Albums come alive!

(When bands now hit the stage)

Steven Tyler and Aerosmith played their album 'Toys in the Attic' at the Comcast Center last month. Steven Tyler and Aerosmith played their album "Toys in the Attic" at the Comcast Center last month. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / July 5, 2009
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“Astral Weeks’’


“Exile in Guyville’’

“British Steel’’

“Toys in the Attic’’

“Daydream Nation’’

“Reasonable Doubt’’

Rock fans likely recognize that these are album titles. But not just any titles. These represent one of the best and/or most famous records by the artists who made them. Usually once a musician is done touring for an album, however, only certain songs survive to subsequent tours, as space in the set list is carved out for new creations and bigger hits.

If an artist is creative, savvy, and lucky enough to sustain a career, those seminal albums take on mythic status. They are the ones that newcomers are steered toward for an introduction and diehards return to for solace.

Over the past few years a wide variety of acts has decided to capitalize on that vaunted status by performing their storied albums, from start to finish, in concert. Sometimes the shows are one-off, other times full-blown tours.

This year the wave is reaching tidal proportions with no fewer than 10 artists hitting the Boston area with shows engineered around a full-album performance. Heavy-metal legends Judas Priest will polish up “British Steel’’ Tuesday at Comcast Center. Additionally, rock ’n’ soul crooner Van Morrison will perform his 1968 masterwork “Astral Weeks’’ (Aug. 4, Citi Wang Theatre), and jazz-rock titans Steely Dan will play “Aja’’ and “Gaucho’’ (July 22 and 24, respectively, also at the Citi Wang Theatre).

Along with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters and Iron Maiden, they represent just a couple of strains of the trend - classic rock and metal. Others getting in on the action represent alt-rock (Liz Phair, the Lemonheads, the Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth), hip-hop (Public Enemy and Jay-Z), and country (Lucinda Williams). Prog-rockers and art-damaged combos also love to play brand-new concept albums straight through, as the Decemberists and Mastodon recently did.

Some acts famously, to the consternation of their fans, have been playing their new albums in concert for years, including Joe Jackson. Neil Young also memorably turned heads with his concert-cum-theater piece “Greendale.’’

The All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals in New York and England have gotten great buzz out of programming “Don’t Look Back’’ nights in which bands play a whole classic album. (Devo and Spiritualized are on tap this year.) And a one-night-only reunion of Ben Folds Five performed the first MySpace “Front to Back’’ show last September.

The stated reasons to perform an entire album vary. Often it is an anniversary celebration as is, sort of, the case for Judas Priest, who recorded “British Steel’’ in 1979 but released it in 1980.

“Playing the old songs that we haven’t done for a long time, that’s a real buzz. You get a great lift out of doing that,’’ says Priest bassist Ian Hill. He guesses that other acts, sans anniversaries, “picked one of their favorite records and thought that’s what everyone wanted to hear.’’

That’s true in the case of Steely Dan, who are also performing “The Royal Scam’’ in other cities. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen know the thirst for that particular trio of records is the greatest. Fagen says he would be happy to add the group’s two most recent albums to the list, “but I don’t think anybody would come.’’

Which leads to the more basic reason bands do it.

“The circumstances usually surrounding that kind of a show is that we’re doing a number of nights in a town and we want to try and get people to come to more than one show,’’ says John Linnell of They Might Be Giants, who recently performed their beloved 1990 album, “Flood,’’ in its entirety at the Berklee Performance Center and have played other complete albums in the past. “It’s partly promotional: ‘We’re doing the great variety of the history of us on Friday, but then on Saturday we’re going to play all the songs from this record you loved in college.’ Any theme you attach to a show is a way of exciting more interest.’’

“It is a good strategy for artists who have been seen by their core audience repeatedly to offer them a reason to come back and enjoy them,’’ says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of concert industry trade publication Pollstar. He says there are no specific figures that back up the idea that a tour based on a classic album would necessarily fare better than a conventional tour. “In the case of a Van Morrison, I think the added incentive there is that you might actually have an understanding of what you’re going to be seeing.’’

Bongiovanni adds, “We’re dealing with a crowded marketplace in difficult economic times, so you want what you’re offering to stand out as a good value in people’s minds.’’

And the pull of that one album may be the thing that puts money in the baby sitter’s hands and pushes aging fans out the door one more time.

Watching Aerosmith work it’s way through most of “Toys in the Attic’’ at the Comcast Center a few weeks back - they skipped the last tune - was plain good fun. Not only did it offer the group the ability to play songs they would’ve played anyway (notably “Sweet Emotion’’ and “Walk This Way’’), it also placed them in context. It reminded many in the audience of the thrill of staring at the album cover as they listened over and over, giving them that frisson of recognition of knowing what would come next.

It illuminated songs that some probably hadn’t thought of in years, like the monstrous stomper “Round and Round’’ and introduced newer fans to a little history. Yes, nostalgia and predictability were elements as well, and these shows can have an undercurrent of melancholy if the band has truly never come close to reaching those heights again. But celebrating the moment when they did, and you were giddily along for the ride, can be the kind of artistic comfort food in times of tumult that truly hits the spot.

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