erasing clouds

Live Review: R.E.M., United Center, Chicago, Illinois, September 26, 2003

by erin hucke

$75. That's how much first tier tickets for R.E.M. at the United Center in Chicago cost. A piece. Without service charges. I stared dumbfounded at the computer screen. "This is the last time I'm seeing them," I told myself. "And it better be worth the money."

I'd been a huge fan of the band all through high school. They were the first band I truly loved, and they got me interested in so many other bands and artists. I had to see them. Just one more time in my life. I sort of owed them, I told myself. I disregarded the promise I made to myself that I would never have to hear "Losing My Religion" ever again. I needed to capture one last live memory of them.

My musical appreciation has expanded quite a bit in the past few years, and R.E.M. has become just another band that I like. But I'm still a member of the official fanclub. Say what you will, when the fanclub-sponsored Internet presale page kicked back my seat numbers to me, I stared dumbfounded at the computer screen. Again. Fifth row center. It was every high-school R.E.M. fan's dream. I was pretty excited, but I told myself again: "This is the last time I'm seeing them. And it better be worth the money."

So when I arrived at the United Center, a huge sportsy arena, roughly five months later, I strolled all the way...down to...the...stage. I got that stomach-dropping feeling. I located my seat and realized I was dead center. Fifth row back, but dead center. Let's say, 20 feet from where the lead microphone stood. I wish I could have seen the look on my face. The high school me would have probably peed herself on the spot, figuratively speaking, of course.

As the crowd filled in, it was hard not to notice that at age 24, I was easily one of the youngest ones in the front section. The crowd around me was mostly composed of 42-56 year olds who, I'm guessing, attend roughly one concert per year. They drank overpriced arena beers from plastic cups and used their cell phones to call their friends also inside the arena to boast that their seats were closer than whomever they were talking to. And they likely didn't flinch while paying the bloated $75-a head ticket price.

When the lights dimmed, I forgot who was around me. I forgot how tired I was after a six-hour drive north. My eyes were glued to that stage. And when they busted into "Finest Worksong," I probably even forgot my name for a second or two. The music's energy was completely captivating.

These 40-somethings were more active and all over the stage than any band I've seen in a long time. Michael Stipe slinked around in various phases of undress and bolted from stage left to stage right and back again striking rock star poses at his destination. Peter Buck whipped off some high kicks, spins and signature leg lifts. I can't say what Mike Mills did. I'm not going to lie, I really wasn't watching him. Sorry, there was too much going on. Extra players Ken Stringfellow and Scott McCaughey scuttled across the stage as they swapped instruments for nearly every song.

Maybe I've just been going to too many whiny, indie kid stand-around-and-stare concerts, but I was surprised -- the crowd acted like they actually enjoyed the show. I was beginning to think I had misjudged them. But it was hard to ignore/forgive the couple in front of me who dirty danced to "Everybody Hurts" after practically ignoring the show up until that point. (Suicide prevention never sounded so sexy, apparently.) And I couldn't help but jealously despise those who used their fancy camera phones to snap close-ups of Stipe they'd probably flaunt at the office on Monday morning.

The setlist was pretty well rounded, with at least one song from every album save a few (Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction and Monster). They even blasted through "Shaking Through" off of Murmur at the e-mail request of a woman in the crowd, a song Stipe claimed they hadn't played since 1985. Other surprises included "Begin the Begin," "I Believe" and a Mills and Stipe duet version of "Nightswimming."

The band also kicked off a couple of new tunes, which are (coincidentally, I'm sure) the same two new songs on the band's upcoming greatest hits album In Time, "Animal" and "Bad Day," the latter of which reminded me of "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)."

At the end of the show, Stipe shouted "see you later, alligator." To which the crowd faintly replied with "after while, crocodile." As much as I wanted to make this experience the closing chapter in my R.E.M. fanship, I just can't. Not after that show. After while, crocodile.

Issue 16, October 2003

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