What is there left to say about R.E.M.?
They’ve been throwing musical curveballs to fans and critics for over 20 years with the release of their 16 albums, each one screaming with originality and intelligence expressed so differently than in the previous album that mainstream culture doesn’t quite know how to classify them. With a greatest hits album recently released, R.E.M. has reached that point when they could kick back and let the fame roll over them as they live off of album sales and Social Security.
Indeed, when it comes to seeing R.E.M. in concert, one might expect these guys to walk onstage and go through the motions of playing popular songs for an hour and walk off, feeling justified in doing so given their role in revolutionizing college radio, redefining rock music, and dominating American popular culture. But who would have thought that R.E.M. would be the band to stand up and give the best performance out of nearly 130 seasoned and cutting-edge acts at this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival?
“We’re R.E.M., and this is what we do.”
Michael Stipe emerged onstage with these words as R.E.M. launched into “Finest Worksong”, sparking a two-hour-long set of high energy, obscure and hit songs from over the years, and genuine happiness at what they do. Stipe, dressed in baggy clothes and donning a cap and dark sunglasses, had the energy of a young boy as he alternated between restless pacing and standing frozen in front of select fans for brief moments of vogueing for the cameras. Staying true to his enigmatic persona, Stipe removed his hat and sunglasses to reveal a thick blue line painted across his eyes and head meaning, well, who knows, but making things all the more interesting.
With his trademark flailing arms and body twitching dance moves in full effect, Stipe was all over the place as he crooned a gentle rendition of “Find the River” for Ben Harper (who had just played on a nearby stage), and then displayed a fiery energy as he rejoiced at being in Austin. “Every time we come to Austin, it leaves a blue streak,” he said. “Austin is a home away from home. I had a shitty day and a sucky night recently, but we had the best show on our North American tour in Houston tour last night.”
Stipe then showed a surprising display of connectedness with fans as he announced they would next play a song that had been requested 27 times on R.E.M.‘s website that the band hadn’t played since 1991, “World Leader Pretend”. Whether it was Stipe’s transcendence over being too famous to take requests or because the band played an older, more unexpected song, I don’t know, but it was this moment that brought R.E.M. and its fans into a surprisingly intimate space despite being in a huge outdoor venue with a band of extraordinary presence.
“Bad Day”, the band’s catchy new song parodying the thin line between entertainment and news media, premiered at this festival, with Stipe describing the video’s producer as “a very good-looking young man.” Earning an “A for effort” at playing harmonica, Stipe peeled off two layers of clothes and danced around excitedly singing, “It’s been a bad day / Please don’t take a picture.” Then, after announcing it was “Robbie Williams time” and nobody in the audience getting it, Stipe held his microphone close and laid down against the front row of screaming fans with withered flowers and disposable cameras.
As many bands did at the festival, R.E.M. dedicated a song to the recently deceased Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, the country rock tune “Don’t Go Back to Rockville”. Still harping on the Robbie Williams moment, Stipe figured out that nobody knew who he was talking about and finally said, “He’s very charming in person but I’m better looking.”
Some of the show’s more delicate songs included “I Will Walk Unafraid”, with Stipe singing acapella under a lone spotlight until a heavy drumbeat eased in behind his soft words, “How can I be what I want to be? / When all I want to do is strip away these stilled constraints / And crush this charade shred this sad masquerade / I don’t need no persuading / I’ll trip, fall, pick myself up and walk unafraid.” Stipe crept slowly around stage, standing beside bassist Mike Mills and snaking around Peter Buck on guitar like a ghost. At one point he laid down on a stage platform, watching the band drone on without him. But as soon as the song ended, he popped back up and shouted, “Hey baby, are you having fun yet?” just before closing the set with “Man on the Moon”, which led to a wave of jumping up and down and off-key singing by fans.
R.E.M. emphasized its gentler songs in the encore, hushing the crowds with the nostalgic “Night Swimming” and the hopeful “Everybody Hurts”. Stipe’s wavering voice seemed to cry out from somewhere deep inside as he stood alone, with his arms straight up in the air, with Mills nearby playing piano. Offering up another new song entitled “Final Straw”, R.E.M. closed with the raucous “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”, which sent everybody bouncing off into the fields chattering about how surprisingly good the show was.
After all these years, what’s left to say about R.E.M. is that they just don’t seem to grow old.