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April 30, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Go to enough shows, and an instinct will develop. Musicians tire, running on adrenaline-fueled autopilot. Concertgoers’ motions change from calculated to uncontrolled, their smell from pleasant to pungent. As beads of sweat drip, ears ring and vocal chords throb, it’s clear the end is near. Once the dreaded words, “Thank you, (insert locale),” escape the lead singer’s mouth, the end is here. It’s backstage to prep for the culmination of the evening — the encore.
The encore, the big finale, is a musical enigma. It’s the last song a crowd hears and the band’s last chance to make a solid impression. But there are myriad ways to do it. Take the classic two-song (one new, one old) encore. That rarely disappoints. Or there’s the experimental debut of an unrecorded track, or finishing with a cover song or the saving-the-massively-popular-hit-for-last policy. There’s the often-excessive multi-encore, which includes returning to the stage one, two or three times after saying the original good night. And there are the legends who skip the hoopla altogether, opting to not leave the stage before the final song. With all of its grandeur and importance, there’s no guaranteed method for success. Often it flops, tainting an otherwise wonderful evening. The encore isn’t a science; it’s an art.
In the midst of a massive, multi-city, multi-country tour, the Handsome Furs ducked into Columbia for a one-night stint at Mojo’s on St. Patrick’s Day. The unseasonably warm weather encouraged not only attendees but also the band members to socialize on the deck before heading in for the show. Sipping PBR and smoking cigarettes, Alexei Perry and Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade fame) sat at a picnic table in a bubble of ogling concertgoers, seemingly unfazed by their surroundings. Discussing organic food, porch gardens and conversion rates for Celsius to Fahrenheit, the Canadian duo plus Canadian tour manager lacked any signs of underlying rock-star egotism.
Dan’s lanky, tattoo-covered frame coupled with Alexei’s fantastic sense of style and unorthodox haircut set the two out from the crowd. But from a distance and after getting past the hipster clothes, the two possess the chemistry of both a happily married couple and a powerful musical duo. They’re as uninteresting, in a good way, as average Columbians but with more impressive passports. For instance, they’re currently en route to Stockholm from Helsinki, and they won’t make an appearance in the states again until May 30 in Chicago.
This early-spring evening in Columbia is full of unknowns. Mojo’s is more of a small club than a traditional concert venue. Patrons often purchase tickets the day of the show, and it’s difficult to predict how many will attend. Some shows at Mojo’s sell out, leaving many to listen from the streets (think Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin), and others disappoint in both attendance and performance (think Tapes ’n Tapes in February). Handsome Furs play for crowds of 20 and crowds of 400. On this night, they’re just hoping for a decent showing.
In true Mojo’s fashion, Handsome Furs take the stage hours after the listed show time. Dan rocks military boots, perfect for the militaristic rhythms of much of their material, and Alexei removes her brown slouch boots in favor of bare feet — a logistical necessity for the high-energy performance set to start and the encore gamble they’ll eventually take.
Two and a half weeks after the Handsome Furs rolled through CoMo with their riveting performance, the country greats of the Charlie Daniels Band stopped by for a shorter and much lower-key gig at Jesse Auditorium. Charlie signed autographs preshow, using the backstage area he would choose to neglect later in the evening, and took the stage at 7:02 p.m., two minutes after the scheduled start time. Running onstage to massive applause, the band began an extraordinarily rehearsed and planned gig. They entertained the demographically diverse crowd. A crowd that was so diverse, in fact, that Charlie self-censored in the “Devil Went Down to Georgia” to avoid offending virgin ears — “I told you once, you son of a gun, I’m the best that’s ever been.”
But when the band busted out the well-known hit, it was only after Charlie announced that it would be the last song. He wasn’t fooling. There was no encore.
Charlie says encores began in a similar fashion as curtain calls on Broadway. After a solid performance, the audience would holler for more, and the performers would resurface from backstage to appease the masses.
For the majority of his career, Charlie did encores. Often, he did several. But three years ago, he stopped, and for no particular reason. “It’s not supposed to be a planned thing; nowadays it is,” Charlie says of encores. “I think the show is just as good without it.” But Charlie remains iffy on his encore-eviction decision. It works for now, but the future is unwritten. “I may go back to doing something,” he says.
Although the encore is held in high esteem among many serial rock concert attendees, for some music legends and historians, it’s a senseless act. When asked about the history of encores, MU Professor of Music History and Literature Michael Budds thought immediately of 19th-century aristocrats in Britain, not modern-day rock concerts at Mojo’s. He described a time when high-powered people would request that a song be played again at a concert or opera house because records didn’t exist for play-as-you-please listening sessions. When directed to the topic of modern concerts and planned finales, Budds expressed how in the past, encores were reserved for performances that deserved commending as opposed to today when they are a concert staple. And what musicians produce for the encore is often less than musically brilliant. In the fine arts tradition, he says, a performer will put on an hour and a half show of grand proportions and difficult material while the encore will exist simply to please attendees. “Typically those bon bons are the least substantial in terms of music,” Budds says. “They’re just crowd pleasers. They play louder. They play faster.”
For some bands, however, it’s not all about the crowd pleasers. Oftentimes, touring acts purposely ignore the screaming requests for the latest hit. Call it pompous, call it exhaustion, but unless the encore is being played at a Miley Cyrus concert, there’s a good chance it will be unpredictable. For instance, Of Montreal, a group of eccentric indie rockers who showed The Blue Note a raucous time April 24, always brings variety. It played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at The Pageant in St. Louis just a few months back as part of the encore, but there’s no guarantee a cover song will occupy a slot on each night’s set list. On the 24th, the group chose a three-song encore devoid of cover songs. It ultimately closed with “She’s a Rejecter” off 2007’s Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
Handsome Furs rotate among different types of encores as well. The two gauge the crowd and decide whether it’s worthy of an unreleased new track or if they’re better off closing with a well-known hit. The decision also varies based on locale. As a band often on the road, Handsome Furs adjust to venues, countries and audiences.
In Eastern Europe, shows are pretty wild, says Dan, and you have to win over the crowd, especially because concertgoers are likely unfamiliar with the Handsome Furs discography. In Belgrade, Dan and Alexei did two encores. “It was the most enthusiastic response I’ve ever had to a show,” Dan says. “We played every song we knew and one twice.” The response from the Eastern European crowd surprised both Alexei and Dan, who has also traveled extensively with Wolf Parade to larger venues and to crowds that are more in tune with the catalog. But it didn’t matter. The tiny Canadian duo with the sound machine and funky outfits was a success.
Alexei received more hugs than she ever has. “There’s something really cool about having to win over a crowd,” she says of overseas shows but notes that happy crowds aren’t givens in Canada or the United States either. It’s still a challenge. In Western Europe, expectations shoot even higher. Dan says: “It’s a bigger deal. It’s an evening of entertainment.”
Regardless of location, the encore is a way to thank the crowd and a means for the crowd to thank the band. “It’s a nice little dialogue between us and the audience,” Alexei says, emphasizing the thank you process.
But encores can bomb, too. They can murder momentum, disappoint a crowd and fail miserably. They are decisions often made late when set lists taped to stage floors have slots left empty. And for bands that do them, they’re massively important.
Dan and Alexei’s laid-back, early-evening mantra guides their encore philosophy. “We don’t spend a lot of time offstage,” Dan says, adding that they don’t want to keep the crowd waiting. Five minutes is the limit. All Alexei and Dan might want is a quick cigarette break and a chance to catch their breath. “You never want to sit down,” Dan says. “You don’t want to kill the momentum.”
The married duo is intensely interactive on stage with frenetic bouncing, dancing and kicking — the kind of leg flailing that a pair of slouch boots would inhibit. They kiss, they flirt, they interact. And it’s not gushy. It’s chemistry that they share with each other and the crowd.
With a guitar, vocals and a sound machine, Handsome Furs are about as low key as a traveling act can get. What the duo lacks in instruments, lights and props, it makes up for in stage presence. “We don’t have a lot of shtick in this band,” Dan says. With venue aesthetics also working against them — small clubs are stellar but typically less than beautiful, and they are often home to terrible acoustics — Alexei and Dan bring fierce movements, synthesized beats and energetic lyrics to their live shows.
Taking the stage at 11:10 p.m., the band quickly wins audience approval. Relatively unknown in the indie circuit, Handsome Furs have to turn uncertain crowds into fans and uninterested attendees into dancers. Although Dan’s name initially grabs attention, Handsome Furs’ work gains respect.
At 11:50, the thank yous emerge, and Alexei and Dan head out the back door. Without a backstage to inhabit, the two quickly duck outside to decide on the encore. Hunched over, trying to catch their breath with one hand holding the back door to be sure it doesn’t close, the band decides on a two-song encore, including “Agony,” an unrecorded track written just days before. Abandoning the chance for a smoke and a break, Handsome Furs make their decision in less than 30 seconds, keeping momentum high, and runs back on stage to boisterous applause.
The encore is a success.
But closing the show with a new song was risky. “People want what they know,” Alexei says. “Sometimes a new song will bomb.”
The two judged the crowd before making the call and deemed Columbia worthy. “If you have a good crowd that knows music, they’ll love the new song,” Alexei says, adding that fans will feel privileged to hear something brand new. They’ll appreciate it. And the Mojo’s crowd most definitely did. “We tried out ‘Agony,’” Dan said post-show. “We think it went pretty well. We took a chance on the encore.”