Asserting their greatness: Bands taking classic albums on the road
Steely Dan and Bruce Springsteen get lazy with their setlists this week
If the album format is so dead, then why do so many bands insist on trying to resurrect it from the stage? It's fair enough for younger acts (The Decemberists, Mastodon) to play their latest albums from front to back as a kind of promotional stunt. Increasingly common and somehow more dubious is the touting of a "classic album played in its entirety" (see: Judas Priest's recent British Steel redux, Aerosmith's live Toys In The Attic revival, various Pitchfork Festival homages). Are these folks simply pandering to diehard fans? Desperately milking past triumphs? Too lazy to write a set list? Scholarly research on the subject continues. Meanwhile, The A.V. Club pauses to consider a handful of veteran artists (including Steely Dan, who'll recreate Aja and The Royal Scam Friday and Saturday at Riverside Theater, and Bruce Springsteen, who will play Born To Run Sunday at the Bradley Center) and the not-so-new albums they're currently foisting upon concertgoers.
Album: Love (1985)
Billboard chart peak: #87
Significance: One of the landmark albums of the pre-alternative era, Love souped up the gothic airiness of groups like Echo And The Bunnymen with Billy Duffy's stadium-rock guitar playing. The Cult would fully embrace straight-up hard-rock on 1989's Sonic Temple, but Love found the band taking a subtler, moodier approach that would heavily influence the rock sound of its native UK in the '90s.
Notable cuts: The Cult's best song ever, "She Sells Sanctuary"; also "Big Neon Glitter," "Revolution."
Added value: Like a lot of the subjects of these album tours, Love is over in less than an hour, but don't assume there will be an encore filled with non-Love hits. Frontman Ian Astbury is notoriously prickly (and a bit of a prima donna), and The Cult has a long history of intraband strife. It'd be just like Astbury to waltz offstage after "Black Angel" and never return.
Album: Doolittle (1989)
Billboard chart peak: #98
Significance: Nirvana's Kurt Cobain might have been the Pixies' most vocal supporter during his band's doomed ascent to mega-stardom, and he tried valiantly to steer attention away from "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by confessing in the band biography Come As You Are that he intentionally ripped off the Pixies. Aside from an astute mastery of the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic, there's nothing to suggest Nirvana had ripped off the Pixies at all, but it won them another generation of suggestible fans. Doolittle tends to be most people's point of entry for this band (it's available for living-room jams via Rock Band), and it still stands up remarkably well 20 years later.
Notable cuts: "Debaser," "Hey," "Monkey Gone To Heaven."
Added value: Pixies are only performing this album in nine cities across the country, so if you happen to be located in one of the chosen spots, you'll also be able to enjoy the band rounding out Doolittle's 40-minute running time with all of that album's B-sides, including "Weird At My School," "Dancing The Manta Ray," and "Bailey's Walk."
Album: Born To Run (1975)
Billboard chart peak: #3; 2005’s deluxe 30th-anniversary reissue made it to #18
Significance: Critically and commercially, it’s the album that properly gave birth to The Boss as a denim-clad shop steward of stadium-ready Americana. Yeah, 1984’s Born In The U.S.A. proved to be an even bigger mainstream Bruce-krieg, but Born To Run remains his definitive document of post-Nixon ennui and the histrionic restlessness of small-town living. It's in the Library of Congress, for fuck's sake. The title track typically marks the apex of every Springsteen gig.
Notable cuts: “Born To Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
Added value: His Bossness is known to play for at least two hours at pretty much every opportunity. Born To Run is less than 40 minutes long. That leaves a wide margin for latter-day material, from U.S.A.-borne superhits to the recent Working On A Dream.
Album: A Wizard, A True Star (1973)
Billboard chart peak: #86
Significance: Believers regard it as a brilliantly schizophrenic set of prog-frosted art pop, providing a freaky template for future studio savants, Elephant 6 devotees, and recreational mushroom eaters. For Rundgren himself, it was a bold switch-up from 1972’s more radio-friendly Something/Anything? There are threads of disarming power pop and even old-school soul, but A Wizard's Zappa-like barrage of abrupt mini-songs (several are barely a minute-and-a-half long) and synthy stylistic mishmash make for a challenging, fans-only package.
Notable cuts: "Rock And Roll Pussy," "Sometimes I Don’t Know What To Feel," "Just Another Onionhead/Da Da Dali"
Added value: Hearing Rundgren play the complete album in one sitting is probably enough to keep most diehards enrapt. It seems unlikely that he'd sully the prog-psych pageantry with a run at "Hello, It’s Me" or "Bang The Drum All Day." Meanwhile, bonus rounds of Rundgren's self-indulgence are available 24 hours a day on his official site.
Album: Aja (1977)
Billboard chart peak: #3
Significance: According to the guy who wrote Aja’s liner notes, the album "signals the onset of a new maturity and a kind of solid professionalism that is the hallmark of an artist who has 'arrived.'" That's about the truth: The jazz-fusion-coke-rock pioneers had already released five albums, but Aja was—and still is—the distillation of the band's sound and vision: technically demanding and sonically flawless, but louche and slinky all the same. Steely Dan's principals, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, recorded one more album, 1980's Gaucho, before splitting up for nearly two decades. That record is also set to get the play-it-live treatment during this tour, as is 1976's The Royal Scam, which directly preceded Aja.
Notable cuts: Title track "Aja" is a Steely Dan standard-bearer, while "Deacon Blues" sees the band digging its heels ever further into '70s-era California cool.
Added value: Aja contains only seven songs. Expect the "encore" to last considerably longer than that, covering the group's early material as well as more recent albums like 2000's Two Against Nature and 2003's Everything Must Go.
Album: Astral Weeks (1968)
Billboard chart peak: original version didn't chart; this year's Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl hit #33
Significance: Astral Weeks isn't Van Morrison’s most famous album—that would be Moondance—but it is, without a doubt, the Irish bluesman's best work. Recorded with a stripped-down band in a matter of days, the record—which features four songs hovering around the seven-minute mark, touches on themes of mysticism and loss, and, well, sounds nothing like "Brown-Eyed Girl"—never gained traction upon its release. It's become a critical favorite over time, however, and last year Morrison performed it in its entirety over two nights in Los Angeles. The success of the resultant live disc, Astral Weeks Live At The Hollywood Bowl, may have compelled Morrison to take his show on the road.
Notable cuts: "Astral Weeks" is one of the finest songs ever committed to tape, although "Madame George" and album closer "Slow Slim Slider" aren't far behind.
Added value: Recent performances have included a "classic set," including hits like "Moondance" and "Brown-Eyed Girl." Also, all of Morrison’s Astral Weeks performances through 2009 are being recorded for a documentary due out next year, To Be Born Again.