Sunday, June 15, 2008

Admiring R.E.M. as a fan of that other band

Friday night I had the distinct pleasure to accompany one of the biggest fans of R.E.M. to their only New England gig (so far) on their current tour. I've had the same pleasure a few times before, including a front-row situation the first time in 1994. As a music fan and one that grew up listening to R.E.M. with the same interest and appreciation as I did my own "favorite" act of U2, I am always pleased, excited and honored to see R.E.M. This night though would be no different, but with a notable take-away.

The parallels between R.E.M. and my own U2 are striking. Both started out as small "college" bands and have evolved into bands with worldwide reknown and 14+ albums and counting. But where I have always come away from U2 shows aghast at their rigidity in setlist and attempts to cater to long-time diehard fans, I have come to realize and appreciate that R.E.M. breaks through that rigidity with ease and aplomb. For that, I applaud them with a whole-hearted standing O.

Imagine if you will, these two sisters making the 2 hour plus drive to Mansfield for this show, listening to the iPod the whole way. Dear Sister (the huge R.E.M. fan) starts ticking through our own playlist saying "won't play that, won't play that, might play that". Imagine again then, her utter ecstasy when those three songs are indeed played that night. Imagine. And my surprise when I come home and start paging through the setlists of the last dozen shows, and I see that every setlist is different. Every night. Fans never know what the show will start with, what's coming next, how it'll end.

This band went back to their first three albums and dug deep. They didn't just play those one or two hits you heard on college radio back in the early 80s. They played that song that was buried mid-way on side two of that piece of vinyl. That was a song you thought you'd never hear again unless you navigated that far through your iPod directory tree. And here it was, dusted off, polished up and played as if they'd never stopped playing it. And for the stodgy veteran fan standing next to me, it was a mind-altering cross-constellation experience. Imagine that.

I could go on and on about how happy the band appears, settled in after losing their drummer and any number of personal hurdles and displeasure with their last three albums. It was a phenomenal concert experience, for sure.

But turning to a subject near and dear to my die-hard heart...let's just send this vibe out to U2 as they prepare for a tour next year (hopefully). Boys from the Northside of Dublin, you can learn from this band. You can spoon-feed the newer fans and first-timers with a dusting of radio-friendly sing-alongs. But you can also give your loyal, fans-through-the-decades something from the deep anals of the past. No, that doesn't mean "Gloria" after an absence of two tours.

I don't understand your unwillingness to have a flexible playlist and need to stay tied to the same 22 songs in the same order...night after bloody night. Particularly in markets like Boston (and New York, and Chicago, and London, and LA) where you play 4+ nights in a week, knowing full well that a large percentage of those fans are paying to see you multiple times that week. It is so painfully predictable with U2 that in order for me to be "surprised" at a show, I have to enforce a complete news blackout once U2 starts touring, so that at that first show I see, and ONLY that first show I see, I actually have no idea what they'll play. But what I do know is that for the next 2, 4, 8, 11 shows I see on that tour, it'll be 99% the same setlist. Geesh.

So if it's that you don't remember they lyrics, take a page from Michael Stipe and use a music stand and lyric sheets (Bono, we caught you already using a teleprompter, you can't fool us). If it's that you're tied to a light show to go with the rigid setlist, then talk to R.E.M. on that too, they seem to have it figured out. And if it's that you need some help culling through 14 albums of material, give me a shout, I have a few dozen playlists ready to go.

Whatever your reasons: age, ability, laziness, PLEASE SHAKE IT OFF. I saw what this type of setlist does to a loyal fan and I'm jealous, ragingly jealous. Give that to me in 2009 and I'll never complain again.

Really. Imagine that.