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What's in iJamming! Music
Wed, Feb 6, 2002
From the Jamming! Archives:
interviewed in 1978
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The Best Of 2001
Tony Fletcher's Top Albums, Songs, Concerts, and Books
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R.E.M. at Carnegie Hall
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SNIFFIN' GLUE: The Essential Punk Accessory
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interviewed in 1978
Fran Healy explains why "you cannot own a song." (And why Liam Gallagher "is going to turn into a really great songwriter.")
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The full iJamming! Contents
Strange Currencies
On the face of it, R.E.M.'s first public headlining appearance in New York City since 1995 - yes, it's that been long far as I can tell - seemed ideal: a benefit show for the Gay Men's Health Crisis at the acoustically perfect Carnegie Hall above Jewel and Sweet Honey In The Rock. However, closer inspection revealed several caveats: ticket prices starting at $75 for nose-bleed seats rising to $250 for the floor section, warnings on R.E.M.'s web site that the band would be performing but a "short set," and perhaps less so the news that Whoopi Goldberg was compering than that the whole event was to honor AOL Time Warner's outgoing CEO Gerald Levin with the GMHC's 'You Gotta Have Friends Award'. Combined, this gave the impression of something between an awards show, a comedy roast, a benefit rally, and a company outing, with the possibility of a rock gig making itself heard at some point inbetween.

And that's exactly how it turned out to be - which should mean a minimum of disappointment among any R.E.M. fans who did their homework before splashing out on tickets. Not that too many appeared to have done so; even the cheaper seats in the balconies were no more than half full, while the "parquet," as the Carnegie Hall calls its floor section, was dominated by suits, by which I mean, quite literally, middle-aged business people wearing neatly pressed shirts, ties and dress jackets. It was, undoubtedly, the weirdest environment in which I've ever seen R.E.M. perform.

Fortunately, while the AIDS crisis remains exactly that until we find an effective cure, the event had something of a celebratory feel, given that it was also honoring the twenty-year anniversary of the highly effective GMHC. Whoopi Goldberg ensured to keep spirits up with a series of ad-libs, as did guest comedian Bruce Vilanch, script-writer for the last eight Oscars. The exception was Rosie Perez' rather self-serving speech in which she fought back tears as she apologized for directing personal anger at AIDS sufferers who gave up the fight, when her anger should have been directed at those in power not offering sufficient support. In Perez' defence was her witty denouncement of Guiliani ("I'm glad he's out of office....I know he looked after us after 9/11, but that's like a father paying child support - it's what you're meant to do"), her delightful Brooklyn accent ("I want to t'ank...."), and her significant cleavage. (Hey, you wear low-cut dresses and tell us you feel 'gorgeous' and I get a ticket at the front of the balcony, what do you expect me to say?)

Equally glamorous in a mammary manner was Sarah Jessica Parker, wearing a low slung white trouser suit contraption while delivering the honorary speech for Gerald Levin. "Thank God for HBO," said Parker, who has just won a Golden Globe for her role as Carrie Bradshaw. "Thank God for 'Sex in the City,'" echoed Levin. (AOL Time Warner owns HBO.) "Howsabout some old black women with big old butts in the city?" challenged Whoopi Goldberg as she returned to the stage, and rightly so: it's perfectly honorable for a TV show set in New York to treat homosexuality on a casual, everyday basis; it's inexcusable for it to neglect the majority of that city that isn't caucasian.

"The "parquet," as the Carnegie Hall calls its floor section, was dominated by suits, by which I mean, quite literally, middle-aged business people wearing neatly pressed shirts, ties and dress jackets. It was, undoubtedly, the weirdest environment in which I've ever seen R.E.M. perform."

The live music came in bursts. All-female acapella act Sweet Honey In The Rock was enthralling as always, but its two-song set seemed no longer than Perez' speech. Jewel was a charmer, carrying a bagload of rock star ego and glamour with just enough self-deprecation to balance. Her voice remains a marvel; her songs, it has to be said, seemed something of a mystery to this audience, who were unable to call out for her hits even when she offered to take requests.

That left R.E.M., introduced by Goldberg with the cutely unhip warning that they "rock shit." As they did. The five-piece - frequent performer Ken Stringfellow stayed at home for this one - bounced on to a compressed stage (the equipment brought forward to affect a club feel) and to Michael Stipe's warning that "This is going to be loud, I hope that's okay." Buck looked much like he did twenty years ago, racing round the stage, crouching low while playing that time-honored Rickenbacker through-twin-Vox rig, Mills was his usual buoyant self, Joey Waronker was solid as could be on drums, and all-rounder Scott McCaughey looked, as always when on stage with R.E.M., like the adult version of a kid in a candy store. And Stipe was Stipe, in splendid voice, great humor, and eager to project.

In deference to the occasion, the group had taken to the stage wearing smart jackets; these were stripped after an opening 'Imitation Of Life' in reference to their own informality. (Stipe, who'd come on stage in a most styling full length coat, spent the rest of the night blinding the audience with what looked like a yellow apron glued onto a white shirt.) Unfortunately, the band's evident enthusiasm could not make a significant dent in the suits' collective conservatism; those on the parquet floor stayed seated throughout, and the fans in the sparsely populated balconies felt mostly too conspicuous to differ.

R.E.M. rehearsing for Carnegie Hall
(Photos taken from R.E.M. web site)
Michael Stipe at the Maestro's Door
(Photos taken from R.E.M. web site)

But you know what? That's okay. I've stood through enough R.E.M. Shows; it was a pleasant change to stay seated at this one and just take it all in. Besides, I was front row, top balcony, able to enjoy both an unobstructed view and a crystalline sound. The ten-song set included a trio from Reveal, helping to remind those from AOL Time Warner that the band had indeed released an album last year ('She Just Wants To Be' and 'I've Been High' augmented the opening single), and a smattering of hits and other album cuts. 'Losing My Religion', replete with Buck on mandolin, may just have been an attempt to up the ante three songs in, but 'The One I Love,' with Mike Mills on grand piano (and McCaughey and Waronker offstage), took on specific relevance with the line "this one goes out to the one I left behind." Likewise, 'Walk Unafraid' from the album Up, and 'Let Me In,' initially written for Kurt Cobain on Monster, seemed to hold special meaning in this context; each was also given a fresh, garage rock arrangement. No surprise perhaps that this pair was followed by 'All The Right Friends,' an R.E.M. Song that predates the group's first records and was recently unearthed and recorded for the Vanilla Sky soundtrack.This was, claimed Stipe, only its third live performance since 1981 ("and one of those was in the studio to record it") and yes Whoopi, it rocked shit, sounding just as charmingly naive now as it did on those early live tapes and demos.

The night concluded with 'Man On The Moon,' not just because it was a major hit but because in the movie of the same name for which R.E.M. provided the soundtrack, Andy Kaufman delivers his performing swan song at Carnegie Hall. Given how often Stipe referenced the after-show party at the Russian Tea Room next door, I fully expected him to update Kaufman's famous "I'd like to take everybody out for milk-and-cookies" speech by inviting the entire audience to join the band for free champagne and caviar. He didn't quite do that, but word has it that Stipe and Buck hung out front of the Tea Room for a considerable time with those fans who took them at their word.

In conclusion, for all the weirdness of the occasion, it was hard to complain about the performance. The planned thirty minutes was extended almost to an hour, the variety of material - and indeed the updated arrangements - only reinforced R.E.M.'s reputation for continual experimentation, and any lethargy in the hall emanated from the audience, not the group, who looked mentally and physically on top of their game. Still, given the number of unsold seats for a band that is no longer in the platinum sales bracket, I'm wondering if the promoters didn't get up on Friday morning and figure they'd have had a more energetic night and a greater income for charity if they'd pegged the tickets at a lower price.

For their own part, R.E.M. have stayed busy on the performance front this past year without putting themselves on the front line. "We probably did thirty shows last year and we didn't charge a penny for any of them," Peter Buck told me in December. "I mean some of them were benefits, and there was a ticket price, but we personally didn't charge. And I like that." I like it too. Considering the group's current status, and their apparent enthusiasm to do a proper tour on the heels of the soon to-be-started new album, there's no reason why R.E.M. shouldn't perform in this size hall in their own capacity, playing full length sets at regular prices, in as little as a year for now. Now that's a thought to get excited about.

Tony Fletcher, February 1st, 2002.

R.E.M. HQ: The group's official web site
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REMARKS: Tony Fletcher's biography on R.E.M. (last available edition)

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