There’s an interesting trend I’ve noticed at shows I’ve been to recently, and that’s most of the artists weren’t doing encores. Seattle folk singer Noah Gundersen did an audience Q&A instead of an encore. Brian Fallon (of Gaslight Anthem fame) quipped about playing an extra song or two instead of going through the predictable leave-the-stage-and-come-back dance. Butch Walker left the stage and inexplicably never came back, later tweeting that he’d folded the encore into the main set to make venue curfew.
These experiences got me thinking—is the encore dying? And if so, what’s killing it?
The pros and cons of encores at concerts are easy to see. On the “pro” side, encores can add drama and entertainment value. They allow artists to build a set to its natural climax, leave the stage and come back for a cathartic, celebratory goodbye. For many bands, the encore is the place to drop “the hits.” It’s a payoff, a thank you to casual fans that stuck around through 90 minutes of songs they didn’t know to get to the two they did.
Not that die-hards are left out, though. When I saw Jimmy Eat World play Grand Rapids last month, a massive, gleeful mosh pit broke out during encore numbers “The Middle” and “Sweetness,” with fans near the stage grinning, laughing, flinging their arms around one another and screaming along at the top of their lungs. Even as a Jimmy Eat World fan who tends to prefer their deeper cuts, I had to concede the encore was the highlight of the night.
But there’s also a “con” side to encores. There’s rarely any suspense to the tradition anymore, no question of “Will they or won’t they?” left hanging in the air about the likelihood of a band’s return. Encores today are expected, which somewhat cheapens the experience for fans and artists alike. If you ever manage to grab one of the printed setlists roadies tape to the stage, you’ll see encore songs listed as a pre-configured part of the live experience. Even if you’re a fan of encores, it’s tough not to wonder how much fun it would be if artists didn’t plan that part of the set. What if they just came back out and took requests, playing off-the-cuff versions of whatever songs audience members wanted to hear that night?
The other problem with the traditional encore structure is time. The process of a band leaving the stage at the end of the main set and then returning takes five minutes, at minimum. As Brian Fallon noted during his Detroit show last summer, billed as “Brian Fallon and the Crowes” and done in support of 2016’s solo LP Painkillers, he could squeeze in an extra song or two simply by skipping the encore. (His setlist ultimately contained 19 songs, including tunes from his solo album, deep cuts from side project the Horrible Crowes, a B-side and a Katy Perry cover.) Given the choice between an encore break and two more songs, what fan wouldn’t take the second option?
Some artists, of course, provide both the encore experience and more songs. Bruce Springsteen took two encore breaks when I saw him in Louisville last year, and no one on the planet could accuse him of skimping on songs. (That night, he played 35 of them.) But Bruce doesn’t have opening acts, which means he usually takes the stage earlier in the night than your average headliner. In other situations, it’s more common for the artist to get locked into a time limit based on when doors open, when the opener takes the stage, how long the opener plays and when the venue/city curfew is (if there is one).
Such was the situation a few weeks ago, when a seemingly offended Ryan Adams responded to a fan on Twitter who expressed how “bummed” he was about the lack of an encore at an Adams concert. “2 hour show. No stopping,” Adams tweeted in response. “Who needs an encore when you play the full time allotted? 9-11pm Venue curfew.” For artists who want to give fans their money’s worth and have time constraints to deal with, excising the encore feels like the most natural solution.
So should every band start deleting the encore from their arsenal? Like many other things in live music, the viability of this strategy ultimately comes down to context. When I spoke to Noah Gundersen about his decision to skip the encore on his tour last spring, he was somewhat conflicted on the matter. “I was doing that mostly just on those solo acoustic shows,” Gundersen explained. “The nature of those nights felt too intimate for the false ‘surprise’ of an encore. Doesn’t mean encores don’t have value. They just didn’t feel relevant to that kind of show.”
The acoustic tour in question was Gundersen’s second in support of 2015’s Carry the Ghost, his sophomore LP. The 28-year-old started his career as a folk singer-songwriter, penning several EPs built almost exclusively around acoustic guitar. The sound carried over to his debut full-length, 2014’s Ledges, but he started experimenting with fuller textures on Ghost. The first tour in support of that record featured a backing band and also included encores. Gundersen reasoned that, while encores for solo shows feel “gratuitous and insincere” to him, encores at his full band concerts feel like “part of the show, and therefore justified.” From his experience, encores get a much bigger response in full-band situations.
My concert-going experiences more or less mesh with Gundersen’s observations. When he skipped the encore, it felt fitting. The show had been raw and intimate to the nth degree, almost like sitting in his living room and watching him play the songs for himself. There was no light show, no video screen, no special effects. There wasn’t even another band member. It was just Gundersen, a pair of guitars (one acoustic, one electric), a set of pedals and a piano. An encore in that setting would have felt almost anachronistic, given the back-to-basics nature of the set.
The Brian Fallon and Butch Walker shows were different—harder-rocking concerts driven by sing-alongs, guitar solos and full-band interplay. With Fallon, an encore wasn’t necessary. It could have provided a nice capper on an impeccably played show, but the fact Fallon had disclosed his intentions earlier—and that he chose the right closer, the barnstorming Horrible Crowes track “Behold the Hurricane”—made all the difference.
At Butch Walker, the missing encore was more glaring. A bizarrely late start (doors didn’t open until 9 p.m.) and two opening acts pushed Butch’s set time to nearly 11. The show he played was fantastic (it always is, he’s my favorite living artist to see in concert), but when he left the stage after the main set, the mood felt distinctly unfinished. He’d burned through half of his then-brand-new LP Stay Gold, played a slew of old favorites and ended with a frenetic take on “Hot Girls in Good Moods,” during which he made a trip into the audience.
But the show needed an epilogue, even if it was just the one-song encore of the sweet, wistful “Record Store” performed at other stops on the tour. The crowd waited and screamed. Then we waited and screamed some more. Eventually the house lights came up, and roadies and venue employees came out onstage and started tearing down. The show was over, suddenly, without a last chapter. It felt like a TV show canceled mid-season.
Encore or no, all three concerts brought terrific performances by some of my favorite artists and were more than worth the price of admission. The Butch show, despite the truncated length, is arguably the best concert I’ve seen in the last 365 days. But I was left to ponder whether the encore ritual still has a place in modern live music. My gut reaction was to say it didn’t. I thought encores were a silly, overblown trick, one reeking of artifice and used more to encourage concertgoers to buy merch than to achieve any true artistic goal.
Now I have a slightly different viewpoint. Encores are artificial and overblown, but in a way often quite thrilling and emotionally satisfying. For a few seconds, when you’re in a big crowd and yelling for a band to come back onstage, you feel like you have the power to determine the future. The immensity of that feeling, especially for a young kid going to his or her first show, can’t be overstated.
Even someone like Gundersen, who openly admits encores don’t mean anything to him anymore, can recall concerts from his youth where they felt like everything. “I do have a strong memory of clapping and yelling as a teenager at a Dave Matthews Band gig for what felt like half an hour,” he said. “And when they finally came back out, it felt like I had participated in conjuring that.”
As it turns out, the encore is perhaps most similar to a high-flying act at the circus. You can see the wires and sense the artificiality of it all, but you pretend you don’t because it’s better to believe in magic.