In Praise of Artists Touring With Nothing New to Promote
The idea introduced by the Don't Look Back concert series, an offshoot of the All Tomorrow's Parties festival, has found its way into the broader live music circuit over the last few years: a band, currently operational or not, comes together to play one of its most influential albums all the way through. Public Enemy's done it; so has Slayer; so has Ennio Morricone. They do it at the Pitchfork Music Festival. They do it at Rock The Bells.
Christopher Victorio The stage during Neil Young and Crazy Horse's Outside Lands set. Five of the 13 songs Young played were brand new, from his upcoming album with Crazy Horse.
Nobody's doing it at San Francisco's Outside Lands festival this year, but the concept has felt resonant all the same: not the concept of performing an entire album, per se, but that of performing songs that have, for all intents and purposes, no novelty value. Most acts at Outside Lands have released an album within the last year or so, and playing a festival set without bumping at least the lead single of the freshest product is, economically speaking, dumb. Still, how nice is it, in principle and in practice, for a band to tour just for the sake of playing its songs?
It's hard to back up this line of thinking logically -- mercantile motives come in too many shapes and sizes to claim anyone is touring just for that reason -- but sometimes the burdens of promotion make themselves felt. Yesterday at Outside Lands, when Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos paused between two numbers to announce that the band had a brand-new album out, even specified its title, some nearby eyes rolled. For each song that Explosions in the Sky continued to skirt from their last album, the tepid Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, in favor of much better older selections, some nearby eyebrows arched.
A stage away was a late afternoon set by Grandaddy, a band that may as well not exist right now: their last album came out six years ago and there are no plans for a new one (although now that we say that it's surely only a matter of time before the members decide that, you know, the musical chemistry among them was just too strong for them not to hit the studio again). Sure, they reunited for this tour, which is on some level the same as having something to promote -- but the focus of the show itself is different. It's an academic difference, a semantic one, but it's like the difference between looking at a finished painting and looking at a painting whose author comes by periodically to add some new brushstrokes.
The dudes from Grandaddy are looking older these days (although the drummer is still a total caveman, which rules), but that's just the thing: they've aged, and the whole future-shock zeitgeist they wrote about has aged, and so have our ideas about it, and finally so have we. But the music has stayed the same, and somehow that's comforting. For now, at least, free of any particular transaction attached, it's a fixed point on the horizon line, receding slightly from view as we move forward. All changes to it from here on out are our own responsibility.