Was R.E.M. ready to rock Madison Square Garden?
By JOSHUA LIEBERSON
STATIC and FEEDBACK correspondent
This show came at the start of a great week of music and entertainment. I would see three shows in six days, in addition to a comedy show, a parade, and some beach time. Needless to say, I was excited.
I also figured this may be my last chance to see R.E.M. in person. I had last seen them in 1999 supporting Up, which I always felt that was their second-most underrated album (Monster takes the cake, because everyone seems to know it and hate it despite it being fantastic). The show was also pretty stellar, and I still have some strong memories.
My friend and I made our way on the L train to Manhattan, then to the N, which left us a block from Madison Square Garden, running a few minutes late. After the driving experience to Hartford the previous week, taking a couple of trains to the show was more than ideal. We rushed into the venue, knowing we were going to miss a few minutes of the opening band, and hit the Garden escalators. For those not experienced in the way of the Garden, being in the 400-levels brings a special escalator experience. We rode … and rode … and rode … no end in sight. How high in this place could we possibly be? At one point, I could have sworn we were venturing to the top of the Empire State Building.
We made our way inside as the National played. They are a band I’ve heard about constantly for about a year. I ignored the hype, mostly because it was the Pitchfork/hipster crowd pushing them. My thoughts were that plodding, repetitive, simple chords behind either feedback or catchy pop music was not my idea of what I wanted to see. But they were nothing like that, sporting a more layered sound that resembled a hard-rock Doors (though I think that impression came mostly from lead singer Matt Berninger). They also really got those who showed up early for them into the act, as it did not seem that many knew them, despite the hype. After about 30 minutes (we missed the first 10), we felt very impressed by their showing, with my friend promising to look them up and check out their album. It’s not easy to impress up in the 400s, and even more difficult to impress my friend, who is extremely picky, from high up (he is more easily frustrated by bad seats than I am).
Next up was Modest Mouse. Having missed them at Lollapalooza last year, and having enjoyed their most recent releases, I was looking forward to seeing what they could do in a live setting. Ultimately, they were really nothing special. I had high expectations for Johnny Marr, but given the music at hand, he came across as rather ordinary, and their set was bland enough to actually put my friend to sleep. A shame from a band I had heard was a fantastic live experience. If this was them raising their game for Madison Square Garden, I’d hate to see what they normally sound like.
After an hour set, they left and the anticipation started for R.E.M. Thankfully, this was a very pro-R.E.M. crowd. Having the two prior bands open had me concerned that they would be the dinosaurs few cared about, but everyone seemed genuinely excited for something special.
R.E.M. opened with the first track off their new disc, Accelerate, “Living Well is the Best Revenge.” A very strong start, as I am a big fan of the new album. The band seemed poised for a special show. They followed by delivering a mix of material spanning their entire career. They included early songs, including “Driver 8,” “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville,” “Fall On Me,” “Orange Crush” and the crowning “The One I Love” which received the most electric energy from the crowd this evening. They worked in some songs from their 90s heyday as well, including “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?,” an acoustic “Let Me In,” which really impressed me, and others. A major highlight from the newer material was having the band, seemingly on the spot, play “Leaving New York,” which Michael Stipe explained had not been played or rehearsed in more than three years.
Despite Michael Stipe working in fine form as a front man, and the band mostly on its game, the crowd was very up and down. They seemed genuinely excited about the new material, and really rose their energy during “The One I Love.” But they were uneven, too often laying back. This could also be due to poor setlist sequencing by R.E.M. They would nail a song and build the energy in the place, then follow with a slower song, or something from their back catalog which most of the audience seemed unfamiliar. Rather than letting the energy topple over, as often happens at the Garden, the crowd was let down by the sequencing, and it was ultimately indicative of the evening’s biggest problem: despite the venue, the moment, and the feeling that something special was going to happen, the set seems like it could have occurred anywhere at any time. They never truly raised the bar, playing a straight two-hour set that rarely soared, and mostly kept the audience in a state between happy and satisfied.
This was also one of the more political shows I have seen. I always welcome a political touch to shows, and it was no different here. But the crowd seemed indifferent to Michael’s optimism toward the coming election and his scathing remarks about our current president.
After a very good first set, the band came out for their encore, starting with their latest single “Supernatural Superserious.” Following that, the band played a strong version of “Losing My Religion,” getting the crowd started, and closed with “Man On the Moon,” which everyone really got into. We stood around, waiting for the inevitable second encore featuring “It’s the End of the World As We Know It,” but it never came. The house lights came on, and we were done. We left feeling it was a strong show, but that it never really put us in that state of euphoria that had swept me in every Garden show I had been to before (including Page & Plant, Eric Clapton, and four Pearl Jam shows). It could have been just another R.E.M. show, which disappointed us to some extent. We still had a good time, but we were just hungry for a bit more.
Sadly, I doubt there will be a next time.