I'm not gonna lie...a big priority of mine right now is to avoid getting punched in the throat by an Oscar nominee.
That might seem like a pretty random and specific fear, but it's not without reason. Now I'm going to show my age a bit here (SPOILER: I'm 40, which I only mention because it'll be relevant later), but one of those stories that went viral back in the early-to-mid days of things going 'viral' was a radio interview that Billy Bob Thornton did in 2009. Thornton, there to promote his band The Boxmasters, almost instantly bristled at the mere mention that he was probably much better known to the listening audience as an actor rather than as a musician. And he was right! At that point, Bad Santa (potentially the best holiday movie of all time) had been out for 6 years. On a lesser note, he'd also had a high profile marriage and divorce from Angelina Jolie and picked up an Oscar along the way. Regardless, even if he had recently cracked cold fusion, you'd still probably introduce him as "Oscar winner and nuclear physicist Billy Bob Thornton". Regardless, Thornton was pissed and spent the rest of the interview swinging back and forth between making things "very uncomfortable" and "extremely uncomfortable" just because the host had the audacity to mention his day job.
The reason this is relevant is because it's just one example of the long and complicated history when acting and mainstream music overlap. Johnny Depp and Hollywood Vampires. Keanu Reeves and Dogstar. Jared Leto and Thirty Seconds to Mars. Jack Black and Tenacious D. Any time someone that is more known for their acting tries giving music a go, they're met with varying levels of skepticism and success. Even the most successful ones still have a constant battle to not have their musical ambitions known as just "their other thing". Seems like a hassle, right?
That's where Chicago treasure, legendary actor, and all-around genuine dude Michael Shannon may be a genius. He's not only got the Hollywood side of things covered, but has figured out a way to scratch that rock star itch without having to deal with all the baggage that comes along with it. He and Evanston native Jason Narducy, who has played with everyone from Sunny Day Real Estate to The Pretenders to Bob Mould, pick a legendary album, assemble a group of talented musicians, and rip through it front to back with Shannon embodying varying levels of imitation for each frontman he's channeling that evening. Starting in 2015 performing The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead and covering such varying albums as Bowie's Scary Monsters and most recently Modern Lovers' self-titled debut over the last eight years, it's like the ultimate cosplay karaoke. And for a veteran stage actor like Shannon, it's no surprise that the act of putting on the mantle of a specific frontman for just one show and moving on just as quickly has a lot of appeal.
Anyone even a little familiar with Chicago's famed Metro more than likely knows the history and reputation that precedes the legendary venue. The list of legendary and influential rock icons that haven't set foot on their stage is probably shorter than the list of those who have so I won't waste any time going through the vast vast VAST list (well just one...Green Day was playing there one year ago this week prior to headlining Lollapalooza). The Metro was just putting the final touches on a year long celebration of their 40th birthday (!) headlined by none other than The Clash just two weeks ago, which was supposed to be the last official 40th anniversary event. And as we know from Return of the King, no one wants fake ending after fake ending. Adding on one last event is risky because it's gotta be something truly special and worth going back and visiting Hobbiton just one last time.
The first band to play The Metro 40 years ago was REM. 2023 marks the 40th anniversary of REM's debut album Murmur. It's only fitting that Shannon, Narducy, and a group of musicians including Curt Morrison, Jon Wurster and Alison Chesley, picked REM's Murmur as their latest musical tribute. The jangle-pop landmark made waves when it dropped in 1983 and with its oft-imitated combination of darker lyrical content masked under sunny guitar riffs and drum fills, would be an interesting vehicle for Shannon, Narducy and company to take for a spin around the block to see if the engine drives as well as it did in 1983.
Setting the stage for the evening was blues musician Nathan Graham. The imposing and soulful-voiced Graham is my favorite kind of blues guitarist, the kind that can absolutely get "lost in it" - just disappearing into his solos between verses, at times seemingly unable to get the notes out fast enough like there's some kind of fear of losing the feeling behind them. With a sound that feels like it would be right at home down the road at Kingston Mines, Graham mentioned during his set that he's recently been signed, so hopefully his recent single Pride is just the start of more music coming from Graham in the immediate future.
With Metro owner Joe Shanahan introducing them personally, Shannon, Narducy and the rest of the band launched into the metronome-esque opening to Murmur's opening track "Radio Free Europe" and our evening was on the way. One of the challenges of covering an album front to back, especially for such an iconic record, is that there aren't many surprises when it comes to the setlist. It's not just enough to cover an album - you have to bring something to the table that makes it worth listening to your version over just popping in the CD at home. And what Shannon brought to his performance was rawness for lack of a better term. By no means a criticism, Murmur is an expertly produced album. From Michael Stipe's sometimes slurred vocals and Mike Mills' shining, melodic bass to Peter Buck's sharp-edged guitar and Bill Berry's rolling drums, every note of Murmur is crystal clear, especially on recent remastered reissues. While I'd never call the sound of the album too clean, you could definitely eat dinner off of it and not worry about getting sick.
But as proficient and talented as Shannon was filling in for Michael Stipe for the evening, his intention doesn't seem to be pulling off a note-perfect impression (and with the high notes you need to hit in "We Walk", it's almost impossible for any non-Stipe to try!), but to do what any good actor does: take the material they have and interpret it the way their instincts lead them. And that's where Shannon, Narducy and the rest of the band really shone on the evening. It seemed like exactly what it was - an evening where a super talented group of people party together by playing some of their favorite songs. They just so happened to be doing it in front of 1,100 fans who have been listening to those songs in that order for four decades. The raw enthusiasm in their performance kept what's a relatively even-keeled album brimming with energy throughout all 12 tracks. Capping off their performance of Murmur by tacking on REM's version of Velvet Underground's "There She Goes Again", Shannon asked the crowd at one point "Should I quit acting and do this full time?" Sometimes these actor types need to be shown who the true pros are, which is why it was a good thing that REM bassist and rock and roll legend Mike Mills himself was in the house and joined the band onstage to provide backing vocals.
But just like all the best parties, this one couldn't wrap up too early. After wrapping up Murmur, the band came out and played a massive encore, to the point where it doesn't seem fair to call it an encore, but a whole second set. Shannon, Narducy and the rest of the band not only jumped in and also covered REM's pre-Murmur 5-song debut LP Chronic Town, but continued into the night covering an additional eight select REM cuts, not only bringing back Mills on backing vocals, but inviting fellow Chicago legend and all around rock and roll badass Scott Lucas of Local H to join them on a few songs. The night couldn't be more Chicago if it was smothered in giardiniera.
We don't know what form Shannon and Narducy will take the next time they emerge, like some kind of badass rock and roll caterpillar that doesn't know what it is until it emerges from its cocoon (although if we're continuing the Chicago theme, that should probably be 'cicadas' and 'gross shells'). Just make sure that you're there when it happens. The phrase 'one night only' has existed in live music practically forever. But in the case of Michael Shannon, Jason Narducy and their rotating cast of all-star musicians, that's all we're lucky enough to get in a single shot.
Michael Shannon, Jason Narducy & Friends Perform Murmur - The Metro, Chicago 6.30.23
Radio Free Europe
Talk About The Passion
West of the Fields
There She Goes Again
Gardening At Night
Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)
Swan Swan H
Oddfellows Local 151
Letter Never Sent