REM at the Orpheum

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.

11 comments

  1. saw them on their last tour at Thunderbird, thought they were excellent. Not polished like say, Automatic for the People, but I thought they were good. Saw them with their now-departed drummer too and that made a difference as well.

  2. Given your observations prior to the performance, why would you have expected more? More so, why would you pay money to see them in concert?

  3. Mimi: You make a very good point. I guess I was overly-optimistic. More importantly, though, I was excited about seeing them at a venue as small as the Orpheum. That’s not an opportunity that comes along all that often.

  4. I saw Spirit of the West with the VSO at the Orpheum a few years ago. People started moshing in the dress circle. As a result, everyone hand to stand to see the band and orchestra. It’s not really what I expected….

  5. I haven’t seen REM in many, many years, but I will say that any show i saw up to Green, and especially the Document tour, were great. I think it all started going downhill for them live after the Green tour. Larger venues, more songs, etc.

  6. I agree with you. I saw them recently in Detroit at the Vote For Change concert and found them to my surprise uninteresting even tho I like their hits. Stipe did a great version of Because The Night with Springsteen however.

  7. you know, being an old fart, i was fortunate to catch rem (somewhat) before the hype at the aragon ballroom in chicago, illinois in 1984, in support of reckoning. for those not in the know, the aragon is basically a beautiful old “movie palace” of a bygone era – totally devoid of seats.

    i have not seen them live since, but have followed their recorded output. (oddly enough, i find monster most satisfying.)

    that show was, if not the best show i have ever seen, then, one of the best.

    i don’t know what happened to rem’s live show, but on that distant night, the original members made some serious music magic. the cohesion with which they told their story that night was truly spooky. in short, they had more than the groove to tell it.

    say what you will about rem, but i believe they have achieved one hell of a lot – and more or less on their own terms. sorry they disappointed you. perhaps like most musicians these days, they are resting on their laurels – i still don’t get the blue makeup bit. maybe they have too much cash on hand.

    i appreciate very much your review – very insightful. but i would say that like some others, neil young in particular – with such a large catalogue of music, whom do you satisfy? your audience, or yourselves? and, that of course, begs the question of – why?

    since they left you “wanting more”, perhaps rem stiil obeys the oldest maxim of show business?

    (oh, and sorry about the caucasian dancers in front of you, too, darren. they are, and always will be, unfortunately, ubiquitous.)

  8. I like much of REM’s catalog, but I can’t get into their concerts, though. I’ve attempted to watch a couple of the concert DVDs. One I had just borrowed, and the other I sold back on eBay right away. It’s just not entertaining to me. I’ll stick with the CDs, thanks.

    But, then, I’m not a big concert goer because I can’t control the environment. The people around me are likely to be idiots. Haven’t had any big problems with that yet, but I know it’ll happen someday… Nobody’s danced on the chairs in front of me yet, at least.

  9. I saw R.E.M. at the Coliseum back in 1989 on the “Green” tour, and it was a good show. But it’s true, they can’t hold a candle to really great live acts like Midnight Oil (more power than you can imagine) or even Dread Zeppelin (funnier than you can believe, and fabulous players to boot).

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  11. Were you taking medication when you saw them? How can you write such utter bollix and get it printed? REM are fantastic live, always have been and likely alwasy will be. Ive seen them 20 or so times and each time I feel they under charged me for the ticket.

    As for saying Stipe has no range, you need a hearing exam. Stipe wipes the floor with the likes of Bono.

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