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Fans flock to hear indie albums performed live

An entire album, performed live? That's what some indie bands are doing now at concerts, and fans can't get enough of it.
/ Source: Reuters

When guitar-rock band Built to Spill announced its fall tour in May, fans took notice. That's because rather than a typical jaunt around the country promoting a new album, the three-month trek will find the band performing its 1997 release, "Perfect From Now On," in its entirety throughout the United States and Europe.

It's the latest in an ever-increasing list of tours and performances of the ilk, joining recent and upcoming experiments from Sonic Youth, Liz Phair, Slint, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Stooges, Public Enemy, Tortoise and Sparks. And those in the know say it's having a positive impact on the bottom line.

The pioneer in this concert subgenre is All Tomorrow's Parties festival co-founder Barry Hogan, who since 2005 has drafted indie rock acts to perform classic albums in their entirety as part of ATP's "Don't Look Back" series.

"For the people that were into those records, there were a lot of tracks that weren't played live," Hogan says. "To see that, it could be a very special thing. The whole thing is, nowadays, in the age of the iPod, where people are downloading tracks and listening to singles, it makes people listen to albums as an art form. Like (the Stooges') 'Fun House' -- that album should be listened to all the way through."

"Don't Look Back" was such a hit within the ATP framework that it has spun off as part of branded stages at Barcelona's Primavera Sound Festival and the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. At the latter in July, Public Enemy performed "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," while influential rock trio Mission of Burma played "Vs." and Sebadoh offered up "Bubble & Scrape" before a near-capacity crowd of 11,500.

Limiting supplySo far, Sonic Youth has found the most success in branching out with the full-album tour concept. Based on Billboard Boxscore data for a 2007 two-night stand in Berkeley, California, and a show in Brooklyn, the band grossed $496,791 in ticket sales, with two selling out in venues with 5,000-plus capacity. Compare that with the band's 2006 outing: 11 shows that grossed $315,305, according to Boxscore.

Part of that disparity can be chalked up to the limited nature of the "Daydream Nation" shows, ensuring that demand would be higher than supply.

But acts outside the traditional ATP circle are jumping onboard. The Smashing Pumpkins have strongly hinted that they'll be playing special 20th-anniversary shows next year, with plans to re-create their debut album, "Gish." Irish rock act Ash sold out London's 3,000-capacity Roundhouse in September for a performance of its breakthrough set, "1977," adding a further night at the 2,000-capacity Astoria. The band's November 2007 concert at the 4,920-capacity Brixton Academy failed to sell out.

And in celebration of the recent reissue of her 1993 debut, "Exile in Guyville," Phair has done a handful of complete album performances, with more shows on tap for August.

For Phair, the financials have been impressive. Two June "Guyville" shows, at San Francisco's Fillmore (1,298 capacity) and Chicago's Vic Theatre (1,400), were sellouts, with an average gross of $31,787. In contrast, Phair's 2003 tour posted an average gross of $18,174 from 17 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore.

Phair recalls, "When we decided we were going to rerelease it, everyone at ATO said, 'You have to play it live -- you have to play the whole thing live.' And I was like, 'Holy crap, really?' I don't think I've ever played a lot of those songs live."

Phair admits to some restless nights worrying about how she would relearn the material and translate it to the stage, but so far, the performances have been warmly received. "Everybody was just so into it," she says. "I knew it wasn't about me. Nostalgia is about people wanting to relive their experience with it. I very much felt that every moment onstage."