November 08, 2004



Speaking of property owners and anger, or lack thereof, we saw R.E.M. last Thursday night. They are not the band I saw at the Beacon in 1984. The fog has lifted and the crabgrass has been replaced by sod. (Mega-old news, but seeing them live made me refer not to press or recordings but to the last time I saw them live. Which was not the Beacon—it was a 1987 show in Providence.)

Stipe was sporting the mascara snake. His baggy white suit made him look like Eminem crossed with Slim Whitman. His overall M.O. now is Reconstructed Rock Star and he worked it beautifully. He held perfectly still for longer than you'd expect, did wobbly fractal hipshakes, flapped his arms and several times resorted to the classic stadium salute, i.e. "Hello New York!" (His references to the b-boy stance did not make so much sense.) His voice has more heft than before but all the same tone. Really good. The new guys, who are no longer new, did not get too specialicious.

The problem is, R.E.M. played mostly shitty new songs. Two songs from Life's Rich Pageant, two from Document and that was it for the good old days. Nothing from Chronic Town or the first three albums. I understand the ego's ways and why new albums need to feel like more than obligations, but David Bowie, whose recent albums kick ass all over R.E.M.'s, had the good taste to do a songbook tour (best of the year, by a neck and head over Prince) and then drop one great song from the recent albums, which is the best way to keep the show hot and make you think you missed something by not picking up Heathen and Reality.

If R.E.M. went the repertory route, they would be bananas-level great. Mills and Stipe filled up the hockey room with just two voices. The tour is using a beautiful and simple lighting design. Long vertical lights—which resemble fluorescent fixtures turned sideways—are hung vertically at irregular heights, like raindrops fixed in space. (You can find a decent photo in here.) Simple changes in color make this formula work all night.

Most disappointing was the banter. They opened with "It's The End Of The World..." and Stipe punched the "I feel fine!" Funny, I didn't feel fine at all. "Everybody Hurts" would have been the ballsy, bumout opener. They didn't even play it. And Stipe kept referring to the "strange Thursday night" and then described a certain song I didn't know as their "state of the union." Mister Icon Dude, you are a totally gay dude. Your empowered fellow Americans don't like that, and neither does your President. You didn't feel like maybe substituting "bad" or "black" or "tragic" for "strange"? Don't tell me the music will make us feel better, and then vague out with some intro like "this song takes place in New York." You're not a stand-up comic. The music would have been equally good and coherent if you were up there tearing Bush 8x10s in half. Step up your anger game, Michael.

Deborah pointed this out: The hall was filled with stocky white dudes in their 30s bellowing along with Michael. They were bro-ing down with Robert Bly-style intensity, sharing their college dreams and hopes with thousands of other broskis drinking eight dollar beers. Maybe Michael knows his audience and keeps his political opinions (assuming they are more pronounced and/or distinct from what he actually said, which may be my rosy projection) tucked safely into the darkness of his wallet.

Michael did expose some torso, and sunshine is looking gym-tight.

UPDATED CONTENT ALERT: Thank you to Matthew for this email:

"Just so you know, R.E.M. do play songs from the first three albums (plus Chronic Town) these days. They did "Life and How To Live It" from Fables at MSG, and have been playing "So. Central Rain" and "Rockville" from Reckoning very frequently, in addition to "Pilgrimage," "Sitting Still," "Driver 8," and "Maps & Legends" on occasion. Last year, they were playing a lot more songs of this vintage: "Feeling Gravity's Pull," "Talk About The Passion," "Pretty Persuasion," "Little America," "Gardening At Night," "Wolves Lower," "Carnival Of Sorts."

It's too bad that you didn't see them on the last tour, that's when it was a full-on greatest hits show, very satisfying from start to finish. The show at MSG last year was definitely bananas. They played something from every album except for Murmur and Hi-Fi that night, but most nights it was at least one song from each record."

Sorry I didn't hear "Wolves Lower." That right there is my huckleberry friend. None of this changes the show I saw, or my overall point, which I may have not made clear enough.

Here's my admittedly reductive mental cheat sheet about long careers in art, or pop or almost anything outside of baseball: Give or take a margin of three years, most hot artists squeeze out about ten years of good work. This includes most of the greats, but not the ultra-greats (Ashbery, George Clinton, Stones, Picasso, Dylan, Ornette). I neither judge nor feel despondent about what happens next: The work falls off, though execution sometimes improves before also falling off. (Bob's current Leonard Cohen review addresses this, too.) Recording five or six killer records is a considerable accomplishment; it is no disgrace to spend your time performing songs from old records, if playing live is what you want. I think a band should put vanity aside and deliver what everyone, including the band, knows is the hot shit, especially when folks are paying retarded stadium prices.

I'd love to think R.E.M. was still in the game, but the same brain that loves "Camera" tells me that the three listens I gave Around The Sun was two-and-a-half too many. It just isn't there. They've got a thick songbook; there are probably even single songs scattered over the last three or four albums they could cull for the extravaganza.

In the final innings, it's usually a percentage game. There are a few exceptional artists who can reinvent or disfigure or transform their voice completely and get new work out of it, but not enough to screw up the sample.

I think R.E.M. should be bonkers proud of how good they sound now. The Stones still sound good, too, and they certainly figured out the percentage in playing the catalog at least 25 years ago.

Posted by Sasha at November 8, 2004 10:45 AM | TrackBack