One of the odder twists on the live circuit in recent years, then, has been the "album gig". It's a simple idea: instead of haring out of the traps without a leash, Stripes-style, a band or performer plays an important album from their career, from front to back, in full. Not exactly Kick Out the Jams, is it? Where's the guerrilla-gig excitement of staging the show on the spot? The unlikeliness of the concept in a rock'n'roll context is only compounded when you realise that it was once the province of hoary old prog-rockers such as Genesis and Marillion and their "concept albums".
Still, a handful of gigs in recent years have run with the album-gig wheeze and turned it into a genuine event. In 2003, Arthur Lee of Love (with the LA band Baby Lemonade backing him) staged a long-awaited comeback by performing Forever Changes, the post-hippie masterpiece, at the Royal Festival Hall in London. In June this year, Patti Smith performed her 1975 album, Horses, as part of the Meltdown Festival, which she curated. In 2002, also at Meltdown, David Bowie flashed his natty gnashers over two of his albums, 1977's Low and 2002's Heathen. Speaking of Bowie, Suede played a residency at the ICA in 2003, where they surged through one of their albums each night. Speaking of Suede, their one-time sparring partners Blur pulled off a similar stunt with their chronological greatest-hits tour setlists. And, at the forefront of the album-gig phenomenon, Brian Wilson scored a double whammy of rapturously received returns with tours of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and his long-lost symphonic masterpiece, Smile.
Now that these big-hitters have done it, a gaggle of underground acts are staking their claim on rock history, too. Best known for a fabulous, alt-rock-ish festival at a holiday camp in Camber Sands, the All Tomorrow's Parties organisation has scheduled a season of gigs under the banner of Don't Look Back, in which the kind of bands who would pitch up and play at its seaside shindig run through one of their albums in full.
The first gig to go on sale was Belle and Sebastian, playing their second album, If You're Feeling Sinister, at the Barbican. Iggy Pop is playing his first London gig with the Stooges since their recent reformation, to tear through the "troglodyte grooves" of their wrecking-ball 1970 album, Fun House. The just-reformed Dinosaur Jr and Gang of Four will play an album each, and Evan Dando's Lemonheads will return to play their short-but-perfectly formed 1992 album, It's a Shame About Ray. Nick Cave's violinist, Warren Ellis, will lead his band, Dirty Three, on a plunge into their Ocean Songs, while Ellis's occasional collaborator, Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, will air her sublime album of cover versions, The Covers Record. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion will break with their no-setlist tradition by strutting through the stax-stomping punk'n'roll of their Orange album, and The Melvins, Mudhoney, Múm and Sophia will also pitch in with key works.
So what is the appeal of the gigs? You could argue that they are about re-embracing the idea of "the album" as a complete entity, as contrasted with the interactive, running order-shuffling era of iPods, iTunes, playlists and the world of wonderment that is the "shuffle" function itself. Seen as such, the gigs deliver a double shot of nostalgia, in which a love of the album dovetails neatly into a love for the kinds of just-reformed bands likely to bring music fans out in High Fidelity-ish hot flushes - Gang of Four, Lemonheads, the Stooges, Dinosaur Jr. If you happen to love the album in question, too, you know that your favourite song will be played without any new-album filler to fidget through. Any more nostalgic and the shows would come in alphabetical order, according to genre.
Arguably, though, the supposed stand-off between albums and iPods has been overstated. "The Death of the Album" is as nifty a conversation - or think-piece starter - as The Death of the Author and The Death of the Novel before it, but that doesn't make it true. You can store albums on iPods anyway, if you so wish. And the capacity of readers or listeners to interact creatively with books or albums isn't necessarily distinct from either's capacity to surprise us. You can be as jolted by the secrets of a good album as you can by whatever song the shuffle function on your gizmo puts your way.
Take the Wilson, Smith, Bowie and Lee album shows, for example. No one talked about them in terms of mere nostalgia. Granted, that was a given in the case of Wilson's Smile, which hadn't been heard in its intended form before. But even the youthful songs on Pet Sounds took on new flavours when performed by Wilson, whose troubles had surely cost him much of his youth. The core of outsider yearning in its sunny songs of surf and celebration was made more emphatic by the life of the guy singing them. When Smith played Horses, she used it as a leaping-off point, infusing its innocence with experience. No one playing Forever Changes at home could have anticipated the vigour with which Lee grabbed his comeback. And Bowie's Low gigs made the album sound as if it could have been recorded that year
Granted, the ATP gigs might not match Wilson's resurrection or Smith's furious flights of passion, although they do offer plenty to get excited about, from the Stooges restating their garage-punk primacy to the unlikely promise of the often wayward Cat Power having to focus for a whole gig. But the cases of Wilson and company do suggest that the shows needn't be seen as merely backward-looking.
Even The White Stripes, as the arch-conceptualists of modern rock (no bass; any colour as long as its black, white or red) could probably be persuaded to view the rigour of doing the album from start to finish as a conceptual bedrock to spur invention. But the artist had better make sure he or she is performing a classic - otherwise, those filler tracks may come back to haunt them.
Don't Look Back, various London venues, 30 August to 5 October (www.atpfestival.com)Reuse content