Should Bands Play What We Want to Hear?

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The guilty party in question.
This question comes up time and time again in discussions about live concerts, and it seems like it's going to come up again now. Recently post-hardcore/indie-rock band Brand New played some shows on the East and West coasts performing their full-length records in their entirety. It was a bold move by a band with a deeply loyal fan base.

Well, that loyal fan base seemed to be stretched to their breaking point by a performance of Brand New's most recent record, 2009's Daisy. Daisy met with a mixed reception because Brand New had changed up their sound once again, and the fans at those shows made it very clear they wanted to hear songs from Brand New's other records instead.

Some fans were so outraged by their brethren that they started a Tumblr dedicated to heckling the hecklers. Personally, I have to ask the question again: Should bands play what we want to hear?

Of course, bands should ideally be free to play what they want. Let's get that out of the way up front. Yeah, some people may leave disappointed, but you're always taking a chance when you go see your favorite band. One of the most exciting parts about a live show is its spontaneity, and the surprise of what the band might play.

Plus there's Setlist.fm now, so if you want to know ahead of time whether they're playing anything you want to hear, you can.

Still, there's something more to be said on the issue than that. Sure, bands shouldn't feel beholden to anyone to play any specific song, but they are presenting a product to a paying audience. With that in mind, this sort of leeway does have its limits.

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Photo by Marco Torres
Let's say that you went to see Lady Gaga and she played two hours of free jazz. Personally, I would find that completely awesome, but a whole stadium of people would be feeling pretty damn cheated. How is that fair to her audience? There are certain expectations.

Furthermore, some bands can probably get away with more than others. You always have to keep in mind where your bread is buttered. Sure, Poison is probably pretty damn sick of playing "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," but that's what the audience is paying to hear. If they don't play it, they have cheated their fans just as much as Lady Gaga covering Ornette Coleman.

Some do this better than others. Take Elvis Costello, for instance. The man knows where his bread is buttered. If you go to see him, you're probably going to hear a lot of his first album, even though as an old man those raging punk classics probably seem a bit naff and he'd rather play some of his recently written material with the Roots. It is what it is. He understands his audience enough to know they want him to focus on his first few records almost exclusively.


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3 comments
shagnastypvalentine
shagnastypvalentine

John Lennon said that bands should play their recorded hits.  No screwing around.  End of discussion. 

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Everything Mr. Bell said. And, fans need to know the act/show before plinking down the money. Clapton did an accoustic set in NYC.  He only played traditional blues. He charged a grip for this show and fans where outraged that when he refused to plug and further ignored pleas for "Layla." A quick once over the program--or even the promo poster would've told them all they needed to know.

I LOVE Rush. Until about "Roll the Bones." Then I sorta like them but not enough to buy a ticket. Until the Time Machine tour and the 2112--in it's entirety tour.

michaelbell.1975
michaelbell.1975

IMO this issue is made worse by skyrocketing ticket prices.  There was always a bit of an agreement at a fugazi show: you get in for next to nothing, they get to play whatever they want.  No 'Waiting Room?'  It only cost you $6.  You'll never hear much of anything other than total reverence when folks talk about their live show, but you'll likely hear that they didn't play some song or other.  That's how it was, and everyone understood. 


Maybe the new McCartney record IS awesome like Rolling Stone says.  But for $350, folks aren't gonna be in a mood to hear any of it played live - they demand 25 minutes of 'Hey Jude,' thankyouverymuch.  For artists of that level, I think Springsteen does it best; tickets hover around $100, he does general admission sections for front row Joes looking for a more intimate experience, he might not play 'Thunder Road,' or he might play Born to Run front-to-back just because he can.  


If you want to be a 'change it up every night' band (and you should), it helps to be a 'tours so often it doesn't matter' band too.  Before each show, Wilco actually reviews the setlist from the last time they played there to make sure each town gets something different from tour to tour.  That's the kind of consideration bands should be thinking about, rather than finding a magical balance of hits.

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