Which Way Is Up?

R.E.M. - Wilco

New World Music Theatre - Tinley Park

August 20, 1999

First Appeared in The Music Box, October 1999, Volume 6, #10

Written by John Metzger

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Scientists have stated that every particle has an anti-particle, yet they've struggled to find much of the anti-matter that makes up our universe. Here's a suggestion look no further than the New World Music Theatre in Tinley Park, Illinois. There's no question that this venue is the anti-matter equivalent of Red Rocks in Morrison, Colorado.

It's impossible not to feel cheated by the owners of the World, given that they had forced the closure of the more music-friendly Poplar Creek. Since then, Chicago audiences have had to endure the overpriced, cramped confines of the World and have been subjected to its horrible sight lines and pitiful acoustics. As if this isn't enough, the theater's owners have found a new way to torture their patrons, while increasing the returns on their investment. Between sets, they are broadcasting commercials on the World's two video screens. Like some weird homage to A Clockwork Orange, a commercial for a prominent airline and one for a cellular phone company were broadcast repeatedly for forty minutes. Needless to say, I will never utilize either of these companies' services again since the mere mention of their names has become exceptionally nauseating.

The World has never been a good place to see a concert, and every summer concludes with the same vow not to return, but this seems to be a promise whose destiny is to be broken. Some bands only pass through Chicago in the summer, making the World the only viable option. This year, promoters worked their financial magic to bring together several unique pairings, making it all the more difficult to "just say no."

The latest of these was R.E.M. and Wilco, who combined their talents for what should have been a blockbuster concert on August 20. Unfortunately, both bands were robbed by the World's inherent sound problems, which one can only hope will be improved by the money brought in from the commercials.

Playing before a sparse, and surprisingly disinterested hometown crowd, Wilco somehow managed to persevere. She's a Jar floated along it's orchestrated arrangement with a sense of purpose, while Woody Guthrie's California Stars galloped along a Byrds-fueled, country-rock beat. Much of the nuance was lost in the echo-laden amphitheater, but the passion behind the performance succeeded in transcending black-hole acoustics.

It was towards the end of their set that Wilco began to mold the World's sonic deficiencies to their advantage. A Shot in the Arm pushed away from its structure as the off-beat strum of Jeff Tweedy's acoustic guitar throttled against the ground-shaking vibrations created by the band. On Misunderstood, the group built the between-verse instrumental segues into sculpted waves of distorted feedback, each breaking and reforming with greater intensity than the last. By the final verse, Tweedy funneled his anger through his shouted lyrics as the song cascaded around him.

Unfortunately, R.E.M. did not fare quite as well. Every time the group developed some momentum, a poor song choice brought their set to a screeching halt. The difficulty was that it was the audience-favorites that slowed things down. The One I Love, Losing My Religion, Man on the Moon, and What's the Frequency, Kenneth? were all delivered with a detached air, despite the audience's tremendous enthusiasm. Complicating matters for R.E.M. was the fact that older songs like Pilgrimage and Cuyahoga went over with nary a response from the crowd. What's a band to do?

For one, they desperately need to stop catering to the audience, and play the songs that they want to perform. Over their last several discs, R.E.M. had begun to lay the groundwork for some new musical directions, all of which coalesced on their latest effort Up. Their music has become more atmospheric, and they've moved away from the sound which made them popular. Clearly, they're much more interested in their new musical landscape than they are in rehashing the past. Yet, it's a mystery why they did little to refurbish any of the songs of which they've grown tired.

That's not to say that R.E.M. didn't have their moments, and lead singer Michael Stipe was certainly a joy to watch as he danced across the stage. The group tore through a surging rendition of Wake-Up Bomb that packed a fury reminiscent of The Velvet Underground as a neon Warhol-ian banana hung above the stage. Standing in stark contrast, an ethereal acoustic guitar drifted against the soaring orchestration of the band on Sweetness Follows.

Ultimately though, it was the material from Up that R.E.M. was most intent on exploring. Suspicion soared with glorious majesty, and as Stipe sang, "Carry me away/Dream, dream," the band delivered a chord progression lifted from The Beatles' Golden Slumbers. Likewise, At My Most Beautiful was delivered in its full splendor, as the group paid tribute to vintage Brian Wilson with pristine accuracy.

The most telling moment came during the first half of R.E.M.'s encore. Stipe returned to the stage with an acoustic guitar and proceeded to deliver solo acoustic renditions of Falls to Climb and Hope. Though he fumbled through a few of the chord changes, his performance carried a raw spontaneity and touching vulnerability. It was everything that had been lacking from most of the band's hits, and for a moment R.E.M. had found their direction pursuit of something new and different rather than the well-trampled pathways of the past.

Up is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Summerteeth is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Copyright 1999 The Music Box