It all comes back to The Big Four: The Cure, U2, R.E.M., and The Smiths. Sure, some lesser-known (and arguably more interesting) bands rounded out my teenage top ten, but as a Vermont high schooler in the late 80s, that was the quartet that truly helped shape my musical tastes. While the break-up of The Smiths set their legacy in stone, time and the ongoing musical output of the other three would wear away at my appreciation for each: First, U2 shook me loose after "Rattle & Hum", R.E.M.'s "Monster" scared me away, and the departure of Boris and The Cure's "Wild Mood Swings" left me cold. There were too many other bands demanding my attention for me to dig very hard for diamonds in their subsequent albums, although in the years since I've found a few.
Through a strange confluence of releases and events, the first half of 2008 has me thinking about The Big Four in a big way: Earlier this year I caught, and was surprisingly impressed by, U2's 3D IMAX concert film. Still couldn't warm me to their post-1990 output, but as an overall experience, it was a technological thrill. Two months later and I'm at a mind-blowing, 3-hour Cure show, loving the band as much as I ever did. That's two down. And a few days ago I find myself standing 10 rows from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr as they run through a couple songs that played major parts in my high school soundtrack. And that's all four bands accounted for, 20-some odd years after each first won me over.
Before I get to the live Mp3s, here are some bullet-listed personal highlights and notes from Friday night's R.E.M. show, with openers The National and Modest Mouse (which explains Johnny Marr's presence) at Great Woods in Mansfield, MA. And yes, while it's technically now called the Comcast Center, and before that the Tweeter Center, it'll always be Great Woods to me. Corporate synergy be damned...
While "Accelerate" is surely R.E.M.'s most guitar-centric album in ages, it's still only a "return to form" if you think that form was solidified in 1986 with "Life's Rich Pageant" (Frank articulates that notion better here). The new songs held up very well alongside their 22-year old counterparts, as evidenced by set-starter "Living Well's The Best Revenge" heading into "Begin The Begin". That "LRP" opener still gets me going, because it usually means I have that whole album ahead to listen to. Glad we got another taste of it later in the set with "Cuyahoga".
Stipe dedicated "Cuyahoga", and specifically the first couple lines, to Barack Obama: "Let's put our heads together, and start a new country up". Erasing the parts we don't like sounds like a fine idea.
Even though I'd seen REM a bunch of times in the late-80s/early-90s, I'd never caught site of Peter Buck's traveling collection of on-stage dinosaur figures. Apparently his prehistoric mascots have been appearing atop his amps on-stage for ages, but only now was I close enough to notice. How'd you like to have "R.E.M. Dinosaur Wrangler" on your roadie resume?
The entire band, including drummer Bill Rieflin on a guitar, gathered around Peter Buck at the piano for an excellent acoustic rendition of 1996's "Let Me In". Actually made me think I might want to revisit "Monster" again.
After his years of work with Ministry, Pigface, and RevCo (all acts that were major parts of my own personal Industrial Revolution), I still find it slightly incongruous to type the phrase "R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin". And knowing that he and guitarist Scott McCaughey are "unofficial" members of the band (neither appear in official promo photos), it still strikes me as odd that they sell t-shirts displaying "Mike, Michael, and Peter" in huge text. Rieflin and McCaughey seem to be far more than just hired guns at this point, but hey, it's probably more as a tribute to drummer Bill Berry's absence than a slight to their contributions, right?
As Mike Mills donned his cowboy hat and took center stage to sing lead on "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville", he explained that his voice was a little ragged after spending the previous night screaming at the first of the two Mission of Burma shows at the Paradise: "They were maybe the best and the loudest band I've ever seen." Hearing him say that was a cool little moment for me, as R.E.M. was the reason I first got into Burma during the late-80s when they were covering "Academy Fight Song" on the Green tour. When I saw the R.E.M. tour schedule, and noticed they had a night off before the Mansfield show, I thought "I wonder if they know about those Burma shows, because they'd probably want to go". And whaddya know, Mills did. As Colbert says: I called it.
I wasn't even 100% sure that Johnny Marr was still on tour with Modest Mouse, until I'd read earlier that day that he'd joined R.E.M. on stage during the encore of the previous show to add his Rickenbacker to "Fall On Me". Fingers were obviously crossed that he'd do it again, and when he did, but kept his guitar on after the song was over, I knew we were in for something extra. Once Stipe said "We've got one more song", and the negative crowd response essentially forced him to up that to two more songs, we got a treat: An impromptu and Marr-enhanced "Pretty Persuasion", which he'd never rehearsed. Loved watching Buck guide him through the chord changes. Marr remained on guitar for another song he'd actually practiced, show closer "Man on the Moon".
I was never one of those fans who wondered or cared much about Stipe's sexual proclivities, but I'm pretty sure he's been out of the closet for a very long time (despite what some recent articles claimed). Still, I'll admit it's been cool to see him become more forthright about it recently. In Mansfield he introduced "Pretty Persuasion" with a simple "This is a beautiful song about growing up queer in the 1980s...". Had Stipe written a song about that same struggle today, the subject matter would surely be easier to discern... his ultra-obtuse phase has certainly long-since passed.
Sneak peeks at previous tour setlists clued me in to the fact that "Man On The Moon" would probably be the night-ender, and as I've never quite liked that song, I used the opportunity to make an early exit and avoid the post-show clusterf*ck that the Great Woods parking lot becomes. Still, I was nervous they'd kick into something special as I made my quick getaway. And I know what some of you are thinking: "You tape shows, and left early? What kind of completest are you?". Have no fear, my back was covered, and I wouldn't have left otherwise...
I owe much gratitude to longtime 'Nac reader and fellow taper Todd, who not only offered me that amazing fan-club acquired 10th-row seat, but has provided the Mp3 of "Man On The Moon" below (and if you think that one song sounds better than all the rest, hey, keep it to yourself ;)). He wrote his own extensive review of the show, including his thoughts on the National and Modest Mouse. The mix in our spots was pretty much perfect, and I'm looking forward to sharing up those other two sets as well. But considering I just saw 10 bands over a four-day stretch, they could be a little while longer in coming...
For each show on the current tour, R.E.M. has a very cool page set up that gathers together custom-tagged YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter fan content. So very Web 2.0 of them. Here's the page for the Mansfield show.
Jerad from Drive Blind was at the show as well, and shares his thoughts here.
Additional Audio: Along with songs on the MySpace page linked above, you can stream all of the "Accelerate" album here. The band played SxSW earlier this year, and NPR broadcasted the show, which you can listen to here. That performance was for the Austin City Limits program, and the video should appear on the show later this year. Fansite myREM.com has a forum thread that helps fans find non-commercial audio offerings.
Photos: My many Flickr-hosted shots are here. Check out the full R.E.M. Flickr tag search. R.E.M. fan Tam has some excellent photos here as well. The REM Cover Studio site is a great resource for custom-designed artwork for any fan-made recordings, and it looks like they might use some of my shots for the Mansfield boot. Very, very cool. Naturally, the band supports any not-for-profit trading of their live shows.
Upcoming tourdates: Only three shows left on their North American tour...
Wednesday, June 18th @ the Mann Center in Philadelphia Thursday, June 19th at Madison Square Garden in NYC Saturday, June 21st at Lakewood Amphitheater in Atlanta
Dates for their upcoming European tour (also with excellent openers, including Editors and Elbow) can be found here.
the fine print... If anyone has an issue with these Mp3s being made available, just let me know (my contact info in the 'nac faq). Live sets recorded with a Sony ECM-719 mic and a Sony MZ-RH10 minidisc (except for track #31 above), converted to .wav and then edited to 192kbps Mp3s. Files are made available for a limited time, and are not reposted once removed. (#remtweet)