By Chris Sikich for The Philadelphia City Paper Vacation in Athens was calling last week (Georgia, not Greece) as a rare convergence occurred at the legendary 40 Watt Club: one member of defunct hometown heroes R.E.M.was going to be performing for certain: Peter Buck. In a slot opening for Kevn Kinney and The Roaming Countrymen, Buck brought his merry cohorts from the Pacific Northwest —Scott McCaughey, Kurt Bloch and Bill Rieflin — to play for a sold-out audience that paid just $5 to enter. Declaring he’d returned to a venue he’s spent more time in than some homes he’s owned, Buck blasted through a set of bluesy, garage-rock from his 2012 self-titled solo debut.
With a singing voice that was unknown to the listening public until its first deep and angular notes could be heard on “10 Million B.C.,” Buck may have polarized some of his previous band’s fanbase, but he couldn’t care less. And rightly so, as Thursday’s 14-song set was full of freewheeling energy that was infectious. Buck was having a blast, leaping in the air in a manner reminiscent of R.E.M.’s heyday.
Oh, and then there was the three-quarters R.E.M. reunion. Bassist Mike Mills sauntered up to the left of the stage and Bill Berry walked to the drum kit to perform “(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville,” from 1984’s Reckoning. The song’s performance was almost a near certainty, as Mills has joined Buck many times to do it. But the rare addition of Berry, who has been known to cameo at the 40 Watt with Buck side projects Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 and The Baseball Project, was much rumored (and totally known to those waiting before the show, as the drummer stepped outside after soundcheck and joked that the show was already over). Though Michael Stipe stayed out of the spotlight despite being in the audience, everyone rocking “Rockville” was having a heavenly time (and with McCaughey and Rieflin, who both played with R.E.M. for years, on stage, this was probably as close to a full reunion as we’ll get for a long while).
Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood also joined Buck to sing — or, more accurately, recite — a tone poem scheduled for Buck’s next album. (It’s been referred to as “Roswell” in previous reports; the setlist called it “Southerner,” while Hood’s lyric sheet used both titles.) Buck also devoted a pair of back-to-back tunes to other primates — “Monkey Mask” and the absurdly catchy The Mummies cover “(You Must Fight to Live) On the Planet of the Apes” — before turning his attention to Mexico (“Vaso Loco”) and life affirmations (Tommy James and The Shondells’ “I’m Alive”). On the latter, the set closer and one of Buck’s finest moments, Mills joined Buck and Co. again and it was certainly a joyous sendoff.
Kinney waltzed on with his countrymen — or, more accurately, everyone from Buck’s band — to play a set largely devoted to his 25-year-old masterwork, MacDougal Blues. Certainly among the most underrated songwriters, Kinney (who also fronts Drivin’ N’ Cryin’) pours his heart and soul into every note. Buck, who produced MacDougal Blues and toured with Kinney to promote it after conquering the world with R.E.M.’s nearly yearlong tour for 1988’s Green, switched gears seamlessly from his current garage-rock incarnation to one expertly plucking a mandolin on songs including “Trail of Seasons” and playing dulcimer on Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s “With the People.” The latter also featured a passage from R.E.M.’s “King of Birds” as it has in the past, a fair trade for R.E.M.’s tucking “With the People” into “King of Birds” on the Green tour.
And then another surprise occurred, as Berry returned to the kit for three more songs — “Gotta Get out of Here,” “Chico & Maria” and “Not Afraid to Die.” Other guests during Kinney’s set included Hood, Athens-based producer-guitarist John Keane, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’guitarist (and onetime R.E.M. guitar tech and touring guitarist) Buren Fowler, and Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ drummer Dave V. Johnson. Beyond MacDougal, Kinney did a smashing cover of “Pushin’ Too Hard,” and then there was the guest-performer-galore performance of “Straight to Hell.” All in all, from Buck to Kinney, Berry to Mills, and everyone else, this was top-down a night to remember and savor.
The following night kicked off the four-day film festival Everyday People: The Works of Jim McKay at Athens’ Cine movie theater. Friday’s screening was of Tourfilm, the McKay-directed document of R.E.M.'s Green tour. A rare big-screen presentation of the straight-to-video concert film was made even rarer considering that Stipe, Buck and Mills were in attendance. It was quite surreal as the crowd sang along, if somewhat hushed, and clapped after many of the songs while the band watched from the back.
After the screening, Stipe took part in a Q&A with Salon editor David Daley. The questions from Daley and the audience revealed Stipe hadn’t seen the film since its release and was a little embarrassed by his semi-mohawk/braided-rattail hairstyle and between-song comments to the crowd, though he still had muscle memory of those old dance moves. It was a delightful look into the mind of an artist who has withdrawn from music, at least for now. And it was a wonderful exclamation point following the previous night’s performance.
Peter Buck’s setlist
- So Long Johnny
- It’s Alright
- Ride Road
- Life is Short
- 10 Million B.C.
- Give Me Back My Wig (Hound Dog Taylor cover)
- Monkey Mask
- (You Must Fight to Live) On the Planet of the Apes (The Mummies cover)
- (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville
- Vaso Loco
- Outta the House
- I’m Alive (Tommy James and The Shondells cover)
Kevn Kinney and The Roaming Countrymen’s setlist
- Trail of Seasons
- MacDougal Blues
- With the People (with R.E.M.’s “King of Birds” snippet)
- Gotta Get out of Here
- Chico & Maria
- Not Afraid to Die
- Hey Landlord (Meatloaf And Fishsticks)
- Catch the Wind
- Last Song of Maddie Hope
- Roll Away the Stone
- Underground Umbrella
- Pushin’ Too Hard (The Seeds cover)
- Straight to Hell
- This Town
- Honeysuckle Blue