, I've gone from "This is kind of cool" to "Oh, OK" to "I kind of feel icky about this" to "Wait, this is boring" to "Holy shit, just stop already, will you?!".
I hit the middle of that grieving process when I traveled to Buffalo, New York, in 2010. Canadian rockers Our Lady Peace were going to re-create two of their albums over the course of two nights: Clumsy and Spiritual Machines. The latter was a huge record for me, so I approached the band's management about the possibility of getting access to the guys during this mini residency for a feature on PopMatters (see "Our Lady Peace Look Back at 'Spiritual Machines' a Decade Later: and "All You Did Was Save My Life: An Interview With Our Lady Peace’s Raine Maida". By the time the weekend was over, I had lost an irreplaceable amount of respect and admiration for an album I once considered essential to the rock music canon.
The problem with it all? I can't even tell you why I felt that way.
Was it because some of the aura I attached to it nearly a decade before had faded? Was it because I grew out of the album anyway? Was it because lead singer Raine Maida was so dismissive and condescending when it came to my questions that I wanted to go home and burn all my Our Lady Peace CDs? Was it because part of what made "Middle of Yesterday" so affecting was the opening sound-effect-laden shouts that get lost in a live setting? Was it because I had already heard "Life" performed far too many times in the first place?
It's 2014, and I still can't put my finger on it.
Ditto for a night in 2012, when I sprung for the good seats to see Peter Gabriel perform his landmark album So from front to back in Fairfax, Virginia. I was skeptical at first, but was persuaded when I found out that he would be bringing his old touring band, which featured the great Manu Katche on drums. In hindsight, the worst part of the show was the actual record -- opening the evening with a handful of acoustic songs, it was a joy and a surprise to hear a reworked version of "Shock the Monkey" as Gabriel sat at a piano. But another live version of "In Your Eyes"? Not so much. Even worse was that when I walked out of the arena, I had lost just the tinniest smidgen of affection for Katche, who clearly wasn't going for the same kind of fills, tricks, rolls and grooves he pulled off with ease some 20 years prior.
Grohl was right when he said that the move is lazy. In some ways, it's self-sabotage, a waving of the proverbial white flag that indicates an artist has understood he or she will never achieve that particular level of greatness again. Sure, they can mask it as a "celebration" and yeah, there's a certain nostalgic element attached to these kinds of concerts that is appealing to anyone who feels connection to certain records. But if you want to celebrate a record, why not just perform it once? And at what point does the line between nostalgia and pathetic seem to blur?
If nothing else, tours centering around one single album tend to compromise the memories that made said album unique in the first place. Everyone might love The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill because it's a great record, yet not everyone can attach themselves to it for the same reasons. They differ from listener to listener and they help create the specific bond that ties any consumer to the art.
I love Saves the Day's Through Being Cool, but I love it just as much for the angst as I do the memories I've attached to it. Even as I wander into my 30s, hearing "The Last Lie I Told" reminds me of being 15 years old and trying to figure out how to play it with my band in my mom's basement. I might not be able to remember what I had for dinner last Tuesday, but I sure as hell remember the feeling that washed over me after the first time we made it through that song successfully.
Does that mean I'll be excitedly jumping up and down in the front row when I go see the band perform that record in its entirety next month? Probably not. Does that mean I'll walk away from the concert with a little less zest for Through Being Cool than I had, say, two months ago when I listened back to prep myself for an interview with the band?
(See " Somehow You Love Me: An Interview With Saves the Day") That's a possibility. Will there be an overwhelming sense of satisfaction that I've seen each of those songs performed in one night in a live setting? I doubt it.
Still, I can't help but try. Because yes, I actually do have a ticket for a date on that tour, and yes, I'm still a sucker for anything that pertains to that album. I know I've been disappointed in the past and I'm all but certain that the performance won't live up to the lofty expectations I bestowed upon it. But above all else, I'm a fan of music, despite whatever critical ear I may lend to a performance. If you're a big enough fan, it would be unfair to dismiss the exercise based solely on merit. Maybe this time, I'll have a different reaction. Maybe this time, the act of playing an album for a live performance will work for me.
And then again, maybe it won't.