The album-specific show is nothing new to the music world. Jonathan Cohen, a senior editor at Billboard, says putting bands that earned popularity in the '90s on the road with music-geek-approved album titles attached takes a page from the classic rock handbook. Indeed, older acts like Brian Wilson, Roger Waters, Los Lobos, and Deep Purple have packaged tours around such singular set lists. But this crop of recent underground heroes is a new twist. "To specifically advertise what a band is going to do, that's different [for this demographic] and it really stokes anticipation for people, particularly for people who are devotees of that record," says Cohen, who admits his excitement for hearing Spiderland live in New York this week. He adds that this is particularly the case for people who prefer an individual record over the artist as a whole. "They probably wouldn't buy a ticket to the show if it wasn't for something like this," he says.
This nostalgia concept has trickled into the U.S. via London's Barry Hogan, the promoter behind England's immensely popular All Tomorrow's Parties, an 8-year-old collection of artist-curated festivals. He coined the name "Don't Look Back" to tag this current experiment, which started out two years ago with the Stooges playing Fun House, Belle & Sebastian doing If You're Feeling Sinister, and Gang of Four hitting the stage with Entertainment! "One of the reasons I'm doing this is I feel like there's lots of times when you go to see bands and they never play the tracks you want," says Hogan, via cell from a recent London concert. "Some of this stuff has also never been played live before, and you'll be listening to all the tracks how the artist wanted you to listen to them when they made the recordings. I suppose it's a bit of a fuck-you to the iPod shuffle sort of thing, really," he adds with a laugh.
Personally, I admire the zealous conceit behind creating the shows, which Hogan describes with palpable fandom as a process of "going into our office, pulling all our records on the floor, and saying, 'I want to see this, I want to see that.'" But I guess I'm more of a shuffler myself, preferring to hear my favorite acts skip around between years and experiments, so long as they play a couple of their crowd-pleasers somewhere along the way. So I got in touch with Windy Chien, former owner of beloved indie outpost Aquarius Records who now works as a senior producer at iTunes, to get her opinion on the "Don't Look Back" idea. (For the record, she's hitting one of the Melvins shows "because they always have and will forever kick ass.") "Many of the shows that are happening are centered around records that only the underground, and a small portion of the underground at that, were privy to back when the band was performing those songs," she writes via e-mail. "If those albums had developed the kind of acclaim over the past 20-odd years, I don't have a problem with the band touring them and making some cash."
And there's more dollars on the horizon. Hogan says that the initial selections coming to town this week are a sampling of what's to come a full Don't Look Back series should hit San Francisco in 2008. Although Slint, Sonic Youth, and the Melvins are all giving us a taste of the '90s this round, don't marry his series to that decade just yet. "There are loads of good records from every era," he says, talking up albums from artists as varied as David Bowie, Public Enemy, the Cramps, and Pavement. "Lots of the records we picked came out in the '90s, so I guess I'm just showing my age, from back when I was 16 or something. That's when I first started working and had money and was buying vinyl. The whole thing that we do with this and with All Tomorrow's Parties is that it's personal. We curate [events] with people we admire."
The trend of bands giving über-loyalists a say in performances doesn't just exist at the promoters' level these days. Billboard's Cohen says many artists monitor their Web forums now to get a sense of what fans want to see live. "Sometimes that's even more of a formal thing where there's a section of a band's Web site where they say, 'Here's 20 songs we're considering playing for the next tour. Vote on your favorite 10; we'll play those.' That's direct fan interaction of the best kind."
Of course, just because a faithful admirer comes knocking on the door or on the old bank account doesn't mean every act is stoked about sticking to old material. Hogan admits he has to do some explaining occasionally. "Sometimes they'll say, 'I don't want to look back, I want to focus on the future,'" he says. "I think some artists think we're insulting them by saying, 'Yeah, you did some great records but your new stuff isn't that great.' We say to them we're trying to celebrate a particular record ... and they're still great."
Sometimes even those solid assurances won't convince the stubborn, though. Just ask Primal Scream, whom Hogan recently asked to perform the psychedelic space-rock ride Screamadelica. "Their reaction was, 'We can't create that record live,' to which I call bullshit. Of course they can," says Hogan. "If we can get Tortoise to go do [the experimentally constructed] Million Now Living Will Never Die, Primal Scream can get off their ass and do Screamadelica. But then, they probably just don't want to." In the meantime, though, Hogan continues catering to album zealots, and from the looks of things, the fans are scooting off their derrières to sold-out shows with the same passion the Primal Scream lot sits on theirs.