“We’re R.E.M., and this is what we do”
Saturday’s Georgia Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony was everything I wanted it to be: a celebration of music, a special night with my beloveds (real and imagined), a good excuse to get dolled up. My date for the evening was my niece Lauren — a true Coffey, as big a music freak as I am. She grew up listening to R.E.M., thanks to her obsessed aunt, so she was nearly as excited about the event as I was. This year’s induction class included, in addition to R.E.M., Gregg Allman (Lauren’s favorite on the bill, actually), Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin, Felice Bryant, and Kristen Hall. I’ll write about my boys today and the rest of the induction ceremony later this week (or else it will take you hours to read this post).
I was surprised that R.E.M. had yet to be inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, that groups such as The B-52’s and Indigo Girls made it in before then. I found out through a source that the reason for this long-overdue honor was simply a scheduling problem: R.E.M. had been on tour or unavailable in previous years, and they wanted to be in attendance for The Big Event. As did I.
You’re saying to yourself, “Damn, she has a ‘source’; she’s cool.” I’m telling myself that, too, but it’s not all that exclusive; it’s all in the phrasing.
The organizers were strict about us staying in our general areas, telling us there were police and security throughout the hall so that we wouldn’t pester the inductees and their famous friends. Damn them. Actually, although I probably would have rushed the stage during the performance, I wouldn’t have bothered the luminaries in attendance. I’m finding that I prefer keeping R.E.M. at arm’s length, on their pedestals, and having my own connection with the songs. Who cares about their what and why when it means something else to me?
R.E.M. was the next-to-last induction, as Group of the Year, just before Gregg Allman. The two thousand of us seated in the World Congress Center ballroom had three hours of cocktails and bad food and lesser-knowns before The Beloved Four hit the stage. But it was worth the wait.
If you missed the many news stories, this was an especially poignant night, as the original four came together to perform — Bill Berry left the hay farm for this event. Since Bill retired from the band in 1997, he’s performed with R.E.M. maybe three or four times, and usually just on one or two songs. It was wonderful to see those four together again, a glorious step back in time.
R.E.M. performed three songs, the max allowed. I hate to be one of those fans — I don’t think I’ve ever complained about an R.E.M. performance, and I’ve seen them nearly thirty times — but I found the set a bit predictable. My fingers were crossed for “Radio Free Europe” or “Gardening at Night,” maybe “Perfect Circle” or “Nightswimming,” even “Sitting Still” or “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” Now, I enjoyed what they played, but I was holding out for a fan special.
Michael Stipe introduced the first song with “This is going to be loud.” And “Begin the Begin” (a thrilling semi-surprise) filled the room. We were up and dancing and singing and feeling young.
The ceremony was broadcast live on the state’s public broadcasting stations, and there were JumboTrons throughout the room playing the simulcast. Lauren and I were among the first to yelp louder the first time the camera zoomed on Bill Berry (who looks good, by the way; farming seems to agree with him); soon everyone in the room threw in an extra roar when the camera caught him.
There was a college-age kid from Japan at our table. He came to Atlanta just for this R.E.M. performance, and is beside himself with excitement about the upcoming Robyn Hitchcock/Minus 5 show in Tokyo next month. When R.E.M. played, he sat a little taller in his chair, very still. Even when he stood, he remained stiff and respectful. I was hoping to see him break loose and dance. He was thrilled with the show, stiffness be damned.
As Michael Stipe said “We’re R.E.M., and this is what we do,” Peter Buck grabbed the mandolin, Scott McCaughey hit the stage for some guitar work, and the band played “Losing My Religion.” While I was hoping for something else, it was wonderful to hear it live for the first time in a couple of years.
Those who watched the show on PBS complained that R.E.M. and Gregg Allman sounded off-key, and the clips included here back up that claim. But it must have been a room/broadcast conflict, as everyone sounded great. Or maybe we were too in the moment to notice.
To introduce the final number, Michael explained it’s “a song about life and about passage and about what each of us make of our short time here on Earth,” dedicating “Man on the Moon” to former Texas governor Ann Richards. “Man on the Moon” is always fun to hear live — and I love the way Michael sings “cooo-wulll!”
Former Senator Max Cleland — one of our state’s great heroes — then inducted the band, and Michael spoke for the group. I giggled every time Peter Buck bent down to put his glass of red wine on the floor to applaud Sen. Cleland and Blind Willie McTell. You gotta love a man with priorities.
But that wasn’t the end of the night for us R.E.M. fans. Gregg Allman needed a backup band for his final numbers, so Peter, Mike, Bill, and Scott joined him for the evening closer: “Midnight Rider.”
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That performance was perhaps the highlight of the show.
I’ll write about it later this week, but I will tell you that Gregg Allman performed an acoustic version of “Melissa,” which was beautiful.
So, it was a brilliant, wonderful, baubled evening. Lived up to my internal hype, although I was hoping for a stretch on the playlist. I felt proud to be a part of this momentous occasion with my boys (and, yes, I will go to Cleveland when they're inducted into The Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame). And, just as important, my outfit was fabulous.