10.29.04 R.E.M. Fleet Center, Boston, MA
“Last night at the FleetCenter, the band managed to incorporate both, acknowledging the Red Sox recent successes while stumping for the prompt removal of George W. Bush from office.” “Yet to its credit, R.E.M. kept the onstage banter minimal, preferring to let the music speak for itself.”
“Yet all of the band’s obvious intentions never obscured the players’ pure joy in performing.”
Boston Globe Correspondent Tom Keilty clearly did not attend the same R.E.M. concert I did last night at the Fleet Center. I was embarrassed by Michael Stipe’s agenda. How crassly he turned this concert into another “Rock For Change” platform. It’s well established even before this election season that Michael Stipe speaks for the band’s political motivations. But how much more effective would the message have been by pulling out every single politically charged song from R.E.M.’s catalog (which they more or less did) than lecturing, not politely, a captive audience that came for the music. Likewise, pandering to the home crowd isn’t that unusual, but dedicating “The One I Love” to Red Sox is a back-handed compliment considering the song is intended full-bore irony, and Stipe himself admitted before the song that he wasn’t a sports fan.
Not that anyone in the audience really picked up on the possibility. Go Red Sox! was a frequent chant from the crowd just one day before the World Series victory parade; as was booing the amazing song “Leaving New York” because it’s about New York, not Boston. It was embarrassing to be among this crowd, as I am increasingly less impressed by the people that live here.
Worse than the onstage World Championship banter…Worse than repeated disdain for the incumbent president (“4 more days” Michael Stipe repeated from a crowd shout-out – he wore a “Kerry” shirt during the encore, underneath a homemade “VOTE” shirt, which he wrapped in a Red Sox jersey for the first song of the encore “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”)…Worse was that music didn’t hold up. Many of their best songs were lifeless, as if the melody had been stripped from them. “Man in the Moon” caught the crowd in an enthusiastic singalong, if nothing else because they knew the song. But the sound was flat and discordant. Same for “The One I Love.” Same for “Imitation of Life.”
The set was heavy with songs off the new album. The lack of familiarity, the lack of a chorus in half the new songs, and the weak presentation were killers. More than half the set was ripped from the new album, and the song choices and order mired the pace of the show. The new album is not bad (not nearly as painful as the last two studio albums in any case) but the songs live are flat and discordant. It was, apparently, the sound R.E.M. was shooting for and pervaded just about every tune. I could have done without the half-formed versions of “Permanent Vacation” and “I’m Gonna DJ” that were glued together at the end.
There were exceptions (I guess call them highlights.) “Finest Worksong” started the show off with the bang. (“Around the Sun,” the real opener, seemed more of an afterthought.) “Bad Day,” the most recent single, escaped the worst of their mediocrity. The encore started off promising with a rip-roaring version of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” And you know what, a lot of R.E.M.’s older stuff, political or no, is pretty awesome and showed up in good form tonight. Who cares what “Exhuming McCarthy” is about, if you ignore the lyrics’ meaning, it’s a fun tune to listen to. And I believe, by far R.E.M.’s best two live songs are the tandem of “Walk Unafraid” and “Life And How to Live It” (20 years old, that song is.) I will never tire of hearing them in concert, even though the studio versions are unlistenable.
Around the Sun
Welcome To The Occupation
Boy In The Well
High Speed Train
World Leader Pretend
Wanted To Be Wrong
Imitation Of Life
The One I Love
Losing My Religion
Life and How To Life It
What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?
Leaving New York
Permanent Vacation / I’m Gonna DJ
Man On The Moon