He didn’t have the facepaint on.
On Wednesday I drove down to Philadelphia with some friends of mine (I didn’t actually drive but y’know what I mean) to catch an R.E.M. show at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, backed up by upstarts The National and indie stalwarts Modest Mouse. For a little background, before the show I didn’t know a thing about the National (and I still don’t), I had barely ever listened to Modest Mouse since I’d only heard Lonesome Crowded West (that’s still all I’ve got), and loved the hell out of R.E.M. (still do). I had never seen any of these bands live.
To be honest, the only band I really cared about seeing was R.E.M. Since I don’t keep up with (and don’t care much about) modern indie rock, I viewed The National and Modest Mouse like sprinkles on a birthday cake – appealing, but inessential. I probably sound like a complete dick saying that, especially about a band like Modest Mouse who’ve got the indie-rock world in their proverbial pockets (with their hip cred increasing exponentially ever since Johnny Marr jumped into the fray). But it’s the truth – Modest Mouse seem like a pretty cool and creative band but when it comes down to it I’m so grumpily rotten about modern indie rock that I can’t embrace it the way most people my age can. At 21 I already feel like a cynical hipster dickhead.
But I shouldn’t jump the gun here – I like catching modern indie rock when I can. Seeing Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, and a smogasboard of other indie bands at Randall’s Island was a nifty experience (despite Arcade Fire being the only band there I cared about, but whatevee – the lead singer of Les Savy Fav was a funny bearded pudgy man who gyrated around with a cake in his mouth, so I had fun). Furthermore, despite feeling totally ambivalent towards much of the music, I like feeling hip now and then. So I thought, “Hey, I’m gonna see the National and Modest Mouse! Two hip bands! I can blather to all my indie-loving friends about how I saw them, and I’ll be like totally getting some sloppy BJs over my excessive music cred.” (Yes, sloppy BJs. I crave only the sloppiest.) So I viewed the concert as killing two birds with one stone – seeing hip new bands I don’t know AND hearing music I’ve loved and practically memorized over the past few years or so. Yes, yes. This would be a landmark show.
Well, sort of. First off, The National were OK. Nothing that moved me. The lead singer sings in this low croon that isn’t particularly exciting, and the band plays your sort of generic, moody, introspective indie rock. One thing I’ll say about them – they know how to sound big. I don’t know how they layered their instruments, but man, they filled the room with sound, and their instrumentation was crystal clear. So yeah, it was an appealing sound, but not a passionate one; it’s indicative of my attitude that despite sounding big and powerful and all that, they didn’t move me in any way (a friend of mine told me that their low-key music didn’t fit the atmosphere of the theater, but I still think they were just boring). Modest Mouse were more exciting – I didn’t know their songs, but they ripped right into them either way, with Issac Brock howling and yelling and Johnny Marr pulling off the same cool, melodic guitar soundscapes that made him such an asset to the Smiths. Plus, they had a dynamite percussion section, with two drummers bangin’ at once, sitting right next to each other. To be blunt, they delivered the goods; Modest Mouse are a big deal, and their live show proves their prowess. But again, I wasn’t moved. Issac Brock, while clearly in control onstage, wasn’t much of a showman and neither were the rest of the band – they walked onstage, banged out their songs (well, might I add), and left after 50 minutes. And that’s fine – that’s all the fans want to hear I’m sure – but it wasn’t an engrossing experience for me.
So after Modest Mouse I feared R.E.M. would fall in line with the openers: walk out to thunderous (if not obligatory) applause, play some decent songs, and leave with a quick thank you. It wasn’t just this show that established that precedent for me – seeing the White Stripes bang out 45 minutes worth of music before playing a two-song encore and leaving the stage without a word last year supported that notion. I was under the impression that most bands – even major, major modern bands like the aforementioned White Stripes and Modest Mouse – were just playing live shows to do their job and play their music without bothering to put on… y’know, a show.
But this is not what R.E.M. did. Here’s what happened: by the time R.E.M. hit the stage at around 9:30, the sun had set and the sky had grown dark (since we had lawn seats, this was especially noticeable). When Modest Mouse and the National played, everybody politely sat down and grooved on the music without a peep; once R.E.M. hit the stage, everybody – and I mean everybody – was on their feet. Now the excitement was building; it was real, almost tangible, and although I had been looking forward to seeing this band all night I didn’t quite expect this rush of tense, palpable anticipation. Once the band kicked things off with Life Rich’s Pageant‘s “These Days,” with Michael Stipe gyrating all over the stage and the band playing loudly and ferociously, I was in over my head. These guys were fuckin’ great.
To be honest, I did not expect this. Seeing R.E.M. on the Colbert Report a couple months back gave me the impression that they were a polite, restrained band – and I guess by most standards they were restrained, playing their songs like they are on the albums. But not only did they play with power and intensity, they were seriously wonderful to watch, especially Michael Stipe – I’d always thought he was a pretty dour guy, but here he was likeable, talkative, and above all totally into what he was doing. He would shout lyrics, run across the stage, dance around like a fool, with the rest of the band right with him. These guys weren’t aging alternative rockers – they were rock stars, period.
It also doesn’t hurt that their newest album, Accelerate, was practically made for a live setting (hell, almost all the songs were premiered live anyway). It also doesn’t hurt that the songs on Accelerate are the finest they’ve written in over a decade. Hearing them power through “These Days,” “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” and “What’s The Frequency Kenneth?” one after the other makes it sound like nothing’s changed between now and their 80’s heyday – it’s like three whole decades baked into one cake. I haven’t heard R.E.M. Live, but knowing that it consisted of a glut of dour Around the Sun tracks, I’m under the impression that R.E.M. have been fighting hard to rock out a little more during their shows. The song selection doesn’t betray this – they played only one Around the Sun song (“Walk Unafraid,” which I honestly don’t even remember) and only a scant few songs recorded before Pageant (there were no Murmur or Reckoning songs to be found), so it seems they were going for a bigger, fuller, less folk-rock oriented sound. Thankfully, it worked like a charm.
As for the overall song selection, I can’t complain. They played three Life’s Rich Pageant tracks (the first three to be precise), six from Accelerate (including hits “Supernatural Superserious” and “Hollow Man”), a couple more intense songs from Green (“Turn You Inside-Out” and “Orange Crush”), a couple recent non-album hits (“Bad Day” and “The Great Beyond”), some choice early songs (“Wolves, Lower” off Chronic Town and “Life And How To Live It” off Fables of the Reconstruction), and even some of the biggest hits of their career (“The One I Love” and “Losing My Religion,” both wonderful just because everybody in the audience could sing along). A few personal favorites: they brought out “Imitation of Life,” a lovely recent song which sounds much better in a live setting than it did on Reveal; “Electrolite,” a cool New Adventures in Hi-Fi song that Stipe claimed was about L.A. looking like an ocean from afar; “Staring Down The Barrel Of The Middle Distance,” which Stipe claimed was a song “[they] haven’t performed in an actual setting, with an actual audience” (I guess it’s new?? either way it was a cool song); and of course, three of the best songs from Automatic for the People, my all-time favorite R.E.M. record. “Man On The Moon” was an obvious choice, but hearing them kick out political rocker “Ignoreland” and the absolutely beautiful “Find The River” was really something special.
Oh, and there were guests! Did I mention the guests? Johnny Marr played on “Man On The Moon” and “Fall On Me,” which was nice if not somewhat expected. But the first guest was a total surprise. Earlier on in the show, after “Hollow Man,” Stipe snidely claimed that the song was their take on Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” before saying “Oh by the way – Pearl Jam’s here tonight!” Now I thought that was pretty neat, but I didn’t think anything of it until Stipe suddenly called Eddie Vedder (yes, Eddie Vedder) onstage during the encore to run through “Begin the Begin.” It was a great moment – not only did Vedder look totally like he’d just been pulled out of the audience (wearing glasses, a cap, and a jumpsuit, he looked more like a gas station attendant than a rock star) but his voice fit the song perfectly, delivering each line with his trademark grunge howl. Watching two aging alternative icons dancing around and singing with such gusto was a real special moment for me.
Oh, I could complain. I would have preferred “It’s The End Of The World” and “Finest Worksong” over the inferior “Bad Day” and “Turn You Inside-Out,” and that Around the Sun song didn’t need to be there, but who gives a shit? Not once during the concert did I feel even a pinch of disappointment; the band played for almost 2 hours straight without a single bum moment. Michael Stipe’s infectious, forceful optimism was enough to wipe away every single self-absorbed gripe I had during The National and Modest Mouse’s sets to the point where I almost felt silly, and his claim that 2008 was “one of the greatest times to be an American” really got to me (even if I can’t wholly believe it now, I believed it then). Beyond Stipe, Mike Mills had a wonderful backup voice, singing as forcefully as ever (it’s a shame they didn’t do “Texarkana” or “Rockville,” but oh well) and Peter Buck played with the same intensity. And there I was, up in the lawn seats, singing along with almost every song. Not bad.
If you can catch R.E.M. this year, do it. If you think that they’re washed up or out of the loop or whatever, I guarantee you that seeing them live will change your mind. Hell, in 2008, how often are you going to catch a band that is both an underground icon AND a pop icon? I can bitch and moan about modern indie rock all I want, but seeing R.E.M. plucked all of those misgivings out of my mind. A couple years or so ago, when Around the Sun was still their latest album and their reputation was on the skids, I hoped – deep down – that they’d buck the claims that they weren’t viable anymore and just go for it one more time. Accelerate and this concert made that wish come true. Say what you like, but right now consider me the happiest R.E.M. fan in the world.
P.S. – Here’s a crappy video of Eddie Vedder singing “Begin The Begin” from the show. NEAT!