Michael Stipe used the above phrase to describe the atmosphere in Chicago, apropos of Obama’s recent nomination, but it also very well summed up the band’s titanic performance tonight.
I recently wrote about the greatness of REM’s opening night set list, and took the liberty to make some suggestions. It’s as if the band read my request. I hoped for These Days and Begin the Begin, and, whadyaknow, after the killer Living Well is the Best Revenge opened the set, they busted right into the above two songs from Lifes Rich Pageant. It gets better. What’s the Frequency, Kenneth followed, and then…wait for it…Pilgramage.
C’mon! How great is that opening blast.
Equally great was how joyful the band seemed. I’ve been reading a pretty decent Keith Richards biography, Satisfaction, and my favorite parts are the descriptions of the X-Pensive Wino gigs. They’re described as loose, joyful, and rocking; people who like each other playing music together, and turning large venues into intimate spaces. This is precisely what tonight’s show was like.
After decades together, it’s clear that the band enjoys each other now more than ever. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen REM, but I don’t recall ever seeing them as united as they were tonight. I’ve seen Mr. Stipe perform with his long hair in front of his face on the early tours, and I’ve seen him perform in a sort of post-modern manner (repeatedly saying “Hello,” or ironically introducing Stand by comparing it to great symphonic works, etc.), and I’ve seen everything in between. But I’ve never, until tonight, seen him completely and genuinely delighted by what he was doing (“We’re REM, and this is what we do.”). There was no irony (perhaps irony is the shackles of youth). What there was was complete and utter conviction for the songs, for the crowd, and for his bandmates.
This conviction was equally evident in the rest of the band. I will go to my grave believing that not only is Peter Buck one of the greatest guitar players/songwriters of all time, but also one of the greatest guitar players to watch (again, maybe some similarities to the way Keith moves while on stage).
Some of my favorite moments of the night were the slight mis-steps and impromptu moments. For instance, they did Great Beyond after introducing it as a song that didn’t go well when attempted at soundcheck. They killed it during the concert; so much so that when it was over, Mr. Stipe said something along the lines of, “That was so good, we should do it again.” Moments later, Mr. Buck began strumming the chords, and the band kicked back in for another chorus. Another moment like this occurred during the staggeringly beautiful Electrolite. Mr. Stipe anticipated the end of the instrumental break a few bars early. I remember him saying years ago that REM didn’t do too many long solos because, “what was [he] to do during these solos, interpretive dance?” Well, that’s precisely what he was doing, but ended it before the break, only to have to sort of break back into it after a smile and shrug. I doubt many people noticed.
Other highlights for me:
Find the River: A song that always makes me think of my kids on Martha’s Vineyard (“Me, my thoughts are flower strewn/Ocean storm, bayberry moon…”), was just ridiculously beautiful (not surprising since it is REM’s second most beautiful song ever written. Nightswiming is first).
Let Me In: The threnody for Kurt Cobain was redone with all of the band (except Mr. Stipe) playing acoustic guitar and standing around Mr. Buck as he played organ (it was sort of odd to see Mr. Buck playing a keyboard; the only other time I can think of seeing him in front of a keyboard is on the back cover of Reckoning). I’m a big enough man to admit that I cried several times during tonight’s performance, and this was one of the times.
Orange Crush: I knew when I saw the bullhorn on the stage that they were going to do either Orange Crush or Turn You Inside and Out. I would have been happy with either, but Orange Crush killed.
Pretty Persuasion: One of my all-time favorite REM songs, and they just nailed it. You can’t tell me that that’s not one of the finest riffs in all of rock.
Fall on Me: I suppose, if forced to pick, this is the definitive REM song, and probably their best. There was one small detail that put this version way over the top: Johnny Marr. Mr. Marr and Mr. Buck (both playing identical Rickenbackers) standing side by side, and phrasing the chords to this song was almost surreal. You have to understand that for the last (not kidding) twenty years I’ve sat and played along with REM and Smiths records. It’s almost like meditation for me. I firmly believe that tonight two of the most important and greatest guitar players ever (and, no, I have not forgotten Jimi, Jimmy, Stevie, Steve, Thurston, Django, Wes…) performed side by side, and I got to see it. Mr. Marr (who apparently has a portrait of himself aging in some attic) is a towering figure, who I’m not sure is using his powers at their highest level with Modest Mouse; particularly when compared with what he did with Mr. Buck.
Again, I’ve seen REM too many times to count; this was the best.
Begin the Begin
Animal [edit: thanks to everyone who wrote in to confirm this]
Man Sized Wreath
Ignoreland (yes, they played it – yes, it was awesome)
One I Love
Find the River
Let Me In
Horse to Water
I’m Gonna DJ
Losing My Religion
Fall on Me
Man on the Moon