As Nickelback left the stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion one night last month, a plume of fire shot into the sky. "Thank you so much!" tattooed lead singer Chad Kroeger told the sellout crowd. "We'll see you soon."
He meant it - literally. Less than two minutes later, Kroeger and his band mates returned to the stage for an encore. The 12,000 fans who had implored the band to come back may have thought their full-throated screams did the trick. But actually, the outcome had been as carefully planned as the on-stage pyrotechnics.
Rock concerts today are no more spontaneous than Broadway musicals, and the encore, in particular, has become automatic, as predictable as the $5 beer and the guy who screams requests for "Freebird." Musicians know before a show even begins how many encores they'll play and what songs they'll include.
Blame goes around: Noise curfews and cutoff times for serving alcohol discourage spontaneity. Merriweather, for instance, is subject to noise restrictions after 11 p.m. Also, if a concert goes too long, stagehands and truck drivers have to be paid overtime. Stage lighting and visuals are computerized, making deviations from a prepared set list difficult.
"It becomes artistically risky to play a song that you thought of on the fly," said Donna Westmoreland, vice president of IMP, the biggest concert promoter in the Baltimore-Washington region. Encores, she said, are not what they used to be. "It's a pretty scripted thing."
The shift means audiences have little say over what a band plays or for how long. Cheer, don't cheer: It doesn't matter. But it used to make all the difference. The classic encore came after a band played a full set of music. The musicians would leave the stage, but the crowd would stay put. If the fans were loud and raucous enough, the band would come back. It was something the crowd had to earn. It was never guaranteed and often bizarre.
Prince used to wait until half the audience had left before returning for an encore. The Eels would come back out in their pajamas after the lights had come on. Bob Seger would say, "Can we rock 'n' roll you one more?" One-hit wonders in Britain would play their hit a second time, lacking anything better to do.
"Encore" comes from French and means "again" (though the French themselves now call the encore bis or une autre, meaning another). The practice dates to musical performances centuries ago and is similar to but distinct from that other post-performance staple, the curtain call.
A curtain call, common in theater and sports, is when a performer returns to a stage or playing field to acknowledge an audience's cheers. It depends entirely on the crowd demanding it. (Think of Cal Ripken Jr.'s jog around Camden Yards after breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak.)
But the encore has evolved along different lines. At a certain point, it became [cco: no itals: ]de rigueur, so expected that performers began to plan on it. They Might Be Giants, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based alternative group, has calculated the precise amount of time to be offstage before returning for the encore.
"People start stomping their feet at around 45 seconds, and we return to the stage after 60 seconds," said the band's John Flansburgh, who wears a watch at shows to get the timing just right. "It's just the arc of a crowd. After that minute, some people will feel like you're not being generous. Some people will start booing for more."
Flansburgh said bands that don't play encores risk being seen as stingy. He said a band that plays 16 songs then comes back for a four-song encore will be more appreciated than a band that plays 20 songs and leaves. "If you care about an audience, doing an encore makes them feel like you've recognized their power," he said.
Still, a small backlash has emerged to the auto-encore. Some bands, such as the Strokes and the Arctic Monkeys, refuse to play encores altogether. And in Britain, a group of fans calling itself Second Encore has organized to protest the boring predictability of encores by not applauding for them.
"The whole encore thing reminds us of a rock-'n'-roll cliche. It's a bit cheesy," said Andy MacFarlane, guitarist for Scottish band the Twilight Sad. "It's better to just do your thing and walk away. It's better to leave the crowd wanting more."
When everyone knows an encore is coming, it can feel silly for the audience to keep clapping, to play along with the charade that anything it does will make a difference. Some bands have tackled the problem by being more upfront about what goes on in those minutes before the encore. The Police, on their 1983-1984 Synchronicity Tour, displayed on video screens what they were doing backstage. Usually, they were having a cup of tea.
On the Pixies' reunion tour in 2004, the band would play its "official" last song, say goodnight, then stay on stage, listen to the cheers and pick up its instruments again. "It was sweet and touching," said music journalist and author Rob Sheffield. "It gave the impression that they wanted to hear us applaud."
Most bands, though, continue to disappear backstage to give the impression that the concert hangs in the balance, while they're really just toweling off, drinking water or using the bathroom.
"You know that they're coming back, and they know you know that they're coming back, so why are they treating this like it's an agonizing decision for them?" Sheffield said. Still, he's a fan of the encore: "It's a permanent part of the rock show, and it serves a very valuable function in terms of emotional drama. There's the sense that the show could go either way."
But really, it will only go one way.
Encores are the most spontaneous in the least likely venue - classical music concerts. With a hundred musicians involved, they can't all huddle backstage to decide on an encore. Instead, it's up to the discretion of the conductor or the soloist and depends entirely on audience response.
Classical encores are particularly challenging. They need to be short, celebratory and somehow tied in to the main program. "You can ruin a perfectly good concert with a boring or inappropriate encore," said Jeremy Rothman, vice president of artistic administration for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which most often plays encores on tour.
So few classical pieces are appropriate for encores that in 2002, Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, commissioned 15 pieces to be used exclusively as encores. Jennifer Higdon of Philadelphia wrote one of them, called "Machine." The piece has since been used by about two dozen symphonies.
"It's like a sherbet at the end of the meal," Higdon said. "It's a zippy way to wrap everything up - a tip of the hat."
Even the hippest rockers seem to appreciate the love. When Charles Bissell's band, the Wrens, went on tour after its last album, he didn't expect to play any encores - partly because he thought no one was interested and partly because he thought they were ridiculous.
"I said we would never do that. It's the most preposterous thing, it's scripted and expected, and all that," Bissell said. "And then you know what happens? You get your first encore. People are clapping and continuing to clap, and you're like, 'Oh, my word, do they expect us to go out and do that thing?'"
Even though encores are carefully planned, musicians still talk about them as something they "get" from an audience, not something they give to the fans. And they say when an audience really goes nuts, the band can be enticed to play a little longer.
"There have been times in our lives when we have spontaneously gotten four encores, and I have to tell you, those are some of the happiest days of my life," said Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, which usually plans two encores. Those extra encores, he said, most often come outside the U.S.
"Spontaneity happens in the tertiary cities of lesser traveled European countries," Flansburgh said. "You're playing for people who are very aware that they might never have a chance to see you again. They show you enthusiasm in a very uncynical way."
Flansburgh, an unapologetic fan of the encore, says it gives fans more to remember. "It's a way for the show to end twice," he said, "which just makes it that much more glorious."