One of the most worrying popular music trends in recent years has been what I will heretofore call the Whole Album Tour (or WAT, for short).
A WAT occurs when a band or artist, usually well past their prime, announces in advance of a tour that rather than doing what rock musicians have done in concerts since time immemorial—namely bop around within their repertoire to play songs old and new in sometimes surprising juxtapositions—they will play an entire album (or at times even a couple of albums) in sequence.
My first exposure to WAT was at the venerable Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto a few years ago when, after playing a selection of more recent songs, Steve Wynn announced that he and his band would play Days of Wine and Roses, the great 1982 album that he recorded with his long-defunct band The Dream Syndicate. Now, I didn’t mind it at the time because first, Days of Wine and Roses is a great album, and second, I didn’t realize that what I was witnessing was to become part of a much larger trend.
Since then, we have been deluged with announcements of WATs, from the likes of Steely Dan, Van Morrison, Suzanne Vega, to name only those that come spontaneously to mind.
Last Tuesday, the Buzzcocks were in Montreal, and my heart sank when I realized that, punk though they may be, they too had joined the WAT bandwagon. I was pleased when the set began with “Fast Cars,” the first track on their first album, but I quickly realized that they were soldiering through both of their 1978 albums, Another Music from a Different Kitchen and Love Bites, without derogating from the albums’ song orders. Only the encore moved away from the track-by-track logic of the evening, running as it did through some of the band’s best-loved singles.
It has taken me a while to figure out why I am so profoundly annoyed by the plethora of WATs out there. But I think that I have now put my finger on why the trend is so profoundly objectionable. There are at least three reasons to just say no to WATs.
First: by engaging in WATs, artists are acknowledging that they are well past their sell-by dates. WATs rarely feature recent albums. Instead, they feature “classic” albums, that is, albums released decades ago. In featuring these albums, artists are suggesting that they haven’t been up to much in recent years, or even in recent decades. Note that that suggestion is, alas, often quite accurate. As much as I adored the Buzzcocks late ‘70s albums and singles, the work that they have done in the ‘90s and ‘00s has been, well, workmanlike. But that just begs the question: why should punters be spending their hard-earned money to hear bands whose best years often lie decades in the past?
I will answer that question in a second, but first, I must introduce a clarification. For a tour to qualify as a WAT in the fully objectionable sense, it is not enough that bands simply perform whole albums. WATs can be redeemed if one of three conditions is met. First, a WAT can feature an album that is rightly thought of by the artists as constituting a thematic or musical unity, such that performing only parts of it would be denying its integrity. Years ago, Lou Reed performed the album New York in its entirety because he saw it, quite rightly, as telling a story that really needed to be attended to from beginning to end. More recently, The Decemberists insisted for similar reasons on performing The Hazards of Love in its entirety during their recent tour (which brought them to Osheaga in August last year). That concert wasn’t really any good, but the reason for that was that the album is bloated, self-important and stodgy, not because it was a WAT in the problematic sense under discussion here.
Second, an album may have been unjustly ignored, perhaps because it was ahead of its time. In touring it in its entirety, artists may simply be calling attention to an historic injustice. And third, a WAT can involve such a radical rethinking of an album that it turns it into something new. As an illustration of both these exceptions, I invoke Lou Reed’s recent performances of the album Berlin at Saint-Mark’s Place in New York. That album had caused many fans and reviewers to scratch their heads when it was released in 1973, as it represented quite a departure from the radio-friendly glam-rock of Transformer. The 2007 version, performed with a 30-piece band and a 12-voice choir, was a revelation even for fans of the album who felt that it had been unjustly maligned at the time of its release.
These exceptions notwithstanding, why would people pay good money to hear a band whose prime was decades ago perform an album that they could just as easily have listened to in the comfort of their homes? The answer to that question brings us to the second reason to oppose the WAT trend: nostalgia. I have always considered nostalgia to be a disease of the soul, and its impact on popular music has been particularly toxic. Musical nostalgics usually believe, falsely, that popular music reached its apex at exactly the moment in which they stopped paying attention.
The audience for WATs is people who are wont to claim that “music went downhill after band X released album Y,” and who are ready to put their money where their mouth is in order to hear X perform Y as if time had indeed stood still. Since musical nostalgics are usually people in my age cohort with more disposable income than their kids, they constitute a market to which the music industry is all too happy to cater. But nostalgia is always a mistake. Its various manifestations, among which WATs loom ever larger, should not be countenanced.
Third, the WAT stands in tension with something that I have always taken to be central to the concert-going experience, which has to do with the element of surprise. It’s always fun to see what song an artist with a deep repertoire will choose to resurrect. Half the fun of attending a Dylan concert these days is to wait on the long-buried chestnut that Bob will decide to perform alongside his most recent material and the de rigueur hits. The unpredictable juxtaposition of old and new, of songs drawn from different epochs of an artist’s career will also allow listeners to hear all of those songs in new ways, to hear continuities and discontinuities. Attending a concert is an interactive process, one that requires some actual engagement on the part of the audience, who has to learn how to listen to old songs in new ways, and to new songs in old ways. WATs spoon-feed their audiences by providing them with note-for-note renditions of albums they already know by heart, performed in strict sequence in order to eliminate any possible surprise or aesthetic innovation. In other words, WATs assume laziness on the part of their audiences.
For all these reasons, and probably a few others, whole-album tours should be looked upon with suspicion. And I for one resolve not to knowingly attend any. Even if Kansas regroups to perform Leftoverture.
Rover’s intrepid music blogger Daniel Weinstock is back after a mysterious yet heavily tweeted absence.