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Are artists wrong to eschew live fan favourites in favour of newer cuts?

It is a long-standing debate on the lips of music fans: at gigs or concerts, should the group we are listening to play their old or new material?

Over the course of this summer, having seen a wide variety of musical groups and individuals, there is a modicum of wisdom in both sides of the argument. For instance, seeing alt-indie giants The National provoked, somewhat, a sense of disappointment. While I am a resolute fans of older album stalwarts like Mr November, the band instead chose to pepper their set at Glastonbury with newer material off their forthcoming album. Songs such as The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness are by no means unknown, having been on release for several months, but the band did not adhere to their most successful and much more readily known work.

As an avid music fan, I do appreciate the need to showcase new material. However, when there has been a gap of several years (four, in the National’s case) I argue that playing a mixture of old and new with a heavier focus on the older material could favour the band. Until the release of an upcoming album which has been available for several months prior to a tour or set of gigs, I firmly believe the emphasis should be towards the older, more known material. As such, a perfect example would be the headlining slot at Benicassim, courtesy of the red-hot chilli peppers. While they played the usual hits you’d come to deem as mandatory – ‘under the bridge’, ‘Californication’ and ‘Dani California’, amongst others – they too focused on their most recent record. The advantage to this is that it puts the artists firmly in the driving seat of how they want to present their craft to the multitude; yet, despite the manic bass of flea, a breach was left in the fabric of their performance in the shape of absolute hits such as ‘otherside’ and ‘snow (hey oh)’. Two of my favourite tracks from their back catalogue, so do forgive my bias.

However, bands such as the national and the chillies represent a trend in music that reaches back into the past. The furore that ensued whenever neil young or prince decided to play their new material in lieu of their classics is a case in which the artist is taking an ounce of control over their creative future. For instance, ed Sheeran chooses to play his latest album divide with a smattering or songs from his other records despite his first album, +, being the most conceptually cohesive. Not to mention, the general antipathy the critical music world has towards ‘Galway Girl’.

Yet, overall, this represents a trend throughout popular music. The rolling stones may be forgiven for eschewing Sticky Fingers for Some Girls or Exile on Main Street. Nonetheless, a classic example is when ‘China Girl’ era bowie decided, at the Milton Keynes bowl, to play the entirety of his new collaborative efforts with Nile Rodgers et al from his disco infused 1983 album Let’s Dance. With the rose tinted spectacles of retrospective criticism, a fine era to add to his collection, however, at that given moment, the crowd were notoriously upset, reacting with antipathy when Bowie refused to play anything from Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust or Low.

To become reliant on older hits will leave a band or musician firmly in a rut from 40 years previously. Groups such as U2 continue to produce new material but if their recent Joshua tree tour is an example, people want the classics tempered with some new musings. Perhaps it is better to have a 70/30 split of older, established material with new tracks thrown in. Nonetheless, it is a delicate balance for a musician, yet a combination of both old and new ensures that they push the bounds of creativity whilst not falling into the trap of becoming a tribute act to their own past glories.

Words by James Hill

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