the music of r.e.m.

Carnegie Hall, NYC, 11 March 2009

Admittedly, I am a tough audience for this show. Admittedly, I am the person you do not want to be playing in front of, the fan who knows every line and tone and shading and nuance and the six alternate takes and can quote you chapter and verse about when it was written and what the band was eating/drinking/thinking that inspired it. I admit this freely. But I am also (at least at this point in my life) the fan who gives bonus points for intent and feeling and style, and who can admit that, say, Josh Ritter was awesome at the Springsteen tribute last year.

The lineup for this show was more eclectic, more indie, more potentially precious than the Bruce one – there are no embargoed, uncool albums for R.E.M. like there are for Springsteen (although people studiously avoided Around The Sun, they also weren’t lining up to cover “Disturbance At The Heron House” either). I can’t say I was a fan of every artist on the bill, but at least I wasn’t like the guy sitting next to me, who sat down, perused the program, and loudly announced that he didn’t know any of the acts performing. By “any” he meant “anyone not from 1980” because we both applauded loudly at the Peter Holsapples and Feelies and Marshall Crenshaw types.

You had your Rachel Yamagata and your Keren Ann, but I have to say that Ingrid Michaelson kicked their asses down 57th Street, in terms of the category of “Solo Female Performer” this evening. The first two were perfectly fine, but Michaelson was the first one to bring a truly unique interpretation to her version of “Nightswimming”. A quirky performance for a quirky song, and I’ll give her points for wearing an evening dress but going barefoot.

I know I’m going to like Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey no matter what they do, and bringing along Don Dixon certainly isn’t going to hurt their cause. “Fall On Me” was simple and bright and a nice way to kick things off. Bob Mould got the first big round of recognizable applause, and his “Sitting Still” was the strongest contender of the first third of the show. He was followed by the Feelies, who took things up a notch with a version of “Chronic Town” that could have been played at Maxwell’s in 1985. It was hard to stay seated for that one.

(The one part of these shows that I absolutely hate is the announcer who introduces each act. I appreciate knowing who everyone is, because admittedly I wouldn’t know (and from the balcony, where I have sat more than once, you sometimes simply cannot tell). But what I don’t need is to be told what song they are going to perform, nor do I need what are supposed to be cute or clever turns of phrase (and are anything but). Please, lose the announcer, or confine her job to just telling us who the artist is – at the most name the album, but don’t spoil it by telling us what song it is right before they’re about to play it.)

You’re not going to be surprised if I tell you that Rhett Miller covered “Driver 8” or even that Calexico (the house band for the evening, and a fine job they did) covered “Wendell Gee”. You might be surprised that Glen Hansard covered “Hairshirt,” up there with a mandolin all on his lonesome (and apologizing in advance that there was one chord he didn’t know, and that he had been hoping to run into Peter Buck backstage so he could ask him about it).

Marshall Crenshaw came out and gave us a very Marshall Crenshaw-like interpretation of “Supernatural Superserious,” which was elegant and well-presented and particularly telling in that it followed the most dire performance of the evening, Guster’s rendition of “Shaking Through”. I realize that I am biased in that I do not like bands of Guster’s ilk, but it was like someone took a sledgehammer to this lovely, delicate song and drenched it with over-mic’d banjo. The Mummers String Band would have brought more subtlety to the song than Guster did.

I say this before I tell you about Kimya Dawson. I was not a fan of the Moldy Peaches, but I have a heckuva lot of respect for Kimya Dawson as an artist. However, I but a lot of explaining to do when she walked on with a costumed ensemble who performed an interpretative dance while she played an acoustic version of “World Leader Pretend” (telling us that she loved the song so much she didn’t know if she could actually play it), accompanied by a xylophone player. (And by ‘xylophone’ I mean the kind of thing you buy in the musical instrument aisle of Toys-R-Us.)  I closed my eyes to listen because I didn’t want to burst out laughing, but by the end of it, I had to give the group my respect; it took a lot of work and planning and practice, and a lot of guts to get up there and do that tonight. (Although we were still taking bets between ourselves as to which member of R.E.M. – they had given it away at the intro that all three original members were here – was laughing the hardest during the performance.)

I enjoyed Jolie Holland’s version of “Rockville” and TV On The Radio came by to sing backup (although no one could actually hear it. For all the technical wizardry involved in presenting 20 artists, you would think they could have mic’d vocals properly, but it was sadly lacking this evening – Kristen Hersh was a casualty of this for certain, with an otherwise fine version of “Perfect Circle” butchered by unintentional vocal distortion). Darius Rucker – yes, that Darius Rucker – who is now a country artist of some success, was probably the most surprising performance of the night, with a heartfelt rendition of “I Believe” for which he absolutely, positively did not require a lyric sheet.

It was nice to see Patti Smith get the last slot on the bill, and she came out with Tony Shanahan on piano to perform the surprising choice of “New Test Leper”. However, as soon as she sang the opening line – “I can’t say that I love Jesus” – the choice made sense, one confirmed later by J. Michael Stipe himself.  Our Patti managed to lose herself halfway through, not for lack of preparation (and I won’t admonish her to use a lyric sheet, because then she’d need her glasses, and she hates that), but because she had simply lost herself in the song. I found it charming in the extreme.

Once she was done, Michael, Mike and Peter came back out, along with Patti, Tony Shanahan, and Jay Dee Daugherty on drums, and after a series of heartfelt thank you’s – including echoing Dar Williams’ thanks for supporting the arts at this time – Michael uttered the now-mandatory, “That’s Mike, that’s Peter, I’m Michael – we’re R.E.M. and this is what we do,” and Michael and Patti dueted on “E-bow The Letter”. I am touched by Michael dropping to his knees while Patti sings, I reflect how lucky I am to have seen them play together as often as I have, how I have seen R.E.M. with Springsteen and Pearl Jam and the Minutemen and the dB’s and the list goes on and on until my brain hurts and my eyes fill up and I smile. I am lucky.

The musicians left the stage after the song was over, returning with the rest of the artists for a final bow. No jam session, no second number. If that sounds ungrateful, there were a lot of empty seats, this was not an inexpensive show, it was a benefit, and it might have been nice for one more song, something more uplifting, perhaps, to round out the show.  It was certainly a full and satisfying night of music, and you can’t blame me for not wanting it to end.

(Or wanting “Country Feedback”. There.)