REM is a studio band. It’s notable that, in 24 years of recording, they’ve never released a live album. How many other long-lived rock bands can you say that about? I’ve seen REM live twice now, and watched plenty of live footage on television. They just don’t put on a very good show.
When I see a band live, I expect a transformative experience. I want them to build upon what I hear on their albums. They should reinvent and reinterpret old songs, showcase new ones, cover other people’s work and generally demonstrate some innovation and musicality. Back in August I was disappointed by Aimee Mann’s show for her rote performances of studio cuts. REM wasn’t quite that guilty, but they failed to add much to their studio recordings.
In fact, where their albums are subtle and textured, their live shows reflect their punk roots. Tonight’s show was straight-ahead rock fare, and much of what makes their songs great was lost. In 1994 at GM Place and tonight at the Orpheum, they seemed all too professional for their own good. They ran through basic readings of the songs, struck a few rock and roll poses, and went home.
Part of the problem, I think, is that none of them are great performers. They’re talented songwriters, and decent instrumentalists, but none are truly musically gifted. In both octaves and vocal style, Michael Stipe lacks range. He struts it up on stage (he and Gordon Downie are first cousins in weirdness), but doesn’t have a lot of diversity to show in his frontman duties. Tonight he had painted a mask in blue make-up on his face. In his black, single-breasted suit, he looked like a bizarre, moddish superhero.
I must credit REM with an exceptionally brave set list. They opened with “Finest Worksong”, and I feared I was in for a greatest hits show. Instead, probably half the set was very recent material, and they eschewed any number of hits, including the soppy “Everybody Hurts” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”. Their encore flanked two lousy, unknown tunes (“Permanent Vacation”, their oldest unrecorded song from 1980 and “I’m Going to DJ”, their newest unreleased song) with an excellent if loyal reading of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and “Man on the Moon”.
While everyone else seemed to like them, REM left me wanting more. A good concert has a story to tell, and a good band has a groove that tells it. REM had neither, so I went home a little disappointed.