Here’s your official MT.Net #remnc review:
It takes an exceptional band to drag me out to Walnut Creek Amphitheatre. With its $6 per-person parking fees, $11 beers, TicketMaster headaches, Gestapo-like security checks, and in-your-face advertisements, the place screams corporate rock. No matter if my seats are reserved or on the lawn I always feel a little dirty after a show there. Fortunately, R.E.M. is one band worth seeing.
I’ve been an R.E.M. fan since I heard Radio Free Europe on Charlotte radio in 1983. Hearing that the single was recorded in Charlotte, I adopted them as a hometown band. For the next twelve years I would collect every R.E.M. album I could. They became my favorite band, bar none.
But then tragedy struck the band. Drummer Bill Berry’s brain aneurysm and subsequent retirement changed the band. It seemed they’d lost their focus. I passed on their Berry-less albums and clung to their old CDs. I was still a fan but growing skeptical. I had to be won over again.
So Tuesday morning when a coworker invited me to join him and his friend to the show, I knew I couldn’t turn it down. I swallowed my pride, fed the corporate rock machine, and headed out to the show.
The biggest disappointment of the night was reading that the band’s encouragement of fan pictures had fallen on deaf ears at the gate. I showed staff the band’s own words on this but to no avail. My hope of sharing great photos with the band and the world was quickly dashed. I know its not the band’s fault, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Things got better from there, however.
My seat was in row K, almost 30 feet in front of the stage (yes, I was the dork frantically scribbling notes). I got there early enough to do a little people watching and to practice my sweating: it was a sweltering night. I wondered why I wasn’t getting any breeze until I saw the arena’s two giant screens flanking the stage. Frequent water breaks (and occasional walking around) were the order of the day.
The National was the first band to take the stage, a gaggle of eight musicians including the horn players. From the first song I was impressed at how tight they were. Matt Berninger’s voice soared among the guitar’s sonic tapestry. The music reminded me a bit of Catherine Wheel only fresher. I liked them immediately. They set a great tone for the rest of the show.
During the first break, an older couple approached the two men behind me and began a friendly conversation. They were the parents of one of The National’s two sets of brothers: Scott & Bryan Devendorf. Their parents saw their sons play whenever they could and wanted to thank the men for being fans of the band.
I overheard Mrs. Devendorf relay a great story about how The National was recruited for the tour. R.E.M. had them flown to their London show and gave them the red carpet treatment. It happened to be Scott Devendorf’s birthday and R.E.M. surprised him at the after-show party with a birthday cake and serenaded him with Happy Birthday. And then they said the words any band would kill for: “how would you like to open for us on our tour?” It was a great decision for all involved, if you ask me!
On a visit to the water cooler, I began to understand why fans weren’t so quick to arrive. The guy next to me was from Fredericksburg. He had driven four hours to see the show, opting to head south rather than catch their Merriweather show and deal with DC traffic. I was duly impressed.
Up next was the quirky, current chart-topper Modest Mouse. I’d been introduced to Modest Mouse only recently through my love affair with Pandora. They were everything I expected and more: the few songs Pandora played only scratched the surface! When I realized the guitarist was legendary Smith’s co-founder Johnny Marr, well, all the better.
Modest Mouse was just as tight as The National and also rocked the show. Two women behind me danced and whooped through the whole set, which not only provided me amusement but a refreshing breeze, too. Their fun and my breeze ended when the band didn’t play Float On. I don’t know which of us was more disappointed.
Another break and another chance to get some fresh air. The amphitheatre was beginning to fill in now. Though the sun had set the heat still hung in the air. Hallucinations of whirling ceiling fans taunted me as I squirmed in my sweaty seat.
Imagine my surprise when the band took the stage, with Michael Stipe decked out in a suit! I’d read he had crowed at his last show about loving to sweat. If he loved that in Toronto, I thought, tonight will make him ecstatic.
Despite his choice of clothes, Michael was full of energy and looked great. Mike Mills seemed not to have aged a day. Peter Buck, on the far end of the stage, looked a bit heavier but I couldn’t tell how much was the lighting: his spotlight was positioned directly above him. Taking Bill Berry’s spot was Bill Reiflin, who blended very well with the group’s sound. I was impressed.
The band kicked things off with Harborcoat and right then I knew this show would be a great one: it was heavy on the classic R.E.M. I love. Among the many songs they played 1,000,000, Welcome To The Occupation, 7 Chinese Bros., The One I Love, Auctioneer, and Pretty Persuasion, Sitting Still, and Fall On Me.
Michael showed off dance moves, perched atop his monitor, and strolled all over the stage. His voice was great, too, making it hard to believe he’d been doing this for 28 years. I found myself reflexively chiming in the background vocals on many others, and I didn’t care what anybody thought. Hey, how often do you get to sing with Michael Stipe?
The highlight of the night was undoubtedly when Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, the producers of R.E.M.’s early albums, joined them on stage to play Sitting Still. The band said later that the last time the two had been to an R.E.M. show was twenty-four years ago. It was obviously how much it meant to the band: the giddy smile on Michael’s face said it all. We were all lucky the planets aligned to make that possible.
There were a few misfires. 7 Chinese Bros. is a great song but it didn’t seem to catch fire live. Final Straw didn’t seem to fit, either. And while other fans liked the video display behind the band I found it a little too distracting. Maybe I’m getting old.
Another thing I could pass on was Michael’s inevitable self-described political “preaching.” And I agree with everything he said! As it began, though, my fantasy of being a carefree high-schooler again, cranking Document while driving around Herndon faded away, and I was once again reminded of our country’s enormous challenges. I started to wonder if my money and time there was being misplaced, fiddling while Rome burns. I know he meant well but it turned into a total buzz kill.
I went home a happy camper, though, having seen three great performances. It was a well-executed show, start to finish. Thanks, R.E.M., for paying Raleigh another visit. Y’all are always welcome. And in case you’re wondering: yes, you did win me over again. Welcome back!