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In the flesh: the rise of the album gig

We're more likely to watch a performance of a classic record than actually listen to one

The album, we are reliably informed on a regular basis, is dead. Like the wax cylinder and the eight-track cartridge before it, the album is a format made obsolete by advances in technology. The classic albums of the 60s and 70s had ten or twelve songs on them because that was the number that comfortably fitted onto two sides of vinyl playing at 33rpm. In the 80s and 90s, albums got bigger and longer because CDs could hold more tracks. And now iTunes, Spotify, YouTube and the forever-expanding world of digital music means albums have no function anymore. People choose their favourite tracks and forget the rest. In 2014 the Irish singer-songwriter Hozier’s Take Me To Church received 87 million streams on Spotify. Other tracks on Hozier’s 2014 debut album got a tiny fraction of that. There is a thin layer of songs that are consumed in their millions, and there is everything else. And this year Apple stopped putting a CD drive in any of their computers.

So why has the live album concert become such a huge success?

I first came across the phenomenon in 2002. That was the year Brian Wilson performed The Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds in its entirety at the Royal Festival Hall, London. Performing with a group of Beach Boys nuts called The Wondermints, the concert was a success, even if Wilson did little more than murmur his way through the songs while reading the lyrics from an autocue. The following year Arthur Lee, leader of the LA-based 60s folk-rock band Love, performed 1967’s Forever Changes in its entirety at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Forever Changes is one of the best albums ever made, a perfect encapsulation of both the paranoia and the beauty of hippy idealism, and to hear it played live was too good an opportunity to pass by. I was yet to be born when Love were around, they never played in Britain anyway, and at the time of the concert Arthur Lee was not long out of jail for overreacting to a neighbour’s request to turn his music down (he shot him).

The concert was magnificent. A chamber orchestra recreated the album’s string sections, Lee’s backing musicians came from a group of Love superfans called Baby Lemonade and his voice had the same unique blend of soulfulness, Baroque whimsy and crooning melancholy it always had.

That started a trend for classic albums to be played live. A year later Brian Wilson returned to the Royal Festival Hall to perform the Beach Boys’ lost 1967 masterpiece Smile, never released in its time due to resistance from band members and Capitol records for its non-commercial psychedelic weirdness, and also because of Wilson’s encroaching mental breakdown. Once again, it was a very special night. This was a great thing: to hear an album you had lived with, fallen in love to, rolled joints on top of, recreated by the people who made it. I went to full album concerts by The Stooges (Raw Power), David Bowie (Low), Public Enemy (Fear Of A Black Planet) and The Jesus & Mary Chain (Psychocandy), and they were great. Everybody left happy.

Then things began to get out of hand.

Instant nostalgia

It’s one thing to witness the recreation of a much-loved classic; it’s another thing to wallow in heritage rock nostalgia. Did the world really need early 90s student disco favourites The Wonder Stuff to come back and play snakebite-and-black-stained golden mouldies long consigned to basements and attics all over again? And to watch The Cure play not one but three albums in their entirety in a single, three-and-a-half-hour concert was less an indulgent wallow in gothic rock pleasures, more an endurance test. Portland’s folk-rockers The Decemberists only released their album The Hazards Of Love in 2009. By 2012 the band saw it as sufficiently iconic to build a folk opera around, which they performed at the Players Theatre in Montreal, Canada.

And you don’t even have to fork out to see your favourite band play your favourite album anymore. Just go and see Classic Albums Live do it instead. This ensemble offer your favourite rock albums in concert, including Abbey Road by The Beatles, Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd, Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones and countless others, as they put it, “note for note, cut for cut”. Classic Albums Live concerts have been selling out across America.

“Hope you like our new direction”

The album concert takes away the traditional values of rock’n’roll, like spontaneity, surprise and raw energy, and replaces them with the traditional values of theatre, like preparation, rehearsal and not leaving things to chance. The dreaded words “hope you like our new direction” are not going to crop up at any time over the evening, and the live concert offers the opportunity to pay attention for an evening to an album you probably haven’t listened to from beginning to end for years, however much you think you love it.

Most significantly the classic album concert boom proves one thing: people like albums. They have resonance in ways that songs alone do not and they remain the best way for an artist or band to get their vision out to the world. Patti Smith is the latest artist to join in: in 2015 she performed her 1975 pre-punk debut Horses in its entirety.

“Someone stopped me on the street and said: ‘Patti, do you realise that 2015 is the fortieth anniversary of Horses?” said Smith, when I interviewed her about playing the album live in May this year. “Of course I didn’t, but that got me thinking. Horses represents all the things that shaped me from the ages of 20 to 25 — Baudelaire, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison — and I thought to present the album would be a nice way to mark its anniversary. How do you deliver an album that is meaningful and not pat, night after night? Well, the people in the audience help you do that. Their enthusiasm brings it into the present.”

She’s right. And it’s no coincidence that the rise in album concerts has coincided with the drop in album sales, which has been driven not so much because music fans don’t want albums anymore as that convenience is king and the vast majority of people listen to music on their phones, not a medium encouraging concentration. As a result miss listening to albums, of soaking into the world they offer. Perhaps it is mere nostalgia, perhaps in 20 years’ time we’ll have concerts recreating the golden age of the iTunes shuffle, but for the present, live album concerts offer a night out that, given the right album and the right band, is hard to beat.  

Chief rock and pop critic of The Times, Will Hodgkinson is a music journalist. He is the author of the music books Guitar Man, Song Man and The Ballad Of Britain and the memoir The House Is Full Of Yogis. He also writes for Mojo and Vogue and is the presenter of the Sky Arts series Songbook.

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