They are the words that, for many rock fans, are a cringe-inducing cue to head for the bar: "And now we'd like to do one from our new album!"
For a growing number of older musicians, the remedy is to give fans exactly what they came for: live performances in which the set list comprises an entire classic album, played in sequence from start to finish. The catch: As an encore, the artists usually serve up second sets made up almost entirely of their most recent works.
The artists who have deployed the gimmick or plan to do so soon are a diverse lot. Pink Floyd's Roger Waters has played live versions of the band's epic commercial juggernaut Dark Side of the Moon, and Sonic Youth hit the road this summer to play its indie rock landmark Daydream Nation. The trend isn't limited to the most revered works of these performers: Lou Reed spent part of the summer in Europe performing Berlin, a downbeat 1973 record that was panned by critics and fans alike upon release but has gained status over the years.
This fall, alternative country singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams will play weeklong stands in New York and Los Angeles with each night featuring a complete performance of one of her five most prominent albums, such as 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. But during a second set, she'll play selections from her 2007 release, West.
Making more, spending more
Playing an album in its entirety would seem to be a counterintuitive move at a time when the long-form album is supposed to be dead as both a commercial and an artistic force. One of the most commonly heard complaints about the music industry in recent years was that albums forced people to buy 10 to 15 songs when they only wanted one or two.
Sales of complete albums have cratered, with combined sales of CDs and digital albums down more than 14 percent this year alone, as fans gravitate toward online digital music services that allow consumers to pick only the songs they want.
Individual songs represented about 64 percent of paid digital music downloads so far this year, an estimate based on Nielsen Soundscan data and the standard prices of 99 cents per track and $9.99 per album.
The tactic also seems risky in a concert business in which profit margins are razor-thin. In the first half of 2007, the average ticket for the 100 top-grossing concerts cost $58.61, according to Pollstar, a magazine that follows the concert industry. That represented a 50-cent rise over 2006's average price and contributed to a 3.7 percent rise in the total revenue from those 100 shows, to just over $1-billion as of mid July.
At the same time, though, concert promoters' costs are rising even faster. Live Nation Inc., the world's largest concert promoter, posted a loss for the first quarter of 2007 of $45-million - more than its $31-million loss for all of 2006. Live Nation also lost money in 2005.
The impetus behind the wave of live album concerts comes from England, in particular from Barry Hogan, the 35-year-old founder and director of an influential music festival called All Tomorrow's Parties.
"When you see a band you love, how often are you sitting there thinking, 'Why are they doing this new stuff?' " Hogan asks. And after having asked himself that question one too many times, he decided to do something about it.
In 2005, he launched a concert series, related to All Tomorrow's Parties, called Don't Look Back. That series has presented about two-dozen alt-rock artists playing beloved albums in their entirety, from Iggy Pop's Stooges playing 1970's Fun House to the Cowboy Junkies doing 1990's The Trinity Session.
This year, Hogan has brought his series to the States, presenting concerts by such influential acts as Sonic Youth, Mudhoney and rapper GZA.
'Celebrating the album as an art form'
Hogan says he conceived of the series in part as "a rebellion to the iPod Shuffle, where people download odd tracks."
"That kind of thing is ruining music," he insists. "We're celebrating the album as an art form."
But some artists have taken the practice to extremes. In 1998, after their independent record label went out of business, Cheap Trick was desperate for a thematic hook for a concert tour. They settled on promoting reissued versions of their first four albums, one of which was the 1979 classic At Budokan, itself a live recording of the band in peak form before a frenzied Japanese audience. Playing an album a night, the band settled into a series of cities for three- and four-night stands. Rock star friends such as Pearl Jam signed on as opening acts in some cities.
On nights when the band played the material from At Budokan, lead singer Robin Zander even went so far as to re-create his stage patter from the album, which has become nearly as beloved by fans as the songs themselves, thanks to the comically awkward delivery that was supposed to be intelligible to a Tokyo audience.
"He was speaking slow and clearly, so the fans could understand him," recalls Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos. Twenty years later, in front of American audiences perfectly capable of understanding him, Zander introduced the hit Surrender with the same stilted delivery, Carlos recalls: "This next one. Is. The first song. On our new album!"
Despite sellout crowds, Carlos acknowledges that in some ways, the concerts were "goofy."
For one thing, the order in which songs appear on an album might not make sense in concert. "If the producer didn't think there were 10 or 12 killer songs, he'd top-load the sequence" with potential hits, Carlos says. That means that in concert, a band might end up closing with the weakest material of the night.
Another problem: There were some songs on the albums that the band had never played live, and it struggled with them. A few were rearranged as acoustic numbers, to give the band a breather. "We were young men when we did them originally," Carlos says.
What fans want vs. what the artist wants
Even when playing old material doesn't present technical challenges, it can still be frustrating for an artist.
"I'm a better singer than I was in 1988," Lucinda Williams says. "And I find that my later songs are my better songs. That's the way it should be."
Nonetheless, Williams will employ the album-based strategy in her Los Angeles and New York engagements, with the albums featured ranging from her self-titled 1988 release to 2003's World Without Tears. Her plan to finish up with newer material mimics a tactic that worked for others, including Sonic Youth, which has closed recent performances of Daydream Nation with songs from its newest album.
Williams is playing the shows, in part, as "a big party to celebrate my work, I guess," she says. To that end, she has invited several prominent musician friends to perform with her during her second set. The guest list isn't confirmed, but performers she has spoken with include Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and Elvis Costello.
Williams' manager (and fiance), Tom Overby, says ticket sales in Los Angeles have been strongest for her 1998 commercial breakthrough, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, a development that slightly bugs Williams, who says the album has never been a favorite for her the way it is with fans.
"That's the challenge," she acknowledges. "As an artist, you always want to feel you're presenting your best work. But you don't always know what your best work is."