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Thrill has gone out of the encore

January 05, 2004|David Segal | Washington Post

Everyone knows the drill: Band shouts "Good night!" and backpedals offstage. Crowd flicks Bics, applauds and screams for more. Band returns, plays, waves and then exits again -- starting another round of Bic-flicking and applause. A minute or two in the dark, and band is back.

And so on, until the lights come up.

Once rare and surprising, the rock-concert encore has become common and rote. Once a bonus, it has become an obligation. Once unscripted, it now comes with videos, choreography and finale flash pots. When U2 last toured, shows ended with Bono ranting against the gun lobby, accompanied by a carefully synchronized documentary film and a rendition of "Bullet the Blue Sky." The Dixie Chicks have rigged arenas to drop snow-like flakes for their sign-off. The days when a curtain call came with at least the pretense of spontaneity are long gone.

It all seems so un-rock 'n' roll, doesn't it? Yes, a concert is a type of show biz, and the soul of show biz is pageantry and artifice, but rock is supposed to have an aversion to fakery. At minimum, it should have a discomfort with fakery, and there's something pretty fraudulent about "ending" a show early so that a crowd can egg and re-egg you back to the stage for music you were planning to play anyway. At an Elvis Costello tour stop last year, he feigned his first exit an hour into the night, turning the next 60 minutes into a series of bonus trips to the microphone that weren't bonuses at all.

The encore asks rock stars to become actors, because it's acting to shout "So long!" knowing full well you aren't going anywhere. That's theater as much as music, and if we wanted musical theater, we wouldn't be at the Elvis Costello show. We'd be at "Mamma Mia!" Some bands hold back their big hit for the encore, which means the set list is a sort of ransom note and the audience is one big hostage. On reunion tours by Deep Purple, the only way to catch "Smoke on the Water" was to hang around for the closer. Other artists take a victory lap even if nobody clapped them back to the track.

We're a long way from the original intent of the encore, which started centuries ago as an extraordinary reward to classical musicians for sublime performances. The concept was slow to infiltrate rock; the Beatles didn't play encores in part because they faced the logistical problem of how to high-tail it before fans mobbed them. You were much more likely to hear "Elvis has left the building" than get another glimpse of the King early in his career.

The encore's slow slide to banality began in the '70s. Bands such as the Who saved them for exceptional nights, but by the end of the decade, nearly every act had arranged an elaborate sign-off. It was inked onto the set list. Prog-rock groups such as Genesis had their swan songs programmed into computers well before they played a note on opening night.

What happened? Bruce Springsteen happened. It was the Boss who transformed the rock show into an iron-man event, playing four-hour marathons, staggering back to the stage with the E Street Band time and again, their sweat and stamina part of the spectacle. You left a Springsteen show drained and you assumed he left on a stretcher. The encores started three hours into the evening and they felt like resurrections, each more improbable than the one before it.

From then on, a band that merely entertained seemed quaint. Encore creep had begun, and by the early '90s, it was so deeply ingrained that even the most anti-rock-star bands were unable to resist. On tour in 1992, Nirvana saved "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for an encore, which was pretty Deep Purple of them.

Of course, the original punk rockers ruled out encores altogether. So did Elvis Costello in the '70s. (His manager often blared ear-wrecking noise over loudspeakers to clear out fans who expected another tune.) Rap acts don't do encores, nor do a handful of rock bands.

But a flat-out encore ban can seem stinting and cold. Most fans at most shows really want another song, and they'd like a chance to express their gratitude and then have that gratitude acknowledged.

So what to do? Here are ideas:

* Get rid of encore bloat. If a band is planning to play for 90 minutes, it shouldn't leave after an hour just to goose the excitement level. Use that time to play music instead of bask in rounds of applause.

* Make it special. Most bands play the same thing every night, in the identical order. The encore is the ideal moment for a rarity, or a cover song. A few months ago, Steve Earle encored with a version of the Youngbloods' "Get Together," which captured the antiwar spirit of the show. And it's also a great song.

* Earn it. Not every show is encore-worthy, either because the act isn't up to snuff or the crowd isn't that impressed. An encore at a Grateful Dead show was unusual and it was up to the audience to win back the band. It rarely succeeded, no matter how rapturous its applause. Jerry Garcia was overheard at a Dead show in Chicago in 1980 declining to return to the stage, even as guitarist Bob Weir begged him to do so.

No, Garcia said. "Let's not mollycoddle [them]."

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