Bluegrass and the A.G.E

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As a convert from rock and blues music to the joys of bluegrass, I have learned that the differences between these musical worlds is not limited to the music. There are deep cultural differences as well.

Ted Lehman’s column yesterday brought up the subject of encores, and he decried encores that aren’t specifically demanded by the audience, a practice pretty common in bluegrass.

In rock and roll, the band quickly leaves the stage after their set, and there is not necessarily an automatic expectation of an encore. If the band delivered an amazing show, though, and the audience is nowhere near ready to quit the premises, then they applaud wildly, stamp their feet and yell and whistle. The promoter, despite the promise of a warm bed away from the pandemonium, recognizes that the chances of clearing out the hall quickly and completely are increased by the band coming back out for another song or two.

Rock/pop protocol generally forbids the opening act from getting an encore – the audience would really have to be unruly to force this, and it’s a serious slap in the face to the headliners. Headliners probably expect an encore most nights, and frequent concertgoers will notice that major acts often withhold their greatest hits until the encore – clearly veering into the realm of the Automatic Gratuitous Encore, also known as the A.G.E.

But for most of us semi-pro schlubs, an encore isn’t demanded of us all that often. When you’re playing bar gigs, typically you’re playing for so long the crowd has had enough when you’re done.

So, when I began doing bluegrass gigs, especially festivals, I was entranced by the encores. “Wow”, I thought. “We’re really reaching the crowd tonight!”. After a while, I noticed that even bands that played the 9 AM set for 11 yawning people in lawnchairs got an encore. I had discovered the Automatic Gratuitous Encore.

Obviously the AGE is disingenuous, and does diminish the value of a spontaneously demanded encore, but the practice is so commonplace that bands grow used to it – even creating set lists that have a song or two at the end, labeled “for encore”, (or for the more cynical bands, “for AGE”). It became obvious that stage managers at many festivals shooed the bands offstage early enough to whip up a frenzy with the “How about these guys! Let’s get ‘em back out here!” speech. It’s kind of fun, I think.

Now, there have been times when I have been surprised by the lack of an encore, and I was surprised at how stung I was. Now and again, we’ll play a set and, as soon as we leave the stage, the stagehands are moving mics and stand around, and I’m disappointed, practically heartbroken. “Where’s my AGE?”, I whimper, and trudge back to my camp, crestfallen. Nothing sadder than a crestfallen musician.

So, more to Ted’s point – what do we do with the AGE? Get rid of it? Two possible downsides I can see to eliminating the Automatic Gratuitous Encore:

Scenario one: Stage Manager shooes the band off with 5 minutes left in anticipation of the crowd wanting an encore, and there IS no clamor. Maybe the band saved their best song for an expected encore (a big mistake, by the way!). Now the band’s been cheated out of 5 minutes of their festival set which would be 10% of a 50 minute set. Not very fair!

Scenario two: Stage Manager is tasked with evaluating the crowd’s enthusiasm and the decision of whether or not it warrants an encore. Is the criterion the same (noise-wise) for a 1PM crowd as a 9PM crowd? It all becomes pretty subjective at that point, and the poor stage manager stands a good chance of having festival goers AND band members being mad.

My personal belief: The AGE is a semi-sham, but a light-hearted one. Playing on a festival stage is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for some – why not add an encore to the memory? We can all chuckle at the imagined frenzy of a teensy crowd, but what the heck – let’s bring the band out for one more, shall we? And for those times when the audience truly demands an encore – well, those are pretty obvious, I think, and not comparable to a tepid AGE.

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