Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Oddfellows Local 151

I mentioned the other day that the show in Charlottesville on R.E.M.'s Work tour was one of the best I'd ever seen. And this song—from a different show—was one of the highlights. It's one of the very, very few times Michael Stipe played guitar on stage, which alone made the performance special. But it's more than just that rarity. There's so much to love about this, from the murkiness of the lighting, which suits the music so perfectly, to the way the geometric lights blaze on the chorus, to the way Mike Mills and Bill Berry add harmony vocals on only the words "boy and girl" and only the second time through.

And yet, bizarrely, one of the things which is really vital to the song taking off is the style with which he plays guitar. He doesn't play at all while singing, and only some of the time during the instrumental sections, and yet his contributions are significant. He plays like a rhythm guitarist who's rarely played guitar. Which isn't to say he plays badly, just that he approaches his parts almost like a percussionist or keyboardist, adding textures without following a set pattern. When strumming, he concentrates more on sharp upstrokes, or vicious sixteenth note triplets, adding not so much a chordal bedding for Peter Buck's distorted but cutting leads, as an almost Sonic Youth-like din. Check out the way he stiffly but rapidly walks over to Buck at one point, mimicking (perhaps mocking) the traditional stage mannerisms of stadium rocker guitarists such as Keef and Woody or Don Felder and Joe Walsh, gunslingers staring each other down, or perhaps smiling in brotherly bonhomie.

It all works so well. And while I loved R.E.M.'s later tours, and understand why they brought more and more auxiliary musicians on tour with them, I often find myself wishing that they'd instead found ways to arrange the songs so they didn't sound just like the amazing studio recordings but were transmogrified so they could be performed by the original four members. Since, as this clip (amongst so many others) shows, there was a magic that happened when these four guys got together to play. Just look at how in this one song, Stipe's guitar—again, the first and only time he played it on an R.E.M tour—added more to the performance than all the times Mick Jagger or Bono played guitar on all those songs on all those tours combined.

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