Talk About the Passion
At the end of R.E.M.'s concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion last night, the three musicians who form the core of the band convened at the center of the stage. Frontman Michael Stipe waved and winked. The stoic guitarist Peter Buck flashed a peace sign. And bassist-harmony vocalist Mike Mills raised a glass of red wine - a perfectly symbolic gesture, given that R.E.M. is aging just fine, thank you very much.
The two-hour performance proved that R.E.M. in 2008 is still quite capable of playing with vigor and vitality. The 27-song set included plenty of vintage material (reaching as far back as 1984, to R.E.M.'s second album), as well as most of the band's bracing new album, "Accelerate."
Andrew Beaujon will have a fully formed review of the concert in tomorrow's Style section (and, of course, on This Very Web Site). For now, here's last night's set list with some of my own thoughts and observations.
Finest Worksong: A heady, 1987-vintage blast of ringing guitar opens the show. Interesting choice, leading off with a song from the band's first (and best) decade. Smart choice, though, as the band goes 1-for-1 from the very first.
Living Well Is The Best Revenge: A visceral kick in which Stipe uses a rapid-fire, nearly-bleating delivery to rail against R.E.M.'s critics - music critics, mainly, who'd decided that the band was out of gas. Ooops. This is a bash-n-burn rocker with flying guitar lines and snarling vocals. Love how drummer Bill Rieflin is pushing the pace. A real statement song and a terrific tone-setter for the night.
Bad Day: Another driving, uptempo rocker filled with aggressive guitar riffs and even more anti-media outrage. The band isn't ready to let anybody catch their breath just yet.
What's The Frequency, Kenneth?: As those crunchy opening riffs ring out, I can't help but think of the show I saw on the "Monster" tour back in California, in 1995. It was Bill Berry's first concert since his brain aneurysm, and the crowd at the Shoreline Amphitheatre was pretty charged up. The set began in total darkness with this very song, and the very first notes from Peter Buck's guitar made the hair on my neck stand up. (This was back when I still had hair.) Yet another bit of media criticism from Stipe. Also a showcase for his hip-hop strutting skills: At one point, he begins to do a robotic dance, popping like Chris Brown. "You said that irony was the shackles of youth," indeed.
Drive: The band finally taps on the brakes, slowing down after a pretty relentless opening sequence. Stipe talks about the heat and jokes about the set before this slow-burning "Automatic for the People" single. Buck's chiming chords on that black-and-white Rickenbacker 360 anchor the song. Stipe is showing off his vocal range, starting at the lower end and sounding something close to sonorous before he takes off on a run, trying to send the song skyward.
Ignoreland: "We're going to do a three-song set now," Stipe says. "Each of thsse songs is specific to Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area. I'm not laying blame here..." He has a conspiratorial look on his face. He says he's not going to explain what the songs are about, saying that everybody should decide for themselves. And then he explains what the first song - this song - is about: "The hostage crisis that brought about the Reagan administration." Why sing about that now, 29 years after the fact? Not sure, really. (Yet another Michael Stipe mystery.) Interestingly, the band didn't play this "Automatic for the People" song live for 16 years. It finally made its concert debut on the current tour. There's an angularity to the song that's pretty appealing on stage.
Man-Sized Wreath: "Nature abhors a vacuum/But what's between your ears?" Stipe seethes. Another angry "Accelerate" song, this one about George W. Bush's "empty gestures." There's something about the melody and phrasing that reminds me, fleetingly, of the pre-chorus in Kool and the Gang's "Celebration."
Little America: On which the band pushes the tempo again while Stipe makes a slight alternation to the lyrics ("Washington, I think we're lost"). One of two songs from 1984's "Reckoning," which is as far back as R.E.M. will reach tonight.
Hollow Man: Stipe jokes about getting "the patriotic set out of the way early on." Promises he'll "shut up" for the next six songs - "if you're lucky." He's particularly animated tonight - and in a lighter, brighter mood than I've ever seen in concert, though this isn't exactly a light, bright song, what with its lyrics about complicated messes and such. Like the soft-loud/slow-fast dynamics. Scott McCaughey adds a range of colors on piano and then guitar.
Walk Unafraid: A little bit of guitar squalor from Buck. Nice to hear from him, as he looks pretty disengaged - even if his playing sounds perfectly fine. Lyrics about contradiction and constraints. The only song from 1998's "Up" in the set.
Houston: "This next song is about the Bush administration's pathetic response to Katrina," Stipe says. A beautiful, brittle ballad that's lifted by Mills's rolling organ work.
Electrolite: More Stipe chatter about the heat before performing this song from the band's last great album, 1996's "New Adventures in Hi-Fi." Buck is having guitar problems in the first verse, stripping a usually beautiful song of some of its textures.
(Don't Go Back To) Rockville: The band can't play around here without doing this song, can it? Mills - the most important harmony (and counter-harmony) vocalist in rock - sings lead while wearing a cowboy hat, which is perfect given the song's country arrangement. The delayed chorus sounds great with 14,000 people singing along.
Pop Song 89: "Should we talk about the weather?" Stipe sings in this swirling, old sorta-garage-rocker. "Should we talk about the government?" Hey, he's pretty much been doing that all night, so why stop now?
Horse To Water: Guitar feedback opens this "Accelerate" rave-up. It sounds like punk rock, only with harmony vocals.
The One I Love: Another big arena-rock anthem, with a huge, soaring chorus. There's a piercing blast of feedback as Stipe goes to the corner edge of the stage.
Driver 8: Buck does the one-leg lean that used to be his performing trademark until, well, he stopped doing it so much. The roots-rocker, from 1985's "Fables of the Reconstruction," is built on that chiming Rickenbacker, though it's the melodic bassline from Mills that seems to push it along.
Until The Day Is Done: A quiet, anti-conservative rant with shades of "Swan Swan H." The people sitting in front of me are having a spirited conversation about nothing; one of them is actually on her cellphone. Nice.
Let Me In: The band is in a tight circle around the keyboard, where Buck is now sitting. Mills, McCaughey and even Rieflin are playing acoustic guitars. Stipe is singing about Kurt Cobain with his back to the audience, though his face is being beamed over the video screens in real time. His voice is reaching ever-skyward, a high, plaintive wail. A gorgeous, moving performance and quite possibly the highlight of the show.
These Days: Back to the slashing rockers, with a surging rhythm and a double-guitar attack. The 1986 song ends with a power chord hanging in the air.
Orange Crush: The song, which may or may not be about a kid leaving for the Vietnam War, has been injected with a dance beat that hints at disco. It sounds cooler in concert than it probably does in theory. (New adventures in hi-hat, etc.) Big moments when the amphitheater-filling choruses swoop in. Stipe is singing a little bit through a bullhorn. He's also leading a clap-along. And what's that? Military-style snare fills? This is great.
I'm Gonna DJ: Stipe is almost rapping on this garage-rocker from "Accelerate." The wooh-hooh is a bit much (Blur called; they want their song back), but this ends on a high note, with Stipe emphatically shouting: "YEAH!" And in case you happen to miss it, the word is all over the video screens behind and on either side of the stage.
Supernatural Superserious: Stipe has an ice bag on his head. (Must be hot up there, performing in a coat and tie.) Buck has a gorgeous 12-string guitar. But it's McCaughey whose riffs are driving this mid-tempo song from "Accelerate."
Losing My Religion: Buck is holding a mandolin now. Gee, what's next? Probably the song with the most famous mandolin riff in popular music. Stipe sings part of the song while sitting on a monitor with his legs crossed.
Mr. Richards: Like I said earlier, Stipe has been in a particularly good mood all night. But that hardly means he can't summon anger and rage. Here, he says: "Over half my life, I have been governed by people I don't respect and who I despise on some level." He dedicates this song to Dick Cheney. Guy in front of me starts to yell and scream and heckle. He's drowned out by the bristling guitar sounds. He probably should have left after "Losing My Religion," because...
Fall On Me: Before performing this 1986 song (about the environment), Stipe makes a big deal about something he's had in his pocket all night. Asks the camera to come in for a close-up. Pulls a button out of his pocket. Pins it to his lapel. It's Barack Obama "the next president of the United States." Guy in front of me is apoplectic. It's sort of amusing, really. Did he think Stipe was going to pull out a Bob Barr button or something? Dude. Anyway, Johnny Marr - ex-Smiths, now playing with opening act Modest Mouse - emerges from the wings holding one of Buck's Rickenbacker 360s. The two of them stand side by side, playing identical guitars. (Double the jangle!) Another highlight, particularly when the harmony vocals kick in.
Man On the Moon: There's another feedback problem here (same spot on the stage), but the song is otherwise a success. It's a triumphant end piece to a very strong set.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Glenn | June 12, 2008 11:33 AM
Posted by: h3 | June 12, 2008 11:46 AM
Posted by: shf | June 12, 2008 11:48 AM
Posted by: to the max | June 12, 2008 12:17 PM
Posted by: Mosco | June 12, 2008 12:47 PM
Posted by: Hemisphire | June 12, 2008 2:02 PM
Posted by: J. Freedom | June 12, 2008 2:16 PM
Posted by: leafblower | June 12, 2008 2:49 PM
Posted by: SSMD | June 12, 2008 3:12 PM
Posted by: Discman | June 12, 2008 3:30 PM
Posted by: KR | June 12, 2008 4:39 PM
Posted by: Jared | June 12, 2008 5:51 PM
Posted by: Corbett | June 13, 2008 8:55 AM
Posted by: yellojkt | June 14, 2008 9:22 AM
Posted by: CarlfromVB | June 14, 2008 7:22 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.