Talk About The Passion: Valentine’s Day At Michael Shannon & Jason Narducy’s Murmur Tour Finale

Cameron Flaisch

Talk About The Passion: Valentine’s Day At Michael Shannon & Jason Narducy’s Murmur Tour Finale

Cameron Flaisch

It was Valentine’s Day in New York City, and everyone had a manic energy as they went about their everyday tasks. Shopping for groceries, catching the express bus, eating slices of pizza, they clung to a sisyphean hope, often literally manifested in some bouquet or heart shaped balloon. For some, the night held promises of candlelit dinners; for the hundreds of flannel-clad bodies packed into a sold out Music Hall Of Williamsburg, it foretold an evening of R.E.M. covers led by Revolutionary Road and Boardwalk Empire star Michael Shannon.

The project began almost by accident. Ten years ago, Shannon met Verboten band member and perpetually touring guitarist Jason Narducy through another Chicago musician, Robby Fulks, who hosted a regular night at local venue The Hideout, Narducy told me after last night’s show. It turned into an endless covers project, with Shannon and Narducy putting their spin on everyone from T. Rex to The Cars over the years. When the two took on R.E.M.’s Murmur at Chicago’s Metro last year, there was no plan for their covers act to leave the city. But venues kept calling, and what started as a one-off night grew into seven tour dates in two weeks, with an expanded group including Jon Wurster (Bob Mould, the Mountain Goats, ex-Superchunk) on drums. Last night’s set at Music Hall of Williamsburg would be the final night of their brief tour. After surprise appearances from Kurt Vile in Philadelphia and the original members of R.E.M. in Athens, the crowd seemed primed for a final flourish, some kind of apex that would end the tour on a high note.

It’s hard to argue that Shannon didn’t give the crowd last night their money’s worth: He took the stage around 9PM, dressed in an outfit that could be described as “Valentine’s Day brought to you by Fueled By Ramen”: A long, red checked jacket, a slouchy black beanie pulled over his hair, brick red pants, and bubblegum pink plimsolls. By the time they finished their final encore — their second or third, by that point I had lost count — it was nearly midnight. All told, they not only covered the entirety of Murmur, but also the entirety of their even earlier 1982 EP Chronic Town and cuts from across the band’s discography, from their 1984 follow-up Reckoning to their 1987 breakout Document. They also threw in a few other carefully selected covers, including the Velvet Underground’s “There She Goes Again,” a cover of which was originally intended to be the final track on Murmur.

“You’ll know a great band when they can drive a crowd out of the room,” Shannon said, and as the night went on, it felt less like a joke than a threat. When it became clear that the evening’s special guests would be the band’s roadie and their tour manager, some couples started to file out. About halfway through the show, after the band wrapped Murmur, he even seemed to encourage them: “It’s Valentine’s Day after all, maybe go home and get to know each other.” But Shannon’s energy was unwavering, calling on audience members to sing with him and jumping off stage risers like he’d been a frontman his whole life. He seemed genuinely sad that the tour was coming to an end, suggesting they do a residency at “that globe in Vegas.” Even for casual fans, the setlist felt lively — R.E.M.’s sound has so deeply permeated indie rock that even their deep cuts sound comfortingly familiar. Perhaps in an ode to their brief but impressive stretch of tour dates, they closed with Roger Miller’s “King Of The Road.”

After the show, band members reflected on their R.E.M. journey. “This is music that is so precious to us,” Narducy told me. “We took it very seriously and we did the best we could. No one could create what that band did, and we weren’t trying to.” Still, he was glad he could give people an experience to “join the party” and celebrate a band that hasn’t performed live in over a decade. At last night’s show, I spoke with multiple attendees who had seen R.E.M. dozens of times; for them, the cover performance was a chance to recapture some of that magic.

They were also still abuzz from arguably the highlight of the tour, the R.E.M. on-stage reunion a few nights earlier in Athens. It came about somewhat as a surprise — “We only found out that [R.E.M. frontman] Michael Stipe was gonna be there two days before,” Narducy explained. Comedian Dave Hill, who opened for Shannon’s band throughout the tour, joked that he was “best friends” with the band after their performance in Georgia, and added that Stipe recommended a great spot for cardamom buns (Brooklyn’s Otway bakery). Guitarist Dag Juhlin, who has previously been in Shannon and Narducy’s other cover acts, has been an R.E.M. fan since the earliest days, and told me about his attempts to get their music on Northwestern’s college radio station WNUR (as an alum of both the college and the station, I was floored).

Wurster had a new appreciation for R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry after playing his songs night after night: “I’ve always loved his drumming and have brought a lot of his ideas to Mountain Goats songs. Really getting under the hood with his drumming was amazing.” He called R.E.M.’s onstage reunion a “life highlight,” even after previously playing separately with both Stipe and guitarist Peter Buck.

I left the night similarly enthused, not just by R.E.M.’s music but by the earnest wish fulfillment that brought the evening together: There wasn’t a hint of irony in the performance, and though Shannon was no Stipe, he wasn’t really trying to be. Where other recent cover projects — Mo Troper’s excellent Jon Brion record, Julianna Hatfield’s take on Electric Light Orchestra — aimed a critical lens at their source material, reinventing it in their wakes, the R.E.M. cover band said more about the original group’s impact than the people playing it. It was a strange Valentine’s Day, but maybe the perfect one: an evening of unending love for a band that will likely never tour again. Not everyone can carry the weight of the world, but for seven nights, Shannon valiantly carried R.E.M.’s legacy.

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