R.E.M. Rocks My Face
I set out yesterday across the state to visit Athens, GA. My plans included catching a R.E.M. tribute show at the 40 Watt. I was looking forward to seeing Five Eight, Patterson Hood and Modern Skirts play the songs of R.E.M. Five Eight has long been my favorite band, second only to R.E.M. Patterson Hood leads my beloved Drive-By Truckers and Modern Skirts are an up and coming group that is going to be huge. With this in mind, my wife and I scuttled through the rain back to our alma mater. We were looking forward to a fun night out and maybe some neat surprises on the stage. When we were checking into the hotel, the desk clerk and I talked about why I was in town and she said that there had been tons of people coming into the hotel for the show. It was a small clue as to what the night might hold, but we had no idea what was waiting for us.
The tribute was set up to raise charity for two worthy causes in Athens: Family Connection and Community Connection. The night included raffles and auctions of R.E.M. memorabilia and also featured quite a few clips from the new DVD and CD retrospective of their years with I.R.S. Records. The crowd spanned all ages and types of music fans. The varied bands on the schedule and the fact that it was R.E.M. meant that the crowd was eclectic to say the least.
The mood started off very low-key with Claire Campbell, a folk artist with which I was unfamiliar, interpreting two songs using a saw and a busker’s dance. It was an odd start to a rock show. Then, with no notice and no introduction, the unbelievable happened.
Through the curtain at the back of the stage strode the four members of R.E.M. and they launched into “Begin the Begin.” The scene went from low-key and jovial to absolutely euphoric. Every face in the place had a smile on it. The most amazing bit was seeing Bill Berry on the drums. After his illness and subsequent retiring from the band, it’s clear that he has stayed in “fighting shape.” There he was right in front of that iconic light-bulb 40 Watt logo keeping perfect time.
According to Michael Stipe, the group was in-town recording some new stuff and just decided to stop by. A little more banter and R.E.M. unleashed a rocking version of “So. Central Rain.” At the end of the song, Mike Mills and Peter Buck were absolutely bashing their instruments and seemed to be having a great time. Bill Berry was into the groove as well and was dropping fills everywhere though he was just on a small trap kit. Stipe was bringing out some of his old, admittedly bizarre, dance moves that many of the fans have seen in videos before.
There was laughter and cheering and screaming. The entire club simply stopped to watch these guys performed. No drinks were being ordered, or served for that matter, during the two songs. No one went to the bathroom and no one took their eyes off the stage. It was historic.
Though the guys only played two songs together, everyone, except Bill Berry, would reappear throughout the night playing along with the other bands that had come to celebrate them. They seemed to enjoy hearing new spins on their material as well as having a chance to bust out some of the songs that they don’t play very often in concert.
Some other highlights of the show were Tin Cup Prophette’s set, Patterson Hood’s story of his first R.E.M. concert in Oxford, Miss., the Observatory’s atmospheric and psychedelic set, and the finale begun by Five Eight.
For Tin Cup Prophette, the challenge was following the two songs done by R.E.M. They performed some interesting versions of the tunes and seemed graceful and dogged in the challenging spot in which they found themselves. The lead singer appeared in the night’s finale standing right next to Michael Stipe singing along with him, so I think he did his best to make up for the slight overshadowing she might have experienced.
Patterson Hood talked about his first R.E.M. concert which was in 1984 at a converted church in Oxford, Miss. After some drunk asshole shouted through the gang’s a cappella rendition of “Blue Moon” at the close of the show, they returned for an encore during which Hood says, “You could feel the hate they were giving this guy.” So, they started up with “Blue Moon” again and since Peter Buck doesn’t sing, he stood at the edge of the stage and “eye-fucked,” according to Patterson, the guy through the entire song. With Hood’s storytelling prowess and a great example of R.E.M.’s early days, Hood’s beaming grin was shined back at him from the crowd. Indeed, throughout his set and the finale, Hood wore a huge smile and seemed genuinely floored to be able to share the stage with his admitted “heroes.”
Members of the Elephant 6 collective joined forces to journey through a set that visited many of R.E.M.’s more esoteric and atmospheric songs from the earlier albums and B-sides. There must have been 15 of them on stage and they created a mesmerizing wall of sound that shown new light on what were some of R.E.M.’s least commercially viable, but perhaps most musically adventurous, songs.
Five Eight has a long and somewhat murky history with R.E.M. At one point, R.E.M. had chosen them to open for a series of shows in the west coast. Five Eight had a new album out and this looked to be their big break. After several shows on the west coast, the R.E.M. tour was headed to Europe and everyone, including Five Eight, assumed that they would be the opener throughout Europe. At the last minute, R.E.M. chose another band, Now It’s Overhead, and left Five Eight back home. With a snide smile, Five Eight’s deadpan jokester, Dan Horowitz, played a banjo-lead version of “Driver 8” with lyrics detailing this somewhat raw relationship between the two bands, rousing the audience with the chorus, “Five Eight, take a break, you’ve been up our ass too long.” Add to that the finale, lead by Five Eight, but joined by members of the bands from throughout the night and 3 of the 4 R.E.M. fellows as they hammered through a long and loud rendition of “It’s The End Of The World (As We Know It).”
One of my favorite new bands, Modern Skirts, put in a polished performance with some great harmonies. Their set didn’t seem to quite approach the transcendence of some of the others. In fact, their attention to detail and craftsmanship might have let them down in that they weren’t portraying the sheer exuberance of the other sets. However, as Bertis Downs pointed out, their rendition of “Perfect Circle” was a great fit lyrically and musically. All that aside, they are a tight band that clearly has a lot more to offer in the coming years. I can’t wait to see how their sound matures. With a piano man like Jojo and those awesome harmonies, the coming days are salad days for sure.
It was truly a historic night for an R.E.M. fan such as myself. A lot of money was raised for two good causes and I have memories that I will keep for a lifetime. This is what truly great music, especially live music, does for people. It generates feelings, connections, and memories that are the true bone marrow of life. All of that and a ticket was only $12.