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Mar 262010

I just returned from seeing Miles Kurosky, former leader of Beulah, at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia. It was a pretty good show, and Kurosky was a friendly, funny guy. Following his opening song, however, he began to spend an inordinate amount of time fretting over what he called his “albatross” of a catalog of beloved (by those who love the band, at least, like myself) Beulah songs. The first time he brought up the subject, it was a little awkward but understandable. A few songs later he explained that his new album only contained 10 songs, so the band “had to learn some covers.” Then they “covered” a Beulah song, the title of which I’m forgetting at the moment – and it’s too late to pull out the CD and find the name. Take my word for it, it was a spirited cover that psyched up an already friendly, if small, crowd. Following that song Kurosky started talking about how his previous night’s show in Washington, DC was interrupted by nonstop shout-outs for Beulah songs that his current band was not steeped in playing and that he was not as interested in playing, for various reasons. All understandable and articulated in Kurosky’s friendly, chatty manner, but then…
…but then Kurosky egged on the audience, asking us to get it out of our system with Beulah song requests. Someone would shout out “Gene Autry!” and he’d play a few measures, maybe with a band member or two following along. Then someone else would shout out “Silver Lining!” and we’d get another 20 seconds of a self-effacing walk-through. It was kind of cute at first, but a couple of half-baked Beulah song samples later I was getting pissed off. “He should be a professional,” I scoffed in my friend’s direction, “and figure out what he wants to do with his back catalog in advance!” It turns out this issue had been haunting him since his tour was announced; check out what he thought would be his solution, here.

Again, I had a good time at the show and liked his new songs and the man himself, in the few minutes I chatted with him and other fans after his set, but I found this routine and frequent between-song comments on the subject tiresome, patronizing, and a little self-aggrandizing. “It’s not like he’s Paul Weller!” I said to my friend at another time, recalling that Weller refused to play Jam songs in concert for years. Although I couldn’t stand Style Council, Weller took a radically new path with that band and then his solo work – and he managed to stay surprisingly popular in his home country with that crap! What’s it been, I thought to myself during a 5-minute span when I seriously considered leaving the show in protest, 6 or 7 years since Kurosky’s put out an album and now he can’t take responsibility for dealing with songs he wrote for Beulah that are not stylistically any different than his new songs? He’s got to dump this on us?

As some of you know, I can get a worked up pretty easily. Kurosky was obviously aware of the fine line he was treading, at one point saying to us, “These [ie, the Beulah songs] are your songs too.” I calmed and got back to enjoying the show, but I’m still wondering, What’s the best way for an established artist to deal with a back catalog of songs from a prior band? I can sympathize with the expectations long-running artists face to play their hits when they’re still in their original band, and from my own limited experiences with trying to change my musical identity over time I can empathize with Kurosky’s plight. Isn’t it time we help artists establish a protocol for working through these issues?

How have you seen artists in new directions deal with their past works? I keep thinking about the 1985 Alex Chilton show I attended and the surprisingly generous way he dealt with this issue. What approaches have worked for you, what approaches haven’t? Many of you are musicians of some stripe, so don’t be afraid to relate to the subject personally. Have you ever faced this issue with whatever audience you established with your previous band?


  12 Responses to “Albatross”

  1. One person who springs to mind is Neil Finn. At this point, he has a number of guises – Split Enz, Crowded House, Finn Brothers and solo. In his shows, he has always seemed to be keenly aware that there are certain tunes that people just expect to hear, though in general he tends to look to the Enz stuff in this respect.

    That is to say, he always seems to play “One Step Ahead,” no matter which guise is performing. I’ve only heard him destroy it once.

    I know that when he went solo, he was very concerned about NOT sounding like Crowded House, but I think he still understands that his audience contains some people who want to hear the chestnuts, and also some die-hards who can’t believe he actually played “that song.”

    He does seem to draw lines somewhere, but they are arbitrary as far as I can tell. But he is also a very spontaneous performer who will jump into a random cover at the slightest provocation.

    I wish I could say that I ever played in a band that had this problem, but I haven’t!

  2. Mr. Moderator

    I completely understand why artists might get hung up about playing songs from a previous lifetime, even artists who haven’t changed bands or musical directions. For instance, when I saw the reformed Pere Ubu multiple times, from ’88-2000 or so, they often chose a spot in their sets to play a run of their “hits.” They’d even take a few requests. They wanted to concentrate on playing their new music, but they didn’t give their audience any grief for loving what they loved in the first place. As I said in my thoughts about Alex Chilton, he was also very gracious and generous with his back catalog, saving most of it for his encore the night I saw him.

    If an artist doesn’t want to play anything old or only wants to play a song or two from an earlier era, I can deal with that, but they should make up their minds and take responsibility for it. No apologies, no explanations really needed. We’re big boys and girls. If the audience leaves unsatisfied or feeling cheated, the artist should take it.

    Ideally I think it would be cool to see an artist reinterpret a couple of old songs with his or her new bandmates. It’s never fun to make new people pretend to be old people, so let the new band find its own voice on a song – or do what I would do if I ever went solo (and if anyone would give a shit): play a couple of songs the way they were intended to be played, before the old bandmates and producer got their paws on the tunes and changed them to fit the band’s dynamic. We’ve all heard demos of songs that started out one way and ended up another way. I’d like to hear an artist play a song the way it was initially conceived. Elvis Costello, for instance, has done this with his own material now and then.

  3. BigSteve

    When I saw the Beach Boys in the early 70s, a guy actually came out to introduce them by saying “The Beach Boys will play their hits in the second half of the show, but they’re going to open with their more recent material, so please hold your requests” or something like that.

    I didn’t mind because I loved Surf’s Up, Holland, etc, and I was happy to hear that stuff played live. The crowd as I remember it was pretty patient and pretty receptive. Everybody went nuts when they got rolling with the hits though.

    It was kind of like they were their own opening act.

  4. Mr. Moderator

    Love that Beach Boys example, BigSteve, and the analogy of them opening for themselves. Not a bad way to handle what must have been a difficult situation.

    I’m surprised no one else has experienced a show in which the artist faced this situation.

  5. I saw a Joe Jackson show where he, unfortunately, played his entire album, “Blaze of Glory.” He announced this was going to happen, somebody in the audience grumbled and he said, “yes, the whole thing.” But then, he’s also been very intent upon re-arranging his big hits. Exhibit A for this would be the live album that contains three (count ’em) versions of “Is She Really Going Out With Him.”

    The other person who comes to mind is John Fogerty, who refused to play any CCR songs for a long time, I think mostly due to a bad legal deal that left a bad taste for him regarding CCR tunes. But also, he is apparently a difficult guy.

  6. jeangray

    I had one of these experiences, the only time that I’ve seen Lou reed live. He did a short mini-tour to promote his then new album “Ecstasy” in 2000. I had listened to this CD enough to know it wasn’t one of his best (to put it lighly), but the year before he had released a live semi-unplugged album that I just adored. The live album had a virtually perfect setlist & featured the same backing band, so I was hoping the show would be more of that, less of “Ecstasy.”

    I could not have been more wrong! He did “Ecstasy” in it’s entirety, but at least he broke it up with a handfull of his 90’s songs. No 70’s songs, and one lone 80’s in “Dirty Boulevard.” In Lou’s defense his band was spot on. The interplay between he & Rathke was stunning at times. It was just that those “Ecstasy” songs were sooo lifeless. Truely one of my least fave albums of his, and I consider myself to be a big admirer of his work. For the encore he came out & did a perfunctory version of “Sweet Jane.” Ugh! Combine that with some gawd awful leather pants he was wearing, and virtually no audience interaction and you have the perfect nightmare for any Lou Reed haters out there.

    Jesus! I wish I could have seen one of those “Berlin” concerts he did instead.

  7. Funny you should mention live Lou, jeangray. Just last night I caught on TV a bit of a live Lou show from 2000, I think, at Montreux. That’s Ecstasy-era, right? Lou, of course, was wearing black leather pants too tightly and playing an absurdly high-tech guitar (nothing headless though). Mike Rathke was there and Fernando and the usual drummer guy. The guitar interplay was indeed decent, but the song was pretty dire (something about living in a small town) and Lou struggled to come up with more than two or three notes to sing. And yet, I was sure I was hearing Lou’s music… as it was meant to be heard. If you have the cable channel Ovation, check your local listings. I don’t think they have a whole lot to show, so this will probably come on again.

  8. mockcarr

    Jeff Tweedy was hearing a lot of hollered requests for Uncle Tupelo stuff at a Wilco show I saw many years ago, and he shot them down, but after another song admitted that he might actually love those songs more than the guy who was asking.

  9. I saw Neil Young do his whole Greendale album — I liked it and it understood what he was up to, but many fans at Merriweather Post Pavillion that night did not. He did a couple of hits as encores, but only a few, and bunch of folks went away mad.

    Roger McGuinn has pretty much made peace with some of the Byrds stuff. I saw him do a nice set of new and old.

    I would also say that Suzanne Vega, who still makes terrific albums of new music (check out her divorce record — Song in Red and Gray), does an excellent job of weaving in new and old.

    Some in the RTH may remember a band called Havana 3 A.M. (kind of a new wave/punk supergroup) — they let Paul Simonon sing “Guns of Brixton” but another member Gary Myrick of Gary Myrick of the Figures fame was not allowed to sing any of his oldies. I asked Gary about it after the show and he said “awwww … man, I’m doing this new thing. Hey . . . do you know any of the girls here?”

  10. Mr. Moderator

    Excellent Gary Myrick rememberance, funoka!

  11. trolleyvox

    Once I was at an Autumn Carosel show where the band encountered an opposite problem. They were performing in their 1965 incarnation and someone in the audience shouted out a request for a tune from their 1969-era. I’m happy to report that the band was able to reach forward into the future in order to satisfy the request.

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