Surprising songs in concert
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
Have you ever attended the concert of a favorite band and been surprised by a song you never thought they’d play? I have seen Wilco several times, and at one show in 2010, they played the song “More Like The Moon” from an EP released around the time of A Ghost Is Born. Wilco is usually good about playing songs other than the big hits, but this one really surprised me. This may also relate to a style or version of a song many older fans would know—in 2008, I saw Björk play “Venus As A Boy” in the same live style she did during her Debut tour in the ’90s. A lot of people really dug this. I see these moments as real connections between the musicians and their fans, as they perform these songs almost as a shout-out, and it feels personal. Have you ever had such an experience? —Allyson (elvellon03)
[Editor’s note: Our first two answers came in simultaneously. Double the Radiohead, double the fun.]
I spent part of summer 2001 in England on a Shakespeare-centric study-abroad program. Rather than studying, I spent a lot of nights out in pubs and seeing bands. As it happened, while I was there, Radiohead threw its first and only big hometown outdoor show in Oxford. Amnesiac had just come out, and I wasn’t, like, totally over Radiohead yet like the jaded rock writer I am now. Anyway, a friend and I went to the show, which was amazing in that big European-festival kind of way. Everyone was singing, everyone was pogoing, everyone was drunk. During the group’s third—third!—encore, while the band was in the middle of “Motion Picture Soundtrack,” one of the group’s organs shut down. In a move that seemed totally spontaneous, but I’m sure was at least a little pre-planned, Thom Yorke just said “Oh shit” and introduced a “slightly older song,” and the group launched into “Creep,” a track Radiohead notoriously hadn’t played in years because they reportedly kind of hate it. The crowd exploded, I exploded, and we all sang along. To make the whole thing better, right as the song ended, it started torrentially raining. That made getting a bus back to London unspeakably hellish, but at the time it seemed incredibly special.
On August 13, 2003, I went to see Radiohead perform on its tour supporting Hail To The Thief. At this point, it was a full decade after the release of Pablo Honey, and the band was known primarily for running away from the type of stadium rock that propelled it to early fame. So when it launched into “Creep” as its 12th song that night, a collective gasp went through the crowd. It wasn’t the first time the band played that song on that tour, but the majority of those in the crowd weren’t reading previous setlists to get a sense of what they’d hear. Radiohead hadn’t played the track on previous tours, and had all but disavowed it in interviews. What happened? A song about isolation turned into the warmest moment of the night, in which 20,000 people sang along with Thom Yorke at full volume, both sides basking in the glow of the other. Yorke damn near grinned at the end of the song, which I wasn’t sure was physiologically possible. It wasn’t the best performance of the song from a technical perspective, but it’s still my favorite version. A great deal of that love came from the sheer surprise of that performance, and the respect it engendered. The clip below isn’t from that show, but is from that tour, and captures the dynamic above nicely.
In 1999, an old band of mine opened for Superchunk. The group hadn’t been through Denver in a long time, probably due in part to a recent hiatus. Still, some of us Superchunk fans in the Mile High City were wondering whether we smelled bad or something. But not only were Mac McCaughan and crew exceedingly humble and friendly to us lowly openers, they seemed genuinely unprepared for the huge crowd and ecstatic reception. They played their asses off; rarely have I seen a happier, more enthusiastically ass-kicking band onstage. That said, I wasn’t holding out hope of hearing the song that put them on the map: “Slack Motherfucker,” the punky, fuck-it anthem from their self-titled 1990 debut. At that point in its career, Superchunk was notorious for avoiding “Slack Motherfucker” in concert. During one of three encores, though, a beaming Mac mumbled something along the lines of, “We don’t play this one much anymore”—and the entire crowd immediately knew what was coming. The place went nuts, the band members ripped through the song like it was a fire they had to put out, and many an audience member (yours truly included) went home that night with scream-along laryngitis.
I’ve been a Low fan pretty much since the Duluth band has existed—I wrote about their first album, I Could Live In Hope, for a ’zine way back in 1994, and I’ve kept up with everything it’s done since. (A new album, The Invisible Way, comes out March 19!) Though the band’s sound has diverged, it isn’t a million miles away from what it was doing back then. Still, it was surprising to hear the song “Words” last year, since Low hadn’t really played songs from Hope in a live setting in a decade or so. It’s a gorgeous song, and Low now does it subtly differently than in the mid-’90s; it sounds livelier and more lived-in now, which makes sense. I actually saw the band last night, playing in in-store at Saki Records, and when guitarist Alan Sparhawk started to pluck the song’s opening melody, a fan behind me audibly gasped.
I’ve gotten used to the fact that The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy likes doing covers in his solo shows, and will bust out with a Sam Cooke or Smiths or Robyn Hitchcock song in concert. (I’m still a little weirded out by the “I’m Sticking With You” cover.) So at this point, I’m never particularly surprised or delighted when he sings other people’s songs. But at Chicago’s Park West venue in 2008, I was completely flat-footed over him doing one of his own: “Apology Song,” from 2001’s 5 Songs EP, written to apologize to a friend whose bike got stolen when Meloy borrowed it and left it unchained. It’s a cute number, infused with all the grave melancholy of Meloy’s songs about abused prostitutes and rape and revenge and murder, but it still reads as a tossed-off piece of whimsy, included on an EP on a lark, and I never thought I’d hear him actually perform it. Turns out it makes for a pretty sweet, sincere acoustic performance, perfect for the kind of solo show Meloy does. But given his extensive back catalog, I was still surprised it made it onto the stage. It sounded like an in-joke with his listeners.
Five years ago, my then-girlfriend/now-wife and I went to see R.E.M. on tour to support the “comeback” album Accelerate. The show was at Jones Beach Theater, which sits right on a bay on one of Long Island’s southern barrier islands. So when any kind of summer front comes through, the amphitheater gets hit pretty hard. As opening act Modest Mouse was finishing its last song, a bolt of lightning hit the amphitheater, sending sparks flying and people scurrying. The management immediately evacuated the seats, telling people to wait under the stands or, in spite of the sideways rain and massive lightning, go to their cars and wait out the delay. After 90 minutes of what at the time seemed like hurricane-like conditions, the rain slowed and we were let back into the amphitheater; R.E.M. went on about an hour late, but gamely played to the diehards (like us) who put on our cheap Target ponchos and waited, even though the rain was still coming down. The group immediately launched into Creedence’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” and followed up with its own “South Central Rain.” But the kicker was when the band later launched into “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” a song Michel Stipe had vowed not to sing on what turned out to be R.E.M.’s final tour. He and the guys were so heartened that most of the crowd stuck around, they wanted to reward our patience. It’s the wettest we’ve ever been at a concert, but it was definitely one of the best shows either of us have ever seen.
I was toying with the idea of citing one of R.E.M.’s covers, too (even now, I still can’t imagine what possessed the group to start playing Lou Gramm’s “Midnight Blue” during the Document tour), but my pick instead comes from a concert that’s right near the top of my thank-God-I-saw-it-live-when-I-did list. When I graduated from college in 1992, my parents and I split the cost on my present, a trip to the U.K. with a BritRail pass. Being an obsessive music geek, I tried to schedule things so I could see as many concerts as possible. There were many great shows during the course of those two weeks, but the best of the bunch were the back-to-back festivals in Finsbury Park: In The Park, headlined by the Cult, and the Fleadh, a collection of Irish (or at least Irish-ish) musicians. I couldn’t begin to tell you all the performances I saw during those shows, but the one I’ll never forget was Kirsty MacColl at the Fleadh. She had the crowd in the palm of her hand well before she surprised me by breaking out a cover of The Clash’s “Train In Vain.” I won’t say she topped the original, but she certainly made it her own, and watching her belt out the words of Strummer and Jones while rocking a leather miniskirt… I swooned, which is an understatement. Apparently, she retired the song from her set after that year, so I feel lucky to have seen her perform it… but given that she’s no longer with us, I feel lucky to have seen her at all.
When Bruce Springsteen reunited with The E Street Band at the turn of the millennium, he played a rare concert in Little Rock, shortly after my wife and I moved to Arkansas. Sales for the show were so poor that I doubt Bruce will ever come back, but he did give those who showed up the full E Street experience, and even treated us to a rarity: the croaking acoustic ballad “Mary, Queen Of Arkansas,” from his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park. According to the Springsteen fans who obsessively document such things, his performance of “Mary” in Little Rock on March 14, 2000 was his first time performing the song live since 1974; he’s only done it concert four more times since then. This had been one of my least favorite Springsteen songs—an awkward early attempt to be a folkie in the Woody Guthrie/Bob Dylan mold—but now that I feel like he sang it just for me and a few thousand of my neighbors, I’ll always love it a little.
I’ve seen Elvis Costello several times live in concert, and he always gives the audience its money’s worth, going deep into his repertoire and performing for hours at a time. I will always remember, though, the time I saw him perform at Wolf Trap in Virginia in 1999. He closed with “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4,” a song I always enjoyed but never considered a popular hit. More noteworthy than the song choice was that he put his microphone down and sang it a cappella, with no accompaniment except from us audience members. It was a bit of a show-off move, probably, but who cares? His voice sounded great, it was a fabulous, unusual way to close the night, and I heard one of my favorite songs of his in an unforgettable way.
I don’t know whether this is a cheat, but when I saw Insane Clown Posse at its big climactic performance at the end of the 2012 Gathering of the Juggalos, it performed its iconic anthem, beloved by A.V. Club readers everywhere, “Down With The Clown” with new background music that sounded oddly familiar. About 20 seconds in, I realized it was performing the song as a mash-up with The J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold.” The weird thing: It worked perfectly. For four very weird minutes or so, Insane Clown Posse + J. Geils Band was a perfect combination, two very odd tastes that tasted strangely splendid together.
I think the first time I saw Lucero was a few years ago in Austin for SXSW. I’d been a fan for a while, and knew the group had roots in the punk scene, but I was still sort of shocked when it busted out a nicely reworked version of “Kiss The Bottle” by Jawbreaker, a beloved deep cut that appeared on an obscure compilation in the mid-’90s. The song is a deeply sad portrayal of an addict’s skewed priorities (“I kissed the bottle / I should’ve been kissing you”), but the original was still a catchy rock song. Lucero strips it down to reveal the mournful country ballad that was always lurking there. I tried to get the group to play it during its Undercover session, but it was too early in the morning for such a bum-out.
Speaking of things A.V. Club readers love, when I saw Trey Anastasio Band a few years ago, he pulled out a number of surprising, and surprisingly cool, covers, including “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and “Sultans Of Swing.” For me, the most surprising, and best, cover of the night was his laid-back take on the Gorillaz iconic track “Clint Eastwood,” which gave me a whole new window on both the song and Anastasio’s musical tastes. I’ve heard it’s now a staple of his live sets, and he even included a version of it on his latest solo album, but when I left the house that night, I had no idea I’d be seeing him interpret one of my favorite Gorillaz tracks live, so it was a real treat.
I expected TV Casualty, Ted Leo’s Danzig cover band, to be amazing. I did not expect them to take the stage at Fest 2011 performing Danzig’s shopping list. I was thinking “Mother” would kick off the evening, and it would be silly, but still relatively normal. Nope. TV Casualty rightly decided to go with the singer’s most popular ditty, an insane list of grocery items. For the record, I have heard Danzig’s shopping list more times than I have heard anything that is actually by Danzig. It’s the No. 1 most popular song in my house, and “Box of saltines” gets me every time. But it straight-up baffled me when a Danzig-ed up Leo took the stage singing out the volume of a bottle of Mountain Dew. In retrospect, it was the only natural way for a show that absurd to kick off. The only unnatural thing was how many of the couple hundred people in the audience knew every item of that dumb song by heart.