Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Live Review: R.E.M., Modest Mouse, and The National, at Chicago's United Center

(R.E.M. with Johnny Marr - "Fall on Me" - Live at the United Center)
Via Stereogum

I realize it's a little late to get this review up, but hey, I just moved cross-country.

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of catching R.E.M. with the National and Modest Mouse (and one Mr. Jonathan Graef). And out of the hundreds of shows I've ever seen, it was in my top five.


The National opened up and filled Chicago's United Center with sound just as well as they do in a club, despite a small bit of blurring on the horn parts. When translating their music to a live show, The National scaled up the rock aspects of their sound. In particular, "Squalor Victoria" stands out as adapting well to this more muscular live setting. Punctuated by Matt Berninger's howls of the titular name and flashes bright purple stage lights, the song exulted the band's rock influences. While I'm not generally a huge fan of large amount of stage production, seeing the whole band silhouetted against a steamy, multicolored night was pretty effin' sweet.

Playing mostly from Boxer, an album of A+ material if there ever was one, The National proved a tough act to follow for second openers Modest Mouse.

Let me make one thing clear: I really like Modest Mouse on record. A lot. After hearing rumor after rumor that Isaac Brock's voice has gone the way of the dinosaur, I was pretty nervous to see them perform. But they exceeded the expectations I had for them.

Still, it wasn't a very good set. A lot of the material came off We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, which was a pretty good album. On disc. But live, it just sounded brash, flat and same-y, like they were floundering for depth that wasn't there. Compared to the richness of the National's sound, I just kind of felt bad for Brock & Co.

R.E.M., however, was, as always, fantastic. The thing that never fails to knock me flat when I see R.E.M. live is the way in which they revisit their past: The United Center show was as much a celebration of a lifetime of music as it was a celebration of a particular album.

Those who came to the show having only purchased Accelerate might have been a little disappointed. Eight songs (about 30 minutes) in the 2-hour set were from the new album, and they were thoroughly padded with older material. But what can I say? The material they played sounded stellar. The raw production value on the album gives you a perfect picture of what the songs sound like in concert. When I listened to "Supernatural Superserious" for the first time, I could picture exactly what the song would look and sound like live: Peter Buck hitting every note while jumping around in a way that no 40-something should be able to, Michael Stipe singing breathlessly while wiggling like a jellyfish and Mike Mills off to the side being the best bass player in existence. The new material didn't pull punches on the audience; it just singed them with the purest of pure rock and fucking roll.

Mixed in between songs off of Accelerate was a particularly stark, vulnerable breakdown of "Let Me In." Clustered around a piano, the band stomped and clapped their way through the normally fuzz-laden ode to his late friend, Kurt Cobain. (Stipe wrote the song to say all the things he wished he had said to Cobain before Nirvana frontman took his own life in 1994.) "Find the River," the closing track to essential canon entry Automatic for the People, showed up in a retooled format, sporting guitar in place of its standard accordian, updating it to fit with the band's current exuberant rock sound. Other songs, such as "Begin the Begin" were played exactly as they were written 20 years ago.

On this tour, R.E.M. is all about finding and creating cohesion in their catalog. The songs chosen for Friday night's show expressed political frustration and alienation, but also a great deal of hope (not least of all due to Barack Obama, to whom Stipe gave two enthusiastic shout-outs). As someone who has been disillusioned with the band's past few albums, but started to feel hopeful again with Accelerate, the United Center show was confirmation that a new, awesome, powerful chapter in R.E.M. history is beginning.

R.E.M. MySpace Page
Modest Mouse MySpace Page
The National MySpace Page

(April Wright)

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