SXSW: Appreciating Post-Prime R.E.M.
AUSTIN - Seeing R.E.M. perform in 2008 is sort of like seeing Greg Maddux pitch in 2008. What you're witnessing is far from a peak era performance, but there's an undeniably special feeling you get from simply being in the presence of such greatness. And every once in a while that old form shows itself and leaves you in awe. The band's 90-minute set last night at Stubb's Bar-B-Q had a few of those moments early on, but things took a turn for the worse as the night went along. You know, sort of like Maddux when he reaches the 7th inning these days. (Sorry for all the baseball talk lately - too much "Baseball Prospectus.")
Two new tracks and a dynamite performance of "Second Guessing," a gem from 1984's "Reckoning," kicked things off. After a decent version of the curiously popular "Drive," R.E.M. showcased three more from its upcoming album, "Accelerate." Under most circumstances, a band with one of the deepest catalogues around playing yet-to-be-released material would be a huge downer. But the new songs have some life to them. They are riff-based, concise, pack a punch (maybe a bad term to use when talking about Peter Buck) and the band seemed to enjoy playing them. (As opposed to going through the motions during setlist staple "Fall on Me.") The performances actually made me excited for the new album, which isn't something I've been able to say since "Up."
The band didn't so much run out of steam as much as frontman Michael Stipe began blowing hot air. You know going into an R.E.M. show that you're going to get some political commentary. And while nothing he said was outrageous or really even objectionable it just ruined the moment. Part of the reason those early R.E.M. albums are so great is the mystery in Stipe's mumbly lyrics. He was saying something, it was hard to tell exactly what, but that was fine. Now when he introduces a song (new track "Houston") as being inspired by a comment by Barbara Bush, well, it's just not as fun.
The inclusion of recent almost-hits like "Imitation of Life," "The Great Beyond" and "Bad Day" felt a bit like a tease, dipping back only a little bit into those hundreds of possibilities. Besides "Second Guessing," the only real surprise (but a very pleasant one) was "Electrolite," the "Nightswimming"-soundalike that closes "New Adventures in Hi-Fi." It seemed especially odd to pass on the hits at a festival show and that may have been a reason the audience seemed a bit indifferent throughout. The encore was a classic example of coming back because it was part of the plan, not because the crowd was begging for it.
But it also served to end the evening on a high note. Two more new songs, including single "Supernatural Superserious," brought back the spark from earlier in the set. And closer "Man on the Moon"... I don't know about you, but I get a chill whenever the chorus kicks in. And that's largely due to the backing vocals of bassist Mike Mills. This show wasn't quite the intimate performance I was expecting - Stubb's is just a big parking lot with a stage, holding a couple thousand people - but I did get to be pretty close to Mills and whenever that guy goes up to the microphone, a little bit of magic happens. His harmonies last night were as pitch-perfect last night as on "Murmur." Sometimes you just have to appreciate those small things. You know, like a Greg Maddux changeup that paints the outside corner.
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