Saw REM at MSG on TDN; it was TFA

That’s “Thursday Night” and “totally f*$%@!g awesome” if you’re wondering,

I was in a skybox courtesy of my employer. To paraphrase Michelle Obama, it was the first time in my adult life I was really proud of my employer. There were drinks. There was a bathroom. We were among friends (some of whom were quite young, I was happy to see, as a representative of the ancient, original generation of REM fans).

[incidentally: the openers were The National (previously unknown to me, whom I was pleasantly surprised to discover), followed by Modest Mouse, whom I usually don’t mind, but they sucked in concert.]

Two complaints about the skybox experience: (1) audio: why not turn a few of the speakers “upward” – it can’t be that hard to do. (2) visual (even easier): turn on those gynormous screens that are – hello! – even more necessary when you’re trying to look at the faces of three guys way in the back of the arena, way below you, in the dark, than, say, when it’s brightly lit and people are running around in numbered uniforms so you can keep track of them!

Well, actually it was five guys. They had two drummers who did a fine job, but I do miss Bill….

The content of the show, though, was very satisfying. The guys were in really good form. Michael Stipe’s voice was in fantastic shape. Strong, clear, melodic yet gravely. He was belting it out with more nuance and tonal richness than anyone has a right to expect in a stadium this big.

The images on the screen behind them were ok. Close ups of the boys and parades of political messages. I won’t comment on those. In any case, I don’t go to REM concerts for the light show – it’s not Pink Floyd. And speaking of politics, Michael did go on a bit… I tend to share his politics, and I like artists who care about shit, but I can’t handle them crossing the line to preachy. It’s a concert. Come on.

By far the best element was the set list. It was as close to ideal as an “originalist” can hope for from a band who, let’s face it, has some responsibility to their “mainstream” fans who have made them megastars.

One of my younger colleagues expressed some disappointment the next day at the breakfast bar. “I know they are promoting a new album,” she said, “but I was hoping for more old songs.” Here’s what’s funny: yes they sang almost everything that’s on the new album, but that was, like, 8 songs. Most of the nearly-thirty-song program comprised old stuff. GOOD old stuff! There was no crap form Up or Reveal and just one ballad from Around the Sun (“Leaving New York,” which I don’t mind, actually; it has a sensitive appeal).

I think the problem for my young friend is that the “old” songs she likes are the more popular ones from an era (her childhood, undoubtedly) that I would call REM’s Late Mesozoic period, i.e., mid 1990s and maybe a couple of superhits from Document or Green (the Early Mesozoic). Thursday night’s show definitely threw a few succulent bones to her kind. Predictably: “The One I Love”; “Losing My Religion” (which I adore, I’m not going to lie to appear “cool”); “Orange Crush”; a powerhouse performance of “What’s the Frequency Kenneth”; an emotional (and acoustic) “Let Me In”; and a rather soulful rendition of “Drive.” They even closed with “Man on the Moon” for gods sake, what more do these kids want?!

I suppose more stuff from Automatic For the People would keep all the various segments of the fan pool happy. As well as having been a chart topper, it is probably their most artistically accomplished album. But, speaking of Automatic, I could have done without “Ignoreland.” It’s dated and it was a dumb song to begin with. I always suspected it was an attempt to recreate the high they must have felt playing “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” (which, unlike “Ignoreland” doesn’t cross the “preachy” line and which should have been in Thursday’s lineup instead).

But honestly, I couldn’t ask for too much more. They played “Driver 8” “Disturbance at the Heron House” and “Bad Day” – all of which sounded every bit as fresh in Michael’s mature voice as the originals. You know, I actually think it lends itself better to live performance (especially in a less intimate setting) than the chaotic charm of his 20 year old voice. I think he’s better able now to retain subtlety even when howling. Great for a big venue. I was surprised at how incredible those old jangly, raw, minimalist songs sounded in this colossal arena. Who knew “Harborcoat” could sound so large? I’m not kidding, they played “Harborcoat”!

There were three songs each from Life’s Rich Pageant (quite possibly my favorite Album):“These Days,” “Begin the Begin” and “Fall On Me”; and from Reckoning (another great album that came out probably before my colleague was in grade school): “Pretty Persuasion,” “Harborcoat,” and “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” with Mike Mills taking center stage. It really was very cool.

By the way, here they are singing “Rockville” self-mockingly as young… kids, really — weren’t they cute 🙂

Do I wish they had played “Radio Free Europe” and “Moral Kiosk” and “Gardening at Night” and “Find the River” and “Cuyahoga” and “The Finest Worksong” and…. ? Sure, but let’s not be greedy.

Oh, and the guest appearance by Johnny Marr was a special treat.

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