It's been a long wait for the fans of R.E.M.
Not so much to see their band play live, but to grab hold of such a high quality piece of work as this year's "Accelerate
." Not since the early nineties have they recorded a rock and roll album with such intensity. It seems that since the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997, they have drifted aimlessly from album to album. Don't get me wrong…there have been some real gems. But overall, no "big plays." Not until 2008, and what turned out to be one of R.E.M.'s most critically praised releases in years.
For the final stop on their North American tour, they chose a homecoming. As students at the University of Georgia in Athens in the late 70s, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Berry formed what would become one of rock music's most influential bands. Most of the sold-out crowd of hometown fans at Lakewood Amphitheatre in Atlanta had been a part of that three-decade journey and were here to celebrate.
Instead of kicking off the show with something new, as is the common tradition, R.E.M. chose to bring out the big guns with "These Days," a certified rocker from 1986's "Lifes Rich Pageant." This set the crowd on fire with no cooling down in sight. The sound was fresh, the music was succinct, and the band has never sounded better. Then, as if to acknowledge their rise back to the top, they performed the new "Living Well Is The Best Revenge." This was one of several songs from "Accelerate," including "Man-Sized Wreath," which Stipe explained was written about the desecration of one of his childhood heroes Martin Luther King, Jr.
Also from the new album was the building power of "Hollow Man" and "Houston," a song about the ravages of Hurricane Katrina ("If the storm doesn't kill me the government will"). "Horse To Water," and "I'm Gonna DJ" rounded out the new stuff.
Following "Time After Time," Stipe said to the crowd, "Looks good, sounds good, feels good too!" We agreed. To set up the ultra-political "Ignoreland," he explained that the song had stemmed from the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan era. For the classic "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" (from 1982's "Reckoning
"), Stipe handed the microphone over to bassist Mike Mills, who is well known for his extraordinary harmonies (in actuality, this song was recorded with Stipe singing lead). Off that same album came "Harborcoat," which showcases R.E.M.'s post-punk sound, exceptional vocals all around, with just a touch of a reggae guitar riff ("They crowded up to Lenin with their noses worn off / A handshake is worthy if it's all that you've got"). Afterwards, he gave special thanks to the English Beat for their influence on that song (I never would've put those two musical institutions together).
At 90 minutes into the show, the band took a bow and exited the stage then returned for one encore offering six more songs. On the sublime and brilliant "Nightswimming," Stipe leaned on the piano while Mills played the music ("Nightswimming deserves a quiet night / I'm not sure all these people understand"). The only issue I had with that song was that it ended. For the final two song choices, the band was joined onstage by one-half of the Smiths
' genius, Johnny Marr
. Marr joined Modest Mouse
(for their 2007 release "We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank
"), who opened for R.E.M. after Brooklyn band the National kicked off the evening. Those final songs were the awe-inspiring "Fall On Me," which must be the most beautiful song about acid rain ever written, and "Man On The Moon."
R.E.M. has always been a politically active band. Since their inception in the early eighties, they have had a liberal outlook on the world and been involved with many charitable ventures. During the encore, Stipe knelt down on stage and said, "I'm just going to say this…" and pulled out a t-shirt that the National is selling along with its own merchandise. It was an Obama
'08 shirt. Stipe said that the National's final song, "Mr. November," was played in honor of Barack Obama and that all the proceeds would go to his campaign. He went on to say that "…we need to get this man into office and follow through on the dream of Dr. King." The majority of the crowd was supportive, but there were clearly a few conservatives present. (What do you expect? We are in Georgia.)
Overall, this was one fantastic show. I was transported back to R.E.M.'s hey day in the mid-80s when I attended three of their concerts. But this was different. This was a more mature group of musicians who have actually improved with age. Huge screens displayed the artistic side of the band, showing band members as well as other images and videos in piecemeal bouncing around the screens. There were several songs that I wanted to hear - but did not - including "Begin The Begin," "Can't Get There From Here," "Feeling Gravity's Pull," and "Bandwagon." Also sadly absent was ANYTHING from the first two releases "Chronic Town" or "Murmur
Indie rock group The National
kicked off the evening with a sweet gig that many bands may likely kill for. Besides "Mr. November," we heard some great songs, including "Start A War," "Secret Meeting," and "Fake Empire." Singer Matt Berninger emoted with his beautiful, deep baritone voice.
Washington's Modest Mouse, with it's growing success in the alternative music world, warmed up the crowd nicely. Lead singer Isaac Brock sounded strikingly similar to The Pixies
' Frank Black (or Black Francis, depending on your upbringing). Modest Mouse energized the crowd with such tunes as "Black Cadillacs," "Satin In A Coffin," "King Rat," and the incomparable "Dashboard" ("Well, it would've been, could've been worse than you would ever know / Oh, the dashboard melted, but we still have the radio"). Regardless of the band's great success and their priceless exposure touring with R.E.M., the fact remains that I saw Johnny Marr live. That's all that needs to be said.
R.E.M. Set List:
1. These Days
2. Living Well Is The Best Revenge
3. So Fast, So Numb
4. What's The Frequency, Kenneth?
5. Time After Time (AnnElise)
6. Driver 8
7. Man-Sized Wreath
8. Walk Unafraid
9. Hollow Man
13. (Don't Go Back To) Rockville
14. Auctioneer (Another Engine)
16. The One I Love
17. I've Been High
18. Let Me In
19. Bad Day
20. Horse To Water
21. Orange Crush
22. I'm Gonna DJ
23. Supernatural Superserious
24. Losing My Religion
25. Pretty Persuasion
27. Fall On Me (w/Johnny Marr)
28. Man On The Moon (w/Johnny Marr)
Story by Kevin Triebsch
Starpulse contributing writer