On Wednesday night in March 11 at Carnegie Hall in New York City the legendary alternative rock band REM were paid tribute to from a wide swath of artists from generations past and generations pending. That REM has long been a favorite of many people; from as far back as the early 1980s all the way up through 2009; should come as no surprise. REM continues to test boundaries and challenge their listeners to think and appreciate and respect and endure. This surprisingly diverse group of artists all brought their A game to the table, even when they sometimes fell short. The artists came out, one after the other, each playing a song from the REM catalog; the following is as brief as I could get.
British DJ turned folk musician Fin Greenall (aka Fink) did his number on REM’s newer The Apologist. The Apologist is admittedly not one of my favorite new REM songs however Fink did his own remix of it. Fink had his acoustic guitar and he created sounds with that guitar; I have no idea what effect he was using, but it was really cool. He also took the tempo down a little bit which, in this instance, was to good effect.
Calexico has been around for almost 20 years and have been playing all over the world. With their introduction the continuity and energy had been injected into the remainder of the evening. They played REM favorite Wendell Gee, even leading the audience in the signature call and response whistle, which was a lot of fun. Calexico was the house band for most of the other musicians and the guitarist and the bass player also added their vocal backup when needed.
Fans of alternative rock all know who Bob Mould is. An integral role in voice in the alternative rock movement, Mould has played with post punk rabble-rousers Husker Du as well as the college campus favorite Sugar. Many fans though who have fallen out of touch were not aware that Mould is still recording even to this day having just released two new albums in 2008 and 2009. Regardless, the varied audience of older fans as well as younger all rocked out when Mould got behind on the mic to perform 1,000,000.
Another treat for classic rock fans was the next performer, The Feelies. Rocking all through the late 70s and early 80s, The Feelies broke up in 1991 and just recently reunited on July 4, 2008. However the real treat for the classic REM fans was listening to their interpretation of Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars) from their breakout EP Chronic Town. The Feelies did not disappoint and they have kept that intoxicating energy about them.
Out from the wings, barefoot and beautiful walked Staten Island’s own jazzy favorite Ingrid Michelson. Ingrid performed one of my favorite songs of all time, Nightswimming in about as unconventional way as anyone who is familiar with the song can imagine. She had a vocal playback loop which she recorded before our eyes of herself echoing the piano lines in the song. She dubbed one line, then a second, then a third; then played the three of them through control by a foot pedal. I found this approach unconventional and thrilling; I was, though, apprehensive to see my wife’s reaction. You see Nightswimming was our wedding song; the first song we danced to as a married couple; and I was a little bit anxious at this unconventional presentation of the song. Again my fears were allayed when my dear wife turned to me at the song’s conclusion with tears in her eyes. Ingrid Michelson also was the whole reason we were even at this REM tribute concert. Up until a few days ago, I hadn’t heard a thing about this show. I had been doing some rudimentary research about musicians and came across Michelson’s MySpace page which of course announced that she would be performing at this awesome event. For that, and for her brave rendering of a favorite song, I am grateful to her.
Taking it down a notch following the creative reimagining of Nightswimming was Scottish songsmith Glen Hansard. I had never heard of this gent before, but his completely beautiful and modest rendering of Hairshirt was glorious. Glen Hansard will definitely pop up on radar screens soon. Not just his delivery of this great song, but the song itself has always scored highly with me. On the record, the song fades out; on stage, Glen Hansard hunched his shoulders and inched off the stage, all the while sparsely playing his lone mandolin. It was a beautiful move but he had every reason to bask in the spotlight a little longer.
Indie-college fave The Apples in Stereo also played. I hadn’t heard much from the Apples since Tone Soul Evolution, yet here they were with their rollicking rendering of So. Central Rain. The Apples in Stereo had two guitar players, a bass player, drummer, and keyboardist. However the lead singer also had a guitar; the only thing I thought about this was that his plucking along was a little distracting and I felt, unnecessary. He ended up violently thrashing the guitar at the songs end which was also a little bit out of place.
Marshall Crenshaw has been around for a long time. He is still turning out new work with his latest record coming out June 2, 2009. However this night, rather than dwell on the past Marshall Crenshaw looked to the future with the new REM cut, Supernatural Superserious. This song felt a little garbled, probably not least of which because this is a song from an album with which I am not very familiar. I was speaking to a gentleman after the show and we were talking about our impressions of the show. Both he and I were very impressed with the depth and breadth of the REM catalog so much so that, as he says it, REM is his favorite band emeritus. That was largely the impression I got from most of the fans there that were a lot more receptive to the earlier works and the elder musicians. However Crenshaw fused the two with a powerful rendition of a newer song from the REM catalog.
Kimya Dawson entered the stage with a colorfully dressed troupe of dancers. Dawson then sat down on a wood backed chair next to her cross-legged xylophone player on the floor and admitted to the audience what probably a lot of these artists were feeling this night; she was so nervous. She said the song she was about to sing, “means the world to me. So I better not mess it up.” Dawson went on to sing World Leader Pretend, which is about as political as we got this evening. The dancers were all done up in comical dinosaur garb and authortarian police regime and faux battled with one another. Kimya Dawson is going to be one of those names that’s going to be around for quite some time, much like the next artist.
One of the real treat to being able to go to this REM concert was to be able to see one of my favorite artists up close. Dar Williams has long been shaking things up in the folk music community and speaking her mind and we could not love her more for it. She came out onto the stage and made one of the only announcements before singing of the evening. “It’s really great that we’re able to the raise this money for the arts.” Dar Williams then dove into the very sweet, At My Most Beautiful. To know her is to love her and enough good can’t be said about this folksy superstar. I’ve long felt as though she were an intimate friend just from her involved manner of storytelling. Her singing of the REM tune evoked much the same.
When Hootie and the Blowfish front man Darius Rucker got up and belted out “I Believe,” I thought that maybe Michael Stipe had influenced him more then he would like to admit. Darius Rucker was the only singer of the evening who did the Michael Stipe on the microphone. Fans of REM know exactly what on talking about; the gyrating and thrusting hips; his arms spread out open wide and then collapsing around and caressing the whole of the microphone; it were as though the spirit of Michael Stipe had inhabited the body of Darius Rucker. Regardless it was a beautiful rendition of this amazing song.
For fans of alternative music there are really a few names that everybody knows. David Bowie, Perry Farrell, the Pixies; however there is one name that lives in infamy in the alternative rock scene and has for such a long time. Patti Smith is about as respected a musician as any. When she came out to pay tribute to Michael Stipe and REM, she was as humble as can be. Her set closed out the night, but she stated by praising her friendship with the singer, “Michael Stipe was there for me when I was down and I haven’t been down so low since.” Patti Smith came out and sang a newer REM song, and New Test Leper which really brought the whole evening to a wonderful close. Patti Smith has so much heart that even when she gets lost in the words she is still stunning.
That was when Michael, Mike, and Peter came on stage! Michael’s Stipe has grown a very long, gray beard, if you can imagine that. Mike Mills and Peter Buck appear essentially the same and the three of them got up with Patti Smith to sing one last song before the evening really ended out. Patti Smith did some background vocal work on REMs New Adventures in Hi-Fi record. Hi-Fi was from where her New Test Leper was from and Hi-Fi also included the Billboard Hot 100 song E-Bow: The Letter. E-Bow is an emotional apology to River Phoenix regarding a letter and written but never sent by Michael Stipe to the actor expressing concern for his substance abuse. As always, Stipe, Mills, and Buck were amazing and the evening crested to a beautiful crescendo of applause where all the musicians came out on stage.
While sitting there in Carnegie Hall, soaking up the memories of where I was when I heard all those songs for the first time, hearing them again in a completely different way; it suddenly occurred to me why REM are such a great band. The really beautiful thing about REM and the really beautiful moment I had while sitting in Carnegie Hall was how long and deep a catalog of songs the band actually had. These are such different songs, spanning almost 30 years and they touch people in ways that are as different as can be. For the artists listed above and the other performers of the evening Rachel Yamagata, Guster, Vic Chestnutt, Rhett Miller, Kristin Hersh, Keren Ann, Jolie Holland, and The Db’s; I wish I’d had more room to praise you all.
The one common thread to all these musicians and all of the crowd in Carnegie Hall is that they were influenced and inspired by this one amazing band. REM transcend boundaries and categorization and have always encouraged their fans to do as they and march to a beat all your own.