Thursday 26 April 2018

Goin' back to Graceland... -- the rise of the album gig

As Paul Simon brings his 1986 classic to The O2, Aidan Coughlan asks why so many artists now play their landmark LPs all the way through

Paul Simon tells us in the opening track of Graceland that "every generation throws a hero up the pop charts" -- but he doesn't mention that some generations get a much better deal than others.

Or, indeed, that heroes don't come much greater than Simon himself.

It's something that will certainly be to the forefront of many a mind when the singer visits The O2 this week.

But if anyone is expecting a paint-by-numbers 'greatest hits' gig -- open with a classic, stick a few album tracks in the middle, devote a section to your new record and then encore with your flagship number -- they're going to be pleasantly surprised.

For not only does the tour reunite Simon with the South African musicians he controversially recruited to record Graceland more than 25 years ago, but it also contains a performance of the album, in order, from start to finish.

Turning a tracklist into a setlist might sound like a novel idea, but Simon is by no means the first to do it -- Public Enemy, Suede, The Pixies, Primal Scream and Queens of the Stone Age are just some of the artists who have followed the same format over the last few years.

But why now? After all, online music sales have left the art of the album almost obsolete, as listeners pick and choose tracks rather than purchasing the block of music as a unit.

So could this be a defiant last stand for the format -- or is it just a cynical way to flog tickets?

"Live shows have become more important, economically, than they've ever been," says Lisa McInerney, music critic and co-editor of Ramp.ie.

"With an album show, an artist has an easy pitch to make.

"There's a huge nostalgia factor, particularly at gigs by legendary artists, and a real feeling that it's a treat for the gig-goer rather than a creative performance."

But it may be more than a pandering to fairweather fans. Last year, for instance, Roger Waters brought The Wall Live to The O2.

More of a rock opera than a standard album, The Wall would crumble if it were broken into individual songs -- and playing it right through allowed Waters to indulge in tremendous set design and choreography.

In the very same week, though, Suede played three albums over three nights at The Olympia. And enjoyable as it was, one couldn't help but feel that these three-minute Britpop gems would have been just as well served on their own, with a crafted setlist -- and an element of surprise about what's coming next.

'With the album show, there's zero spontaneity. There's no room for creativity. The artist is essentially a cover band for his or her own work," says Lisa.

"It's not so much a captive audience, as a captive artist. With a concept album, though, you can build a creative performance and include aspects of narrative that you wouldn't otherwise get."

Where does Graceland lie, then? It might not be a concept album, but it certainly boasts a back story.

Simon's controversial flouting of the UN boycott against South Africa and the enduring debate about that decision -- not to mention the rags-to-riches tale of the musicians -- have all entered the annals of musical history.

But, one feels, this will be placed firmly out of mind in The O2 as fans enjoy the hero their generation threw up the pop charts.

Paul Simon plays The O2 tomorrow and Friday, with the original Graceland band and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. A limited number of tickets are still available at ticketmaster.ie

Irish Independent

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