R.E.M. Tribute Concert at Carnegie: A Reckoning

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Vic Chesnutt rehearsing before the show. Photo: Getty Images

One downside to being a lifelong R.E.M. completist (besides Around the Sun) is the compulsion to buy R.E.M. tribute albums. We own Athens's finest as reinterpreted by a cheesy classical guitarist, some bluegrass opportunists, a self-debasing Royal Philharmonic, and finally, in a collection called Surprise Your Pig, a bunch of early-nineties indie rockers who clearly hate R.E.M. So we had our fears about last night's "Tribute to R.E.M." concert at Carnegie Hall, which entrusted some of rock's hardest-to-improve-upon tunes to everyone from the Moldy Peaches' Kimya Dawson to Darius Rucker, a.k.a. Hootie. The result was, for the most part, shockingly decent; the individual song-performer pairings are graded below, with no pretense of objectivity.

1. The dB's, "Fall on Me": A close facsimile of the original (no big shock, since pretty much everyone onstage had played and recorded with R.E.M. at some point), with a countryish breakdown. Fidelity: 9 (out of 10), Added Value: 1

2. Fink, "The Apologist": Solo guitar and a pseudo-bluesy vocals in the Chris Cornell vein turn the Radioheadish number from Up into a kind of NPR funk. Fidelity: 2, Added Value: 0

3. Keren Ann & Calexico, "Man on the Moon": A languid, folky take. Keren Ann, mercifully, forgoes an Elvis impression on the "Hey baby / Are we losing touch?" part. Fidelity: 6, Added Value: 2

4. Calexico, "Wendell Gee": A no-brainer (this is R.E.M.'s most Calexico-like song) with a touch of extra drawl. The night's first performer to get all the lyrics right. Fidelity: 8, Added Value: 3

5. Rachel Yamagata, "The Great Beyond": A lazy, loungey piano version of one of the band's few good post–Bill Berry rockers. Fidelity: 3, Added Value: 1

6. Bob Mould, "Sitting Still": Calexico, playing the house band, finally gets a chance to rock out; Mould's catholic re-creation of Stipe's phonetic non-lyrics betrays a genuine fan. Fidelity: 7, Added Value: 4

7. The Feelies, "Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)": How painfully indie, to reach back to the band's very first EP for material; that said, unlike many performers tonight, the Feelies have clearly played, or at least jammed on, this song before. Fidelity: 8, Added Value: 5

8. Ingrid Michaelson, "Nightswimming": Cutesy-wutesy "The Way I Am" singer pairs up with an upright bass and a digital-delay pedal; her flawlessly executed real-time self-sampling saves the song by gradually amassing a choir of herself. Fidelity: 3, Added Value: 3

9. Glen Hansard, "Hairshirt": A properly boring mandolin rendition of R.E.M.'s most boring mandolin song. Fidelity: 10, Added Value: 0

10. Apples in Stereo, "South Central Rain": "This song changed my life," exclaimed Robert Schneider, before launching into a wholly reverent cover, complete with a Rickenbacker. Fidelity: 9, Added Value: 1

11. Guster, "Shaking Through": A banjo lead is the only deviation from the original — Adam Gardner even copied Stipe's unusually flat notes. Fidelity: 9, Added Value: 2

12. Marshall Crenshaw, "Supernatural Superserious": Done in half-time and in an organic, "Automatic"-era arrangement, this is the night's first song to clearly, indisputably improve on its source. Fidelity: 4, Added Value: 9

13. Rhett Miller, "Driver 8": Almost too easy a pairing — the erstwhile Old 97's singer was born to do this chiming Southern number. Next time try tackling "Airportman" or something. Fidelity: 8, Added Value: 1

14. Kimya Dawson and some furries, "World Leader Pretend": The night's designated WTF moment sees Green's dark anthem reduced to a glockenspiel ditty, with dinosaurs and cops gyrating in the background. Fidelity: 0, Added Value: 7

15. Vic Chesnutt & Elf Power, "Everybody Hurts": R.E.M.'s slickest ballad reborn as a swampy, throaty lament; watching Chesnutt strain to reach the mike from his wheelchair on the line "Don't let yourself go" is almost too powerful for words. Hope someone rolled tape on this. Fidelity: 4, Added Value: 10

16. Throwing Muses, "Perfect Circle": Somehow janglier than the original (!), but Kristin Hersh sounded downright bored. Fidelity: 5, Added Value: 2

17. Dar Williams, "At My Most Beautiful": Someone took the Carnegie Hall thing seriously: Williams delivers the band's Beach Boys tribute in a ballgown, to a solemn piano-and-cello arrangement. Her lovely, plaintive head voice is ill-served by this — you'd expected an operatic soprano. Fidelity: 8, Added Value: 3

18. Jolie Holland & TV on the Radio, "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" Twangy, faithful, and ultimately dull; TVOTR's backing-vocal contribution remained completely inaudible, but Tunde did rock a sharp blazer. Fidelity: 9, Added Value: 1

19. Darius Rucker, "I Believe": Hootie nails it! Rucker, whose terrible old band actually started out doing R.E.M. covers, is the only performer of the night to do proper Stipe Hands (a kind of malaised "Voguing") while on the mike. Fidelity: 7, Added Value: 4

20. Patti Smith, "New Test Leper": Smith, who'll take her love of R.E.M. literally anywhere (she recently sang "Everybody Hurts" in a duet with Russian pop star Zemfira), tries this song, forgets the lyrics, apologizes, begins anew, makes something up. Michael Stipe then joins her onstage for "E-Bow the Letter"; this time, she changes her chorus lines to "Thank you / Michael / for being my Valentine / Thank you / Michael / baby / honey." Stipe looks equal parts touched and embarrassed. Which, in the end, happens to be the perfect reaction to the quixotic undertaking of the entire tribute concert. Fidelity: N/A, Added Value: N/A