June 6, 2008 | Comments ()

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | June 6, 2008 |


Pop culture item consumed: R.E.M.’s June 1 UC-Berkeley show, my first R.E.M. show since they toured to support Green in 1988. Another live R.E.M. show was on my bucket list (ha! How many of you just threw up in your mouths a little bit?), it was proximate to my birthday, and my close friend Mikhail had an extra ticket. Awesome all around. (Not consumed: opening act Modest Mouse, whom I have tried and failed to like.)

Mini-Comment Diversion: Favorite R.E.M. song of all time.

Beverage consumed: A decent portion of a Grolsch five-liter mini-keg. Several beer brands offer the mini-keg, and after diligently sampling many, I’ve concluded that Grolsch is the best, a rich, excellent lager that I tolerate well at high doses. The mini-keg, while not to the level of fresh tap beer, transcends bottle beer to the point that I have easily defeated several taste tests administered by a skeptical Mrs. socalled.

Heineken offers a mini that is much easier to find than Grolsch — three markets near our house carry it — and it’s certainly good beer. The Heineken mini will also stay fresh substantially longer than Grolsch if, for example, you can’t finish it over a weekend, during your bunking party with your Girl Scout friends. Spaten and Hoegaarden offer delicious alternatives that are still significantly more difficult to find than Heineken but don’t keep as well.

I wholeheartedly recommend the mini-keg. I am still firmly against the mini-handjob, however.

Summary of action: With a start time of 5:00 p.m. and two “meh” opening acts — The National opened the show — Mikhail and I sat in the back of my vehicle until about 7:30, drinking Grolsch and admiring 20-year-old California college girls. Berkeley girls may not shave their pits, but they can still bring it.

I really didn’t know what to expect from an R.E.M. show, and several factors competed to make me optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. I’ve loved R.E.M. for 20 years, yet I haven’t purchased an R.E.M. album since 1998’s Up. Somewhere along the way, when I compared Up to New Adventures in Hi-Fi and Monster, I concluded that R.E.M. had begun repeating the same record. It was a decent record but not on the same planet with their best, and I didn’t really want it anymore after the first time. So in 2008, R.E.M. has twice as many songs on my iPod as any other artist, but not one song released after 1996.

For similar reasons, I wasn’t at all sure how much I would enjoy a live show that might not focus on my R.E.M., from Chronic Town, through Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, and Document, right up through Automatic for the People. During their arena phase from the early 90s to the early aughts, I forewent multiple opportunities to see R.E.M., largely because I detest large concert venues, but also because my most fond concert memory is seeing R.E.M. at a roadhouse outside Memphis in 1988 — we were close enough to see the stitched detail on Michael Stipe’s Western shirt that night — and I didn’t want a different memory of them. Still, I was psyched about seeing them in a relatively small outdoor venue, UC-Berkeley’s Greek Theater, which holds about 8,000 people and is structured as a true amphitheater.

What can I tell you? Twenty-eight years after forming, R.E.M. still fucking rocks. Their live show was nothing like I expected yet everything I wanted. Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck, along with Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin, delivered a tightly wound, two-hour set of 28 (28!) songs, with two breaks that lasted about two minutes each. Imagine the most well-honed, self-assured bar band in history, owning the stage with absolute mastery of craft and a calm confidence earned through 26 years of touring. As we walked back to the car, Mikhail mused absentmindedly, “That was tight,” and we agreed that “tight” was the best descriptor.

Lean and spare in production, muscular like Bruce Lee in delivery, R.E.M. jammed through bullet-train pieces like “Begin the Begin” (my favorite all-time R.E.M. song) and lulled with throbbing low-tempo numbers like “Drive.” The set mixed old, middle and new, including seven numbers from the new album Accelerate. If early era is more your cup of tea, they banged home “So. Central Rain,” “Auctioneer,” and “Fall on Me” with passion and authority, along with fan request “Carnival (of Sorts),” which they claimed they hadn’t even practiced in ten years. If you’re of Document/Green/Out of Time vintage, they honored their breakthrough era with the songs casual fans probably associate most closely with them: “The One I Love,” “Orange Crush,” “Man on the Moon,” and, of course, “Losing My Religion.” If they neglected an era, it would have to be the post-Monster period, a time when they probably garnered few additional fans.

An odd but very enjoyable atmosphere permeated the crowd during the entire set — through the entire show, 8,000 people stood and swayed to the music, refusing to sit down even during the rare yawner like “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” It was about the most intense concert crowd I have seen, hanging on every note and every word of Michael Stipe’s intermittent monologue. There was no thrashing, no wild dancing, and while it’s easy to dismiss that as a result of a crowd with an average age of (ahem) 40, don’t make me tell you about the Fleetwood Mac concert last year where there was a lot of unfortunate gyrating. Stipe, in an ultraslim hipster business suit, boldly striped dress shirt, and boost-heeled chelsea boots, was a coiled spring of slowburn wild magic. I can’t say he’s aged a day in the last fifteen years, and his thirty-year lullaby to the stars continues to shake me like a lonely coyote call in the desert.

R.E.M. enjoys a deep, deep love affair with its fans, an adoration borne of endless nights of friends and lovers discussing the profundities of the universe in low voices while “Radio Free Europe” windles away somewhere in another room. These people were fixated on Stipe, Mills, and Buck, fixated on the folky/punky/rockabilly anthems that saw them through high school or college or love or heartbreak or rehab. Down in “the Pit,” as the general admission area is called, there were billowing clouds of pot smoke and … upturned, open-mouthed stares of adulation.

One beautiful discovery: They’re still growing as a band, even as they return to their roots. Mike Mills once described R.E.M. as “neo-folk punk,” as good a description as any, referring to the 70s punk scene that inspired Michael Stipe and Peter Buck to found a band that would be unlike anything before it. Long known for fusing punk thrash with folky guitar and country rhythms (see, e.g., “Driver 8”), R.E.M. delivered a straight punk version of a new song Sunday night, a track from the new album called “Horse to Water.” As it melted our faces, we said, “Awesome.”

A couple of additional fun facts:

- You just haven’t lived until you’ve seen Michael Stipe do the waving thing. During stretches of songs, he kind of loses himself, closes his eyes, slowly but exaggeratedly nods his head, and does a tambourine motion with his empty hand next to his head while arching his back and legs. Suck it, Bono!

- Mike Mills, with his stringy, shoulder-length blond hair and thick-rimmed glasses, looks like Garth from “Wayne’s World.”

- Peter Buck sprang from the womb in an absolute cannabis-induced haze.

- R.E.M. continues to push the envelope in integrating video into their performances. The current tour features a multi-screen display behind the band, intermingling live footage with that of prior concerts in cool colors and film grains.

As we drove home, Mikhail and I, both Gen-Xers, discussed a question that has occurred to me, tangentially related to R.E.M., as the number and type of musical artists has multiplied exponentially over the past 20 years: Who will vie for the title of Voice of Their Generation ten or 20 years from now? Who will combine incandescent talent, transcendent appeal, and an iron will for longevity that will keep them relevant in 2020? Obviously some folks from my generation will disagree, but R.E.M. and U2 seem to be battling it out to be the Voice of Gen-X, the Beatles and Rolling Stones of my generation. U2 started two years later, hit it big sooner, but was not as productive in terms of new music on a regular basis. They also can seem to be self-impressed ponces, which hurts their candidacy with a self-deprecating generation that even now is not sure of its place in history.

But by the 90s, when those battle lines were forming, there was already such a multiplicity of artists and outlets for music, that the Beatles/Rolling Stones paradigm had lost focus. R.E.M. and U2 shot to stardom in an era that saw its share of superstar musicians vying for the title: Prince (who became a ridiculous prima donna) and Michael Jackson (who became, um, something else) were contenders who took themselves out of the equation, followed by a parade of awesome bands that couldn’t keep it together long enough to carve their faces on Mt. Rockmore: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, 10,000 Maniacs, Oasis (“the new Beatles” - ha!), Green Day. How about Counting Crows, for whom one great album, one OK album, and about fifteen greatest hits albums turned into a spool of E-tickets for banging the Jennifer Anistons of the world?

The Beatles and the Stones contended with a faltering Elvis and a few top-notch classic rock outfits like Led Zeppelin and other bands that simply were never going to captivate large portions of the public. Ironically, the Rolling Stones were the dark underground contender of their day, even while fighting hard for, indeed, coveting that No. 1 spot; in the 80s and 90s, the dark underground was populated by true shadowy geniuses like Elvis Costello and Tom Waits.

To our great benefit, the music scene has diffused so much that there seems not to be a unifying force any longer, with the possible exception of pre-packaged, studio-fabricated nonsense like Britney Spears. New artists spring up weekly, and staying power seems to be largely a thing of the past. The Killers, Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, Snow Patrol — take a look at that list of stellar acts and tell me who will be around two years from now, much less twenty. Justin Timberlake? Please. Megastars arrive with blinding light, then disappear without a ripple; regardless of whether one likes Eminem or Christina Aguilera, who would have predicted their current irrelevance?

Moreover, in an era where the battle for equal commercial rights is catching up with the battle for equal civil rights, the fragmentation of artists and commercial outlets appealing to African-American, Hispanic and Asian listeners has exponentially increased this diffusion of talent. Public Enemy should probably be in the discussion with R.E.M. and U2, except that they were too busy preening for each other and paving the way for the 10,000 acts that followed their groundbreaking work.

(I’m leaving out Mariah Carey, of course, who recently passed The King on the list of all-time number one hits. I’m assuming no one will claim Mariah as the voice of their generation. I’m willing to claim her, however, as the Queen of KrazyTime.)

Look, I’m not some Andy Rooney curmudgeon mourning this change — it’s more an abstraction than some earth-shifting cultural loss. We’re lucky to live in a time when a thousand different bands are a click away on iTunes or YouTube. But I wonder at a world where a kid from New Jersey will arrive at university in Chicago or Texas and not share a single musical influence with his Seattle roommate.

How well the pairing held up: Beer and R.E.M. have carried me through just about every horrible thing that ever happened to me. Modern mini-keg beer and close-to-fifty R.E.M. band members? Better with age, baby.

Tastes like: Beer from the Grolsch mini-keg tastes like a loaf of the best bread you’ve ever had, except it’s made of alcohol.

Overall rating: “Tight.”

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at thecarygrantrules@hotmail.com.

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The Whiskey Is Water, the Water Is Wine

R.E.M. In Concert: The Boozehound Cinephile / Ted Boynton

Boozehound Cinephile | June 6, 2008 | Comments ()




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