Clip: Reviving the Album in Concert
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
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,"
"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
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
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?