Should Bands Play What We Want to Hear?

The guilty party in question.
The guilty party in question.

This question comes up time and time again in discussions about live concerts, and it seems like it's going to come up again now. Recently post-hardcore/indie-rock band Brand New played some shows on the East and West coasts performing their full-length records in their entirety. It was a bold move by a band with a deeply loyal fan base.

Well, that loyal fan base seemed to be stretched to their breaking point by a performance of Brand New's most recent record, 2009's Daisy. Daisy met with a mixed reception because Brand New had changed up their sound once again, and the fans at those shows made it very clear they wanted to hear songs from Brand New's other records instead.

Some fans were so outraged by their brethren that they started a Tumblr dedicated to heckling the hecklers. Personally, I have to ask the question again: Should bands play what we want to hear?

Of course, bands should ideally be free to play what they want. Let's get that out of the way up front. Yeah, some people may leave disappointed, but you're always taking a chance when you go see your favorite band. One of the most exciting parts about a live show is its spontaneity, and the surprise of what the band might play.

Plus there's now, so if you want to know ahead of time whether they're playing anything you want to hear, you can.

Still, there's something more to be said on the issue than that. Sure, bands shouldn't feel beholden to anyone to play any specific song, but they are presenting a product to a paying audience. With that in mind, this sort of leeway does have its limits.

Should Bands Play What We Want to Hear?
Photo by Marco Torres

Let's say that you went to see Lady Gaga and she played two hours of free jazz. Personally, I would find that completely awesome, but a whole stadium of people would be feeling pretty damn cheated. How is that fair to her audience? There are certain expectations.

Furthermore, some bands can probably get away with more than others. You always have to keep in mind where your bread is buttered. Sure, Poison is probably pretty damn sick of playing "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," but that's what the audience is paying to hear. If they don't play it, they have cheated their fans just as much as Lady Gaga covering Ornette Coleman.

Some do this better than others. Take Elvis Costello, for instance. The man knows where his bread is buttered. If you go to see him, you're probably going to hear a lot of his first album, even though as an old man those raging punk classics probably seem a bit naff and he'd rather play some of his recently written material with the Roots. It is what it is. He understands his audience enough to know they want him to focus on his first few records almost exclusively.

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Then there are your Bob Dylans, who just don't give a shit. If you go see Dylan, he knows you want to hear Blonde on Blonde, but he's going to give you Together Through Life and Planet Waves. But once you've reached Bob Dylan's status, nobody is going to really call you out on what you're playing. They'll just be happy to see a living legend in the flesh.

Given that that's not the case for today's pop stars or next-to-one-hit-wonders, the case can be made that some bands should play what we want to hear, and others have earned the right to do whatever they want. Is Brand New one of those bands who has earned it?

Considering their rabid fan base, regardless of their own reactions recently, they are probably a band who can play any record and still not be cheating their fan base out of the Brand New experience.

It all really comes down to your status with your audience. If they have the right amount of adoration for a band, then all can be forgiven. I'd be happy just to see Prince, regardless of whether he plays a three-hour-long set-list of deep cuts in completely new arrangements like he typically does. However, last month on Rocks Off, we detailed a similar such routine when Third Eye Blind tested their audience's patience with deep cuts, which went over like a lead zeppelin.

Ultimately, it would probably be most accurate to say bands should play what they can get away with. Know where your bread is buttered, be in tune enough with your audience to understand how much they can take, and act accordingly. It's a give and take, like any relationship, and it's just as unfair to rob the fans of a good time as it is to rob yourself of being able to play what you feel like.


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