Full album concerts do little for us

full albumsBy the end of November, Bruce Springsteen, the Pixies, Steely Dan and Devo will all have played full-album concerts in D.C. (Illustration by Serge Bloch)

In Sunday's Arts & Style section Chris Richards wrote a piece titled "Frozen in their tracks" about the continuing trend that finds bands playing concerts at which they perform an entire album, start-to-finish, in order. The gist of his argument: What's the point?

There's more to that, of course, and Chris makes those arguments. But I've talked to a few musicians who share our point of view.

Craig Wedren of Shudder To Think, last year before Virgin Mobile Festival, about reunions and the full-album concerts: "To be totally honest with you I think (playing an album start-to-finish) is weirder. It's totally splitting hairs but there's something wax museum, mausoleum-esque about watching somebody play their classic album. It's so Pink Floyd, because they're already such a [expletive] weird kind of relic. You expect them to go note-for-note, song-for-song through their nostalgia trip. But I think it's weird, Sonic Youth doing 'Daydream Nation.'"

Tortoise performed its album "Millions Now Living Will Never Die" at a concert in 2006. This past summer I asked drummer John Herndon about that experience: "Well, you know. The band was divided about whether or not to agree to do that thing. We did it. And we're done with it. And we won't be doing it again. It was fun. It was fine. But it wasn't exciting. It was fine."

The Pixies will roll into to town for a pair of "Doolittle" shows in a couple of weeks. I talked to Frank Black this past summer and he said: "You go out with the old songs because you earned it. You wrote the songs and people want to hear them again and the market calls you or you sort of ask the market to take you again. In the case of the Pixies it was definitely a case of the market asking us to come back. It's just what you do as a musician or a performer."

"Wax museum," "it wasn't exciting," "the market." Not exactly words you associate with rock-and-roll. Are we wrong to be hating on this trend? Are we being joykillers? At the very least we came up with 10 albums we'd love to see re-created by the original players -- but that will never happen because of unflagging eccentricity, fidelity to notions of artistic integrity, lingering animus between collaborators, public disownment of the material and/or death.

That list: The Beatles -- "The Beatles" ("The White Album"), Prince -- "The Black Album," Minor Threat -- "Complete Discography," Bob Dylan and the Band -- "The Basement Tapes," N.W.A. -- "Straight Outta Compton," Patsy Cline -- "Sentimentally Yours," Trouble Funk -- "Drop the Bomb," Led Zeppelin -- "Houses of the Holy," Minnie Riperton -- "Adventures in Paradise," Talking Heads -- "Remain in Light"

Any to add to the list?

By David Malitz |  November 14, 2009; 12:28 PM ET Screeds
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From postrock's Twitter: "Are we wrong?"

Yes, you are wrong.

Two reasons:

1) Playing the entire album often gives artists an excuse to play lesser-known songs that aren't often played live. Two great examples: Springsteen's "The Price You Pay" (from "The River") and "Meeting Across the River" (from "Born to Run").

2) It's just like attending a musical or opera. You know what songs are coming up and in what order there, but that doesn't make them any less powerful.

I was at the Springsteen "Born to Run" show and thought it was just great as well!

Posted by: njdvlsrule | November 14, 2009 4:36 PM

I once several years before it became trendy saw The Smithereens do "Especially For You", as a fan it was one of the best nights of my life. The Who did it with Quadrophenia, which of course makes sense and they had guest vocalists on that tour. I'd like to hear Supergrass's second "In It For The Money", Sloan's "Twice Removed", and I'll admit it Toad The Wet Sprocket's "Fear" would be cool to hear...

Posted by: kvwren | November 14, 2009 4:48 PM

If I could pick one, I know exactly what I'd want.

Weezer doing "Pinkerton" in its entirety.

Posted by: mfishrules | November 14, 2009 5:37 PM

I think I agree with you. I've seen a couple of these shows in recent years and it always seems better in theory than in practice. I may love the albums themselves, and the tracking of the album and the relationship of each song with the other, but it tends to come across as scripted in the live format. And "scripted" is not what I look for in a live performance.

That said, I'd pay to see "Get Outta School" played in its entirety.

Posted by: rogo2000 | November 15, 2009 2:00 AM

It depends on how and why the bands do these album shows. I was fortunate enough to attend the final three nights of a five run stand Phil Lesh and friends played for the final shows at the fabled Warfield Theater in San Francisco in May of 2008. The first song of the first night was the first song of the first Grateful Dead album and they played albums in order over the course of four nights. It was a one time treat for the lucky few in attendance those nights and gave the band a chance to revisit some of the weirder forgotten songs and arrangements. This approach was not repeated or used to sell tickets. That's where you cross the line into lame. The music from the first night of these shows is available to download for free @ phillesh.net the date was 5/13/08. Music for free , very cool.

Posted by: jrbird419 | November 15, 2009 10:06 AM

I'd sure like to see Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention "Just Another Band From LA" or "The Mothers Fillmore East -June 1971".

Posted by: ranbotrout | November 15, 2009 10:57 AM

An entire album performed live on stage? Wake up, and take a look at your only logical choice. Firesign Theater, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers. This is no movie, this is real. Which reel? The last reel!

Posted by: cjskama | November 15, 2009 11:30 AM

I've seen The Smithereens do their albums "Especially for You," "Green Thoughts" and "11" live in their entirety and all were great gigs...I've seen the band countless times over the years and it was fun to see them do the lesser-known/seldom performed tracks from each album.

I'd also love to see:

Pulp - Different Class
Talking Heads - :77
R.E.M. - Murmur or Reckoning
Elvis Costello - This Year's Model
George Harrison - All Things Must Pass
Stone Roses - The Stone Roses
Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures (or Closer, for that matter...I'd kill to see Joy Division do either! Where's a raising of the dead when you need one??)

Posted by: PowerPop64 | November 15, 2009 11:32 AM

Not sure if such concerts are smart marketing or desperation. With more than a few acts being moved to smaller venues due to lack of sales, maybe they could try something really revolutionary like lower ticket prices, reasonable service charges, or making it possible for someone without big bucks or connections to get prime seats.

I might be the only one interested in hearing Springsteen's Nebraska start to finish. If that ever happened, they would have to have Prozac standing by.

Paul Westerberg--14 Songs

Posted by: true_maven | November 15, 2009 8:10 PM

If the artist advises his/her audience beforehand that the concert will include a complete playlist of an album, where is the harm? I am a devoted Springsteen fan and love the idea of hearing "Born to Run" from start to finish. It gives me the chance to experience something the Boss and the E Street Band worked over 2 years to perfect. How many times have we all listed to an album and memorized the order of the songs? Of course, at a Springsteen concert, I know there will be 20 or more songs in addition to the Born to Run list. If a band or artist doesn't advise the fan beforehand, then it becomes a problem.

Posted by: Gifforre | November 15, 2009 11:33 PM

I second the motion for The Stone Roses. For R.E.M. I'd pick Lifes Rich Pageant. For Springsteen, sign me up for Nebraska and the Prozac as well.

My first-choice full-album concert, however, would be London Calling.

Posted by: Miles_Standish_Proud | November 16, 2009 9:29 AM

I would kill to see Fleetwood Mac perform "Tusk" in its entirety. That, of course, would require that Christine McVie come out of retirement, which I sadly doubt she ever will.

Posted by: VanityFeral | November 16, 2009 10:10 AM

I was on the line about seeing Steely Dan at DAR, since they're one of those bands who didn't even tour during their heyday. But getting to see Aja straight through tipped the scale for me. I wouldn't say that's the case with every act thought. Tortoise doing Millions Now Living is silly. The joy of seeing Tortoise is seeing band members move from instrument to instrument as they cover material from all their albums.

And I have a personal twist I'd put on these nostalgia cash-ins. Bands should pick a time period, not an album, and do a set from that period. Would I see U2 doing Boy straight through? Maybe. Would I see U2 doing a set made up of the first three albums? Absolutely. That would be a fantastic show.

Posted by: M__N | November 16, 2009 10:27 AM

I was at both the Springsteen (11/2) and Guster (10/29) concerts where "Born to Run" and "Lost and Gone Forever" were played in their entirely in order. Guster frontman Ryan Miller admitted that Guster would never play the LAGF songs in that order in a normal setlist. But it totally worked, with the group's bringout out string players for "Either Way", a great horn section for "Fa Fa", and a children's choir for "All the Way to Heaven".

The only negative about bands playing entire albums is that the best songs on the album are typically "frontloaded", so they end their sets with some of their lesser, more obscure songs instead of building up to their best songs.

But both Springsteen and the E Street Band and Guster played lots of other songs, too, so you never felt like you were just sitting at home listening to a studio CD or even a live album.

In short, I think it comes down to the group that's performing. If the group is just doing it for the "market" or thinks that the concept is just "ok", they shouldn't be playing their old albums. Clearly, that was not the case with Guster. Ryan, Adam Gardner, Brian Rosenworcel, Joe Pisapia and the other backup musicians were having the time of their lives playing LAGF, and the sold-out crowds at the 9:30 Club were totally into it!

Judge for yourselves. Just go to www.archive.org and type in "Guster" and you will be able to find live recordings of at least 5 of their LAGF tour, including recordings of both nights at the 9:30 Club.


Posted by: johnbuchman | November 16, 2009 12:54 PM

The trend is incredibly stupid. If the band's gonna go up there and tinker with the album, change things up a bit, play with and update their sound, then fine, that's one thing. Otherwise, if I wanted to hear a record, I'd put on the damn record. That's not why I'm at the concert.

And dear lord, can the Pixies possibly do anything more to tarnish their reputation? This Doolittle BS is the most obvious cash grab ever. It's not like they haven't been playing basically all those songs FOR FIVE YEARS now already on their never-ending reunion tour. I'm embarrassed for them.

Posted by: agl132 | November 16, 2009 1:22 PM

The Pixies reunion may have started 5 years ago but it's not long they've been touring consistently the whole time. Their last DC show was 4 years ago. People who missed them the first go around get another chance like myself.

As for full album concerts, I've seen a few (Mission of Burma, Stiff Little Fingers) and I had a great time at both. And Devo last night was excellent as well. I love the fact that I'm hearing songs they've never played before and probably never will play ever again. And if they can pull it off live, which all 3 bands aforementioned have done so in spades, then why not?

Posted by: dcmc8377 | November 16, 2009 2:33 PM

So? Has Doolittle changed much in the past 4 years?

Posted by: agl132 | November 16, 2009 3:12 PM

Very much so. The ukelele and the french horn have now been incorporated into the live show.

Posted by: dcmc8377 | November 17, 2009 12:40 AM

I'd add to my wish list Idlewild ripping through a couple of their albums live.

While it was fantastic to hear "Are We Not Men..." live, "Freedom of Choice" was just so-so. I'm agreement with M_N that it would have been better for bands to do time specific sets. DEVO could have recreated a show circa 1980. As they had their three best albums out by then, add in few of the early singles, b-sides and Booji Boy doing "The Words Get Stuck In My Throat". Much more compelling show, could have resulted.

Posted by: kvwren | November 17, 2009 2:22 PM

I saw OMD perform their Architecture and Morality album in its entirety back in 2007 in London, though not in exact album order, and the concert was amazing. So if you want to trace back the origins of this trend, maybe it started with them since it had been planned from the previous year to do a reunion tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary of that album. They also created a visual montage to go with the music that fleshed out a lot of the lyrical symbolism. The second half of the concert was a run through of their greatest hits, including the only song that gets any play here in the States, If You Leave.

Posted by: dinoue | November 18, 2009 7:00 PM

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