I find it greatly amusing when people bring their children to rock shows. Not babies or toddlers mind you, which is just awkward, but 8 to 12 year olds; kids old enough to have intelligent thoughts and vocalize their natural curiosity at the often strange behavior that people are allowed to get away with at a concert.
It's great when they ask questions because it's hilarious to watch parents try to rationalize behavior that they forgot was ever awkward to begin with. There is one question in particular that they struggle with the most: why did the band pretend to leave only to come back out and play more songs?
It's a fair question and one without a good answer, because let's face it: The encore is pretty stupid.
Kids ask about the encore because they're the only ones surprised by it anymore. If you're a music lover who regularly goes to shows, an encore isn't special, and no rarer than a roadie shining a flashlight at the soundman to let them know the show can begin.
What's weird about the situation is that people accept the encore even though it doesn't make any sense.
Consider the two types of encores:
1. The band finishes the last song of their main set, thanks the audience for being great, tells them they look forward to seeing them again, and then yells out a goodnight. They all run off stage, presumably to have a drink and a smoke, then let the audience sit in the dark for a few minutes before "triumphantly" returning to the stage to play a few more songs.
2. The lead singer acknowledges that the next song is the last song but is not in fact the last song, usually with a dumb joke about how everything is going to play out. The band plays their last song and gives their goodbyes. They then all run off stage, presumably to have a drink and a smoke, then let the audience sit in the dark for a few minutes before returning to the stage with a "we all knew this was about to happen" look on their face.
No matter which way the night goes, the band and the audience are participating in a bit of theater. The band knows they're not really ending the show. The fans know the show isn't really over. Yet the band leaves and crowd cheers, getting progressively louder until the band returns to a thunderous applause.
It's the opposite of authentic.
We're supposed to hate manufactured bands with manufactured fan bases playing manufactured songs, but we're supposed to be ok with manufactured hero worship?
It's understood that a concert is a piece of performance art. Bands rehearse, stages are designed, and lighting is configured. A lot of people work really hard to make something that should run like a well-oiled machine seem off the cuff and spontaneous. The encore reveals a bit too much of that, stopping the music to remind us that what we're seeing isn't spontaneous, it's just trying really hard to seem that way.
And the real downside is that encores, by being the thing that are and everyone knows, do more to hurt spontaneity than to promote it. When was the last time you were at a show where a real, honest-to-god encore took place?
Last weekend The Impossibles reunited to play a pair of sold-out shows in Austin. A lot of great memories were shared by all, but the lasting one for me came at the end of the night.
Having made it all the way through their set, the band hit their big finish, put down their instruments, waved goodnight, and headed backstage. The crowd didn't move because everyone knows how this works. We cheer, the band comes out, and then we cheer louder and the show continues.
Except that the band didn't come back out. Eventually music came on over the PA system, one of the key signs that the show is done and we're supposed to head home. It seemed like the show was truly over.
Except that the crowd didn't leave. They stood firmly rooted in place and began to chant, "Hell no! We won't go!"
This went on for a few minutes before the band headed back out and picked up their instruments. The venue killed the PA music and the band explained that the show really was over and they hadn't planned an encore. They only knew one other song, and it was something they had planned on swapping into the set list the next night.
So they played and it was weird but great. Weird because clearly it wasn't a song that you would end a concert on, but great because the band decided to give the fans what they wanted even if it meant not having the ending they had planned.
Encores, the ones we've grown used to, rob us of moments like that. Could it have all been an elaborate ruse on the part of the band and the promoter? Perhaps, but the important thing is that it felt real. It felt spontaneous.
Make no mistake- I'm well aware one blog post on one music blog in one city isn't going to change the face of concerts here and around the world. I understand that not only am I jousting windmills, but I'm probably the only one that feels this way.
That said, wouldn't it be great if we could go back to a time where we made the artist work for the encore.
Imagine shows where the artist didn't know if the encore was a given and they had to really blow our socks off to get one. Shows were the encore was something special instead of a place to dump a deep cut, a massive hit, and the same closer they've used every show in every city for the last two months.
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Either way, I'll be standing there with you in the dark, waiting for one more song.