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Clip: Reviving the Album in Concert

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  • Carl Z.
    If You Won t Play the Album, They ll Sing It, From the Top By ELISABETH VINCENTELLI Published:
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 1, 2007
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      <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/31/arts/music/31vinc.html>

      If You Won't Play the Album, They'll Sing It, From the Top

      By ELISABETH VINCENTELLI
      Published: December 31, 2006

      WHEN was the last time you listened to an album without interruption
      and from beginning to end? No cheating: fiddling with the "program"
      button on your CD player doesn't count, and no shuffling the track
      order on your iPod either. Perhaps, then, the occasion was a live
      show, like when Brian Wilson performed his Beach Boys masterpiece "Pet
      Sounds" in sequence on his recent tour. Or maybe it was "The Dark Side
      of the Moon," which Roger Waters replicated on his 2006 tour? Or could
      it have been "Reasonable Doubt," revived live by Jay-Z in June?

      Brian Wilson performed every song on the Beach Boys album "Pet Sounds"
      at the Beacon Theater in November.

      And that's not the half of recent opportunities to hear landmark
      albums performed live. Lou Reed performed "Berlin" in New York this
      month, for instance, while over in England the likes of Tortoise, the
      Stooges, Belle and Sebastian, Isis and Low have participated in a
      series called Don't Look Back, in which bands do just that by
      revisiting one of their older LPs on stage.

      Meanwhile, on XM Satellite Radio's two-year-old series "Then ... Again
      ... Live," the likes of Jethro Tull, Mountain and REO Speedwagon have
      each performed classic albums (in the case of those three, "Aqualung,"
      "Climbing" and "Hi Infidelity"). Newer albums are aired out as well:
      Iron Maiden is performing its latest offering, "A Matter of Life and
      Death," on its current world tour.

      Such shows tend to receive positive critical attention, but the
      current transformation of the music marketplace suggests that albums
      are being presented onstage because they're becoming museum-ified
      relics. As digital downloading changes the way music is consumed,
      could the album be going live because it's dead?

      Maybe the album's dead; but then, maybe it isn't. It's become a
      commonplace that albums are losing their authority as artistic
      entities as an increasing number of people buy music song by song via
      services like iTunes. So playing an album live helps artists regain a
      modicum of creative control. The experience is like listening to a
      playlist, but this time (as earlier) it's the musicians and producers
      themselves who are devising it.

      What's curious is that the same changes in music consumption that are
      hurting the album are helping to keep it alive. As recorded-music
      sales decline in a digital era of single-track sales and outright
      piracy, concert revenues are robust and, while always crucial to the
      financial health of the typical band or musician, even more important
      now. Performing an album live, then, is a way to stand out. It's "a
      way to get people to come in and buy a ticket in a very competitive
      market," Jethro Tull's front man, Ian Anderson, said.

      "It's a cynical commercial ploy on the part not only of concert
      promoters but also of some of the artists who go along with it," he
      added, commenting on a tactic he himself could be accused of indulging
      in.

      Ticket sales aside, revisiting a classic can boost sales of the
      original or a new live version. (Patti Smith, Jethro Tull and Belle
      and Sebastian have all released their stage reinventions on CD.)

      The strategy can certainly backfire. Iron Maiden's decision to play
      its latest album on tour has not always been well received by fans. A
      Welsh paper reported that in December "vocalist Bruce Dickinson
      bouncy-balled magnificently onto the stage, but when, five tracks in,
      he confirmed they would play the whole album there was a negative
      reaction; largely silence, even the odd boo."

      The impetus to find new ways to freshen up a stage act is so strong
      that the live-album phenomenon isn't limited to grizzled classic-rock
      veterans. In the tours that followed its 2003 reunion, for instance,
      the funk-metal group Primus played "Sailing the Seas of Cheese" (1991)
      and "Frizzle Fry" (1990) in their entirety. "It was an interesting way
      of presenting material that for a good portion of our fans held a dear
      place," said Les Claypool, that band's bassist-singer, underlining the
      allure of LP recreation for both audience and musicians.

      Many of the younger bands invited by Don't Look Back — a series
      created in 2005 by the ultra-hip British festival All Tomorrow's
      Parties — come from punk's song-oriented rebellion. For them the
      impetus seems slightly different, since they already tend to do well
      enough on the live circuit, and playing an album live does not
      suddenly vault them into larger venues.

      In their case what's at stake is the opportunity for the press and the
      fans to evaluate (or re-evaluate) a particular album's place in
      underground-music history. In other words, a Sonic Youth concert is
      merely a Sonic Youth concert unless, say, it's a performance of
      "Daydream Nation" as part of Don't Look Back. Then it would be an
      event prompting reams of ink and quite a few blog entries.

      The album contagion has even spread to jazz, primarily a live,
      improvisational realm where one would assume studio albums aren't such
      fetishistic objects. Merkin Concert Hall in New York is in the middle
      of a series called Reissues in which entire jazz records are performed
      live. Andrew Hill tackled his 1969 recording "Passing Ships" in
      November and in February Freddie Redd will perform "The Connection,"
      from 1960.

      "If you look at the majority of jazz record sales these days, they're
      either reissues or projects of artists who are no longer living or
      artists whose ensembles are no longer together as they once were,"
      said the co-curator, Brice Rosenbloom. "So we really wanted to give
      the audience the opportunity to hear these projects in a live
      setting."

      One of the trickiest aspects of playing an entire album — and one most
      tantalizing to fans — is that the element of surprise switches from
      "What are they going to play next?" to "How are they going to play the
      next song?" The challenge to play album cuts that don't usually
      receive stage exposure can prove daunting.

      "There are songs you don't seriously think you're ever going to do
      live because they're too tricky or you sang them at the top of your
      vocal range in the studio and you can't match that onstage," Mr.
      Anderson pointed out. "When you record a bunch of songs on different
      days and over a period of time, you obey a different set of rules,
      which aren't necessarily those that would make sense live."

      And still bands keep doing it, even though in some cases playing
      certain albums may painfully remind them of an early peak they'll
      never top again. This year when Teenage Fanclub performed
      "Bandwagonesque" from 1991, The Guardian's reviewer noted that after
      its initial success, the record "became their bête noir — never
      excelled, referenced in reviews of subsequent albums, and now entombed
      in aspic as part of the Don't Look Back series."

      Some musicians display a notable lack of enthusiasm for the whole
      idea. Asked about playing "Fun House" live, the Stooges' guitarist Ron
      Asheton simply answered, "It's just a show." Even Mr. Anderson, no
      stranger to performing concept albums live ("Thick as a Brick," "A
      Passion Play"), didn't jump at the opportunity to go through
      "Aqualung," from 1971, for XM Satellite.

      "I somewhat reluctantly agreed to do it," he said. "But once I started
      thinking about it and was faced with the challenge of playing a few
      songs I'd never ever played live, it became more appealing." (On the
      tour that preceded the XM session he performed the live debut of
      "Slipstream" and sang the rarely played "Up to Me," so he could
      practice them in front of an audience.)

      No doubt ego plays a role in musicians' agreeing to play albums live.
      It's hard to resist conferring on a collection of tracks a
      quasi-organic cohesion (and historical importance) that may not have
      been the original intent.

      "It's like a band jumps at the thought that their
      quickly-thrown-together collection of songs has luckily and rather
      arbitrarily found depth and meaning," said Stuart Murdoch, front man
      for Belle and Sebastian, with a touch of self-deprecation.

      At the same time the phenomenon does lead to absurd situations, like
      Cheap Trick replaying "Live at Budokan" live — huh? — or Alice Cooper
      performing his 1974 "Greatest Hits" on XM. Lee Abrams, XM's chief
      creative officer (and a pioneer of the album-oriented rock radio
      format in the 1970s), explained that "a lot of times artists need
      certain members to be in the band to recreate an older album, and I
      think the songs on that album were the ones Alice was most comfortable
      recreating."

      Playing a best-of record live does make a case for Alice Cooper's
      stature in the 1970s, but perversely it's as one of that decade's best
      singles artists. If buying music continues to become ever more
      song-based, playing greatest-hits packages live in, say, chronological
      order may be the only option left to younger acts. Justin Timberlake,
      are you listening?
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