For two nights in Athens and Atlanta, Ga., R.E.M. fans—and members—celebrated the 40th anniversary of the band’s debut EP Chronic Town with a pair of star-studded tribute shows at the 40 Watt and the Coca-Cola Roxy. Proceeds from the shows—available to stream until 8pm ET tonight—benefit Planned Parenthood and, according to host David Cross, have already exceeded $100,000.
At the Atlanta show I attended, Cross sported a “Fuck Cobb Co.” Braves T-shirt—a reference to the baseball team abandoning the city for a new suburban stadium years ago, just a few hundred yards from the venue where dozens of musicians took the stage to play the five songs from Chronic Town, along with a varied and often surprising selection from R.E.M.’s deep catalog.
John Cameron Mitchell kicked the evening off with “Wolves, Lower,” with the Hedwig and the Angry Inch actor/director giving each song he tackled throughout the night a dance-y, cabaret flare. Fred Armisen sang “Gardening at Night” with all the earnestness of lifelong fan, backed by the first house band that included The Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson, who organized the event along with veteran concert promoter Velena Vego. Robinson’s son Quinn came out to sing “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)” and showed us all that talent runs deep in that family.
Chronic Town’s producer and Let’s Active frontman Mitch Easter did a fantastic job with “1,000,000” before Mitchell returned to finish off the EP.
Elf Power followed with a three-song set that included a cover of R.E.M.’s cover of The Velvet Underground’s “There She Goes Again.” Many of the musicians talked about discovering music via the Athens’ quartet’s covers, and that came full circle when the Pylon Reenactment Society—featuring the band’s surviving members—came out to play “Crazy.” It was a treat to see Vanessa Briscoe back on stage, and she followed her own song with a fun version of “Crush with Eyeliner.”
When Drivin’ n’ Cryin’s Kevn Kinney came out to sing “Fall on Me”—one of the evening’s many highlights—his backing band included Mills, who exuded joy every time he took the stage, and Buck, who was as calm and cool as ever, playing those delicious jangly licks on his Rickenbacker, as well as legendary guitarist Lenny Kaye. Chris Robinson then joined Kinney for a duet on “King of Birds.”
The Baseball Project—Mills’ and Buck’s band with Steve Wynn, Linda Pittman and R.E.M. “fifth member” Scott McCaughey—then played four songs from across the catalog: “Maps and Legends,” “Me in Honey,” “So. Central Rain” and “Circus Envy.”
David Ryan Harris came out to play “Radio Free Europe” and “Everybody Hurts,” and the latter was transformative. The crowd sang along as he took the song to places I’d never heard it go, the empathy and hope in Michael Stipe’s lyrics impossible to ignore.
And then we got the closest thing to a full-on R.E.M. performance with Mike Mills taking lead on “Superman.”
Puddles the Pity Party gave us an unexpected interlude as the nearly six-and-a-half-foot clown sang “What Child Is This?” with all the gravity of Pavarotti before Darius Rucker came out for two fantastic R.E.M. covers, “World Leader Pretend” and “I Believe.” Chris Robinson returned to make both “Pale Blue Eyes” and “The One I Love” his own. And then Mills closed things out singing Big Star’s “September Gurls” backed by most of the evening’s performers.
Michael Stipe and Bill Berry were reportedly in the building at the 40 Watt, but a full reunion of the band remains a dream for fans. Still, these two nights reminded us why we love these post-punk pioneers.
Listen to an R.E.M. performance from our archives, at the Paradise on July 13, 1983, and watch Michael Stipe sing “Pale Blue Eyes” at the Capital Theater on June 9, 1984.
Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief. He’s on Twitter @joshjackson and @BirdsAtl.