Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The New Live Album

From the Los Angeles Times
The new live album
Many beloved full-lengths are getting played start to finish onstage. Quite a throwback idea, in this era of iPod shuffling.
By Steve Hochman
Special to The Times

August 5, 2007

The album is dead. Long live the album?

"People more and more are just downloading singles and individual songs, putting their iPods on shuffle," says music impresario Barry Hogan. "The whole idea of the album as an art form is kind of forgotten."

But not in concert. In the last few weeks alone, Los Angeles has seen a rash of acts performing complete albums: Sonic Youth doing its 1988 noise-rock breakthrough "Daydream Nation" start to finish at the Greek Theatre (and opening act Redd Kross presenting its 1981 teen release "Born Innocent"), D.C. rockers Girls Against Boys doing 1994's "Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby" at El Rey Theatre and Louisville, Ky.'s Slint offering its influential 1991 indie opus "Spiderland" at the Henry Fonda Theatre.

In early September, Lucinda Williams goes for the concept crown by performing five shows at the El Rey, a different one of her albums performed each night -- topping a three-night version of the same idea Sept. 5, 6 and 7 at the Echo by singer-songwriter Ben Kweller -- and on Sept. 15, a Fonda show will feature Seattle grunge pioneers the Melvins and Mudhoney doing their '80s groundbreakers "Houdini" and the "Superfuzz BigMuff" EP, respectively. In Las Vegas, Iggy Pop & the Stooges will reprise the 1969 proto-punk big bang "Funhouse" at the Vegoose Festival in late October.

And this Friday and Saturday, the work that 40 years ago arguably galvanized the notion of an album as an artistic statement, the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," will get a Hollywood Bowl performance by Cheap Trick, accompanied by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and an Indian-music ensemble. (A first-act segment features Beatles songs sung by Aimee Mann, Joan Osborne and others.)

"We want to present amazing records, as we see them, saying people should go back and listen to them as whole albums as intended, rather than just hearing a couple of songs," says Hogan. The English promoter put together the Sonic Youth/Redd Kross, Girls Against Boys, Slint and Melvins/Mudhoney nights as part of the Don't Look Back series, which he started in London as a spinoff from his annual All Tomorrow's Parties festivals.

Reformatting the rock concert
HOGAN readily admits that this wasn't a new idea when he first had the Stooges do "Funhouse" to start Don't Look Back in 2005. Cheap Trick, in fact, had done a short tour in 1998 performing its first three albums in three nights at each stop. In the early '90s, Roger Waters oversaw an all-star version of his Pink Floyd set "The Wall" at the former site of the fallen Berlin Wall. In recent years, Brian Wilson has led concerts of his 1966 Beach Boys landmark "Pet Sounds" and the reconstructed "lost" album "Smile." Phish used to hold annual Halloween shows performing other artists' classic albums. A regular series of club shows in New York, billed as the Loser's Lounge, has featured revolving lineups doing the same thing, as have Susan Cowsill's monthly Covered in Vinyl shows in New Orleans.

And the phenomenon isn't only about old music. Melissa Etheridge is planning a Sept. 25 New York concert of her new album, "The Awakening," in its entirety and will likely do an online performance as well, and Sum 41 has a complete performance of its new "Underclass Hero" streaming on its website.

"There seem to be a lot more opportunities for fans to hear the classic albums, in many cases by the artists who originated them," says Arvind Manocha, chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., who is behind the "Sgt. Pepper's" event. "As bands started doing it and fans responded, the artists could break free of the standard concert format of playing their greatest hits and a few new songs."

Hogan stresses that in the case of the old albums, this is music that changed a lot of lives, including his -- a notion that causes Mudhoney singer Mark Arm to cringe a bit, given the historic association of grunge with slackerdom.

"Yeah, which is a horrifying thought," Arm says. "I would hope it's for the better, but you never know: 'After listening to you guys, I thought I'd quit my job and smoke a lot of pot and drink a lot.' Great. I'm sorry."

Jokes aside, the musicians involved also relate to the fans' attachment to full albums. Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos remembers that as a teen he and some friends in a basement band tried to play the Who's whole rock opera "Tommy" themselves.

"When I was going to concerts when I was young, it would have been the coolest thing in the world to see a whole album from start to finish," he says.

"When we did the Cheap Trick albums, it was just trying to put a new spin on something vintage," he says, recalling the tour on which the Illinois band tried out the album-per-night format. "Great way to keep the fan base energized."

But it's also a way to keep the artists energized. Williams is excited about having an excuse to play songs she's neglected over the years. She's eager to see how the old material transforms through the lens of her own growth and changes, as well as in the playing of her current band, musicians who were not involved in the recordings. But mostly she sees this exercise, which she'll repeat in New York late September through early October, as a chance to reexamine an arc of her life, with the albums running from 1988's "Lucinda Williams" through 2003's "World Without Tears."

"When I look at my albums, I can see for myself a progression in terms of being an artist and a singer," she says. "For one thing, it will be interesting to do these songs with a more mature voice."

She almost thinks the series presents more of a challenge for the fans.

"If it was someone I was a fan of, I would want to go every night, like if Bob Dylan was doing this," she says. "You don't want to miss a chapter. But there's the money part. People can't afford to go to all the shows, so for some it will be frustrating to decide."

Reinventing the classics
WHETHER it's the artists' own work or an icon's classic, none of the people involved with these shows seems interested in merely re-creating the recorded versions. Manocha says he could easily have recruited a Beatles tribute band to do "Sgt. Pepper's."

"We didn't want it to be a Beatles impersonation," he says. "But I remembered that Cheap Trick and [Beatles producer] George Martin had worked together in the past and thought maybe they'd be interested."

Ironically, Carlos notes that he rarely listened to "Sgt. Pepper's" as a whole album and that preparing for the concert has given him new appreciation.

"There are songs I'd skip over as a kid, 'For the Benefit of Mr. Kite' or 'When I'm Sixty-Four,' " he says. "And now as an adult, I think they're great. 'She's Leaving Home' had no band on it, and it was a McCartney song. So I'd flip the album over right there. And now, suddenly, I'm going to be performing it!"

Of course, with the crush of such events, something like this can turn from cool trend to stale cliché pretty quickly. Arm isn't too worried, though.

"It could very well," he says. "But I guess the 'classic albums' are classic for a reason."

No comments: