After two decades behind the mic, Liz Phair has earned a reputation as a fiercely intimate, occasionally skittish rock musician, capable of making the biggest ballroom shows feel like cozy coffee-shop gigs. But this year, when a publicist suggested Phair perform – in its entirety – her most personal album, "Exile in Guyville," the singer felt an unfamiliar pang in her gut.
"It's a strange thing to be daunted by your own record," Phair says of the 1993 release "Guyville," which has attained a cult status among critics and fans. "Maybe seven of those songs I never played live. Some of them were too quiet; I didn't think I could carry them." She'd also have to dredge up a working knowledge of the album's intricate fretwork and hushed vocal arrangements. "I'd be going back in time," she remembers, less than wistfully.
Still, on June 25, Phair walked on stage at the Hiro Ballroom in lower Manhattan, and belted through the furious, strained poetry of "Guyville," while a head-over-heels crowd looked on. "We were all on the same journey," Phair says. "I knew what everyone was there for. They just wanted to remember the part of their life that this record was the soundtrack for. I knew because that's how I feel every night I play it."
The formula – performing a revered album sequentially in a concert setting – has gained a certain amount of ballast in the past few months, even as CD sales continue to plummet nationwide. Indie stalwarts Sonic Youth recently performed their breakthrough smash "Daydream Nation" here, and hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy played the politically charged "It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back" at the annual Pitchfork Festival in downtown Chicago. This weekend, at a upstate New York gathering called All Tomorrow's Parties, rock outfits from the Meat Puppets to Built to Spill will play their best-known material; they will be joined by Thurston Moore, frontman of Sonic Youth, who is slated to perform a solo recording called "Psychic Hearts."
And speculation is high that the Smashing Pumpkins, a band that peaked in popularity 10 years ago, has made plans to tour behind "Gish," first released here in 1991.
"We're living in a non-album era," where many fans download individual tracks instead of purchasing entire records, says Clint Conley, bassist for legendary Boston postpunk act Mission of Burma. "So it's kind of cool in my experience to hear the end of one song, and to hear that key, and to know in your head exactly where the next one is going to start." Earlier in the summer, Mission of Burma embarked on a mini-tour across the United States, playing two of the band's best-known albums from the '80s, "Signals, Calls and Marches," and "Vs."
"Normally, we don't even work with a set set," Mr. Conley laughs. "We have to stick our fingers in the wind and cop our moods and test the zeitgeist. We'd certainly never done anything like this." Like Phair, Conley found that he had to log a little time "excavating these things from the deep." Yet the payoff, he says, was "touching. I think that's the right word: touching. The gratitude, where people hear the old stuff, and they hear it in order. It's very generous. It's like there's a little extra love in the house."
Of course, the surge in so-called novelty tours is as much practical as it is sentimental. The music industry is in turmoil, and execs are increasingly turning away from album sales and toward merchandising deals and box office returns – areas that have remained relatively stable in recent months.
"Money talks," says Jonathan Cohen, a senior editor at Billboard magazine. "If a band can make 20 percent more than they normally do by trotting out an old album – well, why not? People have really seen the success musicians are having with this. The gross is a lot higher."
According to Billboard's Boxscore charts, Phair's "Guyville" shows were sellouts, and brought in – on average – more than double the ticket sales of a previous tour. Sonic Youth experienced a similar spike with its performances of "Daydream Nation."
"With a great piece of music, you should listen to it as a collection as opposed to skipping around. It makes sense," says Barry Hogan, the brain behind All Tomorrow's Parties, which first began experimenting with novelty gigs nearly a decade ago. "And these are records that are very special to people. It might seem predictable, but the atmosphere turns electric. People lose their mind."