Two tickets to REM. A beautiful afternoon picnic. Plenty of wine, good friends, and every REM c.d. I own. Who could ask for a better Labor Day? As Michael Stipe put it during the concert, "We're working on Labor Day, but we're glad you decided not to."
The concert began promptly at 8 p.m., with Spacehog -- who, in my opinion are an "okay" band. They finished their set, the houselights went up, then darkened only 20 minutes later to the haunting strains of "Airportman," the opening song on Up. REM took the stage energetically: Mike Mills wearing his favored "I'm a Country Western legend" silver-studded jacket, Peter Buck as slovenly and sexy as ever, and Michael Stipe in a minimally-buttoned reddish-pink shirt with a scarf, and electric blue sideburns painted on his glittery face.
From the start, the band looked amazingly happy to be on stage, playing and performing, especially considering how long they have been going on this tour, but I think the huge contigent of fan club members in the front rows was an inspiration.
They played "Lotus," a great dance song, and absolutely everyone in the packed Arts Center who could stand, was standing. Michael hopped off the stage and kissed the cheeks of about 10 people in the front row. (Suddenly my seventh row seats didn't seem so great anymore.)
"Crush with Eyeliner" and "The Wake-Up Bomb" followed, and both these songs were like musical sonic booms, even more effective live than on record. One of my favorite songs in the REM catalogue was next, "Fall on Me," and this was when my seats on the left side of the center section really paid off: Mike Mills has an incredibly beautiful voice, and his harmonies and counter-melodies on this song are among the most beautiful in popular music.
Mike Mills, in general, was a highlight. You just feel from watching this guy perform that he's funny and personable.
"Suspicion," a really cool song from Up came next, giving Stipe a chance to do what he does best (next to singing, that is): flirt!! Oh my God, this guy can flirt with 100 people simultaneously. There's something about his eyes and the way he connects with the audience that makes you sure he is singing TO YOU!! It was almost weird, but I loved it. I felt like screaming, "No problem, Michael, I won't speak. You can just let your imagination ride all over me!"
I controlled myself, however, and the only actual word I yelled all night was "Electrolyte," but that was to no avail.
"How the West was Won and Where it Got Us" off New Adventures was the next song. Stipe introduced it by saying the heat in New Jersey reminded him of the desert. He also encouraged the crowd to remove their clothes. I'm not sure how far he got with that request, although I did see Mike swing a bra over his head.
The trio thrilled the audience by playing "Stand" next even though Stipe said, "We hate playing this song." "Daysleeper" followed, and here's my prediction: this song is destined to be an REM classic. Everyone around me was singing along.
The tempo of "The Apologist" was faster compared to the record, and the bone-crunching dissonant chords were even more so live: Excellent. Stipe introduced this song with the same story of a "a guy in some kind of 12-step program" that he had given throughout the tour. Hearing the story behind the song really helped me to understand what exactly "The Apologist" is about.
I couldn't help it; I cried throughout "Sweetness Follows." My father died just a few weeks ago, leaving me and my brother and sisters officially parentless. My brother was at the concert too. This song is just so real to me, and I wish every thinking person in the world would try anyway to "live (their) life filled with joy and thunder," because that "sweetness" can be really easy to miss.
The new song "The Great Beyond" was fun. I love the chorus, and it really soars at the end. Michael has practically choreographed moves to this one; maybe a video will be out soon?
"The One I Love" was a great crowd pleaser, followed by some slower songs, those followed by the loudest, most raucous version of "Star 69" imaginable. Scary.
Of course, everyone went nuts with "Losing my Religion," everyone except Mike Mills who gave a look like he was undergoing dental surgery when the song began. I think he mouthed something about hating playing this song to the fan club, but he ended up having a lot of fun with it anyway. He moved to the extreme corner of the stage and started seriously hamming it up, gesturing and grimacing as if he were performing a Def Leppard tune.
"Man on the Moon" was almost as popular as "Losing my Religion," and I thought they played with a lot of feeling on this one. I can't wait for the film to come out. Obviously, the soundtrack will be first-rate.
The band ended this portion of the concert with "Walk Unafraid," a theme song for life if I ever heard one!
The "Thank You" sign was flashing, but it wasn't long before Michael Stipe returned, noticing about 20 signs being held in the air by fan club members stating "Please Play 'Leave'." He obliged by singing a verse and the chorus A Capella, although begging with his eyes for help from the audience in remembering lyrics. Beautifully done, though.
Internet readers have already learned that Michael has been playing solo acoustic guitar during the tour's encore. It's true; I must admit; he's no guitarist, at least not yet, but there was something absolutely wonderful about seeing him up there trying. "Hope," the Leonard Cohen re-write from Up, is amazing performed like this, really emphasising the heartfelt lyrics.
The encore continued with "Why Not Smile," a song I never really "got" until I heard it live. The mood turned wild with "WTFK." Michael introduced the "song with tits," and sang "Tongue" with his shirt half off, then admitted many people in the audience weren't born when "Wolves, Lower," the next song, was written.
"It's the End of the World as We Know It" ended the show, with every light above the stage flashing and other stage lights whirly-gigging like crazy. Peter lifted Michael on his back, and Mike Mills looked like he could play another 20 songs and still be happy.
REM left with the best words I'd heard all night -- and I had heard some beautiful words already-- when Michael said, "We'll see you all again soon."
I hope so. I really hope so. You can flirt with us, Michael, but please don't tease.
By Mike Porter
"We chose to work on Labor Day." Said Michael Stipe towards the end of R.E.M.'s show at the PNC Bank Arts Center on September 6, 1999. "But this is work ... for a very lucky guy." Stipe certainly seemed to be enjoying himself; I think he enjoyed the show almost as much as the crowd. The bottom line was this was an absolutely fabulous performance by the best American band of our time.
The show got off to a rousing start with Lotus, Crush w/ Eyeliner and the Wake-Up Bomb. Stipe was particularly energetic on Wake-Up, and his vocals were amazing. (Comment from my wife, Basia -- "He dances around like he thinks he's all sexy, but his just a skinny little thing.") Fall On Me followed (one of only 5 songs from the I.R.S. days and the only song from Pagent), but the mix on this one wasn't quite as good. Stipe then made jokes about near-by Cheesequake park ("There's no pamphlet that can convince me that Cheesequake is a native american word.") I was also surprised by the colorful and clever light show, which included anatomically correct flashers.
Stipe announced How the West was Won and Where It Got Us as "one we don't play too much." Basia said, "Why don't they play this one much? I like this one. Especially the piano part."
Then came one of the highlights for me, and again, it was a song that Stipe says the band plays rarely (only the 4th time on this tour according to Stipe): Stand (2nd song from the I.R.S. days and the only song from Green). Stipe actually said that they like this song, they just don't like playing it. I know that he's introduced this song in the past by saying, "This is the stupidest song we've ever written," but I don't think he was entirely serious about that. Maybe he means musically, but from where I sit, this song is just as interesting as Losing My Religion. I don't think there's been a better pop song written in the last 15 or so years.
Stipe complained a bit about the heat. I don't know if he knew that the NJ humidity felled Lenny Kravitz at an earlier concert this summer at the same venue. Stipe said he picked the wrong pants to wear for this concert (courderoy). He said he would take them off, but he was "freeballing."
Next followed a group of new songs, and I have to say that the songs from the latest album, UP, were some of the best of the evening. Maybe that comes in part because performing them live is still a fresh experience for the band. Daysleeper was great and the Apologist was fantastic (Explains Stipe: it's a song about a person in a 12 step program who has to go around apologizing for all the rotten things he's done in the past to others; as the story goes along, the apologist becomes more of a monster than he ever was.) On the album, I wasn't so impressed with this song, but their performance at the Arts Center was a lot noiser and more raw -- it really gave the song a more threatening edge. Also, a new song, The Great Beyond, from the up-coming movie about Andy Kaufman called Man on the Moon, was really cool. (Says Basia: "Stipe sure does a great ants-in-the-pants dance.") They followed this one up with a fast version of The One I Love (which Basia says might be her favorite R.E.M. song.) (I miss Bill Berry.)
Then followed the next highlight for me: Find the River. Stipe's performance was absolutely incredibly. After finishing, he said, "I love that song.... It's a bitch to sing, but I do love that song." The next song, At My Most Beautiful, sort of paled in comparison, and again, I didn't think the mix was ideal.
The set ended with Star 69, Losing My Religion and Man on the Moon. Then came Walk Unafraid, which was fantastic. I really have a greater appreciation for the new album after hearing these songs live.
For the encore, Stipe came out solo for an accapella verse and chorus of Leave, about half of Suspicious Minds which he tried to play guitar on and then gave up (saying "That's enough of that... it's a great song though."), and finally he played Hope accoustic. Then Mike Mills (who sparkled all night long) came out and Stipe handed the guitar over for a wonderful accoustic version of Why Not Smile. (Stipe kissed Mike after the song, but Mike didn't seem into it. I'd heard about this kiss from reviews of previous shows this summer. It seemed a bit staged last night. )
The band returned for What's the Frequency Kenneth? and the disco-ball and Stipe-strip-tease accompanied Tongue ("This is a song with tits," according to Stipe.) The band then played Wolves, Lower (after Stipe told all of those under 18 to think about the fact that they wrote and performed this song before the under-18's were born.) They then ad libbed there way thru something that appeared to be called Ghostrider. Peter and Mike jumped right in to follow Stipe as he began to scat his way through it; the rest of the players needed some encouragement before they followed.
The show of course ended with a great performance of It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel FINE). Stipe sang the accoustic chorus into the pick-up of the accoustic guitarist and then handed the microphone off to the audience at the end (although the guy he handed it to didn't want to sing.) Like U2, R.E.M. appears to be playing some of their songs now for irony, but it was still a fantastic performance of a great song.
All in all, I loved it. I was hoping to hear something off Reckoning or Murmur, because I know that they've been pulling some of those song out on this tour, but I had a great time anyway. Make sure you check them out on this tour if you get the chance! And thank you, Basia, for a wonderful birthday present (she bought me the tickets for my 30th.)
Back to the 1999 concert setlists