Why Artists Should Stop Playing Their Seminal Albums Live
On a wispy evening last October, my housemate and I went to see GZA perform his magnum opus Liquid Swords in full at D.C.'s swanky Howard Theater. I wasn't the only one with high expectations. The crowd's hunger escalated with Killer Mike slaying his opening set, pulling out perfectly punctuated showstopper moves, pouncing directly into the crowd, taking drags from a carrot-sized blunt and passing it around for all to inhale. He closed out by simply dropping the mic and disappearing behind scarlet curtains before you could even say "damn".
That said, I couldn't imagine what sort of antics GZA would pull during his set. The gun was cocked. But then...GZA never pulled the trigger. He strolled onstage blank-faced, an expression that didn't change for the 40 or so minutes he performed. He immediately jumped down into the crowd, as Killer Mike had, for Liquid Swords' opener and title track "Liquid Swords." He immediately handed the microphone off to an anonymous member of the crowd. It was cool at first, even appropriate seeing people duke it out for "Duel of the Iron Mic." But instead of slinging rhymes, a stone-faced GZA handed off the mic consistently, barely muttering.
When he did take it back, he kept reminding everyone to "YouTube this shit" and Instagram the moments he brandished a mic in everyone's face. With 40 iPhones all blinking at once, it felt like performance art and a publicity stunt combined. Was Wu-Tang's purist in there somewhere, the one I had come to see perform? Where had the prowling Genius gone?
I thought about the value of performing "seminal" albums in full, as opposed to performing newer material, long after the curtains drew to a close. Are tours to perform albums in their entirety misguided -- fans own the albums anyway -- and more of a PR stunt to enliven an artists who may have hit a lull? Or are the full album tours giving in adoring fans' demands?
My freshman year of college, Pixies sold out two consecutive nights to perform Doolittle at D.C.'s colossal D.A.R. Constitution Hall. I didn't go -- tickets clocked in at a steep $60, and at the time I was attending every campus club event I could find in search of a free meal. Why pay that much to hear an album performed when I own a vinyl copy, and could just listen to that? Ticket prices for full album tours often rake it handsome profits, but are exorbitantly expensive for audiences.
If I were going to experience Doolittle live, the moment would have probably been as a college student in the late '80s and early '90s. Sure, I was born too late to see Pixies in their heyday, but I'm pretty sure "Gouge Away" wasn't meant to be performed in front of a seated audience of 3,700 people. If Pixies were to get back together now, I'd say there's more value in what an older, stranger Black Francis has to say at this point in his life than him cranking out "Debaser" yet again.