The concert version of Top 10 Lies ("I'm on my way home"; "The check's in the post"; "No more cocaine for me, please!" etc...) is "Thanks, this is our last song!" Because unless the audience is particularly underwhelmed, or you were watching New Order through the '80s, this is hardly ever the case.
The encore has long been regarded as the money shot of the gig, the payoff for patient audiences anticipating something special and for bands who want their egos massaged. It can be a joyous occasion, tinged with anticipation at what the choice of tune may be. But generally, the shout for "more!" has become a jaded ritual that undermines the raw spectacle that rock'n'roll was meant to provide. Isn't it time it was reinvented? Or even retired?
First, a history lesson. Contrary to today's predictable state, the encore began spontaneously. The first recorded evidence was in the 1790s, when Haydn, Austria's "Father Of The Symphony," had been commissioned to visit England to play new works with a large orchestra. The Nick Kent of his day, music historian Charles Burney wrote, "Haydn himself presided at the piano-forte; and the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England." In fact, the second movement of Haydn's symphony was so well received that the audience wouldn't let him play the third until he'd repeated the second. So, traditionally the encore wasn't even at the end of a performance. But now you know exactly when it's coming, and if the performer hasn't played their "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "Wonderwall," you know what's coming too.
Step up, Elbow's Guy Garvey, who recently narrated a BBC Radio 2 show on the encore. He's even discussed this vexing matter with his audience--though he won't even refer to the encore by name: "Because that's part of the mystique gone," he explains. "I call it 'the French invention'!" (Well, it's British actually, even if 'encore' is French for 'again' and 'some more'). When Elbow began, Garvey recalls, the band didn't do encores, "almost on principle, but then the second album comes out and you have more than enough songs. So you start planning your encore." Garvey reckons a good way to think about the encore is that it's the audience's part of the performance, "to join in by clapping and cheering as loud as they want--or not! And it's a way for heavy drinkers to make sure they get a loo break. But it's not special anymore."
His solution is novel. "On our last tour," says Garvey, "I said, 'We're going to pretend that this is our last song, but if you want an encore, you've got to sing for us.' The first time, he chose the theme from [Canadian '60s TV series] "The Littlest Hobo" and since then, the audience has murdered the likes of Europe's "The Final Countdown," "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the Star Trek theme. But Elbow do return with a planned encore--generally these days, it's led by enormo-anthem "One Day Like This"--so what about a change of format?
On occasion, Pixies would wait until the audience had left and then played an encore, so everyone would rush back into the room (not good for Health & Safety). They've even played an encore on the pavement outside. Once, says Garvey, Elbow once just acted like they'd left the stage, "and we sat there like we couldn't hear the audience clap, like we were backstage." Funny once, perhaps, but it wouldn't work more than a couple of times.
Garvey claims Elbow don't play "surprise" encores because they're a procrastinating democracy of five who can't make a decision over anything "in under a year". But others are willing to take risks. Recently, in London, Americana artist Elvis Perkins opened up encore decisions to the audience, which responded with a mêlée of suggestions. In other words, audience participation needn't be lame. An unannounced guest star, an unexpected cover version or a song (old or new) never before played live, all has the element of surprise. Perhaps bands could mirror classical musicians, who sometimes show off process and whip up their audience by playing faster, higher or louder in the encore. Or in the original spirit of the encore, perhaps more should follow the example of Nina Simone, the only performer I've seen who would repeat a rapturously received performance, such as "My Baby Just Cares For Me" or "See-Line Woman," at any point during her set.
Perhaps Elvis Presley got it right all those years ago. He never played encores because his manager Colonel Tom Parker felt it was the way to leave audiences wanting more. The time-honored phrase "Elvis has left the building" was first uttered in 1956 (by Horace Logan, announcer at the Louisiana Hayride), when Presley was not yet the headliner, as a way of quelling pleas for an encore and getting the audience to return to their seats to watch the next act. In the days of two-hour sets and multiple encores, leaving us wanting more rather than obsessing over Value For Money, seems enticing. It may not be the money shot, but they might respect you more in the morning.
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