After Jeff and Wilco had left the stage, we waited anxiously for the set to change over. While I was waiting, I heard the teenage girl behind me saying, “I’m going to call my mom as soon as a song comes on that she’ll recognize. I remember hearing her play all those albums when I was growing up. I hope it’s a greatest hits type show.” I turned around and said, “Actually, I heard they’ll be playing all the songs off their new album.” “Oh,” she said; “well, that’d be cool too.”
Soon the stage was full. Michael Stipe, wearing a jean jacket over a pink polo shirt and wraparound sunglasses, bounded out followed by the rest of R.E.M. in 2003: Peter Buck, Mike Mills (with a white cloud of hair), and guests Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus Five, Ken Stringfellow of the Posies, and Barrett Martin on drums. The band wasted no time, jumping right into “Begin the Begin” (from Life’s Rich Pageant) as though the song were written yesterday. Michael was all over the place, tilting the mic stand to the floor like Joe Strummer, doing the spastic dance that earned him derision and a thousand spastic teenage imitators in the late 80s (including, of course, myself and my one-time roommate), shedding the jacket and then the polo to reveal a t-shirt that read, “I am vibrating at the speed of light.” The band moved immediately into “Finest Worksong,” and then, improbably, “Maps and Legends.”
While Peter Buck and Mike Mills were workmanlike (though Mike grinned from ear to ear during most of the numbers), Michael was chatty (he introduced the band by saying, “Except for me and Mike Mills, the whole band tonight is from Seattle, either native or transplanted”), grinning like crazy, joking around (he told a long story about performing “I Got You, Babe” as a joke at a charity gig headlined by U2’s Bono (“because you never pronounce his name Boh-noh”) and having “fucking Cher!” walk on half way through to do a duet), and of course dancing. In between the jokes and posing, the band worked through a tight set of old and new songs, including “Animal” and “Bad Day,” from the forthcoming greatest hits album (oh yeah—that’s what I meant when I told the teenager about the set list. Hope she forgives me someday), “Fall On Me,” “Drive,” “Exhuming McCarthy” (!), “Electrolite,” “New Test Leper,” “Imitation of Life,” “I’ve Been High,” “Losing My Religion,” “The One I Love,” “At My Most Beautiful,” “Daysleeper,” “Nightswimming,” “She Just Wants to Be,” “Walk Unafraid,” and “Man on the Moon.”
Through it all, Michael joked, danced, did dramatic interpretation, saluted, marched, and generally had a blast, but it was increasingly clear that the real musical leaders of the band were Mike and especially Peter, who without saying a word to the crowd managed the many changes of instruments, songs, and keys, and rocked hard doing it. Many of the later songs benefitted enormously from live performance, particularly “Imitation of Life” and “Walk Unafraid,” which transformed into a rocking affirmation.
With the crowd screaming itself raw, the band returned and played “Everybody Hurts,” “World Leader Pretend” (with Michael starting by saying, “This will be the second time we’ve played this since 1989; the last time, I blew a few lyrics, so I’m going to have to read it” before glancing once at the music stand and doing the rest from memory), “Get Up,” and closing with “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” I slipped out of the crowd during “Get Up,” not wanting to wait for hours in the parking lot, and as “End of the World” floated over the stadium walls I watched young and old kids dancing on the sidewalk.
R.E.M. may have fans that grew up listening to their songs as well as those of us who first heard them in middle school, but their live performances are as vital and inspiring as ever, and all the better for Michael’s loose, joking spontaneity. I hope another studio album follows In Time, because the band still rocks too hard to fade away.