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SXSW: R.E.M Step on the Gas, Van Morrison Keeps It Simple

March 13, 2008 11:55 AM ET

In an interview earlier this year, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck promised me that the band would try to play every song from their new studio album in concert. They did better than try, in their headlining set at Stubb's BBQ on the opening night of SXSW. R.E.M. played all but one of the eleven tracks on Accelerate, and they plunged into each song, especially the fast ones, with a joyful fury. In the very first number, "Living Well Is the Best Revenge," singer Michael Stipe turned his breathless chanting on the record into a manic harangue, like a preacher about to explode in his pulpit. During "Man-Sized Wreath" Stipe made a wreath over his head with his arms as Buck and guitarist Scott McCaughey fired cannonball power chords and McCaughey and bassist Mike Mills sang high harmonies like mocking angels. And in "Hollow Man," its quiet deceptive start blew up into an impassioned chorus, with Buck executing his old Pete Townshend-like leaps.

The other half of the twenty-three-song show ran almost the entire R.E.M. timeline, going back to "Second Guessing" from 1984's Reckoning but not avoiding highpoints of the recent, "troubled" years such as "Imitation of Life" as the band fought to find a new equilibrium after the departure in 1997 of original drummer Bill Berry. "Auctioneer (Another Engine)," from 1985's Fables of the Reconstruction, was as concise and dynamic as the new album's title track, and you could hear the strands of jangle and faith connecting the decades, from "Fall on Me" to "Walk Unafraid" and, in the final encore, "Man on the Moon."

But the R.E.M. on Accelerate is explicit about the national distress. Stipe, in a talkative mood, described how the new album's "Houston" was his reaction to former First Lady Barbara Bush's small-minded comments about the Texas invasion of Katrina exiles in 2005, and he gave a lengthy introduction to the heart of the set, a three-song suite of the Accelerate prayer "Until the Day Is Done" (dedicated to the late Heath Ledger who, Stipe said, loved the song), the anti-war complaint "Final Straw" and the defiant torpedo "Bad Day," an exhilarating song about feeling like shit.

R.E.M. has been one of America's greatest rock bands for nearly thirty years — and at Stubb's, they played like they believed it themselves. There was one cover — two choruses of "Happy Birthday," played for a crew member like it was an old Buzzcocks number — and the entire show was broadcast on a few NPR stations and on NPR.org. Let the bootlegs begin.

Most SXSW delegates were probably still at dinner when Van Morrison took the stage at La Zona Rosa, shortly after 7 PM, for the first official showcase of the SXSW weekend. Like R.E.M., he concentrated on recent and new material. In fact, he played for one hour with his big band (including organist Georgie Fame, a British Sixties R&B icon) and didn't perform a single hit.

It didn't matter. His new album, Keep It Simple, is a strong return to the form, if not the poetry, of his early and mid-Seventies albums like Tupelo Honey, and it was a pleasure to hear him in vintage style in a small room. "Don't go to night clubs much anymore," he growled in one number, making a point of telling us how lucky we were.

He also sang, "I'm not a legend in my own mind," and he was right about that too. Morrison got his start in Irish show bands in Belfast in the early Sixties, and he showed his roots in R&B and country with several solos on tenor sax while salting his new material with chestnuts from his education, such as "This Love of Mine," (a Sinatra standard) and Webb Pierce's country weeper "There Stands the Glass." In vintage Morrison fashion, he told one guy up front, who yelled something at him, to "fuck off." He also sang and scatted in trance-like incantation. The end of the show was Morrison digging deep into what, on paper, would have been total corn: "I'm a boogie woogie child/Drinking wine, back in the day." He chanted and howled the lines over and over, like Ray Charles voodoo, as he slowly walked across and finally off the stage.

An old single or classic album track would have been a treat to the crowd, many of whom waited in line to get in longer than Morrison actually played. But he was not to be pushed anywhere he didn't want to go. "I've got to keep it simple/To save my soul," Morrison sang in the new album's title song. "I've got to keep it simple/And that's that."

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