Musical encores (if you didn’t know, the word is French for “again”) date back to the 19th century, when big shot aristocrats in concert halls would invite a song to be played again, since recorded music wasn’t available. Encores would honour extraordinary classical musicians for extraordinary performances. This trend continued into rock in the 1960s and 70s where encores were only saved for performances that deserved to be commended and for audiences that deserved a ‘reward’ – some bands may have only ever played one or two encores in their whole existence. With encores now a planned, staple part of a band’s set list, have they lost significance and value?
From a neutral perspective, an onlooker could describe an encore as what an artist does at the end of a show, merited or not, when they leave the stage for a few minutes to indulge in the crowd’s indifferent cheers, only to resurface before their fans and play the songs everyone expects them to play because those songs are their main hits and were oddly absent from the main set list. It’s a sad offering, one which is made even sadder when you realise the whole thing is scripted. It is written in ink, in most cases the morning or even the day before. Regardless of the performance or whether the audience really wants to keep listening, it happens every time. So what killed the spontaneity of the encore?
Encores have become concert standard issue. They have become a safe haven for artists to place their most popular songs, likely as a way of ensuring that the gig ends on a high note, so that everyone in the crowd leaves the venue satisfied. The whole process of the band walking off stage, waiting for fans to shout and scream, the practised surprise act, and the delivery of aforementioned hit songs in all their encore ‘glory’ is a tiring one if I do say so myself. Since they know we’ll ask for it and we know we’re getting it, what’s the point of the short absence offstage?
Notably, you may argue the fact that the performers receive a short break before the encore increases the intensity of the ending. I agree, there’s no denying that an hour-long set is tiring and the onstage musicians require a breather or two in order to deliver a raucous blowout. The encore has completely replaced the intermission in this sense. Furthermore, I won’t disagree that encores add a kind of climax/farewell element to a gig, so I guess as much as it’s contrived it does work well and this is probably why it’s kept. But if the mood of the night is already planned and clearly created by the running order of the songs and performance, why break that atmosphere by a temporary exit?
In my opinion, encores just should flat-out not be expected. Firstly, I am a supporter of bringing back the meaning and significance of an encore to that only merited shows should be treated to one. Laura Marling is a firm believer of this too, as at every show of hers I have visited, she has confidently explained to the audience before leaving stage to not hang around as she wants musicians to re-generate the meaning of the encore. But with the encore being such a widely practised occurrence, I do not expect this to happen anytime soon. Moreover, should we not at least bring back some sort of surprise or spontaneity? Instead of leaving your most popular songs to the obvious encore, why do bands not play rarer recordings? Why not create some sort of surprise by turning the house lights back on? In 2010, I took in a pristine set by newcomer (back then) Ben Howard, whose encore consisted of songs off his demo EP and an audience member’s request. In an ever depressing music industry which boasts humdrum pop stars, it’s up to the live shows to bring back the enthusiasm and excitement that is credited to the growing industry.
I will give you this though, sometimes nature calls louder than the audience. It’s believed the time between set and encore is a necessity for a quick toilet break – let’s not forget, the band have been playing for over an hour and have been drinking throughout (and most likely, before as well). Maybe that’s the story of the encore: it’s everyone taking the piss.
What are your thoughts on encores? Should bands continue as they are, or should we scrap the ritual in order to revive the meaning of the encore?
Written by Richard Maver