A Bristling Energy in the Air: REM in Chicago

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.

Set List:

Living Well
I Believe
Begin the Begin
Kenneth
Pilgramage
Hollow Man
Animal [edit: thanks to everyone who wrote in to confirm this]
Man Sized Wreath
Ignoreland (yes, they played it – yes, it was awesome)
Great Beyond
Accelerate
Houston
Electrolite
One I Love
Final Straw
Find the River
Let Me In
Walk Unafraid
Orange Crush
Horse to Water
Bad Day
I’m Gonna DJ

Supernatural, Superserious
Pretty Persuasion
Losing My Religion
Fall on Me
Man on the Moon

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  1. Tim’s avatar

    You are correct in describing the beginning of the show. I don’t think I can pick such a powerful, rocking selection of songs as they chose from their arsenal.
    Honestly, when they started playing “I’m Gonna DJ,” I said to myself, “wait, I know they play this near the end; I can’t believe how they just blasted through such brilliant songs (and w/no breaks!) and we have already reached this point.” Remarkable. Energetic.
    I can get from your post that you have a great passion for R.E.M. I share that passion–dare I say love–for the group. I just had to leave a comment b/c it is 24 hours since the show began, and I am still buzzing.

    Reply

  2. VeryPleasantNeighbor’s avatar

    The song between Hollow Man and Man Sized Wreath was Animal, which was great.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but have they switched up the vocals on the chorus? I vaguely recall watching the Perfect Square DVD and seeing Michael singing “I’m an animaaaaaaaal” while Mike does the other part; at Chicago it was opposite. Neat.

    Reply

  3. Krazee Eyez Killa’s avatar

    The good… IGNORELAND (song of the night, by a mile), Find The River, I’m Gonna DJ, Let Me In and Horse to Water (the best of the new songs). Also, The National were very, very good.

    The bad… For a band that can be so inventive, I do not understand why they continue to play The One I Love, Orange Crush and Losing My Religion. They need to be brave and challenge the public – this is what R.E.M. has always done with their records and they should do it more live. Modest Mouse was simply awful. For the life of me, I don’t see what people think is so great about that band.

    Reply

  4. VeryPleasantNeighbor’s avatar

    I’m a big fan of Modest Mouse’s albums, especially “The Moon & Antarctica,” but I realized watching them live that the atmospherics and ever-so-slight sheen the studio gives them is absolutely necessary. I agree – they were terrible live. The poppy songs were half-assed (Dashboard and Paper Thin Walls) and the abrasive songs were just annoying (Dancehall, namely). They were just sloppy, and not in an exciting, potentially interesting way – just a lazy way. Plus, I couldn’t hear a note Johnny Marr played.

    Oh well, makes me appreciate their albums more. I really do enjoy Brock’s lyrics.

    Reply

  5. Mike’s avatar

    Great review; was there and think everything you wrote is spot on. The song you missed after Hollow Man was “Animal”.

    Reply

  6. MilesStandish’s avatar

    Great review! I too am a long-time REM fan and was totally re-energized by the show, even going back to some of their cd’s I’d forgotten about (shame on me!). They were truly having fun up there and as much as I hate arena shows, they made it feel real. Your review captured the magic as much as they gave it to us!

    And i totally agree that Modest Mouse were awful. I sold all of their cd’s to a used store today. But I did go back to old Smiths records. What is Marr thinking???

    Reply

  7. Jakomi Mathews’s avatar

    Hi enjoyed your review of their show.

    You might like to check out the AnR USA section of my blog in early June as Don Dixon will be writing a weekly review of artists he likes…Don Co-Produced REMs first two albums with Mitch Easter.

    http://themusicvoid.wordpress.com/a-n-r-usa

    Cheers,
    Jakomi

    Reply

  8. mark kelly’s avatar

    am i the only one, ahh…..
    am i the only one, ahh……

    after reading your review, i guess i am not the only one who thought that this was their best tour…ever.

    the lack of attendance in st. paul was very sad to see
    the compairison i felt applicable was when only 7 thousand came to the the xcel energy center to see bruce springsteen on the seegar sessions tour, the best show of that year

    i guess in today’s pop music scene, popularity just doesn’t equate to quality

    rock on
    mark kelly
    st paul, mn

    Reply

  9. Golf Clubs’s avatar

    Oh! I have this great stuff to share with you…

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  10. Traveller_Adventure’s avatar

    This is quite impressive, I am pleased to read this post, keep posts like this coming, you totally rock!
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    Reply

  11. male chastity’s avatar

    I've been looking for their live in Chicago video everywhere including Youtube but to no avail. Do you have a link? I'm a big fan of REM. 🙁

    Reply

  12. Club Penguin Cheats’s avatar

    i think this article was a great. easy to follow

    Reply

  13. Kittens’s avatar

    Find the river and fall on me – these two songs are just….amazing! specially the song fall on me make me the great fan of REM.
    “Theres a problem, feathers iron
    Bargain buildings, weights and pullies
    Feathers hit the ground before the weight can leave the air
    Buy the sky and sell the sky and tell the sky and tell the sky” Isn’t the lyrics is an awesome one?

    Reply

  14. PalmGerald’s avatar

    REM (short for rapid eye movement that occurs in a state of deep sleep, while dreaming) has been one of my favorite bands ever since I heard their first song. Recently I've been psyched by a new band called Paramore. Sadly, I missed the REM concert but maybe, if I'll find out the Paramore tour dates, I'll be able to attend theirs. Some say rock is dead… I say: long live the rock!

    Reply

  15. Get Paid To Do Surveys’s avatar

    Hey I'v been reading your blog from quite some time now and I just wanted to say keep up the good work.

    Reply

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