Play it again, Sam. The whole album, please — and in order.
An unmistakable trend in concert-going is the growing number of acts performing their classic albums in full. Part marketing gimmick, part an act of nostalgia, the performances are above all communal celebrations of the album as an art form.
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The album is being feted just as — thanks to iPods and MP3s — its demise is being portended.
To quote the Marvin Gaye album, “What's going on?”
At July's Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, Public Enemy performed 1988's hip-hop classic “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” Sebadoh played their 1993 lo-fi indie favorite “Bubble and Scrape” and Mission of Burma trotted out their 1982 post-punk full-length “Vs.”
Earlier this year at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in California, Roger Waters played the Pink Floyd classic “Dark Side of the Moon” as his second set.
All of these concerts follow other album performances by Jay-Z, Lucinda Williams, Sonic Youth, Wilco, Slint, Iron Maiden and GZA over the last two years.
As she did earlier this year, Liz Phair will play her landmark 1993 debut, “Exile in Guyville,” in three shows later this month to coincide with a rerelease of the disc, commemorating its 15-year anniversary.
The concerts can be meaningful experiences for both artist and listener. The audience gets to hear the music exactly as they digested it — and perhaps grew to love it.
“We're all coming there with a kind of expectation,” said Phair. “It's the kind of show you have to bring something to. You can't just come and sit back and let it happen. You have to bring your memories. You have to bring your 1993 self.”
The trend is even visible in movie theaters. Currently playing in select theaters is Julian Schnabel's concert film of Lou Reed performing his 1973 album, “Berlin.” Reed also did a tour of “Berlin” last year.
Though Reed did the shows on his own, it was Barry Hogan who first suggested the idea to him. Hogan is a London-based concert promoter for All Tomorrow's Parties, a festival whose “Don't Look Back” series has been the trendsetter in getting bands to play their classic albums.
In its inaugural year in 2006, albums were performed by the Stooges (“Funhouse”), Gang of Four (“Entertainment!”), Belle & Sebastian (“If You're Feeling Sinister”), Cat Power (“The Covers Record”) and Dinosaur Jr. (“You're Living All Over Me”).
“When you first mention it to artists, a lot of them, their initial reaction is, `What's wrong with our new stuff?“' said Hogan.
But they've been quicker to come around to the idea, said Hogan. At the ATP festival Aug. 19-21 in the Catskills in upstate New York, Built to Spill, the Meat Puppets, Tortoise and Thurston Moore will all perform albums in full.
“Some people mistake what we're doing with ‘Don't Look Back' that we're just trying to be quite retro,” said Hogan. “It's more a case of we're celebrating the album.”
Though acts reach back into their catalog during a typical performance, many musicians never perform more than a handful of songs from an album. “Guyville,” after all, is 18 songs long. But it was composed as a cohesive artistic statement — a kind of song-by-song feminist response to another great album, the Rolling Stones' “Exile on Main Street.”
“After every single record I've finished, I've said in my own head or to other people, `Wouldn't it be great if we could just go out and perform it top to bottom?“' said Phair. “As I perform the songs, I had the time and focus to really think about what I was thinking about when I wrote that song.”
Too much reflection, though, can stunt anyone's creativity. Built to Spill is currently recording a new album in Los Angeles, so lead singer and guitarist Doug Martsch was hesitant to perform their 1997 album, “Perfect From Now On,” which will be the focus of their tour this fall.
“I put off listening to the album for a long time,” said Martsch. “The first time I tried to listen to it, I couldn't even make it all the way through it. It was kind of boring to me. But after a few listens, it grew on me.”
Built to Spill always works in a lot of songs from its catalog in its live show, but the band leaves room for improvisation, frequently jamming layered guitar solos. So many of the songs from “Perfect From Now On” have changed since they recorded them.
“We're trying to get it back to sounding like the record,” said Martsch. “Even the songs that we've been playing, it's relearning those.”
He added: “I'm looking forward to a whole tour of not having to make any set lists.”
Wanting to expand her set lists was a major factor in Lucinda Williams' decision to perform five of her albums — 2003's “World Without Tears,” 2001's “Essence,” 1998's “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” 1990's “Sweet Old World” and 1988's self-titled disc — in five nights in both New York and Los Angeles last fall.
“I have such a huge catalog now, that I don't get to play a lot of the songs,” said the singer-songwriter. “And I miss a lot of them. We only have so much room in the set. I loved the idea because it kind of satisfied my need to get all those songs out again.”
Williams recalls the evenings having an “emotional impact” — as well as scrambling backstage in between sets to remember lyrics and harmonies to old, seldom played songs.
The appeal of performing an album in concert is obvious to many acts because they feel similarly about their favorite LPs.
Williams would love to see Bob Dylan play “Highway 61 Revisited” or “Blonde on Blonde” — albums that were formative for her. Martsch liked the idea when he heard that Sonic Youth was performing “Daydream Nation.”
Asked what album she'd most like to hear performed live, Phair, fittingly, answered “Exile on Main Street.”
She maintains the staying power of the album as an art form: “Artists will always want to put together a masterwork,” said Phair. “You just have more to say.”
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