Is Three Hours Too Long For A Concert?

It’s all kicking off on Twitter today, after a comment I made about not wanting to watch anyone play for 3 hours. Which in turn was inspired by people commenting on how great it was that Springsteen did a 3 hour set in Hyde Park. Great? I’d be reaching for the tranquilizer darts, and start picking off his band before he reached 2 hrs and 15 minutes.

I once made the mistake of seeing Bruce Cockburn on 3 consecutive days. I LOVE Bruce Cockburn. Def. in my top 3 all time fave performers, songwriters, etc. But by the 3rd gig, I lasted about 40 mins before heading outside to chat. He wasn’t any worse, it was just that I didn’t need to see it 3 times. Live music just doesn’t engage me over that amount of time.

For just under 2 hours, it can be the greatest 2 hours of my life. Beyond that, I get fidgety. Shorten that for venues where I’ve been standing for 3 hours before the band comes on. Lengthen it for ones with comfy seats, and add another 40 mins if they include an interval.

So, who are the exceptions? Who have you seen that played too long, who have you seen who could’ve gladly gone on for days?

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15 Comments

  1. A few points to mention, with regards to the headline question: Is three hours too long for a gig? The answer depends on many factors:

    1. How much material is there? Loads of bands can play their entire discography in 3 hours. Unless their covers are awesome, it’s not going to be that good.

    2. Of that material, how many are hits? I saw Beck play the Royal Albert Hall. His encore was one of the most boring 20 minutes I’d ever seen because he insisted on messing around with a sampler and basically riffing off nothing. On the other hand, if you even slightly like Springsteen and he’s having a good show, there are a lot of hits to keep you going.

    3. How drunk am I? Silly point, but if I’ve been drinking, I’m more likely to want to dance, which leads me to point 4.

    4. Is it danceable? When I went to see Electric Six the first time, I’d had a few and by the third number I was down front and going nuts. By the time Danger High Voltage came on, everyone was going balls out crazy. I ended up surfing the crowd, almost getting thrown out, my glasses were crushed underfoot (by me – skillz) and I was literally dripping with the sweat of others. All this and I knew that Electric Six wasn’t a particularly good band, it was just easy to lose yourself in the moment. And I qould have quite happily continued to go nuts for three hours, if they had the material to pull it off (see point 1,2 above). My friend had a similar experience with George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic.

    5. How good is the energy at the gig? This is probably the deciding factor. I’ve been to many gigs where I’ve loved the band/performer and they gave their all but the audience just wasn’t into it. I’ve been to others where the audience was decidedly into it for reasons unknown. (For example, anyone who saw Les Negreses Vertes play at Dingwalls a few years ago will attest to the fact that, while their latest album wasn’t particularly memorable, the gig itself was a fucking joy.)

    So is three hours too much? Put it another way: is 20 minutes of Sleepy Jackson too much? It was for me when I saw them at the Astoria on an NME tour a few years ago. But not necessarily for everyone else who stuck around that night and sang their praises the next day.

  2. Best concert I’ve ever been to where the headline act was on for over 3 hours was Big Country in 1990 or 91. They played the Students’ Union at St Andrews and as so few bands visited us, tucked away in this wee neuk of Fife, they were a very welcome guest.

    But, I was young and energetic — bouncing around at the front — in those days. The gig was a warm-up gig for their forthcoming UK tour and the length seemed to be spontaneous. They did keep going off but we kept bringing them back for yet another encore — we only had ourselves to blame! What also made a difference is that I knew all the songs and sang along. I could have watched them for another hour, I’m quite sure. But not every night!

    Compare that with Zappa Plays Zappa whom I saw the week before last in Edinburgh. I knew very little of the material, and while the first medley of songs lasted 40 minutes it felt like 90.

    I was impressed with their technical and musical abilities, and I was more than impressed with their stamina, but there’s only a certain amount of impressive, 100 mph muso-style widdling that I can handle at one time.

    Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the gig, I enjoyed the music, but with that degree of complexity and speed of playing, and my lack of familiarity with the material even two and a half hours felt like a very long time.

    Maybe it’s not just about the length of the gig, maybe there are other factors too.

  3. My Mother in Law loved going to see Ken Dodd, who was famous for his lengthy shows that would often keep going long after the last trolleybus had gone to bed.

    Which reminds me who remembers a North London band called ‘Ken Dodd’s Dad’s Dog’s dead’?

  4. I remember a Roger Waters gig at the NEC which was easily 3 hours (and then some) long. It didn’t feel anywhere near that… but then he did have a break in the middle… which I thought was kind of old-fashioned at the time.

    I guess it’s all about getting your money’s worth… but I don’t necessarily equate the length of a gig with quality. Personally, I’d prefer my gigs to be in the 90 mins range… my ears are usually buggered after that. I don’t mean ringing/tinnitus (although there are inevitable symptoms if the gig is too loud – why do bands have to play at excessive volumes anyway?), it’s more that the quality of my hearing is compromised. Anyway, the old adage: ‘leave them wanting more…’ should always apply, right?

    Getting off the topic slightly; I generally prefer to see a band in a small venue… sound is often much better… volume is kept within the bounds of reason and the best bit is there’s usually more of an intimate feel… you feel more connected to the band/artist. Surely the only reason to go and see anyone play live?

  5. I suppose a gig is too long when you start looking at your watch, but around 2 hours seems about right. Some artists have enough songs to play much longer and may feel they give better value for money by doing so. On the other hand I’ve heard of bands playing less than an hour in an arena gig. That leaves people feeling short changed.

    I agree with Darren about volume. I saw McFly with my daughter recently and they were seriously loud. Not good for all those young ears. And that was without the screaming. I was at a pub gig on Saturday that left my ears ringing. I don’t think I’ve suffered permanent damage from my gig going. I use earplugs at rehearsals and am tempted to take them to gigs.

    BTW Hi to Kevin. We used to work in the same office.

      1. Up in Wembley Point. I’m assuming you are the guy who used to be a developer here. Our mutual friend Lance said your Myspace profile matched up. We’re both still here.

  6. For me it depends on how ‘into ‘ the band I am and the critical balance of the back catalogue vs the new stuff. If the catalogue is extensive then I’m content for a band to play every track off their new uberwork over 3 or more hours provided it is interspersed with the oldies and faves. if the 3 hours is going to be padded interminable cock rock guitar solos or the incoherent ramblings of the lead singer on a variety of subjects then no ta.

    Once went to see the same band at NEC three nights running as everyone knew the tour format was first night; promote the new album, second night play the old stuff, third night get pissed and do lots of weird covers. I only lasted an hour and a bit on the third night as I didn’t lik ethe covers!

  7. I think 3 hours is too long. You can have too much of a good thing!

    Plus, with the volume regularly exceeding 120 dB at those bigger venues, 3 hours means permanent hearing damage for your attendees – with exception of the sane few that are wearing ear plugs.

  8. This is an interesting debate – I saw Steely Dan last night at Edinburgh playhouse and their ~2 hour set passed by no time. I was being drawn in by the grooves and general weirdness of the whole thing. A few nights before I saw Blur at the O2 Academy in Newcastle and I looked at my watch the whole time. I wasn’t feeling well but people were being serious dickheads, pushing and shoving around which made it less comfortable.

    Yes for two totally different styles of music in the same week!

  9. I think this is definitely something worth considering by us as musicians, as much as by us as audience – how long will people want to listen to of us??

    One of the things I most love about house concerts is that Lobelia and I have found a format that really works well for putting on an interesting, engaging show where nothing goes on too long, but all the important stuff gets heard – we generally start with me solo for about 20-30 mins, then she joins me for 3 or so bass + voice tunes. then in set 2, she starts solo just her and guitar, and at the end I come back for some guitar, vox ‘n’ bass tunes. Works well, is diverse, and we both chat a lot between songs so it’s funny to. Usually includes about an hour and 45 mins of music, with the break in between for food and hanging out with everyone who’s come to the show. No exclusive aftershow or back stage dressing rooms for us 🙂

    1. How long do people listen?

      As it’s said that if you choose to believe your good reviews then you should also be prepared to believe the poor ones I often wonder what percentage of the number of plays on myspace are people hitting play and and then stop pretty sharpish.

  10. It depends on the programme, the number of breaks & the performers. The longest performance I’ve sat through was a screening of Able Gances’ Napoleon. Admittedly that was a film but as a “silent movie” it had the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing the music live under the screen. That lasted eight hours & it didn’t seem long enough. We did, however get three intervals which broke up the day.

    For more conventional concerts take opera, even without breaks these regularly run to three hours, and a notable few closer to four, yet this is musical performance which has the power to enthral the audience & capture the soul.

    No I reckon if you are finding 2 hours too long either you’ve got a short attention span or you are going to the wrong concerts

    1. I have to confess that opera is a genre where the first 6 bars of vocals normally sees me reaching for the off button so I’m not sure I’d last 3+ hours! On the other hand, I’ve attended plenty of folk clubs and open mic nights, which tend to last for about 2.5 – 3 hours, which seems fine. Of course, that consists of lots of separate performers but there is a sense in which the overall performance includes all the changeover times.

      I reckon I could cope with that long from a single band or performer if they had a diverse enough repertoire, including tricks like changing instruments or introducing guests to keep things fresh.

      Another factor to consider is other time constraints. The audience might be happy to listen to another hour or more but if they have long journeys (particularly relying on public transport) an earlier finish might result in a much more enjoyable overall experience.

  11. I can still remember Hot Tuna playing the marathon gigs, 4 hours straight, no breaks.

    30years later, now in a bar band playing 4-6 hours in a tourist location, so there is some turnover of paying customers. It used to be 45 minutes on, 15 off as the norm. Found a drummer that could hang a bit longer, so now playing 90 minutes on before a break.
    Is this too long?
    I don’t know.

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