It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was a novelty for a band to do a tour celebrating the anniversary of an album. I still remember when Jimmy Eat World announced the Clarity tour in 2009 and it seemed like the coolest thing in the world. Fast-forward eight years and anniversary tours have become industry standard. The internet is dotted with articles about “the anniversary tours we need in 2017,” and everyone from Bruce Springsteen to U2 to Simple Plan has hopped on the trend. But are anniversary tours a good thing—a chance for fans to reconvene with their past and fall back in love with an artist and their music—or are they a cash-grabbing gesture of empty nostalgia? Or, alternatively, are they something worse?
The complaints about anniversary tours are well established at this point. They usually follow some variation of the following:
- The bands are cashing in on nostalgia rather than putting in the effort to create new music that resonates with their audiences like the old stuff did.
- Albums that don’t necessarily need the anniversary tour treatment get it anyway (see Simple Plan).
- Playing a full album in concert takes up too much of the set and takes away the unpredictable magic of not knowing what song is going to come next in a setlist.
- Full-album setlists are (obviously) skewed toward one era of a band’s material, meaning other songs and albums get shortchanged.
- Some artists spend so long touring old albums that it delays their new music.
- An artist playing an old album years after the fact can’t possibly compare to your experiences of listening to that album and falling in love with it.
- Once a band does an anniversary tour for one album, they feel inclined to do it for all their releases.
Some of these complaints don’t really have a lot of validity, even if they look like strong arguments on paper. For instance, an album that doesn’t seem like it needs the 10-year treatment to you might be an influential classic in someone else’s life. I might think that Simple Plan touring an album called No Helmets, No Pads…Just Balls in the year 2017 is unintentional comedy at its finest, but I assume there’s someone out there who loves that LP like I love Jimmy Eat World’s Futures. It was undoubtedly someone’s game-changing classic, so who am I to say that it doesn’t need an anniversary tour?
There’s also no way to say for certain that an artist is delaying their new material to do an anniversary tour. Early last year, when Andrew McMahon reunited Jack’s Mannequin for a tour to celebrate 2005’s Everything in Transit, he kept it brief because he was 1) still keeping up tour engagements for his current project, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, and 2) in the process of making an album. McMahon’s new record dropped this past February and he’s in the midst of another lengthy tour under the Wilderness moniker. His anniversary tour was a nice tip of the hat to fans and the album that is considered his masterpiece, but you couldn’t accuse him of not being focused on the future.
For a variety of reasons, I haven’t caught a ton of anniversary tours over the years, though most of my favorite artists have done them at this point. I had tickets to Jimmy Eat World’s Futures 10-year anniversary tour in 2014—an event I’d been anticipating since 2009, when that Clarity tour ended—but missed it at the last minute when my grandpa passed away. I missed the Everything in Transit tour because the routing was too limited for me to swing one of the dates. And I’ll almost definitely be missing U2’s Joshua Tree tour this summer, but just because that band has developed a bad habit of skipping Michigan on its tours.
Still, I’ve never missed an anniversary tour because I was cynical about it. This summer, Third Eye Blind—or more accurately, Stephen Jenkins, Brad Hargreaves and some other guys—will be heading out on the road to revisit the band’s self-titled debut, which turned 20 in April. On the one hand, it’s hard not to feel soured by the idea of this particular anniversary tour, since Jenkins has been famously shitty to former bandmate Kevin Cadogan, who wrote a bunch of songs on the debut. On the other hand, Third Eye Blind has meant more to me over the past two decades than most albums. Ultimately, I told my brother to get me a ticket. My conflicted thoughts about Stephen Jenkins are no match for my own nostalgia.
Nostalgia aside, almost no anniversary or full-album tour avoids criticism completely—not even for the artists who “do it right.”
When I think of artists that do the full-album show right, my mind immediately goes to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Last February, I saw Bruce and his band scorch their way through all 20 songs of The River (plus a bonus track) before proceeding to play 14 more songs. It was the third time I’d seen Bruce and the second time I saw him do a full-album show, following a 2009 run-through of Born to Run in Detroit. In both shows, Bruce executed the full-album segments as mini sets in the middle of longer concerts. He interspersed monologues with the songs, talking about the themes of the records and what they meant, both in terms of his career and the larger story that his music has told over the years. And in both cases, Bruce and the E Street Band eventually finished the full albums and went on a tear of hits, from “Badlands” to “Born in the U.S.A.” to “The Rising.”
Still, while Bruce is above most of the criticisms that hit anniversary tours, he can’t help but stumble into one of them: the problem of living in the past rather than the present. In 2009, when Bruce and the E Street Band first started doing full-album shows, they were on tour in support of that year’s Working on a Dream. It was a lukewarm album that received a middling response from fans and critics alike. It certainly was not the kind of record that could support a three-hour concert setlist. By the time the tour ended in the fall, Bruce had excised all but one Working on a Dream song from his set.
Instead, the band played Springsteen’s classic records: Born to Run, Born in the U.S.A., and Darkness on the Edge of Town, a bunch of times; The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle and Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. once apiece. It was a special experience for fans, who got to see their favorite albums in a new light. That was the year I fell in love with Bruce’s music, and seeing Born to Run in full at my first-ever Springsteen show brought tears to my eyes. The run of full-album shows also ended up acting as a fitting farewell tour for Clarence Clemons, who played his last-ever show with the E Street Band on November 22, 2009, in Buffalo, New York. The band played Greetings that night, Bruce’s debut record and the one that holds the first traces of the Bruce/Clarence alchemy that would set the world on fire. That’s a beautifully serendipitous piece of live music trivia, and it’s something that only happens when artists go back in time for full-album shows. For Clarence, it ended right where it began.
No one will tell you that it isn’t a ball to hear all these old songs, because it is. With the years wearing on and several of the E Street members already gone, who knows how many full-band tours we have left? If anniversary tours are the only way we get to see Bruce with the E Street Band going forward, sign me up for every single one of them. And if Bruce has to delay his new album (supposedly a solo outing that has been in the can since summer 2015) so that he gets more time on the road with his band, it’s tough to fault him for that.
You also can’t fault most of the artists that decide to go back to the well that made them successful in the first place. Bands like Third Eye Blind or Yellowcard—who ran through Ocean Avenue in full on several of their farewell tour dates—never recaptured the cultural attention they got on those breakout records. When people buy tickets to see Third Eye Blind, they’re still mostly paying to see old hits like “Semi-Charmed Life” or “Jumper.” When I last saw the band live, in late 2015, the crowd was rude and restless during songs from that year’s Dopamine, but attentive and energetic during the old favorites. When Jenkins tried to play “Blade,” a dark, slow-burning track from Dopamine, you could hardly focus on the song for all the loud, drunken conversations going on between audience members. When he played “Slow Motion,” a song from 1999 that is comparable to “Blade” in both theme and tempo, the crowd was back in the palm of his hand.
As for Yellowcard, leading up to the announcement of their final record last year, the band shared frustrations on Twitter about how they felt like they couldn’t play newer songs on tour because fans wouldn’t respond to them. “Don’t worry, we’re not going to play new songs. I know you guys hate that shit,” singer Ryan Key supposedly said to the crowd at a concert. When a fan shared that quote on Twitter (with a complimentary “Yellowcard gets it” and a high-five emoji), the band quoted the tweet with a bombshell: “One of the reasons bands you like break up.”
But what if you don’t break up? Where does that put you 10, 20 or 30 years into your career, when concertgoers mostly just want to hear your old songs? Why not just give them what they want? Why not play your most famous album front-to-back?
This idea has become the go-to strategy for rock bands that might otherwise be labeled as “past their prime.” And while it feels like album anniversary tours have become standard everywhere, they really are sequestered mostly to the rock genre. Nas took Illmatic on the road for its 20-year anniversary in 2014, but anniversary tours aren’t at all the norm in hip-hop. They might be even rarer in pop music: I can’t think of a single example from the past few years. Rock music, though, offers up no shortage of examples: Motion City Soundtrack, the Pixies, Weezer, Circa Survive, Dashboard Confessional, As Cities Burn and even the Beach Boys have all done full-album tours in recent years—not necessarily for anniversaries, but for full tours. And that list is by no means comprehensive.
At first glance, the way the anniversary tour trend skews heavily in favor of rock bands seems to suggest there might be some truth to the belief that rock is dead or dying. At the very least, rock seems to be more backward-looking than other genres. But if you look at these tours, it might also say something about the longevity of rock music and the artists that make it. In 1997 and 1998, Third Eye Blind ranked at 101 and 35 (respectively) on Billboard’s end of the year albums charts. The artists with the top-selling albums those years were Spice Girls, Celine Dion, No Doubt, Jewel, Backstreet Boys, Garth Brooks and Shania Twain. Could those records support 20-year tours? Do they endure for listeners the way something like Third Eye Blind does? It’s hard to say, but it feels like rock fans tend to stick by their favorite artists—or at least, their favorite albums—in a way that pop and country fans maybe don’t.
Still, as fun as it is to hear your favorite albums in full at concerts, the trend has definitely had unintended consequences. Once artists have established themselves and made their masterpieces, what reason do they have to keep trying for more? Springsteen and U2 can keep entire arenas or stadiums rapt during 30 or 40-year-old songs, but when they pull out newer material, you can visibly see the mass exodus of audience members, heading up the stairs and out the gates for their pee breaks or beer runs. Anniversary tours give artists like these an excuse to play all the old favorites (and little of the new stuff) without going full Billy Joel and deciding never to write or record music again.
Look, no new Springsteen song is ever going to be as thrilling to see live as “Born to Run.” No new U2 song is ever going to reach the stratospheric heights of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Hell, I know full well that no Andrew McMahon album is ever going to reach me like Everything in Transit did in my adolescent summers, and no Third Eye Blind song is going to punch me in the gut like “Motorcycle Drive By” does. But as listeners and as concertgoers, we have become shackled by our own nostalgia, to the point where we’ve convinced our favorite artists that it’s better to play old songs in concert, sit on finished albums for months or years at a time (Springsteen and U2), or call it quits entirely (Yellowcard) than to go all-in on new material. As fun as anniversary tours are, maybe it’s time to dial back the trend and get back to letting artists be artists—instead of just mouthpieces for our memories.