The greatest hidden-in-plain sight quality about this band is that they always play to as much of the audience as they can see, as if the scene were a small club. Michael Stipe's gazes, conscious nods, and stabs of eye-contact, and Buck & Mills at ease in their old club poses (Mills' pelvis-bass/Buck's Pete Townsend jumps), Ken Stringfellow & Scott McCoughey (pronounced "McCoy") happily visibly in creative team with the Originals on all the songs, and (ex-Ministry) Bill Reiflin is as tight as Dylan's former drummer, David Kemper (like Jim Keltner, inerasably precise). The venue was not at all a large one - an older, orchestral concert space with encircling balconies. The night was special though - the last night before the Election of 2004, and the possibility of a Kerry victory was real, sweet, and clear.
Odd demographics: many 20-somethings and later 30-somethings, and a few older folk. The small number of semi-expensive ($75) tickets assured a committed populace, anyway. Plenty of beer for sale and no grass moving in the hall, but the front was filled with standees as soon as R.E.M opened, and they stayed, so it was generally a stand-up audience, energized, happy to jump around. Michael got a white rose, graciously acknowledged, and at concert's end he brought a girl up with a "November 2" t-shirt, otherwise nothing weird happened on stage.
Angela McClusky was a solid, original, British-Isles chanteuse, a big girl with a strong, wide, soft voice, with a touch of Marianne Faithful, and everybody was honestly listening to her and her good band, and definitely interesting guitarist. Michael did his usual enthusiastic pitch for her in the encore, which was well-deserved. The stage was broken down & set up quickly, and the lighting's minimal, this time, vertical fluorescent bars that changed color, tasteful, unobtrusive, nothing of the light-show textual collage from other tours. Peter's guitar tech was onstage just before, causing outbreaks of crowd energy, but the band came on as soon as the stage was ready, no intro, just Michael beginning "Around the Sun."
The band's looking happy, as I've said. Peter's in a big floral shirt, short hair this time, Mike's still a longhair, casual in jeans, and Michael's in a deep charcoal collarless suit ( later, in the encore, changing to a proudly-displayed Kerry t-shirt), and a painted green straight carnival-mask painted around his head, around his eyes. Stipe is arguably a full master as a lead singer, and there really haven't been that many. Maybe it's his new style, or maybe it was the more intimate venue, but he did a lot of complex gestures with his right hand, directionality moves, quick switches of pose, small stuff that would've been invisible in a stadium, and he made to lead with it subtly, as a conductor's baton. He wasn't doing any of his one-man self-displays until later in the concert, when the crowd was warm & loose, and invited it.
The first three songs, "Around the Sun", "Begin the Begin," and "These Days," are anthemic, power to the people, which means us. In the room, specifically, which feels good. I should say I'm on the 27th row with my beloved, who's calling her son occasionally in Chicago to beam him sound bites, which he appreciates later. Good REM afficienados around us, and some space to move, since some of us are already up front for the whole concert.
"Boy in the Well," is the next one from the new CD, and they did a serious number of them, six, as they've been doing on this tour. , R.E.M's as strong and as very well-rehersed as they usually are these days - since they clearly enjoy playing loud rock'n'roll, audience or not, and tonight they're getting used to the smaller, more intimate crowd - they're a little socially puzzled, but always validated in the current energy, so all's well. A beautiful, crisp "Cuyahoga," unexpected, to a fully-realized "High Speed Train." "Electron Blue" is Michael's favorite song on the new one, according to him, then came my own brief eye-contact shot with him, in the second verse of a song I'd hoped they'd play, introduced as the Number One song in Japan, "Imitation of Life." Brilliant, mysterious song. Michael introduced "I Wanted To Be Wrong" as being exceptionally autobiographical, even to his pronunciation of the word "reverse," as he did in Texas as a 13-year-old, living on an Air Force base.
Other fine mid-concert stuff - see the setlist - with the first fun sing-along, "One I Love," and they're into their standard end-of-pre-encore set, "Final Straw" (dedicated by Mike to his friend Bernie), to this audience's collective utterly abstract anthem, "Losing My Religion," Michael's "Walk Unafraid," as a rocker, as was Fables' "Life & How to Live It," as fundamentally validated in REM's energy now as it was in 1985.
The encore came quick, and was their conventional one, on this tour, ending with "Man on the Moon" sung-along with, and the new unreleased song, "I'm Gonna DJ," is a good surprise. Mike Mills serenaded the crowd with how the words "President John Kerry" sounded, and Michael spoke of how he feels "empty as a stick" and all talked out from this year's intensive politics, and gets the band to break into Springsteen's "Born to Run" for a bit, recalling their performance here a few weeks ago with the Move-On tour. He induces the audience to - really shared-ironically - call him "Stiiipe" like "Bruuuce." Yeah, stupid. They premiered "Country Feedback" in this show on this tour, and Peter played long and well. It was good to be close enough to see what Buck's really doing on the guitar, his incisive knowledge of the first six frets, and usually he's playing variations on un-barred chords, great musical strategy.
It was a clearly optimistic night, and everybody in the room felt it, and the sense of hope - as realistically tentative as it had to be - was firm. The audience left together in the feeling that politically everybody - including the band - was plainly equal, for wherever that would lead...
Back to the 2004 concert setlists