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The Well Isn’t Dry 

A luv-fest with REM

Thursday, Sep 25 2003
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REM at the Hollywood Bowl, September 10

REM have long been the Abercrombie & Fitch of alt-rock: durable, dependable merchants of one-song-fits-all contemporary Americana. But onstage fights, apparent splits and the departure of ailing drummer Bill Berry have made us all — the band included — appreciate that perhaps this 20-year Georgia phenomenon can’t be taken for granted. So amid a perfect setting (and with a mix to match), tonight’s REM were a humble, humorous mutual fan club, arrayed before a backdrop spelling out L-U-V.

These shiny happy people kicked off appropriately with “Begin the Begin,” Michael Stipe’s voice in fine, crystalline fettle and bassist Mike Mills’ harmonies as poignant as on record. In concert, Mills’ contribution — bass, keys, backing and occasional lead vocals — can be fully appreciated. Yet it’ll always be Stipe’s lived-in, tremulous timbre that sets hairs standing and minds rewinding. He hung from the mike with that two-handed, Johnny-Rotten-meets-Gollum grip between loose-limbed Tae-Bo wanderings at stage’s lip — grateful and inclusive, utterly present.

The band’s songcraft and harmonic prowess allowed REM to fully engulf the senses, even at arena range and in a spare six-piece live incarnation. The arpeggiated opening and vocal interplay of the meaty new tune “Animal” augured well for REM as a continuing creative unit (though other fresh offerings trod stylistic water). But it was the living classics that got couples clenching, tears welling and college flashbacks flashing: the aching quasi-Yemenite intervals of “The One I Love,” the monastic melodic interaction of “Orange Crush” and the maudlin mandolin flecks of “Losing My Religion.” Encores included the desolate, together-alone optimism of “Everybody Hurts” and a hefty “Finest Worksong” before feedback and fluttering cymbals sucked us into the runaway rap of “End of the World”: an unlikely sing-along lyric to cruise this evening to its comfortable crescendo.

ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND at the Greek Theater, September 7

There once was a fantastic used-record store near Vermont and Hollywood where you could go in midday and get schooled in music by the owner and employees in the friendliest of ways. My favorite lesson ever there was when I inquired about how to get into the Allman Brothers Band, and within minutes Mike the Second-in-Command was playing “Midnight Rider” on the PA and retrieving the Allmans’ 1972 Eat a Peach from the bins. Opening the album’s jacket to reveal James Flournoy Holmes’ magnificent Magic Markered magic-mushroom idyllscape centerfold, Mike smiled and asked, “Now, wouldn’t you like to live there?” Why yes I would, I said, and so I bought the record for the art . . . and kept it for the music.

A lot of other people still wanna live there, a fact made immediately evident tonight when the assembled “Peach Corps” — size XXXL kissing cousins to the Deadheads — began cheering, smoking and awkwardly dancing the moment the band charged into the gospel-funk rave-up “Revival” and the giant computer-generated psilocybin on the screens behind the band started to rotate and glow. “People can you hear it/Love is everywhere,” sang Gregg Allman in that remarkable biker-soul voice of his, surely one of America’s grandest treasures. Still leading the band from behind his Hammond organ, Gregg sang beautifully, especially on “Old Before My Time,” an aching and deeply moving new ballad. A rendition of the jazztacular instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” was simply staggering. Some aspects of the current ensemble were iffier: While Butch Trucks’ 22-year-old nephew Derek is the frighteningly talented guitar virtuoso that everybody sez he is, guitarist/singer Warren Haynes (whose day job is leading the band Gov’t Mule) holds the whole band back by hitting (and then endlessly holding) the same egregious crowd-pleasing notes on most every solo. And there it is: The present ABB is too competent, too sleek, too . . . CGI. Which is nuts, given that the Allmans, of all people, should know the value of the simple Magic Marker. (Jay Babcock)

RED KRAYOLA, MAHER SHALAL HASH BAZ, CURTAINS at Spaceland, September 11

Curtains — a collision between half of S.F.’s Deerhoof and one-third of our own Open City — have tightened up slightly since their last local sighting. Their playfully abstract instrumentals were strung together smoothly, interrupted only by drummer Andrew Maxwell’s funny-peculiar vocal interjections (“Money in the fusebox, ain’t that fun/Not when you’re being chased by an insane nun”). Chris Cohen (piercing guitar) and Greg Saunier (monophonic Radio Shack synth) aren’t at pains to produce especially pleasant tones, but Maxwell’s jazz instincts led them in less cerebral directions, as on the hard-bopping “The Bronx.”

Tokyo-based Maher Shalal Hash Baz, on the initial stop of their first American tour, were the evening’s wild card. Veteran Japanese underground figure Tori Kudo, on piano and guitar, is clearly their prime mover; this touring incarnation included — in descending order of player competence — sax, trumpet, French horn, bass and (just barely) drums. Imagine a junior high marching band rehearsing 30-second sections of Belle & Sebastian instrumental breaks and ’70s cop-show themes, and you’ll have some concept of their 50-odd-song set. (A few were longer psych-pop confections, with diffident vocals from Kudo.) Despite frustrating, pleasure-denying pacing, the band won over an initially mystified crowd by sheer unflappability, high-concept not-so-faux-naiveté, and exactly one fiery alto solo.

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