31. “Imitation of Life,” R.E.M.

R.E.M. on My Shuffled Life
Michael Stipe dancing in the Toronto rain. (Photo courtesy Reuters.)

May 17, 2001 was a grey, drizzly day in Toronto. I remember that because I can photographically recall the weather on any day in my life. Okay, that’s not remotely true. I remember the weather because that was the day R.E.M. played a free outdoor show at Yonge and Dundas, promoting their new album Reveal, and it was a beautiful, wet thing.

I played hooky from work, so there was that anxiety hovering over me, but I tried to just enjoy the moment. I had recently started a job where I got to work exclusively from home and more or less make my own hours. It was pretty sweet, but I was still concerned my boss would try to contact me while I was out.

So on the subway ride down from the suburbs, about a 30-minute trip, my body simultaneously tingled with anxiety, excitement, and even a little frustration about the weather. Was the weather going to ruin this thing? Would they still play? Oh, yes. They would.

Yonge and Dundas looked a bit different then. Yonge Dundas Square was not yet a thing. There wasn’t quite as much Times Square-style flashing signage, no big movie theatre, no wide-open public space where today they often hold free summer concerts. That space is most likely where this R.E.M. show would’ve been, had it taken place today. But back then they had to shut down Yonge Street, the city’s main artery and a popular tourist strip, with the giant mall, the Eaton Centre, being right there.

The stage looked south from the intersection of Yonge and Dundas. And fans were packed together in the drizzle like only music fans will: stupidly, excitedly, sometimes respectfully, sometimes not. And they stretched back as far as I could see. They even flowed out onto rooftops and balconies.

And then the band came on – just the three original members at this point, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills; they were on their second album without drummer Bill Berry. It was my third time seeing the band live, and first without Berry. I found that to be a little awkward. Honestly, I found something about those first albums without him to be a little awkward. They went more electronic and it just didn’t sound like the R.E.M. I loved. But I still liked the new stuff, for the most part.

And this song, “Imitation of Life,” was one that did sound more like classic R.E.M. It’s the song they joyfully opened the set with, and it always reminds me of the excitement of being there with 20,000 other lucky fans. Here’s a video of that first song. Just try to ignore the boring narrator dude talking about how awesome the new video screen is.

For the most part, we lucked out with the weather. Sure, it drizzled on and off, but it was warm enough that that only made it more fun, more memorable. And I don’t know if the band planned their setlist this way in advance, or if they matched it to the weather on the spur of the moment, but they played no fewer than three songs with “rain” in the title. The first was definitely improvised by Stipe, as he briefly sang the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” a cappella. Then, scattered through the set came the rainy R.E.M. tracks “I’ll Take the Rain” and “So. Central Rain.”

I very vividly remember them playing “At My Most Beautiful,” which was my favourite song off the first post-Berry album, Up. R.E.M. has always been known for incorporating gorgeous harmonies, but I don’t know if they ever got more Beach-Boys beautiful than on that song. And live, in that damp spring air, surrounded by people in love with this band and grateful to them for giving us this transcendent, free show, it was just perfect.

Everyone seemed happy for an hour and a half or so, packed together in the rain, culminating in the ubiquitous R.E.M. show-ending party that was “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

That’s the power of music, isn’t it? It can do so many things, but one of its greatest powers is to bring people together and even just for 90 minutes, give them a brighter outlook on life. Me, for example, I’d completely forgotten I’d played hooky (and, yes, I got away with it!).

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