Reunion Acts: Second Verse, Same as the First

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Maybe it's some residual nostalgia from last week's observations about Generation X's newfound role as Old Guy At The Rock Show. Maybe it's just some selective amnesia wearing off and the writer remembering he'd seen Gorilla Biscuits, Lifetime and The Sheila Divine reunion gigs in recent years.

Either way, an apology is in order: Reunion concerts are a great thing and should be embraced by anyone who claims to love the bands that are reuniting.

That's been made as clear as a reissued album on 180-gram vinyl to indie rock fans who suddenly find themselves scrambling for tickets to see Neutral Milk Hotel after the band announced a tour in April. Lead singer Jeff Magnum has been playing solo shows and hinting at a reunion for a while, but his cohorts haven't viewed revisiting the band's scant back catalog of two studio albums and a handful of EPs as a priority since the band called it quits in 1999.

That was still a full eight years after The Replacements played its last show in Chicago and spawned years of fan lament about their beloved Mats missing out on the '90s indie rock wave that swept up Nirvana, R.E.M. and others. Like Magnum, Replacements singer Paul Westerberg still did solo shows and still played his old band's fan favorites like "Can't Hardly Wait," "I Will Dare" and "Left Of The Dial."

A few days ago, The Replacements announced reunion shows this summer in Denver, Chicago and Toronto as part of Riot Fest. They couldn't have picked a better venue, as the Chicago-born festival has been reuniting '80s and '90s punk and indie acts including Naked Raygun, Screeching Weasel, Jesus and Mary Chain, Descendants, Violent Femmes and others since 2005.

During that same span, reunion shows have become something of a closet industry for indie rock bands, punk bands and even hip-hop acts. Earlier this year, we framed such tours as cynical, nostalgia-laden plays for Generation X's expendable income. In many circumstances, especially those involving cruise ships, we stick by that assertion. When The Pixies reunited in 2004 and toured off and on until 2011, lead singer Frank Black made no qualms about the band's motives.

"We're interested in anything that's going to earn us a fair wage," he told The Quietus. "It's not to say it's not about art, but we made that art expletive 20 years ago. So forget the expletive goddamn art. This ain't about the art anymore. I did the arty-farty part. Now it's time to talk about the money."

Westerberg always seemed confident that a Replacements reunion would happen -- even if it was just him and bassist Tommy Stinson -- but even this 22-years-in-the-making tour is only about the money.

Pulp, Blur, The Stone Roses, Pavement, Sebadoh and Kraftwerk have all either reunited for tours or started working on new material in recent years and, yes, there's a strong chance that money's involved. Both the Pixies and Dismemberment Plan were playing bigger shows than they ever did in their prime by the time their last reunion shows ended. By doing nothing for a decade or so, these bands have created more demand for their music than active performers who fueled a 10% drop in global concert grosses and attendance each fell 10% last year, according to Billboard.

In the U.S. and Canada alone, attendance down 6% from 2011 and may actually be worse, as companies such as Live Nation ( LYV) cut back on reporting their attendance and income figures after they took a nosedive during the economic downturn in 2010.

Where's that demand coming from? Part of it is from folks who were around the first time not so much feeling nostalgic as they are feeling communal with the bands of their youth. Kids who grew up on punk and hardcore are now parents watching documentaries about Vinnie Stigma from Agnostic Front and Fat Mike from NOFX raising kids of their own.

Another element comes from Pandora ( P), Spotify, Rdio and Apple's ( AAPL) Genius function on iTunes acting as cool aunts, uncles or older siblings and throwing these bands into the mix of listeners whose tastes fit their profile. Yet another is a changing music landscape that sent vinyl album sales soaring nearly 18% last year, outpacing the growth of digital track sales (5.1%) and digital album sales (14%), according to Nielsen (NLSN) Soundscan.

There's a renewed reverence for the pre-digital and for the tangible but perhaps more important, there's a respect for the lineage of music. It's why Adele draws a direct line between herself and Dusty Springfield. It's why Jay-Z and Kanye West throw it back to Otis Redding. It's why, in 2013, a new David Bowie album is still a really big deal.

It's a desire to be part of what you weren't around to experience the first time. It's about acknowledging the greatness of the past while crushing generational tyranny in the present. It's about never letting some old guy with gray hair tell you "you should have seen them when" or "they'll never be the way they were." TheStreet's Carlton Wilkinson says such reunions have "a living-fossil quality." That makes them dinosaurs. People throw that term at musicians in the pejorative all the time, indicating they're past their prime and completely irrelevant.

But you know what? Everybody wants to see a dinosaur. The Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago are packed with people gawking at fossils far less alive than either Henry Rollins-deprived incarnation of Black Flag touring this summer. The Jurassic Park films are getting their fourth installment next year. Why? Because people love a giant, towering, snarling, badass thing bigger than any living creature they can imagine.

A comment beneath an article about indie rock reunions on The Onion's A.V. Club site summed up the appeal of these kind of largely anticipated, small-act reunions better than even the article above it could:

"I was born in 1985, and I've been able to see Devo, Gang of Four, PiL, The Raincoats, Echo and the Bunnymen, Mission of Burma, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Tears For Fears, My Bloody Valentine, OMD, The Breeders and Leonard Cohen play in my lifetime.

"I am all for these reunions."

While Tears For Fears may not fit the indie label and Leonard Cohen might take great amusement from being thrown into such company, the point's still well taken. If the bands and the performers people care enough to rave about and compile the back catalogs of still care enough to drag themselves out on the road, why wouldn't you see them?

Lamenting everybody's collective aging and clinging to memories and associations that fade with each passing year has a more detached, tortured, unquestionably indie vibe to it. But these reunions should serve as a reminder of why fans fell in love with these artists in the first place, why the generations that followed are just as excited to see them and why they shouldn't just be enjoyed in their prime, but for as long as they're around for fans to enjoy them.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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