It was an "in-between" kind of Saturday night down at the beach. The air was humid and the skies gray. Just short of cool on the way down from warm and the sea air was fresh with the smallest amount of mist. Rain was threatening, but not loud enough for anyone to care. Replete with a well-crafted buzz and "one for the road" we made our way through the parking lot cacaphony of "open hatch-back" car stereo REM to the gate. There was a palpable air of anticipation about as it was nearly 4 years since REM has been around and that was WITH Bill Berry. Everyone in our group has loved the inter-tour albums, but when it's been 4 years, you just aren't 100%. A quick stop to see what wares the merchants were selling and on to the show.
Our timing was perfect (sorry Spacehog) as within minutes of taking our positions (JUST right of center, 35 rows back) the lights dimmed to reveal an ambient reddish backglow silhouetting the stage as the REM ensemble took their positons to the ghostly strains of "Airportman" which soon yielded to the familiar, percussive keyboard and synthesizer groove of "Lotus." Michael called out "Hey Hey!!" and, WHAM!!! The groove exploded into the song's first guitar flourish as a maelstrom neon rainbow of multi-colored carnivalesque lights fashioned into kitsch images and slogans revealed themselves like 1000 watt marionettes falling and rising in 3D rows. This festival of happy colors and humorous lights was truly unbelievable and their presence throughout ensured this would be the greatest visual presentation REM has ever given. It was literally 2 or 3 minutes before I really focused on the performers themselves.
I know that any band, even REM, has to have some standardization of show/set-list to put on a world tour of this quality and magnitude, but they seemed happy and determined to continue in the hard-rocking vein as "What's the Freq..." and "Wake-Up Bomb" followed in similarly aggressive fashion. Michael wanted us to know that this was our Saturday night, saying, "This is your September evening, this is you. this is us, this is what you've chosen to do, it's your September fourth." Then he began a rambling hymnal of "Jesus" which drifted sweetly (but albeit predictably) into "New Test Leper" which really gained momentum from start to finish and was truly rollocking in the final verses.
At this point it is worthwhile to say something about the ensemble format of REM (with Nathan December and Ken Stringfellow and Joey Waronker on the skins): It works musically, but not always spiritually where you get the sense that their contributions are almost too important to the concert. I know that sounds closed-minded and provincial but there has always been something to the consecutive words, "Buck Berry Mills Stipe" The next tunes completed the mood transition started by "Leper" as a insistent version of "Suspicion" turned soaring when JMS' line ...carry me away..." segued into Buck's electric twang solo. "Daysleeper" did not dissapoint in the "uplifting" category. And "Fall On Me" was on that tip too. Michael really enjoyed "Electrolite" where he put a lot into his now-famous jig during the bridge.
The set then deepened in mood with "The Apologist" which seems like a mystic dirge when performed live. After that the band provided a real treat with a rare performance of "Sweetness Follows" which they nailed perfectly. The now-released "Great Beyond" was next up and you can really see the difference in this band playing a song that's relatively fresh and new to them. This night's version was, at turns, ambient and intense; in the last chorus, Mike and Michael were almost dueling each other in lyric urgency and volume. The released version of this song from the "Man on the Moon" soundtrack sounds like a plodding 50% of the version at Jones Beach.
I have never liked "The One I Love" much at all, but I will say that the performance of it this particular evening was not objectionable and was rather filled with energy and crisp guitar. "Find the River" seemed misplaced as the next song and I think most of the audience including myself used it as a break to take a seat and have an illicit cigarette. "At My Most Beautiful" was truly unbelievable and turned the apathy of "...River" into wide-eyed fascination at the dexterity of band to perform something so sublime and quiet. I have often said I would pay a princely sum to see a concert of JUST Mike Mills playing piano and singing and "..Beautiful" is one of the moments that cement that conviction.
Don't forget that all the while; that incredible rainbow of stage colors and images is blinking and pulsing, gyrating and humming and giving flawllessly appropriate texture and commentary to the performed songs. Another song that's low on my REM ladder, "Pop Song 89" was next and this version was the most compelling rock n' roll version I' ve heard yet. Somehow, maybe because I hadn't listened to it in awhile, I got back to the spirit of rock fun that the song is known to convey and put aside my critical feelings for a few minutes. I genuinely enjoyed it. "Losing My Religion" and Man On The Moon" two songs I know a general audience pays to hear performed are just too, too played out for me to get close to anymore; and certainly not in a concert setting when most of the people there now are reflecting on these songs as two of the FIRST REM songs they remember hearing. I would always rather hear forgotten tunes like "2nd Guessing" or "Good Advices" or "Shaking Through" or "1,000,000" or anything except the "Wrong Child" rather than these 90s warhorses.
But the end of the set proper was concluded with a magical journey into "Walk Unafraid" which they approach so unconventionally in the Arabesque intro, " bridge" and out-coda. In those sections, all instrument members of the group most notably December and Stringfellow on keyboard go into a whirling-dervish of dischordant, seemingly random phrases punctuated by wild piano runs, far ranging scales, and the odd misplaced hiccuppy notes. It was not to be believed. The only chink in the armor of this stirring rendition was of all things, the lights! It was the one time in the show that they missed the boat in light staging. Instead of staggering and alternating the lights thru the four stages of increasing intensity inherent in this active song, they seperated into only three light phases; electing to not match the light motion with the surging tempo in the second part of the verse, changing only in chorus and bridge. I know this sounds like nipping at the postman, but I did notice it.
I've never been much for the whole sham of the "encore" where groups supposedly are done and then, due to the overwhelming heartfelt plea of the fans, come out for 5-7 more tunes. So the different approach to the beginnings of the encore this night were refreshing. Again, I've come to know that this was near standard for the tour but when Stipe clumsily yet earnestly came out strumming the D chord while accapella singing "portions" of "Hope" it was cool. But it got as good as it gets when Mike Mills joined to take over the acoustic duties as he and Michael performed an abridged, "Why Not Smile" It was simple, melodic, sparse, sanguine and ultimately very powerful. Mills then moved over to the piano, a guest violinist (who'd appeared earlier) joined to make three and they performed "Nightswimming" Another upper deck homerun. At this point, I was hoping the entire encore would be made up of stripped acoustic versions of songs in this vein but they erased any hope of that with a raw and intense version of their glam take, "Crush With Eyeliner" Peter must've really re-charged the batteries backstage while Stipe and Mills were doing those others, because he came out and seemed nasty and pissed-off playing the Les Paul.
"Tongue" was an odd choice next because "Crush" took them away from the lighter fare, but sometimes a band is just into doing something on particular nights, appropriateness be damned. One of the most memorable things happened then as Patti Smith came out to duet with Stipe on "E-Bow The Letter" His affinity toward her music, her appreciation of that regard and their appearances on stage together are nothing new, but she was truly, truly emotional during this song. Before her singing part while standing next to Michael, she was literally sobbing with overwhelmed tears. She composed herself just enough to emote her sections, but would immediately revert to a teary demeanor until the end when her vocal is primary. At that point she was like an Amazon chanteuse, vocalizing with such singular ferocity and duration that it rung wildly in the ear. I've only seen such intensity twice before (Lenny Kravitz 1989 Toad's Place Club in New Haven and Spiritualized at Webster Hall Manhattan) and I may never see it like that again. Unforgettable!
The show's ender, "...End of the World As We Know It" was almost downbeat from that intense predecessor, but they quickly got hold of it and went into great stage antics and vigorous, buoyant playing to close the show with the commensurate "bang." A solitary green neon sign in fawning script blinked dutifully, "Thank You" and the house lights gave their usual drone indications for us to go back from where we came. I suppose drinking it in, my last thoughts are about the set-list and how I wish that it included a little more from New Adventures ( though a lot of that album was exercised on the Monster Tour as unknown material) and perhaps throw me a Reckoning/Murmur bone. On the whole pretty damn cool and about a 7-8 on a 1 to 10 scale. Although not enough to shake me from my conviction that..." I would trade never seeing an REM concert again as long as they did 6-8 more albums."
Back to the 1999 concert setlists