SEATTLE It was the benefit that almost fell off the radar.
At any other point in time, a charity show boasting R.E.M., Pearl Jam and Alanis Morissette would have drawn nationwide attention. But on the heels of a weekend that saw Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson and 'NSYNC, not to mention George Strait and Martina McBride, take to stages to raise money for September 11 attack victims, the Groundwork anti-hunger event Monday in Seattle was nearly overshadowed on the music landscape.
Nonetheless, about 15,000 fans flocked to Key Arena to witness the star-studded show. The gig capped a week-long series of concerts across the city that included sets by Dave Matthews, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Emmylou Harris, the Wallflowers, Joe Strummer, Heart, and Michael Franti and Spearhead, all of which raised money for the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
"We're R.E.M. and this is what we do," singer Michael Stipe said before the band stripped for one song to its core of Stipe, bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck lit into a cagey, acoustic version of "The One I Love." The brief comments were indicative of the evening's "chat less, rock more" atmosphere.
Following opening sets by Femi Kuti and Maná, Morissette threw down an energetic, though brief, performance that touched on her last two studio albums as well as new material. Among the unreleased tunes was "Sister Blister," a call for unity among women ("We fight to please the brothers ... to beg the club of boys to let us in"). Against straight-ahead pounding from the drums, the guitar churned out a riff just shy of a Bo Diddley beat, and keyboards pinched out spacey squeals.
Next up, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who surely endured the longest trek for the show: 32 hours of flying on short notice to perform a 30-minute set of Pakistani qawwali music that handily brought the crowd to its feet.
And then the hometown had its turn. Pearl Jam plowed across an almost hitless set that still had fans chanting "Eddie! Eddie!" throughout. During a hot rod run through "Do the Evolution," singer Eddie Vedder growled like the world's skinniest bear. The group opened by reprising the cover of John Lennon's "Give Me Some Truth" it unveiled over the weekend at San Francisco's Bridge School benefit shows (see "Matthews, Pearl Jam, R.E.M. Give Peace A Chance At Bridge School"). Sporting a suave haircut and tasteful, blue plaid sport coat, Vedder looked like he could have been the date of celebrity emcee Gwyneth Paltrow.
The band reached its emotional apex when Fateh Ali Khan joined the group for a soulful interpretation of "The Long Road," which Vedder originally recorded with Fateh Ali Khan's uncle, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, for the "Dead Man Walking" soundtrack. Diehard fans welcomed the second-ever appearance of the quiet new song "I Am Mine," an apparent yearning for peace. "I only know my mind," Vedder sang, "I am mine."
R.E.M. closed out the night with a 14-song set, most of which was culled from their past five years of recording. Like Pearl Jam, R.E.M. largely eschewed hits in favor of lesser-knowns such as "Let Me In" (from 1994's Monster) and "So Fast, So Numb" (from 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi) as well as four tunes from this year's Reveal. Stipe dedicated Automatic for the People's "Find the River" to the Rev. Howard Finster, who painted the cover for the band's LP Reckoning (1984). Finster died earlier in the day from heart failure at age 84 (see "R.E.M., Talking Heads Cover Artist Rev. Howard Finster Dies").
The band capped their encore with an adrenalized, if predictable, take on "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," which then blossomed into a rousing version of Patti Smith's "People Have the Power." With Vedder assisting on vocals, Stipe issued a rallying call to action.
"C'mon!" Stipe demanded. "Are you alive? Is this a moment in time that you choose to be alive? Who are you?"
As he and Vedder shimmied and the tune wound down, Stipe's invocation served as a reminder of both the anti-hunger mission at hand and the other worthy causes that nearly eclipsed it.