Tuesday, June 10th, 2008
Photo by Frank Yang
It’s been interesting watching the revisionist history that surrounds R.E.M.’s latest album Accelerate develop, in particular the notion that it’s a return to their “rock band” roots. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t hear anything overly rocking in any of their records up until their fourth full length, 1986’s Life’s Rich Pageant. After all, they spent their formative days in the back room of a church, not a garage.
But for the sake of argument, we’ll go along with the idea that R.E.M. is a rock band and that their two game-breaking records were mostly acoustic, introspective works. Sure. And Accelerate does remind me in many ways of Pageant (and not their previous “return to rock” effort in 1994’s mostly awful Monster) albeit dressed in 21st century production values (read: LOUD), which is no bad thing. It doesn’t necessarily stand up with their finest works but it does prove the boys still have some gas in the tank and as far as reestablishing the band as a living, viable artistic (and commercial) entity, can be considered a success.
It was on the back of this revitalization that R.E.M. rode into the Molson Amphitheatre on Sunday night, Athens-calibre humidity and tornado warnings in tow. It had been a long time since I’d been to this venue – six years – and only my third time ever. The first, incidentally, was in 1999 to see R.E.M. I’m not a fan of the place – it’s so huge and concrete and weird – but the assembled bill was enough to get me over my distaste and seek out a spot on the lawns even though my attendance was a game time decision. An AM forecast of 30mm of rain over the course of the day made the notion of sitting on the grass unattractive to say the least, but by 5PM it was still sunny and the forecast was improved so off I went.
And a touch too late, it seems. I heard The National onstage as I circled outside the venue to the lawns entrance, and by the time I took a seat had missed about a third of their set. But even if I’d seen the whole thing, I don’t know how much I’d have really enjoyed it. I love the band, that’s well documented, but after seeing them in small to mid-sized venues so many times, seeing them so tiny on the stage playing to a half-empty venue just felt weird. And it’s not that they can’t work the big stage, their set at ACL last year proved that, but their sound mix was harsh and I just found it unfortunate and unengaging. But on the plus side, I got to hear “Fake Empire” with horns in the outro and when they finished off their set with “Mr November”, they got a standing ovation. To those newly converted fans – you think that was good, you should see them in a proper venue. They will own your asses.
I’ve never been a Modest Mouse fan and probably will never be a Modest Mouse fan, but with that said I enjoyed their set more than I expected. Part of that was surely getting to see Johnny Marr in person (though he was maybe 3mm high and I had to wait till they showed him on the monitor screens before I was sure it was him) but also because the band simply sounded pretty good. By the end of their set, however, that goodwill was starting to evaporate and I began to remember why I didn’t like them. This was mitigated by them playing a couple songs I actually knew (yes, including that one), but I wasn’t overly upset when they finished. Of course it then started to rain.
Thankfully said rain never turned into the torrents initially promised and only lasted as long as it took them to set up R.E.M.’s gear – the weather broke about 5 minutes before their scheduled set time and even threw in a couple of rainbows for good measure. File under: good omens. Also boding well – their opening the set with “These Days” from Pageant, still my favourite record of theirs for sheer visceral kick. While I question the band’s past reputation as a monster of rock, it’s evident from the live show that it’s very much a fact now. Even though I thought their SxSW set was pretty energetic, they’ve taken it up a few notches further for the larger venues on the current tour.
Appropriately, the set list was tailored for maximum tempo leaning heavily on the new record and cherry picking the back catalog for the loud numbers. It was a treat hearing numbers like “Seven Chinese Brothers” and “Orange Crush”, but felt the omission of almost anything that might slow things down was unfortunate. Out Of Time was represented only by “Losing My Religion” (natch) in the encore and Murmur was ignored completely. And the gentler songs that were included – “Electrolite” and “Drive” – were delivered with a degree of weight that wasn’t really necessary or appropriate. A little delicacy and nuance would have gone a long way, as their reading of “Let Me In” proved – the band performed it on acoustic guitar and organ and by stripping away all the fuzz of the recorded version, elevated what was one of the best songs on one of their worst records (Monster, if you weren’t following along) and for that moment, making it one of the best of their entire repertoire. It was chilling. And then it was back to the rock.
But for what it was, and what they wanted to deliver, the show was a triumph. Seeing Michael Stipe bounding around the stage it’s impossible to imagine he was ever as much a wallflower as he was reputed to be well into the end of the ’80s. The guitarwork has benefited greatly with Scott McCaughey backing up Peter Buck and Mike Mills was terrific as always on backing vocals. And he left the Nudie suits at home. Full credit also goes to Bill Rieflin, who is easily the second best Bill the band has ever had on drums. I didn’t stick around for the full encore – it had been a long, hot, sticky and wet weekend (and not in the best senses of those words) – but yes, I know I missed Johnny Marr joining the band on “Fall On Me” and I can live with that. I still got an entirely satisfying show and my only hope is that now that the band has proven to themselves and everyone else that they can still rock, that next time they concentrate on playing their best songs, and not just the loud ones.
The National Post and The Toronto Sun talk to The National. The Toronto Star and Malaysia Star talk to Peter Buck about the band’s near-demise before recording Accelerate, Minneapolis City Pages talk to Mike Mills and The Toronto Sun, Toronto Star, eye and Chart have reviews of the show.
For some reason that now eludes me, I didn’t put in for a photo pass for this show so all I’ve got are a few pics taken from the cheap seats with my point-and-shoot. If you want detailed, up-close pics of Stipe and the gang, hit up my SxSW shots. If you want far-off shots of their set and super-cool video screen, click below. If you want shots of the openers… sorry. Without a big-ass light show, there’s simply not much to see from far back.
And finally, because some promo companies are slow and only send out review copies of the album almost a month after the record’s been released and I’ve already bought a copy, I’ve got an extra copy of Accelerate on CD that I’m going to give away. To enter, leave a comment with your correct email (spamproofed if you like) and your favourite R.E.M. album and why, and do so before midnight next Tuesday, June 17. Contest open to whomever, wherever.
Photos: R.E.M. @ The Molson Amphitheatre – June 8, 2008
MP3: The National – “Fake Empire”
Video: R.E.M. – “Supernatural Superserious”
Video: R.E.M. – “Hollow Man”
Video: Modest Mouse – “We’ve Got Everything”
Video: Modest Mouse – “Steam Eugenius”
Video: Modest Mouse – “Little Motel”
Video: The National – “Mistaken For Strangers”
Video: The National – “Apartment Story”
MySpace: Modest Mouse
MySpace: The National
The Guardian talks to Isobel Campbell about Sunday At Devil Dirt, her second album with Mark Lanegan. And Lanegan’s other current project, The Gutter Twins, have just released a new video from Saturnalia.
The Nation contemplates the works and persona of Nick Cave. He and the Bad Seeds are at the Kool Haus on October 1, which as much as I’m looking forward to enjoying the Summer, I’m just as much anxious for it to be over so that this show is that much closer.
Wired discovers a Florida State University music masters’ student’s thesis on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. They’re at the Ricoh Coliseum on September 25 and the double-disc remastered version of said album is out next week.
Tripwire offers up another track from Rob Dickinson’s acoustic EP of Catherine Wheel songs included with the newly reissued (as of today) version of his solo record Fresh Wine For The Horses. He’s at the Mod Club next Wednesday, June 18.
And speaking of V Fest, Robyn has quietly been removed from the lineup for day two.
Stream the new Sigur Ros album. It’s out June 24.
Also streamable and out a bit sooner (like now), new ones from Supergrass, Adele and My Morning Jacket. The AV Club also has an interview with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James – they’re at the Kool Haus next Monday.
Drowned In Sound profiles Fleet Foxes, who’ve just released their debut full-length coincidentally titled Fleet Foxes. NPR also has a World Cafe session with the band. They’re at the Phoenix on July 16 opening for Stephen Malkmus.
WOXY has posted their recent Lounge Act session with DeVotchKa. And speaking of WOXY and DeVotchKa (and many other things), I recorded one of their “Friends Of The Futurists” shows yesterday wherein I play DJ and pick and talk about a bunch of songs for an hour with one of their on-air personalities. One of the tracks I picked was by DeVotchKa – you want to know the rest (and I know you do) head over to WOXY tonight at 8PM EDT and have a listen. It’s riveting, I promise.