Photo by JONATHAN VALANIA
BY JONATHAN VALANIA First time I heard “Wolves, Lower” live was at the Beacon Theater in New York City, and The Dream Syndicate opened. It was 1984 and Michael Stipe had hair down to his shoulders. The second time I heard it live was last night at the Mann Music Center, and Modest Mouse and The National opened. Hate to sound like Bill Murray reviewing movies he didn’t see on SNL back in the day, but The National? Didn’t see ’em, babe. I blame the traffic planner who thought just one or two little one-lane access roads would be more than enough for 12,000 murmuring fans and their Land Cruisers. Modest Mouse? Wish I missed ’em. Message to Johnny Marr: Find Morrissey, make nice. Seriously. It’s time.
Really, aside from hour-long crawl from the Schuylkill exit ramp to the Mann parking lot and Modest Mouse, it was a perfect night: A crisp, autumnal evening within the warm, oaken confines of The Mann with one of the last great bands from the dawn of the alt-rock era in pinnacle form. Stipe was in fine voice, alternating between his hectoring bleat on the hard stuff and floating his pony-boy falsetto over the dreamy stuff, looking hale, healthy and dapper in a smartly-tailored pinstripe suit. Peter Buck was all blazing six-string Rickenbackers, doing his patented one-legged drunken-ballet rock moves in a black leather jacket that lasted all of three songs. Mike Mills looked like somebody covered him in honey and shot him out of a cannon thru Stevie Nicks wardrobe. Despite the turquoise, Mills nailed down the bottom end with drummer Bill Rieflin, and his gorgeous, candy-coated tenor put songs like “Fall On Me” and “Man On The Moon” over the top. In a good way.
The set list was impeccably drawn, plucking a neglected gem from nearly every album in the band’s canon (“Life And How To Live It”!), without reaching for the obvious (no “Everybody Hurts”, no “End of The World”) while making a persuasive case for the purity and power of the new material (“Man-Sized Wreath” and the ridiculously-titled “Supernatural Superserious” stomped on the terra). And there were a few pleasant surprises. “Let Me In”, the posthumous open letter to Kurt Cobain — a noisy feed-back-smeared tone poem on record — was transmuted into an acoustic hootenanny with down-from-the-mountain harmonies. As if to say: Oh brother, where art thou?
Second big surprise was Eddie Vedder appearing out of thin air for a stellar cameo on “Begin The Begin” that would have made Miles Standish proud. For better or worse, there would be no Vedder yarl if Michael Stipe never existed. So I am only half-kidding when I say that Pearl Jam and REM oughta switch singers for their next albums. Think about it guys.
I can count on two hands the number of times I have seen R.E.M. over the years, and last night was by far the best — for reasons far too innumerable to go into here, and for most to mean anything you had to be there. Sorry. You had your chance. But the one thing will I never forget is the image of the bookish, bespectacled girl next to me awkwardly dancing her little double-latte heart out — kinda looked like she was flapping her wings, to the casual observer — during “Losing My Religion.” She looked like somebody who is rarely, if ever, so physically demonstrative in public and for good reason — her semi-private choreography was straight out of the Elaine Benes Big Book Of How Not To Dance In Public. And I thought, you go girl: This is what REM was always about — the bookish, the arty, and the awkward finally feeling like they belong and trying, in their own way, to be free.