The timing of my trip to SF was dictated by REM's tour stop in Berkeley. They weren't/aren't coming anywhere close to Texas and I always said my first trip after graduating from school would be to visit MidSav and Rob in SF, so the timing worked out well.
I've been an REM fan for a long time, but back in the late '80s I was deemed too young to attend the Dallas stop on their Green tour. After that they didn't tour for years. So I've only seen them three times, Monster tour, Up tour, and at ACL during a tour promoting a Best Of. All good shows, though the ACL one wins out because A) I was so close, B) I was surrounded by great fans, and C) they played plenty of old stuff (setlists from that tour). The one-two punch of "Finest Worksong" and "Begin the Begin" made me wish yet again that concert joy could be bottled to enjoy later. Still, I was bummed when I saw the setlist from Houston. Maps & Legends?!
REM's new album, Accelerate, has been hailed as a return to form which really just means that there are some loud rock songs and it's not so wan like that last couple records. That sounds like damning with faint praise, but I really do like it for the most part. Anyway, I was excited to see them again and especially at the Greek Theatre on the University of California, Berkeley campus. It's a open-air, tiered venue so everyone can hear and see well. I'd bought my ticket early but since I'd let my fan club membership lapse missed the prime seats right up front.
MidSav & Rob dropped me off outside and I hurried in as The National had already started playing. They were good, but really belong inside a dark club. Next up was Modest Mouse, a band with several songs I like and many I find tedious and uninspired. The show was OK. The best part was (finally!) seeing Johnny Marr play guitar. Even when I closed my eyes I could pick out his lines. That Smiths reunion will never happen but if it ever did, I'd get there some way. Marr stills play beautifully and Morrissey can still belt it out.
Then REM hit the stage to huge cheers. The three actual members (Peter, Mike, Michael) were supplemented by usual tour guitarist/keyboardist Scott McCaughey and new-to-the-fold drummer Bill Rieflin. Rieflin's a great drummer and I wondered if anyone else in the audience knew that he used to play drums for a long line of industrial bands like Ministry and KMFDM.
They kicked things off with a new song "Horse To Water" to a muted reception considering. Next song was "Little America" and I was all excited, "Yay old stuff!" and then I looked around and slowly realized that though a big chunk of the crowd was the right age to have been fans of REM when during their mid-80's IRS years, they didn't know this song. Third song was "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" and the crowd roared its approval.
This sad pattern continued through the rest of the set and severely impacted my enjoyment of the show. Song on the radio? Big cheers. Not on the radio? Boredom and tepid response. Me all ranty in my head, "C'mon people, "West of the Fields"? "Wolves, Lower"?! They haven't pulled that out for almost a decade. But oh you'll finally start moving around when "The One I Love" starts up." Grumble, grumble, gnashing of teeth.
Best part of the show (aside from the lovely old chestnuts) was their reworking of "Let Me In" into a gorgeous acoustic-guitars-and-organ version. Even Rieflin came down off the drum riser to play guitar. Here's a recording from a different show:
With this wonderful version arrangement and the subject matter, I got all teary (wouldn't be an REM concert if I didn't at some point). The main set ended with "I'm Gonna DJ" which grates because it indulges Stipe's penchant for twangy hollering. Encore proceeded as per usual (when did encores for headlining acts become customary? The '70s? When did bands start intentionally putting popular songs in the encore rather than deep cuts or unpolished covers? A topic for another post) kicking off with the best song on the new album, "Supernatural Superserious". After another new one they started up "Driver 8" which sparked at least a little recognition in the audience before tearing into "Life And How To Live It"! I danced up a storm and focused on the band and the little group of superfans up front. Show closed as it often does with "Man On The Moon" which I've grown tired of, especially Stipe's silly hollerin' version.
La la la, get back to MidSav & Rob's place, talk about the lame-o audience, still enjoyed the show, go to bed.
Well, a little more to the story. REM sold out the Greek Theatre so fast that after I bought my ticket they added a second night. At the time I had thought about buying for that night (for which I was sure to get a better seat) and just selling my first night ticket, but I didn't. Sigh. After I got home from SF I pulled up the setlist for the 2nd night and was crushed. Leading up to my trip I'd been listening to a lot of REM, particularly my favorite album Lifes Rich Pageant. Four songs on that album I love particularly and are among my favorite in their whole career. The 2nd night in Berkeley they played three of them, "Begin the Begin", "These Days", and "Fall on Me". Oh the disappointment. Full setlists for the whole tour here.
The lesson I learned from this is that I will go see REM whenever feasible for back-to-back shows and I will do my best to be right up front with the superfans who love the old stuff too.
UPDATE: I found a note I'd jotted down during the show. After they played "West of the Fields," Stipe talked about the lyrics and how early REM songs were fairly impressionistic and didn't always make a lot of sense. It's well-known now that he doesn't have a great memory, even for his own lyrics and that's especially true for the early songs. When they started playing them more often live, he went online to find out what the fans thought they were. He was amused to see what many lyric websites had posted for "West of the Fields".
Stipe: Now, I wrote some bad lyrics when I was 21 and did drugs back then. But I never wrote, "The animals are strange, try to put it in."
Mills: What are the words?
Stipe: (mock testily) I don't know what the fuckin' words are. What were you doing in 1981 Mike?
Mills: Oh, this and that.
Stipe: Yeah. I have photographic evidence.