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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

Rock gigs, encores and a review of the Maxwell String Quartet BMS concert

I thought I would preface the review of an excellent BMS concert performed by the Maxwell String Quartet by essaying my views on concert encores. Here is what Mr Jimmy Wales has to say:


‘An encore is an additional performance given by performers at the conclusion of a show or concert, usually in response to extended applause from the audience. They are regarded as the most complimentary kind of applause for performers. Multiple encores are not uncommon, and they initially originated spontaneously, when audiences continued to applaud and demand additional performances from the artists after they had left the stage.


However, in modern times they are rarely spontaneous and are usually a pre-planned part of the show.


Context is everything, well actually it isn’t. But I find that rock music encores work. It is a show and the theatre of ‘more, more’ followed by a Grateful Dead back on stage is both part of the ritual and generally a welcome one too. But not always – a few examples.

First up, Sweet performing at a student union gig at Bangor University (stayed for one year) in 1985. Yes, I am that old. Doing these circuits were standard practice for bands who were no longer top of the pops, past their sell-by date and so forth. Their big hit was Blockbuster. Sirens, guitar riff, a lot of Ah-ha-ing and a long blond-haired Brian Connolly wearing a white Elvis outfit with satin and black gloves sings:


‘You better beware, you better take care You better watch out if you've got long black hair He'll come from behind, you'll go out of your mind You better not go, you never know what you'll find’.


Great stuff. Well not at our concert. The band opened their set sans Brian, but sure enough the sirens sounded, and Brian staggered on stage. Just. However, many years of dedicated drinking (he died aged 51) had resulted in serious hair loss and an equally serious weight increase. This was not helped by wearing his heyday Elvis costume which, somehow, he had managed to get into. As he was clearly inebriated the platform shoes didn’t make walking in a straight line, or indeed any line, particularly easy. He rolled back the years, picking up the microphone stand which he then tried to twirl round above his head. The young student audience look a little perplexed if not anxious, and with good reason. Twirling a microphone stand above your head with one hand whilst smoking a fag with the other proved too much. He lost whatever little balance he had and the stand shot out of his grasp and into the face of some poor sod trying to get out of the way of the missile. Brian tried to stay on his feet, but the odds were stacked against him somewhat and he crashed off the stage. I remember the band continuing to play as if nothing had happened, certainly no one went to see if the singer was ok. However, a bit like Brian I suspect, I remember little else.

The encore. The band closed their set and were looking for a neat exit, but on staggered Brian who yelled: ‘Encore. Does anyone want an encore?’ As the students backed off, the lead guitarist (amplified by mic being still live) said: ‘For f**k’s sake Brian’ and dragged him off.

Van Morrison – seen him twice, neither enjoyable nor rewarding. Anyway, the encore. Second gig (in Manchester I think) and as at the previous one, the great man was hammered. He came on for the plus one and performed an utterly incoherent version of the classic Here comes the Night. In fact the only reason I recognised the song was the sax melody. ‘Good night and f**k off’ he said and that was that. What a charmer.


However, sometimes the encore really is part of the programme, intending to add to the experience and not just adhering to this (very welcome) ritual.


Bob Dylan – seen him seven times, possibly eight and I can honestly say that Dylan puts the integrity of the songs above pleasing us the punters. One of the best gigs was the first in 1980 in Birmingham. He had found The Lord and the concert was literally wall-to-wall Jesus. Two hours of it. The venue was rammed, full to the rafters and some. And after a while the Bob Cats began to get restless. But Dylan was on a mission, literally, and the performance was absolutely electrifying.


The encore (and point). At the end of the gig Dylan returned with his guitar and harmonica, sat on a stool, and gave us a wonderful acoustic (solo) version of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. The audience were delighted, and Bob collectively forgiven. But the encore was deliberate, it too had a message. He had used this song this in the past to say goodbye to the Left. He sang it now to tell us that the times they are a-changin’: The Slow Train(‘s) Coming so get on board.


Ps It’s a great song and a much-underrated album.


Encores in classical concerts (invariably) don’t work for me, nor for Jeremy Nicholas who, in an article for The Gramophone writes:


‘The formal programme is complete, the audience is on its feet clapping and cheering and, after the second or third return to the platform to acknowledge the applause, our soloist indicates that he or she is going to play something more. A brief pantomime follows: an encore? Really? Me? Are you sure? Oh, very well then. After this display of faux modesty, there is that delicious moment when everyone quickly resumes their seat and utter silence instantly returns to the hall. There may be a muffled announcement from the artist of the encore’s title and composer. Neighbours look at each other. Did you catch that? Was it Lyapunov or Lyadov? (It’s bad form, by the way, to identify the title of the encore to your baffled neighbour until the piece has been played. ‘Lyadov, Etude, Opus 37, F major’, you whisper - not too loud, just enough so that the people behind can hear you as well. Try not to sound too smug.)


The artist then launches into what he or she secretly hopes will be the first of a string of carefully selected bonbons…’ 


Here’s an example.

When I was a student at Sussex University the Quartet in Residence was the Chilingirian String Quartet (1985-1993). They embarked on a terrific series of programmes showcasing Michael Tippett’s string quartets – all five I think. Tippett curated the programmes, pairing each of his quartets with a Beethoven quartet. Beethoven was a huge influence on him. Two things struck me: firstly, that in each concert the performance of the Tippett quartet * was surprisingly better than the Beethoven – it’s a first violin thing.


*Some of the string writing (eg parts of String Quartet No.4) is literally unplayable. This is not pushing the boundaries but a very real miscalculation by Tippett. Britten would have choked on his cornflakes if he had seen the score. Mind you, it was written two years after he died.


Anyhow, these fascinating programmes ended not with the Beethoven or the Tippett but Armenian folksongs* written for two violins and performed as encores. They are utterly charming, example here arranged for string quartet, but irrelevant to the programme and integrity of the project. Why? Because it is that song, that tune you take home. If these duets had been played after the interval, for example, it would be the Beethoven or the Tippett left to marinate in our subconscious.


* Levon Chilingirian’s parents were Armenian and Levon has strong ties with the Armenian culture.


The Maxwell String Quartet’s programme included an impressive set of Scottish Folk Worksongs arrangements or transcriptions. For similar reasons I have given, I would have placed the set after the interval. Thus, we would have time to fully appreciate the Haydn, Mendelssohn and the folksong performances. But to add extra Scottish folksong arrangements – and yes they were wonderful as an encore, regardless of context, compromises the experience of this powerful Mendelssohn quartet. For me, anyway.


The review is published at

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