Is it just me, or are rock shows supposed to be unpredictable?
The practice of performing your album live in its entirety is hardly a new idea. In 1969, The Who performed their latest record, the magnum opus “Tommy,” every night for over a year. “Tommy” was a rock opera – a thematic song cycle following the storyline of a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball prodigy who becomes a cult figure. It was a large-scale concept that really couldn’t be performed any other way given its continuity from song to song. Needless to say, indie rock releases like “Doolittle” and “The Soft Bulletin” don’t follow this structure.
Dinosaur Jr’s announcement yesterday that they will be performing “Bug” from end to end in concert is enticing to a degree being that it will be great to see Lou Barlow scream his way through “Don’t,” but it’s an idea that reeks of gimmick. There’s something about playing an album live that must be exciting for a lot of people because fans keep buying up the tickets, but I personally find it incredibly boring. When I saw the Pixies perform “Doolittle” in 2009, the most entertaining part of the show was the encore because it was the only section of the concert where I didn’t know what the next song was going to be. What could be more exciting than seeing your favorite band and not knowing if they’re going to play your favorite song — and then they do! It’s an amazing feeling and the “album-as-concert” kills that sensation.
The idea of cheering when a song begins, for instance, is meaningless. There’s no point in applauding or yelling out when the song starts, because it’s expected. You essentially paid them to play specifically that song at that time, so why clap? It would be like seeing “Carousel” and clapping when “If I Loved You” begins. Rock & Roll is not supposed to be like that, most particularly indie rock. It’s supposed to be unpredictable and surprising, and as much as I love them, bands like Pixies and Dinosaur Jr are betraying that idea for a buck. If Dino just toured with no album to promote, it wouldn’t be a guaranteed seller the way playing one of their treasured albums each night would be, and I can’t help but feel that’s why more and more bands have been doing this for the past few years.
What’s probably most troublesome about this instance is that “Bug,” although lauded by critics (still not nearly as much as “You’re Living All Over Me”), was not an album that was cherished by the band themselves. “Bug” was a notoriously tumultuous record where J Mascis’s control over every sound, including drum fills, alienated both Lou Barlow and Murph to the extent that Barlow quit the band, with Murph following later on. In an interview on WXPR, Mascis has even said explicitly that he’s uncomfortable playing a lot of songs from “Bug” live because they would give him bad memories. “A lot of the ‘Bug’ album I wouldn’t play…’Bug’ is my least favorite of the three albums so I just wouldn’t gravitate towards those songs as much. Because it was kind of like, you know, the band [was] falling apart.”
Maybe this tour is his way of reconciling the past, as a lot of time has gone by and the band might be righting the wrong of those sessions—but I personally would rather hear songs from “Bug” interspersed throughout a set rather than their initial running be replicated. It’s no secret that set lists are predetermined anyway, but the “album-as-concert” completely shatters the illusion and offers no room for improvisation.