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Livewire

Rock and bear pee: R.E.M.
  • Rock and bear pee: R.E.M.

R.E.M.
Wilco
Blossom Music Center
August 25

"For a week now I've been telling people . . . I have this vision," Michael Stipe began. And for a split second, the gangly singer received complete silence: a full pavilion and a packed lawn holding its collective breath, waiting for the icon to speak. And he did. And as it turns out, the vision involved a giant bear urinating on Mexico.

We accept this sort of highfalutin whimsy from a band with such a massive and massively varied body of work. Ah, the delicate gems ("Sweetness Follows" and "Find the River" from Automatic for the People), the guitar-centric rockers ("Crush With Eyeliner" and "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" from Monster), the jangly anthems ("Half a World Away" and "Losing My Religion" from Out of Time), the sweeping propulsive new tune ("The Great Beyond"). Nearly two hours slip by, and not a filler tune in sight.

Impressive, yes, considering the main objective was promoting Up, the excellent but spooky record slightly unappealing to the Orange Crush-drinkin', Back to Rockville-goin', Finest Worksong-singin', Shiny Happy fans of old. Here, Up's atmospheric tunes benefited from much-needed adrenaline shots, with forceful guitars and more pronounced dynamics vaulting second-tier tracks like "The Apologist" and "Walk Unafraid" straight into prime time.

The triumvirate of Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist/pianist/whateverist Mike Mills got some help from friends on backup guitars and keyboards, while current drummer Joey Waronker's relentless pounding made everyone momentarily forget that other guy's name. Waronker razed the ground Stipe's delicate vocals would land on, turning an already great song like "So Fast So Numb" (the only track offered from New Adventures in Hi-Fi) into one of the show's early highlights.

Stipe took care of the rest. Easily rock's dorkiest superstar, he busted out the herky-jerky hokey-pokey shuffles and the exaggerated poses, all forgivable when his powerful voice sliced through "The One I Love" or newer tunes like "Suspicion." In addition to the urinating bears, he offered more beatific between-song banter ("Wow . . . so . . . we're all here . . . no . . . you're all here . . . and . . . we're all here . . . and . . . yeah"). Okay then, but any man who can incite squeals of sensual joy by taking off his shirt during a song as ridiculous as "Tongue" can get away with this. Near the end of the first set, his Elvis-inspired cry of "Hey, baby!" during "Man on the Moon" inspired a sort of lunar euphoria.

The encore faltered a bit — Stipe attempted to play guitar, sputtering a few times before demurely switching between two chords for a half-baked solo version of "Hope." Mills soon appropriated the guitar for a much cooler acoustic rendering of "Why Not Smile," and by the time the full band launched into "It's the End of the World as We Know It," everything fell back into place. As Waronker began the tune's famous drum roll, the heavens opened and a sudden, warm rainfall drenched the lawngoers. A perfect moment; we'd like to think it came from God and not the bear.

Wilco impressed everyone with its 45-minute opening set, mixing precision songwriting with surprisingly rambunctious rock dynamics. Birthday boy frontman Jeff Tweedy crooned the first half of the epic "Misunderstood" and damn near screamed through the second half. And when he sang "Nothin's gonna stand in my way again," the crowd honestly believed him. He also sang "Your prayers will never be answered again," but after a double bill that solid and a sudden rainfall that well-timed, everyone disagreed. — Rob Harvilla

Queens of the Stone Age
Other Star People
Euclid Tavern
August 27

Fans of Kyuss flocked to the Euclid Tavern last Friday night to see if the offshoot band Queens of the Stone Age was worthy of adoration. They didn't leave disappointed. The Queens brought their distinct bluesy hard rock into the shop for repairs. Before the night ended, the band had overhauled its sound via wailing jams and high-pitched solos.

The Queens aren't doing anything groundbreaking, yet their unique sound and following makes them an anomaly. They're not punk, they're not metal; they are just an underground rock band. It's refreshing to see: a band creating handcrafted chaos and ambiance the old-fashioned way — with their instruments. A lap guitar provided much of the evening's eerie sound effects, while guitarist Josh Homme did a fine job using his frets to create equally aggravating noises. We often wonder what musicians used in pre-sampler days, and Queens reminded us in a big way.

The white backdrop doubled as a movie screen, as a video showed a close-up of a human eye blinking and looking about. Big Brother was watching, and the band could care less what he thought.

New track "Infinity" was a blistering ride, with the slide guitar creating a siren-like noise amid a background of distorted chords. Queens are big on guitar sounds and interplay, but there was little substance in the melody or vocal categories — not that it mattered. The quartet had the intangible quality of appearing to play more for themselves than the audience.

Having recently relocated to the Northwest, Queens tackled the grunge issue quite nicely with "Mexicola," reminding us that guitar rock minus the pontification is timeless. Its thick drums and heavy groove supported the loud guitar assault.

A long jam and ethereal trip taken on "You Can't Quit Me" crossed over into the Pink Floyd realm, with dazzling solos hovering over vaporous discord. It wasn't endless, but the jamming would have been just as potent had it been cut down a little. Then again, maybe that was the point.

Opener Other Star People's simplistic pop/punk formula was neither inappropriate nor memorable. Even their tongue-in-cheek cover of Journey's "Any Way You Want It" lacked chutzpah. — John Benson

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