R.E.M. (with Modest Mouse and The National)
The Greek Theater
May 31, 2008
Review By Will Harper, Photos by Christopher Victorio
I’ve always kind of liked R.E.M., but I’ve never been crazy for them. I don’t own one R.E.M album, and I don’t ever plan to buy one. But since I’m of the generation that came of age when R.E.M. made it big, their music clogs space on my brain’s hard-drive along with some random Brady Bunch episode. So, uh, y’know—I like that one song that goes something like “This one goes to the one in the corner” as much as the next guy. Honestly, I was more interested in seeing the two opening bands, the National and Modest Mouse, but more on them in a sec.
The crowd at the Greek generally looked like people who went to high school in the 80s, a simpler time when the Soviets were our mortal enemies and sluts got tattoos on their ankles instead of their lower backs. I’m sure I looked past my prime; I even brought my own seat cushion to the concert, the kind old married couples bring to Giants games. But let me tell you, those seat cushions are essential when you’re sitting on those concrete benches in the bowl of the Greek. (My tushie is thanking me now as I type this!)
Before R.E.M. came on, my friend Gordie and I wandered around the lawn area and bumped into this guy with a receding hairline and eyeglasses who looked sane, but then proceeded to spend two minutes explaining to us the proper way to hold a lighter at a concert. (Apparently, the key is to hold it downwind so you don’t burn your fingers. Fascinating.) We retreated back to our seats only to be assaulted by the sight of a sloppy-drunk couple in their 40s making out like teenagers. The dude was wearing a blue blazer and a Bacara baseball cap and every time he leaned in for a kiss we got a close look at this big red zit on the back of his neck. Gordie began calling it “the goiter.”
When Michael Stipe and the band first took the stage, they were overshadowed by the awesome video monitors at the back of the stage. These weren’t your typical camera close-ups projected on a Trinitron to make people in the nosebleeds feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. It was almost like watching a music video being made real time, with lots of multiple split screens and posterization effects.
I didn’t recognize the first two songs, but perked up when they began playing “What’s the Frequency Kenneth.” Afterward, Stipe tore off his cancer-patient cap, as if to say, “OK people—it’s in remission now. Let’s rock!” And then they played a bunch of other songs I didn’t know. Still, even if I couldn’t hum along, Stipe’s vocals (he still sounds great) kept me engaged.
One thing that made me think I was watching a band from another era was the total lack of irony. Bands today try so very hard not to take themselves too seriously, especially in the indie rock scene R.E.M. helped give birth to. Stipe’s lyrics and his between-song banter oozed with sincerity. At one point, he talked about how he felt so relaxed to be in the country’s most liberal city and then said something hokey about living the dream.
When they started playing “Orange Crush,” I leaned over and whispered to Gordie, “Didn’t they already play this?” No, they hadn’t, but by the end of the 90-minute show, the songs were melting together and sounding repetitive. Jingle jangle, jingle jangle, sensitive vocals with lyrics I can’t make out. One exception: A noisy number from the new album Accelerate they played near the end of their set called “I’m Gonna DJ.” I especially liked the snotty little chorus: “Hey steady, steady/ Hey steady, steady/ I don’t wanna go until I’m good and ready.”
The last time I saw Modest Mouse was at the Warfield on Sept. 10, 2001. We all know what happened the next day. That’s right, I got totally hammered and told this girl I was dating at the time that I loved her. Big mistake. Anyway, I remember them sucking pretty hard at that Warfield show; leadman Isaac Brock looked bored and distant. This time around, Brock gave it his all, swinging his guitar around and screaming as is his wont. Former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr instead assumed the look of the guy who had better places to be. Looking at Marr and his dyed-black hair, Gordie sighed, “Why doesn’t he just make up with Morrissey already?” Gordie is obsessed with Morrissey even though he’s not gay or a 15-year-old girl from L.A.
Modest Mouse had two drummers for the show, which seemed weird because it’s not like they’re a jam band. Most of the songs they played didn’t seem to benefit from having two drummers until the final number, which rocked for what seemed like 10 minutes and I became mesmerized by the tribal pounding of the drums. (Sorry, don't know the tune's name.)
Unfortunately for the National, they opened at around 6:30 pm when it was still light out. Something about a rock ‘n roll concert in the daytime usually doesn’t work for me. Still, I enjoyed their set. Singer Matt Berninger’s deep voice sounds like Leonard Cohen in the band’s softer numbers like “Fake Empire,” and like the guy from Sisters of Mercy on the more up-tempo tunes. Berninger’s got a weird stage presence, kinda like he’s got mild Autism. He regularly would turn his back to the audience, look at the drummer and start clapping like a spastic off-rhythm. No matter—it all still worked.