Road Trip Pt. 2: R.E.M. take Jones Beach by storm
(Continued from Part 1: Road Trip)
The thunder and lightning recede, the rain does not, the stage is mopped, and the show goes on. R>E>M> take to the stage at 10:10pm, 45 minutes after their due time. They open with “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” and follow it with “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry).” I always appreciate a band that adapts to the occasion.
My mind goes back to June 22, 1985, The Longest Day in more senses than one. It rained at the Milton Keynes Bowl that afternoon from the end of the Faith Brothers’ set through Spear of Destiny and Billy Bragg, on through a disheveled R>E>M> at their Fables of the Reconstruction lowest – with bottles of piss being thrown at them by impatient fans of the Ramones, who followed – and only stopped when U2 came onto the stage and sang the Beatles’ song “Rain”… proving that Bono does indeed have a direct line to God.
Michael Stripe does not have a direct line to God. (Thank God.) He makes comment instead about wishing “we’d signed the Kyoto Treaty” and how this weather is “fucking stupid.” In defense of the weather, the storm probably has little to do with global warming. It’s the nature of the microclimate and Stipe may be better putting it down, instead, to the (bad) luck of the draw. Some performer or other is going to run into one of these storms each year at Jones Beach, and this year it happens to be R>E>M>. I’m just glad nobody died when lightning hit the venue.
After all, “Living Well Is The Best Revenge.” R>E>M> storm into it (pun intended) at tornado force, straight out of the equally vitriolic “These Days.” I maintain that Lifes Rich Pageant is R>E>M>’s most impeccable rock album. It was also the only album they toured but skipped out on touring Europe. Meaning I’ve never seen them play “Superman.” Tonight will be no exception.
Stipe makes a friendly comment about how the audience in their polythene ponchos look like “garbage bags.” This is true, and expensive garbage bags at that, Jones Beach charging $5 each for what are essentially throwaway items. “You keep looking like garbage bags, we’ll keep playing songs,” he says. He promises another 20 or so of them. It’s a half-dozen shy of the number they’ve been performing elsewhere on tour, suggesting that (for presumable reasons of curfews and overtime) the 45 minutes delay is not going to get added at the back end.
I’m watching all this from out front, having left my wife and kid in the viewing pen. My Beatles Ben Sherman shirt, Triple 5 Soul cap, O’Neill shorts and DC skate shoes may be the height of fashion on the beach in the sun, but I’m not on the beach in the sun; I’m in a downpour, and nothing seems remotely waterproof. I try and slide into one of the front rows, figuring that would be worth getting wet for, but security are doing their “go back to your assigned seat” assignment routine, because that’s what security people do at big shows. The seat far back from the stage that seemed so well suited for Noel, now seems a little … well, seems ironic, given that he’s basically on the stage and I’m at least a hundred feet away from it! And I arranged to watch the show with wife and child so I know I can’t stay out here too long anyway.
After “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth,” the band introduces “Man-Sized Wreath” for “our stupid piece of shit President.” A guy nearby shouts out “Hey, fuck you Michael!” And at the end of the song he throws the insult right back at Stipe. (Exact words: “Michael, you’re a stupid piece of shit!”) When a bunch of rain-soaked fans turn and glare, he defends himself. “Hey, he insulted our President!” You have to wonder what part of R.E.M.’s politics this particular punter has never quite grasped, but nobody confronts him; this is not rioting weather.
R>E>M> play “1,000,000” which, dating back to the 1982 Chronic Town EP, proves the oldest song of the night.
The next day, I read a posting from a dad who says he couldn’t have asked for a greater pre-fathers day gift than watching R.E.M. with his 17-year old son. “After all,” he writes, “when did a little rain hurt anyone?” I’d love to have shared his enthusiasm and can only assume he was in the front rows where, I have to admit, the atmosphere seemed that much more charged for the circumstances.
Then again, someone else that, “That was a terrible decision to play last night. They jeopardized the safety of their fans-we were 3 feet from a lightning bolt.” I doubt that the decision to go ahead with the show was taken lightly – and I’m sure that canceling would have been even more disappointing for the bigger majority that had paid their money and driven out to the beach, knowing that outdoor shows always carry some sort of weather risk factor. Still, I can’t help but notice people leave their seats and retreat… To the very limited areas of shelter? To their cars? Who knows…
During “Ignoreland” (wonder what the Bush fan in the audience thinks of that one!) I realize that the notes I’m making are turning it into Pollock-like doodles of drips; I give up on getting wet, find my previously assigned seat, grab our stroller and make my way back to the viewing pen. Noel is happily drawing on a chair, occasionally looking up to view the action on stage.
Given the choice, I would never watch a show from up here. Not only are we missing out on the front of house sound, not only are we missing out on the video screens and light show, but we’re not even getting the monitor sound, given how high up we are. The music is bouncing around all over the place, rendering Michael’s introductions all but inaudible…
…Which is a great shame, because it’s only by reading other reviews that I’ve finally gathered some of what Michael was saying on the night. About how they won’t be playing “I’ll Take Rain” because “It’s plodding. And it’s seven minutes long. Trust me, you DON’T want to hear that song right now!” He has a point: Reveal is not the album some critics cracked it up to be.
Document, on the other hand, was impeccable, so I’m thrilled to hear “Welcome To The Occupation.”
Mike Mills is wearing his cowboy hat. It provides some shelter as he frequently steps stage front and out into the rain. Stipe is practically living out there, I presume taking the attitude that if it’s good enough for the audience… Peter Buck is moving in relatively subdued fashion, mostly under cover; Scott McCaughey, when I can see him, looks like he’s having the time of his life. Bill Rieflin is perfectly controlled at stage rear. I don’t know why I should be surprised by the fact, but it occur to me that there’s a lot more gray hairs around this band than there once used to be.
Michael Stipe throws out Obama t-shirts to those who aren’t wearing garbage bags and need some dry clothes. Throw one out to that Bush fan!
“Let Me In” is performed in a huddle, Buck on organ, Stipe singing, the others on acoustic guitars. I decide to film some of it and to my later surprise, the fact that I’m not in front of the PA means that for the first time in years, the audio is actually audible.
R>E>M> have been encouraging people to share photos and videos online. This is so much more sensible a policy in the face of technology than to try and stop people from taking them in the first place – which is still what goes on at most big shows. And so I believe I’m allowed to share my clip:
More songs from Accelerate: “Houston,” “Horse To Water,” “Hollow Man,” and the final song of the set, proper: “I’m Gonna DJ.”
The group doesn’t leave the stage. Given the rain delay, they just pile straight into the encore: “Supernatural Superserious,” “Losing My Religion” and then a song with which we’re all most familiar but for the fact that with this tour, the group had promised to drop it from the set list. Presumably then, the inclusion of “It’s The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” – the 58th song to be played on this tour, though the only new “old” addition of the night – is in direct reference to tonight’s truly apocalyptic weather. And though you wouldn’t expect it from a group that must have played it a thousand times, the end is a shambles, Mike Mills and Michael Stipe on opposite sides of the stage losing grip on the refrain. I see Peter Buck walk over to Bill Rieflin and give him the “cut” signal. They cut.
Buck’s probably just eager to get on to the next song. The advantage of having Modest Mouse as support is having Johnny Marr in the wings for the encore. He and Peter Buck are suddenly side by side, both sporting black Rickenbackers, playing “Fall On Me.” I doubt there is any other R>E>M> song written after the Smiths came to prominence (i.e., after R>E>M> had already made Reckoning, in 1984) that sounds quite so perfectly suited for Johnny Marr. Back in those mid-80s days, R>E>M> were understandably pissed to be compared to the Smiths, a band they preceded by a good couple of years and really weren’t interested in copying. But still, the groups had so much in common – not least Johnny Marr and Peter Buck and the Rickenbacker. To see them shoulder-to-shoulder like this – and to clearly hear Johnny Marr’s additional fretwork on this performance – is something everyone should be able to experience. Too late, I remember to film some of it. Here you go:
Marr stays on for “Man In The Moon,” the sort of sing-along the audience deserves at the end of such a difficult night. By my watch, the group has played a solid 90 minutes without leaving the stage, and they’ve all – but especially Michael Stipe – worked hard to make up for the unfortunate weather and necessary delays. But it’s still probably a good thirty minutes shy of the regular set length, and with it has gone the opportunity to hear songs like Second Guessing, Gardening At Night, Disturbance At The Heron House, West of the Fields, Sitting Still, Final Straw, Auctioneer, Pretty Persuasion, Carnival Of Sorts, Shaking Through, Little America, Harborcoat, Cuyahoga, Driver 8, (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville and many others that have been played elsewhere on the tour.
And so, despite the initial plan to make this road trip my only R>E>M> show on this tour, I’m heading to New York City June 19th for the Madison Square Garden show. I hear the venue has a roof.