Back to Rockville: A Tribute to R.E.M. And 88.1 KDHX Benefit Off Broadway April 27, 2012
When R.E.M. announced its breakup last September, the music world was shocked but not really surprised. After all, the three remaining original members had been together for 31 years by that point, most of them quite successful. However, 2011 was a long way from the band's early-1990s commercial and artistic peak, and though some of its later albums have their moments, it was easy to feel like each of them was another chapter of a long, gradual decline. Some people think R.E.M. should have quit when drummer Bill Berry left the band. Others never forgave the band for playing stadiums, not breaking up at the end of 1999, and backtracking from other rash promises the members made in their twenties to interviewers. But by making a definitive split and announcing it as such, R.E.M. not only put a firm cap on their career, but inspired many of us to give their work a fresh listen and remember why we loved the music so much.
And "love" is not an overstatement. During the early IRS Records years, R.E.M. was like the Beatles to a coterie of college radio listeners, fanzine readers, high school outcasts and small, regional bands. By playing every small town on the map and bringing bands like the Minutemen and Camper Van Beethoven on tour, the band kept a toe in the indie world even as each successive record sold more and more. R.E.M. was so influential that soundalike bands popped up in every college town from New Haven to Iowa City. Later came superstardom, inevitably, and finally the long decline. All of which leaves an extensive catalog to study, cover and recontextualize. In this sense, "Back to Rockville," the latest in a series of KDHX-presented tribute nights, couldn't have been more timely.
As is the custom with these events, "Back to Rockville" featured ten bands, each performing three or four songs with a shared backline of drums and amps. Set changes were quick and organized, and the night even ended a little ahead of schedule.
The first three bands each focused on the quieter, more restrained side of R.E.M. Palace started things off with lush takes on material from Up and Reveal, complete with three- and four-part harmony. Spectator had perhaps the most original approach of the entire evening, turning Monster's raucous "Bang and Blame" into a tango and finding almost baroque undertones in "Daysleeper" and "All the Way to Reno." By the time Half Knots ended their quiet three-song set, however, I wondered if the whole evening would be like this, and whether any of the evening's performers would honor R.E.M.'s origins as a rock & roll band.
I needn't have worried. The whole evening was designed to gradually rev up in volume and attitude. Middle Class Pants -- a collective of Middle Class Fashion and Tight Pants Syndrome members -- kicked the evening into high gear with "Begin the Begin," a couple of early songs, and the silly but fun "Stand." Scarlet Tanager performed three of the greatest hits, including a nice "Shiny Happy People" (which I've always liked; so sue me) and a frantic "It's The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." From there, the rock show was in full effect. Finn's Motel gave us a majestic, powerful "Feeling Gravitys Pull," complete with the squealing feedback that accompanied the live version. Lead singer Joe Thebeau deserves credit for donning the trademark Michael Stipe green eye makeup -- a move that he called "like being in Kiss, but with cool people." Super Maroon, Love Experts and Via Dove all gave spirited performances, with the crowd singing along during most songs. None of them drastically reinterpreted the songs, but played them with renewed energy and affection.
Dive Poets ended the evening with spirited takes of "Pop Song 89," "Gardening at Night" and "Find the River" (the last one sung by Anna Drexilius - one of the night's few female lead voices, along with Scarlet Tanager and Spectator). After a closing "These Days," the entire night's lineup joined Dive Poets for a closing "Don't Go Back to Rockville" singalong. It all added up to a joyous evening.
Critic's Notebook: - The evening included songs from every R.E.M. studio album except for 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, 2004's Around the Sun and 2008's Accelerate. - Finn's Motel gave a special shout-out to Annie Zaleski, the RFT's music editor from 2005 to 2011. She is one of the world's premier R.E.M. fans, to the extent that she can guide you to the redeeming qualities in late-period works like Reveal and Around the Sun. Finn's Motel dedicated "Driver 8" to her, which happened to be emblazoned on her Missouri vanity license plate when she lived here. We missed you, Annie. - Total number of mandolins spotted onstage: 2. - Total number of Rickenbacker 12-string guitars: 1. This was a surprise, given that the Rickenbacker was the very key to the R.E.M.'s early jangly sound. I did see a few Gretsch hollow-bodies, though. - Total number of audience members wearing old R.E.M. t-shirts: 2 that I spotted.
Palace: 1) The Great Beyond 2) At My Most Beautiful 3) Imitation of Life
Spectator: 4) All The Way to Reno (You're Gonna Be A Star) 5) Daysleeper 6) Tongue 7) Bang and Blame
Half Knots: 8) Swan Swan H 9) King of Birds 10) Wendell Gee
Middle Class Pants: 11) Begin the Begin 12) Wolves, Lower 13) Perfect Circle 14) Stand
Scarlet Tanager: 15) Losing My Religion 16) Shiny Happy People 17) It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
Finn's Motel: 18) 7 Chinese Bros. 19) Driver 8 20) Feeling Gravity's Pull 21) Cuyahoga
Super Maroon: 22) Superman 23) Texarkana 24) Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter 25) Orange Crush
Love Experts: 26) Man on the Moon 27) Pretty Persuasion 28) Everybody Hurts
Via Dove: 29) Radio Free Europe 30) Ignoreland 31) The One I Love
Dive Poets 32) Pop Song 89 33) Gardening at Night 34) Find the River 35) These Days
Finale 36) (Don't Go Back to) Rockville