By J.W. Mahoney
When I'd been looking over the setlists of this summer's concerts I made the really stupid assumption that what REM was doing this summer was more exhausting than fun, since they were playing so much. Really stupid.... This was the penultimate concert of the season and the whole night it was so clear that they were doing exactly what made them feel grounded and joined to the world. This was a happy band on a (generally) happy night. Michael said later that this summer was the "happiest summer of my life..."
The neon stuff above the stage seemed smart, tasteful, intelligent visually, and as a light show, it went very well, never intrusive, always well-timed, as it turned out. Cool images, a Polaroid camera, a stick-man, a video camera, a woman's form, the word "PRAHA," (Czech for Prague), a lotus. Etc. "Airportman" brought them on stage, then they kicked into "Lotus" and the place opened up, everybody standing (as it would be all night, no problem, for us on the "lawn," meaning mud), and really welcome herbal clouds were just about immediately drifting in...
Then "What's the Frequency Kenneth" and "Wake-Up Bomb" which kept us dancing and lost in that rock-n-roll ecstasy that a combination of a really good sound system and a very committed band can produce. Then it was time for that difficult new CD... They wound down into "Suspicion, " stepping down off the power and into the art without much dislocation. Michael introduced "Camera" as something they'd done only 4 or 5 times since 1985, with his conventional intro, "We hope you like it." Along with the later "Low Desert," Michael used cuing lyric sheets, and on the video he was clearly in tears after, something I've never seen before. He was that far into the song. His introduction to "The Apologist" was a critique of 12-step rehab programs, in which "someone" revealed, in his overbearing and rhetorical apologies, more of a monstrousness than he'd radiated before.
There were (videoed) moments in which all of the "old" band members were clearly visibly in their own private trances, Peter in his awkward dedicated precision and his Pete Townshend moves that were always so self-contained that they never became theater, much, only a continually human response to beauty emerging unexpectedly. Mike Mills, in his usual glitter costume, had a scraggly goatee and looked as much like a self-empowered, intelligent musician as a man who seemed to have been been partying heavily all summer, but present, engaged, and finally flattened personally into his larger work. Michael's complex dramas were a weave of interactions he was having, usefully and naturally, with the people he could see and with those of us who were dots and lights far away. He never lost us, which was pretty much his job, so there that was. Weird obvious wisdom, unlimited narcissism, compassion, self-adoration and self-abasement. The usual. One very warm, 5 second eye-contact with someone in front was amazing to watch.
"Sweetness Follows" was introduced as Peter's favorite, and he played an Guild 12-string on it. "Everybody Hurts" was a compassionate sing-along, "Find the River" when it happened, was another honorable trance. "Finest Worksong," later in the set, was ragged but fun, and Michael offered a geopolitical image, in his intro to "Daysleeper," about how the Bull & Bear natures of economic expansion and recession regularly take occasional pisses on the various areas of the world. "At My Most Beautiful" featured some precise acoustic work by Peter and great vocal accompaniments. "Low Desert" was really strong and mesmeric. I kept mis-identifying the song, which was also introduced as something they've not done often. "The Great Beyond," a song from the Andy Kaufmann movie soundtrack from "Man on the Moon," that Peter & Mike had been working on this spring, was complex, narrative, accurately played. New, which felt great. "One I Love" was easily crowd-engaging. But "Losing My Religion" was the night's most unifying moment. It's not an easy song, in either its lyrics or its very personalized meaning, but the entire audience knew the words and sang them along with the band. It was stronger than "The Star-Spangled Banner," we were all so together in it, not as Fans Identifying, but as fellow humans recognizing in some way an uncommon species of psychic pain.
"Man on the Moon" and "Walk Unafraid" were solid enough, and the people grooved happily (with the exception of someone who tossed a paper bag at Michael). The dramatics were uneven, the narrative conditions a little too far apart from one song to the next to keep the same Mystic Trance intact, but everybody was happy and ready for whatever encore would unfold, which nobody didn't expect.
Stipe made some curious comments, both during the regular set and in his intro to his acoustic versions of "Hope" and, with Mike on 12-string, on "Why Not Smile," the band's farewell to Bill Berry. He'd said that the band was near the end of the tour & all, and that this had been the best summer of his life. And told an interrupted tale of being at a concert on the lawn when he was a kid. And referred to the best nights on this tour, when fireflies seemed alit from even the farthest places on the grounds...
Whether it was what he does at every venue or not was beside the point, he talked about things here in DC: he related that his woman-friend from Arlington & he had taken a nice woodsy walk and had ended up in Chevy-Chase, at Tiffany's, where a big 27-year old black guard, who Michael'd thought would throw him out when he asked about men's jewelry (which he said later was badly-designed), gave "Mr. Stipe" the right directions... Later when the name "Nora" came from the crowd, he said "Who the fuck is Nora?," then said he'd mistakened the name for that of his god-daughter, and mentioned Nora's Restaurant, a "really fine restaurant," which it is.
The band did "Tongue," an encore standard, which M said was "a song with tits." Right. An inexplicably unpleasant retro song that lets Michael take of his shirt & go para-drag, but whatever. Afterwards, in response to crowd noise, he talked about "what I don't dig about X (Ecstasy, the drug) is how people get out of control: there's this woman up here who's always hitting a high c, but i'm not always singing that note." To the woman: "If you wanna leave I can make that happen," and then did, pulling a woman in a dress in the front row directly out of her seat, where she flopped onto the stage drunkenly and Michael helped her up and a man in black took her offstage, as Michael was shouldering her purse, then helping her "doctor" up and past, accompanying her. "Sorry about bringing the vibe down," he said (to that effect). Then came one of the evening's soberest, most clarified moments..."Cuyahoga." 13 years after they recorded it, REM still honored that song, playing it with full conviction, note for note.
It was nearly time to go, Michael reminding us of Spacehog's good work, then introducing the backup players, from bands with CD's available, and the three original REM's. Then came a wild and strong "Pop Song '89," immediately followed by "End of the World," and it was loud, fun, overblown, a pause while Michael sings about cheese, and then he's collapsing like James Brown, and off the band goes... not too early and not too late, and everybody left full and happy...
this was my last concert of the last summer vacation of my life. leaving me nothing but pure inspiration as always.
first of all i live in new york, so it was quite the drive for me to get there that day (although it always seems shorter when you're seeing someone you love), but we finally made it to the robot-city known as columbia and found our hotel and we were ready to go. oh, "we" would be my best friend shelly and i. let me skip a bit, the show was absolutely wonderful and i had such a great time. they are like the family i always wanted. there were volts of electricity and heart all over the place. it was only my 2nd time seeing them, but i am thrilled to have seen one of the "top 5 shows of the tour" according to bertis. we got there a little late and bought some shirts, found our row AA seats (aka don't bother trying to understand what they say on stage :)) and waited impatiently through the last couple of songs of spacehog. second thing i have to say about this particular area we were in, but i'm pretty sure it was the whole place looking over the myriad of glazed stares under the pavilion, the audience was so lame. i wanted to check to see if some of them had pulses. most of them just stood there looking bored. i know some people get into music like that (uh), but all of them? i saw barely no one by me singing or dancing or anything half-way fun. if you're going to be like that and be sitting close, i'll happily trade tickets. the part that bugged me about the staff is that we actually get in trouble over this stuff? dancing at the end of our aisle, not bothering anyone or standing in front of them? give me a break. maybe i'm just used to shows where you're like sardines with the person next to you and no staff would bother to try to get in there, but jumping around being the giddy lasses that we were is not such a crime, even though we were quite an anomaly. michael would've danced with us i'm sure. the staff was muy uptight though. some people were cool, telling us they needed to get us our own dance floor. but it's okay, we ended up about 10 or 15 rows ahead anyway. ;)
onto the show. they opened w/ lotus as usual and set the tone for what i knew was going to be a special show. they were set up a bit differently, drums in the back on the far right, keyboards etc. in the center. and then mike, peter, and michael (rest assured with stand and lyrics) in their usual spots. i hadn't seen the neon lights before but i thought they were so cute and creative- i want the dolphin if they're ever selling. my eyes weren't glued to the stage the entire time, but the band appeared to be having a whole lot of fun and michael was dancing and frolicking about, seductively stripping his shirt off during tongue, trying to get people to sing, and even playing acoustic guitar for hope. he looked like he was struggling with it, and believe you me, i know how painful learning on acoustic guitar can be, but it was cuteness to watch him. he did a great job. they went through what's the frequency, wake-up bomb was pumping, a lot of the hits... losing my religion, everybody hurts, the one i love, daysleeper, man on the moon.. and threw in some oldies (camera, cuyahoga yay, low desert, pop song 89) which was great. I'd have to say sweetness follows was the highlight of the show for me personally because it's one of my favorites (driver 8 is #1) and it was just beautiful. by the encores, people started getting into it and showing some movement, and shell and i sang until we lost our voices. we were proud to know every word to It's the end of the world. :) walk unafraid was brilliant- it started acapella with michael singing the first few lines and then the band kicked in. he talked again of the man on the moon movie and their contribution before the great beyond.
at one interesting point michael looked down at this girl in the front and said something about "this is why i don't like E". i couldn't really tell what was going on, but if you've ever seen someone on it (or been on it yourself), it just makes you sit/stand there blankly kind of veglike looking at things funny and wanting to go to sleep. or you just get really horny and try to hump the nearest tool shed or whatever. anyhoo, i'm assuming, she was looking that way. and he said everytime he played a song she likes she makes a weird face and sings a high note and it fucks him up. then i guess she told him she wanted to leave so he drags her on stage and, like this is really necessary, a bunch of staff idiots (for lack of a better term) run up and grab her kind of violently and they're pulling her back and forth and finally pull her right off into the backstage along with another guy shortly after.
i don't think many people knew/liked Up that much since not many seemed to know the songs or the words. i have to admit i didn't like it at first either, but that's how it always is with me and my favorite albums. i hate them at first, leave them for awhile, and then listen to them late on some sad night and fall in love. you should try it. the apologist and walk unafraid are two of my favorites from it, and i was delighted to hear them. it was blissful. They also did at my most beautiful which shelly reminded me to think of her friend gerri for because it was her wedding song recently. so cute.
okay i'm going to stop before this gets incessantly long and out of hand, but my adoration for this band has only grown more. they were the first real band i liked and got into (after i got out of my "like everything that is hip and cool because i am too young to know better" stage) and i can't wait to see them again. i am glad they have stayed real over such a long period and keep putting out what they feel and want as they evolve, even if it dosen't appeal to the masses and hit #1 on the billboard charts. at least it's real and not an act.
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