Wu-Tang Clan elder statesman GZA, a/k/a the Genius, has been playing his classic 1995 LP Liquid Swords live, in its entirety, since at least 2008. That year he released Pro Tools, his sixth LP, but you’ve probably heard more about the 1995 record: It got the reissue treatment in 2012, and persistent touring behind it drove sales to the point that it was finally certified platinum in 2015, twenty years after its initial release.
So it’s no wonder he’s playing the album live at yet another show (this time tonight at City Winery); it’s clearly working for him. The real question is: Who is asking for this? And why?
The acceleration of the “____ plays ____ in its entirety” conceit can be traced back to All Tomorrow’s Parties, which in 2005 started a tongue-in-cheek series called “Don’t Look Back,” where artists including Tortoise, Belle and Sebastian, and the Stooges played their classic LPs in sequence. The Stooges set — which featured their 1970 proto-punk classic Fun House — was so well-received that the band kept touring, realizing they had tapped into a lucrative nostalgia-driven market. By 2006, the trend already seemed played out, its tombstone the obligatory New York Times trend piece written after Lou Reed played his 1973 album Berlin at St Ann’s Warehouse.
But ten years later the practice is still going strong. With touring representing an increasing portion of a musician’s income and new album sales continuing to decline, the album tour is dual-purpose: To generate touring income without writing new music, and to stoke nostalgia sales by promoting your back catalog. They tend to do better around a major anniversary (ten, twenty, or twenty-five years, typically), often pushing a reissue of the old LP.
That it is profitable is not in dispute — if it wasn’t, the trend would have puttered out years ago. But what does it say about the band that indulges in the conceit? Is it a tacit admission that they’re out of ideas? Does it acknowledge that their peak is long past? If nothing else, it can be boring: With fans geeked up to hear their favorite records come to life, is the band expected to free the performance of any nuance, faithfully re-creating the record note for note?
For the fan, the joy of such an experience is in the pleasure of anticipation, that feeling you get when you know the final notes of one song will lead into the next. The nostalgia that these specific sequences of sounds elicits is powerful. For years, NJ pop-punk vets Midtown opened every show with the three songs at the top of its LP Save the World, Lose the Girl; a fan favorite, the sing-along suite set the tone for the energy at every show.
But it got boring after a few years, and they retired the practice; it’s not always as fun for the people on stage. Korn’s Jonathan Davis doesn’t like playing his band’s debut because of the dark place he was in when he wrote it. “It’s dark, it fucks with my head,” he told Breal.TV. “I’ve gotten into the worst depression on this tour.… I’m glad I did it. The only reason I did it was for the fans so they could come out and feel that and see that. Don’t ask again, I’m not gonna do it again. I’m getting too old for this shit.”
Not every band gets to experience the peak of its classic album’s popularity at the moment if its release. When Slint and American Football first released their classic LPs — 1991’s Spiderland and 1999’s American Football, respectively — the reception was much quieter than the tenor of their nostalgia shows. Both bands were retroactively venerated in the critical canon, with many fans completely unaware of the records until the bands had already broken up. For them, the shows were a chance to experience something they thought they’d never witness. (Although their reunion shows haven’t been straight-through performances of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel also come to mind here.)
Even for artists who still have enough of a fan base to demand their classics, the band/rapper/singer who recorded that LP likely doesn’t really exist anymore. They’ve evolved, leaving these album shows feeling like a band covering a previous version of itself. For a record like Liquid Swords — which features every single Wu-Tang member — it’s doomed to pale in comparison no matter what. While the entire clan appears on the LP, ODB is dead, and it’s hard to imagine all the surviving members appearing to perform their features live at a GZA show (though that certainly would be something).
Sometimes, though, artists can’t keep up the ruse that they care as much about this music as the fans who want to hear it. During his Paid in Full set at Rock the Bells, in 2010, Rakim had his DJ played just a few seconds of tracks he had no interest in revisiting but was contractually obligated to play. He was pointing out that this conceit, pure fan service, turns the musician into a jukebox, more wedding band than performance artist. Sure, it’s a transparent cash grab, but we can’t blame our favorites for wanting to cash out their 401(k)s — even if they’re not too excited about it, either.