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.")


Michael Stipe (Jack Plunkett / AP)

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.

By David Malitz |  March 13, 2008; 5:21 AM ET SXSW
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Comments

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Yes, all well and good, but how was the BBQ at Stubb's?

Seriously, I hope R.E.M. keeps up the energy and throws a few curveballs into the setlist for the Merriweather performance in June. I'd be happy without any songs from Monster through Around the Sun - just the Accelerate numbers and a healthy dose of prime R.E.M. tracks.

Who's the drummer on this tour? How well did he do on the Bill Berry-era songs?

Posted by: Saucy | March 13, 2008 11:40 AM

So you're saying we should look forward to the show at Merriweather in June?

Posted by: EricS | March 13, 2008 11:41 AM

You're absolutely right about the political commentary. I saw them at the Patriot Center several years ago, and it was all F Bush this, and F Bush that - it got really old really fast.
They sounded great, but I doubt I'd see them again. He should take lessons from Bono, who speaks his mind but is rarely so abrasive.

Posted by: beegrace123 | March 13, 2008 3:05 PM

I'm going to stop commenting on your blog after this, cuz it's no fun to have someone be negative all the time...

I sincerely hope you enjoy the festival.

That said, when I read "Stubb's is just a big parking lot with a stage..." in your post, I felt like I had to speak up.

Are you in the same Stubbs as I was, legendary Stubbs? You know, the place where musical legends (and I'm not talking REM here) have come to play? Even as a virgin SXSW attendee (and hey, we all have to start somewhere), I assume you went to J-school, no? I assume you've been to other fabled US music venues, right?

The best descriptor you can come up with is "a big parking lot"? Think about the image you've left with readers who haven't ever been to SXSW, Austin, or Stubbs. Blogs are rightly an informal space, but I think for a major US newspaper, they still warrant some degree of journalistic professionalism... or deployment of adjectives.

If you find by tonight that you're still not having a good time, please email your editor at the Post to see if you can FedEx your Badge to someone who wants to experience the festival with a ravenous appetitie and an open mind.

And then go back to your hotel and watch the Astros' spring training games on ESPN.

Good luck.

Posted by: MRK33 | March 13, 2008 3:30 PM

MRK33: Stubbs is a dirt patch with a stage. Few places to sit, hot as hell in summer. Nice acoustics, so-so BBQ. That's just the reality.

Posted by: snead | March 13, 2008 3:42 PM

To Snead:

Dirt, yes. That said, you're at a rock show; what the heck are you sitting for? And Texas is hot in summer cuz, you know, it's Texas. Last time I checked, it was March.

Know the 40-Watt in Athens? How about the restrooms at the Exit/In in Nashville or the Eagles Ballroom in Milwaukee. Or all the grimy glory of the dearly departed Lounge Ax in Chicago. Great venues to see music, but you wouldn't want to eat a Twinkie off the floor, if you get my drift.

Is Stubbs (or SXSW for that matter) the center of the universe? No. But as a journalist representing the place to readers who haven't ever been there, blogging to provide a vicarious glimpse of a pretty spectacular convergence of musical icons, hot upstarts, really crappy bands, and a slew of people, calling Stubbs a parking lot is a bit disingenuous.

More to the point, while Stubbs isn't as intimate as some venues in Austin, compared, for example, to the other venues REM is playing with capacities exceeding 20k in some cases, the mere fact that one can see a major band in that relatively small space is pretty amazing.

Yeah, it would be cool if Stipe came to my hotel and sang to me while I shaved tomorrow morning, but that doesn't mean I would trash Stubbs--and pretty much everything else about (a Washington Post-funded trip to) SXSW according to this blog--just for the sake of a false dichotomy.

Read through Malitz's posts. Does he have anything good to say about his (free) week of hard labor at SXSW?

And I thought my job at the sweatshop was bad. Now I know better.

Posted by: MRK33 | March 13, 2008 4:37 PM

"Parking lot" is harsh. That makes it sound like it's an exurban, big-box shopping center. It's not. Stubbs, as best as I can recall, is pretty well integrated into that part of downtown, the enterance is right off the sidewalk. When the weather is nice, like around mid-March, it's a great place to see a show.

Posted by: brendino | March 13, 2008 9:39 PM

MRK333: relax, dude. this is music, not the fate of the world hanging in the balance. S'all good

Posted by: lazylightning | March 14, 2008 11:51 AM

lazylightning:

I am relaxed, dude. Blogspots and comment forums are great spaces for the exchange of ideas.

Respectfully, I never fail to be amazed at comments like "relax" and "lighten up," both of which are anti-intellectual, anti-free exchange, and complete non-starters.

"Relax" leads to "I am relaxed" leads to "no you're not" to "yes I am" to "you so are not" to "I'm telling you I am..." In short order we're no longer talking about music. Or anything else for that matter. It's just noise.

Of course the fate of the world doesn't hang on music. In fact, the fate of the world doesn't really hang on any single thing, far as I can tell.

I like music. And I like SXSW in many ways. There's lots to dislike about it too: gettin' too big, corporations descending on the festival like flies on a cowpie, the price of the badges and wristbands and bein' increasingly knee-deep in hipster kids for hours on end.

My point in the comment above and in others in this series is that on one hand the "reporting" seemed so negative and full of bile and on the other what wasn't crabby lacked substance.

During the day today, some of the posts I've glanced at seem pretty cool, while simultaneously ABOUT music and meaty.

Now, if we wanted, we could take a launching point like this afternoon's posts and discuss music. Yesterday, I didn't feel like that fundamental purpose of a blog, newspaper, etc. was present, so "parking lots" it was.

I get your point, lazylightning; I just don't see where it gets us as readers, talkers, writers and thinkers.

Posted by: MRK33 | March 14, 2008 3:20 PM

Malitz is all growns up. He's growns up and he's growns up and he's growns up.

Posted by: Jed | March 25, 2008 1:57 PM

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