R.E.M.; Modest Mouse; The National @ MSG
R.E.M.; Modest Mouse; The National
@ Madison Square Garden
New York, NY - June 19, 2008
When I first caught wind of this tour, I instantly assumed that it would be the kind of thing where R.E.M. would pass the torch to the National as the Indie-ethic Pop-Rock Band of the Nation (sorry Mr. Brock for skipping you over). I don't know how the rest of the tour has gone, but based on the sound in the Garden tonight, if you were new to the National, you were probably not very impressed, and you also had no reason to see R.E.M. pass on or cede anything.
Stipe, Buck, Mills, and their two amigos came out wailing and they never let up. Playing only a couple of ballads, and everything being short and sweet, R.E.M. made the case for arena rock to live on just a little bit longer. The hypnotic goings on behind the band - a series of screens that relayed the scene on stage as if it was an already edited and produced performance video - were not only beyond impressive, they were actually distracting. At one point, it was even safe to wonder if the show would have been half as interesting without it. But the ferocity of "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" and "Bad Day" easily silenced that. Other highlights included the Mike Mills-led "Don't Go Back to Rockville", the Johnny Marr-joined "Fall on Me", "Losing My Religion", "Supernatural Superserious", "The One I Love", and "Man on the Moon". Michael Stipe did something I never thought he did...ever: He smiled and laughed a lot. In his dapper striped suit, the ever chatty, chrome domed Stipe had his usual political things to say but had even more to say in the field of being friendly, open, and inviting. Like the band's music.
Isaac and the gang in Modest Mouse sounded exactly as they should have. In fact they sounded even better when I closed my eyes and let their music wash over me. Like their records, either you like it or you don't or you like some of it. I fall into that third category. "Dashboard" was the real highlight, though "Fire It Up" also stood out. Something tells me they are tearing it up right now at the Music Hall of Williamsburg with their sudden late show.
While the Garden was kind to R.E.M. and Modest Mouse, it was surprisingly a bit rough on Brooklyn's best. The hollow cavern of the arena stilted the strings and winds of all types as the National were in deluxe mode, Padma Newsome and the horn section all in cahoots. Of course they didn't sound bad, but if you were new to the band tonight, you wouldn't think they were full of lush, symphonic melodies. In fact, you would have thought they were a loud rock band, as all that came through were the beats and some of the Dessner guitar grind. If there was anything on the up and up, it was Berringer's voice. Already something divine live, Matt's vocals seemed even more powerful and more prominent in the arena.
It's funny. When I first started praising and passing on the gospel of the National, my immediate pitch to the uninitiated was "a little like R.E.M.". Tonight, the two bands couldn't have sounded more different. Don't be fooled though. Whether they were chilling with "Fake Empire" or inspiring warmth with the Barack-dedicated "Mr. November" (I called that one a year ago, though the "Great White Hope" line may not be the best thing to bandy about), the National still laid claim to the mantle that was fashioned by bands like R.E.M. two decades ago - thoughtful, intricate pop-rock that despite whatever torrent of sub-genre labels one may wish to slap down, transcends categories and simply inspires.