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Please, Don't Play It One More Time

Artists may think listeners only want the favorites. But a live workout of strong new songs can inspire and challenge audience and performer alike.

August 20, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

It's time to start thinking about a rating system for concerts.

I'm not talking about a pop music equivalent of the motion picture R or PG-13. Any act whose album carries a parental advisory sticker is going to raise somebody's eyebrows on stage.

The rating system I'm suggesting deals with a show's nostalgia content.

Be prepared for artists to be a little defensive. Performers aren't going to like to see their tours branded with an N.

But it can be useful for them.

For veterans artists interested chiefly in selling tickets, there's no better way to tickle the interest of longtime fans than to guarantee that they'll be hearing plenty of the old favorites.

It's an old joke, but it still applies: What are the six most dreaded words at a Rolling Stones concert? "Here's one of our new songs."

You could say the same thing about dozens of acts, from Bo Diddley to the Who. When I go to their shows, I just want to hear the classic tunes. (See box: The N Crowd on Page 84.)

For artists with a long history, we could even tailor the rating system to let potential ticket buyers know which decade most of the material will be drawn from.

With the Stones, for instance, it might be helpful to audiences to know if the show is primarily N-'60s ("Time Is on My Side" through "Honky Tonk Women") or N-'70s ("Brown Sugar" through "Shattered") or N-'80s ("Emotional Rescue" through "Rock and a Hard Place").

My real goal in proposing a rating system, however, doesn't concern veteran acts that have stopped producing quality work.

I'm hoping that the stigma of being branded N might jar those veteran artists who do continue to do good work into having more faith in it--and therefore sharing more of it with us live. (See box: Still Vital.)

The result would be more invigorating concerts.

Every artist should perform some of his or her signature tunes. But artists whose music continues to expand in interesting ways on record should also continue to expand that music on stage, not simply recycle it. The ultimate delight for a fan isn't just hearing the familiar live, but discovering great new songs. The song that people talked about after Bruce Springsteen's 1999 reunion tour wasn't "Born to Run," but the new "Land of Hope and Dreams."


I started toying facetiously with the idea of a rating system after seeing Bob Dylan at the El Rey Theatre in late 1997.

Dylan is my favorite songwriter of the rock era, and he was in great form that night--singing with a clarity and focus that haven't always marked his shows over the last decade. His latest album, "Time Out of Mind," had also just been released, and it was clearly his most powerful set of songs in almost two decades.

The album's highlights ranged from "The Highlands," an 18-minute tour de force that was so filled with thematic twists and turns that you wished it could go on for another 18 minutes, to "Not Dark Yet," about the struggle against despair.

He didn't do either song at the El Rey. In fact, he avoided the new material altogether. He stuck with most of the same songs that he has been playing over and over in recent years, and I'm ready to say enough of "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again."

I enjoyed the show, but I didn't feel Dylan maximized his opportunity for himself as an artist or us as fans. He did tap into the "Time Out of Mind" material in his tour last year with Paul Simon, but just timidly.

The rating concept came to mind again at Don Henley's concert last month at the Santa Barbara Bowl.

Henley was also in top form, returning to the spotlight as a solo artist after his lengthy series of reunion shows with the Eagles. And he too has recently released a new album.

While not in the league of "Time Out of Mind," Henley's "Inside Job" includes some songs that are among the most personal and revealing he has ever recorded. These tunes, including "My Thanksgiving" and "For My Wedding," speak of finding comfort and faith in his marriage and children. The themes are especially heartwarming after his long history of songs expressing disillusionment and doubt.

But in the concert, Henley left most of the emotional heart of the album unexplored as he stressed songs from his earlier solo albums.

It wasn't until seeing Steve Earle recently at the Sun Theatre in Anaheim, however, that I finally decided to propose the N rating.

Earle has been making records for almost 20 years, including a series of albums in the '80s that had country and rock critics heralding him.

But he pretty much ignored that history at the Sun as he devoted most of his two-plus hours on stage to his post-1995 work, including the bulk of the 15 songs from this year's "Transcendental Blues."

That meant he didn't perform some of my favorite Earle songs, including "Valentine's Day," a statement of romantic guilt that is as eloquent as it is convincing, and "Ellis Unit One," a piece about the death penalty that rivals any of Dylan's or Springsteen's social commentary.

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