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The Perils of Hearing Your Heroes

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Live music exists in a delicate state, caught between audiences’ expectations and the band’s artistic expression. Audiences want to hear the “hits,” or their personal favorite songs while the band is probably tired of playing the same setlist every night. Concert-goers arrive with a preconceived notion of how the band ought to sound, what songs they ought to play, how they ought to interact with the audience based on the studio recordings fans devour on repeat.

This is especially true for more mature bands that reached the peak of popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. These bands typically play to a full-house of baby-boomers raised on their music. The bands generally are not playing stadiums anymore, but they certainly pack 5,000-10,000 seat amphitheaters and concert halls. But, audiences go to their concerts to hear specific songs emanating from audience members’ misspent youths littered with songs from the golden era of rock and roll. Even mature bands’ younger audience members typically prefer the hits to any deeper cuts, and rarely does either age-group want to hear a song from those artists’ most recent catalogue.

The more tours these artists go on, though, the more they can actually risk losing their younger fan base. Someone born in the 1980s or 1990s has no experience “growing up with” that band. They only heard about these artists from their parents or classic rock radio stations. There was no wild summer following the Grateful Dead in concert — those types of bands were no longer touring like that when millenials were coming of age.

Despite the time gap, though, many millenials have come to love these classic rock bands. Luckily for millenials, in some ways, many of these artists are still touring. Some of the bigger groups have had to replace band members that passed away, but Paul McCartney still performs Beatles’ songs in his shows. The Who tour without Keith Moon and John Entwistle. The Allman Brothers Band replaced Duane Allman.

In some cases, irreconcilable differences keep the original band estranged — see Cream, The Police and Led Zeppelin. But many of the artists plow along with replacement players, touring throughout North America and Europe to legions of still-adoring fans.

Each of these bands run the risk of shattering preconceived notions held by the audience. This can go one of two ways.

The first way is that of awe-inspiration. Having never seen these bands at the height of their popularity, many millenial audience members have no idea what to expect from a group of sixty-somethings performing rock and roll live. In cases of bands like The Who or Aerosmith, they still have “it” when performing. The lead singer’s voice sounds the same. The band’s energy levels are high. The crowd interaction is great

Seeing these bands live, despite their age, can blow away a younger concert goer with the raw power and musicianship. The band can take a hit song, turn the volume up to 11 and blow the roof off the joint.

On the flip side, the second way is that of pure disappointment. Older millenials might have listened to their favorite classic rock bands for more than a decade, praying that the band will get back together for one “final hurrah” tour. And when that tour happens, if the band does not live up to expectations, it can really sour some fans’ opinions.

Take Ian Anderson, for example. He is the legendary frontman for Jethro Tull — by many accounts, the most successful progressive rock band of all time. In 1972, he wrote and Jethro Tull recorded “Thick as  Brick,” a concept album with only one song on it. The song was broken up into two parts that, when combined, spanned 44 minutes and both sides of the LP. It was a towering achievement of lyricism and musicality, punctuated by Anderson’ unique and dynamic voice.

Fast forward to 2012. Ian Anderson decided to write a followup album to Thick as a Brick and go on tour to play both tracks live, in their entirety — something he hadn’t done in almost 40 years (play Thick as Brick in full, live, that is). But Ian Anderson’s voice has not weathered the years in the way Roger Daltrey’s had — Ian simply could not recreate the sound captured in 1972. At all. He can still wail on his flute, and the musicianship was every bit as good as it was in 1972. But, the performance did not come close to delivering on the passion and power obvious in the original recording.

That’s the risk every one of these aging bands take when they decide to go back on tour. Sure they’re going to make a lot of money by doing so. And they do have the ability to turn an entirely new generation of fans onto their music, but that’s only if the band can match or surpass expectations. The reason why these bands are so famous is because their studio albums are exceptional — that can be a daunting spectre looming over their tours.

Steely Dan personified this public struggle when performing for a near-sellout crowd at the Red Hat Amphitheater in Raleigh. They embody the concept of sonic studio perfection. Their obsession with detail prevented them from touring for decades. Yet now, at a much more advanced age, they have finally decided to go back on tour.

The results are mixed.

Their instrumentation is still impeccable. They have a deep studio catalogue to choose from and an adoring audience to buy their tickets. But, Donald Fagen cannot sing the same way he did when those albums were recorded. The band does not sound like Steely Dan from the 1970s.

To many fans, that doesn’t matter. But to those that only have flawless recordings to go off of, the concert could be seen as a disappointment. By having such a high bar to clear, surpassing expectations becomes problematic. And when a band can’t blow the roof off the joint, the audience can be left with lukewarm feelings at best. Sure it’s great to hear some of your favorite tunes live, but it can just as easily lead to a feeling of emptiness because you weren’t able to hear the songs that have brought you so much joy the way they were meant to be heard.