Elevator Music with R.E.M. and Grant Lee Buffalo

Imagine a high speed elevator ride, smooth and slick, where the only disturbances occur when the elevator stops and starts at each floor. Imagine the music in the elevator being synchronised to the elevator's motions, with mild surprises at each level. That is how I view R.E.M.'s history of making music, and that's exactly how their live show felt when I saw them at the Nissan Pavillion in DC.

At the basement level, we had Grant Lee Buffalo, who Michael Stipe said was their favourite band, warming the crowd up. I am not familiar with any of their stuff, but they played what now falls in the overbroad cateogry called "alternative", and which I'd classify as College Rock. They were good, tight, and did their job well.

At the first level, R.E.M. got the crowd moving with Pop Song '89, the radio hit What's the Frequency, Kenneth?, and Crush with Eyeliner. Stipe said that R.E.M. was there to entertain us. In retrospect I think they accomplished that task well. They continued with Welcome To the Occupation, Wake Up Bomb, and a new song, Binky the Doormat.

I thought that things really started moving at the second level. Here, they played more of their familiar stuff and some completely new stuff, starting off with Losing my Religion for which guitarist Peter Buck got out his mandolin. This song probably got the biggest crowd reaction. This whole segment I thought mixed the older and new tunes pretty well. They played Fall on Me, Undertow (which is a new song), Bang and Blame, Strange Currencies, and Revolution (which is also new song). I thought both the new tunes they played in this level were very good.

The third level saw the action getting even better. All the songs were popular, and I think are some of the best R.E.M. has done. Again, a great mix of old and new tunes was maintained. The songs they played included Tongue, Man on the Moon, Country Feedback, The One I Love (another crowd pleaser), Orange Crush, Get Up, and Star 69.

For the encore, they started off slow, playing Let Me In and Everybody Hurts. They went on to play an instrumental (Hot Java?) where Stipe introduced the extra musicians (Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows and Nathan December) and followed it up with Begin the Begin and Departure (yet another new tune). Finally, it was an energised Stipe who heralded the End of the World. By now, his voice was sort of cracking (especially during the times he attempted to scream at the end), but I thought he was more lively than before. And then we came to a halt, high above the ground.

The reason I compare R.E.M.'s show to an elevator ride, instead of a train or an airplane ride, is because from an analytic perspective, I thought it a bit disappointing. It probably has something to do with the fact that this was their third show in a row in DC, and their tour has been going for a long time now. While the musical performance was very professional, I was distinctly underwhelmed with the show itself. The visuals in the background were okay, and the light show was poor. In fact, the kitchen lamp lights were effective only from a humourous perspective. Given that R.E.M. are one of the high profile artists touring this year (and given that their tickets are also some of the most expensive ones), I thought they could've put more time and effort into the visual aspect of the show. Other artists touring this year, such as Page/Plant, White Zombie, and Primus put on better shows overall, providing not only great musical performances but thrilling shows with spectacular lights, visuals, and in some cases, pyrotechnics. It's a shame R.E.M. didn't see fit to put some of the ticket money into putting on a better show (which I think is important as a concert experience).

This was my first time at the Nissan Pavillion, and I was quite impressed with the place. The acoustics were excellent, and in particular, the mix was great both for Grant Lee Buffalo and R.E.M. I thought R.E.M.'s performance stayed true to their College Rock roots and the whole thing didn't come off as a big rock act.

For many, myself included, for the most part, the musical performance was enough to make this a memorable concert. I am only reasonably familiar with R.E.M. and I was surprised at the fact that I recognised almost all of the songs. When I thought more about it, there were a lot more songs I wish they had played. This tells a lot about this group, who have churned out so many hits during their history, a lot of whcih have pervaded the airwaves. The first impressions of the new tune also lead me to believe that their next elevator stop will also yield some great tunes, coupled with a bit of that surprise element. The Monster tour showcases some of the best picked cherries from their long history, and if you've at all been paying a bit of attention to the radio/MTV, you'll find yourself singing along at their concerts.

Music ramblings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org || October 18, 1995