REM: The English Muffin

REM and Modest Mouse
The Greek Theater
Berkeley. CA
May 31, 2008

REM: The English Muffin

What could be better than an outdoor music festival in the summer? How about one when it’s actually warm? Outdoor concerts are awesome, they’re the bomb, the English muffin, the man in the moon, the way the world should be. But, in the San Francisco area, including last night at the Greek, outdoor concerts are often less like lazy, warm summer evenings under the stars than they are exercises in survival training- couples wrapped in blankets, jumping up and down as much to keep warm as to pogo dance to Driver No. 8. Even REM singer Michael Stipe wore a knit cap for much of the show despite being in the spotlight, in the corner, losing his religion.

It’s hard not to consider REM without it being all about Stipe. His personality on stage and in the music is predominant. Personally, I’ve always had ambivalent feelings regarding REM and Stipe. On Saturday night, they spent most of the first half of the concert reminding me what I don’t like about them, the clumsy plodding lyrics and noisescape that can obliterate well-crafted melody; and spent the second half of the concert reminding me what I do like about them, Stipe’s mumbling singing and the unique jangly guitar sound that virtually created college radio in the 80s, which in time begat “alternative music” which begat “indie music” which begat Modest Mouse (see below). Guitarist Peter Buck has created a signature sound and I really appreciate the song structure that largely eschews the obligatory and undemocratic guitar solo but this also results in his fading into the background when he should be in the foreground. When his guitar was at the center, as in many of REM’s more popular songs,the band

shines- even when they skip “Shiny Happy People,” “It’s the End of the World,” “Radio Free Europe,” South Central Rain,” "Everybody Hurts" etc.

Stipe may have lost his religion but he, most certainly has not lost his ego- though I have to give him props for wearing a suit and tie. Without doubt, he was the best dressed person at the Greek Theater. Nothing says serious rock and roll artist like a suit and tie. I did appreciate his remark about being able to breathe freely in Berkeley, being the most liberal city in the US, even more so than the meat-packing district of NYC (which is less like a city and more like, oh, I don't know, a meat-packing district) He did receive a hearty cheer when he announced his vote for Obama. But, when he responded to the crowd yelling ‘I love you’ by saying, “Yes, I love you too, that’s why we’re here tonight. That’s how this works,” I had to roll my eyes. I suppose it’s hard to be in front of adoring crowds for more than 20 years without internalizing and believing the pabulum, but he would do better to, at least, hide it.

Of course, large outdoor concerts are often as much about the celebration of being with friends as it is about the music. Half the fun is sitting on the lawn, watching the crowd wander in different directions, learning about your friend’s new job, forgetting about your cares for a moment. The music flits in and out as the wind blows. More often than not, your favorite song starts while you are standing in line for a couple of beers or standing in line to return the beers at the port-o-john. But it doesn’t matter. And despite my hesitations about REM and their performance, it didn’t matter, because it was great just to be out on a cold Berkeley night with a group of friends.

Highlights: Fall on Me, Orange Crush, Life and How to Live it, Losing My Religion, Man on the Moon.

Modest Mouse: The Next Generation

When it comes to music, I think every generation pities the next. They will never have it as good as we had it. Our one-hit wonder was so much more endearing than yours. The thing is, each new generation has their own music and has the music of the older generation. They have more music! They have the Doors, Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, U2, Green Day and Gnarls Barkley. And now with mash-ups, you can get them all in one song. Bonus!

That said, there has been a generational shift in music in the past few years- which has been aided and abetted by technology and the internet’s revolutionary effect on music distribution. Artists can create and distribute music to millions of fans without stepping foot in a recording studio or having a contract. This has further encouraged a fractioning of the music scene. There are more bands with smaller dedicated fan bases playing music that is not well-suited for massive stadium shows- having been created in quieter, more intimate settings and distributed by word of mouth and Napster instead of on the radio to thousands at a time. I think Modest Mouse is one of these bands that would perform better in a smaller theater. At a large outdoor venue, like the Greek Theater, their sharp angular sounds sounded unnecessarily aggressive (fn Dana) and their open malleable songs that rely on elbow-room got washed out in the open space. Of course, it didn’t help that they largely avoided their most popular songs.

Much better received was the next-next generation, the first band of the night, The National. They have been accumulating much critical praise and performed a nice set of flowing, pensive songs that showed promise.

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