Staging A Comeback

Concertgoers can save the applause -- bands have already programmed their encore selections

August 14, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

As Nickelback left the stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion one night last month, a plume of fire shot into the sky. "Thank you so much!" tattooed lead singer Chad Kroeger told the sellout crowd. "We'll see you soon."

He meant it - literally. Less than two minutes later, Kroeger and his band mates returned to the stage for an encore. The 12,000 fans who had implored the band to come back may have thought their full-throated screams did the trick. But actually, the outcome had been as carefully planned as the on-stage pyrotechnics.

Rock concerts today are no more spontaneous than Broadway musicals, and the encore, in particular, has become automatic, as predictable as the $5 beer and the guy who screams requests for "Freebird." Musicians know before a show even begins how many encores they'll play and what songs they'll include.

Blame goes around: Noise curfews and cutoff times for serving alcohol discourage spontaneity. Merriweather, for instance, is subject to noise restrictions after 11 p.m. Also, if a concert goes too long, stagehands and truck drivers have to be paid overtime. Stage lighting and visuals are computerized, making deviations from a prepared set list difficult.

"It becomes artistically risky to play a song that you thought of on the fly," said Donna Westmoreland, vice president of IMP, the biggest concert promoter in the Baltimore-Washington region. Encores, she said, are not what they used to be. "It's a pretty scripted thing."

The shift means audiences have little say over what a band plays or for how long. Cheer, don't cheer: It doesn't matter. But it used to make all the difference. The classic encore came after a band played a full set of music. The musicians would leave the stage, but the crowd would stay put. If the fans were loud and raucous enough, the band would come back. It was something the crowd had to earn. It was never guaranteed and often bizarre.

Prince used to wait until half the audience had left before returning for an encore. The Eels would come back out in their pajamas after the lights had come on. Bob Seger would say, "Can we rock 'n' roll you one more?" One-hit wonders in Britain would play their hit a second time, lacking anything better to do.

"Encore" comes from French and means "again" (though the French themselves now call the encore bis or une autre, meaning another). The practice dates to musical performances centuries ago and is similar to but distinct from that other post-performance staple, the curtain call.

A curtain call, common in theater and sports, is when a performer returns to a stage or playing field to acknowledge an audience's cheers. It depends entirely on the crowd demanding it. (Think of Cal Ripken Jr.'s jog around Camden Yards after breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak.)

But the encore has evolved along different lines. At a certain point, it became [cco: no itals: ]de rigueur, so expected that performers began to plan on it. They Might Be Giants, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based alternative group, has calculated the precise amount of time to be offstage before returning for the encore.

"People start stomping their feet at around 45 seconds, and we return to the stage after 60 seconds," said the band's John Flansburgh, who wears a watch at shows to get the timing just right. "It's just the arc of a crowd. After that minute, some people will feel like you're not being generous. Some people will start booing for more."

Flansburgh said bands that don't play encores risk being seen as stingy. He said a band that plays 16 songs then comes back for a four-song encore will be more appreciated than a band that plays 20 songs and leaves. "If you care about an audience, doing an encore makes them feel like you've recognized their power," he said.

Still, a small backlash has emerged to the auto-encore. Some bands, such as the Strokes and the Arctic Monkeys, refuse to play encores altogether. And in Britain, a group of fans calling itself Second Encore has organized to protest the boring predictability of encores by not applauding for them.

"The whole encore thing reminds us of a rock-'n'-roll cliche. It's a bit cheesy," said Andy MacFarlane, guitarist for Scottish band the Twilight Sad. "It's better to just do your thing and walk away. It's better to leave the crowd wanting more."

When everyone knows an encore is coming, it can feel silly for the audience to keep clapping, to play along with the charade that anything it does will make a difference. Some bands have tackled the problem by being more upfront about what goes on in those minutes before the encore. The Police, on their 1983-1984 Synchronicity Tour, displayed on video screens what they were doing backstage. Usually, they were having a cup of tea.

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