The '90s are alive and well. At least that’s how it felt about a week before Thanksgiving inside New York City’s Terminal 5, where music fans strained to catch a glimpse of Mazzy Star on a stage so dimly lit it evoked memories of the Bronze from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Although the concert was part of Mazzy Star’s tour to support Seasons of Your Day, the band's first new album in 17 years, it was clear many attendees were there to indulge in the past. Despite the poor lighting and “no cameras” rule, the smartphones made their way out to record when the band launched into its 1994 hit, “Fade Into You.”
“This is the only song I know!” someone near me cried, as Hope Sandoval’s voice rang through the venue.
It seems 2013 has been a year chockfull of music nostalgia, with Mazzy Star being just one of many acts, including The Postal Service, Violent Femmes and Neutral Milk Hotel, to return to the stage after stepping away from the spotlight. The reunited Last Splash lineup of The Breeders toured to commemorate the album’s twentieth anniversary, and My Bloody Valentine finally put out its first album since 1991’s Loveless. The Replacements played their first shows in two decades this year. And on a slightly different note, pop music fans got to watch both Destiny’s Child and ‘N Sync reunite for their first televised performances in years.
As someone who found herself attending a lot of what I’ve referred to as throwback concerts this year, I decided to talk to some fans, as well as those in the business, to get a better sense of why this wave of nostalgia seems to be permeating the music world in 2013.
Most of the shows I’ve attended this year have involved seeing bands I missed the first time around, and I’m not alone. Music writer and historian Caryn Rose says there are a number of fans that fit that particular bill, while other fans may have been old enough to see the bands they like, but just don’t feel as though they got enough time with them.
“And then there’s good old fashioned, ‘I love this music and I’m glad to hear it again’ nostalgia,” Rose says. “That covers everyone from The Replacements to My Bloody Valentine to the Afghan Whigs, to I dunno, Billy Joel.”
Bands have their own reasons for returning to the stage after taking hiatuses. Violent Femmes bass player Brian Ritchie says while individual band members probably had different reasons for touring again for the first time in six years, he thought it would be a shame to let the 30th anniversary of their first album’s release pass unrecognized.
“And the other reason, I mean this is highly personal, was that my son was very ill and was going to be undergoing a double lung transplant this year,” says Ritchie, who resides in Australia, “and I wanted to get back to the States more frequently so that I could see him.”
When the band, which currently has a few more tour dates planned for the end of the year, first agreed to reunite and play at Coachella, it initially seemed that it would be a one-off event, Ritchie says.
“Gordon [Gano] and I wanted to see how it went and how it felt and whether or not we wanted to work together, and whether it made any sense,” he says. “The shows were so good and the bond we had with the audience was still kind of there. It was just like resuming. When bands reform, it’s one thing, but I just felt more like we were resuming our activities.”
The band is continuing to play live with new drummer Brian Viglione (also of The Dresden Dolls), but there are no clear-cut plans to record new tunes just yet. “We just want to work the live stuff for a while before we do any recording,” Ritchie says.
For some concertgoers, hearing older material live is just what they need.
“The Stones actually finally gave up on the charade of, ‘We are still a viable music act! We still make new records,’ which was a relief because it meant those slots in the show where you had to pretend to be interested in the new material could be filled with what people were actually paying a lot of money to hear,” Rose says, adding that as a New York Dolls fan growing up, she was happy to see the band do three reunion shows while not being particularly interested in hearing something new.
“On the other hand, I never thought Patti Smith would play live again and she went on to make good records in her second incarnation,” Rose says.
The buzz surrounding highly anticipated — or unexpected — band reformations has the ability to be beneficial to everyone from fans to event organizers. Neutral Milk Hotel, best known for their 1998 album In An Aeroplane Over the Sea, is another act that started touring again this year after going on hiatus in the late '90s. One of the shows the band played was at the Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit in Asheville, North Carolina, at the end of October, where festival attendees swarmed the aisles after seats filled up in an effort to hear the band.
“The set was one of the most high-energy performances of the whole weekend,” recalls Steve Greene of AC Entertainment, the company behind the festival. “The room that they played in was crazy packed in a way that I’ve never seen it packed, and people were going crazy.”
Greene points out that a fervent fan base and an overall mysterious aura surrounding Neutral Milk Hotel are the likely factors contributing to the excitement surrounding the band’s return to the stage.
“They’re a band that stopped playing before most of their fans, contemporary or people that came to them later, ever got to see them,” he says. “And they just created such an air of mystery and such a hardcore following.”
For many music fans, the reunion shows they’ve attended this year -- and in the past -- have proven to be worth it, especially if it’s their first time catching an act they’ve enjoyed for a long time. For David Brehmer, a 31-year-old music fan in Richmond, California, it was worthwhile to see an iteration of Black Flag — featuring Greg Ginn and Ron Reyes —over the summer.
“It was powerful to finally get a chance to see live the songs I had been hearing for so long,” he says. “And it didn’t feel like some huge band deigning to dust off their slate of hits. It felt like they were putting every bit as much into it as they did when they were younger.”
But there are inevitably some shows that don’t satisfy everyone’s expectations. Meredith Tarr, 42, of New Haven, Connecticut, who also works as a tour manager, was disappointed by the Mazzy Star show mentioned at the beginning of this piece.
“As someone whose career involves being part of over 150 live performances a year, I like to study the details: what sound gear is on stage… how many people are in the band and what are they doing,” Tarr says. “Not being able to see any of that left me thinking I could have saved myself the $40… and stayed home and listened to my Mazzy Star records in the dark instead.”
While Tarr acknowledges that she has some uncommon interest in the technical side of things at concerts, she says she wasn’t the only one disappointed.
“At one point, a guy near me said to his date, ‘This is the third time I’ve seen [Hope Sandoval] play and I still have no idea what she looks like,’” she says. “I’m really wondering why Hope Sandoval and Mazzy Star are putting themselves through this… if they were enjoying themselves up there, we’d have no idea.”
While band reunions have been part of music history for the past few decades, there’s no scientific way of figuring out why bands “put themselves through it” or who might reunite next.
“I don’t think we have enough rock and roll history to have any kind of formula for a norm for when bands got back together,” Rose says. “Bands used to get back together because there was an opportunity for them to make money, which, as far as I’m concerned, is also a completely valid reason. Or they got back together because a promoter talked them into it, or because someone in the band felt like they still had something to say.”
But while some music lovers don’t feel the reunions of recent years differ all that much from the reunions of decades past, some do believe we are seeing a few more reunion shows than we were in previous years.
Greene feels there’s more of an opportunity for bands to return and find an audience than there was even five or 10 years ago when there were maybe about three to five festivals in the U.S., saying that the number has now increased with different festivals being held nearly every weekend.
“There’s a lot more events that are specific to very specific niche audiences,” Greene says. “A band like Dismemberment Plan can come back and play shows because there’s an event that’s super important to that fan base. Or like Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, has more of a punk and metal vibe… their audience really wants to see that kind of stuff," he says.
It seems the reunions and nostalgia won’t be coming to an end any time soon. The once elusive Neutral Milk Hotel will be touring even more next year, and alternative rock act Failure — disbanded in 1997 — recently announced plans for a 2014 Los Angeles show. And of course there’s the serious rumors surrounding a possible Outkast reunion at Coachella in 2014. Only time will tell us who’ll be reuniting next.