Back to Rockville: A Tribute to R.E.M. And 88.1 KDHX Benefit Off Broadway April 27, 2012
When R.E.M. announced its breakup last September, the music world was shocked but not really surprised. After all, the three remaining original members had been together for 31 years by that point, most of them quite successful. However, 2011 was a long way from the band's early-1990s commercial and artistic peak, and though some of its later albums have their moments, it was easy to feel like each of them was another chapter of a long, gradual decline. Some people think R.E.M. should have quit when drummer Bill Berry left the band. Others never forgave the band for playing stadiums, not breaking up at the end of 1999, and backtracking from other rash promises the members made in their twenties to interviewers. But by making a definitive split and announcing it as such, R.E.M. not only put a firm cap on their career, but inspired many of us to give their work a fresh listen and remember why we loved the music so much.
And "love" is not an overstatement. During the early IRS Records years, R.E.M. was like the Beatles to a coterie of college radio listeners, fanzine readers, high school outcasts and small, regional bands. By playing every small town on the map and bringing bands like the Minutemen and Camper Van Beethoven on tour, the band kept a toe in the indie world even as each successive record sold more and more. R.E.M. was so influential that soundalike bands popped up in every college town from New Haven to Iowa City. Later came superstardom, inevitably, and finally the long decline. All of which leaves an extensive catalog to study, cover and recontextualize. In this sense, "Back to Rockville," the latest in a series of KDHX-presented tribute nights, couldn't have been more timely.
As is the custom with these events, "Back to Rockville" featured ten bands, each performing three or four songs with a shared backline of drums and amps. Set changes were quick and organized, and the night even ended a little ahead of schedule.
The first three bands each focused on the quieter, more restrained side of R.E.M. Palace started things off with lush takes on material from Up and Reveal, complete with three- and four-part harmony. Spectator had perhaps the most original approach of the entire evening, turning Monster's raucous "Bang and Blame" into a tango and finding almost baroque undertones in "Daysleeper" and "All the Way to Reno." By the time Half Knots ended their quiet three-song set, however, I wondered if the whole evening would be like this, and whether any of the evening's performers would honor R.E.M.'s origins as a rock & roll band.
I needn't have worried. The whole evening was designed to gradually rev up in volume and attitude. Middle Class Pants -- a collective of Middle Class Fashion and Tight Pants Syndrome members -- kicked the evening into high gear with "Begin the Begin," a couple of early songs, and the silly but fun "Stand." Scarlet Tanager performed three of the greatest hits, including a nice "Shiny Happy People" (which I've always liked; so sue me) and a frantic "It's The End of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."
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