Weds. March 12
They’re not very good live. Maybe you knew this. Maybe you’ve chosen to forget. Tonight, we simply overlook. What is first evident, as they triumphantly take the stage at one of the bigger-name SXSW fetes (second, perhaps, to Motörhead), is that the dudes are looking a bit peaked. Wearied. Old, is what I’m saying. Five or 10 years from now they’ll play the Super Bowl halftime show (Browns 24, Vikings 13), and you will be just as alarmed as Tom Petty made you this year — alarmed for both their health and yours.
So we are inundated with new shit tonight, from the imminent Accelerate, which at first blush probably won’t be as moribund as Around the Sun, but … ehhhh. The songs are a bit louder, brasher, angrier, but still exploding into that sunny, boppy sort of R.E.M. chorus that’s simultaneously recognizable and forgettable. The song bitching about Barbara Bush’s post-Katrina Superdome quips is half-finished at best; “I’m Gonna DJ” is half-clever at worst. Michael Stipe these days is prone to corny non-sequitur exclamations — “Hey!” “Whoa!” “Yeah!” — amid his typical half-loopy, half-preachy banter: anti-war, pro-Obama (called that one), etc. He’s endearing, but the band’s flaccid, and the crowd is even worse, beaten down by New One after New One and barely perking up when the dudes deign to toss out “Drive” or “Fall on Me” or “Man on the Moon.” (The way Stipe howls “Coooool!” after every chorus still inexplicably annoys me.)
Late-period R.E.M. isn’t a total wash, generating a hummable string of second-tier singles: “Imitation of Life,” “The Great Beyond,” and “Bad Day,” wherein Stipe proves to be the worst harmonica player in recorded history. But their old transcendence is hard to come by: The nearest we get tonight is a surly take on “Walk Unafraid,” from the underrated Up, the band’s last great album, bizarre electronic flourishes and all. Too early to say if Accelerate has that kind of spark, but watching Stipe and the boys beat a festival crowd over the head with it for an hour and a half, I doubt anyone’s convinced just yet.
Incidentally, Mike Mills remains the sweetest dude ever.