I’ve always been fairly hard on acts that I felt were more concerned with preserving their past than pushing forward. I felt, and continue to feel, that the job of the musician is to move the art form forward, to continue to evolve.
That’s difficult to do when people insist on hearing hits, on reliving past glories rather than experiencing something new. I understand that.
I also understand that as a business model, my insistence that acts always bring the new new is sometimes impractical and sometimes impossible.
It’s an idea that hit home for me twice last week.
The first was at the sold-out Elton John performance at James Brown Arena.
Although John did occasionally stray from the hits, playing the occasional deep track and a selection of songs from his excellent collaboration with Leon Russell, the majority of the three-hour performance was dedicated to his impressive catalog of hits.
Could he have strayed, done things people didn’t expect? Certainly. He has probably earned that right. But he understands that’s not what his fans want. They want Rocket Man. They want Crocodile Rock.
And that’s what Elton John delivers, because he understands that his place in the universe is defined by those songs.
Does this make him a nostalgia act? In part.
He does produce new music and while it might no longer reach the lofty heights – in terms of sales – that his string of successes in the ’70s did, he remains a significant industry player. He trades in nostalgia without ever diluting what it is that made him – makes him – an artist.
My second run-in with nostalgia was a few nights later when the Producers, a power-pop act with something of a cult following, played Sky City.
Unlike Elton John, the Producers didn’t have a string of hits to depend on. There were a couple of songs that enjoyed some brief popularity, but they have hardly become part of the cultural vocabulary. That does not mean, however, that the Producers is an act without nostalgic currency.
It was an interesting crowd that gathered at Sky City. Usually that venue skews relatively young, with a large percentage of the patronage still waiting to celebrate their 30th birthday.
Not the case when the Producers came to town.
A decidedly greying crowd, the fans were there not just because they love the band’s music – I’m convinced some weren’t even familiar with it – but because they love the band’s connection to their past.
This was an act that might have rolled around on a dubbed cassette in a first car. It’s a band that might have been mentioned by the kids who considered such knowledge a precious commodity.
Did people bounce and cheer? Yes, although not, perhaps, with the vigor they might have in 1984. But that’s not the point.
The point was that for a few hours, among familiar faces, those fans could remember and almost feel what it meant to be 17 again. That’s powerful stuff.
And it’s finally something that I’m beginning to understand.