Editor's note: On the new comedy podcast "R U Talkin' R.E.M. RE: ME?", hosts Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott dive deep into the legendary Athens band's discography. Local superfan Tim Kelly is reviewing the podcast for Flagpole.
"It’s special. Seeing one of the greatest bands of all time in such a small room."
Ah, the “secret show.” Hearing tales from the Scott McCaughey benefit shows in Portland on the two-part Green/Lance Bangs episodes of the podcast brought back memories of tracking down every Athens rumor about my white whale—the surprise R.E.M. show at the 40 Watt or Georgia Theatre.
I moved to Athens too late for the famed 1992 Greenpeace show at the 40 Watt. My wife and I missed the stripped-down Land Aid set on the steps of City Hall in 2000 during our brief time living in another city while she went to school. I’d been lucky enough to attend many R.E.M. shows (stories for other times, other reviews), but felt there was a hole in my fandom not having seen the band on our home turf.
Hearing Adam, Scott and Lance talk with such delight about the Portland shows (“Peter Buck’s Rickenbacker!” “Then Bill Berry came out!”) brought back that thrill of the chase—seeking that special, spontaneous moment when your favorite band might show up out of the blue in a venue too small, but yet somehow so right, for the mastery and energy about to be unleashed on stage.
So it was, as my final year of law school was beginning in 2006, that I read about an upcoming concert, Finest Worksongs: Athens Bands Play the Songs of R.E.M., benefiting an Athens nonprofit, Community Connection. I was already familiar with the charity not only from their work, but through the series of R.E.M. album listening parties they held for each new release from the band. The lineup was stacked with Athens heavy hitters, including Five Eight, Patterson Hood and more. Even if R.E.M. wasn’t going to be within 3,000 miles of the show, it was a must-see.
Buuut, I’d be lying if I wasn’t daydreaming about the possibility of Stipe jumping up on stage to sing a song or two with the Modern Skirts, or Peter Buck playing along with Vanessa Hay and The Observatory. I had convinced a few classmates to join me on a fairly random September Tuesday night at the 40 Watt. I told them it was for charity—I’ll buy you a beer! You’ll have fun!
We went to Clocked for a burger, and as soon as we settled into our table with our first beer of the night, you could tell something was different. There were a LOT of people out—milling in front of the club, walking, searching up and down Washington Street. A woman approached us, “do you have tickets to the show?!” “I do, yes.” “I’ll give you $100 for it right now. $150.” I told everyone to quickly finish their drinks, and do NOT sell those tickets.
As a law student, I had been fortunate enough to strike up a friendship with many professors, including R.E.M. and UGA’s own Bertis Downs. As we walked into the 40 Watt, he was one of the first of many friendly faces I saw that night. He said, “If you have friends coming, make sure they get inside quick,” And now, I’m on high alert—scanning the room, looking for band members, looking for anything that might give the secret away.
The show began with beautiful renditions of "Swan Swan H" and "Wendell Gee" by Claire Campbell, and then things get hazy. I’m not sure how it happened, or when I first saw them, or when my brain finally allowed me to accept what was happening, but there they were—Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe. BERRY! Stipe grabbed the mic in the tiny club I’d been to many times before, said, “We are R.E.M., and this is what they do,” and they launched into "Begin the Begin" followed by "So. Central Rain." I wish I could say I exchanged glances with my friend Bill that conveyed how we both understood that this was a moment that would never be forgotten (we didn’t; I was screaming and jumping and pumping my fist), or told my wife how much the moment meant to me, being surrounded by friends and community members, here in the town that after 10 years had become home (I didn’t; she was otherwise occupied saving lives as a pediatric resident in South Carolina).
The band left the stage and made way for a string of sweaty, magical, boozy, tender performances by Athens bands playing the R.E.M. songs we all knew by heart. At one point, I stumbled across Bertis again. He was holding a beer and said, “Do you want this? I bought it for Mike, but now I can’t find him, so you can have it.” And then I was drinking a beer meant for Mike Mills while Mike Mills played "Rockville" alongside Patterson Hood and Peter Buck.
Born in 1978, I found R.E.M. later than some, but for one Athens night, I had the chance to feel a bit of what it must have been like—the chaotic, frenzied energy inside St. Mary’s Epsicopal church or Tyrone’s O.C. And I guess I still owe Mike Mills a beer.
Highlights from the Scotts:
Stone Cold Classics:
"World Leader Pretend"
"Turn You Inside Out"