Where to start? That’s the vexing question when it comes to writing about a triple bill as astounding as R.E.M., Modest Mouse, and the National at a venue as historic as the Hollywood Bowl. I could write about how each act made me feel old in a different way. I could describe the weird mix of folks in the crowd. But why not focus on all the great music that was showcased on May 29? Sounds good. As did most of the concert.
God bless the National. The band sure did try to fight the dwarfing size of the Bowl, not always successfully. It was fitting, then, that most of songs they played came from Boxer. “Fake Empire” sounded great as usual, nicely foreshadowing a jaded political bent R.E.M. would revisit with “Ignoreland.”
But tunes like “Squalor Victoria” and “Apartment Song” seem much more attuned to the cramped ennui of early-morning New York City than to the wide-open vistas of the Hollywood Hills at dusk. The band closed with “Mr. November,” Matt Berninger (looking natty in a black suit) roaming the immense stage, doubling over and howling into the microphone, trying to fill the still-filling up venue with the weight of his own angst.
Modest Mouse fared much better, what with how much the band has fleshed out in recent years. It’s surreal to remember back when Modest Mouse was a tight little threesome and Johnny Marr was still dicking around with the Healers. (Being a Modest Mouse fan from way back was the second thing that made me feel old that night, after the National’s stinging songs about aging and regret.)
The crowd was more fleshed-out by that point, too. Many people were there solely to see Modest Mouse, youngsters who would become vocally annoying later when R.E.M. took the stage. “Truckers Atlas” was a high point of the set (Marr must be learning more of the back catalog), on which the band momentarily regained its old, down-and-dirty sound, its past raw power.
Isaac Brock, dressed like he was ready to go fishing, sang through his guitar on “Doin’ the Cockroach,” and then through puffs on a cigarette on closer “The Good Times Are Killing Me.” The band members are still clinging to “Float On,” although they always seem to play it with bored, half-assed energy. Maybe Modest Mouse should take a cue from R.E.M. and retire the song, a la “Shiny Happy People” and “Stand.”
R.E.M. came out with “Pretty Persuasion,” sounding like the band had caught a time machine from the early ‘80s. (Too bad a large percentage of the crowd didn’t seem to know the song. Have I mentioned that I’m getting old?) That was followed by “Living Well Is the Best Revenge.”
Most of Accelerate was interspersed throughout the set, and the album’s beefed-up songs sounded good. But of course the band’s older material was of most interest. R.E.M. played songs from just about every album, excluding Fables of the Reconstruction and Green.
Michael Stipe said “Sitting Still” came via a request put in at a book signing he’d been at the night before. He explained the L.A. origins of “Electrolyte.” “Fall on Me” was epic under the night sky. “Let Me In” was done acoustic, side guitarist Scott McCaughey and even drummer Bill Rieflin joining Peter Buck in a strumming circle around Mike Mills on organ. “Losing My Religion” got everyone in the venue singing along, surly Modest Mouse fans included. The only misstep came with “Circus Envy.” Playing it live, R.E.M. couldn’t achieve the skronky, reverb-singed nastiness of the Monster original.
After closing out the original set with “Bad Day” (complete with a Stipe harmonica solo), a muscular “Walk Unafraid” and “I’m Gonna DJ,” the band began its encore with “Supernatural Superserious.” “The One I Love” was much loved by all. After “Until the Day Is Done,” Stipe gave shoutouts to Barack Obama and various friends the band had in attendance, some of whom got serenaded with a punked-up version of “Happy Birthday.”
Finally, R.E.M. closed out the night with “Man on the Moon,” and left us to wonder how much longer they can keep going like this, before they get too geezerish, like the Stones. (Of course, some who have given up on the band would say R.E.M. passed that point a while ago.) On that night at least, R.E.M. still burned with that elemental fire.