OLD FRIENDS: Elton John, left, and Leon Russell greet the crowd before performing… (Reuters )
When Elton John stopped in Los Angeles this month on his latest concert tour, he came in with one of the biggest storehouses of hits in pop music history. But instead of diving headlong into his catalog, he and his old friend Leon Russell devoted the centerpiece of their time together at the Hollywood Palladium to a complete performance of their new duet album, "The Union."
The performance ran counter to several bits of conventional wisdom about pop music today: Veteran artists must rely in concert on their hits to satisfy fans, the album format is dead or dying in the era of the downloadable individual track, and the ability and willingness of the pop audience to focus attention on extended musical works is shrinking by the minute, thanks to the explosion of music instantaneously available at the click of a mouse or iPhone app.
The John-Russell show was by no means an isolated incident.
A few weeks earlier, Velvet Underground alumnus John Cale played his 1973 album, "Paris 1919," from beginning to end in concert at UCLA. On Monday and Tuesday, Roger Waters encamps at Staples Center for a full-scale re-imagining of Pink Floyd's 1979 magnum opus "The Wall."
And the efforts appear to be snowballing.
Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Brian Wilson, Iggy Pop and Cheap Trick have all done it. The trend isn't strictly the domain of classic rockers, either: alternative, indie, country and punk musicians who have taken to the idea include Weezer, Lucinda Williams, Snoop Dogg, Nine Inch Nails, Rosanne Cash, Bob Mould, Television, Social Distortion, Tool, Redd Kross, Sonic Youth, Ben Folds, Ben Kweller, Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest.
Sparks, start to end
The Guinness Book of World Records winner in the field would have to be long-running L.A. experimental pop duo Sparks, which played its entire catalog of 21 albums over 21 nights two years ago in London leading to its then-latest effort, "Exotic Creatures of the Deep," presented on the final night, from beginning to end, of course.
If the album format is dead, a lot of musicians didn't get the memo.
"I think it's very healthy," said John. "We live in such a time of ADD attention deficit, when people hardly listen to something for more than 30 seconds before they switch channels. You don't go into an art exhibit and look at one painting; you look at 16. I think it's good to listen to a body of work."
After nearly half a century in which the technology of recorded music put the emphasis on individual songs three or four minutes long at most, from 10-inch 78 rpm discs up through the 7-inch 45 rpm single, the advent in 1948 of the long-play album capable of offering 40 to 45 minutes of music split over two sides of a vinyl LP allowed musicians of the '60s to significantly expand the scope of what they offered listeners.
Throughout the '70s, '80s and '90s, the album, even after CDs arrived in 1983, was the dominant form for musical expression in the pop music world. When the ability to share music over the Internet arrived in the late '90s, all that began to change, and in a few short years, the individual track has reigned once again. But many musicians refuse to let go of the medium that allowed them to explore an extended musical thought.
The live presentation of entire albums isn't so much happening in opposition to changes in music but in response to and perhaps even in tandem with those changes. Music fans can more easily than ever assemble individualized playlists on their computers or MP3 players — giving them unprecedented freedom of choice, while rendering irrelevant musicians' preferences for the sequencing of songs on an album.
But there's still no "shuffle" button to push at a concert. "Artists craft live shows to provide an experience the audience can't get at home," said Chris Sampson, head of USC's pop music performance degree program. "Not only has the conversion to 'cherry-picking' singles changed buying habits, it has also changed listening habits, with people listening while multi-tasking rather than sitting themselves in front of a hi-fi and taking in an entire album. A live performance of an album now offers a new experience for the audience and makes the concert more of a true 'event.'"
There's also the harsh reality of the recent downturn in the live music market, which had remained relatively robust even as the public's appetite for buying CDs and MP3s has eroded dramatically over the last decade. "The economy has really had an effect; we're guessing business is about 15% off compared to last year," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, which tracks the concert industry. "To impress fans to come out and see you one more time, it's helpful if you give them something special. It's not the kind of thing you can do over and over, but it's a great way to really rally the fan base."
Musicians have myriad motivations for taking on a full album live.