So a few weeks ago I went to see The Mountain Goats with Stephen G who is a diehard fan, readying me for how reverence by describing the concert as his version of "church". It was a great show, but we got to a point where eventually even Stephen was annoyed. "I hate this part," he said. The band was leaving the stage, but the house lights weren't coming back up. We stood in a crowd cheering for more music for five minutes before the band walked back out waving and delivering what was wanted. They played a few more songs, then left again. I looked to Stephen. "Wait," he said, with a slight sigh. We repeated the whole process a second time. A couple more songs and finally the house lights brightened and everyone shuffled out.
I've no problem with more music, of course. If I'm enjoying a band I'd love for them to keep playing as long as physically possible. But The encore was originally audiences begging for more and being rewarded with a special prize. Now they're expected, and we only do them out of habit. Encores are now planned to the point that they're usually put on the set list. This isn't a secret, we all know it. So why do we still buy into the illusion? Or allow our bands to try to sell it to us?
The other night I saw The Decemberists. It was a great show as well, and they also played two encores. But the show that night leaned on the illusion of the encore even harder. Not only did the band leave the stage, but a stage hand came out to tune the guitars between each of the two encores. The mystery, if there was any left at all, was completely gone.
I will say this, in a small defense of the tradition: if you're going to do it, do something different with it. For the only example of a band actually doing this, I point to The Aquabats.
At the end of a show, The Aquabats, like most bands, do play an encore, but they do it without stopping the show. They know the illusion is dead, but instead of leaning on silly tradition, they punch it right through the fourth wall. As the band leaves the stage a video starts to play projected above the stage. The clip shows the band leaving the venue, travelling away from the show, and finally boarding a plane (at least in the last version I saw). The lead singer then says something along the lines of "What's that? Do I still hear the kids? We should go back in." They're then shown coming back and as the video ends, the band enters the stage and declares that heard the cheering and returned, which is weird, since no one has ever done that before. I've seen The Aquabats play once without this video. It was in a small club in Cincinnati where there was no backstage area. Instead the band wandered from one corner of the stage to another for five minutes, before finally declaring that they had no idea how to get off and would be forced to play more music.
They win the encore by hanging a lampshade on the whole absurd idea of it. Maybe it's postmodern of them, meta, if you will, but at least they don't stop the show and make like it's all over just because that's how it's always been done. You know we want more music, we know we want more music. I think everyone on this side of the proscenium would appreciate it if you just played it already and quit forcing us to beg.