Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article stated that "Q: Are We Not Men? A:We Are Devo!" and "Freedom of Choice" were Devo's first two albums.They are the band's first and third albums, respectively.
Frozen in their tracks
When a live show copies the album song-for-song, why not stay home?

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 15, 2009

With fans clutching their ticket dollars ever more tightly, touring artists have resorted to bringing the people what they want. Exactly what they want. In order. They're hitting the road, playing their most beloved albums from start to finish, track by beloved track. (Doors open at 8, band goes on at 10, your favorite song arrives at 10:27. Plan accordingly.)

Bruce Springsteen, Public Enemy and Van Morrison are just a few of the acts who've recently embraced the idea -- one that's penetrated both indie rock enclaves and vast swaths of the boomerverse with a quickness that rivals swine flu. Now, with the likes of Devo, Steely Dan and the Pixies playing their classics on various Washington stages this month, buying a concert ticket feels more like pressing "play."

But can we please press "stop"?

This trend isn't just exhausted, it feels like a cruel perversion of a concert's real-time magic. Live music might be the last bastion of unpredictability in today's hypercurated mediascape: a fleeting opportunity to experience something unfiltered, spontaneous and really real. Instead, we're paying to see our greatest living, breathing, sweating, bleeding rock stars behave like iPods. And with no "shuffle" function!

Fans of a certain generation are still mourning the death of the album format, giving these shows a certain Irish wake-like quality. But they didn't start out that way. Brian Wilson and Cheap Trick are often credited as being among the first acts to take their classic albums to the stage earlier in the decade. But the idea came into full bloom at All Tomorrow's Parties, a U.K. music festival that draws thousands every year. In 2005, ATP began curating a series of gigs ironically dubbed "Don't Look Back," inviting the Stooges, Belle & Sebastian, Gang of Four and others to revisit their most beloved track lists.

As the artist intended?

"To hear the album the way the artist intended you to hear it, in a live setting -- I thought it was really interesting," says ATP founder Barry Hogan on the phone from London. "But in a way, it's turned into a bit of an epidemic."

In 2007, the indie tastemakers at Pitchfork invited a trio of acts to re-create their masterstrokes at the annual Pitchfork Music Festival. A reformed Slint paced through "Spiderland," Sonic Youth churned out "Daydream Nation" and Wu-Tang Clan rapper GZA reanimated "Liquid Swords." (All three had performed at "Don't Look Back" earlier that year.)

Since then, scores of artists have taken their best albums to the stage. Slayer has been performing its speed-metal magna carta "Reign in Blood" overseas this fall, while Todd Rundgren was recently in Rockville to present his 1973 prog-rock odyssey, "A Wizard, A True Star." With album tours, the original recording is consecrated as sacred text.

But that hasn't stopped less-than-iconic albums from enjoying the full concert reboot. Whether it's a one-off or a sprawling world tour, the approach has been adopted by Liz Phair, Judas Priest, Jay-Z, the Meat Puppets, Lou Reed, Cat Power, the Lemonheads, Spiritualized, They Might Be Giants, the Go-Gos and countless others -- with presumably more to come.

"I think it's successful and you'll probably see more acts trying to do it," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollstar, a trade publication that tracks the ups and downs of the concert industry. "We're in a different economic environment right now. Most fans only go to one or two shows a year. So if you offer them the unique experience to relive one of the classic albums they used to wear out on their turntable, that's appealing."

Fans were elated when Springsteen announced plans to perform his albums on tour this fall. He blasted through his 1975 breakout, "Born to Run," at a Verizon Center gig earlier this month. But the concept's fatal flaw felt palpable as Springsteen worked through a dynamic reading of "Backstreets." His band surged and soared, but the crowd seemed distant, as if holding its collective breath for the next track -- and the evening's scripted climax -- "Born to Run."

This is a minor gripe. The album segment of the show was merely the entree in a 160-minute, multi-course meal. But if a perennial thriller like Springsteen has to embrace this approach to boost his latest tour, is there hope for anyone else?

Some acts have refused to reunite and perform their albums -- Led Zeppelin, the Smiths, Pink Floyd -- but that probably has more to do with reforming the band than retracing the grooves of some dusty old LP.

And new pop artists need not bother. For the radio-friendly, playing your new disc in sequence would be dismissed as a grotesque cash grab. If Lady Gaga tried it, she would be tarred and feathered -- and to her credit, would probably transform it into a regular item in her fabulous wardrobe.

'Actually more than fun'

Eighties icons Devo will be in full weirdo-garb at the 9:30 club this week as the band re-creates two of its earliest albums: "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" on Sunday and "Freedom of Choice" on Monday.

"It's actually more than fun," says founding Devo member Jerry Casale from a tour stop in Chicago. "It's more like going to church where you know the prayers. It's a ritual!"

Huh. "Whip It" as an exercise in religious self-flagellation? Devo gets a pass.

But when most bands play their albums, such epiphanies are rare. That's because the most powerful concert experiences hinge on a heightened sense of anticipation -- a feeling of suspense that borders on magic.

We try to read the drumbeat as if it were a hidden code foreshadowing some secret future. We pine for the guitarist to pull the trigger on the opening jingle-jangles of our favorite song. We allow a band -- a crazy confluence of electricity and melody and sweat -- to whisk us off into the great, ecstatic unknown.

When an artist plays an album in order, all of that magic goes poof. We know what's coming before we hear Track 1.

Devo performs "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" at the 9:30 club Sunday and "Freedom of Choice" at the 9:30 club Monday. 7 p.m. both nights. $45.

Steely Dan performs "Aja" on Nov. 22 and "The Royal Scam" on Nov. 23 at Constitution Hall. 8 p.m. both nights. $68-140.

The Pixies perform "Doolittle" at Constitution Hall on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. 8 p.m. both nights. $53.50.

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