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Does Anybody Really Want To Hear It In Its Entirety?

By David M. Goldstein | 9 March 2011

I don’t go to nearly as many rock shows as I used to. Job responsibilities, marriage, and general laziness associated with old age have resulted in my being far more selective. Yes, it’s true: I’m old.

One of the things I have always placed a high value on in live performance is spontaneity. I love it when bands alter their setlist on a nightly basis, banter with the audience, and generally use the stage to greatly expand on their studio creations.

Which is one of the reasons I’m unashamed to state that I’ve witnessed nearly two months’ worth of Phish concerts over the past fifteen years. And this needn’t be exclusive to jambands; Pavement famously played five consecutive nights in New York City last September, radically changing up their set each time. Yo La Tengo has never played the same show twice. Neither has Mission of Burma. It keeps festivities fresh for band and audience alike; who wouldn’t be far more willing to drop coin on a band knowing that the evening’s performance has the potential to be engagingly different from the one that preceded it?

Of course there are reasonable exceptions: nobody’s expecting the Rolling Stones or the Who to do anything other than perfect a solitary setlist night after night. But you’re also paying for an extravagant stage show that doesn’t exactly lend itself to improvisation (see also: Pink Floyd).

But as a rule, spontaneity plays a huge part in getting me out of the house.

And this is why I feel the recent, seemingly unflagging trend of bands playing their “seminal” albums front-to-back onstage needs to fucking stop. If I want to listen to an album in full, with all crappy filler tracks included, I can do so in the comfort of my living room. What once seemed like a harmless novelty has developed into a crutch, and has become borderline embarrassing—much like the Pixies’ decision to charge 80 bucks for the past two years to hear them sleepwalk though Doolittle (1989) night after night. Echo & the Bunnymen’s recent choice to play both Crocodiles (1980) AND Heaven Up Here (1981) in one show, in what I’m assuming are much lower keys to compensate for Ian McCulloch’s Marlboro-shot voice, is less a gift to fans so much as it’s an admission that they haven’t put out a decent record in ten years. And as much as I generally love Queens of the Stone Age, their debut album is probably their weakest, though Josh Homme apparently disagrees because they’ve started playing that front-to-back, too.

The fact is, very few albums in the history of recorded music don’t contain at least two or three tracks to fill out a short running time; plus, the band or artist must know this, because why else would said filler tracks not make it to the live show in the first place? In addition to eliminating any element of surprise by completely mapping out the next 45 minutes, the whole album shtick subjects the audience to songs under which normal circumstances would go mercifully untouched. While most Bunnymen fans will likely appreciate the opportunity to hear “Show of Strength” and “With a Hip,” those same fans are just going to be syncing their watches in anticipation of the ten-minute bathroom run that’s “No Dark Things” and “Turquoise Days.” Ever see any recent R.E.M. setlists containing “The Wrong Child” and “I Remember California”? It’s not because Michaels Stipe and Mills take joy in depriving their fan base of these songs; it’s because they know they suck.

(Pray R.E.M. never play Green [1988] in full.)

Of course, if Talk Talk wanted to reunite for the purposes of doing Spirit of Eden (1988), most CMG writers would likely rejoice, provided the mere announcement of such didn’t cause them to simultaneously combust. And when Brian Wilson tackled SMiLE in its entirety with orchestration—again, no complaint, although it probably had more in common with attending the symphony than going to a rock show.

But am I wrong for thinking that an hour long set in which you know exactly what’s going to transpire feels like a wasted opportunity? Wouldn’t you prefer to be surprised, or at least go in with the knowledge that you aren’t going to be subjected to filler tracks that haven’t been played live for a reason? Or is it better to pay fifty bucks and suffer through crap at least knowing there’s no possible way in hell that QOTSA will deny you “Regular John” or “How to Handle a Rope”?

I’ll opt for the former every time. Let’s discuss.