The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Has the encore left the building?

Once a given in live concerts, the encore is now seen by some as an artifact of old-school showbiz, rather than an authentic exchange between performer and audience

(Washington Post illustration)
10 min


Ahh, can’t you just hear it? The crowd, hundreds or thousands strong, wanting — no, needing — to hear at least one more song, their chant energizing the room, desperate to keep the night going just a little bit longer, to stave off the silence another few minutes …

That’s rarely how it actually goes anymore. If a band walks offstage these days, they might stay there. Some bands have grown weary — not of the love an encore elicits, but of the charade that came to define the tease. As the encore disappears, so does that awkward period of time when audience members calculate if they should grab one last beer or head for the bathroom, or, if sated in every sense, consider getting a jump on traffic and leaving. There is increasing evidence that the encore itself has already left.

“They feel yucky to me. They feel forced,” says Stefan Babcock, frontman of PUP, a raucous power punk band. “We’re pretty self-deprecating people and a self-deprecating band, and it felt weird to leave the stage expecting to have our egos stroked.”

Encores probably “started with the right intention, where a band played what they intended on playing,” Babcock says. “And then on occasion, they just had such a spectacular set or people were so enthusiastic that they demanded more out of the band, and that’s a great sentiment, but when you start building it into the show because people have come to expect it, it just feels kind of disingenuous. Now, if you’re a band that does encores and you don’t do it, it’s just a slap in the face.”

PUP’s anti-encore stance held firm when they hammered out a 19-song set at the Fillmore in Silver Spring in May. Toward the end, Babcock offered the audience a brief explanation, the same one he’s been giving for years, that they weren’t about to take a break; they were done. The moshing fans didn’t seem to mind in the slightest. “I think audiences are more understanding now more than ever,” he says. Plus, he finds something almost respectful in “not wasting people’s time, knowing they want the show, and then they want to get back to their kids or get back to their homework or get back go to sleep, so that they can get up early in the morning and do what they gotta do.”

A small but growing contingent of artists seems to be following suit. At 9:30 Club in September, the Afghan Whigs, once known for their eclectic encores, pummeled the audience with bracing guitars and booming drums for a couple dozen straight songs. And that was it.

Ditto for Broken Social Scene, who played an encore-less set at Washington’s Lincoln Theater and, the following night, 9:30 Club in October. Singer/songwriter Maggie Rogers usually walks back onstage to perform “Different Kind of World,” an acoustic version of “Alaska,” or one of her other hits, but she recently wondered if fans enjoyed the familiar charade of the encore and put a poll up on Instagram Stories asking if her fans really wanted one. (Spoiler alert: She’s still playing them.) The Chicks, once fond of the encore, skipped it on their latest tour, opting instead for the iconic “Goodbye Earl” to signal the end of the show.

The Gaslight Anthem thundered through their set at the Anthem in October, straight through the end: two of their most popular songs, “45″ and “The ’59 Sound.” The band’s frontman, Brian Fallon, has tweeted that he does technically play the encore. He just skips the part “where I walk offstage and come back again because I can fit another song in the time it takes to do that. I’d rather people get an extra song for their money.” And, like most non-encore bands, he’s vigilant in making sure the audience knows not to expect the whole walk-off-stage part, tweeting last year, “Just to be clear — I guarantee you I will talk, will probably talk some more, will play a song, will then talk more, will not do an encore, and I will definitely talk. Also will be happy you are there. Also will talk. Oh and no encore. And talking.”

Other artists, such as the Foo Fighters and the Strokes, have never played many encores. We “don’t do encores,” Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl often announces to the crowd. “We just f---ing play 'til the show is over.” Pop star Grimes finds that they awkwardly disrupt the flow of her sets so she opts for longer ones. Same for Jack Antonoff’s Bleachers. Country artist Jason Aldean doesn’t like them. “I like to play you guys everything we’ve got and when the show’s over, it’s over,” he said at one concert.

“It feels more honest and direct to give the audience a fabulous show, without any nonsense at the end,” says Jay Siegan, an experienced club owner and promoter who has worked with artists like Celine Dion, Weezer and Imagine Dragons. “Why not leave them hungry for more? I find it really refreshing when an artist pours their heart out into a magnificent performance, and then runs offstage. That is rock-and-roll.”

Streaming TV is having an existential crisis, and viewers can tell

“It’s kind of wild to me that [encores] lasted through the ’90s with bands who were sort of cynical of showbiz tactics, because it’s such an old showbiz idea. Of course there’s going to be smoke and mirrors no matter what, but the encore is a pretty overt lie to the audience,” says Max Collins, the frontman of Eve 6 and BuzzFeed’s newest advice columnist, though he added that in the right circumstances, an encore can be an exchange of generosity between artists and fans.

Eve 6 faces an interesting challenge of sorts. Collins knows their audiences want to hear “Inside Out,” the band’s 1998 hit, which he affectionately refers to as the “heart in a blender song,” thanks to its chorus. So when should they play it?

“After we play the heart in a blender song, we know people are going to kind of start checking their watches, so sometimes I might do a little spiel about how we’re not going to insult you with the concept of the encore,” Collins says. “So we’re just going to play two more alternative rock barnburners for you right now. No break. But what I’m really doing is saying, ‘Hey, don’t leave, even though we just played the heart in a blender song.’”

No song, movie or show can escape the digital age’s revisionist urges

Sometimes, he adds, they’ll play encores if the mood and the setting call for it — but it’s rarely “Inside Out.” Instead, they might bring out a special guest to “raise the energy,” either toward the end of the show or as a proper encore, such as when Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus joined them onstage in New York as surprise guest, three songs before the end of their set, to lend his imitable rasp to “Promise.”

For many, that seems to be the key. Don’t waste our time with the encore we expect. Put some effort in. Make it count. Create something special.

Josh Gondelman, a comedian who has worked as a writer on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” and Showtime’s “Desus & Mero,” counts himself as a big music fan and a fan of the encore — when done right. “I am ultimately for them, because I like hearing more songs,” he says. “But I think the de rigueur, pro forma encore that has become a concert staple” feels like “kind of manufactured drama no one believes in.”

He compares encores to “the expected post-credit scene in a Marvel movie,” which used to be this “special, exciting thing” but now the audience just “sits here because we know we’re not going to get the full experience if we don’t.” Or maybe, he says, the encore is like an act of kayfabe, referring to the portrayal of staged events in pro wrestling. Would it be possible, he jokingly muses, for an audience to be so quiet at the end of a set that a band would just skip the encore? What would it take?

For Gondelman, it needs to be special. Case-in-point: One of the “coolest” encores he’s seen came about 15 years ago at the end of a Beastie Boys concert in Worcester, Mass., when they played an instrumental song from the balconies, not the stage. “That was a thing that felt like it couldn’t be in the body of the set. Instead, it was a special, fun wrinkle for people who stick around.”

The point of the encore, he muses, is to give fans that feeling of something memorable, a little lagniappe to heighten the experience. Yet despite being an avid show-goer, Gondelman can count on two hands the ones that stand out. “I don’t remember most of them as much as I remember the time I saw Beyoncé sneeze, and the whole crowd said, ‘Bless you.’ That was a really organic moment.”

The one that shocked folk-rock singer/songwriter Matt Nathanson came at the Forum in Los Angeles during Metallica’s tour for 1991′s self-titled record known to fans as “The Black Album.” The band tore through more than two hours of hard rock, left the stage, returned for the encore and left again. The lights went up — the telltale sign that a show is truly over. As Nathanson remembers, about half the crowd split for the doors, but his two friends told him they couldn’t leave.

“I was like, ‘Dude, they just finished playing, like, two hours. They did an encore. They’re definitely done,’” Nathanson says. His friends insisted he was wrong.

“And sure enough, about 15 or 20 minutes later, the lights went back down and Metallica came out and played another couple of songs. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says, in awe of how the encore wound up being a true gift to the remaining fans who waited it out. “I remember thinking, [this is] the way to do it, you know?”

He stopped playing encores at every show years ago, and would warn the crowd early that “we’re past that point of our dating. … The way I described it is … you eat spaghetti on like the 10th date or whenever you feel comfortable.” He’d tell fans “we’re past the third or fourth date now. I’m going to eat spaghetti in front of you. … We know each other well enough that I don’t need to be demure. And fans liked it!”

Occasionally, a crowd will motivate Nathanson to return to the stage — and he scrambles to figure out what song to play. But he likes that. It’s electric. It’s real. It’s earned. And isn’t that the point of a true encore?

“Aren’t we all sort of yearning for something genuine?” he asks.