Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Music of REM Tribute Concert A Michael Dorf Presentation at Carnegie Hall

On Wednesday night in March 11 at Carnegie Hall in New York City the legendary alternative rock band REM were paid tribute to from a wide swath of artists from generations past and generations pending. That REM has long been a favorite of many people; from as far back as the early 1980s all the way up through 2009; should come as no surprise. REM continues to test boundaries and challenge their listeners to think and appreciate and respect and endure. This surprisingly diverse group of artists all brought their A game to the table, even when they sometimes fell short. The artists came out, one after the other, each playing a song from the REM catalog; the following is as brief as I could get.

British DJ turned folk musician Fin Greenall (aka Fink) did his number on REM's newer The Apologist. The Apologist is admittedly not one of my favorite new REM songs however Fink did his own remix of it. Fink had his acoustic guitar and he created sounds with that guitar; I have no idea what effect he was using, but it was really cool. He also took the tempo down a little bit which, in this instance, was to good effect.

Calexico has been around for almost 20 years and have been playing all over the world. With their introduction the continuity and energy had been injected into the remainder of the evening. They played REM favorite Wendell Gee, even leading the audience in the signature call and response whistle, which was a lot of fun. Calexico was the house band for most of the other musicians and the guitarist and the bass player also added their vocal backup when needed.

Fans of alternative rock all know who Bob Mould is. An integral role in voice in the alternative rock movement, Mould has played with post punk rabble-rousers Husker Du as well as the college campus favorite Sugar. Many fans though who have fallen out of touch were not aware that Mould is still recording even to this day having just released two new albums in 2008 and 2009. Regardless, the varied audience of older fans as well as younger all rocked out when Mould got behind on the mic to perform 1,000,000.

Another treat for classic rock fans was the next performer, The Feelies. Rocking all through the late 70s and early 80s, The Feelies broke up in 1991 and just recently reunited on July 4, 2008. However the real treat for the classic REM fans was listening to their interpretation of Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars) from their breakout EP Chronic Town. The Feelies did not disappoint and they have kept that intoxicating energy about them.

Out from the wings, barefoot and beautiful walked Staten Island's own jazzy favorite Ingrid Michelson. Ingrid performed one of my favorite songs of all time, Nightswimming in about as unconventional way as anyone who is familiar with the song can imagine. She had a vocal playback loop which she recorded before our eyes of herself echoing the piano lines in the song. She dubbed one line, then a second, then a third; then played the three of them through control by a foot pedal. I found this approach unconventional and thrilling; I was, though, apprehensive to see my wife's reaction. You see Nightswimming was our wedding song; the first song we danced to as a married couple; and I was a little bit anxious at this unconventional presentation of the song. Again my fears were allayed when my dear wife turned to me at the song's conclusion with tears in her eyes. Ingrid Michelson also was the whole reason we were even at this REM tribute concert. Up until a few days ago, I hadn't heard a thing about this show. I had been doing some rudimentary research about musicians and came across Michelson's MySpace page which of course announced that she would be performing at this awesome event. For that, and for her brave rendering of a favorite song, I am grateful to her.

Taking it down a notch following the creative reimagining of Nightswimming was Scottish songsmith Glen Hansard. I had never heard of this gent before, but his completely beautiful and modest rendering of Hairshirt was glorious. Glen Hansard will definitely pop up on radar screens soon. Not just his delivery of this great song, but the song itself has always scored highly with me. On the record, the song fades out; on stage, Glen Hansard hunched his shoulders and inched off the stage, all the while sparsely playing his lone mandolin. It was a beautiful move but he had every reason to bask in the spotlight a little longer.

Indie-college fave The Apples in Stereo also played. I hadn't heard much from the Apples since Tone Soul Evolution, yet here they were with their rollicking rendering of So. Central Rain. The Apples in Stereo had two guitar players, a bass player, drummer, and keyboardist. However the lead singer also had a guitar; the only thing I thought about this was that his plucking along was a little distracting and I felt, unnecessary. He ended up violently thrashing the guitar at the songs end which was also a little bit out of place.

Marshall Crenshaw has been around for a long time. He is still turning out new work with his latest record coming out June 2, 2009. However this night, rather than dwell on the past Marshall Crenshaw looked to the future with the new REM cut, Supernatural Superserious. This song felt a little garbled, probably not least of which because this is a song from an album with which I am not very familiar. I was speaking to a gentleman after the show and we were talking about our impressions of the show. Both he and I were very impressed with the depth and breadth of the REM catalog so much so that, as he says it, REM is his favorite band emeritus. That was largely the impression I got from most of the fans there that were a lot more receptive to the earlier works and the elder musicians. However Crenshaw fused the two with a powerful rendition of a newer song from the REM catalog.

Kimya Dawson entered the stage with a colorfully dressed troupe of dancers. Dawson then sat down on a wood backed chair next to her cross-legged xylophone player on the floor and admitted to the audience what probably a lot of these artists were feeling this night; she was so nervous. She said the song she was about to sing, "means the world to me. So I better not mess it up." Dawson went on to sing World Leader Pretend, which is about as political as we got this evening. The dancers were all done up in comical dinosaur garb and authortarian police regime and faux battled with one another. Kimya Dawson is going to be one of those names that's going to be around for quite some time, much like the next artist.

One of the real treat to being able to go to this REM concert was to be able to see one of my favorite artists up close. Dar Williams has long been shaking things up in the folk music community and speaking her mind and we could not love her more for it. She came out onto the stage and made one of the only announcements before singing of the evening. "It's really great that we're able to the raise this money for the arts." Dar Williams then dove into the very sweet, At My Most Beautiful. To know her is to love her and enough good can't be said about this folksy superstar. I've long felt as though she were an intimate friend just from her involved manner of storytelling. Her singing of the REM tune evoked much the same.

When Hootie and the Blowfish front man Darius Rucker got up and belted out "I Believe," I thought that maybe Michael Stipe had influenced him more then he would like to admit. Darius Rucker was the only singer of the evening who did the Michael Stipe on the microphone. Fans of REM know exactly what on talking about; the gyrating and thrusting hips; his arms spread out open wide and then collapsing around and caressing the whole of the microphone; it were as though the spirit of Michael Stipe had inhabited the body of Darius Rucker. Regardless it was a beautiful rendition of this amazing song.

For fans of alternative music there are really a few names that everybody knows. David Bowie, Perry Farrell, the Pixies; however there is one name that lives in infamy in the alternative rock scene and has for such a long time. Patti Smith is about as respected a musician as any. When she came out to pay tribute to Michael Stipe and REM, she was as humble as can be. Her set closed out the night, but she stated by praising her friendship with the singer, "Michael Stipe was there for me when I was down and I haven't been down so low since." Patti Smith came out and sang a newer REM song, and New Test Leper which really brought the whole evening to a wonderful close. Patti Smith has so much heart that even when she gets lost in the words she is still stunning.

That was when Michael, Mike, and Peter came on stage! Michael's Stipe has grown a very long, gray beard, if you can imagine that. Mike Mills and Peter Buck appear essentially the same and the three of them got up with Patti Smith to sing one last song before the evening really ended out. Patti Smith did some background vocal work on REMs New Adventures in Hi-Fi record. Hi-Fi was from where her New Test Leper was from and Hi-Fi also included the Billboard Hot 100 song E-Bow: The Letter. E-Bow is an emotional apology to River Phoenix regarding a letter and written but never sent by Michael Stipe to the actor expressing concern for his substance abuse. As always, Stipe, Mills, and Buck were amazing and the evening crested to a beautiful crescendo of applause where all the musicians came out on stage.

While sitting there in Carnegie Hall, soaking up the memories of where I was when I heard all those songs for the first time, hearing them again in a completely different way; it suddenly occurred to me why REM are such a great band. The really beautiful thing about REM and the really beautiful moment I had while sitting in Carnegie Hall was how long and deep a catalog of songs the band actually had. These are such different songs, spanning almost 30 years and they touch people in ways that are as different as can be. For the artists listed above and the other performers of the evening Rachel Yamagata, Guster, Vic Chestnutt, Rhett Miller, Kristin Hersh, Keren Ann, Jolie Holland, and The Db's; I wish I'd had more room to praise you all.

The one common thread to all these musicians and all of the crowd in Carnegie Hall is that they were influenced and inspired by this one amazing band. REM transcend boundaries and categorization and have always encouraged their fans to do as they and march to a beat all your own.

REM Tribute Concert After Party in SoHo

While the REM Tribute Concert at Carnegie Hall was amazing, the after party downtown in SoHo at City Winery immediately afterwards was perhaps even cooler. While watching my favorite musicians perform is exciting, standing amidst them, laughing and sharing stories while sipping champagne from flute glasses is even more of a thrill. The event space at City Winery was also a pretty cool place; musicians got up on stage, performed their own stuff, sang more REM songs, and Mike Mills even hoisted himself onstage at one point with Irish folkie Glen Hansard and sang the Kate Pierson line from Hansard's telling of "The One I Love." It was truly thrilling.

The party at City Winery was truly amazing. They had tables set up, a couple of open bar areas, waiters walking around with champagne glasses, and a buffet table which consisted of a menu composed by Mario Batali. The event itself was packed and the folks inside all crowded alongside one another.

Some have spoken wryly of REM in recent years; they're not relevant anymore, they're just filling out their contract with sub-par music. Say what you will, but music like the stuff they put out for years and years; maybe "Fables of the Reconstruction" onward maybe to "The New Adventures in Hi-Fi," are all legendary! (Some purist fans would exclude "Monster" in that list, but come on! How do you follow up "Automatic for the People"?) Be that as it may; whatever you think of "Up," "Around the Sun," and "Accelerate," it's tough to fault this band for much. I believe that when all is said and done, history will smile down favorably on REM for many, many years.

So we stepped in to the Varick Street location of City Winery and this swanky after party and were literally thrust into the mix. "There's Mike Mills and his beautiful wife!" "Look, there goes Peter Buck!" "Is that Patti Smith?" - Yes, they were all there. My wife and I also chatted up Dar Williams and her husband; met Smith, Buck, and tried to get to Mills on a number of occasions (he was perhaps the most sought after of the band).

Even though I've been a longtime fan of Dar and the opportunity to meet all these fab famous people; Darius Rucker, Ingrid Michelson, Bob Mould; the real treat of the evening and the singular goal I set upon the evening was getting to shake the hand of one Michael Stipe.

Think what you want about Mr. Stipe; he's strange, he's predictable, he's introverted, he's extroverted; there are more divergent opinions about this singer than many others. But, he is the face of this band, the voice of the band, and the reason for their success. And he's really just a nice guy! Or he was on this evening when my wife and I met him.

He stood in pretty much the same spot, surrounded by some friends of his but always quick to step aside with a fan and chat. I approached him, congratulated him for the honor of being honored and thanked him very much for his contribution to music and his influence on my life. I also told him that my wife and I had used one of his songs; "Nightswimming," for our wedding song. He seemed a little surprised and commented, "that's a pretty tough song to dance to!" little does he know, I can't really dance to anything! So the fact that I swayed to a song that had personal meaning to my wife and I was what was really important. We said a few other words and I am not usually very star-struck by much of anyone, but I was totally flummoxed from the meeting.

We hung around for a few hours; the party was only supposed to go until 1AM but by ¼ till 2AM, with the rocking still going strong, I suggested to my wife that we leave (we both had to work at 8AM). We walked out the door with the revelry and partying still behind us going on only to see Michael get into a taxicab himself and speed away. We waved towards him, being the only other people out on the corner and we caught his eye because he turned, smiled, and reciprocated.

It's the little things which stick the most. If I never get to meet another famous person as long as I live, I will remember this evening with a room full of my favorite musicians, so many good vibes, and so much warm feeling all cobbled together to celebrate this band from Athens, Georgia.