R.E.M. at Constitution Hall
Maybe bad reviews are just what R.E.M. needed. The band is now touring behind "Around the Sun," a CD that hasn't brought R.E.M. the kindliest critical notices of its two-decades-plus. Coincidentally or not, for two hours at Constitution Hall on Monday, R.E.M. played as if it still had a lot left to prove.
Bassist Mike Mills spent much of the night with his eyes closed and his head banging like an adolescent. Peter Buck, whose stage jumps have always teetered between graceful and oafish, showcased every arena-rock move he's ever stolen from Pete Townshend. And Michael Stipe, though claiming to have "nothing left" because of the presidential campaign and other goings-on in the real world, pranced and danced and generally appeared to have a blast from start to finish of a doggone wondrous set.
Though original drummer Bill Berry is seven years gone from the lineup (Bill Rieflin is now filling in), all of the remaining parts still matter musically in virtually every R.E.M. song. When Mills stepped up to the microphone to support Stipe's lead vocals on the underappreciated "Bad Day," he showed himself to still be as good a backup singer as rock has ever known. Buck, a guy who has sold more Rickenbackers and Vox amps than any player since George Harrison, lost himself in a beautiful blizzard of distorted notes on "The One I Love."
Stipe, wearing dark face paint around his eyes that was part kabuki, part pro wrestler, apologized before delivering any tune off the latest CD -- the best being "Boy in the Well" and "I Wanted to Be Wrong." His performance of each, however, rendered his apologies needless. And after every new song, he'd say, "You indulged us, so now we'll indulge you," and led the band back to the older portions of its vast and dearly beloved catalogue for a crowd-pleaser.
The packed hall shook whenever R.E.M. threw out an oldie, including "Begin the Begin," "Losing My Religion," "Life and How to Live It" and "Man on the Moon." Stipe didn't bother preaching to the left-leaning choir about politics or the imminent election until the end of the night, when he came out for the encore in a John Kerry shirt. And there was no performance of a frequent R.E.M. show-closer, "It's the End of the World as We Know It." Perhaps the band felt it would be too obvious.
-- Dave McKenna
Vanessa Carlton at Birchmere
"I look very innocent in my dress this evening," said 24-year-old Vanessa Carlton on Monday night as she glanced down at her pale frock, "but you don't want to get me in a car!" She then launched into "The Wreckage," a song about an automobile accident she envisioned in a fit of road rage, but she stopped midway through when the giggles from the crowd at the sold-out Birchmere disrupted her focus. With a laugh and the declaration "This just isn't working," Carlton quickly changed gears by playing her most well-known track, "A Thousand Miles."
Carlton's dress wasn't the only thing that made her seem innocent. She sang with a childlike chirp, which often veered into the shrillness of a temper tantrum on angrier songs such as "C'est La Vie." She talked about her fascination with ghosts ("She Floats") and vampires (specifically, unicorn-eating vampires, in "Half a Week Before the Winter"). She pounded the piano with simple riffs accented with arpeggios and chords; her instrumentation on "San Francisco" sounded like an extended version of "Chopsticks." But the simplicity of her style sometimes added to her songs: On "Wanted," the furious rumbling of the piano complemented simple, repetitive lyrics that grew into an all-out frenzy by the end of the tune.
Although she sometimes came across as overly sweet, Carlton's ability to look and sound years younger than her age did give her a refreshing innocence, and her mostly G-rated lyrics and stage banter made her show a nice alternative to her less refined teen-pop contemporaries.
-- Catherine P. Lewis
Robin Guthrie at Iota
Ever since the era of "Pet Sounds" and "Sgt. Pepper," some arty rockers have found their style in the recording studio rather in live performance.
Although they did tour eventually -- and successfully -- the Cocteau Twins were a prime example of the studio-conceived band. The Scottish trio's gauzy sound consisted largely of Robin Guthrie's heavily treated guitar and Elizabeth Fraser's warbling soprano, which combined to create music that was simultaneously indie rock and New Age.
The Twins have been silent for nearly a decade but are reportedly considering a tour next year. Perhaps limbering up for that, Guthrie arrived Monday night at Iota, accompanied only by his guitar, some sonic effects and an abstract video. The musician took the stage, slipped on headphones and turned perpendicular to the audience, which he barely acknowledged during a 40-minute set of cascading, richly harmonic guitar.
In this age of musical gadgetry, it would be futile to speculate just how much of the music Guthrie played, how much of it was sampled or sequenced and how much it was manipulated after the notes left the guitar strings.
There were several brief breaks, and some sections that were more emphatic than others, but the entire performance was of a piece. The music whooshed, cooed, rumbled and hovered, suggesting everything from the Byrds' jet-age sound to a church organ. If the results seemed emotionally limited, that wasn't because of the lack of human voice. Even with Fraser's singing, the Cocteau Twins always were a gorgeous blank.
-- Mark Jenkins
Chamber Music at the Terrace Theater
In an ingeniously planned program, the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio and the Miami String Quartet each played a delightful short piece before joining forces for dramatic performances of two more substantial works on Monday night at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater.
The trio gave a sparkling performance of Beethoven's youthful Variations on an Original Theme in E-flat, Op. 44, giving full voice to both its irreverent jokes and its gentle pathos. In Hugo Wolf's jovial Italian Serenade, the Miami players tossed mercurial themes back and forth and kept its bouncy rhythms from feeling too relentless.
When Jaime Laredo (taking up the viola) and cellist Sharon Robinson joined the quartet to play Dvorak's Sextet in A, Op. 48, the fast tempos and minimal rubato favored by the combined group meant that some of the idiomatic flavor in the Czech dumka slow movement went missing. However, the added excitement this approach produced in the striding first movement, the scintillating Czech furiant and the finale's satisfying progression from wistfulness to ebullience more than compensated for that loss.
When Miami violinist Ivan Chan and violist Chauncey Patterson joined the trio for Brahms's fiery, tragic Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34, the same aggressive approach fueled a devastating performance. Quieter moments here felt breathlessly intense, with the chromatic chords introducing the finale particularly wrenching, while Brahms's passionate outbursts made a thunderous impact. Some loud passages in the riveting finale drew rough playing from pianist Joseph Kalichstein, but it was tough to complain too much from the edge of one's seat.
-- Andrew Lindemann Malone
Women Master Drummers of Guinea
The Women Master Drummers of Guinea must live on PowerBars. Their display of music and dance from the west coast of Africa at Cheverly's Publick Playhouse on Monday night was pure energy.
The performers played djembes, a drum resembling a conga, suspended from their necks, as well as other percussion instruments struck with palms and sticks. The instruments were fairly simple affairs, carved out of wood with some fabric for decoration. The drumming experience was accentuated by frenetic dancing, the women beating the floor with their bare feet. It was a powerful experience to watch the synchronized choreography.
The most melodic portion of the program was when the balafon, a wooden xylophone, took center stage. Twenty-four-year-old virtuoso Fatoumata Kouyate was the first woman in her country to be allowed to learn to play this instrument. In fact, until this generation, women in Guinea were not permitted to play any of these drums.
It was an enjoyable and energizing evening -- that is, if you could get past the first five minutes of cheesy pantomime, acting out in dance how the women came to be master drummers. And those who stayed after the end of the exuberant finale found their euphoric mood killed by manager Mamoudou Conde, who came onstage with a long speech before introducing the members of the troupe.
The drummers perform again tonight at 7.
-- Gail Wein