Wednesday, May 11, 2005

And now for my encores...

The term “encore” has evolved from its pure form in modern rock music. The traditionalist view is that an encore is a request from the audience for extra or repeated music (opera arias were often immediately repeated as encores), in excess of the planned performance. In today’s rock concerts, encores have become commonplace; so much so that artists plan on them and even plan their sets keeping encores in mind, sometimes even saving their best music or performances for the encores.

I’m on the fence about my feeling around this. I find it overly presumptuous for a band to plan a concert in this manner, regardless of expected audience behavior. Yes, audiences almost always request encores for the headlining band, but I believe that a band should still remain humbled about receiving such requests such that the still deliver a “complete” performance during the regular set.

For example, a few days ago I saw U2 on the Vertigo Tour. It was a typical U2 concert full of pops and whistles – I’ll likely type up more thoughts on this show at a later time. However, after finishing up their 17-song set, filled with hits across most of their career and a collection of new songs, they left the stage with a politically-charged version of “One”. It wasn’t in question whether they would come back out for a few more songs.

When they did come back out a minute or two later, they had changed outfits (at least Bono had) and moved through another set of 3 Auchtung Baby songs, fully equipped with visuals for each song (save for “Mysterious Ways” in which the band performed under simple red lighting). I wondered to myself whether or not this was truly an encore or just another “bonus” set. Certainly this was prepared (they’ve done it every night over their 4-show stretch in Chicago) and I felt like even if the audience didn’t request an encore, they were going to play these songs.

After the Auchtung Baby bonus set, the band left the stage again, only to return for a few more songs. In this final set, or 2nd encore, only one of the three songs felt truly like an encore: the second song, “Yahweh”, was led by The Edge on acoustic guitar and had no visual backing – only the band on the catwalk playing through a scaled down version of the album’s closer. This struck me as a truly authentic encore in that the band was “done” with the concert for all practical purposes and catered to the audience’s requests for more music by playing all that they had left, even though they had no prepared performance for this song. However, what followed “Yahweh” proved otherwise - they proceeded to play “40”, an old favorite set closer of theirs. It was clear by their performance of this song that they had planned on playing it and planned on ending the concert with it (for those who were there, note the stage ‘exit’ choreography as evidence). This is a great song, and yes, is an ideal song to close an evening with. I ask, then, why they did not play it at the end of the regular set.

In recent concerts, I have seen bands save their biggest hits or crowd-pleasers (“40”, for example) for encores. This tells me that the band simply assumed they would play encores. On the other hand, I have also seen several bands not playing encores at all anymore (Nine Inch Nails and Tool as two more recent examples). By pouring everything into their regular set, the audience certainly asked for more music in the obligatory fashion but wasn’t disappointed in not getting the encore request – the concert felt complete.

See what I’m saying is that I believe an artist should really lay it out there during their set, during their regular set, and not hold anything back. If the audience really wants more, there should be a certain level of humility coupled with it from the band’s side. With that, a performance during an encore should never feel like it was “prepared” or expected. There can be great beauty in seeing a band perform some unprepared songs in this “raw” format, and thus encores can still be a very powerful forum for good music to the audience’s delight.


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