Thursday, June 19, 2008

Talk About the Passion

Back when R.E.M. was touring behind Up, their first post-Bill Berry album, I went to see them play at what was then called the E-Center in Camden. It was my first genuine rock concert experience. I had lawn seats at a big outdoor amphitheater on a rainy day, my parents dropped me and my friends off at the Delaware River ferry, I bought a T-shirt and everything. It was a great show, and it was years before I stopped using R.E.M. as my baseline for judging how awesome a concert was.

Last night, I went to see R.E.M. again at the Mann Center, a big outdoor amphitheater on a rainy day, where I had lawn seats (I passed on the T-shirt this time, and my parents are no longer driving me to shows). In the nine years since I last saw them, a lot has changed. I've been to a lot more shows, mostly at standing-room-only venues, and I can safely say now that I abhor lawn seating. It angers my inner Bolshevik to know that the people up close to the stage got there by paying more for their tickets. The only honest way to get a good view of the show is to arrive really early and resist the urge to get a beer, use the bathroom, or rest your aching shins. Plus, seeing a rock show from a few hundred feet away feels a bit like getting together with thousands of other people, pumping up the sound, and watching a YouTube video. I guess you could say I'm getting older.

Or, if you're Matt Berninger of opening band the National, you could call my predicament "another uninnocent elegant slide into the unmagnificent lives of adults." That's why he's a well-regarded songwriter and I'm not. Berringer took the stage by thanking the audience for coming early and promising, "You won't be sorry. We're going to blow your minds with music." By the end of the set, my mind remained un-blown, but it was a good show nonetheless. I would have thought that the National's moody, dark songs would be better suited to a small, dimly-lit club than an outdoor show in early evening, but the band (augmented by a horn section and violin) and Berringer's baritone did a great job of filling the space.

Modest Mouse were the other opener, and the only song I recognized was "Dashboard" (note to self: buy some Modest Mouse albums). Of course I knew that the band now included Johnny Marr, but I didn't realize that they also had two drummers. I suspect that Isaac Brock is stockpiling musicians in case of some emergency.

And then came R.E.M. I was expecting disappointment in the few minutes before and immediately after they took the stage; I wasn't the seventeen-year-old kid losing his rock concert virginity anymore, and I was in a pissy mood because I couldn't see the stage from where I was standing. Thankfully, the band was as great as they were last time, and I found an empty spot with a decent view. The setlist was heavy on cuts from Accelerate, but it drew on material from throughout their career, including at least one song from each of their albums from Lifes Rich Pageant through Reveal (and reaching back to the Chronic Town EP for "Wolves, Lower"). On paper, it could have looked like a valedictory, but it seemed more like the band was picking the more hard-driving material from their catalog to fit in alongside the likes of "Living Well is the Best Revenge" and "Supernatural Superserious."

Michael Stipe still has the same adorably awkward style of banter as the last time I saw him, alternately cocky and self-deprecating. At one point, he asked how many people in the audience were at their first R.E.M. show, and seeing all the kids raising their hands made me feel old. But that's OK; there were plenty of middle-aged couples and gray-haired ex-hippies in the crowd as well. The fact that Michael, Peter, and Mike (and, unofficially, Scott and Bill) can both hang onto their old fans and connect with new ones through lineup changes, poorly-received albums, and Hall of Fame inductions makes me think that if these guys are still touring nine years from now, they won't be disappointing me.

So, what else was going on?
  • I wish I'd brought my camera, so that I could get a picture of the two people in the crowd with their lighters in the air during Modest Mouse's set. As if to highlight this point, Michael Stipe urged us to pull out our cell phones for one song. I'm no technophobe, but that's just not right.
  • Songs off of Automatic for the People: 3 (they're playing "Ignoreland" these days!) Note to the band: if you ever want to raise money for a good cause, just announce you're playing that album in its entirety; I'll pony up whatever you're asking.
  • I wanted to tap the shoulder of that couple in front of me who were singing "The One I Love" to each other and ask, "Have you listened to any of that song besides the first line?" (Fun fact: "The One I Love" has only 28 words in it)
  • If you ever find yourself on stage with a popular rock band and see people sneaking out early during the encore, the words, "Please welcome Mr. Eddie Vedder" are a good way to send them scurrying back to their seats.

  • Did anyone see the full moon last night? Was that not gorgeous? It started out huge and orange above Center City, then rose over the Mann stage so that it was directly overhead as the band closed with "Man on the Moon."
  • So, yeah . . . great show, but my only complaint was no "It's the End of the World as we Know It (And I Feel Fine)." Maybe they figured that "I'm Gonna DJ" filled their quota for apocalyptic songs.

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