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Aerosmith, Judas Priest, Motley Crue, Steely Dan: Let's Go Listen To Records

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Steely Dan pic by youngrobv (Rob & Ale); Aerosmith pic by Chris Gampat; Judas Priest pic by Lillith Delilah; Motley Crue pic by Stacy Arrington, via flickr.

Since the advent of the mp3 era, there’s been a lot of talk about the death of the “album” as a medium for music delivery. As the argument goes, bands have no incentive to write forty-five consecutive minutes’ worth of content, since consumers no longer have to sit through three decent-to-mediocre tracks to get to the one they like, buried in the middle of side two. Now that the listening experience is entirely customizable, those deep cuts that never passed muster for airplay or “best of” collections will be tossed away like so many pot seeds, completely unheard by the audience that only cares about their favorite songs.

Whether this notion is true or false, the Luddites of the vinyl era are gathering in strength this summer to present some of their most enduring bodies of work in their entirety.

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Until a few years ago, this kind of gesture was limited to the concept-album-producing likes of The Who and Pink Floyd. If you saw Floyd any time after 1971, you saw them play their latest album from front to back, even less-beloved later works like The Division Bell getting the full treatment. As arena-punk bands Green Day and My Chemical Romance started making their own concept albums, they adopted the practice as well. Neil Young spent summer of 2003 performing a loopy, then-unreleased, 100-minute rock opera called Greendale as a community theater piece, complete with low-rent sets and a cast of actors miming along to his words.

But the notion of breaking out your old albums for another spin has been getting more and more popular. Since 2004, the promoters of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, focusing on edgier and more obscure acts like Mudhoney, Mission of Burma, Gang of Four and the Stooges, have been putting on special events in London, New York and California at which these bands play their complete seminal LPs, usually for the first time. Last summer, Sonic Youth, Redd Kross and Saccharine Trust played through three life-changing records in a single night. And in a feat unlikely to be repeated, local heroes Sparks did their entire discography, twenty-one albums in a row, during an epic four-week stand in London.

But this year, the practice has gained popularity among arena-size acts hitting the road with no new work to promote. Instead of cashing in with another live album, they’re offering “albums live.” And it makes a lot of sense. Knowing in advance that a bunch of your favorite songs will be played is actually a reasonable incentive for anyone who’s already seen the band to make another investment in tickets. And investment is the right word, with top-price seats for these gigs averaging $167 apiece, ten to twenty times what it would have cost you to get into the Forum while these albums were in the charts.

I suppose it’s another consequence of the New Music Economy, where the prevailing wisdom says that bands should concentrate on making money from live shows, since almost all recorded music can be found online for free. If they want to support rock star lifestyles without rock star record advances, they have to charge large at the gate. And if they don’t deliver, there goes their fabulous livelihood. Leaving the Greendale show at the Greek Theater, I heard one unhappy camper yell “I paid a hundred and fifty dollars to see NEIL YOUNG! What the fuck was that?” As the prices go up, the consumer gets an increasing sense of entitlement, and for what they're asking now, the shows had better be spectacularly awesome.

But, it’s still cheaper than time travel, and if the band is hot, you may just get the same effect.

Here’s our roundup of the full-length bodies of work hitting our local arena and shed stages in the coming months.

Aerosmith - Toys In The Attic
Staples Center Friday, August 21 and Verizon Amphitheater, August 23

Now this is a canny move. One of the most universally-liked of all American bands during the 70s, the Smith started losing a lot of us around the time they quit writing their own songs (how’d THAT happen? Oh right, money!) and churning out the same kind of gooey, overblown Desmond Child power ballads you might hear from Michael Bolton at his rockin’-est. We don’t begrudge them their undeniable financial success with this tactic, but we don’t want to spend all night listening to it either. But the prospect of hearing a solid performance of their best record has me scratching my chinny-chin-chin and checking for available seats for the first time since around 1978. Setting their Boltonish tendencies aside, they sounded great tearing through "Walk This Way" and "Train Kept A Rollin’" at their induction to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame a few years ago, still a ballsy Northeastern good time, capable of swinging the hammer with real power. ZZ Top is opening, another entry on the list of “really liked ‘em until THAT album,” and if they follow the Smith’s lead and focus on the early songs that first put them over, this has the makings of a memorable night.

Judas Priest - British Steel
Gibson Amphitheater, Sunday August 2 and Pacific Amphitheater, Wednesday, August 5

Forget about Zeppelin Vs. Sabbath - THIS is the album that set the template for Heavy Metal as we knew it in the eighties. Every last metal band from Dokken to Slayer took style cues from Judas, and not just by putting on some leather and studs. Even poufs like Poison have to admit a debt to "Livin’ After Midnight", one of the great metal moments of all time, self-professed tough guys singing about having a good time all the time, with bubblegum hooks to take the edge off of the spiked collars. For popularizing gay fetish gear among unsuspecting homophobic teenagers, Rob Halford may win the title of Most Subversive Rock Star Of All Time. He only returned to the Judas fold a few years ago, following an extended absence, and who knows if they’re coming around again. This is something you need to see at least once in your lifetime, and with a set list like this, you’re not likely to have a more rewarding opportunity. Support act Whitesnake used to include everyone from Burn-era Deep Purple except Richie Blackmore, so they must have been OK at some point, and hopefully the rough-and-tumble Priest crowd will inspire them to do a few of their songs that don’t suck.

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Motley Crue - Dr. Feelgood
San Manuel Amphitheater (aka Glen Helen Pavillion), July 31

You're on your own for this one. I can’t say the Crue quite knocked me out last fall at the Palladium. Vince Neil’s voice was shot, and the band seemed to be on autopilot, as well they could have been with ghost players apparently producing half the sound coming from the PA stacks. But I guess, with half the show in the can, how bad could it really be? And if they’re going to go this Complete Albums route, this is probably the right album to do it with. Not only is it their biggest seller and only number one, it’s got the largest number of the songs I can still pump a fist for. But the notoriously inhospitable venue (I’ve braved it twice for Ozzfest, and never again, it’s an absolute cattle ranch with no regard for human comfort whatsofuckingever) and suck-worthy list of opening acts make it kind of a tough sell.

Steely Dan - Royal Scam, Aja and Gaucho
Gibson Amphitheater Saturday, August 22 through Tuesday, August 25

Absent from the concert hall stage during most of their 70s career peak, Steely Dan have been positively road-hogging it in the new millennium, showing up in town almost yearly. This trip finds them digging deep and preaching to the converted, playing a different complete work for each of their first three nights, then opening up the set list to audience voting on the fourth. It’ll be interesting to see if their crowd asks for the obscure and arcane, or the same greatest hits they play every time they come around. As for the albums, Royal Scam seems to me a mixed bag, peaks and valleys even in the same song at times, but its choicest pearls are truly fine. I’ve already seen them do every song on Aja, but I wouldn’t miss the chance to hear it all again, simply because it’s one of the most perfect pieces of music ever conceived. Gaucho is probably their least compelling album, but the opportunity to see its highlight, "Babylon Sisters", may be too much to resist. Like the records themselves, expect the gigs to be meticulous above all else, and don’t be surprised if you suddenly grasp the meaning of some cryptic lyric you’d been puzzling over for years. Since they appear to be working in reverse chronological order, I can only hope that next year we’ll get a trio of shows comprising Katy Lied, Pretzel Logic and Countdown To Ecstasy, a prospect to truly plotz over. If you sit in the back, make sure to scan the audience for the always-hilarious sight of a thousand heads gently bopping back and forth in perfect unison, the Dan equivalent of "the crowd going nuts." And if you’re not careful, you may even find yourself doing it too. Go ahead. It’s what you DO at a Steely Dan show.