Saturday, February 19, 2011

1995: REM in Phoenix

REM are back with a new album in 2011, though not with a new tour to support it. Still, it looks like they have miles to go before they sleep. This is the view from 16 years ago: 

"Kenneth." Of course they'd open with "What's the Frequency, Kenneth." The opening lick sounds every bit as fresh as the first time I heard it, over a year ago. And damn! they sound fine. This is a much more powerful band than the one I saw six years ago. Really nice to see these guys again. 

 Bassist Mike Mills, who also contributes high harmony vocals, has transformed himself from a nerdy-looking nebbish to a flamboyant longhair, in Nudie's of Texas jackets, no less. He's also done lead vocals for a couple of songs, though neither of them will surface tonight.

Drummer Bill Berry looks a bit haggard for a man his age. Not surprising, since he almost died of a brain anyeurism early in the tour. Ironically, it was he who insisted on the tour. After I saw them in 1989, the word from the REM camp was that they were burned out from a decade of constant touring. They would settle in for a couple of studio albums, then release a real rocker and tour behind that one. Berry held them to it.

Green world tour had been an ordeal for them all, coping with the demands of their growing celebrity. Green (1988) had solidified their cult and brought it to the mainstream. That was their major-label debut after five discs for the independent IRS Records. Following a series of remarkable, thematically distinct albums and unconventional videos, the move to Warner Brothers coincided with hype to the tune of a Rolling Stone cover with the boys staring out above the headline "The Best Band in America."

If they thought retiring from the road would counter that, they figured wrong. 
Out of Time (1991) was their first number one album, and earned a shelf of Grammies. Automatic for the People, (1992) a spare, acoustic masterpiece, sold equally well. At that point Bill Berry insisted: "The next album rocks, or I'm quitting."

Guitarist Peter Buck is as much the star of 
Monster as frontman Michael Stipe. Gone, at least for now, are the acoustic guitars and mandolins of the last two discs. In their place are frenetic riffs, slabs of noise, piercing leads, backwards tapes. Even the ballads shimmer with feedback and fuzztone, reflecting the urgency of the rest of the album. And the guitarist himself seems a bit less paunchy; he's now the father of twin daughters, which probably keeps him fairly busy.

Stipe is both the author and subject of 
Monster. Though not all the songs are autobiograhical, the persona he's crafted to deliver them is the latest step in what Joseph Campbell would call his heroic journey. Once upon a time, Michael Stipe was a shy manchild on stage, long hair in his face, mumbling his lyrics into the mike. With every album his singing grew stronger and more confident, and on Monster he delivers several in a haunting falsetto.

The manchild is still there, but the shyness is long gone. At times he seems a wizened figure twice his age, the effect heightened by his shaved skull. Other times he bounds offstage like a kid, pulling his t-shirt back behind his neck. The monster he's created is himself, but he seems at peace with it. Always concerned, lyrically, with questions of identity ("We all invent ourselves and, uh, you know me"), Stipe has addressed the contradictions between his public and private selves, including the increased speculation about his sexuality.

His perennially gaunt frame and reluctance to tour or do interviews has led to persistent rumors that Stipe is HIV positive. While he assures us that is not the case, he admits to having let the rumors go unanswered in order to make some of his fans think twice. And while the lyric "I'm straight, I'm queer, I'm bi" is suitably ambiguous, 
Monster is not the work of a straight man. It's suffused throughout with the kind of rambunctious sexuality that Bowie and Prince have been known for; what Buck calls "obsessive-creep love songs," Berry terms "that snotty boy-sexy thing," and Stipe characterizes as "kind of a gender-fuck train wreck." And damn, it rocks.

The ghost of the late King O' Grunge haunts the proceedings as REM nail down one of the last dates of their year on the road. The first encore is "Let Me In," a slow, noisy elegy to their late friend, and a haunting plea for connection. That slides into "Everybody Hurts," a more explicit argument against suicide, though written well before Kurt's demise. The second song of the night is "Crush with Eyeliner," a vamping mash note to Cobain's outrageous widow. And every song, even the older ones, bristles with grungy vibrancy, hinting at what the collaboration Stipe offered Cobain, in hopes of giving him a reason to live, might have sounded like.

Monster, REM have sauntered through the door that Cobain kicked open when "Nevermind" went multiplatinum. And if they seem awfully comfortable on the other side, it's because they helped to build that door in the first place, as the late King O' Grunge would be the first to admit. If Out of Time and Automatic reflected their domestic serenity, Monster, harkening back to their influential early albums, was built to embrace the chaos of life as a touring rock band. Nearly half the songs performed tonight are from that album, or the next one, which is being written and recorded during the tour. The new material is just as abrasive and brilliant (judging from lyrics subsequently downloaded off the 'Net), though with more of a sense of humor (titles include "The Wake-up Bomb" and "Binky the Doormat").

As much as I love the new sound, I know it's just another facet of their career, and there'll be other new directions to come. So while I might have preferred a couple more of their earlier songs (only four, out of 27, from their IRS years) I couldn't quibble with what I got: a soaring "Fall on Me," with Mills and Stipe in perfect harmony; "The One I Love," as part of a stunning medley to end the first set (that, then "Pop Song '89" into "Get Up," followed, after a slight pause, by a bone-crushing version of "Star 69" from 
Monster. Funny about that song... I must have heard it dozens of times on my home stereo, but it wasn't until it came blasting out of my car radio one day that it grabbed me by the spine and shook me); where was I? um; "South Central Rain" as part of the eight-song encore set; and finally, "It's the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine)," one of my personal favorites, to send us on our way.
Out of Time and Automatic were well represented. After a couple of new songs, Stipe says, "this one's a little more familiar," and the sweet mandolin intro to "Losing My Religion" pulled a roar from the crowd. For "Man in the Moon," one of the centerpeices of Automatic for the People's meditations on mortality, Stipe offered this intro:

"This song is dedicated to the late Fred "Sonic" Smith, who died one year ago today, a fine man and a wonderful musician [and husband of Stipe's idol and inspiration Patti Smith]. This song is about a beautiful journey we're all going to take someday, and for the song, we needed somebody to take that journey for us, so we chose... my man Andy Kauffman" (Kauffman being but one of the dead celebrities, along with Montgomery Clift and Elvis, who haunt that remarkable album).

Instrumentally, this is a band at the peak of their powers. Buck, along with Andy Summers of the Police and U2's The Edge, redefined what it means to be a power trio guitarist in the 80s. Each of them came up with different answers than Hendrix, Townsend and Clapton (in Cream) did to the question of playing lead and rhythm at the same time. And while he still mostly eschews the guitar solo, his playing is more muscular, rhythmic and melodic than ever.

Mills switched to lead guitar for "Let Me In," while Berry shook a tambourine and Buck noodled on a keyboard, leaving the former nerd to cover us, almost singlehandedly, with sheaths of noise. Then he switched to keyboards for "Everybody Hurts," playing piano with his right hand and organ with his left, as Buck strapped on another guitar, and Berry stepped out from his drum kit to play bass. Stipe, as mentioned, is singing better than ever, and despite some hoarseness, his timing, phrasing and breathing were impeccable.

He told us that he appreciated us waiting six months, "or however the fuck long it's been" for the rescheduled concert that should have taken place in May, but for Berry's illness. Since then, both Stipe (hernia) and Mills (blocked intestine) have undergone surgery as well, but the tour continued. "This is for everybody who waited all this time to see us" he said, and the band played "Hot Java," a goofy instrumental piano vamp from the early 60s, a melody you'd recognize if you heard it, kind of along the lines of "Baby Elephant Walk."

After an old tune and a new one, Stipe started singing Glen Campbell's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," obviously unrehearsed, as the band halfheartedly struggled to play along, and petered out after a few verses. Then they did "Wichita Lineman," just as obviously well-rehearsed, with Buck taking a tasteful little solo in the middle. After that it was the End of the World, and the end of the show, but not the end of the line.

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