R.E.M. and Neil Young are both prolific collaborators, so when the alt-rock stars played an acoustic set at Young’s annual benefit concert for Northern California’s Bridge School in 1998, it was inevitable that they would end up onstage together. What wasn’t predictable was how they chose to perform: R.E.M. backed a banjo-playing Young on an intense cover of his 1974 song “Ambulance Blues,” and he returned the favor by joining R.E.M. for a gorgeous version of their “Country Feedback” during their own set.
Singer Michael Stipe often said that “Country Feedback” was his favorite song in the R.E.M. catalogue. It originated on their 1991 hit Out of Time, where the version that made the album was originally intended to be the demo. It’s got a great backstory: Guitarist Peter Buck and drummer Bill Berry were killing time while they waited for Stipe and bassist Mike Mills to arrive at the studio where they were working, and Buck suggested they work up a demo for a chord progression he had been playing around with. Buck played acoustic guitar and overlaid it with feedback from an electric guitar; Berry handled percussion and bass, while studio owner John Keane added pedal steel. (The song took its title from its two varieties of guitar overdubs: country and feedback.) When Mills arrived, he added an organ part. The next day, Stipe did the vocals in one take, semi-improvising the lyrics about a breakup. He had some rough notes on a piece of paper, but his state-of-the-union address flowed out of him. For example, he had no idea that he would be repeating the words “it’s crazy what you could have had” as many times as he did. After that lone take, Berry said, “You know what, guys? I think this song is finished. We don’t need to re-record this one.”
The personnel at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California, on October 18th, 1998 were somewhat different: With Berry having left R.E.M., Joey Waronker was playing percussion and Ken Stringfellow handled bass, while Scott McCaughey (on piano) hid in the shadows, like Mills. Lurching around the stage in sneakers and a fedora, with a thick mountain-man beard, was Neil Young, soloing on acoustic guitar. Young lost himself in the song, spending long minutes exploring its bittersweet tang, and playing a chiming, melancholy solo. Slightly over four minutes on record, here the song stretched on for nine glorious minutes.
As “Country Feedback” began, Stipe sat down on the stage, gazing up at Young, absorbed in the mood he was creating, chewing on his knuckle. When he stood up, he poured his heart out until his voice cracked, holding notes until he appeared to be in physical pain. “It’s a love song, but it’s certainly from the uglier side,” Stipe has said. “It’s pretty much about having given up on a relationship.”
R.E.M. greatly revered Neil Young: Their final album, 2011’s Collapse into Now, included the song “Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I,” which was more about Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” than it was about Brando. “It’s about me going to Neil Young for advice,” Stipe said – not that he ever actually had, but he was confident that if he ever had to, Young would have stepped up to the occasion. During this performance of “Country Feedback,” Young gave the best advice possible. He didn’t say a word or sing a note, but he played guitar with such authority that it seemed to provide moral clarity. By the end, lost in the music, Stipe could only shake his head.