R.E.M. / Wilco – Red Rocks (Morrison, CO)
Extraordinary things happen on a regular basis at Red Rocks, and the best results often come from determined opening acts. Guy Clark, playing before Lyle Lovett in June 2002, immediately comes to mind. The most memorable flash of last year’s season, his “Dublin Blues” doubled over with twice the desolation it’s shown on other stages.
A similarly unique presence was evident in Wilco’s set on this night. Both Wilco and R.E.M. offered strong sets, but while the opener brought forth fire and excitement, the headliner stuck mostly to a studio-perfected blueprint.
Wrapped in a herringbone tweed jacket, golf hat and a scarf to fend off a blustery chill, and with blue eye shadow streaked from brow to brow, lead singer Michael Stipe proved he’s one hell of an entertainer, running, juking and twirling across the stage. Most importantly, his voice is stronger than ever, as was evident on the fitting opener “Begin The Begin”, the new “Animal”, and the mandolin-hook masterpiece “Losing My Religion”.
A sleeper gem from Automatic For The People, “Find The River”; the band’s first big hit, “The One I Love”; and a jet-fueled “Driver 8” showed R.E.M. is an air-tight outfit. But the downside is that even with their onstage aerobics, everything seemed too routine, too scripted. Red Rocks often inspires the spectacular, so it was a mild disappointment that the majority of the concert seemed on autopilot.
Things didn’t really loosen up until “Man On The Moon”, the main set’s closer. That song, and the entire ensuing encore, were truly worthy of this natural landmark. Stipe galloped wildly across the stage during “Man On The Moon”, energizing both himself and the capacity crowd, before the band returned for affecting takes on “Everybody Hurts” and “Nightswimming”. They then propelled into a feverish “Imitation Of Life” — a timely dedication to Johnny Cash — and finally “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.
That the venue filled before Wilco took the stage is a testament to their growing popularity. Local high schools and universities were well represented, supplementing long-term disciples. Newer fans have replaced hopeful calls for “The Long Cut” from Tweedy’s Uncle Tupelo days with shouts for older Wilco pearls such as “Passenger Side”, which didn’t make it into the fold tonight.
“I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” was an elegantly scattered confetti shower of instrumentation; with laid-back confidence, leader Jeff Tweedy’s performance and demeanor refuted criticism that Wilco’s increasingly experimental sound has meant a loss of soul. Those who accuse Wilco of forsaking the warmth and spirit of their earlier records for a more distant, spacey, adventurous sound need look no further than the band’s live rendition of “Reservations” for evidence that, in the heart, not all that much has changed. Leading with an acoustic guitar, Tweedy erased the song’s ethereal studio air, reinventing it as a naked, weary ode of self-criticism that brought the intimacy of a coffeehouse to this amphitheater.
A stunning reading of “One By One” from the Billy Bragg collaboration Mermaid Avenue marked a shift toward older material, followed by the two offerings from Being There, “Kingpin” and “Misunderstood”, that served up loud and sloppy Westerberg-style rock at its finest and most inspiring.
“It took five million years to build this place, it took one song to tear it down,” Tweedy growled, introducing “Jesus, Etc.” That might be a stretch, but as R.E.M.’s Peter Buck joined the band for a rousing version of “California Stars”, there was no doubt this performance had rattled more than a few rocks.